Last column

New one already out today.. I can’t keep up. Lots of this will be familiar to regular blogstigators, but I think I cast in a different light.


The Freedom Abroad
To Try a New Tune

November 9, 2007

I have a band in Beijing, Woodie Alan. The moniker is a joke, reflecting my name and that of my Chinese partner, Woodie Wu, but the group is not. In fact, much to my surprise, I am fronting a pretty happening little band.

I never could have pulled this off back home. I owe my success as a gigging musician, however far it goes, to being an expat. Moving here and re-establishing my identity has allowed me to redefine myself, casting off old insecurities and pursuing a reality I always envisioned but didn’t quite know how to achieve. In this, I am not alone.

Many people find that expat life allows them to liberate themselves from the accumulated reputation and history that can come to define you. Everyone plays an established role with his or her families and old friends, and moving somewhere new gives you an opportunity to reboot. Expats may also be more willing to give something new a try; after all if you’ve traded Milwaukee for Beijing, why not try your hand at fronting a band, or running a bar, or riding a motorcycle?

Woodie Alan plays regularly at The Stone Boat, inside Ritan Park, within one of the city’s Embassy districts. The little bar is actually a stone boat and sits on a lake with a small stage extending over the water and tables spread along the banks, a surprisingly serene, pastoral setting right in the middle of downtown Beijing.

American expat Jonathan Ansfield and his wife run the Stone Boat. Jonathan is a journalist and blogger, contributing to Newsweek and other publications and Web sites. Now he is also a bar proprietor and a small-scale Beijing music impresario, booking performers for free shows three nights a week during the warmer months.

“It’s an out of body experience — certainly nothing I ever did or would have done had I stayed in America,” he says. “I’ve always loved music and spent a lot of time going to clubs and seeing bands in college, but I can’t see how I ever would have ended up booking bands had I stayed in the U.S. But I’ve been into the Beijing music scene since I got here [over 10 years ago] so it’s something I really enjoy.”

It’s manifestly easier to realize some goals here than it would be in the U.S. American Jonathan Anderson, now an analyst for the investment bank UBS, fronted blues bands in Moscow in the early ’90s and in Beijing at the end of that decade. In this city he co-founded the Rhythm Dogs with some of the city’s finest musicians, including key members of the Cui Jian Band, China’s first significant rockers.

“I’m a mediocre harmonica player and a worse guitarist but I had my pick of incredible musicians,” says Mr. Anderson. “With some vision, drive and hard work, anything was possible. It was like living out a fantasy. The quality of the guys I played with was head and shoulders above what I could have rated at home. It was like walking in and gigging with Led Zeppelin and that just doesn’t happen in a more developed market.”

Kaiser Kuo has a similar story. He moved to Beijing in 1988, formed the hard rock band Tang Dynasty in 1989, put out an album in 1990 and was touring all over the country by 1991. After returning to the University of Arizona to pursue a doctorate in East Asian Studies, Mr. Kuo found himself daydreaming about Chinese rock stardom and eventually quit school to return to Beijing. He rejoined Tang Dynasty and was soon performing in 35,000-seat stadiums. Now overseeing digital strategy for Ogilvy and Mather’s Beijing office, Mr. Kuo still performs regularly with his band Chunqiu.

“I can sit in a guitar store in the U.S. and hear 10 guys who smoke me in just an hour but here I am,” says Mr. Kuo. “For me, this could only have happened in China.”

My story fits the same pattern. I met Woodie when he repaired a guitar for me. He heard I was a longtime editor for Guitar World magazine and became very interested in chatting, which quickly led to jamming together; the same news would have induced a shrug from a good guitar repairman back in the states. Saxophonist Dave Loevinger, who is the U.S. Treasury Department representative in Beijing, played for years with the great Washington, D.C., party band Jimi Smooth and Hittime. Had we met at home, it’s unlikely he would have been interested in forming a band, but newly relocated to Beijing, he was excited to find a musical outlet.

When a nearby restaurant asked me to host an open mic, the three of us got together, with an initial repertoire consisting of whatever I could sing without cringing. We’ve come a long way since then, thanks largely to my growing confidence — the other guys were already good. We have a unique sound, with most of the solos coming from Dave’s soulful sax and Woodie’s mournful lap steel guitar, an unusual instrument which figures prominently in American country and blues music. I have always loved slide guitar, but it never occurred to me that my first chance to play with a great lap steel player would come in Beijing, with an amiable Chinese guy bearing a tattoo of Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of my favorite blues guitarists.

We played with a couple of different bassists and drummers before settling on the young, easygoing Chinese pros who play with Woodie in another band as well. Since adding them, we’ve become more and more of a real band. In two weeks we are headlining one of Beijing’s top rock clubs, and we’re talking to an agent about booking some out-of-town festivals.

Pretty soon, we may even live up to the bragging motto I made up for our posters and Web site: “Beijing’s premier blues and jam band.”

Though it feels like the most natural thing in the world, our mix of Chinese and expat musicians is unusual; most bands around here feature one or the other. In fact, Woodie used to play regularly with most of the current members of a popular band, but when they formed this group they made it clear that they felt they could get better gigs if they had no Chinese members.

It’s their loss; not only are they missing out on a great guitarist but also on moments of unforced cultural exchange that can be hard to come by. I have gained a new understanding of the lyrics of songs I’ve sung for years by explaining their meaning to my band mates, two of whom speak no English. And one of the unanticipated benefits of the band has been an opportunity to get a little deeper into local life, sharing meals, beers and downtime with my new Chinese friends and their wives, girlfriends, cousins and buddies.

Dave wants us to change our name and it’s true that the humor doesn’t really translate to a Chinese audience, but they view it as a straight-forward description: the Woodie and Alan band. It is also a reminder of our humble beginnings. Something can be funny without being a joke, and this band will never reach the point where I don’t see the humor in it.
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Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Below are some edited responses to my previous Expat Life column.

Congratulations on your 50th expat column. As a second-generation Chinese American, I always enjoy your Chinglish references. I find myself using Chinglish more often with my own parents as I grow older and find it harder to remember all the Chinese words & phrases (much to their disappoint & disapproval).

Your comment about how the merchants have an “odd mix of fatalism and optimism” is spot on. In a country where the government has yet to provide consistent, reliable regulatory agencies and practices, it’s easy to see how some people can view their lives with either a fatalistic view (as we would say in Chinese “eat bitterness”) or with sheer optimism.

— Helen Liu San Francisco, Calif.
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Continued efforts as you write about the life of ordinary people in China bit by bit. This is very meaningful to us.

— Land

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