Monthly Archives: February 2012

What Not There Means

Not There is an acceptance of dislocation, isolation and other-ness.


As someone who has chosen to live outside my country, I live at a critical distance from my native culture. At this point, I will never be able to fit into a mainstream American existence again. That is another road.


I am not Chinese, but I live in China. I speak the language but I will never fit in. My features mark me as being outside, a stranger.


China, because of the GFW & time zones is a world onto itself. I live inside a semi-permeable bubble. Stuck in-the-middle & floating between an imaginary East & West.




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The Holy Grail for Learning Chinese

This is the Holy Grail for learning Chinese: breaking down a book into specific parts to improve your reading, listening & writing.

Here are the steps.

1. Read a chapter making flash cards for every character you don’t know

2. Learn the words

3. Re-read the chapter w/out a dictionary or other study aid

4. Listen to the same chapter as an audio book

5. Write a short essay analyzing the chapter

6. Repeat until you’re finished with the book

This is obviously a long, difficult process but it will improve your Chinese dramatically. If you’re worried about acquiring a specific vocab set, pick a book on the subject.

There’s no substitute for 10,000 hours of hard work.

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How American Folk Music Is Racist


Anthology of American Folk Music


Harry Smith


The Anthology of American Folk Music, assembled by Harry Smith from his personal collection of 78s, is one of the ur-texts of modern American music. Most of what we consider to be “authentic” (white people from the mountains strumming & yodeling and black people from the south playing the blues) was essentially codified by Smith.

If you were a young musician in the late 50s or early 60s and wanted to escape the commercial gloss of pop music, the Anthology of American Folk Music was one of the 1st places you were likely to turn. It served as an introduction to the blues and what would later become “Americana.” Most of the singer-songwriters we lionize got their start lifting melodies from the Anthology and adding their lyrics. Bob Dylan is a prime example. His early material “borrowed” heavily from Smith and other sources. Compare “Hard Times in New York Town” to “Polly’s Farm” for a laugh.

I have no problem with this kind of borrowing and mention it only to point out how influential Smith’s Anthology is. The Anthology of American Folk music doesn’t anthologize or sample “folk” music, it is, for better or worse, folk music. Every iteration of “Americana” that followed can trace its roots back to Smith’s box set.

My problem with the Anthology of American Folk Music has nothing to do with the material selected. By and large, it’s a pretty fair cross section of mountain music, rural blues, gospel and even a little Cajun. My problem with the set is that it arrogates the title “American.” By making the claim that the music in Smith’s Anthology is “American” it is excluding any music not represented as other. If you’re style of music isn’t in Harry Smith’s Anthology, it might be folk, but it isn’t American.

A quick list of other folk music excluded by Smith and therefore not in the Cannon includes:

  • Klezmer
  • Central European & “Gypsy” music
  • Native American Music
  • German
  • Chinese folk music
  • Greek
  • Turkish

Imagine how the flavor of “American” Folk might have been changed by including early Gypsy Jazz or Greek music? What if musicians felt like it was authentically “American” to mix Turkish rhythms with the Blues. Doing that would make you a “World Musician” in our present system of genre labeling.

Ironically enough, I once bought an album of Traditional Lakota music that was labelled “World Music.” Which is true in the sense that the Lakota live on Earth, but it might not be the most precise label. I think the Lakota have a fairly strong claim to being “American.”

As musicians & listeners it’s time for us to re-examine the musicological process that was handed down to us. Blandly accepting existing definitions of what is or isn’t “American” only restricts the ability to make and enjoy good music.

American Folk needs to be broader than Harry Smith’s “America.” We are a nation of immigrants (except for people like the Lakota who were here first) and we should embrace the full palate of American musical possibilities.

“Americana” needs to go. It is a racist, limiting definition of our music. The roots go much deeper.

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Please Sing in Chinese: An Open Letter

Dear Chinese Musicians:

I know you guys admire “Western Music” a lot. It’s cool that you’re inspired by what’s happening globally. From Joy Division to the Stones to the String Cheese Incident, I’ve seen Chinese bands bearing the all the hallmarks of inspiration: hairstyles, clothing, equipment and so on.

It’s cool. We all steal from what we love. I have no shame about copping the best parts of the Dead & LCD Soundsystem. However, I would like to offer you some advice.

Sing in Chinese.

Here are a few reasons why:

  1. The lyrics you write in your second language are either a) so painfully obvious that they sound like 4th grade Valentine’s Day Cards or b) make absolutely no sense.
  2. Even if your English lyrics are cool, you still need to be able to pronounce the words properly. If you don’t, it’s very hard to take you seriously. Mispronouncing words also ruins the timbre of your voice.
  3. You might think that by singing in English you’re making your band more appealing to a “global audience.” But you’re not. Truth is we’re all wallowing in an orientalist mire and not being able to understand your band in Chinese actually makes you more appealing. When we want rock with awful lyrics and terrible accents we listen to Jet.
  4. Hanggai are probably the biggest “Chinese” band outside of China at the moment. Do they sing in English? Does Lonely China Day? How about Cui Jian?
  5. You have more to say in your native language & in the end as an artist you should be making a statement.

I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just being honest. If you sing in Chinese, your lyrics will be better, the timbre of your voice will improve and you will be taken more seriously.

Please sing in Chinese. It’s a nice language and it deserves rock & roll too.

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Listening Project: Anthem of the Sun


Grateful Dead


Anthem of the Sun


Anthem of the Sun is the most ambitious and revolutionary failure in the history of pop music.

Here’s why:


Anthem is a cohesive statement with inter-woven themes including madness, ecstasy and the duality between dark & light. The Dead were attempting to create an aural mission statement that summarized the energy of their live performances and their a-political acid drenched San Francisco ethic. Lyrically, Anthem is strange, obtuse and somehow meaningless and full of meaning at the same time. “The Other One” might be the single most psychedelic thing ever committed to wax.


The Dead were one of the first groups that tried to use the studio as an instrument. Multi-track recording technology allowed them to layer sound after sound on every track, including Tom Constanten’s prepared piano and bassist Phil Lesh’s weird trumpet buzzes. The Dead, however, weren’t content with the studio trickery. Instead, they used a series of live recordings as the foundation for each of the tracks on Anthem, attempting to blend live & studio together and give the listener a more realistic vision of what the Dead were like at the Filmore or the Avalon Ballroom. The Dead also used an incredible number of tape-edits, cutting and splicing material together in a sort of rock-n-roll avant-classical sound collage. The process is the foundation for what electronic music would become: samples of found sound re-configured into a new context.


Simply put, the Dead didn’t have access to the right tools to make their vision work. After repeated editing, the Anthem masters have a washed out and hollow sound and the jumps between live recording & studio sessions are plagued by differences in tuning, volume and dynamics. Anthem of the Sun just doesn’t sound very good which makes it much more difficult to enjoy. Listening to Anthem of the Sun makes me wonder what it would sound like if a band with that level of ambition used the Dead’s recording process in 2012.





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Listening Project Wave 5

After way too long a break, the Listening Project continues…

Artist: Brian Eno

Album: Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Comments: Enjoyed listening to this a lot, very relaxing. Eno’s “Ambient Music” might be the last “new” genre of music. The influence of this album can be felt from Phish to the Mars Volta. No standout tracks since it really has to be enjoyed as a whole.


Artist: Grateful Dead

Album American Beauty:

Comments: A folk rock masterpiece. Robert Hunter’s lyrics are haunting, cryptic and full of an imagined “old, weird America.” “Box of Rain” is close to a perfect song: meaningful, challenging and beautifully produced.


Artist: Johnny Cash

Album: America IV: When the Man Comes Around

Artist: Not as good as I remember it being. The song selection is forced and maudlin. “Hurt” is interesting and probably the only thing that stands the test of time.


Artist: Del McCoury Band & Preservation Hall

Album: American Legacies

Comments: What should have been an interesting collaboration isn’t actually very interesting. Turns out Bluegrass and Dixieland, despite common roots in the blues, make pretty uncomfortable bedfellows. The songs sound over-stuffed, like a stew with too many ingredients.


Artist: Jackie Greene

Album: American Myth

Comments: Middling post rock. “So Hard to Find My Way” is a great song that’s worth checking out on Spotify. It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Van Morrison record from the early 70s.


Artist: Anders Osborne

Album: American Patchwork

Comments: NOLA’s favorite Swede swings and misses. The rocking songs don’t rock and the ballads would be better left to a country crooner. The highlight is Stanton Moore’s half-swung, half rocking drumming, but I’d rather listen to Galactic.


Artist: the Black Crowes

Album: Amorica

Comments: I got Amorica as a gift when I was a teenager and it still rocks hard. “Wiser Time” and “A Conspiracy” are great fucking rock songs. Highly recommended for anyone that likes whiskey & guitars.


Artist: NIN

Album: And All That Could Have Been

Comments: I have no idea why I have this or where it came from. A tepid live album that doubles as a greatest hits package. I’ve never seen NIN. Are they really this bad live?


Artist: Pink Floyd

Album: Animals

Comments: A forgotten prog-disco Pink Floyd Album! Songs with Animal themes! Pretty cool, but it won’t be replacing Dark Side of the Moon in your rotation.


Artist: Uncle Tupelo

Album: Anodyne

Comments: The smartest thing Jeff Tweedy did was leaving to start Wilco. Uncle Tupe hasn’t aged well & Jay Farrar’s vocals are pretty damn ragged. The highlight is probably “Give Back the Key to My Heart” which features a gurgling but beautiful duet with folk-rock hero Doug Sahm. I also like the Tweedy penned “New Madrid” which seems to be about St. Louis.


Artist: Brian Eno

Album: Another Green World

Comments: Amazing.


Artist: Bob Dylan

Album: Another Side of Bob Dylan

Comments: Dylan’s first attempt at reefer drenched wit isn’t his best, but “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages” are genius. Worth a spin just to hear them in the original context.



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Not There Live @ Hot Cat This Saturday Night

Hope everyone is settling into the Year of the Dragon. We spent the CNY break working on new material and getting used to a ton of new equipment, and we’re gonna lay the new beast bare this Saturday Night @ Hot Cat. As always, the show’s free, beer’s cheap and we’ll be funky. We’ve also got a surprise opener, a one-of-a-kind performer we can’t reveal just yet.

Check it out this Saturday night @ Hot Cat. 46 Fangjia Hutong, very close to El Nido

Opener on-stage at 9:47

Not There from 10:30 till very late.

P.S. Check out our Douban page to stream our latest live release Tapes, Vol. 1:

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