Tom Pang, a shaggy-haired ethnic Mongolian, grew up playing classical violin. But then — to the dismay of his father who wanted his son to play in an orchestra — he fell in love with bluegrass and soon learned mandolin.
Now in Shanghai, China, the 28-year-old musician experiments with a mix of bluegrass and the music of his homeland, including the almost unearthly sound of throat singing.
Pang calls it "new grass." But he's quick to admit he's not the one who came up with the idea.
"You know Bela Fleck?" he asked, referring to the critically acclaimed American banjo play. "He did this a long time ago: bluegrass music and Mongolian music. For me, I just want to try to make different things."
Adam Brooks Dudding, a Nashville singer-songwriter and sometime bluegrass flat picker, plays regularly with Pang in Shanghai. He says bluegrass and Mongolian music seem to come from a similar emotional landscape.
"There's that high lonesome sound, that country feel, where it's kind of wide-open," he said.
Pang's other stage partner is guitarist Jeff Davis, who moved from California to Shanghai about five years ago.
Davis has played rock, swing and even punk polka over the years and liked how open and fresh Shanghai's music scene was. Then he heard about two bluegrass-playing Mongolians named Tom and Jerry and soon developed a strong relationship with Tom.
"Meeting Tom and playing with Tom made me think seriously about staying here," Davis said. "He has gotten so much better, but even when he was just four years out of Inner Mongolia, he had musical ideas that were really good."
Tom's music is a nod to the part of him that’s Mongolian and the part that’s Chinese. Davis says it's the connection to his origins that seems to be driving Pang's musical ambitions these days.
"His dream before was to go to the U.S. and be a bluegrass player there," he said. "Now I think his dream is bigger. He wants to bring bluegrass to a Chinese audience and get them to appreciate it."
He also wants to take the music back to Mongolians and let them hear their rhythms, infused with bluegrass, and see what happens.