Sam Genders of Diagrams has been in the Chinese city of Changsha for five weeks, collaborating with local musicians as part of the British Council’s Musicians in China Residencies programme. In this guest post, he relives the highlights
A crowd gathers to listen to the mini orchestra of erhu players. Photograph: Sam Genders
1. My moment as a Chinese rock god
I stride on stage at the Orange Isle festival grinning from ear to ear as several thousand people cheer and wave from the huge arena before me. Behind me, and to each side of the stage, massive LED screens project my image across the site, and flash bulbs burst as photographers follow my every move. This is the moment I’ve been dreaming of since I first heard I’d be spending five weeks in Changsha as musician in residence on behalf of the British Council and PRS, and it’s the culmination of months of meticulous research and planning.
Except everything isn’t quite as it seems. This isn’t actually my gig, and the week of rehearsals that I had expected leading up to it didn’t happen at all. In fact, I’ve actually been demoted from headline artist to “guitarist number two” for local band Da Mu, and I’m only playing for the last two songs of their set.
I’m quickly realising that everything works differently here, and I’m going to have to be flexible as far as the objectives for my stay go. My first reaction when I learned of this particular change of plan was real disappointment, but as charismatic Da Mu frontman John introduces me, the crowd screams back in delight and I turn my guitar right up. It doesn’t seem like such a bad thing at all.
2. An incredible live performance ... at a traffic intersection
Two weeks later I find myself spending a couple of days in the ancient city of Phoenix (famed as the inspiration for Kung Fu Panda, I’m told). After a six-hour drive, our party is whisked to the corner of two busy roads where a large crowd has gathered in a kind of urban garden.
On a raised stone dais, a middle-aged man sings a haunting folk song accompanied by a mini orchestra of erhu players (a stringed instrument and perhaps a distant cousin of the violin). A tiny karaoke-style speaker system serves as a PA and the terribly distorted sound somehow only manages to add to the magical atmosphere – as if the real world is being relayed to me via an old 78 vinyl recording.
I’m lost in the music until, suddenly, somebody passes me a battered old guitar and I begin to panic. Despite my supposed status as recording artist and performer, I’m not one of those people who likes to get up on the spur of the moment and play. In fact, my friends would have a good laugh telling you about my spectacular mid-song lyric-forgetting fails on the rare occasions when I’ve thrown caution to the wind and attempted something spontaneous without a proper rehearsal.
Still, it seems churlish to refuse to sing, and as my mind fizzes and pops in a desperate attempt to remember some lyrics, I find myself distracted by the elderly woman who has just taken the stage. My worries evaporate as she sings, dances and impishly prances across the dais. The audience and I are utterly captivated and I later learn that she is an amateur opera performer who was once asked to sing for Chairman Mao. She looks to me like a world-class performer. It’s amazing to find such quality in such a strange place – like discovering the next Laurence Olivier in the middle of a Sheffield roundabout.
I desperately want to be a part of the evening and, having rehearsed my new song Phantom Power quite a bit lately, I get up when invited and run through it for the crowd. It’s an especially wonky version but afterwards it feels as if I’m one of the gang: the 300-strong audience and the 20 or so performers make me feel very much at home.
Chinese pig for sale. Photograph: Sam Genders
3. A portion of pig’s brain, sir?
I knew before I came to China that I would be offered the odd unconventional morsel, and I’d promised myself that I would try to sample everything that was put in front of me. Partly out of curiosity and partly because I’m keen to appear grateful for people’s hospitality.
However, as the raw pigs’ brains are carried into the room I begin to panic. We’ve come out for a celebration meal following the performance at the traffic intersection, and I get the impression that brains are a bit of a delicacy. I watch with mounting trepidation as the wobbly pink mounds, resembling gruesome props from some horror movie, are brought to the table.
It comes as a huge relief to discover that the brains will at least be cooked at the table – boiled in a large, spice-filled pot bubbling away on a gas hob. White fish, green tripe, intestines, tofu, vegetables and finally the brains all go into the cauldron and we use large serving ladles to help ourselves.
Everything tastes pretty good. I even manage to try some brains, and while they’re not so bad (like a meaty blancmange), I do have to make an effort to keep a straight face when I swallow. By the end of my stay I will also have tried frog meat, jellyfish, chickens’ feet and duck’s neck. Once you’ve done pigs’ brains, though, everything else is a doddle.
4. The wonderful world of Ye Xiao
It’s my second week in the bustling modern city of Changsha and I’m feeling especially low. Having had my slot demoted at the Orange Isle festival, I’m concerned that, if I don’t deliver a proper performance of some sort while I’m here, the British Council will think I haven’t kept my part of the bargain. My hosts and I have been trying to organise a show for a couple of weeks’ time, but to make it happen I desperately need a band. So far, none of the musicians we’ve spoken to have been able to help.
Enter Ye Xiao. I didn’t hold out much hope that a progressive metal guitarist would be the man to orchestrate my big performance, or that we’d have much in common, but as soon as I meet the smiling musician with long, raven-black hair I start to feel more hopeful. With a cheeky twinkle in his eyes and an aura of enthusiasm, Ye Xiao seems like the kind of person who could make things happen.
It’s a very welcome surprise when, after listening to my music and playing us part of his incredible, fret-blazing new concerto for electric guitar, he nods sagely and in hushed tones says: “So … you really need me.” He goes on to offer his services as musical director and I gratefully accept. He knows all the best musicians in Changsha and is confident he can get a band together for me.
The following day I hear that he’s already recruited the members of a local jazz outfit called Easy Band, and it looks as if the gig will happen. For the first time since I arrived, I begin to relax.
5. Crazy in love … with karaoke!
Ye Xiao was indeed the man to help, and on 3 October in Changsha’s 46 Club, the band and I play to a packed house of enthusiastic music fans. After limited rehearsals and a few technical issues, it’s not the greatest show I’ve ever played but it feels like a real success. There’s a real sense of celebration in the air a couple of days later when I meet up with Ye Xiao, the band, Tim Jonze from the Guardian, my main Changsha contact Ren, my Changsha Morning Post Weekly media hosts and some of the volunteers who have helped me during my stay. So much so that, following a great meal and a seemingly endless supply of beers, we find ourselves in a local karaoke bar.
The place doesn’t look much from the outside, but inside it is a glittering palace of song. Our room includes a long leather sofa, a huge screen and a computerised control panel. All around us, disco lights flash and spin and everyone is in the mood to blast out a few hits. There’s a sense that our Chinese hosts are really looking forward to this and their enthusiasm is infectious. I manage to find Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love in the Chinese menu and drunkenly howl and gyrate my way through it. Everybody gets up in turn and sings their heart out. It feels like a weird, wonderful and perfect climax to my Chinese adventure.
I should add that today I’m feeling incredibly grateful for Tim’s gift of Alka Seltzer, brought from the UK and one of my top-tip items for travellers coming here. I’m about to leave my hotel to meet local folk singer Zhao and I’m certain my Chinese adventure isn’t over just yet. Ordinary days don’t seem to exist here – I wonder what surprises the next few hours hold?