My first highlight of 2023 occurred in January '23 when my wife and I returned to Singapore and the Philippines to visit her family there, and if that weren't already good enough, I was able to secure a two-nights in a row ticketed weekend jazz gig at The Jazz Loft. There I was reunited onstage with musicians I hadn't seen in person or played with for about 25 years, not since I lived there 1995-2003. The quartet that accompanied me in Singapore was Mei Sheum-piano, Christy Smith-bass, Greg Lyons-sax, and Benjamin Low on drums. I had recorded with each of them (except Ben) ‘back in the day’ on the following records: https://gregchako.com/album/1900351/integration-ii & https://gregchako.bandcamp.com/album/paint-a-picture-tell-a-story. So, to see those old friends and bandmates of mine after so long, and to perform with them for such an enthused full house audience was a dream come true! You can see our first set here: https://youtu.be/EsTg0XOtTGk?si=KKuwbn0bjLHrdrMF
Visiting Asia after living for so long back in America was a (welcome) culture shock . . . Singapore is one of the cleanest and safest countries on Earth. There are exotic sights, both in Nature and architecture. The food is as diverse as the peoples, and its amazingly FRESH and available virtually 24/7. In that way, it's like NYC, the city that never sleeps!
Pictured directly below is a familiar structure in Singapore. It has a casino on top in the shape of a ship, a hotel with rooftop “Infinity” pools, and it's surrounded by lush tropical gardens and much more interesting architecture. My wife is pictured in front:
Some friends here in the States seemed surprised that I was able to hook up with such good players there. But the diversity in Singapore is really across the board. I feel more of a real community vibe in Asia than I do here, and without a doubt in my mind, the people there have more social consciousness than we do in the USA. It's also notable that there are more venues for live jazz in tiny little Singapore than there are in my hometown of Cincinnati, and the gigs pay better there too! I can count on one hand the number of ticketed jazz performances I've played in Cincinnati, and I have never played two nights in a row with the same band the way I did in Singapore, much less to full houses. Some may be surprised at that, but as many great jazz artists have already said jazz, arguably America's greatest artistic contribution to the world, is often more popular outside the USA than it is in its birthplace!
With regard to cultural and life-style differences, I will relate a true, humorous story. I took a train and walked to my first night's gig, leisurely taking in the many sights. It was different not having to load up the car, drive and try to find an acceptable parking place. I was plenty early, so I stopped just in front of the club on a bustling alleyway for some Indonesian Satay and a local Tiger beer. The weather was in the high 70's Fahrenheit (in January).
After our 1st nights show was finished, I noticed that our bassist Christy had left his bass onstage. I was borrowing a guitar from a fellow Ohioan, Rick Smith, who has relocated to Singapore permanently. I didn't feel comfortable leaving all the gear there without checking first, so I asked our sax man Greg Lyons (who had managed the booking). He smiled and said: “Greg, did you forget where you are? This is Singapore! you could leave your wallet onstage and the next night, it would be exactly where you left it, untouched by anyone” He was right. I walked of the club empty handed and met my wife in Chinatown near our hotel, where we walked the streets and ate late-night (after midnight) Chinese food.
Now that's a prime example of the type of nightlife in Singapore that I miss dearly since returning to Cincinnati.
The second half of our trip was spent in my wife's hometown, Agoo, in La Union, Philippines. Not much jazz there, but I was impressed that the local markets open at 4am. Every morning we bought our food for the day there, fresh fish (see video below), meats, fruits, veggies, deserts, etc. Didn't eat anything out of a can or microwaved. Everything I ate and drank was fresh and locally sourced. Every Sunday people from the local neighborhood gather in the streets with brooms, sweeping and tidying up the block - nobody has to tell them to do it - it's simply that they take pride and care for their immediate environment. If you walk down the street in the early evening, you will invariably be enthusiastically invited into someone's house for refreshments, and if you're braver than I am, to sing karaoke. These are examples of the true neighborliness and social consciousness that I mentioned before. Please see these short video clips I took while there. #'s 1 & 2 are just 30-seconds, and #3 is 60 seconds.
1) Agoo (my wife's hometown) fresh market w/live jumping fish: https://youtube.com/shorts/jgGYI6ZuAqQ?si=g-QZMPKXQDMP4Dyq
2) Delivery of fresh fish just outside the front door of my wife's family house in Agoo: https://youtube.com/shorts/1sLCS4YQTvs?si=H7IO0ZNn7YLxP7HV
3) A common backyard party at my wife's family home: https://youtu.be/tx4D-ir08lA?si=5nw6qjvZhKGI-bZy Jay's brother keeps guard of the party-food just before guests come to the backyard:
To the right I'm seen hanging with the boys . . . the brown bottle in the forefront is Red Horse, an extra-strong lager made by the San Miguel brewing company . . . popular in the Philippines for its bold taste & high alcohol content. Jay's family knows to stock up on the Red Horse when I come to visit. That's usually what I drink when I'm there.
Red Horse is the perfect compliment to roasted pig, which is always a part of the menu . . . very crispy skin and the most moist meat . . . I'm about to dig in below. One afternoon we went to the local beach in Agoo, just a short drive from my wife's family house. We barbecued fish on the beach as the sun settled . . . My wife asked me if I wanted some fresh oysters, which are extremely common there. I told her I didn't like oysters. She said, “you've probably never had a really fresh one.” She insisted I at least try it. I never had such a delicious oyster before. It tasted like nothing I'd ever had.
Though I have surely been blessed by my various life experiences, particularly those that occurred abroad, none of them would have happened if I hadn't been willing to seize (and imagine) opportunities when they presented themselves, to travel and try new things with a child's curiosity, a lover's passion, and without fear. While I was living and working as a musician in Singapore, there was a film made about my life there, titled “An American Cat in the Lion City.” If you are at all interested in my life as a ‘Jazzman’ in Singapore, or just curious about Singapore, you may enjoy watching the film, located on the video page of my website: https://gregchako.com/video
From that page, scroll down through the videos until you come to the one titled: “An American Cat in the Lion City, Guitarist Greg Chako in Singapore, HQ Full Version” The full version of the film is 46 minutes. Please tell me how you like it, ask me questions about Singapore, or share some of your own experiences abroad.
Greg Chako, Feb. 23rd 2024. Blog # 9 from “2023 Highlights”