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Singapore Blues

I used to love a woman  //  But now she’s gone, gone, gone…

My friend Tom and I were scouring Singapore for a good Blues band in a smoky bar … and, suddenly hearing some incredible music coming from the place we were standing outside of, we thought we had found one.  We had gone down to an area in Singapore called Boat Quay, a veritable buffet of outdoor restaurants, lined cheek-by-bum along what used to be the old transshipment port on the Singapore river.  These establishments are scrubbed clean and freshly painted with tables draped in clean linens, a far cry from the rat- and malaria-infested squalor that used to be the port—I guess some official figured that vermin and oozing sores might put tourists off their lunch.  The health department is funny that way.

The night started off when we first dropped by Harry’s Bar.  The house band was playing a mix of Jazz styles, mostly traditional but with a little fusion thrown in.  This was OK; I like Jazz.  I like Jazz, but I don’t “get” it.  Jazz is for intellectuals, real brainiacs that get the joke behind a modulated 7th chord played an octave up with a dampened low-E string instead of a simple major chord.  See, didn’t that sound cool?  Doesn’t it just make you want to light up a Turkish cigarette, hang it off your lower lip and nod your head in a meaningful manner?  Don’t ask me to interpret what I just said, but that is how Jazz aficionados talk, like their beret is too tight because their brain is so doggone full of music theory.  It’s not a hat, it’s a safety cap that keeps the gray matter inside.

Jazz and the Blues are both considered quintessential American musical inventions, and I would argue that they are the ONLY truly original contribution the US has made to world culture.  We certainly have not helped the culinary arts (until, at least, the Big Mac accepted as haute cuisine) and Hollywood output pales in comparison to the global impact of the Indian and Chinese movie studios (Consider Bollywood  in India – 10 times the audience, 3 times as many films per year, and one-third of the cost…not a bad formula).  Nope, in the great cultural scorecard, we Americans only have two points, Jazz and the Blues … and they are good, solid points.  But give me the Blues: three chords and the truth, a simple back-beat and TONS of attitude.

My baby, my baby, my baby  //  She gone done me wrong…

People my age don’t know the Blues.  They don’t know about how the Blues emerged from generations of suffering – a black minority population in the U.S. struggling to be recognized as human beings in a predominantly white society.  My generation can’t understand those struggles, even as we try to emulate those who suffered – with updated terminology, of course.  They had the Blues, we have Issues.  They play music, we play the victim.  They have jam sessions, we have therapy sessions.  You get the idea.

With this kind of disconnect, how did I find myself listening to classic, Chicago-style blues spilling from a bar in Singapore, of all places?  Just like my generation of Americans, young Singaporeans have had a cushy life.  Their parents suffered through the founding of the Republic of Singapore so their children could live in a clean, safe, beautiful environment—Asia as interpreted by Disney.  The vast majority of young Singaporeans are well-educated and nearly guaranteed a good job after school, even if they don’t work very hard on their studies; like emerging from the womb and being handed a birth certificate and a union card, minus the hard hat.  Standing outside the bar we thought, surely, these musicians could NOT be local!  Singaporeans just don’t “do” the Blues, do they?

So we stepped inside the establishment hosting this heavenly sound, a place called the Elephant Bar and sure enough, there was a live band of diverse heritage playing authentic Blues.  The lead singer, who also played the harmonica, was Chinese, as was the drummer.  On lead guitar was a Bahasa Indonesian, and the bass player looked Malay.  It was a veritable Benneton billboard of a band, an ecumenical movement of ethnicities, all centered on the same beat.  We had arrived on Jam Session night, and several other musicians weaved their way in to the proceedings: a German keyboardist, an Indian sax player and an Australian guitarist who looked like an accountant but played like the dickens—no slam against accountants, but they are typically hired because they can resolve credits and debits, not for their ability to resolve a screaming Blues lick back to its root note.

Yea, yea, I used to love her  //  But she ain’t never gonna stay…

For the first hour, Tom and I just sat there and enjoyed the show.  From Howlin’ Wolf to BB King to Stevie Ray Vaughn, these guys were smooth.  But then we started to wonder HOW these guys could play such great Blues.  They grew up with Canto-Pop, not Pop Wilson.  To them, Taj Mahal was a building, not a gritty Blues singer with a unique, twanging guitar style.  How did they “get” the Blues?

Well, I think they got the Blues because, at some level, the had the Blues and they understood its base message: “I love someone who, for whatever reason, does not (or used to, cannot, will not, could never-ever) love me and now loves some another schmuck (or guy, girl, cool car, job, hair style, or pet rock).”  This theme of unrequited love is universal, it knows no ethnic, religious, class or cultural boundaries.  Though he did not tell us directly, the singer had obviously been dumped on his sorry butt—I know that look because I’ve seen it in the mirror (but with a larger nose and blue eyes).  You see, it’s THE Blues and not “A Blue Feeling”…you got it, I got it, and it’s all the same, all over the world.  We know this deep inside, but it is good, once in awhile, to have someone stand up in a smoky bar and testify to this fact.

Instead I got the blues  //  And they ain’t never gonna go away…

So lovesickness is universal, but there was mojo in that band beyond the personal pain of the individual members.  To step back and look at the ethnic composition of the group was to experience a painful—and very recent—part of each of their histories…in fact, of OUR histories.  In some parts of Asia, the Malays and the Chinese do not get along; in Indonesia, the Bahasa majority have been rioting on the Chinese minority; and China and India had border skirmishes as recently as a few years ago.  If it sounds like everyone is picking on the Chinese, throw the Westerners in the mix and it evens out – those Colonial masters picked on everyone.  And then you can pit the two white guys off against each other to view a microcosm of WWII.

But there they were: the Chinese drummer and Malay bass player laying the foundation with the Chinese harp player and Aussie and Indonesian guitarists exchanging leads with the German keyboardist, all in a song about personal pain and suffering: “It used to be good, and now it ain’t so good.”

If we had been listening to a Grunge band it would have ended there: life sucks, it’s not fair and ain’t going to get any better.  But the Blues, REAL Blues, aren’t so depressing.  The Blues resolve in a typically Taoist manner by saying, “Sure, life is tough, but this is the essence of the human condition. We all got it.  Get over it.  Nothing to see here … move along with your life.”  The pain of the Blues is exquisitely fair because we ALL feel it.

The Jambalaya of a band playing the Blues at the Elephant Bar in Singapore is not going to change the world, but I bet you it has changed those guys.

But you know baby, that’s OK  // Yea, baby, that’s OK