Written off for dead, art rockers Muma has a new album in the works
In spring time
Teachers are all dead
Muma arrives in revelry
Continuous dancing steps
Give out decadent looks
In the whole festival
The subsequent thing is up to you
"Dancing Step" by Muma
Jeroen Groenewegen spent six hours at Amsterdam airport convincing uniformed Dutch immigration police to release a band just off the afternoon flight from Beijing. A mix-up about the purchase of air tickets meant that Muma didn’t have time to get their visas right. The military police eventually let them go, after an awful lot of convincing. It was so rock and roll, the way Groenewegen recalls it. “Musicians are not known for their talents for applying for visas or arranging airline tickets. They just want to play their music.”
Fresh from the airport, Muma rocked the Melkweg, a club which has hosted a who’s who of international rock acts. “They gave a great show,” says Groenewegen, one of the organizers of Amsterdam’s China Festival in the autumn of 2005. While freeing the second band from the arrivals hall Groenewegen missed the first gig, by Chinese glam rockers Second Hand Rose.
A hall full of Dutch rock fans swayed to dark rockers like Dancing Step and Party. But you could hear a pin drop in the roomy Melkweg when Xie Qiang and keyboardist Feng Lei came to the piano for Fei Fei Rong. On the band’s Jelly Empire alblum the song comes across as a crackly love paen to Xie’s wife and baby, proof that Muma could be sweet as well as sour. There’s something about the Muma sound which in its maturity sets it apart from the band’s peers.
Maybe some credit is due to the foreign production teams - a previous album was mastered in Australia – but Muma has been more comfortable than most other Chinese bands at integrating, Radiohead-style, electronic and vocal tinkerings that other Chinese bands have use as add-ons to cover something lacking in their own sound.
Often compared to those dealers in darkness, Joy Division, Muma is still around because of its songwriting class. Like Xie Tianxiao, with whom they shared the stage at the 2006 Beijing Pop Festival, Muma is an act that stands on the quality of its songwriting. Penning mournful tunes of youthful love, break ups and reunions the band set a high mark with their 1999 debut album, Muma. Existential ponderings like Boggling became underground hits.
Nearly ten years together and doing press for their fourth album (it will be released in May) the original members of Muma met in Beijing in the mid-90s, when they studied at Beijing Midi Music School and swapped Doors and Joy Division tapes. Vocalist and guitarist Xie Qiang dropped a chance to follow his father into the railway company in Hunan province, hitching a ride to Beijing instead where, 17 and broke, he swopped slices of Guns & Roses and Iggy Pop with bassist Cao Cao, from Sichuan.
There’s Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd guitars and a lot of the lyrical darkness of Nick Cave and Tom Waits in Xie’s lyrics, all written in poetic form. There was religion in the mix too. Zhjiang-born drummer Hu Hu was a devout Buddhist taken to meditating before band practice.
After a debut gig in 1998 at the now-defunct Howl Bar the three southerners had a band and gigged in bars across town. “Music was a wall to keep out the more mundane things of life. We didn’t have any money, but we didn’t want to do covers in bars. Playing music is really too profound for that...” says Xie, who got his biggest gig at last year’s Beijing Pop Festival, opening for Placebo. Muma got the gig after after signing to the Rock for China label, a subsidiary of the festival organizer. That meant walking out on Modern Sky, the group’s long-time label, a topic the band is shy to discuss.
The third album “Pudding Empire” was the band’s coming of age. Slickly produced and packaged, but for the pointless alternative versions of the ballad FeiFei Run and the remix, the album has become a staple of most Chinese rock collections. It was also the most upbeat work by a band now older and, in Xie Qiang’s case, a father.
Whatever about the gloomy lyrics, it’s facile to present Muma as the voice of a new breed of angsty Chinese youth, as many local music writers have done. Well-coiffed and dressed in shades of beige, green and brown with jeans and stripey t-shirts, the band stand amidst urban weeds under a night sky in a poster inserted in the sleeve of Jelly Empire. Muma look like models for one of the cookie-cutter Hong Kong clothing brands beloved of China’s youth who, like many of their Asian peers, pass weekends in shopping centres and karaoke bars rather than reading Kurt Cobain or Nietzche.
Confirming the group’s respectability, Muma has also been usurped as the name of a Beijing toymaker supplying learning aids to school children. Literally, Muma in Chinese means wooden horse. The name represents that of a carrousel horse, says Xie. “It symbolizes the joy of one's childhood, as well as the way your mind moves all the time when you’re growing up.”
In that very Chinese fondness to put people and phenomena into generations, Chinese rock is three generational. Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty were the first generation. Dou Wei, He Yong were the second generation. Always influential, Muma stand with Second Hand Roses and Brain Failure as most enduring of the third and latest generation of stars. A new crop of bands like Carsick Cars, Retros and Lonely China Day are claiming ground and will likely be boxed off as the fourth generation of a still-nascent rock scene.
After that Amsterdam adventure Hu Hu left the band. Back in Amsterdam Jeroen Groenewegen remembers shepherding Muma through the delights and bureaucracies of Amsterdam. “I even had to fish one of the members of the band out of the Vondel Park. He had eaten so many mushrooms he thought he was dead.” Now that’s rock and roll.More ...