The Old-Time Herald Volume 7, Number 7

Features

Chinese Breakdown: The Blue Mountain Ramblers at the Great American Barbecue

by Paul Hostetter

Oh! So you're going there for a cultural exchange? 
Well, not exactly, but in its own way, that ’s just what happened.

An agricultural trade fair takes place in Beijing every year, and the United States Department of Agriculture represents the U.S. as one of about 30 nations at the fair. Their thrust at the 2000 fair was to promote the marketing of U.S. food products to the dala, the burgeoning Chinese middle class. There is a large outdoor garden by the Great Wall Sheraton in Beijing, just down the road from the expo site itself, and every evening for nine days last June, the USDA sponsored a Great American Barbecue there, offering a lavish buffet of all kinds of American-style foods, including such items as corn-fed beef, Alaska salmon and crab, corn on the cob, taters in aluminum foil, California wine, fresh citrus fruit, even individually wrapped dried prunes.

We three—Jody Stecher singing and playing mandolin and fiddle, Heath Curdts on vocals and banjo, and myself on vocals and guitar—were brought in to provide “authentic music” for this event. While the throng munched, we played.

At the USDA's main office in the Embassy compound in Beijing, there presides a woman named Suzanne Hale. Suzanne has spent many years in Japan and China, and is as well a big fan of bluegrass music, particularly the Dry Branch Fire Squad, and knew their former banjoist, Bill Evans, from her sojourns on U.S. soil. In 1999, she intended to have him come to do his one-man banjo show at an event in Beijing. Alas, in May of ’99 NATO forces (a U.S. B-2 bomber, to be precise) bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, so Bill was advised not to go in 1999. He was, however, invited back for 2000, but being booked by then for a banjo camp, Bill passed the gig on to Jody, who in turn called me and old-time banjo whiz Heath Curdts. Not quite bluegrass anymore, but at the last minute, we had a trio poised to represent rural American culture musically in China’s capital city.

Not only were we delighted to have a chance to do such a gig together (we have been pals for a very long time but mostly connect socially as musicians), we were thrilled to be able to spend time in China. Jody had been to India and Burma, and to Hong Kong some years back, and Heath had been in India and the Middle East, but never China, and the closest I had come to direct contact with an Asian culture was Madagascar, which is closer than one might think, but still not really China at all. Living in the Bay Area, we have long been in close contact with California Chinese culture, but truly, Beijing is the heart of China! We knew something about Chinese music, we did our requisite reading of guidebooks (all wrong), and went and got visas in hopes it was all going to happen. It did.

We left on the 19th of June on the first-ever direct 12-hour flight from San Francisco to Beijing.

Only a few hours after arriving we attempted a sound check in preparation for our first show, in the sweltering heat and humidity of the Beijing afternoon. The tech guy hadn’t so much as a trace of know-

ledge of how a mixing board and mics worked (but at least he was ill-tempered), so we stepped in and got it running, hoping with all our heart that what we were doing would enable us to be heard adequately in the audience. A few folks with ears assured us it would do, so we launched into our first set, and it went quite well, considering. On one of our breaks at this opening evening’s festivities, a fashion show was staged, with full runway, deafening disco music, big spotlights, lots of dumbstruck Chinese businessmen ogling dozens of extremely thin, dangerous-looking six-foot-three Chinese women modeling mink garments from (you guessed it) America: purple mink bikinis, tiger-stripe lime green mink hiphuggers, jeans-styled jackets in mink dyed to resemble cheetah. Blue mink boas. The perfect attire for a Great American Barbecue, especially when the temperature is in the 90s with humidity to match. Welcome to the Peoples Republic of China!

By the time we finished our last set for the evening, around 11 PM Beijing time, it was midday of the next day in our dog-tired California brains. We had, at this point, been awake (more or less) and in motion for a very long time—the 12 hour flight, plus the wakened hours of the California day (and night) before we departed, plus the time since we’d landed. Not a stellar opening night, but we made it, and folks seemed real pleased.

Subsequent nights had the same schedule, alas without the mink queens, but still with Harrison, the spectacularly incompetent sound man. The drill: first set at 7:30, play as we deem appropriate until 10 PM or so, depending on how the crowd feels. Each night was different. Sometimes we were background ambiance; sometimes people were really listening. Sometimes the crowd was really large, sometimes small. Once we were mixed into a separate, regular Friday night hotel-sponsored event called Dragon Night, where we shared the entire garden area with a small Chinese circus, complete with a parade dragon, jugglers, clowns, acrobats, a large drum orchestra, and a wild buffet of ethnic food, of which the Blue Mountain Ramblers approved. The Filipino lounge band (Ramón and the girls, delightful people) did a set as well, a tug of war for the guests was held, prizes like microwaves and TVs were dispensed.

Music is a service industry!

So who was there to listen to this peculiar cultural exchange? Assorted denizens of the hotel, some of whom were there for the ag fair, some just there on other business. Whether on slow or busy nights, the crowd was usually about half Chinese, but we detected eastern Europeans, Germans, Russians, Africans, and a few Americans.

Fiddle and banjo is about the last thing one would expect to hear in a hotel in Beijing, so the response was warm and enthusiastic. One woman from Tennessee, who had lived in China for 20 years, requested songs and assured us that we were a real hit with the Chinese. This was news because we felt we weren’t getting through at all, they seemed so passive. She assured us, au contraire, that we were doing very well, and that they were indeed listening raptly, a great compliment. Another American woman (Jean Ritchie's cousin, as it turned out) came and asked if we knew any Jean Ritchie songs -which of course we did, a few anyway - and we obliged with 'Black Water' and 'Goin' to Boston.'

Each night we improvised our sets based on what inspired us, or what seemed to segue well from the previous song or tune. Since we were, after all, playing for The Great American Barbecue, one theme we happily explored focused on items that might be edible, perhaps, if barbecued. This list included prosaic menu items like vociferous old hen, bell cow, ’taters, duck, sheep, pig, green corn, and forked deer. Then there were Chinese culinary specialties like dog, snake, and assorted equines, on to more obscure grill items such as katydids, lichens, frog, squirrel, grey eagle, acorns, boll weevils, apples, groundhog, barley, buffalo, possum, miscellaneous scaled reptiles (with and without legs or rattles), washed down with whiskey and/or cider.

These varied musical menus revealed and increased themselves nightly to our great delight. Although Heath and I sang some songs, Jody did most of the singing, with Heath and I croaking away on the choruses. The situation was relaxed enough so that we generally got onstage each time and just enjoyed ourselves and the little adventures we were generating out of our collective repertoires. Happily, it seemed to work well for our audiences too.

Of course, we were delighted to play our music for the folks there, but we were just as enthused to see what we could find out about life in China. This turned out to be much easier and much more rewarding than we had imagined. Our professional obligations seemed clear enough, so from breakfast until downbeat at 7:30 in the evening, we had about 12 hours each day to explore. And explore we did, indefatigably and enthusiastically. Part of the reason for the makeup of this band was the shared enthusiasm for travel and new experiences. Oh yes, and food. The Blue Mountain Ramblers do like to eat. Beijing is a very modern, cosmopolitan city, an enormous flat rectangular metropolis not unlike LA. The moment we walked out of the airport terminal, it was clear, Toto, that we were in Kansas no longer. The propaganda image—somber gray little people in baggy pants, sandals, quilted jackets, Mao caps with red stars on them, shuffling off to work brigades with shovels over their shoulders—was swept away very quickly. The people look nice, they are generally very friendly, and the place is absolutely full of life. The pace is gentle, and dare I say unstressed? Beijing has been described by folks living in China, who know it well, as a very laid back kind of place. Indeed, I found it so. And despite the 12 or so million souls crammed into that vast flat rectangular town, I (a hulking Caucasian) never felt conspicuous.

One of my abiding impressions about being in Beijing was feeling completely safe and comfortable, even though we were such obvious outsiders. When you smile at someone, they invariably smile right back. They are eager to try out whatever level of English they have on you, just for the pleasure of communicating. Even the teenagers who were shilling for art galleries were a delight just to hang out with. Yes, they wanted us to come to their gallery and buy something (which we did), but they were happy to spend several hours wandering around, helping us find things, translating things, escorting us on mundane little errands like finding reading specs and batteries. Their generosity and warmth were sincere. We even met people who just wanted a chance to hang out and speak English. No commercial agenda. Never did we encounter so much as a sideways glance, much less any hostility.

Last I'd heard, everyone in Beijing rode a bike, but alas, not so much anymore. There were still lots of bikes in broad bike lanes, serenely floating along, but the roads and freeways were swarming with new Volvos, VW Santanas, Buicks (they make them in China), Dodge Caravans, Toyotas, Hondas and Jeep Cherokees, BMWs and Mercedes, apace with throngs of propane-powered Xialis, most of which were red, and were taxis. We would get to know those red jobs well by the time we left.

Everything we read in guidebooks was wrong wrong wrong! But it mattered little, as we'd routinely pick a destination for the day, get a little Chinese "I'm lost - please return me to the Great Wall Sheraton" card from the concierge so we could safely get back if the cab driver didn't understand English, and off we'd go.

Realizing that some of our new acquaintances in Beijing intended to take us off to their favorite spots, we resolved to spend some of our time exploring neighborhoods and visiting tourist spots, and otherwise had very little agenda, other than hoping to find a good music store and some good food. One of travel’s greatest pleasures is just wandering until something happens.

Morning number one commenced with a trip to an alleged music store, a good enough pretext for getting out into the thick of things. Card in hand, we hailed a cab for a neighborhood south of Tienanmen Square said to harbor the music shop. On arriving, we were almost immediately accosted by two earnest young people, a lad named Cawley (who played the guitar) and a very tiny, energetically chipper girl named Amber, who were each just graduating from high school in different towns out in the provinces. It quickly became clear that, though they had ulterior motives, they had good hearts and really just enjoyed tagging along with us, practicing their English, showing us things, explaining and translating, helping us find the music store (we found two, each rather underwhelming), and grilling us as well.

Finally, they asked if we would like to come visit the art gallery they worked for, to view some traditional Chinese art. We said sure, why not, and clambered up a couple of flights of stairs in the back of a cell phone store. The gallery had quite a selection of original art by a number of artists, some quite good, others less inspired. We did, in fact, buy some pieces. My particular prize was a large scroll painting of a young Chinese woman, kneeling in repose, holding an apple, an enigmatic and serious air about her. This format was quite traditional, so far. The face riveted both Jody and I particularly, and then we all saw the quirk: a sneakered foot. Jody astutely observed that the painting was like the music we played: old and new at the same time.

We never found the good music store until days later, though we got a superb introduction to China, just wandering the streets and watching people go about their business. A later foray into that neighborhood with Suzanne Hale paid off handsomely when we found a full-service music store which offered dozens of different instruments serving a multitude of clienteles, from Han to Mongolian and many of China’s ethnic minorities. From hammered dulcimers to sanxians, from guqins to guitars and saxophones, picks, strings, python skin by the running centimeter, horsehair for bows, you name it—they had it. By this time we’d all gotten sanxians (the Chinese traditional banjo), including one for Bill Evans, so we stocked up on silk strings.

Day Two took us to the old walled imperial palace, called the Forbidden City, which, since the end of Chinese monarchy in 1911 has been an enormous park that includes all the old buildings and grounds, temples, shops, museums and gardens.

We were admittedly tourists, but what we didn’t quite comprehend in advance was being such a minority amidst so many other tourists, basically all of them Chinese. As Americans flock to Washington DC to see the sights, so do the Chinese throng to Beijing, once in their lives anyway, to experience a bit of their own cultural history. And as wonderful as it was for me to see the splendors of the ancient dynasties that were responsible for the Forbidden City, I got the greatest pleasure out of watching the Chinese families drifting through the place around us as they laughed and took snapshots of one another, chatted, shared picnic lunches. Observing how they simply behaved with one another revealed a great deal.

Chops are personal stamps, usually carved from stone or very hard wood, from before the days of rubber stamps and personal literacy, and are ubiquitous in Chinese paper life. While in the Forbidden City, we spied a little shop that made chops to order. We had completely lost Heath in the vastness of the place anyway, so Jody and I decided to have a Blue Mountain Ramblers chop made while we waited for him to reappear.

Communicating the concept of Blue Mountain Ramblers to non-English speakers was an entertaining adventure in itself. A great deal of earnestness, pointing, and laughter occurred, and finally a chop was completed, paid for and wrapped up. We never saw Heath again until we all got back to the hotel. When we finally got to show the chop to someone who could read its older Chinese script back to us, it was: Blue Mountain Tourists! Fair enough.

Every day had one major adventure and several minor ones. After the Forbidden City day, we checked out the Big Bell Temple, and the Temple of Heaven (these two had “unusual acoustic spaces” about which Jody was particularly curious). We also spent a day at the vast Summer Palace, in the north of the city.

Suzanne Hale took us to the 'Dirt Market,' which is a huge antique and would-be antique market. We of course saw Tienanmen Square, the largest town square in the world, passing Mao’s tomb and a whole lot else as part of various journeys. We also found ourselves wandering the hutongs, small neighborhood streets and alleys where the older, pre-high rise enclosed family compounds are), through little markets where no white tourists had probably ever been before, and to carpet dealers in obscure little alleys. We wove through an underground fish market that Suzanne aptly described as a 'fish zoo,' which featured a staggering variety of marine life, including live geoducks from Puget Sound (a very large and obscene clam), every imaginable fish, along with live snakes, frogs and toads! Mmmm!

We continued to some of Suzanne’s other favored destinations including a pearl market, a killer Kaifeng-style restaurant, and an ancient pickle market in a neighborhood of streets too small to carry vehicles. This was in the Qianmen Street zone, below Tienanmen Square, a place we returned to several times. This pickle market was unforgettable. We transported a lot of pickle back into the U.S that came from this store.

On a Saturday we finally got out of town to visit the Great Wall with Peter Moustakerski, our USDA liaison, up from Shanghai for the event, along with his friend Laura Burt, who edits a business weekly in that city. The five of us were fortunate enough to have the use of the Embassy’s Chevy van with its delightful driver, Mr. Sun (everyone in China was introduced by first names with the notable exception of Mr. Sun). We took the advice of a guidebook and went to Simatai, a stretch of the wall that is farther from town and much less touristy.

For once, a guidebook had it right! The Wall offered spectacular views of Mongolia and northern China on either side. Our journey there was augmented immeasurably by a little ad hoc army of “guides”—five local women who attached themselves to each of us at the entry down in the town and who sprinted up the mountain and arrived at the Wall before our tram arrived. For hours they stuck to us like affable shadows, cheerfully chatting up a storm about which tower was which, and so on. Several hours later, as we prepared to descend the hill and head back to Beijing, they moved in for the kill, with their bags of books, T-shirts and so on. Peter and Laura, both fluent in Chinese, had gone ahead just a bit, and suddenly, we three Blue Mountain Tourists were surrounded! In China, one is expected to haggle and bargain over most things, but these women were formidable. Even Heath, who has a Black Belt in bargaining, met his match in their tag-team approach to selling high. We finally succumbed to their pitches, parting with more kwai than necessary, but we got out okay.

There was one last real bonus to our little journey out to Simatai. We had asked one of our jolly guides if there were any local musicians thereabouts, and she replied yes, there was a blind singer. Her description didn’t sound terribly promising, so we thought little more about it, but somehow, before we got out of the village at the end of the day, she had sent word that some Americans wanted to meet the musician. We were actually in Mr. Sun’s van just headed back toward Beijing when we spotted a young man with a white cane, sanxian slung over his back, tapping his way along the road toward where we had just left. We brake for sanxian players! Having hastily pulled over, we jumped out to accost Wang Gung Cai, and were rewarded with an impromptu roadside concert which began with renditions of 'Yankee Doodle,' 'Doe, a deer, a female deer,' and 'Oh Susanna,' rendered in a sort of bellydance groove, in honor of our coming all the way from California. This charming young man played the large “country style” sanxian (sahn-shyen, which simply means 'three strings') of the North, as opposed to the more delicate smaller version used in Chinese chamber music. He regaled us with several other pieces, songs, and instrumentals. At one point, he passed the sanxian to Jody, who frailed back a credible version of 'Oh Susanna.'

Since our gig took up every night, we missed some of the concert life we might have encountered, but we made up for it in our collisions with fiddle and banjo music al fresco. The banjo, of course, was the sanxian we had encountered at Simatai. Finding fiddles in action took a little longer.

In the southern part of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven covers an area of a little more than a square mile. The main buildings in what is now a lovely city park were built in the Ming Dynasty in 1420 for worshipping heaven and the earth, its extraordinarily complex landscaping overlain with circles and squares, including some fascinating acoustic spaces for folks who like to whisper.

Around the temple itself is a huge garden, with museums and covered arcades, lawns and groves of trees. Here we encountered the fiddlers, and what a jovial, spirited lot they were. Chinese fiddling is not expressed in whispers!

The Chinese fiddle is the erhu (are-who); a two-stringed item that has a small tube for a body, and like the sanxian it has a head of python skin, with a long neck with no fingerboard. Playing it vertically in the lap, you simply stop the strings with your fingertips, and the bow hair runs between the strings. While the instrument is physically quite different from the western violin, the spirit of the players would be instantly familiar to anyone who has witnessed fiddling in any other culture: players jammed, trading verses, keenly watching and listening, the younger players learning licks from the older ones.

Their repertoire came mainly from Peking opera, and as a session would be cooking along, people walking by would listen for a moment, and when they recognized the tune and saw an opening, they would burst into song. The spontaneity and joy of simply making music out in a park, for one another and anyone else who cared to listen, was infectious and delightful. It was a scene reminiscent of Washington Square Park in the late ’50s.

While the fiddling was instantly accessible, the singing was otherworldly to our ears. We could never fathom how the singers knew when to come in, as the structure of the tunes was, to our uninitiated ears, utterly obscure. Moreover, the Peking opera vocal style was given forth in a stentorian laser-beam falsetto, thoroughly unlike western vocal styles. But it clearly all went together, and the impromptu sessions were a thrill to listen to and watch.

Jody mused that the tradition of just hanging out in public places to play for the joy of playing seems to have vanished in America; nowadays, folks seem to need to either busk or have a stage on which to perform. If the Blue Mountain Ramblers ever get back to Beijing, I’d like them to go out to the Temple of Heaven with some instruments and just sit on a ledge in the long arcade by the gardens and play tunes like the neighbors there did. Then we would finally have that cultural exchange! n

Jody has written a delightful and rather different account of this trip for the winter 2000 issue of Fiddler Magazine. And I have an expanded and more photographically supported version of this article, which can be seen at www.lutherie.net/china.html. Come visit!

Paul Hostetter has lived in Santa Cruz, CA since 1970. A full-time luthier with minors in radio, cooking, and writing, he plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and a few other things.

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