Remembering the Rat

It’s 2009! The Year of The Ox! Happy New Year! Looking back at 2008 aka the rat year, no one would say it’s in contention for Best Year Ever on a macro-level, but musically it was pretty decent. We started Layabozi which is Totally Awesome as you well know, and we dug good music. The heat also increased around the rock/indie rock/Yuyintang scene and The Shelter became the place for electronic dance music. I don’t understand the “underground” designation for those places except in the interior decorating sense, but it’s frequently applied to those places, so bravo for 2008: The Rise of Underground Music.

There was also not good music that we didn’t dig, and although Layabozi existed, we sometimes meant to post things but didn’t and weren’t the well-oiled robotic assassins of music wisdom you now know and love, so, in the spirit of renewal and making changes for the better I now present…Articles I meant to write in the year of the rat but didn’t!

The nadir of Layabozi’s 2008 was surely the dark, dark month of August, when there were zero posts. I was in Vietnam, Mache was on some kind of Latin American herbal witch vision quest, and Ed and the crack team of professionals that surrounds us now were not yet layabozians. Here’s what I would have written about the music I saw while I was away from Shanghai:

The jazz scene in Vietnam is similar to Shanghai’s in having some very good musicians but a low bar for entry, but in Vietnam it’s smaller and a little earthier—there’s definitely less money in it, for one thing. In Hanoi the happening spot was Minh’s, who’s proprietor is a killing alto player and the (disputed) Godfather of Vietnamese Jazz. He was on tour in Germany, but I met his son, Dac, also a killing saxophone player and a Berklee grad. They graciously let me sit in with them and hang after the gig finished. Dac had just won some money in the Vietnamese numbers racket, so everybody was in a good mood. They have a steady gig at Minh’s, playing every other night or so, in addition to which they were gearing up for a Yellowjackets tribute at the Opera House (which I sadly missed). But despite being undisputed kings of the scene and having everything pretty well worked out as far as job security, their performances were full of urgency. They take the self-expression part of jazz very seriously, sometimes to the detriment of groove, but the drama of the heroic horn player is clearly alive and well there. The drummer and bass player seemed a little out of control sometimes, but were also very expressive. Off the stage it’s pretty touristy, but there’s a very pleasing mix between the laid-back atmosphere of the club in general and the energy on the stage, the result being a feeling that anything could happen, that anything can be accepted, an atmosphere I really like in a jazz club.

In Saigon I checked out both of Arlene Estrella’s gigs, she who was formerly the singer with the JZ All-Star Big Band and EJ Parker’s band. Weekdays she’s at Montana Jazz Club and Friday and Saturday it’s Sax ‘n Art. It was pretty similar to Hanoi in the inconsistency of musicianship, being informal yet high-octane, and, in the case of Sax ‘n Art, being run by a saxophone playing (disputed) “Godfather of Vietnamese Jazz,” Tran Manh Tuan. Montana is in the tiny back room of a restaurant and surprisingly had three singers on the payroll. It’s a real living room kind of intimacy, with just a hint of a stage and no seat more than 6 meters away from the band. A famous Vietnamese singer and her drummer husband sat in and were awesome, as was Arlene. As with the other two places, there was a tendency for the drummer to overplay a little. From what little I overheard on radios and so on, Vietnam seems to have a stronger rhythmic tradition than China, which is not to say that they don’t have treacly-garbage pop too. There were however some little things I overheard, I couldn’t pinpoint where exactly, that were definitely funkier than anything you would hear on the radio in China. Could this be the explanation for the exuberance of the jazz drummers there? I found further totally anecdotal evidence of this in Hoi An while I was walking around and heard 8 year-olds sounding badass practicing their drum parts for the then-upcoming Autumn Festival. Surely it’s a topic for further investigation.

In Kunming I caught a totally sweet bar band that uplifted my spirits, especially a performance of “Country Road” by the solo guitarist/singer who opened the night. The bar is appropriately called Lao Jia. The band that followed the cowboy hatted opener played a variety of hits including “Lan Lianhua”, a big crowd pleaser. They also drank the whole time and toasted the crowd, and it was another intimate living room get-down, lacking the energy of the Vietnamese jazz, but there’s always a place in my heart for a relaxed drunken jam.

With me back in Shanghai and Mache’s spiritual quest concluded with spectacular results, things were much better for Layabozi. My sinful ways were still not wholly reformed, however, when I went to the Kanye West concert at Shanghai Gymnasium on October 3rd. Part of why I didn’t write about it then was that it ended up feeling like such a non-event. It had two strikes against it in being a hip-hop show and a Shanghai stadium show. There was a period in my life when I went to a hip-hop shows pretty frequently, and while there were many excellent performers, as a genre it seems to have the highest incidence of acts who make good albums but have no idea what they’re doing in a live performance situation. The problem with stadium shows in Shanghai is that the crowds are undemonstrative which is compounded by the lack of standing room at the front of the house. Kanye’s show dodged my worst fears on both fronts, without totally dispelling them. He seemed a confident and capable performer and the sound wasn’t as bad as at the last stadium show I went to here—the ill-fated Bjork show. There was some standing in front, but it still felt pretty empty, eventually doing China West in. Besides that, I’m not sure I can really file the lack of excitement in the audience itself under Hip-Hop Problems, because Kanye is really a pop star more than a rapper or hip-hop performer at this point. Apparently the show was scaled down significantly as a spectacle compared to the same tour in the States, but it was basically an opportunity for fans to say “wow, I can’t believe I’m singing along to my favorite songs as part of a medley.” He was professional and the lights looked reasonably cool, but that was pretty much it.

So Happy New Year! May the next stadium show be better, and we will be 牛B together!

Photos (from top):

Dac, Minh, and Kris from

Sax ‘n Art Jazz Bar by Bart Brownell

Lao Jia by Sophie Grimes

Kanye West by Bryan Ma


A little write up on Sax ‘n Art and Montana Jazz Club, featuring addresses and practical information

As for Lao Jia, I can’t find any info on the web. It’s on Jianshe Rd. up the hill from 121 (yieryi) avenue, past the railroad tracks

Kanye Doesn’t need links

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