Shanghai’s Bluegrass Boy
Walk into Southern Belle on a Wednesday night and you’ll probably see 28-year-old Tom Pang sitting alone on the terrace smoking. He doesn’t have a band, there’s no upright bass or banjo in his set, but Pang strums Shanghai’s best bluegrass.
Born and raised in Inner Mongolia, Pang was a troublemaker. His father thought it might keep him in line if he had something stationary to study, so he arranged for a famous violin teacher to visit. Pang was so impressed that he begged for lessons. At age 19 he enrolled in a music university in the provincial capital, Hohhot. Everyone thought he was going to play in a national orchestra one day.
But in 2001 the local rock scene was up and coming and Pang was paying attention. He’d begun hanging out with American exchange students. He complained to friend and fellow musician Liu Shen that he was bored playing the same classical stuff over and over. Then an American gave him a CD by folk trio Nickel Creek and Pang immediately fell in love.
“It was like there was a vast field that expands in all directions and I was standing on a country road in the middle of it. It was so peaceful, so beautiful,” he says.
Pang wanted to learn mandolin, but he couldn’t find one. Hohhot only had a handful of music shops, and none of the owners had even heard of the instrument. Luckily, a friend was opening an import store. The friend called his supplier in Japan and ordered two mandolins. Tom spent all his savings to buy one – no one ever bought the second.
“Last year I went back home, I saw the other mandolin was still hanging there, just the same as nine years ago when I left,” he says, grinning.
Internet was hard to come by in Hohhot at that time, and bluegrass was nowhere to be found. So to learn Pang listened to what little country music he could find – like John Denver’s ‘Take me Home Country Road’ – and played mandolin over the guitar part. After practicing for seven months, Pang and Liu moved to Hangzhou to start performing.
“In Hangzhou I learned how to play some parts of bluegrass songs, but not the whole thing. Because I was just learning from song samples played on iTunes,” Pang says. They stayed in Hangzhou a year and moved to Shanghai in 2005, looking for a bigger crowd.
Eventually Liu moved on, but Pang has been at it ever since. Shanghai isn’t exactly the Promised Land for bluegrass. Apart from twice-weekly shows with guitarist Jeff Davis, owner of Beedees, Pang doesn’t have many other gigs so money is tight.
Pang craves likeminded musicians, but Shanghai has few to offer. Even Davis says Pang wears him out when they perform together, as he’s always ready to play one more and then one more, even for a small audience.
Pang wishes he had the resources to bring together experienced musicians for a serious bluegrass act. “The only problem is money, but maybe I’ll be lucky enough to find patrons who share the same vision and have the dough.”
“Sometimes Tom will cry while he plays this song,” Davis says one night at Southern Belle before they start to strum ‘Csárdás,’ a Hungarian folk dance. The piece starts slow and works into a frenzied crescendo. Tom closes his eyes and lowers his head. Shanghai might be an unlikely home for a dedicated folkster, but his audience is rapt.
December 13, 2011 at 11:30 am