Tall, creamy, reining back his brilliance with a pair of goggles. He is a filmmaker, runs his own ad agency in Baishizou and is a sucker for experimental music.
He’s here for the meet-up.
And I’m in Shenzhen for my Africa Centre residency.
Maryann, chief of Handshake 302, my host organisation, has brought together a few people that might be resourceful to me. So far, it’s a small crowd of researchers and scholars from China, US and South Korea. An all – female cast. We’re huddled in a little cafe that ducks out of one of Baishizou’s sooty alleys.
So Marco walks in to find seven women cooling down on smoothies. He just missed the ‘Global Feminist Summit against Wen Rou’.
Wen rou, Maryann educates us, is a term that refers to the softness with which Chinese women must speak, smothering every syllable in caramel, while the men get away with simply spitting out their opinions. A gross injustice! The highly schooled women are viciously unanimous in this.
The African at the table, born & bred in Buganda, well acquainted with kneeling to greet, feigning bashfulness and generally toning down one’s force of personality to fit the suit, coos;
“Wen rou is just a way to get your way. Slightly raised pitch, smooth tones, soft gestures… none of it defines you. It is superior wisdom. A deep understanding of the macho species. And an even deeper understanding of self. It has nothing to do with who you are at the core…”
I might not have been that articulate, but that was my gist.
The horror on the faces of the liberated folk!
“OMG! You are being SO wen rou right now,” one of them marvels and I catch the faintest trace of disgusted disbelief.
Anyway, Marco walks in.
We exchange contacts. The “summit” ends.
The next time we meet, Marco is sweating and panting. It’s my first Salon and he is in the audience. They are jumping, stretching, twisting left and right, doing their best to keep in step with the pumping music and my simple instructions. A fun crowd!
During my presentation, I share a video of Wekwekule. The bizarre music seems to strike a chord with Marco, so he walks up to me at the end of the salon. He loves to tinker with beats and tunes. If I wanted to add a touch of weird to my creation while in Shenzhen, he would be happy to make an original soundtrack for me!
I am touched.
I knew it would not be long before I needed this Marco.
Can a space speak?
As beautiful as Wutong shan is, it’s two hours away from everything. So I often have plenty of time on the bus and the train to listen, observe and talk to the locals. They peer into my book – I am reading eat pray love – and ask if I speak English. They whisper in wonder as I carefully draw addresses in traditional Chinese characters. I cannot make bajang of what I’m writing, but when I show this string of strokes and bars to the cab driver, he will know in an instant where to take me. I stare at the people staring at me and imitate the voice that’s announcing the 1000 commandments;
You shall not eat on the train.
You shall offer your seat to the elderly.
You shall make no noise.
You shall respect others.
You shall stand aside…”
I adopt this computerised voice as my personal Mandarin tutor. At least I shall leave Shenzhen having learnt proper manners and pronunciation of all the subway stops.
The key to my creative process during this residency is patience and trust. Patience with my ignorance and self. Trust that the space will speak and tell me something genuine about itself. Listen. Listen. Listen.
So I record what I am hearing. Random conversations on the subway. A 6 year old who believes that Africans eat chocolate worms. She opens an App on her iPad to prove it. The bus driver yelling “it’s full, it’s full!” the people yelling back. I think they’re saying, “How else do you want us to get home? Fluttering our mimosa wings?” Seven men at a bus stop, shouting, throwing their hands in the air, pointing this way and that, spitting broken syllables, walking away only to return. They’re saying that the bus I’m waiting for, stops on the other side of town!
At the end of three weeks, I have enough recordings and know someone who could whip them into some sort of music.
I need a soundtrack. The theme is Lost!
I send him the sound bites. In no time, he sends back the first draft!
Meet Uncle Dai.
If the sun rises in Wutong shan, it sets in Chiwan. The two are separated by miles and hours on the metro – you sit until you forget the reason why you set out in the first place. Nevertheless, I am excited to meet Uncle Dai. An intuitive musician, who taught himself to play the Chinese Zither at 50. He fought for his pension rights until all of Baishizou knew his name, now, when he walks into the urban village, the residents stop short of mounting him on a donkey and laying down their coats. After winning his battles, he moved to Chiwan, a port at world’s end. I’m heading out there to indulge in artistic experiments with this living legend.
I arrive after a lifetime.
Like Marco, Uncle Dai attended my first Salon and was inspired to create something with me.
We meet at a bridge.
Uncle Dai explodes into words and gestures, arms swatting invisible flies.
A beg! What have I done now? We’ve not even started yet!
He does not speak a speck of English, he spits fire from his belly. Every syllable bursts forth like a flame.
Kaiqin, my friend from Handshake 302, jumps to the rescue. She assures me he is excited. Over the moon! Cannot wait for us to perform together. Dance! Dance! He rasps. Let’s get on with it already!
Never underestimate the importance of an excellent translator. They are the exact difference between a civil war and peace on earth. Yes, good will to men.
Uncle Dai sits down and picks at the strings of his Guzheng. He smiles like a choir of butterflies is floating around his head. A wispy melody leaves the zither and melts into the air. I move. His little apprentice joins me. Kaiqin too. We dance. Old men and old women gather in the large common room. They watch. Silent, intense. Poker faces, frozen by an unforgiving life. But their eyes betray them. They twinkle and the creases around their mouths twitch ever so slightly. Their grand babies inch closer. Here in this moment, past, present and future agree on a simple melody.
A soundscape is revealing itself. Melancholic shades of the ancient and the mysterious, bleed into the fast, (I’d like to say, the furious, but it wouldn’t be quite so original) and frenzied future.
Kaiqin sets the date for my final showcase.
10 Days to go.