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.
我在北京组建了一支乐队，名为Woodie Alan。这个名字是个玩笑（译者注：Woodie Alan与美国知名电影导演伍迪•艾伦(Woody Allen)发音相同。），是我跟我的中国搭档Woodie Wu的名字组合，但我们的乐队可不是玩笑。事实上，我所领衔的是一支很不错的即兴小乐队，这一点连我自己也感到惊讶。
Woodie Alan乐队定期在北京使馆区日坛公园内的“石舫”酒吧(The Stone Boat)演出。这个小酒吧其实就是一条石舫，位于湖中，小小的舞台伸展到水面上，桌子则散布在岸边。地处北京市区中心地带，这里却是一幅难得的幽静田园风光。
经营石舫酒吧的是来自美国的乔纳森•安斯菲尔德(Jonathan Ansfield )和他的妻子。乔纳森是新闻记者和博客作者，为《新闻周刊》(Newsweek)及其他出版物和网站撰稿。现在他又经营酒吧，同时还是一位小型音乐制作人。天气暖和的时候，他每周预约表演者进行三个晚上的免费演出。
在这里显然比在美国更容易实现某些目标。美国人乔纳森•安德森(Jonathan Anderson)现在是瑞士银行(UBS)的分析师，上世纪90年代早期和晚期他分别在莫斯科和北京担任乐队领唱。在北京，他与几位才华出众的音乐人共同组建了“节奏之犬”(Rhythm Dogs)乐队，其中包括中国首批出色的摇滚乐手──崔健乐队中的主力成员。
郭怡广也有类似的经历。他1988年来到北京，次年参与成立了“唐朝”乐队，并于1990年发行了专辑，之后到1991年期间都在全国巡回演出。当郭怡广回到亚利桑那大学(University of Arizona)攻读东亚研究专业的博士学位后，他感到自己仍然朝思暮想着中国的摇滚乐同伴们，于是退学回到北京重新加入唐朝，不久后他就和乐队在一座能容纳3.5万名观众的大型体育场登台演出了。郭怡广现担任奥美集团(Ogilvy and Mather)驻北京的数字战略总监，并且现在仍然定期参加他组建的“春秋”乐队演出。
我的经历也很相似。我与Woodie是在他为我修理吉他时相识的。他听说我是《吉他世界》(Guitar World)的资深编辑，于是就饶有兴趣地与我攀谈起来，而且我俩很快就打成了一片。而如果在美国，一位好的吉他修理师在知道我是谁后恐怕只会耸耸肩。美国财政部驻华代表洛文杰(Dave Loevinger)是位萨克斯演奏家，他是华盛顿特区的著名老牌乐队Jimi Smooth & Hittime的元老。假设我俩是在美国相识，他是不大可能有意和我组建一支乐队的，但由于他最近刚被派驻到了北京，他很高兴能找到音乐上的知音。
后来附近一家餐馆邀请我主持一次歌会，我们三人就一起在这次“处女秀”中大大方方地唱了所有会唱的歌。在此之后我们取得了很大的进步，这主要是因为我的信心越来越足，而其他人本身就非常优秀。我们为观众营造了独一无二的音乐氛围，独奏部分主要由洛文杰深情款款的萨克斯和Woodie委婉忧伤的钢棒吉他演奏组成。钢棒吉他是一种非同寻常的乐器，在美国乡村乐和蓝调音乐中的地位举足轻重。滑音吉他一直是我的最爱，不过我从未想过自己与一位伟大钢棒吉他演奏家的首次合作竟然是在北京，同台的还有一位和蔼可亲的中国小伙子，他身上纹着史提夫•瑞旺(Stevie Ray Vaughan)的刺青，而瑞旺正是我最喜欢的一位蓝调吉他演奏家。