Sandwiched between the release of her new album, Chime, this spring and her first full-length book, My Own Devices, this fall, Dessa spent much of last month taking an eye-opening trip across China and Hong Kong with her bandmates Aby Wolf and Matthew Santos. Orchestrated by the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Arts Midwest, which provides tour funding and cultural exchange programs for artists across the region, it provided Dessa and her crew with their first opportunity to perform their music for Chinese audiences.
Now that they are back on Central Time, the band and the nonprofit sent over a few thoughts about their experiences overseas, in addition to a short tour video recapping their adventures.
“Most Chinese audiences weren’t familiar with these performers, but the tour created opportunities to learn about Dessa, Aby, and Matthew — where they come from, their passion for music, the stories behind their songs,” Arts Midwest reported. “Audiences approached the artists after events to talk. They asked where to download more music. They asked personal questions or just snapped a photo next to a real person and not a news headline. Starting from music we showed that people are not so far apart, even when separated by an ocean.”
Aby Wolf’s experience on tour echoed that same sentiment. “This trip to China with Dessa and Arts Midwest was an unforgettable experience,” she says. “Aside from the many small, jovial interactions we had with excited students and new fans at our events, my favorite exchange happened on a solo walk through Yuexiu Park on a sweltering morning in Guangzhou. I came upon a small circle of elderly men playing bamboo flutes under the shade of a gazebo, meandering through their shared memorized songbook of traditional Chinese songs. When I approached and gestured that I’d like to take their photo, they began to play ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and I chimed in with a harmony, which absolutely delighted them. They spoke no English, and I knew only one phrase in Mandarin (thanks to our tour manager, Yu Pei!), but this was the perfect scenario to use it: ‘Hello! My name is Aby, and I’m an American musician.’ A few songs later, we understood each other perfectly.”
Dessa, meanwhile, organized her thoughts into a list, which you can find below in addition to the tour recap video. Never one to stop moving for more than a few moments, Dessa is already swinging back into action back home and preparing for another pair of Minnesota Orchestra shows on October 5 and 6; she’ll be at the Orchestra Hall box office in person this Friday when tickets go on sale. She’s also expecting to announce a book-related event in the Twin Cities soon.
Tips for Your Next Trip to China, from Dessa:
Present and receive business cards with two hands.
Don’t leave your chopsticks speared upright in a bowl of rice–It means the person sitting across from you is dead.
Mandarin is difficult, but hello and thank you are easy and both will serve you well.
Spend an hour at a supermarket; walk every aisle if you can.
Children may stare at you, fixated by your unusual looks. If their parents seem amenable, try for a high-five.
At a communal dinner, compliment the person who ordered on their selections.
Suspend your allegiance to the standing line; here it’s often a casual catch-as-catch-can.
Smile at a few strangers—it feels so sweet to have one returned. The Chinese are more playful, open, and curious than their portrayal in our media.
Order two: the beer is like water. Sip slowly: the baijiu is like gasoline.
Walk for miles. China is green and safe and beautiful.
If a new Chinese friend declines a small gift or a bite of your dessert, offer again. And then twice more.
Cross any major street with the same levels of fear and caution that you had as a seven-year-old child.
Look for open doorways between stores on shop-lined streets; they sometimes lead to bustling indoor markets invisible from the sidewalk.
You may be tempted to stare at the fitness dancing in the park, the impossible beauty of the cashier, or the rotund men who lift their shirts to rub their bellies after meals. Go ahead and let yourself look for a moment; there are too many people here to worry too much about what you’re doing.
The Ottoman-sized granola bars on the street are sliced to order, sold in pieces to tourists for inflated prices. Buy some anyway, they’re so good.
Find a way to tell the big stories of your life in common words. With an open face and a little courage, you can find Chinese people who are willing to trade your stories for theirs.