Ramblin' man

Beat-boxing cello player is on the path of discovery

He's not your everyday ordinary Joe.

In fact, there's a little something extraordinary about 28-year-old Joseph "Cello Joe" Chang. To some he's known for bucket drumming while riding his bike, stripping down half-naked during gigs or even dumpster-diving on occasion.

During a recent interview, he was seen as an original Joe who sings and beat-boxes while playing the cello. As he pulled out a few zucchinis and a bag of shredded lettuce from his backpack, the song "Veggie Maniac" that 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 in 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."

Chang, a Los Altos native who calls traveling to gigs his home and music his full-time job, uses humor and satirical lyrics in some of his songs. 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 smiling about how he stood out from the crowd.

Eventually, his hard work paid off. He toured with Palo Alto's El Camino Youth Symphony with two trips to Europe. He also was awarded a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston from 2002 to 2006.

When he was 18 years old, 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 in to play a huge role with his music style. 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. He added that the good thing about singing is that there aren't any limitations on when and where you can do it.

Chang began to improv -- or freestyle, as 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, which is still the technique he uses today. 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."

Some of his songs that describe this are titled "Earth is a Garden," "Fancy Cars," "End the War on Nature" and "Let's Be Happy." Chang found that people were starting to listen and that they liked his upbeat original songs compared to the classical pieces he started out with.

In particular was Carl, a homeless man living in Palo Alto who quickly became a fan of Chang's music. He was always on the street and would stop to listen. Chang says every time Carl would come around him he always yelled, "Cello Joe!" The nickname has forever stuck with him.

Chang's band, called Cello Joe and the Midnight Ramblers, often plays at local gigs, venues and festivals. Chang is the sole regular member; the band typically consists of a rotating cast of musicians. 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.

The band consists of many musical instruments. Included are banjos, fiddles, violins and drums, to name a few. Chang also performs using a jaw harp, slide whistle, rhythm bones and of course his main companion, a cello.

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've 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 for their adventure 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 Company at 744 W. Dana St. in Mountain View

When: Friday, March 27, at 8 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to or for more information, or call the cafe at 650-390-9638.

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Like this comment
Posted by a man
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 24, 2009 at 4:05 pm

i got bored just reading the first line of he first letter

Like this comment
Posted by Danny
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 24, 2009 at 4:21 pm

The first line of the first letter...? You mean the first letter of the first line? No offense, but if your reading skills are anything like your writing skills, I'm surprised you made it that far.

Like this comment
Posted by jack
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 25, 2009 at 1:05 pm

This story is kinda cute.

Although I'm getting a chuckle thinking of the Chinese parents out there going into panic mode after reading this story: what if our hard-earned money going into little Jimmy's classic piano/cello lessons turn him not into a classic Carnegie Hall-worthy artist (Yoyo and Lang), but instead into an artist on-a-bike, wearing thong-slippers to photo-shoots, and playing under nickname conferred upon by homeless guy? Oh well, at least he's capable of supporting himself and happy about life doing so. :-) Suffer on, trust artist!

Like this comment
Posted by joey
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 28, 2009 at 3:09 am

i think my dad has been in panic mode for the last 10 years then!

btw, i don't really suffer that much...not as much as billions of people in this world. i sometimes feel guilty about all the luxury i enjoy as an american while other people in this world starve and suffer.

also i don't just wear "thong-slippers" aka flip-flops to photo shoots, i wear them everywhere all the time and don't really wear socks much. i find it's more comfortable and allows me to do less laundry.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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