Matt Morelock in the People's Republic of China. Of course the facts of the matter conjure at least a few funny images. Imagine, if you will: Standing on the streets of Beijing, banjo in tow, Morelock doesn't know where the heck he is or what anyone's saying. It's a Babel, a confused, crowded town, and Morelock just stands there, looking like an out-of-place Appalachian folk musician, because that's what he is. A few thousand bikes go by, carrying impossibly heavy loads.
This is a story of weird, wondrous mistakes, of a tour in the most populous country on the planet. This is a trip across the Pacific Ocean that was hastily thrown together, almost cavalier in its absurdity. The plan, as it was pitched via telephone to Morelock by reps from the Wossing Center for Chinese Culture in New York City: "American musicians go to China to play hillbilly music at conservatories and festivals…maybe a club or two."
That's not what happened. Not at all. As it turns out, this trek across the great country of China was nothing like the tour that was originally planned. And like many things that go so terribly wrong, it started on a whim.
This account begins in a time vortex. The Boeing 777 that is now transporting me from New York city (OK, Newark, New Jersey) to Beijing, People's Republic of China is moving at 600 miles per hour directly over the North Pole…where all time zones meet. It's dark outside the window…. It is 6:00 p.m. Eastern Standard time, but here above the North Pole, it is every time.
—journal entry, Thursday, Oct. 18
If you've ever heard Matt Morelock's Monday night "Happy Camper" program on WDVX, then you already know that he's a pretty worldly guy. His musical tastes cover just about every continent and he plows through genres each week, often turning on a dime, feeding whatever whets his appetite at any particular moment. Yeah, it can seem jarring at times, but the music is just a reflection of his undergraduate days as a cultural anthropologist. He's the Margaret Mead of Knoxville's airwaves. Perhaps "Happy Camper" is the closest thing we have to stream-of-consciousness on local radio. At least there's rarely a dull moment.
Keeping with his particular style—that of an adventurous-yet-still-somehow-traditional folk musician—Morelock hooked up with a Northeastern Chinese folk ensemble based in New York's Chinatown. The group, New York Eastriver, had played WDVX's noontime Blue Plate Special a few years back.
"We realized that a lot of the traditional Chinese folk melodies and a lot of the Southern Appalachian melodies that I play on the banjo fit together," Morelock says. "So we started playing together."
It was New York Eastriver that first pitched the idea of a trip to China. And, on a whim, Morelock said, "Yes." That's when things began to fall apart.
"We got a phone call that said, ‘Well, Matt, our hosts in China aren't going to pay for any Chinese musicians to come back to China, so we're gonna have to get some other musicians,'" Morelock goes on.
There was Brian Vollmer, a mercenary fiddler who had only played with Morelock twice before. At the last minute, Cody Geil joined the team. She's also a fiddler, but she'd never played any kind of hillbilly music before. She tours with Kanye West's hip-hop string ensemble, a far cry from the traditional Appalachian folk music that Morelock assumed the hosts were expecting. And, finally, there was the translator, who was said to have been a seasoned percussionist. (We've been asked to withhold her name.)
"The planning process was really interesting," Morelock admits. "It was a little bit iffy from the beginning."
The translator, who only came to the last rehearsal before boarding the plane to China, showed up with a djembe, which is a traditional African drum. According to Morelock, "It's even less appropriate than showing up to a blues jam with a sitar.... She's our translator, our handler, and the band manager for the entire tour."
He adds with a heavy sigh: "That was at the very beginning."
So, they hopped on a plane, a ragtag group of hillbilly musicians, a hip-hop violinist, and the only person who speaks the native language on an African drum.
Shitty shitty hotel. I slept rather well. Problems begin….
—journal entry, Saturday, Oct. 20
Yanji, China—it's a small city by Chinese standards, with a population of nearly 400,000. The crew arrives at its first stop, a performance space cryptically called U.V.C. Coffee, a four-story entertainment abomination. The first floor is the reception area, the second floor is the stage and bar area, the third floor is a massage parlor, and the fourth floor is a brothel, filled with Korean prostitutes, which is just a matter of course in Yanji, the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the Jilin province of China.
It's terribly complicated to dissect the socio-economic strata of China. A Charles de Gaulle quote seems appropriate: "China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese."
Upon hearing the practice set, the host stiffened up, and a look of utter disgust came across her face, as if she'd just smelled a nasty fart. She barked in Chinese to the translator—who, according to Morelock, "already hated me."
What the host said, in a rough translation, was that they were expecting traditional American music. "Traditional music," the host went on, "like John Denver, ‘You Are My Sunshine,' Celine Dion, The Beatles."
There, thousands of miles from home, three American musicians sat in a Chinese whorehouse, forced to play pop songs that they'd never practiced.
"It was awful," Morelock says. "I was miserable....I don't play pop music, and I had a banjo!"
Trembling Korean hookers bring us hot noodles, bad coffee, and shwe.
—journal entry, Monday, Oct. 22
And so it went, from city to city. In China there are two kinds of music: Chinese opera and the folk music surrounding it, and then there's bad, unapologetically bad karaoke.
"That's why the only music that their ears can accept is the popular music that appears on karaoke machines," Morelock says. "It was absolutely crazy."
They had an itinerary, believe it or not. In the city of Zhengzhou, with a population of a little under 4 million, they met Mr. Jo, a neon-sign tycoon who treated them to an extravagant Cantonese dinner and invited the band, who were by now all too accustomed to being led around like cattle, to his hotel room for a night of "informal jamming." At least that's what the itinerary called it.
In China, neon signs are a very big deal. To prove it, Mr. Jo didn't drink any alcohol, because he considers it to be a sign of weakness for a powerful man to get drunk, but that didn't stop him from shouting at anyone at the table who didn't drink every last drop of whatever was in their glass.
"He seems like a lonely man," Morelock muses. "Keep in mind this was supposed to be a night of informal jamming."
There are gorgeous women everywhere who are paid to smile and giggle at men as they walk by.
—journal entry, Friday, Oct. 26
Mr. Jo reminded me of a Chinese Mr. Burns on cocaine," Morelock says. "He's smoking cigarette after cigarette, like every man in China. Everyone smokes there."
A room was prepared at one of the swankiest hotels in Zhengzhou. Pyramids of beer, bottles of wine, and big cushy couches decorated the room. Packs of cigarettes were everywhere.
A line of beautiful women greeted the band as they walked into the room. "Hello," they cooed in a monotonous, lifeless tone, more creepy than welcoming.
Mr. Jo, still barking orders in his signature acerbic Chinese, shouted at the women, who shyly walked up to Morelock and the rest and held microphones up to their instruments, acting like human mike stands.
Mr. Jo pulled out his er-hu, known as the Chinese two-string fiddle. He barked another order, and a screen slowly lowered from the ceiling, and the theme from Titanic began.
"Celine! Dion!" Mr. Jo screamed, the first words he speaks that Morelock actually understood.
"He plays the vocal melody to the Titanic theme song with perfect tone and perfect intonation," Morelock says. "All the while he's looking at us, barking orders as if we're already supposed to know how to play this song."
An old-time fiddler in overalls, a banjo player, and a hip-hop violinist, trapped in a hotel room with an angry businessman with a Celine Dion fetish.
He barked another order, and the song began again. Then, for a third time, the song played anew.
"I don't smoke, but I lit up a cigarette," Morelock goes on. "That was my surrender. I'm done....Under different circumstances, I would have had a good time. I'm acutely aware that people do have a good time in China."
A brief pause, then Morelock continues: "Looking at the pictures, it looks like we had a good time."
Mild hangover from last night.... I need a shower after all of that dancing in my 3 piece suit.
—journal entry, Monday, Oct. 29
Matt Morelock doesn't seem too ruffled by his excursion into the heart of China. It's just one of those stories, something that he tells with a subtle sense of humor, balancing outright disgust with acute nonchalance.
"We just decided to get as drunk as we possibly could," he says with a good laugh, "counting down the days until we got to go home.
"Instead of being around artists and musicians like I thought I was going to be, I ended up being around really nasty business people and a lot of mafia people. In China, it's really similar to pre-Depression U.S., with pollution everywhere and soot covering everything. Very wealthy people and very poor people. A non-existent middle-class.
"When we got to the Beijing airport to go home, we finally knew we were done. Our flight was on time. We just sat there and got drunk. It was just like getting out of jail."
There was a Dutchman at the airport bar, and he spoke fluent English. That poor Dutchman, he got an earful from a couple of musicians who had just toured China's karaoke dreamland of American pop.