Do you think that in order to be a good blues musician you have to endure some sort of suffering or tragedy? Perhaps you can relate to African American music because of the suffering you endured during the Cultural Revolution.
Yes, maybe it’s because of the Revolution [that I am interested in the blues]. But I understood the blues only after I came to the US. When I was first in Memphis, I couldn’t sing the blues. I tried so hard and decided I just don’t have that. After I came back to the States from London, I had some experience of being a Chinese person in the States and struggling. I felt the blues then. I said now I feel it, now I can sing the blues…. Then I felt this thing is with me…. Maybe you’re just born with it. If you want to ignore it, then fine, it won’t come out. It doesn’t matter if you’re Chinese or black. On the inside it’s there, if you want to search for it. If you listen to Chinese music before 1949, there’s lots of blues in China. The way they sing and the way they view music is the blues. The music deals with life. [Chinese musicians] used to tell personal stories with their music and even if the music was not about a personal story, they put their personal feelings into the music.
It was very hard for me to bring that out. For African Americans, they have that tradition…. For us, it’s been erased. We’re not allowed to look inside. During the Cultural Revolution we couldn’t. We were not allowed. But now we’ve lost it. We just can’t do it. We pretend. When you’re used to listening to other people telling you what to do, you form your emotions around that and later you just don’t have [any emotions]. It’s really hard for me. I feel like I live many lives. I left China when I was 30 years old. Before I left, there was a part of my soul I didn’t know. I spent ten years digging out my soul.
There has been some press lately in the US about how blues is dying out and how even in the South there are so few blues musicians left and they are all really old. What do you think is the future of blues music?
If you want to hear the future of the blues, go to China! Then you can find the soul.
Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Society.