For a moment, forget your idea of China as a totalitarian and repressive regime. Not that it’s become a paragon of democracy and human rights as a country – far from it – but getting to know the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project will help you discover another China that you wouldn’t be able to find on the map.
“A large bottle of beer costs 50¢, pot plants grow right on the street, and if you’re a foreign musician, you can do just about anything you want,” says the band’s singer/guitarist JP Tremblay. “Over there, everybody wants to have their picture taken with you, especially if you’re white and play the guitar.”
The Chicoutimi-born songwriter knows what he’s talking about, having lived from 2006 to 2013 in the Chinese city of Kunming, where he founded the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project with a bunch of Quebec roommates who’d gotten stuck in Southwest China while travelling through Asia.
“I already played music,” says Tremblay. “I’d survived for three months in Greece as a street guitar player, but in China, it was something else! We quickly realized that foreign musicians were considered as demi-gods in that country. You didn’t even have to be good!” he laughs. “After we created the band, we started doing corporate shows – monkey shows, as we used to call them. Local people working for outfits like Mercedes or BMW were delighted to be able to have ‘exotic’ entertainment at their company functions. We played whatever we pleased. Sometimes we got hired as a jazz orchestra, in spite of the fact that we couldn’t play a one damn note of jazz. Not to worry! The big bosses still wanted to have their picture taken with us.”
Besides corporate shows, the band toured in China, but also throughout Laos, Thailand and India. More than 10,000 kilometers away from “La Belle Province,” the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project rocked the stage with their own songs, and bluegrass covers, delivered with confidence and good humour. A documentary called La Route de la soif (The Thirst Road) was produced to capture the team’s Chinese journey.
“I could tell you a million stories,” Tremblay continues. “We crossed the border between China and Burma through the jungle, followed by soldiers who seemed determined to find out how fast we could run and how scared of bullets we were. We organized a music festival for two years in suburban Kunming while bribing the local army with cases of beer. Let’s just say you had to be able to keep cool.”
The adrenaline-filled early days of the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project are now in the distant past. Whereas QRBP used to come home for brief summer tours, it’s now settled permanently in its native Québec. “The road between Tadoussac and Rouyn may be less exciting than the Burmese jungle – except that, the other day, we hit the ditch near Québec City when a wheel came off our van! What matters is the road ahead,” says Tremblay. “We’re quite capable of making a go of it and have fun anywhere in Québec. Besides, things were starting to get a bit less fun in China. The novelty eventually wears off, and police officers can now raid a bar and have all patrons take a urine test to find out if they’ve been taking drugs. It gets tiring.”
With Nick Flame (mandolin), François Gaudreault (acoustic bass) and Madeleine Bouchard (violin) completing the lineup, QRBP’s transition is in progress. The band’s albums – Scandales et bonne humeur (2014), 3000 boulevard de Mess (2011) and Sweet Mama Yeah! (2010) – have all been available in Québec since last year, and a new one is in the works.
“Out of a population of 1.3 billion people, China only had three bluegrass bands,” says Tremblay. “So expectations aren’t the same here. We’re working like mad on our fourth album, which should be coming out this winter – in time for our 10th anniversary. The songs are great, and I can find inspiration for lyrics in a ton of past experiences.” Like the time you went to jail in China, someone jokes. “That’s one experience, but I didn’t stay in very long,” he says. “Only a few hours for material damage. The cops were cool. They brought me tea and cigarettes.”
Which means that even Chinese prison officers love the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project.