Red Water’s Chinese invasion

by Jordan Green

Ray Colon, an expatriate rock singer, had recently seen off a half dozen friends from Mianyang who showed up looking for a place to stay after the provincial government ordered an evacuation to protect people from aftershocks that might bring roofs down on their heads.

“I got a call from a friend saying, ‘I’m going to be in Chengdu in two hours – do you have a place to stay?'” Colon says during a phone call at about 8 p.m. on a recent Tuesday that reaches the East Coast of the United States exactly 12 hours beforehand. “On the bus I was trying to figure out how to prepare, and they said, ‘Oh, it’s six people.'”

Now, three weeks after the deadliest earthquake in China that anyone can remember, this Guatemalan Angeleno, who spent part of his late teens and early adult years in western North Carolina, is planning a trip back to the mountains, where he was when buildings and earth simply crashed down on civilization. Colon and three friends had pulled their motorcycles off the road so one of them could retrieve a video camera when the earthquake struck on May 12; ahead, a landslide buried the road and behind them buildings collapsed.

” The drive that I was taking that day was like driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Colon says. “It was just like driving from Lake Lure to Asheville the way you go up through the foothills. A lot of my thoughts that day were about if an earthquake struck there, how people would fare?”

It’s a safe bet that many Americans had never heard of Chengdu before the earthquake flared it into the international news. It’s a provincial capital in the mountainous southwest of China with a metropolitan population of about 11 million. For perspective, that’s almost 2 million more people than live in the entire state of North Carolina.

Colon had planned to spend a couple months in Mianyang, the second largest city in Sichuan province, and then go on to India. On weekends he took the bus to Chengdu and jammed with his future band mates at a club called the Hemp House. Other expatriates have similarly found receptive audiences 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 the more open cities.” Later, he adds, “If you can open a hip-hop club and be successful, that tells you how pervasive it is. There’s a hip-hop guy from South Carolina who runs this club, a former Republican campaign organizer.”

Four years ago, when Colon caught the travel ache during a stint as an information technology employee with Durham County’s mental health department, he could scarcely have imagined that he would settle in Chengdu and take up with three fellow expatriates in a party band that would strike a chord with foreigners and native Chinese alike in a section of the country budding with modernity 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 audiences numbering in the hundreds and thousands, including a visit to Tibet last December before the government closed the autonomous region following days of unrest. Now Red Water is planning an even more audacious gambit – a tour of North Carolina in July and August.

Colon says the band has booked a gig with friends the Puritan Rodeo Show at Hell in Chapel Hill and two shows in Charlotte with the help of financier friend. Nothing in any of the three Piedmont Triad cities so far. The band would like to cover expenses and contribute the balance to earthquake relief, as they did in appearances at the Hemp House and other local venues last month.

The band, which features a French sponger named Sebby DeBande on guitar, an Irishman from London named Tommy Burke on drums and the German Bodo Von Zingler on bass, projects a buoyant sound that mixes the spare reggae-fusion of the Police with the Jamaican-oriented 1980s British ska scene and the loose, funky gratuitousness of Walrus on a Saturday night at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro.

They cover Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In the 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 anthem if there ever was one.

Colon says they play the song mostly for audiences comprised of more than 50 percent expatriates. Because of Chengdu’s relatively isolation, the city enjoys more cultural freedom than the rest of the country. Burke adds that if the band were going to play a major festival they would have to submit their lyrics beforehand. Red Water is not an overtly political band in any case.

“There’s a government, and you don’t want to go out and contradict them, but on a personal level you can discuss things,” Colon says. “The people want to discuss things. It’s a changing country with the advent of the internet.”

A string of YouTube videos shows the band playing raw, almost crude music, the musicians smiling and animated, and audiences going absolutely nuts with the novelty and intoxication of their sound and stage presence.

“You’ve got four guys from four different countries in a country not their own, and I leave it to others to judge how it sounds, but for me I’m really excited,” Colon says. “And the reaction we get not just from native Chinese people but from everyone else is really great.”

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