Ni Hao, Y’all – Country Music in China

Like “government intelligence” and “student athlete”, some call “Country Music” the ultimate oxymoron…it may come from the country but it sure as heck is not music. As one of the only original American art forms (besides the Big Mac), country music has had little impact outside the U.S. borders, for which many outside U.S. borders are thankful.

Of late, I’ve been listening to a lot of Country Music. Before you call me a hick, I must state here and now, for the record, that my taste in music is varied. I love jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, grunge, heavy metal, classical, ska, punk, you-name-it. What’s more, I used to play in a band that was billed as “post punk, alternative, low fi, British speed pop.” I ain’t no tobacco-chewing, truck-driving, gun-toting, red-neck American sonovabeech. At least, not usually.

No, my interest in country music is purely on an aesthetic level, on the poetry of country song, the word pictures it paints. Take the lyrics of Tim McGraw (better known as Mr. Faith Hill, one of the many men in this world that has married far above his station in life), for example. In one of his songs, the chorus goes: “I may be a real bad boy, but baby I’m a real good man.”

In the mind of a guy – where the volatile X-Y chromosome mix does not lend itself to logical thought – this line makes perfect sense.  To us, it sounds like something that might get you out of the doghouse with your significant-other-of-the-opposite-sex after a too-late-night-out-with-the-guys. Put that lost puppy look on your face, look deep into her eyes and in a gravelly twang sing, “I may be a real bad boy … but baby I’m a real good man.”

Yea, right…that might work for maybe a nanosecond. And then she’ll whup you upside the head, tell you to act your age and “if-you-think-I-am-that-stupid-then-you-got-another-thing-coming-buster-npw-go-out-and-clean-the-garage!!” Of course you don’t think she is that stupid. But you do think she should listen to more country music. However, maybe she thinks you should look more like Tim McGraw.

Of course, China, too, boasts many a bard. From the Tang Dynasty Daoists, who used poetry to query the meaning of life to modern Shanghai advertisers touting plastic surgery as the answer, this country has an inborn sensitivity to the power of words. With so much in common, then, why is country music not more popular in China? There’s Chinese pop music, hip-hop, rap, rock-and-roll … but no country.

Which is a cryin’ shame. Just imagine the creative possibilities. I have. In fact I’ve started writing a few country tunes, like this one about lost love: “You got on a Beijing-bound bus, said goodbye, leaving just the sting of diesel fumes in my eye.” I get teary just thinking about it.

Here’s another one about food: “Honey, you’re a hot little thing, like a big helping of Gong Bao Ji Ding.”

Or perhaps you’d prefer this little tribute to Nancy Sinatra, an ode to Chinese utensils: “These sticks were made for choppin’”?  [Read it out loud … and … wait for it … ah, now you get it!].

The possibilities are endless. Women…say you have a date and the guy is not quite … uh … up to standards. Try “You think you’re a Plaza 66 lover, but you’re really just Subway Knock-off Market under the covers.” Ouch. The guy will have to go out and buy himself a fake DVD just to ease the pain.

Of course, all the songs above must be sung in a good ol’ US southern accent … not a southern Chinese accent or you’ll sound like a bunch of Hong Kong real estate agents juiced up on Courvoisier and howling karaoke. The way to sing Country Music is to slow down your speech and stretch your vowels waaaaaay out. Like my buddy from Texas who pronounces my first name with two syllables: “Kee-ant”. You gotta sound like that (or “lahk they-at”).

Now that you have the idea sing along with me, in full voice and with feeling …

You can keep them wide open spaces, where the deer and the antelope roam

Just give me the grit, the grime and the crowds, of Shanghai, my home sweet home

The breeze from Suzhou Creek on a hot August day can make a grown man cry

And the MSG in my daily lunch means I wont have to be embalmed when I die

I made it from Hongqiao to Lujiazui and was only 3 hours late

And the death-defying driver I had was an expert in tempting the fates.

Some think it insane that, at Shanghai days end, you are relieved to have survived

Well I may be real crazy, but baby, Im really alive!

Yee-haw.

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

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