Red Water’s Chinese invasion

by Jordan Green

Ray Colon, anexpatriate rock singer, had recently seen off a half dozen friends fromMianyang who showed up looking for a place to stay after the provincialgovernment ordered an evacuation to protect people from aftershocksthat might bring roofs down on their heads. “I got a call from afriend saying, ‘I’m going to be in Chengdu in two hours – do you have aplace to stay?'” Colon says during a phone call at about 8 p.m. on arecent Tuesday that reaches the East Coast of the United States exactly12 hours beforehand. “On the bus I was trying to figure out how toprepare, and they said, ‘Oh, it’s six people.'” Now, three weeksafter the deadliest earthquake in China that anyone can remember, thisGuatemalan Angeleno, who spent part of his late teens and early adultyears in western North Carolina, is planning a trip back to themountains, where he was when buildings and earth simply crashed down oncivilization. Colon and three friends had pulled their motorcycles offthe road so one of them could retrieve a video camera when theearthquake struck on May 12; ahead, a landslide buried the road andbehind them buildings collapsed. ” The drive that I was takingthat day was like driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Colonsays. “It was just like driving from Lake Lure to Asheville the way yougo up through the foothills. A lot of my thoughts that day were aboutif an earthquake struck there, how people would fare?” It’s asafe bet that many Americans had never heard of Chengdu before theearthquake flared it into the international news. It’s a provincialcapital in the mountainous southwest of China with a metropolitanpopulation of about 11 million. For perspective, that’s almost 2million more people than live in the entire state of North Carolina. Colonhad planned to spend a couple months in Mianyang, the second largestcity in Sichuan province, and then go on to India. On weekends he tookthe bus to Chengdu and jammed with his future band mates at a clubcalled the Hemp House. Other expatriates have similarly found receptiveaudiences and opportunities in Chengdu. “This particular town,traditionally it’s been isolated because of the mountains,” Colon says.”Now that you have more people coming from the West. It’s one of themore open cities.” Later, he adds, “If you can open a hip-hop club andbe successful, that tells you how pervasive it is. There’s a hip-hopguy from South Carolina who runs this club, a former Republicancampaign organizer.” Four years ago, when Colon caught thetravel ache during a stint as an information technology employee withDurham County’s mental health department, he could scarcely haveimagined that he would settle in Chengdu and take up with three fellowexpatriates in a party band that would strike a chord with foreignersand native Chinese alike in a section of the country budding withmodernity and new cultural awareness. Basically a cover band -Oasis, U2, Skynyrd, the Stones and Bob Marley gives the basic picture -with a dozen originals and counting, Red Water has played for audiencesnumbering in the hundreds and thousands, including a visit to Tibetlast December before the government closed the autonomous regionfollowing days of unrest. Now Red Water is planning an even moreaudacious gambit – a tour of North Carolina in July and August. Colonsays the band has booked a gig with friends the Puritan Rodeo Show atHell in Chapel Hill and two shows in Charlotte with the help offinancier friend. Nothing in any of the three Piedmont Triad cities sofar. The band would like to cover expenses and contribute the balanceto earthquake relief, as they did in appearances at the Hemp House andother local venues last month. The band, which features a Frenchsponger named Sebby DeBande on guitar, an Irishman from London namedTommy Burke on drums and the German Bodo Von Zingler on bass, projectsa buoyant sound that mixes the spare reggae-fusion of the Police withthe Jamaican-oriented 1980s British ska scene and the loose, funkygratuitousness of Walrus on a Saturday night at the Blind Tiger inGreensboro. They cover Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing Inthe Name Of,” with its crushing funk-metal riff and defiant chorus of”fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” – an anti-authoritarian anthemif there ever was one. Colon says they play the song mostly foraudiences comprised of more than 50 percent expatriates. Because ofChengdu’s relatively isolation, the city enjoys more cultural freedomthan the rest of the country. Burke adds that if the band were going toplay a major festival they would have to submit their lyricsbeforehand. Red Water is not an overtly political band in any case. “There’sa government, and you don’t want to go out and contradict them, but ona personal level you can discuss things,” Colon says. “The people wantto discuss things. It’s a changing country with the advent of theinternet.” A string of YouTube videos shows the band playingraw, almost crude music, the musicians smiling and animated, andaudiences going absolutely nuts with the novelty and intoxication oftheir sound and stage presence. “You’ve got four guys from fourdifferent countries in a country not their own, and I leave it toothers to judge how it sounds, but for me I’m really excited,” Colonsays. “And the reaction we get not just from native Chinese people butfrom everyone else is really great.”