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American striking the right notes in China
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By Jenny Hammond

Vastine Pettis is not only a rare talent but also a rare performer. The African American has forged a great career playing with many of China's best musicians, writes Jenny Hammond.

Shanghai is always complemented for its diversity of music, offering the freshest sounds the world has to offer. As the music industry is relatively new locally, many expats have contributed to this success - like Vastine Pettis, the first African American to break into the Chinese music scene.

Now, just a mention of the saxophonist and vocalist in Hong Kong draws an instant response within the music community there. Having spent the past three years in Shanghai, Pettis has also become a recognized performer here, too.

"During my time in China, I have toured and recorded with just about every top Hong Kong and Taiwanese star," says Pettis.

These include Jacky Cheung, Jacky Chan, Leslie Chung, Emil Chau, Harlem Yu, Coco Lee, Alex To, Leon Lai, Andy Lau, Jonathan Lee, Elva Hsiao, Sandy Lam, Maria Cordero, Eliza Chan and more.

As a result of these connections, Pettis' sound is well known in China leading to his voice also being used in many television advertisements, such as Pai Pai Le Chicken Powder, Lays Potato Chips, Henessey Cognac, Blue Girl Beer and Great Wall Wines.

Being such a success in China's flourishing music industry has led to many amazing experiences for the American including a year-long world tour with Jacky Cheung.

"I went everywhere in the world where there were Chinese people," Pettis says. "Once we played Caesars Palace in Atlantic City, my mother came and she was the only African American lady in the place. Everyone was staring at her and asking her what she was doing there. She said: 'Look at the stage, that's my son'."

Pettis started playing saxophone at 11 and playing professionally three years later. He eventually graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in music before moving to New York in 1987 where his career started to take off.

"I joined acid jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers for a two-year stint, traveling around the US, Europe and the Caribbean playing on the jazz festival circuit," he says. "During that time I recorded two CDs - one with funk legend Rick James and the other at the famed Ronnie Scotts studio in London."

By 1992 he had moved to Hong Kong and was playing at JJ's nightclub in the Grand Hyatt Hotel when he was convinced to stay after meeting several local producers, jingle houses people and entertainers keen for him to do recording sessions for them.

"It worked out great. As my contract was finishing at the Hyatt, I was asked by several people to stay in Hong Kong for work. I have never looked back since."

Realizing he was the only black American in the Chinese music industry and that he had something to offer that was missing, Pettis began composing and producing some of the first R&B and funky Prince-style tunes for Alex To, So Wing Hong and Andy Hui.

"They sort of used me as a novelty in concerts and films. They let me get on stage with them singing and playing, so I'm on hundreds of karaoke videos."

But after living in Hong Kong for 13 years, Pettis decided to move to Shanghai. He says the SARS outbreak (in 2002) and pirated CD's killing the music industry leading to all the major record companies like Polygram, BMG and Warner leaving Hong Kong, were behind the decision.

"Work was drying up, but I was offered a gig at Park 97 in November 2005, I took it and never left."

Since his move, the 47-year-old has performed at the most popular live venues all over China, including Muse 1 and 2 and the Spot as well as Park 97 in Shanghai.

There are also plenty of corporate events and tours.

"I got married to a beautiful Shanghainese lady and we had a beautiful healthy baby girl last November. She is the light of my life. Whatever I do from now is all for them.

"Right now I'm doing some saxophone master classes at a university in Fuzhou (Fujian Province), I have just finished a concert in Hong Kong with an amazing entertainer Danny Diaz and next month I'm booked to go to Singapore to do a concert with Harlem Yu," he says.

Meanwhile the American can also be found performing at Red Beat with his band TurnStyle on Tongren Road on Sundays at 8:30pm.

(Shanghai Daily May 13, 2008)

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