[Dixielandjazz] Creating Places to Play

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Tue Jul 6 13:45:19 PDT 2004

Long article, not specifically OKOM. However it points out how musicians
can create gigs by going where the people are. Trust the Chinese to come
up with this incredibly brave way to play their music. Can't get a
festival gig because OKOM festivals are shrinking? Hey, go out and
create your own audience among the hoi polloi. If you are not pressed
for time, and are curious, this is a GREAT ARTICLE.

Steve Barbone

July 6, 2004 - NY Times

Asian Music, Accompanied by the A Train


      Zhisheng Zhang, the 10th-generation descendant of a Chinese court
musician, descended into the Times Square subway station and unfolded
his stool on a platform. He took out a Chinese mouth organ, called a
sheng, wiped it carefully with a piece of clean cloth and closed his

As notes from the prelude of "Carmen" pierced the humid air, Mr. Zhang —
whose great-great-grandfathers played for Manchu emperors, whose father
performed for Communist army generals and who was himself a member of
China's best traditional music orchestra — began another workday,
playing for the subway riders of New York.

There are many like Mr. Zhang, established musicians from China who
perform daily in the city's bowels. Convinced that the best music,
Western or Asian, is truly borderless and that their own talents are
sufficient to make ends meet anywhere, these artists have converged on
New York like the philosophers and poets who swarmed to Athens in
classical times. They feel not just lured, but pushed; China, in their
view, has turned its back on traditional music in favor of the pop
dazzle of Britney Spears.

"I want to try my luck in New York," Mr. Zhang, 42, said, speaking in
Mandarin. "In China serious artists like us aren't as respected as pop
singers. That's not right. Maybe Americans can see the true appeal of
Chinese music, and I can make my way to the grand concert halls in New

Though many of the underground musicians dream of fortune and homes in
the suburbs, or at the least of bringing their children to the United
States after gaining footholds themselves, for now most of them live in
simple apartments in Chinatown or Flushing, Queens, and barely eke out a
living. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many of the musicians
said, an eight-hour day of performing at a subway station fetched an
average of $70. Since then their income has dropped by roughly a third
because of the economic doldrums and, they speculate, increased
suspicion of foreigners.

Besides the subway, they often perform concerts at universities,
community centers, parks and at the Asia Society in Manhattan.

"We have some very high-caliber Chinese artists here," said Rachel
Cooper, director of performing arts and public programs at the society.
"We have a very discriminating audience here in New York, and there is a
real hunger, openness and appreciation for fine music, including Chinese
music. There is a real hunger to understand it."

Cultural organizations in Chinatown and Flushing also know many of the
musicians and invite them to play. Occasionally New Yorkers who have met
them at subway stations ask them to perform at weddings or birthday
parties. Some of the musicians have tried to supplement their incomes by
working in restaurants but have found the work too tedious for the small

Mr. Zhang lived in Beijing until January, when he was invited by the
Wossing Center for Chinese Arts, Language and Culture in Chinatown to
play in a concert tour at universities and public libraries in the
northeastern United States. Soon after the tour he decided to stay in
New York and apply for permanent residency. Many other Chinese musicians
of similar rank have become legal residents and American citizens by
proving their exceptional talents to the federal immigration agency.

Unlike most professional musicians in China who studied in formal
conservatories, Mr. Zhang learned as a child from his father how to play
the sheng, a multipiped instrument invented at least two millennia ago.
Mr. Zhang's family, originally from a village outside Beijing, has
passed the secret knowledge, possessed only by top performers, from
fathers to sons for 10 generations, he said.

"I love this stuff, playing the sheng," Mr. Zhang said. "It's in my
blood. I don't want to give it up. If traditional Chinese music gets
fashionable in America, maybe it will become more popular in China,

Often, though, the musicians have a dim view of their art form's future
in China, and they blame the flood of Western and Hong Kong pop music
for its dwindling popularity.

"When a young child expresses some interest in studying music, the
parents would say: `You learn to do the pop stuff. That brings you money
and fame,' " said Hao Qian, a well-known performer on a two-string
instrument, the erhu, who used to travel in the same musicians' circles
in Beijing as Mr. Zhang.

"It's the music from our 5,000-year civilization that's now worthless,"
added Mr. Qian, who now also makes his living at Manhattan subway

The relentless destruction across China of temples, monasteries and
nunneries under Mao Zedong's rule between 1949 and 1976 added to the
musicians' woes.  "Most of the old Chinese music is really meant to be
played in temples," Mr. Zhang said. "Without the temples, how can one
perform true Chinese music?"

Since the early 1980's government subsidies to music troupes have
gradually dried up with China's embrace of a market economy, and private
donations have not picked up the slack. While most pop music groups take
in extra income by playing at clubs and parties, some traditional music
ensembles, particularly those based outside major cities like Shanghai
and Beijing, sit idle for months on end.

Huadong Liu, who played yang qin, a dulcimerlike instrument, in a
prestigious troupe in northeastern China, said he made just over $100 a
month — less than most urban residents — before coming to the United
States three years ago. Now he races to claim a choice spot in
underground New York.

"Sometimes I spend two to three hours in the morning just to find the
right platform," said Mr. Liu, who calls his wife and 17-year-old son in
China twice a week as he saves money to send for them. "If you get stuck
at a platform with little foot traffic or lots of hurried people, you
cannot even make $20 a day."

Julie Tay, director and founder of the Wossing Center, said such
musicians can find the adjustment to the United States hard. "Since
their language is muted, their art tends to be muted, too," she said.
"The worst thing is to see them come here, get frustrated, start driving
a limo two or three years down the road, and the traditional Chinese
music goes down the drain."

Mr. Zhang is divorced and has a 15-year-old son back home. In China he
performed mostly in grand concert halls like the People's Great Hall in
Beijing. He was designated as a "national first-class performer" on the
sheng by the Chinese government, the highest level available and an
honor won by only 10 other performers.  At first he had a great deal of
trepidation about playing his sheng at subway stops. "The Chinese have
always seen street musicians as beggars," he said. "Where would I put my
face if somebody from home — or worse, somebody from the orchestra —
finds out?"

He has overcome that anxiety now, he said, after running into other
subway musicians he considers top-notch. "It looks to me that many
musicians from other countries come here to New York, and everybody
starts from the subway station," he said. "I figured out that it's a New
York tradition." Mr. Zhang says he sends $200 home to his son and former
wife whenever he can.

For many of the transplanted musicians the day starts at 8:30 a.m. They
hurry to their favorite subway platforms lugging their instruments,
stools and sometimes amplifiers. The Metropolitan Transportation
Authority allows musicians to perform at subway stations without permits
so long as they do not interfere with traffic. "It's a protection of
their First Amendment rights," said Mercedes Padilla, an M.T.A.

There is a pecking order of subway stations understood by almost
everybody in the trade. The Columbus Circle stop and the station at
Lexington Avenue and 59th Street top the list. The Times Square station
and those close to New York University can also bring brisk business.
Stops at Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal are all right
on weekends. But whatever the location, the platforms are humid in
summers and frigid in winters.

Many musicians change locations from day to day so as not to bore
commuters, most of whom, the artists say, have showed them proper
respect. "When I put my heart into the performance," said Xuanpei Ge, a
player of the di, a one-pipe Chinese flute, "I get really warm,
prolonged applauses. I could see the audience's respect from their eyes,
the attentiveness when they listen and the way they bow after you
finish. Some even give me water and fruit in hot summers. It's just very

Mr. Zhang speaks little English and is taking night lessons to catch up.
Some subway riders have tried to speak with him, he said, and he could
only speculate whether they have asked him about his instrument, invited
him to perform at parties or said something else entirely. "If I want to
seize opportunities to advance my career," he said, "I must learn to
speak English."

Like many musicians, he has discovered that Western music adapted (often
by him) for Chinese instruments draws the warmest response. Although the
Chinese scale differs from the Western scale, lacking some half notes,
the musicians have adapted pieces as different as Mozart's nocturnes and
the soundtrack of "The Godfather."

"The subway riders seem to really like the tunes they are familiar with,
particularly the fast, happy ones," Mr. Zhang said. "Once I played a
slow, sad Chinese song, and it made one old lady cry. She made a gesture
to ask me to stop."

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list