My Big Fat Bluegrass Wedding蓝草音乐婚礼
“I hope the bride knows what bluegrass is.”
Now, I’ve tried all kinds of strange combos: whipped cream and potato chips? Yep. Waltzing to Bon Jovi? Hell yes. You name it, I’ve probably tried it. But bluegrass at a Chinese wedding? Of all the seemingly ill conceived combos, I would have never dreamt that one up.
The Roots of Bluegrass Music
Bluegrass music is a form of American roots music, played on a range of acoustic stringed instruments including the banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Performances are characterized by free improvisation and close high-pitched harmonies. The bluegrass community is vibrant and resilient, and sprung from traditional music played within the Appalachian region of the United States, where many English, Irish and Scottish immigrants settled during the 1600s. The Appalachia cultural region spans from the Southern Tier of New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, and the stories told through the lyrics of bluegrass songs often reflected the day-to-day happenings of life on the farm or in the hills. The music spread further afield with the onset of radio in the early 1900s. Originally the style of music was not called bluegrass, but just old time mountain hillbilly music. In the 1920s and 1930s, The Monroe Brothers from Kentucky were popular pioneers of the musical tradition. Charlie played the guitar, while Bill played the mandolin as they sung in harmony. After splitting up and venturing on their own ways, Bill started a new form of “traditional” country music with his band labelled “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys”. Their performances included many distinctive features of bluegrass music, such as breakneck tempos, vocal harmonies, and sophisticated solos on the mandolin, banjo and fiddle. The ensemble became known as “The Original Bluegrass Band” which became a prototype for groups that followed, and Bill is commonly referred to as the “Father of Bluegrass”. The introduction of the “bluegrass festival” in the 1960s helped to bring the style out of obscurity, and create joyous community events for the new generations of bluegrass musicians to gain inspiration from. Other sub-genres that stemmed from the traditional style, include “progressive bluegrass” utilising electric instruments and containing influences from rock’n’roll, “bluegrass gospel” using Christian lyrics and soulful harmonies, and “neotraditional bluegrass” where bands typically have more than one lead singer.
Now, I’ve tried all kinds of strange combinations. Whipped cream eaten with potato chips? Yes. Waltzing to rock band Bon Jovi? Hell yes. You name it and I’ve probably tried it. Performing bluegrass music at a Chinese wedding? Of all the seemingly ill-conceived combos, I would have never dreamt that one up. Talk about polar opposites! But that’s the combo I found myself sampling.
Me and my musical buddies call ourselves “The Broken Bridge Bluegrass Band” because we like to play by the Broken Bridge sometimes, and are happy to be known as (probably) “Hangzhou’s Only Bluegrass Band”. Also, there’s something to be said about having a bandname that is really hard to pronounce. One afternoon the rain forced us away from our usual haunt and we were instead skulking outside of the Starbucks by the Culture Center, as we still wanted to practice despite the weather. Our banjo player was filling us in on the details of an upcoming wedding. We’d been booked to play a bluegrass set right after a Chinese wedding ceremony. Standard stuff, right? Well, here’s the kind of wedding I’m used to: a string quartet made up of two violins, a viola and a cello. The group arrives, sets up their instruments, adjusts some stands, and then hacks away at Pachelbel and Handel’s Water Music just well enough to be ignored. The general goal of wedding music is to sound good, but not so good that guests can pick out any one specific
song. You have to blend in. And most importantly, never – ever - upstage the bride. Outdoor weddings are to be avoided (owing to airborne sheetmusic), as are receptions (owing to the time I played for 1 and a half hours in full view of a chocolate fountain). These are the standard wedding procedures, and it’s music that you’d call “nice” and nothing more.
So, a bluegrass wedding? In China? Hmmm...
Upon arrival we were put on a stage (right next to a precariously-stacked tower of champagne glasses. Go figure) and were given mics to diddle around with. We had no idea when we were supposed to start playing so we took to wandering about, edging ever closer to the buffet table and schmoozing away until the bridesmaid/interpreter came over to give us instructions.
“Hey, the bride is running a little late. Can you play something… lively?” But of course!
The wedding was supposed to begin at 6:18pm, and the three of us speculated over the significance of this time on our respective stools. The guitarist maintained that, since 8 was a special number, having at least one in the time was sure to be lucky. I thought it had something to do with the combination of 9’s, since the Chinese pronunciation of two 9’s and the word for “forever” is the same. At any rate, we started playing at 6:21, so symbolism be damned.
I looked out over the smartly-dressed guests seated at coffee tables, at the pictures of the bride and groom in traditional Chinese wedding outfits, and then at our instruments. What the hell, I thought, let’s do this! And at once we launched into our opening number “Cripple Creek,” which is about as bluegrassy as you can get. The banjo plucked and the guitar strummed and, suddenly, children were up dancing and flopping around. Some adults joined them, and the atmosphere swelled to one
of pure celebration. I think that’s a universal quality about weddings: no matter where people are from, everyone is there to celebrate with the enthusiasm of a firecracker.
We transitioned into a Chinese song 《我的姑娘在哪
里》 (“Where Is My Girl?”) which seemed fitting as the bride was still running late. Regardless, we kept on playing, and people kept on dancing. The Chinese guests cheered and sang along, while the foreign guests snapped photos and laughed at the dancing kids. We played faster and faster, and then, when the bridesmaid came to tell us that we could stop, we slunk away to watch the proceedings.
Of course, Chinese weddings are different in many ways from Western weddings, but this wedding defied all traditions. It was Chinese at its core, with enough foreign elements to justifiably call it a fusion. Half of the guests were foreigners who had studied with the bride, and the other half were Chinese people who I believe had a good grasp of Western customs. The bride wore a big poofy white dress. The bride and groom cut the cake, poured the champagne, and the emcee made the couple play games before they could kiss each other.
Then it was reception time so we shuffled back on stage. Despite how random the situation appeared to be, our band and the music seemed to fit right in; our jeans, our Western instruments, and our songs all fit in perfectly. We played “Turkey in the Straw,” and even got a folksy “Canon in D” going (because it wouldn’t be a wedding without it). The blushing bride ventured on stage and sang along with us, and when she ran to hug her new husband, we played and waltzed away, watching on as the gaggle of dancers hoedown-ed in elegant qipao dresses.
The night swept by, and soon the bride and groom were saying how lucky they were to know us, but truth be told, it was I who felt like the lucky one. In the end it just goes to show: sometimes it’s the strangest flavour combinations that taste the best.