December/January 2024

by Nathan Haines

On Foreign Soil: Nathan Haines In China

by Nathan Haines

On Foreign Soil: Nathan Haines In China

China has always held a great fascination for me. My grandfather Yee Jeng Keng was born in Ghangzhou in 1915 and came to New Zealand as a young man, then again in the 1940s when he started a family. He was a chef and had a Chinese restaurant in Christchurch, and a love of Cantonese food was passed down to me through my mother Elaine Lywa Haines (nee Keng).

My Chinese roots have always been important to me and for decades I had wanted to explore mainland China, soak up the vibe and meet some musicians. I’ve visited and played in Hong Kong many times, but apart from a few days playing at the palatial Kee Club in Shanghai with my wife Jaimie 10 years ago had never been able to form a plan to perform and work there.

In late 2019 my good friend Billy Apple, now sadly departed, told me of his recent trip to Shanghai as part of the VUE Residency where he had created an art work based around the life of Rewi Alley, a New Zealander based in Shanghai for most of his life.

“You’ll love Shanghai!” he enthused, and at an art event for mutual artist friend Steve Carr, Billy introduced me to the NZ VUE representative Jenni Hu. We started talking about the possibility of visiting China and of becoming the next VUE Residency recipient. Unfortunately, Covid 19 put that plan on hold, and with China being closed off for over two years it wasn’t until March 2023 that I was able to meet Jenni again and get the plan into action.

Through her contacts Jenni put together a schedule based around performances for the China Shanghai International Arts Festival. The music side of the programme featured mainly classical music and traditional Chinese ensembles, so the inclusion of a NZ jazz musician and band was something new and unique for the festival.

After many months of negotiations (many conducted in Chinese, with me poring over contracts and tech specs translated via Google translate) it was with some trepidation I boarded our flight on September 19, along with a fantastic band of Dr Kevin Field on piano, Cameron McArthur on bass, drummer Cory Champion and vocalist Rachel Clarke.

Having to do things very differently due to Chinese customs and dealing with their very short lead times when it comes to confirming everything, I really didn’t know what we would be dealing with. Advice from friends living in China was that I really just had to go with the flow.

Arriving early morning into a grey and drizzly Shanghai, our accommodation in the 5-star Jin Jiang Hotel was amazing with the most incredible breakfast buffet I’d ever seen – dim sum, Chinese noodles in broth and congee along with all the usual western fare. Things were off to a good start.

Our first performance the following day was at an outdoor stage for 1200 people in the CBD area of Shanghai, and was to be live-streamed, with the gig available to watch online as soon as we had finished. This incredibly quick turnaround was something I got used to in China. Everything happens instantly and efficiently, with an army of people on hand to make it happen.

Soundcheck took almost three hours, Jenni acting as interpreter to decipher me saying things like, “…notch out 3db between 8k – 12k in my monitor” then translate it into Mandarin, along with all the other usual things like backline requirements and stage placement of the musicians. Like all gigs, we had to settle into playing relatively far away from each other on a large outdoor stage, relying on our monitor mix to hear ourselves and each other.

The crowd were very respectful and quiet for our 70-minute performance, then as we left the stage leapt to their feet shouting “Encore!” Due to the strict curfews in place we couldn’t go back on, but they seemed to have loved it and we did the usual round of TV interviews and press shots afterwards with beaming faces.

In what was to become a regular fixture for our time in China, we were then taken out to dinner – well more like a feast that night! Much Chinese whiskey and beer was imbibed, along with some incredible dishes and the odd Chinese cigarette (very strong!) in a large outdoor restaurant under the Shanghai night sky.

The following day, September 21, we were to perform at the Shanghai Jinshan Culture Centre, a modern theatre seating 500 people about 90 minutes outside of central Shanghai. After another lengthy soundcheck we were ready to play that evening at 7pm.

This performance was one of my favourites – Kevin, Cameron, Cory and Rachel all played amazingly, and when I saw they had put the names of the songs onto large screens in English and Mandarin for the audience before each piece I knew we were in for something special.

When it came to play my composition Lady Lywa which I had written for my mother (Lywa being her given Chinese name meaning ‘sweet’ youngest child) and seeing it in Mandarin while playing in front of a Chinese audience I almost couldn’t play I was so emotional! I had waited my whole life to perform in mainland China and here we were in a beautiful theatre with a beautiful band playing a song I had written for my mother who had a Chinese father – it was an incredible life moment to say the least.

We got to play an encore that evening and the crowd were just wonderful. I was honoured and humbled to be playing alongside my fellow musicians who all played their hearts out.

Due to the upcoming Wellington Jazz Festival back home, Cory and Rachel left literally half an hour after we had left the stage and flew back home, leaving myself, Kevin and Cameron to board our bus back to the hotel.

Next day the three of us travelled to Ghangzhou where Jenni had organised a day of workshops on September 23 at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music with a concert in the Lang Lang Theatre the following evening. Kevin also had a lovely Steinway to play and we managed to secure an acoustic bass for Cameron.

A highlight was meeting and hearing erhu player Meng Xiaoxu at the Conservatory. the erhu is a traditional southern Chinese stringed instrument and Meng is regarded as one of China’s leading players. I had tears in my eyes listening to her playing which was incredibly expressive and moving.

At the workshops, we met the jazz studies students and got to hear them play some standards – all played and improvised superbly. It was great to hear jazz being played in China! Kevin, Cameron and I played some of our pieces and took questions (once again helpfully translated) from the students, then we split into groups focusing on our respective instruments.

It really came home to me that music is a universal language – we could communicate without talking, with jazz being our common ground and we all loved this experience.

Our final concert on September 24 at the Lang Lang Theatre featured myself, Kevin and Cameron, with the inclusion of Shen Piji on ghuzeng, an ancient Chinese zither type instrument, and a highly recommended Chinese drummer who joined us for two songs.

Shen chose a traditional piece written 1600 years ago and after a run through at sound check (where it ended up sounding like Shh Peaceful written by Joe Zawinul and Miles Davis from the ‘In A Silent Way’ album) and a rehearsal with the drummer, we were ready to play to a full house in the 1000-seat theatre.

The audience was again very respectful, though with the inclusion of a load of music students the vibe was a bit more upbeat this time, and I loved this gig immensely. Kevin did a stunning solo piano piece on the Steinway, and the largely improvised piece with Shen on Ghuzeng earned the loudest applause of the night – and showed me the possibilities of collaboration between our two cultures. Shen is known for his blending of traditional sounds with electronic soundscapes and is someone I look forward to making music with in the near future.

The next day, I bid farewell to Kevin and Cameron at Shanghai Airport after our flight from Ghangzhou with my deepest thanks for joining me on this journey which was not only about music, but about retracing my ancestral past and connecting that to a modern China via our love of music.

Jenni was my host for another week of introductions, meetings, and Chinese feasts in Shanghai which would go on for hours into the night. It’s hard to describe the food – and this is from someone who grew up with Chinese cooking! Jenni managed to put together a trio performance for me with some fantastic local musicians at Loam on the West Bund. Once again only the guitarist could speak English but that didn’t matter as we got out the Real Book and played an hour set of great music to an appreciative crowd.

Plans are already afoot for another China visit in 2024 taking in other music conservatories and more performances.