There's a musician in Shanghai whose music is incendiary, who creates a ruckus everywhere he goes, who teaches in parables, whose very genesis is steeped in urban mythology... but outside of the community of Shanghai musicians most people have never heard of him. His name is Joe Chou.
The first time I met Joe Chou was by accident. I was stopping by to catch my friend playing at Beedees
, the live music bar on Dagu Lu run by two foreign hippies. Unfortunately, I got there too late to catch my friend's set, but the music wasn't over. In the back of the room somebody was playing slide guitar, real mean and slow, rough around the edges, like the guitar was wailing for some far off place, the kind of stuff you imagine sharecroppers playing on the Bayou almost one hundred years ago. To my absolute surprise, it was a Chinese guy -- Joe Chou.
I've never seen anyone Chinese attempt to play blues like that, or pull it off so well either. I've seen some great local players, but when they take up the blues, especially the slower slide guitar type of stuff, their performances always come off contrived, never encapsulating that wild, frenetic, impromptu feeling the genre requires you to express. But damn if Joe wasn't nailing it to the floor. After he was done playing, I walked up to him to thank him, and in response, he asked if he could buy me a drink.
As we sat over beers, Joe asked me if I played music, and I said yes, but not nearly was well as he did. He smiled the grin of a veteran musician -- childish, easy to show, full of teeth stained with countless nights of alcohol and cigarettes.
He picked up a circular coaster lying on the bar, and said, "You see this? This is your brain. It's a like a circle. Most of us only use a little bit of it. Something like this. [He outlines a smaller circle inside the coaster with his finger.] This is the only part of your brain that you use; it's what your culture or your language gives to you. But what about all of these other places? How do you get to them? Even if you learn another language or live somewhere else you only get another small circle, right? The best way to get to all the parts of your brain is through music. No matter who you are you can understand what music is trying to say to you. It goes like this: Bang! Bang! Bang! [He quickly flicks his finger from the small circle he’d drawn to the outer edges of the coaster, his eyes lighting up.] So music is the one way I know that people can expand their minds."
That night I went home thinking about what Joe said. It was good to know that in a city like Shanghai infamous for its citizenry’s hidebound allegiance to the cult of success there was somebody like Joe, playing the real folk blues on his guitar and looking to expand his mind.
A month after that, my friend Paul Meredith, a longtime Shanghai musician and the MC at Oscar's
weekly open-mic, invited me and a group of local musicians to play folk music at a ceramics festival in Jingdezhen, the city where China's legendary ceramics have been made for centuries. Joe came along with us.
After we got off the train, we had to take another two hour bus ride to get to Jingdezhen. At this point, it was just us musicians, so we could take out our instruments and play at will. I sat in the back, and Joe offered to show me a few things. I thanked him for teaching me, and he said, "I'm not teaching you. I don’t teach guitar."
When I looked puzzled, he began to elaborate: "When a group of guitar students asked me about learning guitar, like which scales to learn, what book to study… bah! I just asked them, 'Who taught you how to use chopsticks? Did someone sit there and hold your hand in place and help you eat every piece? No. You had a pair of chopsticks, and the desire to eat food. Guitar is the same way.'"
Then he started playing slide guitar, playing a riff over and over, then handed the guitar to me and said, "Try it!" I did my best to hack out what Joe had played so effortlessly on the guitar. After a minute or two, I was starting to get the riff, and started playing it over and over mechanically, working it deeper into my fingers.
Joe suddenly stopped me: "No! No! Stop it!" "What is it?" "Listen." "Listen to what?" "Do you hear the bus?” “Umm... yes." "Here, give the guitar to me."
Joe pulled the guitar out of my hand and began playing softly, and spoke to me as he played, "Do you hear how the bus is creaking? Hear it when it hits a bump? The music needs to go along with it. You have to make music for the environment that you’re in." He stopped playing and continued: "Think of it this way: Let's say you have to wake up your family. You're not going to knock on all of their doors the same way. If you go to wake up your little brother, you knock like this: [He bangs on the guitar loudly.] But if you wanted to wake up your older brother, you'd knock like this: [He raps the guitar, but not loudly.] Then if you want to wake up your father you knock like this: [He taps the guitar slightly, just loud enough to hear.] So it should be the same way when you play guitar, listen to what’s around you."
I spent the rest of the bus ride practicing and thinking about what Joe had showed me, trying to get my hands around the chopstick of a guitar I had in my hands, listening to the bus's creeks as I did.
The festival in Jingdezhen went well. They'd never heard music like Joe's before. After his first song, Joe casually asked the crowd, "Do you want more?" And in unison, the crowd forcefully chanted: "More!" So Joe continued, and true to his teachings, everything he did seemed to feed off of the crowd around him, even the lyrics themselves arose out of it all as he intoned over and over, "You ask how much I love you…" As I watched the set, I began talking to Joe's friend, Adam Varjavandi, an old China hand from Scotland and one hell of a folk guitar player. I asked him to tell me what he knew about Joe, and how he got his start in music. He told me that Joe had played music all of his life, but it was only after a serious car accident that almost killed him that he became serious about it.
Before then, it was just a hobby that he dabbled in while working in Beijing real estate. However, after the car wreck, Joe decided that he'd do nothing but play music, and music alone. As Joe himself put it when I asked him about it later, "I was sick. I was diseased, and I didn't even realize it. Every day I would go to work and talk to people who I didn't like and do things I didn't want to do just so that I could make money. It was all I cared about. So many people are like this, especially here in China. But now I've found a solution." He stopped then, as if waiting for me to ask him, so I did. Already knowing the answer, I asked him: "What's that?"
He just flashed me that wily smile of his and started strumming his guitar.
Joe is notoriously whimsical about when and where he plays. However, luckily for all of us, he’s gotten into a weekly arrangement with The Melting Pot
on Taikang Lu (every Monday night
), and has set up a big show this Friday
at MAO Livehouse
. Here are the details