The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Beijing Beat

16
This week I’ve been in Gansu province, a long spindly northwestern stick of land that’s often described as China’s poorest region. It’s certainly also its most diverse. The other day I went from Linxia, a town about three hours on the highway from the provincial capital Lanzhou. There’s 50 mosques and a lot of traditional Islam in this town. I didn’t have a a lot of choices when I went looking for an example of the local Hui music in one of the town’s several music stores. As is often the case in Chinese provincial towns there’s more VCDs than CDs.

But then I spotted Bono peeking out from a pile of paper-wrapped CDs in the pop section. The shop sold How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, the band’s most recent release. In travels around China I’ve tried to figure out who’s the most popular western artists in locals music stores. From Urumqi in the country’s west, to Xiamen in the south and Harbin in the north and Shanghai in the east, I’ve come to the conclusion that U2 and Christina Aguilera are listened to more than any other artist.

Of course neither artist gets much from being in several million music stores around China: 90 percent of the CDs and DVDs of western artists which I’ve seen are pirated versions. Much depends on the region - it's a lot harder in Shanghai to get a fake than it is in Beijing or Guangzhou, unless you go down the back streets. But until CD and book brands take their prices down to compete with the fakes they'll have the bulk of the market here. After all who’s going to pay RMB50 (a special China price for some of U2’s earlier albums in Beijing department stores) for genuine U2 product in Linxia, where the average monthly wage hovers at around RMB800?


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11

It started with a Van Halen album when he was 11. “That was first album that blew me away totally,” says Hua Cai, editor of Painkiller, China’s only national magazine dedicated to heavy metal music. Hua Cai's tastes have gotten louder and heavier since that first encounter with big haired, cheesy hard rock on an imported casette purchased on a backstreet Beijing music store.

The September issue - number 26 - of Painkiller, which comes out every two months, features Californian trash metal pioneers Testament on a cover flagging other articles on Scorpions, Pain Of Salvation and Nightrage. There’s reviews of albums by Behemoth Blitzkrieg and Heaven Shall Burn. The magazine's New Found Power section features Chinese band Puppet Butterfly.

Readers of the 25,000 copies of Painkiller published each issue are mostly students and blue collar workers. A national book distributor and Post office subscriptions get the magazine from Painkiller's Beijing office to fans around the country. An A4-sized glossy, Painkiller has been around for more than three years, born out of fanship and a commercial choice. “Yang the boss predicted this music will be big in China.” Hua read the first issue during his second year in high school. “I said ‘wow we have this in Chinese!'" says the man who signs himself “Dirty F” in his emails.

Sitting at a glass table in the corridor outside Painkiller's office in an anonymous commercial centre in Beijing's college-cluttered Haidian district, the 24 year old Beijinger speaks English with a fast fluency. He thanks Iron Maiden for that. “I wanted to understand the lyrics,” says Hua, who has never been abroad. “Van Halen is about entertainment. Maiden is more about faith...” Iron Maiden remains his favourite “because they have everything I want, power melody and great lyrics, epic personality. I like everything epic.”

The hardest part of an adolesence listening to Iron Maiden and Metallica was getting the CDs. “Before there was so very little chance to get into the music... I needed to be an angry teen,” says the very mild-mannered Hua, who introduces himself as Freddy. Broad and bulky, hair shaved to a neat one-centimetre stubble, it’s like he’s overcompensating for his normal down-to-earth-ness. “When I was 11 or 12 I realized that popular music would kill me.”
 
With those neat black rectangular-framed glasses resting on his nose, he could be the accountant or an advertising salesman most of his class mates became. They however would unlikely wear his olive-green sweater, emblazoned with the flame-like logo of Swedish metal band In Flames, who gave it to him. A thick ring on the right hand is styled like an Iron Cross, with a Coptic star in the turquoise-coloured centre. Ozzy Osbourne wore something similar in his Black Sabbath days. “A British friend got it for me,” says Hua, happy I notice.
 
Heavy metal was why he majored in journalism and communications. After graduating at the Xinan University of Nationalities he came back to Beijing – Chengdu had “hot girls and hot pot,” says Hua in an endearingly naïve way nice rock stars have of confirming to the rock star cliché of sex, drugs and rock n roll. He talks the talk, and in December walked the walk, in to Painkiller to ask for a job. "I was talking to chief said I was biggest fan since school.” A week later the clearly impressed publisher called back inviting him to start.
 
The editorial job has gotten easier as more bands add China to their tours: Testament and Slayer played here, while Linkin Park play Shanghai later this month. Hua wrings his hands with delight while describing the phone interview with vocalist Tom Araya, known for his trademark shouting singing style. “We got the first China interview with Slayer!”
 
That chat was set up by Universal’s branch office in China. Labels are keen to set up interviews for each issue. Smaller, specialist heavy metal labels have a contracts with Painkiller to contribute two songs for the CD that goes with each issue. Most of the tracks are by Western bands, says Hua because there’s not enough local talent good enough to make the cut. Yet most of the music isn’t available in china: readers have to buy online.
 
For the rest of its content Painkiller searches the international fanzines and magazines for Section 8 Crazies: whacky stories behind music like the world’s most famous husband-wife bands. Painkiller staff also write an Audio Powers section, its title borrowed from the film Austin Powers. “It introduces classic albums and pioneers of rock,” says Hua.
 
The latest issue of the magazine runs the gamut from hard to classic rock, with a few pages on horror films in between. “At the start we were very focused on metal and now we’re more open minded.” Stories on local punks Brain Failure and Sonic Youth-admiring indie stars Carsick Cars are a sop to local non-metalheads. Painkiller fills pages dedicated to the local scene with words and photos of local CD releases and shows at local venues such as 13 Club and Yugong Yishan. “We pick the best of new bands and predict the future stars,” says Hua.
 
Coverage of indie artists is part solidarity in a music scene where rock music of whatever variety remains a minority taste, banished from national radio and TV. “In China metal belongs to the indie scene…” The two will grow together. The rock fanbase is getting bigger, society accepts this kind of music than ever before.”
 
Painkiller's horror film section is staple fare for fans of gothic rock. “We want to be a heavy alternative magazine.”But Painkiller can only follow the rock code of rebellion so far. “Some people realize this music stands for power showing people to truly believe in yourself and fight for what you want, but not politically.”
 
Getting the magazine onto the street was tough enough to begin with. The publisher had to drive two days south west from Beijing around Henan province to find the state-owned sponsor every publication needs to get the magazine a barcode. A book publishing company in Zhengzhou was eventually persuaded. Changchun and Harbin are tops of the 20 mainland cities - the publication is also distributed in Hong Kong - where Painkiller sells. “People up there are more aggressive probably,” shrugs Hua.
 
A staff of six in a cosy-but-cramped office in one of Beijing's anonymous fast-built new real estate development whose unfinished glass exterior suggests the developer got the location wrong. Two in-house designers spend periods between issues mapping out designs for the stacks of t-shirts piled on office shelving either side of the office door. Most are original designs meant as tributes to well known metal bands.
 
Most of Painkiller’s advertising comes from instrument makers and sellers. The other half of Painkiller’s revenue comes from concerts. Beijing-based Twisted Machines recently headed a Painkiller six-band show that included seasoned groups, newcomers and bands with new albums. Finding good bands is hard, says Hua. “Most Chinese musicians talk about their instruments and equipment but pay little attention to the music… Some of the musicians don’t know how to match melody and singing.”
 
A new wave of bands singing “more and more” in English is also proof of the lack of originality. “Even in Heilongjiang bands are just copying western fads. That’s the biggest problem now, there’s no originality.” China made better metal in the past, when the country was far less plugged into global music trends. Hua’s pick of the best Chinese bands, Overlord and Tang Dynasty, retired in the late 1990s. Spring and Autumn, formed by core members of the latter, is a pale shadow of the original, says Hua.
 
The medicine Chinese metal scene needs is more live music: “more chances to see good metal.” Even though 1,000 people showed up to see Testament’s summer gig, high ticket prices are proving prohibitive to fans. “No one, especially students will pay RMB300 for an hour and a half long show.”
 
Proof that China has fans willing to travel: die hard fans from Tianjin and Heilongjiang paid up to RMB660 for tickets to a recent Beijing show by Swedish glam metal band Arch Enemy at the Haidian Exhibition Hall. The band, which features on a recent Painkiller cover story, drew 1000 Chinese fans, “not bad on a Wednesday night,” nods Hua. But high ticket prices are not sustainable in China, says Hua. “I couldn’t believe what some people were paying, 660 yuan is half my salary!,” says Hua.
 
The solution is to bring younger, lesser known bands who are willing to share some of the costs and sleep in cheap hotels. A May concert at Beijing’s Star Live club by Denmark-based Hatesphere organized by Painkiller drew sponsorship from a Danish corporation while concerts in RMB50 and RMB30 in Zhengzhou, Xian and Shenyang were helped by distributors of Schecter guitars in the cities. The band took trains between venues packed with attentive fans and local musicians keen to learn some new tricks. The Zhengzhou bill support came from a brutal death metal band while in Shenyang several black metal bands - "the screaming type" opened for the Danes. “The crowd went wild.”

Tours by foreign bands are growing the fanbase for metal music, says Hua. Arch Enemy took a week off after a Japan tour to check out the Chinese scene before going on to Australia. Painkiller estimates 900 people gathered at the Painkiller Stage at the recent Modern Sky music festival in Beijing. The indie label organising the festival gave Painkiller a stage to fill for one day. Several Japanese bands have via Taiwanese promoters, paid their own way.  

The increasing mobility of young Chinese is grooming Chinese heavy metal fans - and Painkiller readers. Reviews and interviews come from Chinese students in Germany, Canada, Finland and London. “They’re fans of metal music and emailed us and said want to be your writer or distribute you.” One of them, a Chinese-born German, Yang Yu, has brought connections and PR know how. Webmaster and PR for Painkiller Yang Yu is also the force behind www.rockinchina.com

 “Metal music will grow by us organizing shows and writing about them,” says 'Dirty F.' "We have to show people how cool this music is, and help them understand this music’s expression.” 


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06
 
While in Salvador’s Café, a great hangout in Kunming, I met the Tribal Moons an American-British-Chinese-Irish quartet playing gigs around southern China. The band is fronted by the garrulous John 'Nevada' Lundemo from Reno, Nevada, – “some people call me 'jeronimo,' that was my stage name for years while playing in and around Reno and Lake Tahoe, and up and down the Sierra Nevada mountains in Nevada.
 
He plays rhythm guitar, harmonica, percussion and sing. From Ireland, bandmate Mark Corry plays slide guitar. Londoner James Martin plays lead guitar and harmonica. The band’s Chinese member is drummer Ma Tu, a Kunming native. Like the two Europeans in the group he’s versatile: all three take turns at bass, drums and join with Lundemo on vocals. 
 
John told me about the band’s gigs and plans for a sunny winter in Thailand the Philippines. Given that he’s a better story teller than me, below I’ll run a transcript of our chat:
 
“Over Halloween the band played in Kunming on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. We opened for Brandon Thomas, from Texas, an extremely wonderful blues-rocker and guitarist currently on a 16 city tour in China, playing our own show at the Halfway House Club on Thursday night, which really went well and was packed. The band then played two Halloween performances on Friday and Saturday nights at the Dragonfly in Dali, Yunnan.
 
We met last summer, in July, in Dali, where my wife Caroline (a university English teacher, and from Australia) and I got married. Caroline has been acting and has become our manager and chief 'organizer' and there are so many things we just couldn't do without her! All of our four children and friends and familes from the USA and Australia came for the wedding; we needed a band for the wedding party and dance, and some friends brought Mark, who was living and playing in Dali, and James, our friend of 4 years from central China, who had been teaching and playing music in Xiamen in eastern China, together. We met Ma Tu in Kunming and soon the four of us had settled into Ma Tu's studio and began rehearsing.
 
We play original music, in a variety of styles: blues, rock, reggae, country, and some jazz-oriented or jazz-flavored songs. We also do some covers of famous blues musicians, such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson; and old rock 'n roll songs by the Kinks, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Santana; and country songs by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams... just to name a few famous people and bands we like. But we choose what we personally like, and don't do the cover versions exactly, but rather, do our own 'take' or concept of the basic song. It works out quite well. I write many of the songs for the band and have been writing music and playing in bands all of my life. Now Mark, James and Ma Tu are also contributing songs they have written and also their specially selected cover tunes.
 
Our lucky break came when I had submitted my own personal resume and Youtube videos of some of my songs, and a background of the band to the promoters of the Lijiang Music Festival. I wasn't sure, nor were we at all convinced the Tribal Moons would be selected to play. We worked hard and our performances in Kunming prior to Lijiang, and then at the festival, and then through jamming and playing at the after-hour parties and bars in Lijiang during the festival, and meeting people and promoters and agents, our band began to get some notice and now more and more gigs and opportunities are coming out way. Since the festival we've had to make a few changes in our lives: Mark has moved from Dali to Kunming and is living with James, Caroline and I and James are all university English teachers, so we have had to make some band decisions around our teaching schedules. We have really began to 'switch around' with all of us playing various instruments to build exciting and interesting sets of our music, and finally, we're making some future plans.
 
I guess our next thoughts have to do with playing the holiday and shows that come up around the Christmas and holiday-New Year seasons. But beyond that we are now developing the itinerary and schedule to get all of us to the Philippine islands, and then on to Thailand for the months of January and February. We have some connections in both countries and are now looking at some resorts and clubs in the warmer climates and scheduling what we can. It will be a perfect time to take a winter break and 'go south' while at the same time keeping us together on the road for a couple of months where we can really work hard on the music and polish our sets. We have dozens and dozens of good original songs and we want to present a variety of sets we can keep in a constant evolving cycle so when we play two or three nights in a row we can keep things exciting and interesting for the audiences.
 
Beyond that, we'll see. Of course, we must get into the studio and record some CDs to take along with us, or maybe we'll face that recording thing in the spring. We are in no rush and at the present just enjoying playing together. I've played with a lot of musicians in my life, but these three young men are about as easy to work with and get along with as I've ever wanted. We enjoy each other's company, we're good friends, and we have loads of laughs. I have a lot of band and music experience behind me, so they look to me for some direction -- but really, Mark and James are very creative and accomplished writers and musicians and when we all are together, there is a wealth of musical knowledge to draw on, talk about and everyone contributes.
 
This week the band is resting, rehearsing, and preparing for the Kunming Outdoor Music Festival which will be held about 45 minutes from Kunming on Saturday November 10th. There won't be as many bands performing as at the huge Lijiang Music Festival, but still, lots of local bands, some foreign and most Chinese. All types of music will be represented -- from rock to punk to metal, to..well, us!"


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05
Before most shops were stuffed with generic local guitars – my first one was an RMB300 (EUR30) Starsun made in Fujian province in the deep south. Thick neck and head, strings far off the frets - but fine for a beginner. Since then (2003) a lot of the large international marques like Gibson and Yamaha have stared building guitars here. Now you walk into an instrument store and get the best brands for a fraction of EU/US costs because low labour costs allow the big brands to sell guitars locally while exporting the majority to international markets.
 
On a trip to the southeastly city of Suzhou the other day I acted on a good tip off from a local musician. The best instruments store in town, the Blues Music Store, is run by a local blues musicians who knows his stuff, I was told. When I found the small, crammed store I also found he spoke the truth. Proprietor Robin Cao, a pony tailed blues funk enthusiast and band member took me through his guitars and his dozens of real and photo-shopped photos of him and famous guitarists. Cao's infectious knowledge (the shopkeepers I bought the Starsun off, in a state-run department store, didn’t have a clue) meant I ended up trying out a dozen guitars and nearly buying one.
 
A Gibson Les Paul at the Blues Music Store in Suzhou costs RMB2,000. It looks like the real thing but it’s not quite. Some enterprising hands at Gibson’s factory in China have been siphoning off guitar bodies. Cheaper, Chinese pick ups are later added and the guitar sold locally. "But you'd never tell the difference," said Cao, whose Blues Music Store located just off the Shi Quan Lu entertainment strip gets business off the sizeable tourist hordes who come to visit Suzhou's famous gardens (it's only 40 minutes from Shanghai to here on a new bullet train serving the region).
 
The real Gibsons are shipped out of China and often come back in as imports, says Cao. An imported “real” Gibson Les Paul retails for RMB11,000 at his store. Gibson in 2002 chose Qingdao on China’s east coast as the location for its first foreign factory – and the first company-owned plant producing Epiphone guitars.
 
Yamaha acoustic guitars sell  for RMB900 at Blues Music. They're not fakes, rather “produced in China to Yamaha specifications” according to the label. That means outsourced to a Korean company who build the guitars at a factory in Dalian and Qingdao, two cities in Shandong province within easy flying district of Korea and Japan. The brand has an edge in China, says Cao, because Yamaha motorcycles are known and admired here.
 
Chinese music shop owners like Cao are getting a lot more sophisticated too. That’s maybe down to more gigging opportunities. Many of Cao's Beijing counterparts also run instrument shops to supplement gigs they play at the bars that have sprung up in Chinese cities. Their methods often differ however. Yesterday I took an Epiphone Les Paul (Chinese made, RMB2,500) to a place on Xinjiekou, a street in Beijing’s old low rise quarter. To change the strings the technician took a pliars and cut the strings just above the guitar bridge. Messy, though he got the strings on in 20 minutes and charged me RMB10 - a euro - for the job.

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25
One of the most enjoyable CDs I’ve found on the shelves in Beijing record stores recently is Favorite Beijing Sounds, a collection of indisputably Beijing sounds compiled by self-described “sound artist” Peter Cusack.
 
The British field recording maestro came to China last year as part of Sound And The City, a sound art project funded by the British Council. Described by the Council as “leading UK sound artists,” Cusack and six fellow Brits - Brian Eno, David Toop, Clive Bell, Scanner, Kaffe Matthews and Robert Jarvis - “were invited to create new work inspired by the civic sound environments” in four Chinese cities. Crowded and noisy, Chinese cities seem to be breeding a new wave of sound art - see my earlier post on French sounds collector Laurent Jeanneau. What's different about Sound And the City is that locals in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Guangzhou were invited to describe their favourite sounds before the men and their mics went and recorded them.
 
“Many of those favourite sounds are ambient ones, less and less frequently heard as Chinese society changes at its current ferocious pace,” says the British Council in an introduction to the project in a new book. Run by the British Government (rather profitably in China, where it also runs English proficiency exams) the British Council lately came up with the cash for a fine 200 page English/Chinese book that comes with two CDs of recordings made by Cusack et al.
 
Sound And The City “speaks to the general public, not the selected public,” local sound artist Yan Jun told a wine and crackers reception at Timezone 8 arts bookstore on Jiu Xian Qiao Lu in Beijing’s industrial-chic 798 gallery zone. “They invite us to listen again to our own cities and our lives,” said Yan Jun, whose own electronic and ambient CDs sell next to Cusack’s Beijing Sounds in the Sugar Jar, purveyors of indie and avant garde music in the 798 district.
 
Aside from the collaborative box set, Cusack, 58, seems to have gotten a very tidy side-project out of his Beijing trip. He edited, and recorded most pieces of (the rest were recorded by local students volunteers and artists). The CD is in the spirit of an earlier Cusack brainchild, Your Favourite London Sounds (2001). Beijing sounds include the mutterings of tourists as the national anthem is played during the flag raising ceremony at Tienamen Square. There's also the familiar rattle of the city's knife sharpeners, bicycle-mounted tradesmen who shout and shake a metal rattler as they pedal through the city's neighbourhoods.

Back home in London, Cusack initiated the 'Your Favourite London Sound' project that aims to discover what Londoners find positive in their city's soundscape, an idea that has been repeated in other world cities including Beijing and Chicago. Cusack earlier produced 'Vermilion Sounds' a monthly environmental sound program on ResonanceFM radio, London, and currently lectures on 'Sound Arts & Design' at the London College of Communication.

The sound artist, who plays guitar and bazouiki in his down time, likes to get out of the city too. Areas of “special sonic interest” which he’s rubbed up the right way with his mic include Lake Baikal in Siberia -"Baikal Ice.” For 'Sounds From Dangerous Places' he recorded soundscapes of sites of major environmental damage, such as Chernobyl, Azerbaijan's oil fields. To get his recordings he's also boated along controversial dams on the Tigris and Euphratees rivers in south east Turkey.

 
 


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22
After months of will-they-won’t-they speculation the US indie rockers the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs played the Modern Sky Festival on October 2 to 4, during the five-day National Day holiday. The hour long wait between the preceding Joy Division-admiring RETROS and the headliners of the inaugural Modern Sky Festival suggested some space between the on-stage requirements of the visitors and the preceding local bands, who played their 30 minute sets almost concurrently in the hours preceding the New Yorkers arrival on the main stage around 9.10pm.
 
A rain-induced exodus prior to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs set suggests local fans aren’t yet hardened to rock festival conditions. The downpour had driven about half the crowd to the sea of taxis depending on the festival crowd for business on a slow National Day holiday week night.
 
Their appearance on stage quenched a bizarre succession of build-up tunes: Phil Collins and R Kelly seemed a bizarre choice by a label with the Indie credibility of Modern Sky. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were up for it though. Band vocalist Karen O had learned a few Chinese words and belted off plenty of “xie xie” (thanks).
 
The enthusiasm of the mostly-student crowd (the Haidian Park) suggests the gig was, in words frequently used by local cadres, a “complete success.” It certainly drew a significant local audience for the O and bandmates Nick Sinner and Brian Chase, who paid no heed to the rain in belting out trademark-nonsensical lyrics to tunes like Is Is, Down Boy and Show Your Bones.
The New York trio came, conquered - and enjoyed themselves. After the show the band told of eating Peking duck, and admiration for local bands and organizers, on their MySpace site. The Yeahs appeared on a mostly-Chinese line up of Modern Sky bands: New Pants, Hedgehog and newcomers My Little Airport. However even though there’s more foreign bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs coming – propelled perhaps by the pre Olympic excitement – there hasn’t been a dramatic growth in the number of decent Chinese bands. Beijing festival line ups this summer have often looked remarkably similar.
 
The Modern Sky festival was however this year’s most affordable. Lower ticket prices – RMB60 a day compared to RMB150 per day at September’s Beijing Pop Festival – and the location, in Haidian Park in the city’s main university belt, ensured a good turnout. Locals made up 70 percent of the crowd. There were none of the ticket touts of the Beijing Pop Festival at more salubrious Chaoyang Park, which had lots of freeloaders selling their VIP tickets for RMB200 at the gate. Bag ladies collecting plastic bottles and the scents of lamb skewers and marijuana lent the festival credibility.
 
But who paid for it all? Probably the marketing departments of Levi’s, MySpace and Motorola, all of whom paid to install marketing stalls on the festival site. Social website MySpace was also on-site, with a sizeable booth next to the Levi’s stall. Modern Sky tagged Levi’s and Motorola as “partners” in promotional material. In some ways the Indie label, headquartered in a converted 1950s apartment block in a unglamorous pocket of Beijing’s northern Haidian district, upstaged the Beijing Pop Festival, headquartered in more salubrious digs in the heart of the business district.
 
A local corporate presence was that of Sculpting In Time, a chain of coffee stores set up by Taiwanese film graduate Jimmy Zhuang and his wife. The brand, whose outlets are larger and cosier than Starbucks’ in China, had a large stall selling tea and coffee, though the profligance of plastic-coated paper cups calls into question their environmental credentials stated on their advertisement in the festival programme. Others with stalls included glossy local rock magazine In Music and Painkiller, a Beijing heavy metal magazine. Disposable camera maker Lomography was another corporate presence, with a big, red-liveried booth manned by the Lomography Society of China.
 
No figures or arrangements for getting the Yeah Yeah Yeahs here have been disclosed – one imagines the Grammy-nominated New Yorkers don’t come cheap - but Modern Sky have gotten a lot of criticism for engaging in vanity lao wai (local slang for foreigner) projects, engaging foreign bands for gigs and recordings in China which have no sustainable impact on the development of the local scene. The money, says critics like Berwin Song in That’s Beijing magazine, would be better spent finding and releasing quality local artists.
 
Sculpting in Time was inundated with customers as the rain spilled down on the last night of the festival. A lot of the corporate sponsors looked pretty glum however in the least glam looking VIP tent, too far away from the main stage to see anything and too scared of the rain to join the other punters.
 
The choice of food vendors on the festival site – no camping allowed - was nothing if not colourful. What really stood out was the image of a smiling Middle Eastern looking man, complete with red-white keffiyeh head dress, plastered over Arabic script above one of the food stalls. It all looked very exotic and drew an expectant crowd. The vendors, bearded Uyghurs from the western province of Xinjiang, sold the same lamb skewers common on many Beijing street food stalls. True, no one does them like the Uyghurs, but what a smart way to draw a crowd.
 
Sales were brisk too in the plastic sheeted village constructed on a car park near the park’s southern entrance. Huddled beneath a giant replica space rocket, the vendors sold the usual mix of t-shirts and CDs on offer at most Chinese rock bars. Yet the range of shirts and the quality of the designs – from kitschy Cultural Revolution-era motifs to go green environmental slogans and nifty takes on Kurt Cobain and local stars AK-47 - there’s plenty of hints that China’s t-shirt makers are now as creative as they are prodigious.
 
None of the foreign artists whose images and logos appear will be getting royalties off sales – but the price and uniqueness of these shirts – average RMB50 - make them compelling buys for foreign fans. Out of the piles of second hand and shop-cut CDs on offer I plucked Lipstick Traces, a two-CD set of Manic Street Preachers B-sides, for RMB40. A good bargain, a good night. More credit to Modern Sky then.

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19

A reminder that China can be an unsophisticated place when it comes to freedom of speech, Internet users here as of yesterday can't log on to Youtube. The popular website joins others like Wikipedia on the lengthening list of sites which have fallen foul of the Great Firewall. The crack-down is perhaps because all this week the leadership of the country's one and only political party, the Communist Party, is meeting for its 17th Congress. Embarassing videos alluding to the Party's dodgy record on corruption and human rights would not be acceptable  during the grand pow-wow, held about once a decade to divvy up leadership posts.  The army of censors who patrol Chinese cyberspace may also have been ordered into action as a form of revenge towards the USA for awarding the Dalai Lama the Congressional Medal earlier this week. Such blunt logic would not be beyond Beijing's cadres, who have reacted as if kicked in the nuts by Washington's grand reception for the exiled Tibetan leader. Whatever, the people most angered by the neanderthal approach to free speech as the young Chinese who use Youtube to learn English and watch to western and Chinese music videos. Those who benefit are the folks who came up with toudou, a Chinese copy of youtube. It hasn't been blocked. 

 


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13

Two acts come through Beijing this week both courtesy of Jon Campbell, who runs the YGTWO music event management company. Aside from bringing Bus Driver to Beijing Canadian-born Campbell is also the local promoter behind Lache Cercel and the Roma Swing Ensemble. The Romanian group performs gypsy-flavoured jazz with a violin maestro, said Lache Cercel, and two guitars as well as bass and percussion. They'll play three shows in Beijing: Saturday October 13 at the new White Rabbit (more on that later) on so called “Lucky Street” bar strip - Zaoying Lu to locals – and October 14 at Peking University Hall as part of the Time Arts Jazz Series.

To get the student crowd YGTWO has graciously kept tickets as low as RMB20 (2 euros) for that Peking University gig. There’s a final gig on Wednesday Oct 17 at the new Purple Haze Bistro at China View, a new real estate project. Purple Haze’s Swedish co-owner has been a big supporter of local jazz and plays bass in several Beijing groups. The new Purple Haze will have to compete with custom however with China’s first Hooter's bar, next door. Lets hope Lache's sound is as good as Hooters'  publicity push on its Chinese bar girls, though the place looks empty any night this writer's cycled by.

Campbell, who also drums with two Beijing bands has been steering a lot of business to the new Yugong Yishan, in the former courtyard home of Duan Qirui Government on the Zhang Zizhong Road, Dongcheng district – what’s left of Beijing’s old city. Abigail Washburn, an American banjo player who sings in Chinese came back to China on September 29. Billed as The Traveling Daughter Returns Washburn played with a mixed bag of local friends, including a trio of girls on classical instruments pipa, guzheng, zhongruan, to an enthusiastic expatriate-heavy crowd.

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From New York, off-kilter hip hop Busdriver played the new Yu Gong Yi Shan on Zhang Zizhong Road on Friday October 12. “Intelligent, if wacky, lyrics and music,” said the flyer and the man known to his mother as Regan Farquhar delivered. A good show of Chinese hip hop fans is perhaps explained by the fact that there's a bit of a hip hop craze sweeping Beijing right now. Several city gyms, including my local, Evolution Fitness, offer hip hop classes. Most of the students are young women who seem to prefer an emerging uniform of khaki pants and tight black t-shirts, kind of like 1990s Irish metal fans who'd strut their stuff at town-hall discos.  

Two local acts opened for Bus Driver: the Beijing Live Hip Hop Experience and the Red Hand Jazz Band the RMB70 door. Hats off to promoters YGTWO for the show and for the decent turnout. How come he managed to do it cheaper than last week’s scattered NO CH festival? They charged RMB100 but never really seemed to hit the nail on the head with a mix of Scandinavian electronic and folk avant garde. 

 

 

 

 


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“Why am I recording ethnic minorities music?” asks Laurent Jeanneau hypothetically. “I won’t pretend that I m doing it for saving endangered cultures, I let the UNESCO and various organizations or NGOs use big words like “preserving indigenous cultures” and actually not doing much about it . “I’ve contacted quite a few of those organizations in the past, without any results.” 
 
Passionate about the world’s minority peoples and their music, the Frenchman has spent ten years engaged in a “rather non lucrative activity” going to remote parts of India, Tanzania, southeast Asia and China to record traditional music. He’s now taking his mini disk recorder through China to record local minority folk music, before the music is lost to cultural assimilation.
 
“China is huge, it would take me so many years to explore and find the remaining musical traditions of the 400 ethnic minorities, A “Stalinian” approach by anthropologists of the 1950 s ensured the country’s ethnic groups squeezed into 55 official ethnic groupings but there are in fact as many as 400 ethnic groups as well as the Han majority, which accounts for 95 percent of China’s population.
 
In Autumn 2006, with his girlfriend Shi Tanding (herself a Han from China’s Muslim western region Xinjiang who has written about ethnic minorities) Jeanneau did a series of recordings of minorities around Lugu lake in northern Yunnan province and in Da Liangshan in southern Sichuan, both regions in China’s southwest. Centuries of intermingling between minority groups has made for an interesting musical mix. “Pumi and Moshuo are following Tibetan buddhism, and have been in contact with Han or Mongolian during past centuries.”
 
Elsewhere, China’s small community of Miaos carries the influence of the group’s movements between China and Laos and Vietnam, where they’re known as Hmong. A June 2007 trip to the southern province of Guizhou was a breakthrough. “Guizhou is the starting point of all Hmong people and I am now able to compare their different musical developments.”
 
The Nuosus, officially the Yi in China, are like the Miao less influenced by the outside world. The Yi, based in Yunnan and Sichuan encompass six different ethnic groups each with their own language and all together they are more than eight millions people.” In Yunnan, the duo recorded “beautiful” songs among two different Yi groups, the Nuosu and the Laluo.
 
While China, proud and enthusiastic about its past is encouraging the revival of styles of Chinese opera ethnic minorities have suffered from a recent “standardization” approach to folklore, says Jeanneau. “Old cultures need to be recorded before it s too late, something has been done by Chinese and foreign anthropologists…” Otherwise the remnants of minority culture will be replaced by television mass culture… “Within the ethnic groups, the new generations have already integrated mainstream musical taste and few of them see any value in the singing techniques of their ancestors.”
 
The extent to which ethnic minority music survives or gets swallowed up by KTV will depend on local efforts. “As far as I know some Chinese anthropologist might have recorded interesting stuff, I know of one university teacher in Kunming who has documented ethnic minorities in Yunnan, the problem is they bring people in studios to have it super clean, I love the sound environment that goes with it and anyway never had the money to bring people to a studio.”
 
Recordings are often driven by China’s booming tourism industry, which has lowered tastes. “They don t want to listen, they want to see, there are hardly no CDs to be purchased but VCDs and DVDs with sexy ethnic girls and synthesizers to make it acceptable to the masses. I’ve focused on getting old people sing old tunes , you cannot purchase that kind of recordings in China. Are ethnic minorities going to continue perform for real purposes and not tourism? I guess so, let s hope China is big enough to avoid commercial influence.”
 
 
Jeanneau gives RMB50 to each performer he records. “Many times they are more than one person, like five or seven singers, I wish I could give more but financially with low income I cannot.” China’s minorities have welcomed his attention. “They are so surprised that someone is interested by a totally non commercial music, it s a matter of recognition, some people even don t want my money, replying that I’ve come a long way to discover them.”
 
Several dozen CDs sell for RMB30 each at the Sugarjar music store in Beijing’s Dashanzi art district as well as other stores in Shenzhen, Chengdu and Kunming. He’s unsure who’s buying the CDs but of the people who buy directly from me half are foreigners. “Of that I’m getting 15 (I euro 50), which is more than what I get from American label who sells his products US$15!”
 
Outside China the CDs sell for 5 euros but profits are small. “When I record a musician anywhere in the world he gets $5 from me, so just count how many people u hear on those CDs.” To keep himself on the road, Jeanneau takes turns as an electronic musician, DJ in clubs and a sound recorder for film crews. “I live in Dali, Yunnan in a very cheap appartment, the list of all the jobs i ve done to survive is rather long!”
 
Negotiations with a major Chinese record label for the release of a double CD of recordings from Yunnan and Sichuan eventually ended in frustration. Honest record labels “simply don’t exist,” says Jeanneau. “I am now willing to release things by myself, less CDs and more income!”
 
“I invest my time, money and energy on music that move me, in many cases I seem to be the first one to record those musicians, I am aware of this exclusive dimension, but this is not essential… I love the rawness and uncompromising emotion that most ethnic musicians   express, regardless of the main ethnic groups taste, and western and local cultural decision makers, not to mention tourists and expats who are usually just looking for western music to go along with their western meals!”  
 
China’s minorities face similar fates to those of minority groups elsewhere, says the Frenchman, who released a double CD in 2003 on the french label Musiques du Monde of recordings of the Tanzanian Hadzas bushmen, the Hadzas, “who are in a very precarious situation” because of industrialization and tourism on their land. In 2000 he sold recordings to Discovery Channel, then shooting a documentary on James Stephenson, an American living with the Hadzas. “The result is a cliche film about friendly savages , the way safari tourists wish to see the bushmen.”

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2006 - Review of Neosupervital's debut album, written by Doctor Binokular. The famously compelling review, complete with pie charts that compare the angst of Neosupervital with the angst of the reviewer. As you do.