That night, the 20-minute cab ride from downtown Changsha back to my hotel had been unusually quiet. Aaron, in his traditional place in the passenger front seat, was staring straight ahead, not chatting to the driver as he usually did. Claudia had her head down, flicking through her phone. I checked the time on my own phone as the cab pulled up in front of the hotel – 10:40 p.m.
Aaron gave some bills to the driver, and we piled out of the cab. As they usually did, Claudia and Aaron started to walk me up to the hotel entrance.
“No, no, you guys, you’ve got to go,” I said. “You’re barely going to make it back to the university before your curfew. Go! Go!”
Their faces flooded with relief and they took off running into the warm night. It was a 15 minute walk from the hotel to the university; if they ran all the way, they’d get there before the gates closed at 11 p.m.. If not, they’d have to swipe their identification cards to get in, a transgression that Aaron had told me would be “recorded.” He didn’t elaborate on what would happen next, but clearly, it wasn’t a black mark that he wanted next to his name. Ah, the complexities of attending a university run by the Chinese military.
I felt a little guilty that he and Claudia were in this predicament, because our Friday evening adventure had been my idea. Earlier in the week, we had been eating lunch at one of the grad students’ favorite restaurants – the Joy Store – a Taiwanese-owned pizza and pasta place. While we were waiting for our food to arrive, I browsed a display of books and artwork, and, to my surprise, noticed a pamphlet advertising the Changsha International Jazz Festival. Since it was mostly written in Chinese, I took it back to the table to see if the festival might be on while I was in Changsha. “Oh, yes. it is happening this weekend,” said Claudia. “I think it would be cool to go. We’ll make all the arrangements.”
And so, Claudia, Aaron, and I ended up in the pulsing, crowded downtown core just as it was getting dark. After a lot of deking into nearby stores to ask sales clerks for directions, we finally found The Red Live Club, which had only opened its doors the previous year. Although jazz had been played in China as early as the 1930s, it had only re-emerged in Changsha in 2009, when a local musician and his entrepreneurial partner organized the first ever Changsha International Jazz Festival.
We lingered over dinner in the restaurant upstairs from the club a little longer than we should have, so by the time we got downstairs, and paid for our tickets, there were very few seats left. We finally found three together close to the stage, and settled in to wait for the show to begin. Claudia and Aaron hauled multi-lensed cameras out of their backpacks, and began to photograph the glowing neon signs and the waiting stage. Sound technicians bustled around, checking out the onstage equipment. A club volunteer stepped up to the microphone to ask everyone to put out their cigarettes at the request of the performers.
When Akira Sakat and Giovanni Di Domenico stepped onto the stage, the crowd greeted them with prolonged applause and hoots of excitement. The two musicians made a somewhat unlikely duo: Sakat, a stocky Japanese saxophonist in his mid-60s, and Di Domenico, a, lean, bearded keyboard player from Italy, easily 40 years Sakat’s junior.
Their music was free-flowing, an improvisational melee of sound bursts and splashes. Sakat’s saxophone groaned and shrieked. Di Domenico attacked the keyboard, and occasionally leaped up to reach inside his piano and pluck its strings. I snuck a sidelong glance at Aaron and Claudia, wondering what they thought of this non-melodic sound escapade. I couldn’t read their faces, but as the musical set wore on, my own ears began to long for the gentler jazz of George Benson or Grover Washington.
The final selection featured Sakat’s voice as instrument. He accompanied his whoops and squawks and growls with a string of monk’s bells. The number crescendoed to a wild climax of frenzied bell-shaking and shouts of eyes-closed ecstasy. At its end, Sakat thanked us all for coming, and disappeared from the stage.
“So, what did you think of that?” I asked Claudia, as the house lights came up. She paused. “I think that everyone would have a different opinion of that music,” she said, diplomatically.
“I really liked the last song he sang,” Aaron offered, with a grin.
“Well, we don’t have to stay for the second set if you don’t want to,” I said. “We can go now, and you’ll get back to the university in plenty of time to meet your curfew. ”
“No, I want to stay,” said Claudia. “It’s my first time in a club. And besides, the second half is a performer from Changsha. I want to hear him.”
As if on cue, a blue-jeaned, ball capped, guitar-toting guy took the stage, and introduced himself in Chinese. His aching voice, soulful strumming and high cheekbones made me think of a First Nations country rock singer at a Canadian summer music festival. Claudia leaned over and said in my ear, “I like him a lot.” I smiled and admitted I did too.
At 10 o’clock, we agreed to call it a night and headed out to the curb to flag down a cab. As we stood there, cars and motorcycles pulled up and their drivers spoke a few words to Claudia, but she waved them off.
“What are they saying to you?” I asked.
“They are unlicensed drivers. They want to give us a ride. I tell them no, because they are not safe.”
But as the legal taxis zoomed by us, all of them already carrying other passengers, I saw anxiety creep into Aaron’s and Claudia’s faces. Aaron set off to see if any buses were running at that time of night. He returned a few minutes later shaking his head. He and Claudia exchanged a few words, and apparently came to an agreement, because they flagged down the next gypsy cab that came our way.
The ride turned out to be perfectly safe, if a bit tense. And, yes, the two of them did make it through the university gates before they swung shut at 11 p.m. For me, it was an evening of coming to terms with cultural differences – 21st century college kids with curfews, a re-emerging Chinese jazz scene, ushered in by a Japanese-Italian partnership, and a Chinese country rock singer who could have been a member of Canada’s Cree nation. I’ve always travelled to have my pre-conceived notions of the world turned upside down, and that night, I wasn’t disappointed.