Cal Band marching off on Asia tour

The Cal Band in action. (Photo by Jennifer Ding.)

The Cal Band in action. (Photo by Jennifer Ding)

The Cal Band launches a tour of China and Japan next week by assembling in formation near the Great Wall for a few of its traditional musical productions.

“I will probably play it safe, going with ‘Fight for California,’ ‘Big C’ and ‘Sons of California,’ ” said Robert Calonico, director of the Cal Band, dubbed the Pride of California.

As for contemporary compositions to be played at the landmark outside of Beijing, Calonico said selections definitely won’t include musicians deemed unacceptable by Chinese authorities, such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, the Backstreet Boys or Beyoncé.

The tour originated with an invitation from Berkeley’s sister city of Sakai, Japan, and is largely a good will trip.

“The cultural exchange will be a big takeaway, but the trip also offers the chance to perform for and meet our alumni, and perform with our counterparts in Japan,” said Calonico. “We hope an American marching band in China and Japan will go over well.”

Kabam!

The second day of the tour will feature more marching songs at the Beijing headquarters of Kabam Games, the internet video game corporation that holds the naming rights to the football field, the Cal Band’s stomping grounds at UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium.

The Cal Band will be performing at the Great Wall on May 18. (Photo by iStock.)

The Cal Band will be performing at the Great Wall on May 18. (Photo by iStock.)

Then, on May 19, the Cal Band will perform in an outdoor city hall plaza in Sakai; on May 20 it will join the Kindai University Band and other local groups in Sakai for a concert; on May 22 it will strike up more tunes at a college football game at Kwansei Gakuin University near Osaka; and it will perform with the University of Tokyo Wind Ensemble in Tokyo on May 25.

While in Japan, band members will play pieces by Japanese composers Itaru Sakai and Yasuhide Ito.

Between shows, the 105 members of the student-managed Cal Band who are going on the tour plan to hike along the Great Wall and take in the sights in Tokyo and Kyoto.

The trip abroad presents new challenges, so the band has been preparing for interactions involving new languages and cultures by preparing a list of useful phrases in Chinese and Japanese, said Calonico,. “I suspect part of the flight from the Bay Area will be dedicated to cramming,” he quipped.

Senior piccolo player Jennifer Ding, a double major in public health and molecular and cell biology, is excited about the trip.

“It’s still a little bit surreal, especially with finals and graduation leading right up to our departure,” said Ding. “I will definitely be going over my field shows, rehearsing my music and my specific spot in the show in my head on the long plane ride!”

Road trip

Student musicians join the Cal Band after successful auditions in music and marching, although those without marching band experience can learn the ropes at a three-day training program each fall. Every year, the band goes on to perform at about 150 campus, community and athletic events.  The trip to Asia marks its first trip to China.

The Cal Band is always a standout. (Photo by Jennifer Ding.)

The Cal Band is always a standout. (Photo by Jennifer Ding)

The Cal Band, which got its start in 1891, has a rich history of taking to the road to share its music and unique high-stepping style. It performed at the 1938 Rose Bowl pitting the Bears against the University of Alabama, and the world’s fair in Brussels in 1958. Band members have toured the United States and the Golden State.

In 1970, the Cal Band took a month-long trip to Japan. Albert Locher, the band’s announcer today, made the trip then as a trumpeter. He recalls staying in dormitories, occasionally in the homes of Japanese students and at traditional Japanese inns, and remembers a mix of performance venues.

“We played in concert halls and a Tokyo building that had been used for gymnastics at the 1960 Olympics,” said Locher. We also performed on the roof of a department store, on a middle school activity field, in a baseball stadium in Fukuoka; and in an open air arena court area for the week that we were at Expo 70, the world’s fair held in Osaka that year. When we returned, we did a final performance at the Opera House in San Francisco.”

In 1987 the Cal Band returned to Tokyo to perform at Cal’s final regular National Collegiate Athletic Association football season game with Washington State. The Coca-Cola Classic, as the games were called, ended in 17-17 tie.

This past February, the Cal Band generated kudos for its surprise appearance during halftime at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., where fellow special guests at Levi Stadium include Bruno Mars, conductor Gustavo Dudamel and, someone not on their Great Wall playlist, Beyoncé.