Guilin was the beginning of our Li River experience. Chinese travelers packed our plane from Shanghai to this small city of about 1 million in Southeast China. I had read that Chinese people were traveling as tourists in their own country in increasing number. This was nice to see. Everyone seemed in a good mood.
My companion was impressed with how quickly Chinese air travelers exited the plane. No futzing around. Deplaning was their mission and they got ‘er done. Jan, who has been traveling around lately on U.S. conveyances, marveled at the mass efficiency we witnessed on Air China.
As we both did the driving in crowded cities—and pretty much everywhere is a crowded city. Our car drivers, experts in their field, seemed to manipulate the traffic rather than fall prey to it. Every moment called for attention in the extreme and was spent in what amounted to a contest of wills: cutting in front of, or dodging, all manner of vehicles: from bicycle trailers piled high with produce and three-wheeled trucks carting construction materials, to umbrella’d scooters loaded with whole families. Add to the mix multitudes of necessarily wary pedestrians.
Guilin’s traffic was less tense most of the time, except coming back from a cave walk and tea farm tour when we hit rush hour. (At the tea farm, we were able to try the regional variety made from sweet osmanthus.) Our hotel was surely the finest. Pagoda style, it sat in the center of Seven Star Park. Guests could only approach by staff-driven eight-person carts, luggage and all. They carried you through lush vegetation and grass clearings where people did Tai Chi, children raced around post-picnic, and tired parents relaxed.
Our second-story room looked out on a central pagoda and a couple of koi ponds. I say koi ponds because the fish dominated, particularly next to the bridge leading to the breakfast room. Children were given little bags of dried food to feed the begging fish, probably to discourage the kids from dropping miscellaneous breakfast items into the pond and to keep the koi on their regular diet. I had a favorite yellow giant but it was impossible to single out any one in the gush of bodies.
A light rain fell both mornings we were there but obligingly lifted as we left the dock on our Li River boat ride. That was fortunate because I didn’t want to miss one peak of the karst mountain ranges along our four-hour ride. We are talking bucket list, here, so I planted myself on deck with binoculars and camera. My friend and Australian tablemates were more comfortable downstairs and the views were good as well, but I somehow wanted to be in the outdoors. It made the mountains more immediate and real. Because one’s first impression of the scenery is, “This is not real.”
You must have to get up earlier than we did or stay out later to see the famed Li River fishermen with their cormorant pets, whom they have taught to catch fish and “hand” them over. But that was a small matter compared to seeing the endless, crazy, pointy mountains lining both sides of the river. I suppose one of the things that makes them remarkable is that they rise from the flat plains. The mountains’ limestone shapes are what one tourist outfit calls “fantastical.” I think that’s about the best adjective I’ve heard. I think I only took a little over 100 photos.
My last day in China, the guide who came to take me to the airport was not the same person who had seen me off to Mongolia 10 days before. Mr. Wong was again my driver, a friendly non-English speaker who had the smug air of a Chinese gangster one might see in a movie and who gave other drivers hell in Beijing traffic.
This Chinese woman, who mysteriously called herself Cathy, asked if she might sit in back of the van with me instead of up front with Mr. Wong. She talked more intimately about her life than any person I had met in China. She had been a guide for 20 years. She was not married and didn’t particularly want to be. She got to travel within China a lot. She hoped to travel outside China as well. And, she came from a “small village” in the Western part of China near the Russian border.
This last piece of information arose after I told her I live in a small town in California. I asked how many people were in her village and she said, “Only two million.” We laughed when I told her Isleton only claims 847 people. “You mean 847,000,” she asked? No, subtract those zeros. She was shocked.
But her disclosure pretty much sums up my new understanding of China. There are people wherever you travel there. I marveled at how well they seemed to be putting up with one another, although there is plenty of honking in traffic.
When I had arrived in Shanghai two weeks before, I was dumbfounded by the extremely gray trip from the airport to our hotel. (I was with a friend for almost all the trip.) Miles and miles and kilometers of gray and brown high-rise apartment buildings going up—or finished and vacant—“for all the people who are moving to the cities,” our guide explained. People buy their apartments, like condos, but unlike in the U.S., the units are just empty shells. It is up to the new owner of each space to put in the toilet and other bathroom fixtures, cabinetry, etc. All expensive propositions.
The construction had a sameness to it and it reminded me of the grim tenement buildings I had seen in Chicago as a child, although these were not run down. Perhaps because they were so new, there was a lack of landscaping. No green of nature alleviated the neutral tone. The whole look was exacerbated by the visible air, a slightly lighter gray draped among the construction zone buildings like shrouds.
Once in Shanghai, the Huangpu River and the view of the downtown from the Bund revived my spirits. I think I am a victim of having read too many novels dwelling on the romantic vision of the French, English and American Concessions in bygone days. The Concessions are shrinking into token areas for visitors as building after building meets the wrecking ball.
But, let’s face it: Why would Chinese communists want to celebrate the days of foreign occupation and memorialize that time with preservation? For the descendants of former occupiers to come and relive what China wants to forget?
No, I understand why these once grand sections of the city are going away. It leaves Shanghai in somewhat of an identity crisis, however. Even the good-spin guide admitted that the food of Shanghai lacks definition. It has not decided what its specialty food is “yet,” he said.
The most enjoyable day in Shanghai, for my companion and me was when we visited the Shanghai Museum where the ancient definitely is treasured. Amazing displays from China’s long history —many civilizations and dynasties—include more than 120,00 pieces of ceramics, bronze, calligraphy, furniture, jade, coins, paintings and sculpture.
Thank you China for preserving these beauties of your past.
Next: Favorite places in China: Guilin and Yangshuo.
And: strange foods sampled and not sampled in China and Mongolia.
The Legendary Blues Cruise craze is growing. My partner and I recently went on a seven-day cruise out of Los Angeles with more than 120 blues artists aboard. Besides getting to listen and dance to fantastic musicians playing with their own bands, it was a special treat to hear individuals from bands jam with one another in unscheduled sessions. It calls for some late nights. The regularly scheduled programs often aren’t over until 1 a.m. I mean, you can’t stay up later than musicians. But if you can wait it out, every corner of the ship has blues artists seeking one another out to jam. I realized it is an opportunity for them as well as us blues lovers. What’s better than listening to musicians who are appreciating one another?
So, you might have Taj Mahal’s daughter Deva Majal on stage belting something bluesy with International Blues Challenge winner Nick Schnebelen of Trampled Under Foot and Elvin Bishop playing guitars, while Curtis Salgado (the guy who trained the Blue Brothers) wailing on the harmonica. Or the Low Rider Band asking Bernard Allison to come on up. Acoustic Doug MacLeod pairing with Carolyn Wonderland. The sky’s the limit and the combinations mean brilliant music.
Then there are educational opportunities, a chance to learn about blues music in the making. People ask what ports we went to. I try not to be flippant and say, “Who cares?” We did spend a few hours in Mexican Riviera ports. But the purpose of this cruise is to pack in as much blues music as you can for seven nights and six days. As veteran blues cruisers are fond of saying, you can always sleep when you go home.
One educational session on the October Legendary Blues Cruise focused on what it takes to write blues music. What do songwriters use for inspiration? Six blues performers/song writers gave their spin. First was vocalist and guitarist Lloyd Jones. Jones said you can write about whatever you want; that is the freedom to blues song writing. “I once wrote a song about a big old shirt,” he said. “That favorite old shirt you have that when you put it on you don’t have to be anywhere. You know the one your wife wants to throw away?”
Janiva Magness, vocalist, said she often draws from the truths that come forward for her after hard times, misfortune or heartbreak. Hers are songs of rising up, of persistence and wisdom. She shared the latest one she wrote along that vein with a haunting refrain: “I get cut. I might bleed. But I don’t cry.”
Guitarist and lead vocalist for The Lowrider Band, Howard Scott, said, “you never know what’s going to be a hit.” The most definitive song their former band War ever wrote was “Lowrider.” He said members of the band were always strumming and singing this song about how all my friends are lowriders. “That’s crazy, I used to say. That song don’t mean nothing. Who wants that? That was our biggest hit.”
Jones said, “I wrote a song I love,” He sang a couple of stanzas of a lyrical and enchanting song: “They Call Me a Gypsy Man.”
“What did it do? Nothin’. But my point is, believe in what you are doing as a writer. Don’t be afraid to write a stupid song. Everybody needs songs in the business so don’t be afraid to send them out.”
Ronnie Baker Brooks, guitarist, vocalist and son of the blues great Lonnie Brooks, said a timeless song is one that makes you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard it. “I’m trying to grow up to write those songs. I keep a tape recorder handy on my I-phone when we are on tour. I write in hotels rooms about things I experience or hear.
“My father always preached to us to write our own songs. He used to say there are enough people doing ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’—nothing against Muddy Waters—but I knew what he meant. You got to be original.”
Brooks, whose sound is energy Chicago-style blues, recently wrote a song with lower-key, Delta blues tradition artist Keb’ Mo’ called “Thank You for Loving Me.” Brooks shared a preview of that song, which will be part of an upcoming album. The album also includes a cut with “the great Bobby (Blue) Bland before he passed.”
Acoustic guitar and vocalist Doug MacLeod writes all his own material. MacLeod told about meeting itinerant bluesman Honeyboy Edwards when he was 19 years old and in the Navy. “I was playing what you would call country blues at the time. I sat down with a bottle of Chianti with Honeyboy one night and told him I didn’t know anything about the blues. I’ve never picked cotton. I’m glad you told me about that mojo thing, but what do I write about?”
“Have you been lonely, boy?”
“Have you ever needed a woman?”
“Have you ever needed money for that little apartment you got down the block?”
“Then you know the blues. You got to come from the heart to reach hearts. You got to come from honesty to reach honesty.”
MacLeod said he told him that he must write, sing, play and entertain. “The blues is about overcoming adversity, not about subjugating yourself to it,” MacLeod said. “And be sure to pack your sense of humor too.”
The songwriter said he once experienced a critic who came up to him after a performance and told him he kept hearing about overcoming troubles, keeping a sense of humor and that the world was about sharing, love and kindness.
“I don’t see any of that,” the man told him and walked away. “He didn’t even buy a CD,” MacLeod said. “I started thinking maybe it was the way he was seeing the world. When you are waking up all the time and seeing gloom, maybe you need new eyes.”
This was fodder for MacLeod’s new song “Brand New Eyes.”
The last panelist was guitarist and singer Elvin Bishop. “When I write songs, I have to be careful,” he said. “Because you’ve heard my voice.” (Yes, he did write and sing “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” and “Travelin’ Shoes” long ago but has a voice that is distinctly like someone singing out of a hole-y muffler). “I mean I am not going to capture the imagination of the public by pure vocal beauty.”
Apparently “borrowing” ideas is OK in songwriting. Bishop related a time in Chicago when he attended a blues club with Ronnie Baker Brooks. Brooks’ quip about the lead singer was: “That man is as country as a dozen eggs.”
“I ended up putting that in a song,” Bishop admitted to Brooks. “I didn’t even have the decency to send you any money.”
Bishop said jazz blues bassist Ruth Davies once told him about a horn player she knew who always said he couldn’t even do wrong right. It stuck in his mind and he created a song with the refrain. In his typical whimsical style, Bishop said he called the hard luck guy in the song Maurice, “because it rhymes with police.”
Moderator Tommy Castro, leader of the Tommy Castro and the Painkillers band brought the group back to a more serious note with a song he wrote about “going back south. I ain’t gonna worry no more.” Although Castro names a number of artists who have influenced him, he comes forth with his own unpretentious, soulful voice and, when he gets going, a guitar that really cooks.
He is always is modest about his achievements and spearheads jams to highlight other talents, but Castro has been the recipient of many Blues Foundation awards for best blues male artist, best contemporary blues album, the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and, with his band, Band of the Year.
Castro echoed his fellow artists about song writing: “Come from what you know.”
More photos from the Blues Cruise:
Blues acoustic guitarist and singer Ruthie Foster with bass Larry Fulcher and drummer Samantha Banks.
Bernard Allison, me and band members on Legendary Blues Cruise last week.
World blues musician Bassekou Kouyate
Blues musicians/song writers talk about what it takes to write music during a Legendary Blues Cruise work shop. Lloyd Jones, Janiva Magness, Tommy Castro, Elvin Bishop, Howard Scott, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Doug MacLeod.