Beat-boxing cello player 'Cello Joe' Chang is on the path of discovery — and he's headed your way
He's no ordinary Joe. Indeed, 28-year-old Joseph "Cello Joe" Chang is an original Joe who sings and beat-boxes while playing the cello.
He's also just generally wacky. As he pulled out a few zucchinis and a bag of shredded lettuce from his backpack, the song "Veggie Maniac," which he had performed minutes before, suddenly became a reality.
Chang's lyrics claim his passionate love for such vegetables as broccoli and kale. (He has also worked at organic farms.) As he snacked between words, he admitted to sometimes hanging out and people-watching at farmers markets.
"I'm really into rare vegetables," he said assertively. "I don't care if people think I'm crazy. I like gibberish and being silly." His original brand of silliness is coming to Dana Street Roasting Co. next Friday, March 27.
Chang, a Los Altos native who calls traveling to gigs his home and music his full-time job, packs his songs with humor and satirical lyrics. Although he grew up playing classical music, he now describes his style as funky folk with a little hip-hop, punk and dance.
It was in the fifth grade that Chang encountered the cello. The school had a room full of instruments and the kids tried each one out; the cello caught his attention. From that moment on it was years of private lessons, music camps and youth orchestras.
"I liked the cello the most. There are hardly any cellists in an orchestra," he said.
Eventually, he toured with Palo Alto's El Camino Youth Symphony, taking two trips to Europe. He also was awarded a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston from 2002-06.
When he was 18, Chang discovered performing for the public. He found himself regularly on street corners of University Avenue in Palo Alto. With his case open for change and cello in hand, he would put on a show playing traditional classical tunes for the local shoppers, residents, anyone who would listen. But it wasn't the desired outcome.
"I wanted to perform in front of an audience, but that got old. People weren't really listening to me," he said.
Ultimately, Chang's love for hip-hop came into play. He met a man named Steve Foxx the Beat Box at Berklee, who gave him pointers on how to master the not-so-common form of beat-boxing. Chang describes beat-boxing as vocal percussion, and imitating a drum set with your mouth.
He practiced everywhere, from walking down the street to standing in line at the supermarket. The good thing about it, he said, is that there are no limitations on when and where you can do it.
Chang began to improvise — "freestyle," he calls it — while he played. Mixing beats and melodies both vocally and through instruments, he improvised lyrics using his interests and location to motivate him. He says he started singing songs to wake people up and turn them on to life. His topics include social and earth justice, consumerism and simply being happy.
"I sing about how we can progress [toward] a sustainable future," he said firmly. "There's so many ways you can help out in the world. I use music as a way to convey that message."
Chang's band, Cello Joe and the Midnight Ramblers, often plays at local gigs, venues and festivals. The band typically consists of a rotating cast of musicians with Chang as the sole regular member. He says the easiest thing about playing folk-type music is that any good musician can sit in on the simple songs.
"I'm a rhythm kind of guy. I like to be creative. I never do a song the same way twice," he said.
Naturally, the band consists of many musical instruments, including banjos, fiddles and violins. Chang also performs a jaw harp, slide whistle and rhythm bones.
Drummer and band mate Evan Bautista has played approximately 100 shows with Chang, he said. Jamming with each other over the last two years, they're formed a friendship and can call on each other when needed. Bautista also has another band that Chang helps out with, and they back each other up playing gigs.
"He's very unique and a wild one at times," Bautista said, describing Chang's performances. "He's very classically trained, with his own twists."
Chang recently rode in a 5,000-mile bike tour called The Pleasant Revolution with the band Ginger Ninjas. They set off from Northern California and traveled — with a bike trailer for his cello — all the way to Mexico. They would pull up into a town and talk to people at different bars trying to find a gig. As far as he knows, he's the world's only long-distance bike-touring cellist.
Nothing seems to slow Chang down. He has a dream of one day producing a musical theater puppet show that he says is slowly coming true. He plans to include live music and improvisation with the audience.
"I want to make it funny and interactive, like having a puppet hit on someone in the audience," he said, laughing. "If I dream this and want it, my subconscious will activate it and make it happen."
What: Cello Joe and the Midnight Ramblers performing original songs
Where: Dana Street Roasting Co., 744 W. Dana St., Mountain View
When: Friday, March 27, at 8 p.m.
Info: Visit www.cellojoe.com or www.cdbaby.com/cd/cellojoe for more information, or call the cafe at (650) 390-9638