Posts Tagged ‘Jingjiang’

Renmin Park, volume 1 (the music)

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Most of the music that I heard in Jingjiang was uninspired Taiwanese pop and Euro-pop, blaring from tinny speakers in every shop and out of every taxicab window. The most interesting music was found in the parks, where the traditional music was played. On most Sunday’s I would head down to Renmin Park and sit in this tiny pavilion that was home to a music club that performed music from the Beijing opera. Depending on the time of day, different musicians would be there with their erhus, pipas, shangxians and various percussion instruments. There was never any shortage of singers. Each would wait their turn and then stand up and belt out some song written long ago about love lost, stolen or betrayed. Most of the players were great, most of the singers were not so great, but they all approached the music with such passion. There were a few singers that seemed head and shoulders above the others, at least to these untrained ears. I was always welcomed with much fanfare. A seat was made available (after a few visits they knew that I preferred to sit in the back) and tea was poured and someone always made sure that my cup was full. No one in the “club” spoke any English and all I could master in mandarin was “happy new year”, so no words were exchanged, but none of that mattered. I recorded dozens of performances.

About half way through our stay I caught a lucky break. I was introduced to young man by the name of Eric Chen. He spoke excellent English (he learnt it by watching American movies) and he was a music freak. He was also desperate to talk to someone about music, because, as he told me on our first meeting, he was “not only the only person in Jingjiang who had ever heard the music of Radiohead, but the only person who had ever even heard the name Radiohead”. We quickly became friends and we spent a lot of time together. One day there was a knock on the door and it was Chen carrying an, almost portable, stereo system. He also had dozens of CDs with him. My introduction to the Chinese rock scene began in earnest. Chen introduced me to the ground-breaking, emotionally gut wrenching music of He Yong; the dour, introspective sounds of the brilliant Dou Wei; the prog-rock tinged musings of The Tang Dynasty; the melodic Cure-meets-Steve-Earle pop of Xu Wei and the inspired innovative sounds of Zuoxiao Zuzhou (ZXZZ). He introduced me to dozens of more artists that had sprung up on the Chinese rock scene since the ”new openness” of the late 1980’s. He showed me videos of legendary concerts in which some of these artists had performed and cemented their reputations. It was a great awakening for me. Two of the artists that I really became attached to were Xu Wei (but only his first album, as all of us hipsters know full well) and Zuoxiao Zuzhou. There was something about Xu Wei’s guttural voice and simple, haunting melodies that really attracted me and the breadth and unusualness of  Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s work still fascinates me today (sort of a Leonard Cohen meets Nick Cave by way of Tom Waits; Zuoxiao Zuzhou contributes a lyric and lead vocal to one of the songs on Renmin Park). We decided to cover a song by each of these artists on Renmin Park (ZXZZ’s “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side” and Xu Wei’s “My Fall”). Chen translated the lyrics and then I turned those translations into song lyrics. Here are the original songs as recorded by Xu Wei and ZXZZ:

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Renmin Park, volume 1 (the sounds)

Monday, March 8th, 2010

When we first got to China one of the first things that struck me, aside from the poor air quality, were the sounds. Not only was it loud and unrelenting, but there were so many textures to the sounds that were completely foreign to these Western ears. So I wrote back home and asked brother Pete to pick me up a high end portable digital recorder. I had it, along with my camera, wherever I went. I’d spend hours in the park walking around and recording music and conversations, exercise classes and badminton games; in the streets I’d record the intense sound of the traffic; at the school I’d wander the halls and sit in on some classes and record the students chanting their lessons, or capture them at their morning exercise where the entire school of three thousand students would do their calisthenics. Even drifting by our apartment window were the calls of various hawkers, selling everything from vegetables to propane. I recorded it all.

When I got home I knew I had a treasure trove of really interesting and unusual “field recordings” and I knew that I wanted to somehow use them in the making of music, but I really wasn’t sure how to go about it. Eventually I bundled them up and sent them West to our friend Joby Baker in Victoria. I gave pretty vague instructions; create loops out of these sounds, let them spur your imagination. Alan, who lives on Vancouver Island, also got involved and the two of them proceeded to build musical structures with some of the field recordings as the foundations. They then sent them back East, Pete and I set to work on them in our studio, taking out elements that didn’t work for us and adding our own elements. And then I sat with them and wrote melodies and lyrics. Finally Margo came in and transformed them into Cowboy Junkies songs.

Five of these songs will appear on Renmin Park. Here is a taste of how two of them sounded about half way through the process:

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Renmin Park, volume 1 (an intro)

Friday, March 5th, 2010

In late 2008, my family and I were given an opportunity to spend three months in China. We were boarded at an elementary/middle school in the small town of Jingjiang situated on the Yangtze River, about two hours from Shanghai. My wife taught English at the school, my three young kids attended a few classes and I spent my days exploring. We also did as much travelling as my wife’s schedule would allow. On one massively intense trip we journeyed to the birth villages of each of my daughters (two of my three children were adopted from China). But, mostly, we inserted ourselves into the day to day life of Jingjiang.

When I say that Jingjiang is a small town I mean that in relative terms. Its official population is 650,000, but its real population is closer to 1,000,000: a mere speck on the Chinese demographic landscape. We were welcomed with open arms by anyone in the town who could put three English words together. Homes were open to us, we were feted at every possible occasion and in every possible style, we created friendships that are only possible under such intense and foreign conditions and had adventures that have already become part of our family lore. It was a storybook experience, overwhelming to say the least, perhaps even life altering for my daughters.

Renmin Park is a reflection of that adventure. It’s a fictional love story about two people whose two worlds will forever keep them apart. It’s a thank-you letter to an obscure city and the people who opened up their lives to five very strange strangers. It’s a personal document about a bewilderingly complex culture that is, once again, experiencing a massive upheaval. It’s another chapter in a band’s ongoing twenty-five year journey.

Here is a rough mix of the albums title track:

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