Bluegrass music comes to Shanghai, via Mongolia
Chinese musicians Tom Peng and Jerry Liu, known better as Tom and Jerry, are not your everyday Shanghai bluegrass musicians. They have never been to Kentucky, don’t own a pickup truck, and have no hint of a southern drawl. They’re from Inner Mongolia.
Before Tom and Jerry met, they were each following different musical paths.
Jerry, who had independently studied classical and rock guitar, discovered Pink Floyd in the early 1990s. “They were very influential for me,” he says. “Before that I had only heard Chinese rock and roll. After I heard Pink Floyd, I began to understand that I could create my own music.”
Mongolian music is a little like bluegrass. Plus, Mongolia has cowboys and so does America.— Tom Peng, Shanghai bluegrass musician
Drawing from Western rock influences, Jerry formed a string of punk and rock bands incorporating Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Chinese rock into his sound.
On the other end of the musical spectrum was Tom, a classical violinist since the age of eight and a recent graduate from music school when he was introduced to Jerry.
In 2002, an American couple living in Hohhut introduced Tom and Jerry to the alt-country/bluegrass band Nickel Creek. The knee-slappin’, string pickin’ music had them hooked.
"Once we heard that music, we began searching Inner Mongolia for a mandolin and banjo," says Jerry. "It was that simple."
After friends tracked the instruments down, Tom on mandolin and Jerry on banjo, set about mastering their new music.
Like true country musicians, Tom and Jerry wanted to take their act on the road, and one stop on their journey was Hangzhou.
“In Hangzhou, we wanted to find people interested in country music, but there were very few locals who wanted to listen -- people there are too laid back, too leisurely for our music style. We didn’t fit in there,” says Jerry.
A chance encounter with Shanghai-based guitarist Paul Meredith convinced Tom and Jerry that they might find a more receptive audience in the big city.
Shanghai blue grass
Since 2005 Tom and Jerry have slowly infiltrated the Shanghai live music scene, improving their skills and expanding their musical catalog along the way.
With Meredith, Tom and Jerry formed a trio called China Train that plays everything from Jack Johnson to Mongolian folk songs with a bluegrass twang.
“We always want to know more and more musicians and broaden our horizons. Paul gave us a lot of help with our music. We’re really thankful for him,” says Jerry.
Once we heard that music, we began searching Inner Mongolia a mandolin and banjo. It was that simple.— Jerry Liu, Shanghai bluegrass musician
“What makes me happy when they sing,” says Meredith,” is that they’re willing to learn Western-style big harmonies. You don’t hear that much with local bands. That’s not really part of Chinese music, but these guys are good enough to adapt.”
Tom and Jerry also front Lan Cao (Chinese for bluegrass), which plays a combination of folky rock, bluegrass standards, and original songs.
They have developed a small and dedicated Shanghai bluegrass following in the process.
Kansas native Nancy Lewis says, “I’m a groupie; I follow them wherever they go. Tom’s probably the best mandolin player I’ve ever heard. Crazy to find that talent in China.”
Jerry acknowledges that being a full-time musician isn’t easy, nor his only interest. He's the director of National Arts Center Magazine and is developing a side project that will promote the art, traditional crafts, and culture of nomadic Mongolians.
Tom has stayed more concentrated on music, even studying mandolin at Berkeley College of Music in Boston in 2009. Ultimately though, both Tom and Jerry are musicians at heart and are constantly incorporating new elements into their bluegrass -- including Chinese and Mongolian traditional music.
It’s not such a strange pairing explains Tom, “Mongolian music is a little like bluegrass. Plus, Mongolia has cowboys and so does America.”