It’s an ambitious project, full of heart and passion. British songwriter JIM KROFT is travelling the world within the next two years, armed only with his guitar and a camera. It’s a project that celebrates independence and the connecting power of music. During the next months the musician will give regular updates about the trips exclusively on NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION. Find out more about the initial idea behind JIM KROFT‘s Journeys project in the first part of his journal and find the other entries of it right here.
I sling my guitar over my shoulder. The walk each night to the venue is long. It winds through the Hutongs and tonight I decide to leave my guitar case behind to lessen the load.
As I walk through the narrow interconnecting streets, I take a moment to sit down and absorb the atmosphere. It is like stepping back in time, and I’m beguiled by its beauty and its buzz. It’s late evening and the envelope of smog above has lifted. A retailer sits himself down heavily after the days work, topless and with and a hefty belly sagging over his shorts. He sparks a cigarette – everyone seems to smoke in China.
I am aware that I am in an environment of hyperactive change. The streets I walk are beset with paradox. The Hutongs emanate what is most ancient in China – neighbourhoods which have developed through the centuries as if of their own accord.
And yet, the majority have been destroyed – ravaged, recreated, bulldozed and rebuilt upon. Modernity has swept through them with its irresistible and unsentimental wind, replacing traditional dwellings with high rise towers. Modernity is least forgiving to tradition, and nowhere has this been more true in China. During my travels I witness a country in search of meaning, and a country which has desecrated what once was emblematic of its own past.
It is the third week of my residency, and during that time the man in the hat and the guitar has become less a curiosity, but someone customary. Some retailers will smile in recognition as I walk past, and it gladdens the spirit. I am a stranger to the Hutongs but somehow, I feel at home here.
Each night at ‘Jianghu’ Bar – where I play my residency – something new happens. Tonight, Jack the local bar owner joins us on stage donning his saxophone, closing his eyes, blowing through glinting golden metal, sweating, intuiting the musical movements, releasing an entire history in 20 lung bursting minutes.
He’s caught on that I was born in Scotland and during the evening we sit as men and musicians without boundaries between us. Many a toast is made to our health as we do our dam best to ruin it during the course of the night.
The next day, with an aching head and memory pregnant with void, I will write my little ode to this city – Beijing Morning – while nursing my hangover next to a congested static Chinese highway on the periphery of the Hutongs….where the ancient and the modern stand off like two armies of opposing ideological convictions.
But as I sit on the street this evening I don’t know any of that yet. I am momentarily caught between past and future. For now I am of and with the Hutongs…. a 70 year old street sweeper shuffles by in simple traditional clothes.
I hardly notice him, but he notices me. He has a twinkle in his eye and he puts down his broom, marches towards me, tilting his head back and forth manically and clapping his hands. Chuckling, I strum a chord and he becomes gleeful, fanatical, and it is infectious. I stand up. He starts to dance. To dam well dance. And I start to sing.
A crowd begins to gather and the audience watches – some transfixed, some baffled, some hooting, some clapping, some staring second hand through smart phones. It is one of the moments of my life. Where all that you felt that you should or should not be dissolve into irrelevance. You are in life, and life is in you, and there is no remembering of it or imagining of it – it is there in each pause and procession as this moment unfolds before you.
The Cultural Revolution transformed China, razing to the ground the foundations and context of what went before, displacing and rehousing people in towering buildings of iron and concrete, replacing a connected earth with a cut off sky. Books were scarce, centralised mantra dominated popular consciousness and individuality became subsumed in the collective.
Yet this dancing street sweeper indicates a different China. A China of the deepest laughter and the longest memory – despite the recurring suicide of recent history. A China of people and not ‘isms’ – of individuals not collectives. I cannot fathom China – its history, or its future. I am not a historian or a soothsayer. I am a musician and a traveler and all I am really doing is gauging the temperature of a moment. But at least in this I can bear witness to what is in front of me, and in those few, funny, endless minutes, I read something of an entire culture.
Communist China may or may not be what it is characterised to be. But for me it is the shining heart of a street sweeper dancing to the sound of a passer by’s guitar. I found Mr Tambourine Man. He just didn’t need a tambourine to express the unfurling heart of his nation.
Though burned by wildfire, it’s never destroyed / When spring winds blow it grows again
Find all previous parts of his Journals right here.