Saturday, September 27, 2003

I don't think the Dali Lama did it this way.
Friday night, foreign devil coworker Jeff took me and another coworker, a reporter whose English name is Linda, and his newly purchased Fender Stratocaster to a Tibetan bar managed by his longtime Tibetan girlfriend.
Jeff was both serving as host and entertainer. He and Linda - who has an achingly pure voice reminiscent of Joan Baez - had worked out arrangements of two songs: "500 Miles"and "Blowing in the Wind." Before he got into journalism in Australia, he was a musician and at one point says he backed up a then-unknown 17-year-old Oliva Newton John.
He has big plans for Linda and himself with an idea of eventually forming a jazz duo and molding her into a sort of Chinese Norah Jones.
Linda blows hot and cold on the idea. She sang semi-professionally in college but didn't like the grind and didn't make enough money.
After a 40 minute bus ride and a scolding by Linda to Jeff that he could've taken a different bus we wound up at the bar, which I never would have found on my own. There's no evidence of it from the street and one has to walk through the lobby of an optical shop and go up three flights of stairs to enter it.
Inside it's done up as sort of a quasi Tibetan monastary with Tibetan tapestries and banners covering the walls, a row of prayer wheels along one wall, a painted cattle skull or three hanging on posts, mandela symblos, an enormous photo of a Tibetan landscape and a small TV screen hanging from another wall showing grainy, continuous clips of an idealized Tibet.
The tables - which were mostly full of Chinese and Tibetan revelers - face a large open floor area where the staff performs a Tibetan revue/floor show of sorts. If you walk through another door next to the restrooms you're immediately in another, much smaller bar owned by the same group. The "B-52 Hip-Hop Club" which was nearly empty and playing not hip-hop or even the B-52s, but an ear splitting version of "My Heart Will Go On" (omnipresent in China) when I took a short look.
The evening began with the staff, in traditional costumes, going from table to table singing a Tibetan greeting song during which they placed long shiny, white, fringed rayon scarves around customers' necks. The song was punctuated with brief pauses during which the customers are supposed to take a healthy swig of beer, downing the glass by the time ends.
We began with Chinese beer and switched to Tibetan beer after the barbecued yak meat, spicy duckheads on a stick (eyes and beaks removed) and French fries with ketchup were served. Not exactly happy hour fare at Bennigans. The yak meat was tender and tasty, milder than beef. Duck heads were so bony as to have little worth eating - one just sort of crunches the tiny skulls and sucks up what herbs, spices and little protein one can.
"Uh, the French fries aren't typical Tibetan fare, right?" I asked Jeff.
"Right, mate. Good call."
Tibetan beer isn't like...uh...well, let's say it's not exactly Miller Lite. It's thick, milky colored, made from wheat, served at room temperature and tastes sweet and does a number on your frontal lobe.
The floor show began at 9 pm and featured six performers: four men - one sporting the only mullet I've seen in China - dressed in red baggy cossack style trousers, black boots and red tunics and two women in high necked yellow blouses, floor length bright yellow skirts accented with vertical blue, purple, red, and white stripes on the hems. Their waists were wrapped with similarly colored fabric belts.
The sleeves for all six were about 5 feet long, but wrapped up before the dancing began and unfurled and serving as streamers as they danced to shatteringly loud recorded synth-pop versions of what I presumed were "typical" Tibetan folk tunes.
The dances were interspersed with various solo songs and it was then that the purpose of our new scarves became apparent.
Unlike Elvis who tossed his sweaty scarves to his audience, our scarves were used by the audience to show appreciation for the performers. As the beer flowed, audience members increasingly went up to select singers or dancers and draped a scarf over the performer's neck, then bowed briefly with hands in a prayer position to indicate "you rock, dude!"
Some, particularly mullet man and an especially fetching young Tibetan woman were so swathed in scarves after particular numbers that their heads could barely be seen among the mounds of slick white fabric. Scarves were then taken backstage and brought back out and redistributed to the audience for more appreciation recycling.
After the main event, which lasted about 2 and a half hours, the audience was urged onto the floor to join the cast for a frantic, fast-paced group dance that was combination of a Tibetan hokey-pokey, conga line and crack the whip.
Kareoke followed and finally Jeff and Linda got their turn to play to what was by then an almost empty house.
Jeff had consumed a fair amount of Tibetan beer by then and as what passed for a sound check started, he suddenly began throwing a hissy fit because he couldn't hear himself play. He has no amp and the house system has no monitor.
"I'm bloody not going to go on!" he yelled as Linda and I and a friend of hers implored him to think of his public.
It was unreal. We weren't talking about Carnegie Hall or Madison Square Garden.
This was two simple songs for an audience of maybe 14 drunk Tibetan and Chinese middle aged men who wouldn't know "Blowing in the Wind" from "Gone with the Wind."
Jeff's diva act finally abated and he eventually plugged in and he and Linda pulled it off.
As she soared through Dylan's classic, I wondered what Bob would think if he knew he was being celebrated in a Tibetan bar in Shenzhen, China at that moment.
I like to think he'd smile.

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