Bruno Nettl‘s masterly The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions has a typically stimulating chapter entitled “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” (referring to the old joke—”Practise!”; see also here, under “Music and learning”).
When David Sedaris appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002, a reporter from the New York Observer asked his father Lou whether he had ever expected to see him playing Carnegie Hall. “Well,” his dad replied, “I expected to see him cleaning Carnegie Hall.”
On losing a Daoist in Times square
For me this inevitably recalls the Li family Daoists’ Carnegie Hall gig in 2009 (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.330–331). They had never heard of the place.
After their flight from Beijing, we had a couple of days to rehearse in New York. They took this seriously, discussing how to adapt their programme for the audience.
The Daoists brought some of their lethal Shanxi liquor (“white spirit”, how very true), and at last I could return the compliment by finding a Western tipple they could seriously relate to—tequila. We dusted off our old stories, joking constantly as they patiently fielded my usual tedious academic questions. Jet-lagged, we often found ourselves meeting up outside the hotel around 3am for a cigarette or three as we watched the street cleaners clearing up the debris of the night’s excesses.
The daily walk to and from the Carnegie Hall was a challenge for my abilities to marshal Chinese peasants in inner-city jungles, anxiously totting them up every time we crossed a busy junction.
But one afternoon as I counted them in through the door of the hotel, someone was missing. Uh-oh, it’s Li Manshan—I’ve mislaid a National Treasure. In a panic, I retraced our steps with his younger brother Third Tiger, looking for a needle in a haystack; I remember chatting with him until we got to Times Square, but then…? As I asked a couple of cops if they’d seen a lost-looking old Chinese guy, they replied with a polite shrug, “Sure bud, we’ll keep an eye out for him.”
After the longest fifteen minutes of my life we came across him standing peacefully at the kerb gazing up at the skyscrapers, without a care in the world. Striding up to him I exclaimed, “I dunno whether to give you a hug or a slap!”
With all due respect to David Sedaris, he may not be so good at performing Daoist ritual as Li Manshan is at telling jokes—including some fine stammering jokes. I didn’t divulge my favourite here, but click here for a great joke told by his son Li Bin, that makes an appendix to my film.