Noah Gabriel plays Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" at the Sunday market in San Diego's old Chinatown (at Third and J). A year and a half ago, he was a singing star in China...well, around Shanghai, anyway. In late 2003, Gabriel says he went to China to join a tai chi school. Instead, he joined a Chinese theater troupe.
"Two things happened," he says. "One, the school wasn't ready; two, SARS hit." The disease sent most entertainers packing. "It wasn't going to freak me out," says Gabriel. "One night, I was in a restaurant where expats hang out. They had no entertainment. I asked the owner if I could play. I sang them '50s songs. They loved it."
The owner invited Gabriel to come every night. Soon, he was rocking China: in Ningbo, Ninghai, Hangzhou. Gabriel says his appearances drew the attention of a young Chinese government official who introduced him to a traveling Chinese theatrical troupe of dancers, fire-eaters, contortionists, child gymnasts, and Chinese rock stars.
"Every Chinese person knows three western songs," Gabriel says. " 'Yesterday Once More,' by the Carpenters. 'Say You, Say Me,' by Lionel Richie, and 'Country Roads,' by John Denver. They could all sing that one right through, in English."
When Gabriel would break out -- in Mandarin -- with "Tian Tian Kan Dao Ni" ("It translates to something like 'Always Wanting to Be with You' "), he says he'd feel something extraordinary. "It's a song by A-Do, a big rock star there. They reacted so beautifully. They felt that I was honoring their culture, their people, their country."