American musician Kirk Kenney plugs in to traditional music in China

By Chris Hawke Source:Global Times Published: 2017/1/24 19:12:56

Kirk Kenney shows audience how to square dance at a show. Photo: Courtesy of Kirk Kenney

Kirk Kenney shows audience how to square dance at a show. Photo: Courtesy of Kirk Kenney

When Kirk Kenney, co-founder of folk band Mountain High, was a teenager, China wasn't even a blip on his radar. He grew up in a sheltered suburb of St. Petersburg, Florida, spending most of his time watching television.

Last week, he played two packed shows at the National Center of the Performing Arts in Beijing, speaking to the crowd in fluent Chinese, and joyfully performed traditional music with some of the most talented folk musicians in China.

Kenney traces the story back to when he was just 16 years old and feeling bored with life.

"I had just been playing guitar for a year, and it was the first thing I ever cared about learning," said Kenney. There were a lot of things he wanted to see and understand, but none of them overlapped with what he was learning.

One day, he was driving around a lake listening to music with an old friend, who put on the soundtrack to Genghis Blues, a film about a blues musician who discovers the ancient art of Tuvan throat singing. What he heard blew him away.

"This subverted my sense of what music could be. This was someone using their body in a way no one around here does," he said.

This particular style of singing works by compressing the throat, chest and stomach to create piercing, harmonic sounds similar to whistling.

Prior to that, he had listened obsessively to bands like The Who, Spike Jones and His Orchestra and Sublime, but this opened up a whole new world for him. In college, he discovered Chinese bands such as Xiao He, Hang on the Box and especially Wild Children, whose key members moved into the Chinese countryside to live with peasants and study their folk music.

"I was inspired by that story. It seemed like something I could do, because I was learning Chinese, and I liked the music of Asia," said Kenney. He liked the fact that Wild Children was collecting old folk tunes such as Alan Lomax and other key figures in the American folk revival.

Forging a career

To further his studies, Kenney enrolled in Bennington College in Vermont, but struggled with the new freedom that the unconventional liberal arts school offered. He found that he could not shake off a feeling of cynicism and being adrift. In his third year, he went to the Green Mountain Institute in Portugal to study massage and integrative therapy. It was an experience that changed his life.

"I was thinking about how the body connects to emotions, and fear and moods." He realized that massage and music both change people's moods in the same way. "If music is vibrations, it changes the state of your body, which changes the state of your emotions."

He decided that music was something that he should take up seriously as it had the power to physically make his life better.

"There are a lot of vibrations and molecular movements in the universe. Music is one of the only ways we can connect with that movement. When you are singing and playing instruments you are literally creating vibrations. You are tuning yourself to universal vibrations, universal frequencies."

The experience made Kenney realize that staying sad is hard work. "The mind tends to fixate on things, so you might as well train yourself to fixate on things that make you happy."

"I know this is mainstream now, but I realized it 11 years ago. That's why I'm famous," he joked.

Three years earlier, Kenney was struggling over whether he should quit his job as a kindergarten teacher and embrace his identity as a musician.

"It was really hard. Everyone says you will never make any money," Kenney recalls. But he remembered the advice he had once received from a drummer. "It took me so long to accept that I'm a musician. Do yourself a favor and just accept that you are a musician."

Diving in

His decision paid off. His band recently changed its name from the Hutong Yellow Weasels to Mountain High to better match the expectations of their primary clients: concert halls, festivals, corporate clients and universities.

"The old name wasn't entirely relevant, because we don't live in Beijing anymore." He and his bandmates now take trips to Xinjiang and Yunnan to study traditional music in China.

During Mountain High's first trip to Yunnan, they led an Appalachian square dance in a small bar in Dali. People in the audience were too shy to join, creating an awkward moment. Then a man with long gray hair appeared on the floor. Very quickly, other people followed and the dance went ahead successfully. That man was Zhang Quan, Kenney's hero from Wild Children.

Kenney has now gone full circle, from dreaming about having a life in China and learning about its folk music, to actually doing it, even getting a chance to perform for and with some of his musical idols.

Kenney strongly believes that there is a higher purpose to performing music. "It's really important to me that people don't kill each other, and music is a very powerful way to help people listen to each other, and listening leads to understanding, which leads to humanization," he said.

"If there is some kind of higher power, I feel like music is one of the best ways to connect to it directly."

Newspaper headline: Good vibrations

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