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Much like duct tape, a Swiss Army knife or WD-40, the eclectic tunes of Pink Martini have countless uses. Their Latin numbers make a great backdrop for rearranging a record collection; the swanky jazz tracks make for a perfect accompaniment to Sunday brunch. More than one of their songs make for a sleep aid more effective than a Xanax—in a good way. That’s all part of the plan, explains front woman China Forbes. “Some people want to be challenged, some people want to relax, and others want punk rock—they want energy. But the common denominator for anyone who likes music is that there’s always a place for beautiful music, even if you want to listen to punk rock all the time.”
Pink Martini mastermind Thomas Lauderdale first met Forbes while they were in college at Harvard in the early ’90s. A few years later, Lauderdale had the idea to make a grassroots musical project that sampled flavors from around the world. Pink Martini became his veritable jukebox in an attempt to make unpopular pop music popular once again. Forbes’ background in theater made a good segue to this throwback style. “Thomas Lauderdale is very old-fashioned,” Forbes says. “Everything he likes is old-fashioned. He thinks everything was better-made before 1963. When Kennedy was assassinated, he thinks that everything turned sad and beauty went away.”
Even though Forbes says she enjoys bringing the antiquated styles back to life, she doesn’t necessarily subscribe to that worldview.
“Do not apply that to me; I’m not really into theories,” she says. “I think there’s beauty everywhere, I have a son, a 1-year-old; he makes me see the world through his eyes, which are delighted by everything. You can see the same thing every day—you know, that tree I pass every day—and now I will look and say, ‘That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’ I see things all anew.”
Forbes announced her pregnancy December 2008 at a Hollywood Bowl performance; she then spent seven months touring with her son as her perpetual plus-one. When Cameron made his grand debut, Forbes was excited to test out Pink Martini’s music on him. The slower stuff was a big hit.
“We didn’t play music for a while for him after he was born,” Forbes says. “Then my husband started playing our albums to him before he went to bed, and he really loved the music and responded to it. There’s a huge shift in his energy when it comes on. It calms him a lot, hypnotizing.”
Pink Martini’s music has a universality that spans not only age, but also language. Forbes enjoys the challenge of singing in different tongues, especially those she actually knows, such as French. But for some Pink Martini songs, it’s necessary to sing in Japanese, Greek or Turkish. Usually, it goes off without a hitch.
Until the “mini-orchestra” hit Syria, that is. “I had to sing in Arabic,” she says. “And this was the first audience who could hear if I was doing this well or not. And, of course, I forgot all the words. Time stopped. Everyone was in the present moment. The audience were on the edge of their seats. Then everyone cheered when I figured it out. That’s the thing, it’s galvanizing.”
The audience support taught Forbes to appreciate a moment that could have been embarrassing. After all, Pink Martini’s music is lighthearted and fun, an open invitation to everyone to take a moment to enjoy the simple pleasures of a tango and recognize that bossa nova is a language that transcends all boundaries. “I think it’s the beautiful melodies and the classical nature of it that is just amazing. It’s not avant garde or esoteric or inaccessible. It’s just beautiful. That, anyone can appreciate.”
Pink Martini at Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; www.ocpac.org. Thurs., April 8, 8 p.m. Through April 10. $25-$185. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Shaken and Stirred: China Forbes discusses unpopular music, motherhood and the thrill of forgetting the words."