May 25, 2014

Three Swedish hearts and one Chinese mystery

It’s a bit embarrassing. Because you are actually supposed to hate it. But I remember very clearly my first encounter. In my kitchen, late eighties, and there was this music filling the room from the radio. Making me stop. What is this?

It was Kenny G. Yeah. For those who don’t know, Kenny G is a saxophone player having sold 75 million albums worldwide of his slick and soothing tunes. And what grabbed me and didn’t leave me that day was his Songbird. I fell in love. There is no other way to put it.

Yeah yeah yeah, I know. I can still not nail down why his music did find it’s way right into my heart. But I think it has something to do with it being so vocal. I wanted to sing it. And I did, my god I did! Bought the record, turned the volume up, even brought the loudspeakers outside to fill my fields with this elevator friendly music. And the lyric writer in me wanted to put words to those melodies. I heard somewhere his mother was a singer, and that makes sense - if it’s true, he is singing on his saxophone.

I didn’t know at that time that he lives in Seattle, and I didn’t know that I would live there either, and this is not going to be a story about how we met, because we didn’t, this is a story about not only me being captured by his melodies, but most of China! And especially one of them: Going Home.

For years the tune, in all its seductive woodwind glory, has been a staple of Chinese society. Every day, “Going Home” is piped into shopping malls, schools, train stations and fitness centers as a signal to the public that it is time, indeed, to go home. One recent Saturday afternoon, as the smooth notes of “Going Home” cooed over the ordered chaos of Beijing’s famous Panjiayuan Antiques Market, hawkers packed up their Mao-era propaganda ashtrays, 1930s telephones and “antique” jade amulets while the last bargain hunters headed for the gates. To ensure no stragglers miss their cue, the melody plays on a loop — for the final hour and a half. According to a manager, Panjiayuan has used the tune since 2000. She did not know why. 
For a generation of Chinese youth, “Going Home” has featured prominently on the soundtrack of their lives. It’s played at wedding banquets, for kicking student out of the school library, on the street, at home, everywhere. On the popular Chinese video-sharing website Youku, “Going Home” accounts for four of the 10 most-played videos in the saxophone category, with 313,786 plays over the past three years.
So what does Kenny G himself have to say about this phenomenon? Touring China in the 1990s, he heard “Going Home” playing in Tiananmen Square, in Shanghai, on a golf course and “in a restroom in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “It made me feel great to know there was no language barrier to connecting with music. And I don’t ask questions because I like to leave some of the mystery,” he says.
As Kenny G had his grip on me as well in the early nineties, Trouble & Trouble were haunted too. He was often their soothing evening lullaby, in competition with Swedish saxophonist Jonas Knutsson. So, moving to Seattle it was kind of special knowing he was in the same town. And we did have one encounter, although not in person.
It was late fall 1996, and one of those unpleasant wet-snow-turning-into-slush weather conditions. One of those evenings you don’t want to drive in Seattle. I am used to all kinds of snowy roads from Sweden, but our 1982 Buick wasn’t the best companion in this game and Seattleites in general not either. But there was this concert with Kenny G at the Key Arena and we had tickets! Trouble & Trouble had been looking forward to this for months, and so had I. This music that had accompanied us since the boys were babies, was it for real, really? Is there a person in flesh and blood behind the soundtrack of our life?
Yes, it was. Our seats were way up, where we climbed after an adventurous ride from Portage Bay to lower Queen Anne. And the evening was long. The singer Toni Braxton opened with a full act, and it was bedtime even before she started. Then a gospel choir got delayed because of the weather. But, hey, we were at the Key Arena looking forward to Kenny G, we were in a good spot!
What I remember the most is how he handled the waiting for the choir situation. It didn’t even feel like a delay. He made the sold out 16000 seat arena comfortable improvising us forward, and the moment where he played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to his 3-year old son at the front row was adorable.
I was a bit preoccupied by how I would make it back to Portage Bay in the slush though. Distracted. Tried hard to be present in this can’t-wait-to-be-there moment, but wasn’t 100% there.
What about Trouble & Trouble then? Well, at the age of 8 and 10 a dark November night they were tired already when we got there. And Toni Braxton was new to them and didn’t quite catch their attention, Sandman was visiting already before Kenny G entered the stage. But I was happy. I was sitting under the Key Arena ceiling, in between my two sons, who woke up at the familiar sound of the saxophone. And then fell asleep again, leaning towards me as I held them. Of course. As they should. In the arms of their good night lullaby. Before Going Home.

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