Friday, February 24, 2012

Mai Dinh Toi - Mr. Amazing

Photo: Kevin Hazelton
So, here's how the story starts. I was working as a casting assistant for one of those big talent show reality programs as they came through The City. It's a pretty crushing experience, thousands of aspiring people pinning their dreams on this one shot crowding into a hotel on an overcast San Francisco day. I try not to be cynical about it, these people have dreams just like I do and for one of them, this will be the break of a lifetime.

But even though I tell myself this over and over again, sometimes I need an escape. That's where 'the run' comes in. The production staff needs something and I'm their monkey. I get to go outside, I don't have to spend uncomfortable moments while contestants try and size me up to see if I'm important enough to butter up (I'm not). It's fifteen to thirty minutes of minor freedom while I run to nearby store and pick up supplies.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

It's on one of these runs where I turn onto Market from 5th street on my way to one of the three Walgreens within a few blocks of each other when I saw him. A Vietnamese man is fiddling with a MiniDisc player rigged to a small amp with what looks like a chrome leaf blower over his shoulder that he's holding like a guitar. Because, as it turns out, it was.

I had just started doing the interviews, I had gotten the Lowery Brothers the week before and had just talked Kevin into coming along with me to do the photos. But I was on my actual job at the moment, I couldn't drop everything and do this interview even if I had my recording gear and photographer. I approached him to see if he'd be back the next day when I knew both me and Kevin would be free. Unfortunately, he did not speak English but a nice woman from Vietnam stepped forward to translate for me and the arrangements were made for both of them to be back so I could do the interview.

I had assumed that the woman, who introduced herself as Trang, was related to the performer. No, she clarified, that's Mai Dinh Toi who is a nationally famous composer in Vietnam and she just happened to recognize him. I have to admit, I was thinking "Okay...famous...", but what you'll hear in the beginning of the recording where I let Trang introduce herself before translating for Mai Dinh Toi is an excited conversation between Toi and a group of Vietnamese people. I had asked her if he knew them and she looked at me squarely and repeated, "He is famous in Vietnam." By famous, she meant famous.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

And I could see why. In addition to his motorcycle engine guitar he had a garden hose flute, PVC nose flutes, a Heineken bottle pan flute, and a rice bowl bells. This is apparently a small sampling of his collection of instruments made from found objects. Reminiscent of Harry Partch riding rails and leaving new instruments with people along the way, Mai Dinh Toi has decided to take his experimental instruments on a street tour of the US and decided to start in San Francisco.

You're going to hear Trang talk about 'Guinnesses' that he has, what she's referring to is an entry in the Vietnam Guinness Book for his instruments and the World Guinness book.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

While he was performing he was approached by a police officer who was concerned about his use of amplification. But a crowd had gathered already eager to hear what his bizarre collection of instruments sounded like and Kevin was able to step in and talk to the officer on Toi's behalf allowing him to continue playing. Trang mentioned later that it had been difficult to get the performance permit for amplification and he was doing what he could.

It was a struggle, his MiniDisc player ran through a series of worn adapters into the small practice amp along with the mics for the various instruments. No mixer, just both things patched into the tiny amp. He often had to start and stop trying to get the connections to work or the right backing track cued up.

When he did work it out, it was amazing to watch. Few of the performers we interviewed were able to command as large an audience as he was able to as people stopped on their way in or out of the Westfield Mall or to and from lunch.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

Mai Dinh Toi had performed in concert halls for big ticket recitals but felt that his music was for the people, all the people, so he took it to them. And they were happy to hear it and see it.

So, this is it. These are my street performer interviews. I enjoyed doing them and I wish I could have made them into the grandiose thing I wanted them to be, but I'm glad to have at least shared what I had and I hoped you enjoyed it. I hope that it brings a little light on to the incredible performances around you and if you're in San Francisco or any other city with street performers you stop and check some of this stuff out. And be sure to throw a bill or two into their hats, they deserve it. Thanks for reading.

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