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Crossing Culture

Four area artists communicated with the universal language of music on a recent cultural exchange.

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"It was much more than I thought it'd be," reflects singer-songwriter Robbin Thompson. "China wasn't on my top ten to visit, but now it is."

Thompson's sentiments are echoed by all who represented the United States for three scheduled shows and a handful of impromptu performances during the visit. No one says the political situation is perfect, but the group found memories for a lifetime in the Forbidden City, at the foot of Buddhist temples, high upon the Great Wall and in little markets full of unusual sights and sounds. Thompson, pianist and choir director Hope Armstrong Erb and acoustic duo Linny Greer and Jim Mohr know music breaks down cultural walls, but they were surprised to learn some of the expected walls did not exist. Freedom to roam and explore without restriction was an unexpected eye-opener. No scowling armed guards lurked on street corners to ensure that everyone toed the line.

"We went everywhere we wanted. … Nobody ever said, 'You can't do that.' It's just not the picture we get here. The people were real upbeat," Mohr recalls.

"I was … prepared for Communist China and [restrictions]. It was nothing close to that. … it was like being here except there were a billion point five people. I didn't get hassled by a soul," Thompson adds.

The group encountered an interest in Westerners and a friendliness that was open and warm. Shopkeepers engaged the visitors on personal levels. Folks in the street welcomed them with curious interest. Concert audiences greeted the performers with respect, and after the second show in Beijing, each player was considered an honored guest and received flowers.

The chance to learn and share American ways with China came from a national meeting of county officials attended by Tuckahoe District Supervisor Patricia O'Bannon in 1997. The representatives were encouraged to put together exchange programs in their home districts, and in 2000, Henrico County sponsored a two-day visit from Chinese artists. In response, the four musicians, O'Bannon, O'Bannon's husband, John O'Bannon, translator Kuo Shang Huei and Henrico Deputy Manager Angela Harper made the reciprocal journey Oct. 4-15. The O'Bannons paid their airfare, but Henrico picked up flight costs for the others, plus incidental expenses. The Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society paid for the group's expenses in China.

From the onset, the visitors found the modern and ancient settings intriguing. Shanghai was a huge mix of neon, skyscrapers and centuries old temples. Beijing was the smaller, culturally oriented city, and one of the two performances there took place on the stage of a folk-arts concert theater. Mohr and Greer sang acoustic American folk and bluegrass tunes while Erb performed piano compositions by Aaron Copeland, Scott Joplin and others. She also played a Native American piece.

"You could really hear the Asian connection," she recalls.

Thompson followed with his set of acoustic songs and the show wrapped with all players joining for the Youngbloods' "Get Together." They found out later that the show was broadcast to six million Chinese viewers.

The additional two concerts were as varied as the overall experience when the artists performed in a windswept park in Beijing and a Shanghai club owned by a former Chinese movie star. In the club, an aging Dixieland-style band backed them for a unusual version of "Your Cheatin' Heart."

"It must have been in about eight different meters," Greer says.

Each night was a feast of new foods. Smoked bamboo was popular. Sea cucumbers were not.

"It was sort of like eating fishy tasting fat," Mohr notes.

In addition to guided tours of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and ancient Buddhist sights, the artists had time and freedom to shop the markets and pursue individual interests. Erb visited a music conservatory and talked with educators about a future high-school choral exchange program. The guys hit the shops, where pearls, jade and friendly merchants were abundant. Thompson also took the opportunity to record parts for "Orange Moon," a Shanghai-inspired tune written for his upcoming CD "One Step Ahead of the Blues." To give the tune a unique touch, a Chinese studio musician added traditional stringed Liu Qin and Zhong Ruan instruments to tracks recorded stateside. Thompson speaks no Chinese and the engineer and musician spoke no English, so the process took time. But Thompson remembers it worked in the end thanks to "a lot of sign language and help from an interpreter."

Perhaps the impromptu highlight for some came during the trip to the Great Wall when Thompson, Mohr and Greer "rocked the Wall" with live acoustic versions of Beatles tunes and "Johnny B. Goode." Uncounted numbers of Chinese were at the wall for a holiday and the trio quickly attracted a crowd.

"I said, 'We're going to the Great Wall. We're gonna play music,'" Thompson remembers. "The place stopped. People were giving us their babies (for photographs)…It was unbelievable."

"We got swarmed," Mohr concurs. "It was like being the Beatles."

Whether the future holds more exchanges is unclear. But it is clear that each visitor brought back rare memories. Erb sums up the group's shared feelings, "We felt in the short time we made friends. I hope I'll see them again." S

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