Launch Tour: China & The Hebrides
My summer has been filled with the most positive people and experiences – maybe the political darkness and the shadows blowing around the world are causing many of us to see and value more than ever the joy we have as people living on this wonderful planet and the connection we have with each other. Lovely festivals celebrating our lives and precious moments with family and friends playing music in the mountains for the forests and the stars. Now finally it’s time to properly launch the new album ATLANTIC DRIFTER with, er, Proper Records. Today I’m in Amsterdam waiting for a technological concoction to whisk me away to Guangzhou…
I dreamed my way through the markets of Tashkent and rode, in sleep, the thermals of the Tian Shan night, with brilliant coloured orioles and black kites. I woke over the Five Ridges as the sun rose, and watched huge piles of cumulus to the North crusting the Himalaya. In the pre-dawn shadows, rectilinear paddy fields melded into rectilinear factory estates (I saw it first in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaaniskaatsi – the remarkable consistency of human pattern, from canal system to cityscape to microchip). They call it ‘China Speed Development’, this helter skelter catch up with a civilisation that has at least as many psychoses as solutions. Remarkable, though, the enormous buildings wreathed in monsoon clouds, like perriwigs askew after a disappointing fancy dress. I love thick grey weather and am intrigued by these giant creations, cutting paths into the clouds.
Gangzhou is a boom town. Once the jewel of the Pearl River – so heavily protected (mostly against local forces living outside the ‘law’) that the Dutch East India Company and the British out of Hong Kong had to fight their way upriver to force a trade arrangement. They were ceded a trading base – on Shamian island, stuck out on the water, the only landfall European feet were allowed. It’s too much to say that Western culture has rewritten China, though to Occidental eyes in urban environments that is how it may appear. Homogenised clothing styles and too-familiar brand saturation are things globalised, belonging to and in various ways reflecting humanity on the planet. The obvious irony of me as a Westerner dressed in traditional (and very effective) Asian tropical working clothes (a coollie jacket made in India and fishing trousers from Thailand) is lost on no one. Last time I was here this was a different place. Arriving by long distance ferry up the Pearl river from the sea, I saw farm lands and boat yard dereliction. Iron smelters loomed over small holdings, yellow and grey smoke dumping particulate onto paddie fields. I walked a plank over the glidding mud and was completely lost (we’re never as free as when we are lost?). No one had a word of English though they were kind and wanting to help. By wandering among riverside one-storeys, I eventually found the latest over-ground ‘subway’ station, looking like a bit of space tech dumped in the fields. After more completely incomprehensible exchanges and by an excess of luck over judgement I found a small black token machine that let me onto the train. Without English signage (why should there be?) I made a stab at a destination and wound up on Shamian Island. I was stunned to see a plethora of Western families – couples, fathers and adult daughters, pushing buggies with tiny Chinese babies. The former ‘embassy island’ had become a baby trafficking centre. My initial horror very quickly moderated by the cooing affection between the babies and the adults. They all seemed so delighted with each other. I don’t know where these tiny mostly girls had come from – though one American family I talked to had a child from a named Southern orphanage – they were delivered by fixers to the White Swan Hotel for collection. Guangzhou then reminded me of the coruscation of Tetsuo’s body in the anime Akira – vital and unstoppable, organic in a way yet deeply jarring, concerning, as if something important was being ripped apart willy-nilly and crying out for its quiet voice to be listened to. Now the city is spruce and tucker and recalls quite strongly Hong Kong, it’s old trading partner, a day away down the river.
Amidst the many coloured waters and bits of buildings I found the temple where Dharmaraja lived and wrote. He helped develop Chan, the syncretic Buddhism formed from a collision of Indian roots, Taoism and traditional Chinese thought. It spread through Korea into Japan where it became Zen. I don’t know if he might be a saint to the faithful – I don’t really know what ‘saint’ means – and I appreciate the lack of personal cult in these approaches. Even so I’ve deeply valued some of the writings that grew from this root and it was lovely in the coruscating city mass to find a quiet, simple place with a bird singing, flags roiling in the breeze, soft bells ringing and the slightest whiff of incense on the air. Green leaved bodhi trees were the temple’s only stockade – intriguing that some of the things we most value can only live and flourish as long as they stay vulnerable and exposed.
Marquis Zeng’s tomb was a most particular place. I went there to see the instruments and walked through a worker’s park where the path was lined with speakers playing old Chinese tunes. A fairly significant hill just beyond had been completely beheaded. The flattening was for a new housing estate, but the earthmovers cut into a previously unknown subterranean labyrinth of tombs filled with grave goods and the skeletons of the Marquis’ household. His wives, concubines, senior soldiers and musicians had been walled up with their necessaries to supply succour to him in the next world. Shocking and barbaric certainly, and the sense in the rock cut chambers was still powerful even though so ancient as to have faded to a quiet, melancholy echo. There was an entire orchestra of ancient instruments buried there. They have been restored and rehung now in a glass walled hall, lithophones made with great cut lumps of stone, chosen for timbre and tuned to an ancient scale, alongside great ponderous bronze bells. Like so much ancient music it celebrates ‘difference tones’ – the pulsing that happens when two instruments are tuned very slightly apart. Irish Bronze Age horns in the Dublin museum work in just the same way, as do the gamelan instruments of Bali. Beautiful. In a monk shop near a temple I saw modern replications of grave goods intended to accompany the deceased – car, apartment block, TV and a laptop – this time in paper.
My Guangzhou gig was in a place called the ‘Lady Seven’. Kind of a re-imagined French-ish fantasy, with waitresses in knee socks, bow ties and berets and waiters in waist coats and long aprons. I see and sense a deep and genuine appetite in China for any kind of art, culture or novel experience. This might be a response to the depredations of the cultural revolution, and hang on a desire to find workable models to replace the culture destroyed. The unimaginable economic boom facilitates and feeds this interest; with the result that the audiences I played for were wonderfully positive and seemed to entirely lack cynicism. This audience in the steamy South China summer was really lovely – as sunny as the day had been, attentive and thoughtful.
Mad, mad day across China for the gig – dashing past jungled mountains wrapped in bits of typhoon, like flood tattered polythene caught on a tree. Drove over wide rivers – overtaken by a fuchsia pink flocked Bentley with a plate saying ‘init’.
My show at Shezhen University was lovely – in an art school on a tree and lake filled campus – two screens for projections and a lovely and very skilful translator (image above). So great seeing faces engaged, trying with such zeal to extract all they can from my northern tongue. Really affirming company to be in. The promoters (image below) showed me huge studios, full of paintings and books – beautiful works in Chinese idioms, embodying their now. Ironic that here in China – so imaginatively associated with cramped-ness and overcrowing there is often such luxury of space. Afterwards I met calligrapher Jie Xu (image also below), black clad, looking for meaning in paint and letters, like a wild woman scratching for the future in broken feathers and bones.
My second Shenzhen gig was deep in the city, at a club called ‘Here’. The Shenzhen night was storm humid – a sweat bead on the face of China, diffusing neon, tube lights wrapped in storm wrack.
The city is amazing – like cruising the LA of Blade Runner – though cleaner and more affluent – it’s the future I remember imagining, watching those amazing images of things that would surely come. So strange, tonight, to inhabit it. Buildings still rising, lost in night bright clouds of a city with no history. 14 million people, bigger than London, twice the size of Hong Kong, it’s all less than 30 years old, so no one is from here – it’s too young – everyone a migrant. Even the language isn’t the same as the region – Putung Hwa instead of the GuangDong Hwa of HongKong and Guangzhou.
In the club was another singer, so delicate and fragile – like something ancient and quietly beautiful in a place where everything is new. Welcome to the future…
The gig was reviewed in a Chinese magazine. The highlights from my online translation read: “most literary range of seafood, you can encounter world-class guitarist and grassroots original music …… beautiful clouds Austrian can sing K”
That Just about sums is up...
We continue on the road with Jonathan Day for a series of guest posts written during his Atlantic Drifter (album review here) launch tour. We join him as he arrives in Shanghai.
I used to dream about China when I was young. I found a map in a charity shop and used to read the unfamiliar names and vision up paddy jagged mountains, half lost in mist, and wide yellow rivers worming their way from Himalaya to the ocean (I think in my imagination I might have been ‘Tintin in Tibet’. At the time I was also writing songs and practicing – it wasn’t at any conscious level but I guess the connection between music and the wide world was there for me even then. I still have the map.
I dashed for the airport and Shanghai straight after my Guangzhou gig. Grabbed a dinner of sorts at the airport’s ‘Kung Fu’ diner – McD aesthetics with green tea, noodles and pak choi, a giant Bruce Lee high kicking plastic and neon over us. I arrived to a very late night city – my taxi dropped me hot and tired at an amazing hotel – the Yangtze Boutique. A lovely white stone 1930s art deco building (see old photo below), everything about it considered, calm and elegant – I felt refreshed the minute I walked in. A place designed to be cool before air con – and yin-yang to the crowd rammed streets and intense, drenching fug. Took me by surprise and straight back to another Shanghai, a city kin to New York, New Orleans and Paris, at the cultural edge of the modern and new in the 1930s. I slept in the arms of dancers, phonograms, photographs and jazz.
In the morning I was straight out for set up at the Roosevelt Rooms (first image below) on the Shanghai Bund (second image below). It’s a levee holding the brown Mother river, a strand strangely named in Urdu as a testament to the colonial powers who held sway here. Old Eurostyle ashlars, broadcasting colonial pomp to the river bank. I soundchecked between the enormous and improbable eye of the Oriental Pearl Tower (third image below) and the monument to the people’s heroes, stretching high into the low cloud, dripping in the rain. The solid arrogance of the Rooms was cooled and climate controlled to a Shanghai shiver to protect the racks of wine inside. As much as the Lady Seven in Guangzhou was light, bubbly and fun, the Roosevelt was calm, considered and concentrated. Maybe it was the genius loci, or maybe it me responding, but in any case I relished the difference.
I didn’t have time to take in Shanghai – as so often with touring. The deeply drenched Bund was a rare wonder – the Huangpo sliding worm brown and ambivalent round its slow bend as rust grey steel freighters chugged by on lawnmower engines. My Deco hotel’s walls were scratched with the traces of the dancers and jazz payers and lovers who had filled its now tranquil halls. A near century of new paint did nothing at all to quieten their mumbling. But the crowded Nanjing Road was a shopping street, no more nor less and I longed for the secret Shanghai of my imagination, maybe something gone now, of the past – something looking like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or the club in The Last Jade Emperor. One of the organisers of the Roosevelt gig had exactly the look of those old Shanghai photographs, as if she’d stepped miraculously out of a poster and into my life. I wanted to dance to jazz music with her in a speakeasy somewhere. But even now as I write I sense that dream fading, its echoes declining in my ears.
Arriving into Beijing I was road weary. I’d been warned it would be the hottest place on the trip, so was a little grit teethed leaving the airport, ready for the onslaught. Hot it was, but desert heat – Beijing is just east of the Gobi – and in comparison with the south it was blissful. I walked the leafy streets relishing the dryness – the bright sun caught the leaves and left them lanterns swinging in the breeze. A good while since I was here, and then only passing through on the way to a performance in Hong Kong. It’s great to be back to play and I’m really interested to see what ‘China Speed’ has done here. The first time I was nervous and tentative – a country without my language, and a culture with rules I couldn’t guess at. I did though love it. It was mid winter, my accommodation overlooked the Forbidden City and every walk was a catalogue of wonders. I remember the intricacy and nuance of the Palace City itself, for all its rumours of dissipation (a torturing dowager Empress, and an Emperor who forgot to feed his hundreds of ‘gift wives’ who tragically starved). I was studying Chinese music then and every tone and tune fed my appetite, it was all so exciting and unresolved. I had the feeling that around any corner could be Steppenwolf or Evelyn Waugh’s low door in the wall, almost hidden, leading to wonder. I sat in a tiny bar listening to punk bands – really vital and angry, every gesture of defiance declaring a passionate ‘I am here, deal with me’. Wonderful.
I am delighted now with the Beijing Punk Rock Noodle cafe and the rusty steel clad Mao Live House (images below) – my venue of the year so far. Out across a continent, flying in a tiny plane over the Baltic, the Caucusus, endless seeming Siberian forests and the Gobi desert – they’re a good way from my Shropshire HIlls… Somehow at the same time they feel so much like home. I’ve never been a Punk –not really. But I share much of their attitude – suspicion of authority and an emphasis on grass roots community and self reliance. Other writers I know share that head space – you can see it in Pete Moreton or Chris Wood’s work. So sitting in the Beijing Punx cafe and later with the audience in the Mao House I felt very comfortable, amongst people with something I recognize deep in their eyes. We may have little or no common language but theirs is a palpable kinship. I guess those same ideas and attitudes are swilling around deep in me – and again I see with a kind of affirming wonder the way music breaches ‘culture’ and language and lets us be one for a time, amongst the tones and timbres. (Thanks to Carol Song and Aaron Ji who took some photographs of me : )
For a while now I’ve thought that the path I follow has two faces. They are mutually reliant, symbiotic. Actually of course they are the same – indivisible – but this is a fun way to describe them – like ancient Janus or Shiva looking to the past and the future – one and two together. There is Zen on one hand with its quiet equilibrium, dwelling in an endless yet instantaneous moment of pure joy and bliss – stepping outside of the imagined and many coloured rush of being and watching it with compassion leavened by equanimity. Then there is the Beat, a loosely formulated concatenation of poetry, music and images by Ginsberg, Kerouac, Robert Frank, Willem de Kooning, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. All of their works point more or less to the ‘experiential transcendent’, those moments when experience is so intense, so captivating that time and death are nullified and (temporarily) forgotten. These two ideas overlap (Kerouac was also fascinated by the Buddhist Dharma), but they are mostly antagonistic and exclusive. It’s a conundrum – two apparently opposing ideas forming a harmony. Lao Tzu describes this tension at the beginning of his Tao te Ching – reject the many coloured world because it is surface, a passing illusion, but celebrate and explore it to know its manifold and miraculous forms (a very loose translation!). Chasing wild experience like the Beats – intensity, immersion, absorption, can only go so far, I think, and for so long – Kerouac drank himself to a lonely death, Neil Cassady was lost somewhere sometime in Mexico, no one knows how, Charlie Parker died a destitute addict at 34, Dylan Thomas at 39. I love the thrills and the wild ride, I breath deep of new places and love to ride the edge of things, but I always return often and with energy to the quiet still place at the centre, to remind myself of the transience and to stay in the calm. And when my stillness has returned or perhaps better to say when I have found my way back to it, I’m ready again for another day.
So it was I found myself heading for the Sea of the Hebrides – the bit of Atlantic pictured on the album. I drove up overnight – crossed the border at 3:00 and slept in a lay-by near Gretna, crossed the tectonic plate boundary on the Corran ferry at 1:00 am and drove the tiny roads of the Ardnamurchan peninsula – ‘the hill of the big seas’. I chatted to an old man in Kilchoan where once as a youngster I won a race in the Regatta : )
I slept on the green machair between a burn and the Atlantic, cosseted by my duvet as rain hammered the roof of the van. A strange cry punctuated the night – like a bull seal, a dog or a deer. Up early I sang for the seals and in these teeming waters it took a minute for me to have an audience. The Grey Atlantics are fascinated by music and bob just off shore listening for as long as I wanted to sing. They’ll slowly move closer for a better view. Interspecies communication – truly magical. I remember a time across the sound on Eigg – walking in the very last of the light along the singing sand, singing softly into the evening. Out in the darkness of the water a whistle came in reply. As we walked it followed just outside the breakers. It was a sea otter keeping pace with us all our walk back, answering in his own language the soft sung words of ours.
I took a guitar to the point – the furthest our big island pokes into the Atlantic. I painted the old instrument when I was young with a scene half remembered, half imagined – sehnsucht for the hills of the big sea. It was early and I the only human around. As I played the squalls painted their chiaroscuro across the Minch while brilliant gannets stalled as they flew and missiled the water – down, down chasing the fish. A seal porpoised right out on the rocks below while nonchalant cormorants fluttered their dark and oil less wings. I sang to Rhum and far away Skye, the gabbro Cuilin and the place of clouds. The eternally strange Sguir of Eigg, a volcanic glass ridge that plugs a now eroded volcano, rose from the blue green water into the solid air. In this little concert for the elements I felt pure exuberant joy for a time – yelling my songs into the air sending the sounds as a sweeping hat genuflection for the far mountains beyond and grounding them with the wood and wire in my hands.
Trance like, reverential, transported I was roused from reverie by early morning fisherman out for mackeral and bass. Like TS Eliot when he wrote in his J Alfred Prufrock ‘till human voices wake us and we drown’.
Hoping not to drown, it was over the sea, finally, in a force 6 to Rhum for the perhaps the most essential launch gig of the tour. The island on the album cover is a place of dreams – towering Gabbro mountians, home of sea eagles, otters and wildcats. We sailed there over Orca, Minke, basking sharks and shoals of silver herring. I played in the community hall and later on a home made stage. With my album on the shelves of Rum Crafts, amidst wool and bloodstone bangles, Atlantic Drifter was launched x
Atlantic Drifter is out now via Niimiika
Click here to order direct via Jonathan’s website