Writer, musician and Sub Jam label runner Yan Jun tells a story about Chinglish music and what happens when the King Kongs and Godzillas of world music collide.
Recently I've been thinking a lot about world music. And before writing this article about it, I did a lot of preparation: I took a shower; I replied to several emails from friends in Europe and Canada before the shower; I played Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew loudly while I took the shower; I helped another friend by proofreading a translation of his Chinese tour flyer, after the shower. Etcetera. All of these details are to illuminate my feeling for English. But why Miles Davis? To make me feel easier as there’s no lyrics in his music, la.
There was a “la” in the end of that last sentence. I don’t know how to express myself without it. It’s like shrugging my shoulders. People in Hong Kong speak English in this way. So, I guess Peter Scherr does too. He is a jazz musician and producer who has lived there for years and I hate him. Sorry for my Chinglish, I mean: I have collaborated with guqin player Wu Na in many improvised music situations, but one day she told me that she will not play improvised music anymore because Peter Scherr told her that he felt bored by it. As Scherr and Wu Na had a successful world music collaboration at that time, she took his opinion to heart and started focusing on composed music instead.
Now, it’s possible that Peter Scherr will hate me because I have picked him as a scapegoat to hate world music through. But please, Peter, don’t hate me, it’s world music’s fault, so together let's hate world music, instead of each other!
Guqin is the most elegant traditional instrument in China. An instrument that is about creating subtle sounds rather than distinct notes. Check the almighty Wikipedia if you don’t know it. Wu Na is the only player who has brought this zither to the world of jazz, rock, experimental, improvised and, unfortunately, world music. Sorry for my Chinglish again, but in my dictionary world music means unlucky.
Once I saw Wu Na play with a Swiss jazz group in Bern. The musicians were not young but they seemed to be trying to play a kind of high school orchestra level of jazz. Musically, the guqin was useless in that arrangement as there was an electric bass covering all of its parts. Just like Miles Davis overwhelmed the sound of my shampooing in the shower. After watching that show, I lost some money and then fell ill.
Together with Wu Na and two other musicians, Xiao He and Li Daiguo, and tea master Lao Gu, I recorded some music and released it as The Tea Rockers Quintet. We described it as improvised world music. Unlucky: after playing together four times, it was then that Wu Na said she preferred to play composed music.
There is a rumor in China: that the academic, traditional musicians can never escape melody and composition. Another rumour is that only the ladies of these traditional instrument players (for instance Wu Man, Min Xiaofen and Yang Jing, three pipa players) can survive in the Western music world. I’m not sure about the first rumour, but I know there is an exception for the second: sheng player Wu Wei. Wow! In one picture, he plays in front of conductor Gustavo Dudamel. I see Godzilla vs King Kong, two giants from different worlds collide on stage. I love Wu Wei’s new hair and red scarf. And unfortunately (or unluckily) none of the above ladies would dare to have a style like his: disharmonious and a bit crazy.
No lyrics, but Miles Davis has his language, indeed. It smells like English, it’s lively. And all these players and composers like Dudamel and Wu Wei have their own languages, too. But they need to build a new language so that they can play together. But I think this is not my business, and they would probably kill me if I showed up and played my Chinglish music on their stage. But anyways, why should they play together? Only because “We Are The World” or a similar sentiment?
Now I’m listening to Cecil Taylor. A logical step after Miles Davis. It’s a Freedom release. But how can I write about guqin with this kind of music? There is no reason to put guqin into this world. They are good when they have distance in between. We do not live in one world, fortunately. I couldn’t image living in a world where everybody spoke the same language. Neither English, nor the new musical Chinglish one we’ve created so that West can play with East! Now I hear a voice crying from the speaker. Jazz players speaking, singing, crying, muttering when they play their instruments. It’s just nonsense, cries accompanying the player’s body movement. It sounds like a small gap opening from another, almost visible, world. Like a King Kong or Godzilla smiling out from under the shadow of the great world music game.
But to be honest, as a listener I prefer to hear more melodies and traditional compositions from players like Wu Man, Min Xiaofen and Yang Jing. Their King Kong lives, or dies, there.
Maybe Wu Na is right. Improvised music makes some people lost and anxious. Rich people always tend to protect their money, and language, I guess. And tradition is such a heavy wallet. Today Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor are heavy, too. Elegant ladies are terribly heavy. They can look like stone statues. (You know why people donate to temples? So that they can keep a lighter step: Good job old stones, thanks for keeping the money!)
And now my CD player is playing in its own style: glitch! A DJ Sniff style. Japanglish!
As it turned out, the solution to our quintet troubles was to play a trick: we would all play together for a fifth time, and this time I said to everyone: sure, we won't do any improvisation. We will make a precise plan before playing: three of us – without Wu Na and Lao Gu knowing it – will get totally drunk before we start and play spontaneously.
So, that's my world music story. Thanks for my Chinglish.