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.
Pearl River Paddies
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.
Pearl river factories
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.
After the storm:
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.
“like cruising the LA of Blade Runner”
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 it up…
In part 2 Jonathan takes in Shanghai and Beijing
Atlantic Drifter is out now via Niimiika
Click here to order direct via Jonathan’s website
10/10 – Carlybury Festival, Hereford
17-22/10 – China
24/10 – Lickey Poetry Festival, Rednal
25/10 – Live session, BBC Sunday Folk
16/11 – Live session, The Quiet Revolution
4/2/16 Shrewsbury Poetry, Milk Street
8-9/3/16 – More Than Folk festival, Hong Kong Folk Club
1/4/16 – Helsinki, Finland
22-24/4/16 – Wenlock Poetry Festival, The Edge, Much Wenlock