By Jeff J. Brown
Pictured above: Dj Zhao in concert, showing us how all music seamlessly connects humanity, Africa and politics.
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Sixteen years on the streets, living and working with the people of China, Jeff
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Jeff J. Brown- Here we go. Good evening, everybody. This is Jeff J. Brown China Rising Radio Sinoland, just south of the Tropic of Cancer, and I am so honored today and happy to have on the show Leo Zhao, how are you doing today, Leo?
Leo He Zhao- I’m good Jeff. I wonder if this is the first-ever struggle session to be conducted on the title.
Jeff- I already have a wonderful title from Beijing to Berlin. Leo hag DJ Zhao is a true cross-cultural renaissance man and I’m really just so happy to have him on. He also is known as DJ Zhao. He is a talented musician, performing in concert regularly in Europe as well. Leo is an excellent journalist, writer at Medium.com, and I’ve got lots of links for everybody, all the fans out there making him a true renaissance man.
And I had the pleasure of learning about Leo, thanks to the Greensville Post publishing a couple of his articles. And I was very impressed with his research and perspective and reasoning. And so we started an email friendship a while back and, and he kindly agreed to join me on the, on the show today. So thanks for being here, Leo.
Leo- Yeah, thank you very much. I really enjoyed your blog and your work.
Jeff- Appreciate it. Leo was born in Beijing and is now based in Berlin with the background in sound art and left field techno. And I’ve listened to a couple of your long tracks and I really enjoyed them. DJ Zhao is a rhythm ambassador and musicologist. Bring in a Polish cultural understanding of sound to his deeply percussive cross genres, says in addition to playing more genre specific music and settings such as Berlin’s Berghain.
DJ Zhao constructs powerful vibes without borders, bringing together innovative underground club bass and electronic music from places such as Luganda, New Jersey, Johannesburg, London, Bogota, Chicago, Nairobi, Paris, Cairo and Berlin. I’ve actually been to most of those places. It is irresistible.
Jeff- Polyrhythmic Energy and motion. DJ Zhao fuzes ancestral rhythms and urban based pressure connecting East and West, acoustic and electronic, traditional and modern. The best dance music from wildly different times and places come together with an artful sense of composition and mixing technique. DJ Zhao brings a sense of deeply satisfying sonic adventure to any occasion. And I’d say that’s true because I’ve listened to a couple of your of your songs and they’re really good.
Leo- And we can get into the connection between ancestral rhythms and communism.
Jeff- All right. I’ve got tons of tons of hyperlinks. His website is where you can you can listen to his music on SoundCloud. He’s got his complete catalog. He’s even as nice enough to have an email if you want to contact him about his writing or his or his concerts, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. So let’s get started.
Jeff-How did you get from Beijing to Berlin? I mean, please tell us a little bit about your upbringing and journey in life.
Leo– Well, I emigrated to the United States with my parents in 1986. I was aged 12 and yeah, that’s, that’s we can go into that as well, but.
Jeff- Ok, so that’s why your English is so good. You basically grew up, you went to middle school and high school in the United States.
Leo- Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So what I went to Art University in Los Angeles and worked in Hollywood as a motion designer for about 10 years. And then I just got really fed up with Hollywood. I mean, this is a place where people think they are in the center of the world and they eat, breathe, sleep and shit Hollywood all day, every day.
Nothing, nothing. But so every single conversation is about this director or that producer, this actor, that project. And this, you know, is it becomes really the world is a much bigger place than that. And my interests are certainly much more-broad than that. And so I just got a little bit sick of L.A. and I wanted to see the rest of the world. And it was almost a random decision to come to Berlin.
Jeff- Ok, now you said you were, what, kind of a designer for nine years? I miss that.
Leo- Motion graphics. Meaning, oh, television.
Jeff- Ok, motion graphics, OK, Alright.
Leo- Television, television and film title sequences and advertising and things like that. So there’s another irony. There’s another irony of someone who works in the advertising industry, who is who is a devout communist.
Jeff- I love it. Well, why did you pick Berlin and not New York or London or Paris or even Tokyo for that matter? What? You know, Moscow or why wasn’t Berlin?
Leo- It was almost random, I mean, I sort of looked into New York and just by fluke, I did a few, too. Yeah, just New York didn’t work out at that time. And my plan was to be a globe global globe-trotting, you know, ruthless metropolitan. I think this is the, is the right phrase. Yeah. My plan was to do freelance work from the road and to stay in Berlin for maybe six months, maybe a year. And now 10 years later, I’m still here in Berlin.
Jeff- Ok, so you went to Berlin then in 2008, is that right?
Leo- Something, like that… Yes.
Jeff- Ok, cool. All right. Well, listen, this interview will be in two parts and one is for your music on. Like I say, you’re a multitalented guy and the other is for your writing. So let’s go ahead and start with your music. Your entirely year music Egoma sound. And that’s EGOMA what was an…
Jeff- I’m sorry. What did I miss? What you say?
Leo- MG. EGOMA.
Jeff- Yeah. EGOMA. I am sorry. EGOMA Sound.
Leo- Yeah, Egoma is the word found in all over the African continent, in many, many different languages, countless different languages, and it roughly means different things in different places, but it always means drums and something to do with percussion, something to do. I mean, in South Africa, in South Africa, Egoma is more. Related to the spiritual aspects of traditional culture and healing and things like that, and in the Congo, Egoma is a specific drum. It’s a family of drums.
There’s a pop Egoma, the parents Egoma and the children Egoma. And the largest one is the mother Egoma. That’s the biggest drum. And when the drummers play, they solo on the mother Egoma, the biggest one. And these are these drums are made from a single piece of wood. And when they play the mama Egoma. They have to sit on it because it’s taller than the player. It’s really huge drum.
But anyway, Egoma, Egoma has to do with the African conception of music, which is not music as we know it, because it’s not. It’s much, much more than just music, something especially not something that we consume, that we buy and we pay for experiences. It’s a part of everyday life. And music is history. It is education. It is healing. It is community. It is politics very much so. And it just permeates every facet of life.
Jeff- Including love and Encio
Jeff- Love and sex and…
Leo- Mourning as well death.
Jeff- Mourning and death. You know, I’ve actually been to an African funeral and the music was loud and proud. It was really interesting. You like to blend, you know, east and west into your music. You know, you’re from China, and yet you’re you know, you’re going around the world and finding all these inspirations. And I read that you took a trip to Africa and some indigenous areas. Please tell us about your African and other negative influences around the world, because you can really hear it. And and the pieces that you that you compose.
Leo- Well, when I first emigrated to the US, you know, I had previously no contact with the music of the outside world except for China, basically. And I mean, those are the conditions of those times in China. It was a rather closed society for very good reason in the post revolution years. The post revolution, 40 years, 30, 40 years or so, and so when I first went to the US at age 12.
I was confronted with a universe of new sounds that I had not been previously connected to. And so I remember, you know, just randomly surfing the dials in the US and finding music and, you know, exploring. And I just. And also because of my situation that time, you know, being a fresh off the boat Chinese kid, Chinese kid with a bowl cut and wearing the same clothes every day, and I didn’t have very many friends growing up as a teenager. And so one of my only connections, my sort of spiritual outlet, emotional outlet was music.
Leo- And I went through the usual musical evolution of taste, you know, from rock and roll to hip hop to all of these things. And I began to slowly discover other sounds from outside of the Western mainstream. The Western Canons and I. Yeah, and this led me on a path of research about music from all over the world and their relationship to, um, to to political structures and to power structures and to history and the material conditions which give rise to various genres and types of music and so.
With the African-American tradition from which, of course, everything comes, everything that we know as Western modern pop music, from rock and roll to house music to take notes. Yeah, absolutely. And I am I the recent research, I’ve sort of try to understand how historical forces and material conditions have shaped African American music.
From the legacy of colonialism and trans-Atlantic slavery and how the Africans, the Africans in the Americas have reimagined their traditions in this new found land and how they have remember, try to remember their ancestral sounds and reproduce them under the condition of constant oppression, constant and banning of the music of the drums specifically. Um, I have this one. I wrote this one essay and I did many public talks about it, about the shaping of African American beat, about the beat, which is boom ca boom ca. Right?
The ones two one two. Kick on kick on the one. And it’s there on the two. Right. And this pattern is found in all African-American music, in all modern Western music, basically. And this sound pattern is not found anywhere else in the world, traditionally speaking. I mean, now it is because of the influence of African American music as entangled with American imperialism and cultural imperialism, you know, sort of exporting American music onto the rest of the world.
And I think hip hop has flourished all over the world. And I love it. And but we can look at it from many different perspectives. Right. But anyway, my research concerning how this beach became so dominant became the only dominant beat in modern music in the African-American tradition, which is modern music. It has a lot to do with the banning of the drums in 1744, I think it was the drums were banned first in North Carolina and then all over the entire continent.
Leo- There was the law and the law that passed, which said any slave calls with a drum will have his hands cut off.
Leo- Or killed or executed, and this came from a slave uprising. That was a huge giant, a really big, major slave uprising in North Carolina. Uh. Where a condemned slave who had killed his master or something like that was put to death and this was unjust and for whatever specific reasons, there was a large scale slave uprising.
But the key thing is that slaves from many different plantations were involved were and the plan for the uprising was perfectly executed at times. And so the question was, how did these slaves organizes? How is this organization possible? Because slaves from different plantations had no way of contacting each other. Obviously, obviously, they are not allowed to talk to each other. And so the Masters, after they crushed the uprising, realized that it was the drums.
Jeff- Wow. That’s a great story.
Leo- The talking drums is one of the technological wonders of our species, and it is sadly largely lost today. I mean, talking drums don’t merely sound like the human voice. They actually replicate, uh, the human language communication. It is a language and its own.
You can, uh, transmit complex messages with only the drums, with only the beat of the drums. So you can actually recite poetry. Epic poetry with only the drums, and you can tell long histories and stories with the drums. So, I mean the expressive potential of such a technology, we cannot even comprehend. That at the same time that you’re dancing to this funky rhythm that it is telling you a story.
Leo- It is a link. It’s a linguistic and sonic, uh, artistic, spiritual, uh, you know, is so that has to do with the Holderness of traditional. In this case Africans Culture that there is no separation. There is no separation. You know it all in one. Music like I say is everything. Yeah the drums are banned all over the United States.
Jeff- There are even American also use drums heavily and their anomalies are good and performances and poetry and chance two so. I am sure it’s similar influence.
Leo- Yeah, it is similar but not the same. Drums evolved very differently In Africa and in other places, I mean, this is a huge, huge topic, obviously, but, um. There are some hypotheses as to why these differences are one of the hypotheses is, um, is the use of Antigens. Because the drums were always a part of the tribal Spiritual Systems and society and a part of shamanic practices shamanistic practice.
Leo- Which is which is used with the help of the psychedelics traditionally all over the world, from Europe to Asia to Europe to Africa, but in Africa there was there was maybe not so many second psychoactive plants available, actually, um. And the ceremonies develop without so much use as other places as well as some other places, and so the theory is that complex drum beats, uh, had to be invented in order to transport people to that spiritual place in order to…
Jeff- have to get the same logic and the same out of body experience as, say, psilocybin or or peyote or something like.
Leo- Exactly, these transporting, um, out of body transcendence, spiritual experiences.
Jeff- Wow it’s amazing.
Leo- Hypnotic polyrhythmic complex beats.
Jeff- Wow. OK. Amazing. Well, the Chinese have drums, and since most Westerners have little knowledge of Chinese music, you know, what Chinese styles do you like or are there any particular Chinese instruments that move you? You know, how is classical, traditional Chinese music different from its sister Western strain? So tell us a little bit about what you know about Chinese music and the instruments that you may be familiar with.
Leo- Well, I’m pretty I’m not very knowledgeable about Chinese music traditional or modern. .
Jeff- Ok, OK.
Leo- I’m, I’m… My focus has been on Africa. African music.
Jeff- OK, OK. All right.
Leo- And, you know, I’m one of these people that’s more interested in other cultures than my own. I have had the Hebei will change.
Jeff- Uh, well, I know that I read, um. Uh. Um, the genius of China, three thousand years of, uh, of innovation and invention and, uh, the, you know, the Chinese. We’re way ahead, you know, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of bells, you know, Brass, Brass and concretized bells and chimes and drums also go way back. And so I don’t know.
I doubt that. I doubt they predate of Africa since humanity, you know emanated from Africa, but drums and drums have been have been around in China for a long time and of course, every city, every town has a…has a has a drum tower and a bell tower, and so that it’s a huge it’s a huge part of the of the of the of the culture here. And so do you know anything about you know, have you ever listen to any Chinese opera?
Leo- Yeah, I’ve heard it, obviously, it’s not really my thing. It is absolutely an acquired taste. But one thing that…
Jeff- Yeah, that’s for sure.
Leo- Yeah, I remember my grandfather used to play and I couldn’t stand it. But one thing that’s very important to make clear is the class dimension of these development of these sounds. Alright. In China, one thing I do know for sure is that the ethnic minorities have much more colorful and much more drums oriented music than the horn.
Jeff- Ok, by the majority of the majority of people with the classic for our listeners out there, a Honda and or the majority Chinese ethnic group, about ninety two percent of the people here, and then about eight percent of the people, which is actually out of one point four billion, quite a few. There’s fifty five other minorities all over, all over China and and all of them quite, quite unique and musically, linguistically, you know, dress, food, literature, they’re each of them are quite unique. So that’s something a lot of people that don’t know about China, how culturally varied it is.
Leo- Yes, it’s a very diverse and I’m sure that indigenous music existed or still exists, but it’s been paved over by the many thousands of years of of basically top down, you know, states formations which produced Chinese classical music. So the distinction, the class distinction between state music, which is classical music, classical Chinese or classical Indian or classical Malian or classical European music is the music of the elites, the music. It is the music of the establishments of the political powers.
It is the music of passive enjoyment versus indigenous music. The indigenous music, which is about active participation. It is about these highly formalized forms where dance is a spectacle on stage rather than something that you participate in then and engage in, which typifies indigenous music all over the world. And the same in China, all the ethnic minorities. I did a little bit of research on a Chinese ethnic minority music, and it’s just amazing. I mean, there is a universe out there.
But, you know, and this has to do with why African music is so compelling and so powerful for the world today. It’s because Africa, the continent has largely been not colonized until very recently compared to other places. Europe has been colonized by other Europeans long before the sixteen hundreds, long before they set sail for other shores, waves and waves of empires, of violent, warlike empires, from the Assyrians to the Babylonians to the to the Greeks, to the Romans.
They have each wiped out the indigenous cultures and peoples. They have erased indigenous music and customs and healing and languages and all of that. And the same, I would say, for China. Since the period of the romance of the three kingdoms, the wars which more or less unified. China has a single state entity since what two thousand B.C. or one thousand B.C.
Jeff- Right after the war and right after the three kingdoms in the warring period that was the establishment of it didn’t last long, but was the Queen Dynasty, which is where we get the name China. And that led to the four hundred years of the Howard dynasty from two hundred B.C. to two hundred eighty. So it was about two hundred. But I mean, if you want to go all the way back to organized functional government, that was, you know, many, many, many, many centuries ahead of the West.
You could go back, you know, three thousand years to the Shah dynasty and the Shanghai industry, which, you know, 3000 B.C. in two thousand B.C., I mean, China already had effective, functional, complex government, you know, three, three and three thousand B.C. So it’s that maybe what you were thinking about. But as far as unifying the country, the Chinese credit, the Chin dynasty, which was right around two hundred and twenty B.C.
Leo- Right, but through this historical process, I’m certain that the ethnic minority cultures, the various the numerous ethnic minority cultures were displaced and marginalized, and sort of overtaken by the imperial culture of the Hong dynasty.
Jeff- That’s why there’s only eight percent of the population.
Leo- Yeah. Yeah.
Jeff- There’s a lot of theirs the Tibet to Pueblo connection. There’s a lot of speculation that the American natives, at least in part, were from Tibet and other minorities in China as they were pushed out. And away from the Yellow River and the. And the Jiangxi River, there were marginalized and pushed down. This happened this has happened all over the world, you know.
Jeff- That they went north and, of course, then went across the Bering Strait and people to people to North America and in Central America and South America. So what can you recommend any I mean, do you know I mean, do you follow any are there any Chinese, you know, techno trance, house artists, you know, here in China that you know about and like or is that something you follow?
Leo- Well, I tried to follow it, but I don’t know so much about what is currently happening in China. I know there’s a bass music scene in Shanghai.
Leo- And I’ve seen some of the videos and some of them some I’ve heard some of their music, which is quite nice. It’s kind of this new school. Bass music, that’s sort of influenced by like the Western, but anyway, that’s not my strong area.
Jeff- OK. It’s not a problem.
Leo- But in terms of yeah, in terms of, um, like you said, the same process unfolded all over the world, except Africa is different because even though the Bantu farmers from the north colonized the South, the Zulus were incredibly violent, warlike empire which colonized South Africa and pushed the indigenous people Akesson into ever more arid and difficult places to live, even though things like this happen. And even though there were empires in Africa, the Malian empire, the Ghanaian empire.
Leo- there’s there are some crucial differences between the African empires relationship, the culture and other those of others. For instance, the African empires did not wholesale wipe out indigenous culture. They more or less absorbed much of it into their own. And these empires did not dominate. Absolutely in Africa. They existed in small areas. And, and so, so the long story, very long story short.
Indigenous cultures have survived in Africa much more than in other places. And so many, many more African cultures have retained their ancestral Beats. The the the drums. OK. And I think that is why African music is so compelling for everyone today is because of the power of the science of dance and of rhythm is is preserved in Africa, and it has survived and flourished to a greater extent than in other places.
Jeff- Wow, you are an encyclopedia man about African music. I’m impressed.
Leo- I mean, that is that is why hip hop is so popular all over the world. The drums were banned in the United States, in the Americas. Right. And so the voice came to be the most prominent placement of the drums because it was readily available. I mean, people also use spoons and tables and chairs and their feet stomping, which is part of their tap dancing comes from.
But the voice is the most readily available instrument that every slave has, even with our drums, you know, without musical instruments. And so, fast-Forward, five hundred years later. Four hundred years later, hip hop. Scientists have mapped out the patterns of the sound of rap, and these patterns hits all the increments, the time temporal increments hit all the patterns is exactly identical to the patterns of traditional African drumming.
Jeff- Wow, that’s amazing.
Leo- The human the human voice in rap replicates those ancestral knowledge of the rhythms.
Leo- And it is a science, I mean, to make its. Dance music, what is music? Like it’s the sound patterns design or the human body, right, designed for the specific proportions and the specific time scale of human bodies. And so as a science, which rhythms make you move, which rhythms make you sit down with you, rhythms make you sad, make you happy, make you I mean, it is a science. And as a science, this rhythmic tradition has survived and flourished in Africa far more than in other places as the historical, you know, as the history of empires and that we were just talking about as a result of that.
Jeff- Wow, interesting. I’m glad I had you on tonight. Leo, this is really fascinating.
Leo- Yeah, yeah, and it has everything to do with politics, you know,
Jeff- What’s next for your music? Do you see new pathways and explorations on the horizon?
Leo- Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m going to continue in the direction that I’ve been going, and I just need to get to the next level, which is producing my own material. I met a DJ so far. And so, yeah, there’s a lot of work to be done. And I hope one of the reasons is that I hope to reach a larger audience with my propaganda for communism.
Jeff- I’ll buy your first ticket.
Leo- Nice. And yeah, I mean, it’s all connected, you know, our love of music and revolutionary politics and everything. It’s all connected. And I just want to get this message out there. And I think China can learn a lot from Africa, which I hope to contribute to and to contribute to those relationships with the cultural exchange between the two, the two continents In the future.
Jeff- Cool. Leo, you’re an amazing guy. This has been one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve ever had on China Rising Radio Sinoland. And I loved having you on. And and when my wife and I go back to France this coming summer, if you’re in Berlin, I’d love to take a take a high speed train and spend a day with you in Berlin and meet and meet you and talk to you in person.
Leo- Yeah that would be lovely. Let’s get a beer when you’re.
Jeff- A German beer.
Leo- Yes. Without speaking too loudly, speaking in a very even measured body.
Jeff- Hey, listen, Leo, thanks. You’ve been a joy to have on the show, and I’ll be looking forward to let you know when it’s published and up on my website so you can share with the world.
Leo- Thanks a lot, Jeff and I will continue to learn from your articles and stuff. Keep up the good work.
Jeff- Thank you. Good bye.
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