Michael Ismerio is just a guy, but he’s an inspirational guy. He lives a life that subverts and proves that the currents of the mainstream are just for show, and by example, is a mentor for people who wonder. It’s not just that he is enthusiastic, genuine, and a people person committed to his musical projects, but his story has taken him far and wide, and represents his own ongoing discoveries. He is both explorer and custodian.
Beijing’s music scene is unique, and perennially reinventing itself, and it pulled me here hard, as with many others. It is a political center, where cultural representatives from around China and world meet and share. I don’t come from a folk background, but moving to Beijing made me yearn for something old in music, a concentrated version of the culture from which I’ve transplanted. I turned to Chinese folk music, and this, in turn, brought me back even further, full circle right back to the roots of my own culture’s natural manifestation of itself — music. Beijing made me a preserver in extract; Beijing made me a folk musician.
Square dancing is the perfect storm. It’s accessibility, ubiquitous folk syncopation, and it’s permission to touch strangers makes it the great unifier, and an incredible ice breaker. Anyone can learn, any age can have fun, and most importantly for us in Beijing, the intricacies of dance flow transcend any cultural or linguistic boundary. Smiles are without border, and smiles are omnipresent at a square dance. Old Time music is the cultural complement and natural drive of the dance — it’s engine. Where the two go, they bring swarms of activity.
In less than a month, Michael Ismerio will be here in Beijing. Like me, Ismerio didn’t come from a family of folkies, he came to Old Time music and square dancing from punk music. He didn’t even play fiddle, he played Mandolin, and only later joined the ranks of obsessed Old Time fiddlers. But the whole time he wasn’t keeping it to himself. He wasn’t just gigging and building a performance enterprise, he was actively sharing and promoting something greater — an active, social form of entertainment that builds and reinforces community bonds.
Community bonds are what we hope to build with his visit in November this year. Michael will be playing and calling non-stop for three weeks, adding an interstellar burst of momentum to an already-burgeoning scene for which he’s partly responsible. This month in the lead up to his arrival there are synergistic folk arts activities happening throughout the Gulou area. The beautifully and newly-renovated Modernista is now open Monday nights with square dance lessons for beginners, accompanied by live music. Every Tuesday for two years the Beijing Pickers have been meeting at local community hubs to learn more about traditional tunes. There will be shows and dances at Malty Dog on the 11th and 25th, as well as CD Blues on the 18th, open to anyone who wants to come learn something new, or work on their dance skills.
Michael’s been here before, like a Big Bang, spurring local interest in fiddle and square dance that has been waiting for his return, growing, sharing and creating awareness. But this time his tour will culminate by bringing together local swing and bluegrass musicians and dancers in workshops, shows, and swing and square dances at the Beijing Bookworm, Mako Live House and CD Blues on the 17th, 22nd and 23rd, respectively. It’s all local, it’s all open, and it’s for the benefit of all. Old Time music and square dancing are our obsessions, but ultimately they are tools for bringing people together to learn from each other. This is what Michael has done, and what better place and time to bring people together than in Beijing right now?
Check out this Global Times article about it.