Dim Sum Diva

Why is R&B veteran Patti Austin making her comeback singing in Mandarin?

"I don't have the lyrics, but you can improvise," Liu tells her. "Don't worry; whatever you want to sing, we'll make you sound good."

In the studio, Liu sits down at the keyboard as Austin approaches the microphone stand next to the piano. After glancing at the sheet of phonetic words Bagaman has given her, she launches into a Mandarin melody. The transliterated lines read, "Waung bu lieur ni di shao/ Waung bu lieur ni di lay." If they are pronounced correctly, a Chinese-speaking listener will hear: "I cannot forget your tears/ I cannot forget your smiles."

Halfway through the song, Austin waves at Liu to stop playing.

She's News: A recent Austin press conference drew 
reporters from most Asian media outlets.
Paolo Vescia
She's News: A recent Austin press conference drew reporters from most Asian media outlets.
Diva of the East: Hong Kong's legendary singer 
Frances Yip.
Diva of the East: Hong Kong's legendary singer Frances Yip.

"Carlton, I don't think it's shao. I think it's supposed to be hao."

"No, shao means "smile,'" Liu assures her.

"Are you sure?" Austin questions, even though she knows Liu is fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese. "What does hao mean?"

""Niceness,'" he says patiently.

As the debate continues, the floor manager speaks to the control room through her headset: "Hold on, they're going over pronunciation."

With everyone settled on shao, the director asks Austin to look at the monitor for a preview shot.

"Ah! Be gentle!" Austin nearly screams when she sees her face on the screen. "Too much direct light."

The director reconfigures the shot.

"Better, but [it] needs to be tighter," Austin says, watching closely as the camera zooms in. "Tighter. Come on, go tighter. There you go. Face, face, face. OK, stop. Where you are now is a lovely place. It's framed very well, because there will be more of me. More of me!" The last line is delivered with increasing volume, punctuated by a cackling laugh.

Though she gives her instructions in all seriousness, Austin ends up launching into self-parody, a Norma Desmond moment as the camera-hungry starlet who's ready for her close-up. Everyone in the studio seems to love the performance, appreciating that Austin can lampoon her own behavior. Austin appears to know her place and her audience; she isn't a capital-D diva, but she knows that playing one can be a good time.

"I hate that word, actually. Nobody calls a guy who has cojonesa "diva,'" she says. But she amends her statement a bit when reminded of Elton John and his famous joint performance with Tina Turner, at which the rehearsal turned into a screaming match of creative differences. "Well, I don't think anyone is as quite over-the-moon as Tina or Elton, though we all do have some very healthy egos that can get out of whack. I suppose I have become a diva in my old age."

No one's expecting any meltdowns when Austin and Yip rehearse for the first time the day before the concert. But just in case, two musical directors will be on hand, Liu and longtime Austin arranger Frank Martin. While Liu acts as a bridge to Yip and the Asian sound, Martin should help translate Liu's vision to Austin's mostly African-American band. It sounds like a lot of coordination, but Liu says, "The most important thing to remember is that music is universal, and making it is fun."

"Fun" also helps explain why Austin and Yip have agreed to sing together more than two decades after hitting the pinnacle of celebrity in their respective hemispheres. "Because we've got some kind of ego left!" Austin says. "I think Frances and I have reached a certain amount of status for our longevity. People still come out to hear us and appreciate what we do -- and there is great joy in that. It lets us know we're still alive, we've still got it, and that there's still a place for performers without perky boobs."

In 15 minutes, Austin's supposed to be on the set of China Crosstalk. The show is one of many Chinese-language TV programs produced at KTSF's Brisbane studio. But the singer's still in San Francisco -- riding in a van with her usual entourage, minus the makeup woman, whose absence is the source of the problem. Austin pleads with Bagaman to stop at a drugstore so she can buy cosmetics. Bagaman's preoccupied with fighting traffic and getting to the studio: Even though the normally live show will be taped (in order to add Chinese subtitles later), she doesn't want to keep Frances Yip waiting. Austin has more pressing concerns.

"If the humidity hits my hair one more time, it's going back to Af- rica," Austin says with an unmistakable you-wouldn't-know-it- but-trust-me-on-this-one look.

Bagaman pulls up to a Walgreens and tells Austin to hurry.

Inside, Austin hustles down the aisle, grabbing a Revlon "age-defying" cheek blush and a L'Oréal lip liner. She loses time in the hair section, at a loss for what to get, and finally settles on some pomade. "This will have to make do," she says. "They're not exactly overflowing with black hair-care products here."

As Liu opens the door for her to get back in the van, Austin lightens the mood with more self-mockery. "Another day in Patti's world!" she proclaims.

On the drive to Brisbane, the car radio's tuned to KKSF-FM (103.7), San Francisco's smooth jazz station, a likely home for Austin's old hits. When a Celine Dion song comes on, Austin takes umbrage. "They're playing Celine on smooth jazz? Can someone please explain? If they stretch that format any further, it's going to look like a woman's vagina after giving birth."

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