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Shanghai's Peace Old Jazz Band has been performing together since 1980, but the group's members have been playing much longer than that. Aged between 65 and 87 years, many of them have been playing jazz since the 1940s and have seen the world around them transform.
From the Japanese occupation and the Cultural Revolution to capitalism on overdrive, the band members have seen the many faces of China and withstood the government's suspicions of jazz. Through ages of political upheaval, they never lost their faith and belief in their music.
Now comes one of their biggest challenges: each year Rotterdam hosts the North Sea Jazz Festival and this year, Peace Old Jazz plans to make the trip. Follow them and director Uli Gaulke as they make the hopeful journey to win the love of the festival's audience.
By Uli Gaulke
As an 8-year-old boy growing up in East Germany, I was stuffed into a uniform and handed a trumpet. From that point on, I blared just about everything the state-mandated musical repertoire had to offer in the hopes of injecting some merriment into the grey socialist reality. That is until the day the notes of a classic American jazz song landed on my music stand. It was a magical moment when I suddenly felt a whiff of the big wide world blow into my little life.
Then the Berlin Wall came down and everything became possible. I traded in my trumpet for a camera and began making films. Two years ago, I read a magazine story about a band in the booming metropolis of Shanghai, which had been stoically playing American jazz every day for the past thirty years. In a city that is continually striving to erase its past, these elderly gentlemen seemed like rocks in the waves, concealing a treasure trove of fantastic stories.
What had they experienced during all the tumultuous times in China since catching the jazz bug during their early youth - this very music that cries out for freedom and individuality? With the Peace Old Jazz Band, I had found a focus for exploring a culture which was completely foreign to me. Having experienced the sweeping political changes in Germany myself, I am interested in how people in other cultures adapt to change, how they re-align their lives and pursue their dreams and longings. There is always some kind of personal link. In this case, it was my own past as a trumpet player and my experiences living in a socialist world.
But even though our musicians could tell wonderful stories, I initially felt little empathy for them. They were always in a hurry to tell their tales and let them quickly vanish behind a brash smile. This was the greatest challenge for me; putting on the brakes and finding the time and space where they could have the peace of mind to let their memories re-surface. After much trial and error, I discovered that these moments came during and after meals. Now our real work could begin.
The trip to Holland was the litmus test for getting things moving. We had to create tension to release emotions and feelings. This took the form of the rehearsals and the encounters with the young female singer. I wanted our heroes to reflect upon their lives one last time shortly before embarking upon their great journey. What I didn't want is for them to play a role for me. Without a doubt, they are professional in how they present themselves. But what did they really think and feel? Where were the shady sides in their lives?
It was important for me to look beyond their smiling faces. I wanted to feel the power it takes to revive their memories and feelings on camera. At the same time, I wanted the film to be an ode to the music which gave meaning to these musicians' lives regardless of whatever storm they were weathering. But they played very badly and came across as tired and weary. How could we develop empathy for them, especially considering their heyday as musicians was in the distant past? Only their honesty and openness about their feelings could make them convincing. But this was contrary to their nature so, in a way, the film shoot became a battle of cultures between our search for their souls and the musicians' endeavours to hide their innermost feelings.
In the end, I chose to focus on Mr Sun and Mr Bao - two men whose amiability and dry humour were infectious and who enjoyed being in front of the camera. In moments such as the flirting scene with the female singer, I could feel the people I was portraying, and experience a moment of great truth.
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Source: Al Jazeera