Gary Lucas will play blues-tinged Chinese pop tunes at BAM

Updated: 2013-09-27 11:47

By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)

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 Gary Lucas will play blues-tinged Chinese pop tunes at BAM

Grammy-nominated songwriter and rock guitarist Gary Lucas. Provided to China Daily

Rock musician had never heard anything like Chinese music before

In 1975, guitarist Gary Lucas of the band Of Gods and Monsters spent a year in Taiwan, where he dated a woman who later became his (now ex-) wife. She played tapes of Chinese pop tunes from the 1930s, beautiful melodies infused with Western jazz and swing made famous by the iconic music and film stars Bai Kwong and Chow Hsuan.

"I fell deeply in love with the music, I had never heard anything like it," said Lucas, who will be performing blues-tinged interpretations of those songs at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) next weekend. "Each song was like a treasure, so beautifully executed. Ever since, I feel like I've been on a mission to expose people in the West to these songs that are so full of sadness and longing and farewell."

Accompanied by vocalists Sally Kwok and Mo Hai Jing and his band, Of Gods and Monsters, the Grammy-nominated songwriter and guitarist will perform songs including Old Dreams, Night in Shanghai and Songstress on the Edge of Heaven from his 2010 album The Edge of Heaven, which was selected as one of the best albums of the year by French newspaper Liberation, and reached No 1 on the World Music charts in Canada.

After his return to the US in 1976, Lucas introduced the music to the musician and artist Don Van Vliet, a musician and artist better known as Captain Beefheart. Vliet also loved the music, broadcasting some of the songs for audiences before shows. Later, Lucas was asked to play music for a friend's wedding in New York City's Chinatown, attended by family members flown over from Asia. He interpreted the songs in his own style, bringing a folk-blues sensibility to songs that he felt had always contained the blues, he said. The songs were a hit with American and Chinese attendees alike, he said.

"There's a universal resonance in these songs," he said. "The musical tonality and flavor of these songs speak volumes, communicating an emotion that still makes me mist up sometimes when I listen to the originals. That's what attracted me to them. The blues are a universal feeling in every culture in the world."

His experimentation with Chinese music is entirely fitting, said Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer of BAM.

"Gary is a legend, and an extraordinary guitarist," he said. "If you examine his history, he has broken artistic barriers throughout his career. He's a pioneering spirit, and to hear these beautiful voices interpreting songs from another time against a rock and roll musical idiom is truly great, and I think that both Chinese and American audiences are going to learn something extraordinary in the discovery he's made with this music."

Lucas, whom The New Yorker has called "the thinking man's guitar hero," will release the book Touched by Grace-My Time with Jeff Buckley next month.

American audiences will find more to understand in these songs than the traditional opera genre so many associate with China, Lucas said. Although the music will be sung in Mandarin, the singers will likely introduce the songs (and their intended meanings) in both English and Chinese before each number. Large projections will also present vintage images and scenes of Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s, at a time when the metropolis was known as the "Paris of the East."

"This music makes me feel good, and that's all I want to do with my music," he said. "I just want to get a good feeling going."

(China Daily USA 09/27/2013 page11)