The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Entries for 'Mark Godfrey'

01

Recently on NPR’s All Songs Considered I got acquainted with Zee Avi, a Malaysian folkie whose cover of the Smiths' First of the Gang to Die I've since listened to a dozen times. It's maybe because I'm not well enough acquainted enough with the local scene to appreciate its treasures, but from what I've seen Malaysia is a fairly conformist land of malls and pop, a larger and slightly poorer version of neighbouring Singapore. As universal as she is impossible to categorise musically, Zee Avi, 23, grew up in a middle class family in Malaysia's westerly territory of Bornep, famous for its jungles. She taught herself guitar amid the jungle tranquil, far from the high-rise tropical capital, Kuala Lumpur. After school in KL however Zee Avi went off to study fashion design in London. Her rise to a deal with a US indie label is remarkable: back home after her London time, Zee began posting fooling-around videos of her and guitar, performing self-composed songs like Honey Bee. An online following led all the way to Raconteurs drummer Patrick Keeler, who recommended her to Brushfire Records, the label owned by Jack Johnson. Now Zee Avi is on tour in the US, opening for Pete Yorn.

 
I'm listening to her on MySpace, since Youtube remains blocked in China music fans here can't follow her and similar phenomena there.  

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29

Alan Dawa Dolma is her name, a mouthful for a pop star. But this ethnic Tibetan - from China's southwestern Sichuan province bordering Tibet - has become the most successful Chinese artist in the lucrative Japanese popular music market. She got to number three in the Oricon weekly charts - the Japanese music-sales-statistics-collecting equivalent of Billboard - with her 9th single since moving to Japan in 2007: 'Kuon No Kawa.' The uber-urbanised Japanese have a penchant for ethnic fare and travel to remote territories.  Maybe that helped Alan Dawa to win a 2006 audition of 40,000 hopeful Chinese artists by Japan's Avex Trax label. The Japanese have taken to artists playing the erhu, a mournful Chinese fiddle. Alan Dawa was a child prodigy of the instrument and has since mastered the piano, though the songs she's recorded, mostly written by Japanese producers, are mainstream smiley pop affairs.

 Alan Dawa Dolma

A devout Buddhist, Alan, as she's known is also practised at the traditional Tibetan wail, a demanding high-pitched style synonymous with Tibet. The tunes are used to sell goods in mainland China, where Tibet in the popular mindset is a mystical, pure-aired Chinese province. Recently I've spotted posh Beijing hotel the Opposite House using Ban Ya Ka La, toiletries marketed in a Tibetan style but made in Shanghai, and only the latest in a wave of cash-ins on Tibetan themed products in China.


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29

I'd not watched it in several months but yesterday evening's Culture Express on China Central TV (CCTV) 9 - the English channel - was as poor as anything I've seen broadcast in China. Bland, cheap and lacking much in the way of genuine culture, the half hour show's longest item was a report on Cameron Diaz getting her star on the Hollywood walk of fame. No word of Michael Jackson't death: It didn't seem to matter that the rest of the world was mourning the death of a pop star. But most galling is that the show seems to ignore all of the interesting things - there are many - happening in Chinese traditional and modern arts. The show's amateurish graphics and boring scripts suggest either laziness or lack of money. Strange that it would be the latter, given the huge sums of government money being spent on international-looking English media to burnish China's image.  


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25

The BBC is currently running a Save Our Sounds series, which collects sounds from around the world that have died out or will die out. There's two great collections I've been listening to, and often go back to: Soundscape China, and

Released in 2007 on Kwan Yin records, a Beijing-based label that leans heavily to electronic product, Soundscape China is hard to find - Jeanneau is frustrated by the efforts of local distributors and sells most of his fantastic, rewardingly eccentric recordings abroad.

 

I've not seen Sounds of Beijing on sale in Beijing - apart from some obviously freebie copies being flogged by the knowledgeable secondhand CD sellers who hang around the Dashanzi/798 art zone on weekends. A man who's put out albums crafted from his recordings of animal and human life around the world - he's also done the oil rigs of Azerbaijan - Cusack keeps a day job at the Communications College tied to the University of the Arts in London but has juggled roles in various avant garde musical outfits.   

 


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22

I’ve just come back from a look at That Night We Play Music, a play in the unlikely surrounds of the People’s Liberation Army Theatre in north Beijing. I went to see Xie Tianxiao and his mate Wan Xiaoli, the main draws in the play which was presented by the pair’s Beijing-based music label Thirteenth Month. Impressario  Lu Zhongqiang, who runs Thirteenth Month, introduced the drama as a parody of lip-synching singers and "arrogant big-shots" i.e. Hong Kong bubble gum pop stars and their managers, who command all the best slots on Chinese TV and advertising rotas. The main star was undoubtedly Xie, who in various past lives has tried to emulate (successfully) Jimmi Hendrix and Thom Yorke in both material and appearance. His pals and peers Zhang Chu, and Qiu Ye, founder of rock band Zi Yue, also made cameos in the play, which was worth going to see for Xie’s playing and to two-finger the Mandopop establishment which rule China’s music scene. But this was no masterpiece of stage crafting. I’ll wait for Xie’s next album/gig.

See Xie's best Hendrix impersonation, and artwork for the last album he recorded with his band, Cold Blooded Animal:


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19

I spent an evening in Tom Lee’s music shop in Hong Kong lately. Easy to find – the punk kids loitering outside - and a joy to peruse, the shop is half a century selling musical instruments, sheet music and classes in the depths of Kowloon, Hong Kong’s densely populated entertainment district. Wedged in among the dim sum restaurants, Tom Lee’s Cameron St store in Tsim Sha Tsui opened in 1953. The store and another  are today the company’s show rooms among the firm’s 20 outlets across Hong Kong. Interestingly they’ve also gone global, building out from a showroom in Vancouver to 9 stores accross Canada. There's also a Tom Lee's in Macau. It’ll be very interesting to see if they open up in mainland China: the many, mostly tiny, music shops in Gulou district down in Beijing’s historic quarter would all fit into Tom’s Lee’s two-storey premises.  

 

John Lee, CEO of Tom Lee's music (thanks to HK Chamber of Commerce for pic)

I've written before here about China being the world's number one maker of entry-level instruments - and, increasingly, professional level gear too. Tom Lee's takes advantage of its China links in shipping cheap, quality gear into North America. Aside from the bilingual (English and Cantonese) signage and heritage - lots of collector-only guitar framed and mounted on the wall – Tom Lee’s has what most mainland stores lack: a vast product range, and knowledge of the product. That’s not to say that the stores in Gulou aren’t friendly and learning fast: they are. But how enjoyable to wander around Tom Lee’s for a few hours.

 


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16

When I heard, saw Yu Tian playing an underground passageway in downtown Beijing I easily parted with the RMB20 (EUR1,90) for his self CD. His easy strumming and sad songs about love lost and whacky observations on China’s social development. The soft, sad voice and Morrisey-esque literariness both mean he’ll never be a big star in China. Stars here become stars by smiling when they bop about stage singing upbeat pop. 

Tunes like 'Ke Yu Bu Ke Qin' (Possible to Meet But Can't Beg For It) suggest a Bob Dylan fan but there's a much softer voice here, less political lyrics and a dreamy delivery that suggest a poet who's picked up a guitar to accompany musings under a willow tree in a Beijing park. If you're ever down at the computer marts in Chaoyangmen on a weekend, you'll usually find Yu in the subteranean passageway linking the BuyNow centre with the other side of the crazy highway (though it's called a 'street') that runs through this neighbourhood in high rise Chaoyang district.

 

 


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11

It might be hard to play but the danyen is worth learning.  Sounds like a banjo, three double strings. American broadcaster NPR did a lovely piece on street players who pluck the instrument on the streetside in Lhasa and Tibet's other few sizeable towns. It sounds like the blues, said NPR reporter Jack Chance. And it surely does, strummed to songs about farming, yak herding, lost love and occupation of the last five six decades. I spent an hour with grubby old men and defiant-faced youths on the streets surrounding the Jokhang temple, Lhasa's main prayer retreat. My photo below comes from a book about Tibet's dying crafts (much of the tourist baubles sold in Tibet are made in India or Nepal) was published in a book produced by the Dropenling craft centre in Lhasa. Showcase of the Tibetan Crafts Initiative, which protects local craftwork, the Dropenling sells danyens in various states for ornamentation from US$100. Sales are brisk, say staff - tourists like them for mantlepieces back home. Young nationalistic Tibetans meanwhile have taken to the banjo-like acoustic sounds of this lovely instrument to keep and show their traditions in a wave of a Mando-pop and Canto-pop from the Chinese lowlands.

 


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11

Ian Sherman, the Lester Bangs of Chinese rock. So was he described in an invitation to a memorial do for Ian Sherman, music critic for the (English) Beijing edition of Time Out magazine. I was away on June 5 but there was reporedly a big turn out at a Dos Kollegas gig organised by Tag Team Records, for which Sherman wrote pithy press releases and band bios. There aren’t many following China’s rock/indie music scene who can write as well as Sherman could. One was an acquaintence and Sherman contemporary at Time Out, now a financial journalist at the China Economic Quarterly. There's also the writing musician-impressario, Jon Campbell, and wit/columnist Kaiser Kuo, a veteran of the local rock scene of even greater vintage (he played guitar in breakthrough 1980s/90s metal band Tang Dynasty). Other than that rock writers in Beijing tend to be students who become enamoured by local bands during a passing-through time here.

Sherman wrote with verve and passion and knowledge and without putting the boot in when a CD was rubbish, as many are among the avalanche of records which started to come out of local studios in the early 2000s. I’m currently trying to read the local back issues of InMusic and Rolling Stone – it’s slow work, given frequent recourse to my Chinese-English dictionary.


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07

The joys of Youtube have been denied lately in China - government didn't want any huamn rights themed videos showing  up in the a year of anniversaries like June 4: 20 years since the 1989 Tiananmen bloodbath.

This may not be such a problem: China afterall has copied youtube: most slavishly in youku.com and Tudou.com is a less blatantly copied local video sharing site. But neither is a great alternative to the original, I discovered with an experiment seeking video content for Bruce Springsteen. It's harder to navigate when your Chinese is scrappy -as is mine - but such is the similarity to youtube that it's only a matter of clicking where you'd normally click on youtube pages. Like youku, you get a lot of music videos, and the odd TV and film clip. I also found a string of videos uploaded by a real Chinese Springsteen fan - unlike Dylan or the Stones the Boss isn't a big name in China. But what the Chinese copycats lack is the sheer variety of music served up on Youtube. There's none of the videos from mobile phones and cameras at one-off concerts. But that's foreign (Western) music. Type in Carsick Cars, the name of China's best indie act of the last five years into the youku/tudou search engines and you get a trove of rare footage, concert clips and fan-edited videos. So they're not the place to go for western rock and pop, but youku and tudou are good outlets for local rock music - and for improving one's Chinese language skills.

Given that October will bring the big party for the Party - 60 years since the founding of the People's Republic of China - I expect to see a lot more blockages of Youtube. I'll keep an eye on the local clones.


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Nuggets from our archive

2001 - Early career profile of Damien Rice, written by Sinead Ward. This insightful profile was written before Damien broke internationally with the release of his debut album 'O'. This profile continues to attract hundreds of visits every month, it being linked to from Damien Rice's Wikipedia page.