After at least a half-dozen almost-trips to China through the years, the stars finally aligned and a solo drumming tour was arranged this summer. It takes a village for these kinds of things to happen, and the two main proponents of this tour were my longtime bro, guitarist Neil Zaza—who has toured there countless times and has had numerous conversations with his promoter about bringing me over—and my old friend and colleague, Greg Irwin, who represents both Sabian and DW in China, two companies with whom I’ve been associated for years, and who would co-sponsor the tour.
Often, the Chinese will take American names when dealing with us westerners (no doubt because they’re tired of hearing us massacre their real names), so “Mel”—impresario of the Mogu network of music schools/stores and longtime China connection for Zaza—would be my promotor for the tour. And the name of my tour manager/drum tech who would travel with me? Rambo. (I couldn’t make this shit up, people!) Rambo was super pro and highly-competent. He was also an excellent videographer, as he would shoot and edit these cool “day in the life” vids of the tour each day, on the fly, with his iPhone. These turned out to be great little encapsulations of the experience over there. (Stay tuned for a few samples.)
The Quick Overview
For me, the China experience was like one very cool, but highly-elaborate Twilight Zone episode, in that it felt like I was in another dimension of time and space, doing familiar things but in unfamiliar ways. So before I jump into some city-by-city tour highlights, here are a few stand-out distinctions to set things up:
Solo Drums: This was more of a solo drumming tour than a traditional clinic tour since the emphasis would be on sheer performing, rather than teaching. Yes, for the one master class I did, it was more traditional instruction, and yes, each performance would feature a Q&A (with translator) where I could delve into a bit of a teaching vibe. But mainly, the shows were centered around these short-but-intense headlining performances (typically only 30 to 40 minutes) where I would play along with a few tracks and, of course, stretch out with plenty of soloing. No problem!
Cool Format: In addition to the support of DW drums and Sabian cymbals, each performance was co-sponsored by a “station,” which is basically some cross between a music school and a music store. My opening acts were essentially various performances by the students: mainly drummers, but also guitarists, depending on the particular school. I thought this was a great format… sort of a recital/concert hybrid.
The Drumming Scene: Speaking of which, the drumming scene in China is exploding! Ironically, they seem to view the study and practice of drums like our youngsters in the states have largely viewed the practice of martial arts: like a fun, constructive, and worthwhile activity. In fact, most of the schools teach drum set in small group lessons (as opposed to private), and as I understand it, many schools have a grading system for a student’s drumming progress that’s not unlike the typical martial arts belt system. Kind of cool!
Communication: Unlike many places in the western world like Europe or South America, hardly anyone speaks or understands English in China. Not that we should expect them to, but again, it seems that there is at least a working understanding of a few basics most anywhere else one might tour. (Although there are lots of signs in English over there, which was perplexing.) It didn’t turn out to be a big deal, but it’s a reminder that I do need to pick up a little Mandarin before my next trip over!
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Before we get into a brief, gig-by-gig summary of the tour, here’s one of Rambo’s videos I was talking about. This one will give you a pretty good overview of the vibe:
Feature Video: A Day in Luoyang
First stop, Beijing, where a strategic “recovery” day off had been arranged for me for the next day. This is not something I normally require when traveling internationally, but I definitely wasn’t going to argue: it would give me a chance to scope out the sights and sounds of the city.
But first… the China adventures began on evening one with a rickshaw ride!
Greg Irwin—who is a veteran of about 60 trips to China through the years—swears by them. And because they are not bound by any of the usual traffic laws or protocols, you can swerve and weave through the ever-shifting maze of cars, scooters, bikes, and pedestrians… so long as you have the stomach for it. I actually dig the adventure. It’s kind of like participating in a virtual video game, where the goal is to simply not hit anyone as you constantly press forward. These drivers are fearless masters of the old credo “An inch is as good as a mile.” And believe me, to miss a car or bike by only an inch would have been a luxury at times!
What better way to start my first full day in China than with an early-AM six-mile run around a local park that Greg knew about. This place was magical.
Here’s a quick vid from the run:
Also, it was inspiring to see so many senior citizens throughout the park getting some exercise, many of whom were participating in these group Tai Chi classes. There is no question that this kind of consistent lifestyle practice is a “secret” to the infamous Chinese longevity factor. I would love to see more of our elderly folks in the states participate in some kind of activity like this.
A bit later in the day, we made our way around Beijing to catch a few “must see’s”:
Just outside the Forbidden City
This crazy elaborate “instrument” of large bells, housed in its own temple!
In another part of town: a designated “Drum Temple”… my kind of place…
A quick visit with the owner of Beijing’s go-to drum shop
Hangin’ with Greg Irwin
And, of course… there was more rickshaw action. This one, shot during the afternoon, really illustrates the “extreme mobility” of these things:
Getting the Party Started
My first stop was a master class for a smaller audience of 30 to 40 teachers and more advanced students. These folks were attending some kind of weekend “boot camp” type of program (courtesy of Drum Home), and I was a special guest. It was great to be able to delve off into more technical aspects of drumming in a casual but ultra-attentive setting like this.
Here’s a multi-foot pedal demonstration I did, where my feet are playing four different rhythms—on four different sound sources—simultaneously, while my hands do some basic improvisation. Again, this class was mainly for more advanced players, and yet, I got the impression that they hadn’t seen much of this kind of thing before. As you’ll see, I attempted to explain everything through an interpreter. Note: right foot plays two different rhythms on the bass drum and distortion hats; left foot plays two different rhythms on the main hi-hat and cowbell pedal (with the cowbell part doing a lightly randomized “&2&” / “&4&” rhythm; hands do some basic solo stuff around the kit.
The second half of this short vid demonstrates a shuffle double-hat pattern with a more intricate triplet-based ostinato with the double-pedal. The right foot doubles up on the kick pedal and distortion hat and the left takes care of the left kick pedal and main hat. But this time, I figured it might be easier just to ease into the demonstration—one sound-source at a time—rather than try to translate the action set-by-step. (Unfortunately, we only had a short clip of this solo, but you’ll get the vibe.).
Throwin’ Down in Music Town
My first official full show was at the Zhouwo Music Town. This place was a trip. It’s basically a small village built around a total music theme. I went for a run my first morning there and scoped everything out… and then promptly found myself off the grid, in a farm-land wilderness!
But once I made it back to civilization, I did manage to double back through “music town” and take a few shots.
The hit that night was the DW & Sabian drumchina.com “Contest of China.” This was preceded by weeks of preliminaries, all culminating into the grand finale on this day, where they offered multiple prizes to winners in a variety of age categories. The contest finals ran all day and into the evening, but I wound up doing some meet-and-greet signings and a Q&A session for some of the younger students in the afternoon.
With one of the winners. Damn… great prizes!
We even did another signing after the set. These folks are super appreciative!
The Beautiful Chinese Folks:
Man, you just couldn’t ask for more gracious and respectful people than the Chinese. They have a deep appreciation for the arts and for what we do as artists, and they go way out of their way to make sure you are taken care of. As just one example: when word got out that “Bobby Rock needs bananas, oranges, and water every day so he can make his custom smoothie concoction with the blender and special powder he travels with,” boom: I never once had to inquire about where I might be able to find that stuff. Bananas, oranges, and gallon jugs of water would typically be waiting in my hotel room upon check-in. They would also magically appear throughout the day and evening!
One other thing: China is one of the safest places you will ever be, even in terms of your personal belongings. I would leave my “man purse”—complete with cash, passport, keys, credit cards, in-ears, etc.—unattended, virtually anywhere… even places in the venue that I knew were well-traveled by audience members or venue staff. Obviously, this is not something you can do in most other parts of the world. And yet: No one will take your shit there. It struck me as incredibly odd, but immensely refreshing. (I guess it’s sad that a culture that doesn’t steal seems odd, but… that’s where we’re at right now.)
The next morning, Rambo and I had an early flight to Xianyang.
This would turn out to be sort of a prototypical show as we would experience most of them for the rest of the tour: big room, high tech, LED wall on stage, and show hosts who introduce all the opening acts and then bring me up at the end. Just another unique aspect of the China experience!
Here’s a Rambo vid that summarizes our Xianyang experience pretty good. (Dropping by the sponsoring “station” is usually part of the protocol, and in Xianyang, you’ll notice we did a little meet and greet there the following day before we caught a high-speed train to the next city.)
Feature Video: A Day in Xianyang
I also managed to capture a bit of video from my run earlier that morning in Xianyang. I acclimated to running in the “controlled chaos” of the streets of China pretty quickly, once I realized how acclimated the Chinese are to navigating around in it!
Hot, Hot, Hotter Than Hell!: It was crazy hot over there, pushing 100 degrees on most days, and humid as a motherfucker. It felt like midsummer Texas or Florida, but with a fraction of the typical A/C power we’re used to. But the training continued, either in hot-ass hotel gyms or in the blazing daytime sun (although I did enjoy a couple late-night runs). And honestly, many of these beautiful venues would be uncharacteristically hot, as well. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of it all, but again… it’s worth mentioning if you really want to get the full effect. Simply put, it seemed as if I was in an almost constant state of heavy perspiring! In fact, I was changing clothes so often every day, that I felt compelled to shoot the following quick vid after one of my workouts:
True, as mentioned, I typically do change clothes at least three times a day on tour. But China was a whole other level of total sweat saturation, let me tell you!
The next stop would be the first of three that I did for the Wang family. These were first class all the way. The Wangs were incredibly generous and accommodating, starting on day one in Luoyang.
Once again, things are often done very differently over there. For this show, I entered the stage from the back of the room, via a runway, as music from an iconic Jet Li movie blasted through the PA… which I would then jam along with. This kind of shit works over there, though, so this joining-in-with-the-orchestrated-soundtrack-theme became part of my nightly intro.
In Case You Missed It: Rambo’s video for this gig—A Day in Luoyang—is the first video of this blog.
The next morning, before heading out to Jiyuan, the Wangs had arranged to take Rambo and me to a staple tourist attraction in Luoyang known as Longmen Grottoes. This place is a must-see if you’re in the Luoyang area. It is essentially an ancient “cave complex,” more than 1500 years old, that features 2,300 grottoes and niches, 100,000 Buddhist statues, and over 2,800 inscriptions. The history and vibe of the place are off the charts.
While I typically try to remain present in the “analog” world when visiting cool places and not be too obsessed with taking non-stop pics and vids, I made an exception at one point along the way at Longmen Grottoes. The grandest single display of Buddha sculptures—known as the Fengxian cave—could only be seen from the sight once you traversed a fairly high and steep stone stairway. So I decided that I would video, from my vantage point, what it was like to first set eyes on this magnificent piece of history and art. Here’s that vid!
Eating Vegan In China: Having been vegan since 1993 (and vegetarian a few years prior to that), I was concerned about the food situation before I split, based on a variety of first-hand reports I received from friends and colleagues. But it turned out I didn’t really have to be. Once my peeps understood what “vegan” meant, there was food all over the place… and lots of it. To help with this on occasion, I carried around a screen shot from my rider that had Chinese translations of specifics:
They are really big on these “roundtable” meals, which usually go down in a private room of a restaurant. Seems like a cultural thing:
This is a “boil pot” roundtable, where everyone has their own boiling water in a
pot to create their own meal. Dig the stove burners on the table!
Typically, I would get some combo of a veggie dish (the broccoli is out of this world over there… something about how they prepare it universally with this clear, garlic-style sauce), a starch dish of either rice or noodles (but sometimes this potato dish which was kind of like spicy, shredded hash browns—killer!), and hopefully something tofu or bean-based for some extra protein:
But usually, they would have food delivered to my room, as I prefer to be alone and eat alone when possible. And in many of these cases, when the meal was a bit protein-light, I would reach for my reserves: one of a number of cans of beans that I traveled with.
Beyond the two of these types of meals per day, I would have at least one, but sometimes two, of my special superfood smoothies (hence all the oranges and bananas), prepared with a special blend of powders in this European equivalent to a Nutri-Bullet that I often travel with (Euro power is most readily available over there). Then I would round things off with lots of snacking on various Clif bars, trail mix, granola, peanut butter, etc. (One of the three bags I traveled with was virtually all food!)
And yes, for the record, the number one vegan-related question here is the number one question there: “Where do you get your protein?” (Sigh) And I would tell them: “The same place where the world’s biggest, strongest animals like elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and apes get theirs from: plants!”
On to Jiyuan
After a couple hours of getting our minds blown at the Grottoes, we had to drive to the next city, which was another one of the Wang’s stations in Jiyuan. The event was in a big-ass ballroom, with a huge LED behind the stage (as usual). There was also a TV crew shooting the show, although I wasn’t sure what program it was for. I will probably never know, but it’s all good. It was a killer set, and there were a bunch of drummers, performing in groups of five or six, all on identical drum kits, essentially playing the same parts. Kind of unusual! But man, these folks were way into the vibe!
The Chinese Paradox of Tech and Gear: As you tour around the world, you notice how vastly different things are done in various parts of the globe. Doing shows in America has a different feel than Italy, which has a different feel than Brazil, which has a different feel than Japan. As for China, you might be tempted to think that it would fall under the “Asian way” category of Japan and share similar meticulous, punctual, and exacting protocols. But you would be mistaken! China is, in many ways, the opposite of Japan. And therein lies a fascinating paradox.
Most of the shows were at these kick-ass ballroom or theater-type venues, which usually included these huge LED backdrops on the stages. The sound systems were ample, and there were typically an array of high-end production elements like large stage plots and trusses of moving or special effects lighting. And yet, drum gear could be a challenge:
- For this tour, we relied on each individual promoter to provide gear, since hauling my own kit around over there was logistically impossible (although I did carry around a few things, like extra pedals and cymbals). As they attempted to meet my most basic specs, there would often be mismatched drums in the kit… which is a reflection of how things are still a bit limited there in many ways. Virtually every single kit you see is a basic five-piece set-up, with standard sizes (8” or 18” toms are extremely rare.) It’s crazy. BUT – it’s all good: they are evolving.
- High-end hardware is at a premium over there, so cymbal stands would routinely get jarred loose (see video below), shifted around, or on an occasion or two, simply fall over—kind of cool for dramatic effect! (But this is typically what happens when you give me anything less than top-of-the-line DW hardware.)
- The biggest irony? China cymbals were hard to come by in China! No kidding. Sabian makes the best in the biz as far as I’m concerned, but many places didn’t have them, so they would scare up whatever they could find for me to use… which often met with disastrous results. (Again, see video below!)
- One other strange thing as it relates to sound: As mentioned, the systems seemed more than adequate in these places, even at the larger ballrooms. There was plenty of power, ample speaker cabs (including subs), decent boards, etc. However, I noticed that the consoles were not typically set up in the traditional place for optimal mixing: out in the audience. Instead, they would usually run the mix from either side-stage where the monitor rig traditionally is, or just off the stage but to the extreme left or right side. Was never sure why…
To be clear, none of these things were really of any consequence to me or anyone else, and they certainly didn’t seem to affect anyone’s enjoyment of the shows—me included. And yet, to really comprehend the “China Way”—at least as things stand at the moment—it’s important to understand all the variables one might be faced with on any given day, so you can be better prepared to “improvise, adapt, and overcome!”
Check out Rambo’s highlight vid from Jiyuan. This one really illustrates this unusual juxtaposition of elements that were typical of the tour.
Feature Video: A Day in Jiyuan
The Zhengzhou Vibe
Show number three with the Wang family was in Zhengzhou. This one was somewhat of an anomaly. It was in a smaller hall, tucked away on the second floor of this bizarre sort of amusement center/1950’s China recreation place (?). Actually, I was never sure exactly what it was, but it turned out to be an intimate, action-packed little venue.
En Route to Soundcheck: Here’s a backseat vantage point of my man, Rambo, slowly driving me through about five football fields worth of twisting, narrow “roads” and heavy foot traffic… just so I could step right onto an elevator up to the hall for soundcheck. (God forbid I should have to walk!) I had no idea that’s what he was doing, but I was so fascinated with his navigation skills, that I shot nearly four minutes worth of video of him doing it. Here’s a screen shot:
I guess the reason this struck me so odd is twofold: One, he was driving through the equivalent of an outdoor mall/amusement park kind of place where there were obviously no other cars; and Two, no one seemed to care, at all, including the parents of the many dozens of kids we slowly drove past. Granted, Rambo was extremely cautious. But if you tried some shit like that in the states, your ass would likely get thrown in jail. (Only in China, people!)
Once we got a quick soundcheck behind us, the show turned out to be a sentimental favorite in a way, just based on the energy in the room, and the unwavering presence of the audience. And there were no opening acts for this one. Just me and a packed room come showtime. What a vibe.
In fact, the energy levels were so palpable, I actually had to pause during one of my solos and capture the moment with this selfie. This caused some of the younger kids to jump up on the stage, which was cool with me! I will never forget this gig… it was as if I had stepped off a spaceship to play for them. Raaaaad!!!
Once again, Rambo captured the essence of this show with another one of his killer compilation vids:
Feature Video: A Day In Zhengzhou
This day also turned out to be a pretty landmark training day. There was a surprisingly decent gym at the hotel, so I grabbed a workout in the afternoon before we went to the gig. Then, I decided to grab a second one when we got back to the hotel at 11:00 PM. After that, I was gonna crash, but it was such a nice evening I decided to go ahead and grab a run… and in an inspired moment, recorded the following video clip:
The Last Show
We ended up taking another high-speed train to Changsha for the final hit. These are kind of a cool way to buzz around. You can get a good sense of the gorgeous landscape over there, particularly in the rural, in-between areas.
This was another packed ballroom with a super high-energy crowd. And the LED wall doubled as both a “digital backdrop” and, unbeknownst to me, a large screen for a live video feed. I didn’t even know about that until I saw some pics from the show afterward.
The folks in China seemed to really enjoy the performances, especially the younger drummers, who were unabashed and unrestrained at times with their reactions and way of expressing themselves. The short clip in the middle of this Rambo vid where all the kids are jumping around —which I shot during a drum solo as my feet held the fort down with kick drums and hi-hats—illustrates the beautiful vibe I got to experience at pretty much every show. Can’t wait to go back!
Feature Video: A Day in Changsha
After the hit, I did a few shots with the crowd. A memorable final show, for sure!
Unexpected Cultural Observations
I’m sure a lot can be discussed and debated regarding the social/political scene in China. I won’t attempt to unpack any of that here. In fact, before I split, I didn’t even attempt to form any real opinion about how things are done over there, or how my own experience might be affected by their way of doing things. Instead, I went over with a neutral worldview, just looking to be a detached observer to the scene, mindful not to cast any predisposed expectations or judgments on anything.
With that in mind, my primary observation was this: I felt like there was a notable disconnect between the expectation one might have of China when considering the common perception of how things are over there, versus how one feels around the people and in the trenches when you are actually there. Frankly put, I didn’t get a weighty, oppressive vibe—at all. Folks seem easygoing, relaxed, and content, especially the youngsters, who appear to be as joyous and playful as our American youngsters.
Another unexpected thing was the absolute lack of any kind of military or police presence… anywhere, ever! Seriously, I think I only saw one police officer the entire time I was there. And any security personnel I saw on occasion—at the airports or around some of the tourist sites—were always cordial, and surprisingly young! I don’t know what I was expecting… perhaps a more heavy-handed, “big brother” presence somehow… I’m not sure. But I didn’t feel any of that. And yet, folks mind their business, everything seems to be perpetually orderly, and there is a tangible undertone of absolute non-violence wherever you go.
Again, this is just my take from a purely observational standpoint.
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Musically speaking, the culture in China is vibrant and exciting, and everything feels new and fresh. Looking forward to round two!