Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Blog 10: Thoughts On My Return

First of all, I've only scratched the surface of a culture infinitely deep. I was fortunate to have hooked up with three incredibly knowledgeable guides / translators. These women were great tutors, opened up impossible doors for me and tolerated my sense of humor.
Having my friend and peer Denis Hannigan along for the ride turned it into a "buddy trip", and I found the things he found edible incredible. And then there's Erik Voake, who I like to call my camera crew and we treated like a little brother...picked on him like crazy.
It's very different over there and these two guys were great to have as a frame of reference, laughing at ourselves as we flopped around China like the "fish out of water" that we were.

Western sensibilities are creeping, no, make that rushing toward China. Yet, as that happens, the Chinese are becoming more aware of the treasure of their myriad cultural identities, creating vehicles for their preservation and proliferation. But they are also rushing towards us. The Beijing Olympics - their motto "One World, One Dream"
can be taken a couple of ways... but then again, so can the signs to the lavatories at Beijing International Airport!



Hugs from my kids at LAX

Monday, July 23, 2007

Blog 9: Back to Beijing (and the home stretch)

Two things left for me to record here. First, I'm re-connecting with Joy, our former guide and translator (and professional singer). She's coming up to my hotel room where I've set up an impromptu studio to record her vocal parts for the Survivor Theme. She's singing all the parts, the translated Russian circle dance AND the ancient Chinese folk song I'm using.

Later...Joy is such a pro! We covered everything in under an hour.

That night...Denis and Erik dragged me with them to the "Lake District" with all it's bright lights, tea houses and "lady bars". I'm anxious to see them get into trouble! ...but it's Friday, and apparently, Friday night is date night and no trouble at all! Funny. So we sit down to a night pot of tea and watch the street musicians play and the young couples sway. Lovely images for my last night in China.

Saturday - Last day-
Whew - We covered a lot of territory, criss-crossing China and Chinese culture. There's so much more here than I could ever have hoped to capture in ten days, let alone ten weeks. I'm exhausted, but there's two things left that I promised myself I'd do. One is to record the giant drums in the Beijing Drum Tower. The other is to race Erik in a peddal rikshaw! Drum tower first -

We pull up to this amazing building in the heart of the city and climb the longest single stairway I've ever seen. (Climbed a lot of stairs in China!). It's straight up, no turns and extremely steep.
Vertigo! At the top, we have this glorious view of the city from the downward sloping balcony. VERTIGO!!! But inside, there's these HUGE drums, maybe twenty of them. We wait for the performance to begin, the drummers mount their positions...and totally wimp out! I was hoping for BING BANG BOOM and the played pit, pat, puh. Sooo, I waited for everyone to leave, turned on my trusty Korg MR1000 recorder, went up to the drum (next to the "Do Not Play Drums" sign) and banged on that drum the way it was meant to be played!!! (Typical American)...and then ran like hell!

Civil disobedience ...

I guess that put me in the American spirit, because next we hired the pedal rikshaw to take us next to Tienanmen square to pick up a few "waving Mau" watches for my friends back home. I traded places with the peddler and got a good workout on this bicycle made for three (and a lot of gawks from the ever present crowd). Later, switching places with the motorcycle cab driver was even more fun... especially when the hotel guard tried to prevent me from entering the gates on the motorcycle and I feigned "no brakes" as he tried to jump in front to block me. Now, THAT was fun!

They got their revenge on me finally as on the way to the airport for my flight home, I sensed the oncoming rumble in my stomach that I really managed to avoid...until now.

Blog 8: Ethnic Uygur continued-

Today we were invited to attend a rehearsal of the China Xinjiang Mukam Arts Ensemble. They specialize in performing the twelve sets of Mukam traditional music that was organized and standardized in the 16th century by Princess Amanishahan of Yakand Khanate who wanted to preserve this ancient cultural music. The complete performance of all twelve takes 24 hours!

We left the city behind us as we entered the secured gates of the arts and education center. It was beautiful gardens and flowing fountains and, wait! ... a statue of Lenin??!!! Apparently, the compound was left behind from a former Russian occupation...and they just like statues around here! We arrived at the rehearsal hall and trudged up the six flights of dark Russian stairs to the rehearsal space.

It was a powerful (and loud!) blend of voices - all in octaves - singing parallel with their traditional bowed strings, double reed horns and flutes of the culture, the harmony coming from the plucked instruments. Did I mention it was LOUD. All those unisons made for intense sound pressure. It was an honor to attend as this was the region's premier arts ensemble giving me a personal performance. I gave flowers, they gave me CDs and we parted with handshakes and hugs.

On the way out, I overheard what sounded like kids chanting. When I asked, they told me it was the english language lessons for the 9 year olds. I asked if I could say hi, and maybe let them practice their english on me a little (as I had absolutely no Uygur to practice on them). They were all happy to tell me their names in english and how old they were. Then they launched into "the chant" that I had heard earlier. It was a unison rendition of "one little, two little, three little indians". It didn't get fully creepy until they started going the other way, "ten little, nine little, eight little indians". Hmmm.

Later that same day-

We were invited to see some local Uygur hip hop dance group rehearse.
These guys were great! They were fully mixed ethnically with Mongols, Hans, Uygurs and others. It was nice to see and they danced great.

Then we were introduced to a couple of Uygur rap groups! It was a riot to see these kids show up, bling and all. Hats screwed down at whacky angles, and the hand / arm gestures down! When translated, their raps were meaningful, and went as deep into expressing their need for cultural and political change as they dared under the ever watchful eye of the government.

It was awesome to experience the range from ancient Muslim religious music to modern western secular pop...all in the same day... HOWEVER ...

Later that night, at Fubar, with me buying the beers all around, I had one of our new found friends corner me with a dead eye question: "Are you a believer"? I answered very carefully...and as Erik and I made to leave shortly afterwards, a few police cars came zooming up the street with their lights flashing and screeched to a halt just outside the bar. We kept walking, turned the corner and got the hell out of there. Bye, bye Urumqi!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Blog 7: Urumqi

Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, is made up mostly of the Muslim Uygur people-The Uygur Minority, who dominate this region control this area making it VERY different from the rest of China. It's more central Asia in it's vibe and it's people. It's pretty "Borat" around here. Our van from the airport had NO BRAKES!!! I mean NONE. We had about five near misses...REALLY near! The driver kept having to slam it into reverse to try to stop at red light intersections. Then we broke down completely. I was waiting for them to hook a donkey up to the van and pull us to the hotel, but our Rigar guide heard our pleas and called a couple of cabs. We got to the hotel, but before we could unload, one of the drivers took off with my suitcase! I guess the guy didn't realize we were running video tape and got his license. About four hours later, the same driver returned the suitcase (after having looked through it and finding only clothes) looking for a commendation for his "honesty".

BTW, apparently they think air conditioning means cooling down a room to a chill 85 degrees...but we're beginning to get used to the heat.

Here at the edge of the earth I just met a dentist from Oregon traveling with his two young daughters...central Asia and the Silk Road. He sticks out a bit from the locals...Lacost golf shirt and all. I really hope I don't read about him in the news, but I fear for their safety. Personally, I wear my late father's scowl well and people don't mess. Funny...protected by my father's scowl.

Went out to hear some Uygur music. It's very middle eastern / arabic sounding...indistinguishable, really, to my ears and fairly useless to me for this installment of Survivor. Perhaps one day we'll try a middle eastern or central asian Survivor again, but for now, the instruments just don't apply...so we're goin' fishing!


Well that wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but it was nice to actually cast a fly rod on water...steaming from the power plant it cools. We didn't actually catch anything, but I pissed off a few bass-like specimens - pulling my fly out of their oversized mouths! You should have seen Denis' fishing outfit...I'll try to get him to let me post it. Think khaki lederhosen.

We met this Japanese American guy named Hiro who owns a bar near the hotel called FUBAR. We're going over there for dinner.

Tomorrow I record some Ethnic Uygur instruments for my archives.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Blog 6: Last day in Kunming

Our last full day in Kunming, Yunnan province. We're headed out to visit the Yunnan Provincial Song & Dance Ensemble. As we pull up to the gates, I can hear a very Charles Ives-ian mish mash of traditional Chinese music, western symphonic and vocal pop music leaking out the open windows of their six story building. We climbed up five stories, panting in the extreme heat and humidity, to the office of the director, CAO XIN HUA. He graciously let me attend the concert rehearsal of their cultural / traditional ensemble. Each soloist in the band stepped forward and demonstrated their instrument for us. It was beautiful, if not surreal in that Beethoven orchestral passages were being rehearsed a couple of floors below... triple forte at the same time! Then they went through a new piece for us that blended the traditional Yunnan with western sensibilities. Hmmm, sound familiar?

Afterward, we went into Mr. Hua's office and listened to his own brand of pop music, drank tea and smoked cigarettes through a bong! (Both of which I quit long ago). It turns out that he not only directs the Ensemble, but he's (according to his business card) "Country 1st Business Tenor Singer"! So, dizzy with smoke and the piercing volume of his stereo system, I asked to borrow a guitar and share some of my music with him. An impromptu jam session broke out and before long, members of the Ensemble, Mr. Hua, Denis and myself are banging out a bizarrely cool rendition of Ancient Voices. We've got it on tape!
Afterwards, I took us all to lunch where they introduced us to some VERY spicy dishes that made the steam rise off the tops of or heads. Fun!

We toasted each other, said our farewells and left for the Dyzizhu Instrument Factory I was dying to see. My first impression? The Chinese are definitely not afraid to use STRONG chemicals in their everyday life. Better living through chemistry? Our throats were closing down reflexively. However, we braved the toxins and went for the tour. This was a very narrow six story building with three or four very small rooms on each floor, each dedicated to a particular step in the manufacturing of Chinese flutes. It was a true family affair, with little kids, husbands & wives, all living and working together. Besides a workbench and racks of various instruments in all stages of completion, there was a bed, a stove and a pee bucket in each room. Despite the close proximity of everything and everyone, the instruments were among the finest I've seen here. After watching the construction from start to finish, I bought one in each key they made to bring home to use in the Survivor score. We posed for a shot with them (for them) and they just emailed me this shot:

Notice that Eric has his hands backwards but that's O.K. 'cause he's camera crew and just gonna hang his on the wall anyway.

Here's some nice pics of the instruments they manufacture:

Tomorrow, it's farewell to Fran and Kunming and we'll be off to Urumqi in the XINJAING province...about as far west as you can fly to and still be in China!


Blog 5: Kunming continued

The "Stone Forest" outside of Kunming in the Yunnan province is their crown jewel tourist destination. It was pretty cool, and Denis & I found a quiet section of the park to sit and improvise - me on Uke (which can be made to sound like a traditional pipa) and he on Chinese flute. There was a beautiful natural echo amongst the giant stone pillars and we attracted a bit of an audience.
Tonight I went to an awesome traditional music and dance show that was truly inspirational and gave me a lot of new ideas. 6000 years of Chinese civilization...it's impossible to do more than just scratch the surface, but it's amazing how similar the most ancient of Yunnan music is to the Inuit and Native American music we are familiar with at home. Bering Straight Land Bridge perhaps?

Tomorrow we're going to a village outside of town that has a state sponsored music academy and then to a traditional musical instrument factory.


Blog 4: Kunming

Today we travelled from Beijing to Kunming in the Yunnan Province, a very different feeling city. It's still awfully hot, but there's a lot more trees and the air seems much cleaner. I'm still shocked that the beautiful canals running through Kunming and most of the cities it seems, are loaded with trash and effluvia...but they look pretty at night. I just wouldn't want to take a romantic gondola ride down one! (You know the saying, "....without a paddle"?)

Our new guide/translator is Fran. She's a very accomplished young woman, a former power plant engineer who I swear must be legally blind. She had us cross the street with two busses coming from both directions. I had to stand tiptoe on the middle line and clench my butt cheeks to avoid being logrolled between them. We figured out she was Mrs. Magoo soon afterward at the restaurant when she had to put her nose right on the menu to read it! Now I lead her and the gang through any and all street crossings. Oh, and she learned all her English from watching "Friends". She really likes the "Chandler" character and pronounces "reeeealy" just like him. (Think the millionaire on Gilligan's Island). It's reeealy funny coming out of her mouth.

So...this restaurant used to be a railroad station way back around 100 years ago. They served some really "special" items including two kinds of insect larvae. Denis & Eric really dug into the ones with the eyes! Myself, I was able to choke down one small one...just to say I did it. O.K.- I did it. Yeccchhh!

Tomorrow we are slated to go to "The Stone Forest" and play a little improv amongst the incredible rock formations.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Blog 3: Beijing

Welll...having recorded all that I need for the updated China arrangement last evening, we packed our rucksacks and headed off for the Great Wall of China. Now, I don't really like crowded touristy places...and this confirms it! I mean, there was a street vender (wall
vendor?) with a waving Mao watch at every turn...and Denis bought eight of them! Even this did not keep them at bay. But the best part was pulling my new four piece TFO fly rod outfit out of it's velour and running through a bunch of false casts on top of the wall. I had plenty of stares and more than a few eager participants willing to let me guide their first attempts to toss a line...over the Great Wall. Relating to this, quite a lot of nationals came up wishing to have their picture taken with me. It was explained to me later that I had a "big nose"...something apparently enviable to have here in China. My nice BIG NOSE is now part of many family photo albums!

Tomorrow morning we head to Kunming in south China where the unexpected awaits us. I hear that a major road trip into the mountains is in the works. The region is known for a wide range of ancient music from a variety of ethnic groups. I'm really looking forward to recording it!


P.S. The name of the ladies choir I recorded last night translates to "Spring Art".

Blog 2: Beijing

We were met at the airport (at 5am) by a most amazing and talented woman, Joy! She is a former pop background singer and knows everybody! By 3PM, she translated my lyrics, found me a choir and taught me the most beautiful ancient Chinese folk song. I'm recording the choir tonight.

Meanwhile, Beijing has got the dirtiest air I've ever had to breathe. It's like I've got my mouth taped to an exhaust pipe while sitting in a dirty ashtray. Two hours out on the street (by Tiananmen Square) was all I could handle.

I'm really excited about the new arrangement of Ancient Voices. It's totally chill factor the way the two ancient folk melodies, one Russian and one Chinese fit together. Already on day one, I feel I've justified the jet lag!

Night- Just got back from recording all the Ancient Voices chinese lyrics. Awesome! We set up and recorded in a rehearsal room at a "Children's Palace", a converted Ming Dynasty monarch's estate that now houses after school programs for kids. We walked down a seedy alley with street vendors and lots of cooking smoke (as opposed to the ubiquitous smog) until we were led through a beautiful 300 year old stone arch. Crossing the threshold was like when the Wizard of Oz goes to color. It was stunning...as were the singers.

Tomorrow I jump a skateboard over the Great Wall! ;-)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Blog 1: Leaving Los Angeles

LAX is particularly humid and dense tonight. Denis is trying out his lapsed Chinese on a polylingual waif on her way to Minnesota. She happily pretends to comprehend. Eric, our camera crew is already a fish out of water…but that’s how he rolls. Boarding now, as we set foot on our red eye our adventure officially begins. I’ve got a busy day ahead of me. I elaborated on the lyrics from the Ancient Voices track and came up with some good contemporary lines that are the essence of the ancient Russian circle dance, “Hey Lolee Lolee.” Now I have to have those lyrics put into Mandarin in a way that makes sense culturally, historically, literally, and rhythmically.