The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Beijing Beat

19

It's played host to all of Beijing's usual supspects and bigger names, like International Noise Conspiracy. After making way for yet another Beijing Mall, Yugong Yishan has reopened in an old Latin-colonial looking building in the old part of the city (or what's left of that). Rui Fu, a posh club making no money - too far from the big business district bucks perhaps - is giving up the lease and Yugong Yishan will next week open the doors on whats likely to be a more dive-bar kind of place. We wish them luck.

 

UPLOADTEMPLATE


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11

This weekend's Beijing Pop Festival had everything. Bag ladies collecting plastic bottles, a Chinese camper van maker showing its wares, lamb skewers, marijuana, and lots of freeloaders selling their VIP tickets for RMB200 at the gate. We paid RMB250 for our day tickets at the official van, which sold a two day ticket for RMB450: "you get RMB50 discount."

And then we meet a friend inside with an access all areas VIP wristband, snapped up with the VIP invite she bought for RMB200 outside. Go everywhere, for two days, and use the VIP loos at the back of the stage. In China you give flash looking invites to officials, police and anyone else who might be able to put a spanner in the works. Even if they've no intention of going Beijing bigwigs regard free tickets as an acknowledgement of their might and if they don't get them they can exercise their ability to pull one of those many permits you need to put on an open air rock festival in China. Big shows like this one warrant a few hundred such tickets - and a special VIP area of arm chairs and tea service. 

When Alisha Keyes played on the Great Wall a few years ago organisers handed out 500 free tickets out of 5,000 sold and sat the paying public behind about six rows of armchairs reserved for big shots and/or their families. Many of course didn't show, or went home when the novelty wore off. Ticket scabs usually know the likely recipients and approach them for the tickets. Given than construction workers earn about RMB600 a month in Beijing, a ticket sell for RMB200 isn't a bad takings.


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11

Visiting the Sugar Jar CD shop over in the ever-more-gentrified 798 art district in Dashanzi district lately I picked up a couple of CDs of recordings made by travelling French musicologist Laurent Jeanneau. At RMB30 and in unillustrated pink paper packaging the CDs don't immediately catch the eye but then little of what they sell in the tiny Sugar Jar is mainstream.

"Background music, ambient music man!" were the explanations of a couple of local music fans hanging out in the shop. On first listen I've got lots of patriotic chants and background music you hear at morning assembly/exercise time in the yards of Chinese secondary schools. There's also chants and tunes from the Yi and the Miao, minorities in southern China. Jeanneau fears the country's minority music will be lost as the tribes' youth fall in line with the karaoke bars and syrupy Mandarin variations on western pop. It's a tale that's also been told about Tibet and Xinjiang, regions of Buddhist and Muslim peoples where Han culture and mass tourism are having a diluting effect on local traditions and music.

When I called the number on his CD the amiable Jeanneau answered. He doesn't have a mobile and lives, in a cottage outside the city, off the RMB15 he gets from each CD sold at the Sugarjar (he gave up on negotiating a deal with a mainstream Chinese record label). More after we meet on his next journey into town.

  


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05

After months of speculation the US indie rockers Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs have confirmed for the Modern Sky Festival to be held October 2 to 4, during the five-day break Beijingers get for National Day holiday. Yet another festival, yes, and this one is happening in Haidian Park up in the university district – next week’s Beijing Pop Festival is happening in Chaoyang Park, the city’s largest, in the embassy/business district.

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 That’s Beijing’s Berwin Song, would be better spent finding and releasing quality local artists.

Anyway the Golden Week (as Chinese call the National Day holiday) will be made more golden this year by the YYYs  appearing on a mostly-Chinese line up of Modern Sky bands: New Pants, Hedgehog and newcomers My Little Airport. Problem is even though there’s more foreign bands coming – put it down to the pre Olympic excitement – there hasn’t been a dramatic growth in the number of decent Chinese bands. Festival line ups often look remarkably similar.

 


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29
 
Once named one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine, Trent Reznor is back in favour and form. Following an album release earlier this year by his band Nine Inch Nails (NIN) a summer on the European festivals circuit is being bookended with a headline slot at the Beijing Pop Festival on September 8 and 9.

 Reznor, whose brand of industrial pop-rock minted millions in big-label revenue since 1989's bleak debut Pretty Hate Machine, is a personal hero for Jason Magnus, president of Rock For China Ltd, which organises the Beijing Pop Festival. A real estate developer who realized a dream by running the first edition of the pop festival in 2005, Magnus admires the band’s anti-establishment views and the anti-Bush sentiments of the band’s latest album, Year Zero.

“NIN always stayed relevant,” saysMagnus, who gushes with admiration for the public relations campaign behind the band’s new recording. “They are still filling stadiums and still challenging their listeners. Their live show and production values have always been fresh and different.”
 
It was always clear that the band had fans in China: NIN albums like Downward Spiral, a staple of most mid – 1990s college dorms is reliably present in small-town CD shops from Shanghai to Urumqi. Few logos are as ubiquitoius as the blocky NIN on the cheap black t-shirts of rock fans on a weekend night in any of Beijing’s rock bars.
 
The band always wanted to play China, says Magnus. “They’ve been very keen, it was always a logistics question.” The US band is tacking China onto an Asia leg that also takes in Korea, Hong Kong before the band flies to Australia. A large crew (30, compared to an entourage of 17 which comprised the entire entourage of last year’s headline act, Placebo) and freight load will break records in China, says Magnus. “They’re bringing 15 tonnes of equipment, Placebo brought four.”
 
Aside from landing NIN Rock For China has been clever with the line up: whatever happens there will be a big turn out for what’s being claimed as the first outdoor show in almost 20 years by socially inspired local bard Cui Jian. The “godfather of Chinese rock” as he’s labeled would surely show up himself to see the other big American name at the festival, Public Enemy, tapes of whom he’s credited with inspiring segues into social-conscience rapping later on in his career. 
 
Chinese rock fans have a historical bent, says Magnus. Other Americans on the main stage include anti-establishment icons the New York Dolls and Marky Ramone from defunct punk legends the Ramones. “I really wanted legends from different genres. I’m not bringing acts out for expatriates but for the Chinese fans and contemporary artists don’t have followings here,” says Magnus, who points to the rousing reception given to hard rock journeyman Sebastian Bach at last year’s festival as proof that local fans like old gold rather than current hot tickets like the Killers and the Strokes. “…I’ve noticed a lot of kids wearing New York Dolls and Romones t-shirts, so we bought them.”
 
Paying for big names like NIN is difficult in China, where rock remains a niche taste in a music market already sapped by CD piracy. NIN are charging “more than 100 percent” more than last year’s headline act, Placebo, charged. The pop festival pays its acts largely from sponsorship.
 
Unlikely corporate sponsors include credit card company Mastercard and US-based office technology provider R & R Donnelly. Both companies sponsored the festival last year too. New sponsors this year as Hennessy VSOP and perfume brand Dior. “We prefer to stick with the tried and tested brands who were involved last year. We are aware of the limited potential of the market here. Festivals don’t have a long history in China.”
 
Troubled TV maker TCL sponsored the 2005 festival but this year the only Chinese sponsor is the local edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. “Companies have different internal reasons for sponsoring,” says Magnus. He won’t comment on whether sponsorship fees have risen on last year’s figures.
 
Ticket prices have risen from RMB150 per day in 2006 to RMB200 this year but remain “ridiculously good value” for the 15,000 people a day - “near enough capacity” - expected by Magnus. China remains price sensitive. “In general people in China buy one day tickets.” Ticket sales, handled by state owned Piaowu Tong ticket company split 50/50 between one day and weekend.
 
Copious paperwork and permits needed to get the groups in necessitated the abbreviation of the group’s name to PE. Bureaucracy is a way of life for festival organizers in China, who regularly dispenses batches of free tickets to smooth over permit processes. Over 2,000 people brought tents last year. “I really liked that, it adds to the vibe.” Campers are not allowed to stay overnight in the park however, and must be out with the rest of the crowd within an hour of the last song of the night.
 
Magnus has been wrangling with security about shortening the barrier between crowd and performers. Uniformed security guards, required by local law, last year stood to attention facing the crowd. “We want them to change their uniforms,” says Magnus. “It would be really important to the vibe of the festival.”
 
From London, the main stage’s sole Brit attraction, Brett Anderson will be on a second visit to China. A February 2003 showing with his then group, Suede, was poorly attended. “It was holiday time so a lot of people missed it,” says Magnus, who predicts a big turn-out this time round for the former Suede front man, currently in the midst of a coolly received solo career. “We’ve been getting phone calls all year from fans asking if we could bring Suede. As pioneers of Brit pop they’ve got a big following...”

Lesser known foreign bands include Britain’s the Crimea, who play with locals Joyside and Muma on the Hit Fm stage, sponsored by a local radio station.

 


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23

A Chinese pop star’s ambition to be the world’s first musician to sell one billion downloads is the reason behind an unlikely collaboration between a pop star’s dreams and a nascent Irish dotcom company’s ambition. Dubbed China’s Whitney Houston, Wei Wei is aiming to set a world record by selling more than one billion downloads to mobiles from her http://weiwei.mobi site, designed by a Dublin-based Internet firm, by the end of 2008.
 
Beautiful and well connected (she’s reportedly on first name terms of several of China’s politburo), label-less Wei Wei released her latest album, Wei Wei 20 X 20 Celebration Collection (it marks her 20 years in showbiz), exclusively on her website, designed specially to be mobile-phone friendly.
 
The 34 year old singer decision to shun traditional CDs and download stores like iTunes (the album was later made available at iTunes) for her latest release was helped by her being chosen to sing at the opening ceremonies of next summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing. “This will be one of the world's biggest-ever media events.”
 
“Accessing the internet from mobile phones is the future of the internet and allows me to reach my older fans as well as the younger generation who use mobile phones much more than PCs for accessing the Internet,” said Wei Wei in an email.
 
Designed by Dublin-based dotcom firm dotMobi, the .mobi domain makes websites more suited to mobile phone using music fans, says Vance Hedderel, director of communications at mTLD Top Level Domain Limited, dotMobi’s parent company. “Sites built using the .mobi domain can be accessed from most internet-enabled mobile phone, no matter which operator the user is subscribed to.”
 
“That means an artist like Wei Wei can ensure her material is available to the widest possible global audience without restrictions. End users don't have to be tied to an operator's portal to get the music they want -- assuming that the music they want is available on an operator's portal -- and they can be sure that the money is going directly to the artist, who can use those profits to make more material available.”
 
Press material surrounding the Wei Wei release described Wei Wei as “China's biggest music star” will surely be refuted by more recent arrivistes like Liu Yifei, winner of last year’s hugely popular Supergirl reality TV pop show. She's no longer top of China's pop scene yet Wei Wei’s prices are premium: songs like the Red Flower and Welcome to Beijing cost US$4 per download. Mobile phone ring tones adapted from tunes like See You 2008 cost US$3. Songs on itunes typically cost US$0.99 to download.
 
“Yes, they’re expensive,” conceded Wei Wei manager Bjorn Bertoft. “But Wei Wei is a hugely popular star.” Shooting to public prominence after winning the Young Singers contest on national TV in 1986, Wei Wei has been China’s favourite face at large sporting events, singing at the opening of 1991 Asia Games in Beijing and performing a duet with famously randy Spanish pop star Julio Iglesias in at the East Asia Games in Shanghai two years later. In her 20-year career, Hohot-born Wei Wei has sold more than 200 million tapes and CDs and has recorded hundreds of songs, both in English and Mandarin.
 
Famous for her interpretations of Chinese songs like Telling to the Spring and Sparkling Sky (she also covered Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Changes Everything), Wei Wei has ambitions beyond China, a market with its own copyright and piracy pitfalls for musicians. The woman who claims Swedish group ABBA was her inspiration to learn English, moved to Stockholm in 1999  to begin an assault on the English language market. The move was described by the artist at the time as a way “to capitalise on the growing global influence of Chinese popular culture.”
 
Wei Wei flies to Beijing at least once a month for concert and TV appearances - she also sang at the start of the Beijing marathon and the closing of the Nanjing Crawfish festival last year - but records in Sweden. Her 20X20 album was polished by fabled production team Johan Åberg and Robban Habolin, writers/producers for Cher and Christina Aguilera. The Inner Mongolia native spent an hour signing autographs at the dotMobi booth during the international telecommunications conference, 3GSM World Congress, in Barcelona in February. Based in Stockholm since 1999 with four sons from her estranged marriage to a Swedish-American husband,
 
Selling direct-to-consumer downloads rather than CDs helps curb music piracy, says Wei Wei. “This is a major problem in my home country… This is an important shift in music history. In China, the market for CDs was over a long time ago. I am going to concentrate solely on digital technology,” says Wei Wei.
 
Her other claim is even more intriguing. “It's also an environmentally friendly way of distributing my music.” So no more plastic CDs then? Certainly, the global music industry has been struggling to adjust itself to a post-CD world. Large music companies at first tried to suppress online music sharing sites like Napster before eventually selling content on licensed on line traders like iTunes and Realplayer.
 
dotMobi is the informal name for mTLD Top Level Domain, Ltd, a joint venture company based in Dublin, Ireland with offices in Washington, DC and Beijing. Sites and Internet services operating around .mobi are optimized for use by mobile devices. The company is hoping that it can create critical mass by tapping into China’s 400-million strong mobile user base, the largest in the world. The standard has the backing of leading mobile operators and network equipment makers as well as Internet content providers, including Ericsson, Microsoft, Nokia and Samsung.
 
Working with Wei Wei opens doors in China, one of dotMobi's five largest markets. In the early part of 2008 the company’s Beijing office plans to unveil content directory to make it easy to find mobile content that works on mobile phones, and a device database to make developing mobile applications easier and less expensive.
 
Other musicians are following Wei Wei’s lead. Independent artists Tila Tequila and Jennie Walker have recently also built .mobi sites. “Having weiwei.mobi has been a very good demonstration of what is possible,” says Hedderel.
 
Wei Wei and FC Barcelona soccer heroes Messi, Deco, Márquez and Puyol give a gentlemen's salute to female soccer players with "Go-Girl-Go (Fly With Me)", a theme song and a music video for the Women’s World Cup which China’s hosts in September. “Wei Wei is a national icon in China, familiar to more than a billion people,” claimed an early dotMobi press release. Hardly. But familiar to enough of people to carry the company into the Chinese market.

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20
 
Split-t is getting bigger and braver. For the National Day holiday the event management company, which made its name brining Sonic Youth to China, is bringing three foreign names to Beijing and Shanghai for a Beijing club show and a Shanghai festival. Britain’s dance duo Faithless is headlining the bill at the Yue Festival in Zhongshan park, atop LA Latin/hip hop/rock nine-piece Ozomatli and Brooklyn bred rapper Talib Kweli.
 
In further proof that you can’t bring a big name here yet without being sponsored to the hilt, Spli-t thanks Bacardi and Converse in its press release and carry their logos on promo material. We’re not quite sure of the exact nature of the sponsorship but Spli-t have good connections to both Bacardi and Chivas after running successful music events - like Sino Sessions, sponsored b the US rum maker. for them in China. Maximo Park and the Infadels and the Go Team were among those bands flown out for Bacardi-sponsored shows in Beijing and Shanghai.
 
The ticketing system looks interesting, and the priciest yet by China standards. Students pay RMB140, about 14 euros, for the day out in Shanghai. Those who earn pay RMB180 if you buy in advance or RMB360 at the door. In Beijing however similar prices apply for the Faithless gig on October 3 at Starlive down by the Yonghegong Temple. It’s cheaper for the October 2 gig when Ozomatli and Talib Kweli play: RMB100/140/180 depending if you’re student/buy in advance/at door. So much then for the assumption that Shanghai is wealthier than Beijing. It may be down to capacity: Star Live can fit 1000 punters at a pinch, whereas we assume Zhongshan park is more roomy, hence more paying punters. We await to see if the Western-style ticket prices will put off more price-conscious Chinese punters.
 
Getting permission to use a public park can’t have been easy – assembled, standing masses - so hats off to Nathaniel Davis and co at Spli-t for securing approval. Local support is not yet finalized but Beijing bands Hedgehog will be traveling to Shanghai to play with two local monkeys: yes, Monkey Banana and Monkey Soundsystem.
 


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16

Maybe it was all the thunder and lightning which scared and soaked the festival site Thursday and Friday that drove the crow legged Rastafarian to stumble along in the post-storm mud in what could only be his girlfriend’s pink knickers. He was tame however compared to the Italian who took it all off and stumbled around the muck and pools of rainwater near the main stage, taking mad runs at screeching girls and his mortified friends, his penis swinging in the wind.

Not officially nudist, Sziget is nonetheless one of the best natural locations in the world for a rock festival, an island on the outskirts of one of Europe's finest looking cities. The line up at Sziget 2007 in Budapest (taking place from Aug 8 to 14) isn’t bad either. Sinead O’Connor shares a main-stage bill with The Killers, Nine Inch Nails and Chris Cornell as well as Brits like Razorlight and The Rakes to play in front of 60,000 festival goers, many of whom arrive by a ferry up the Danube.

Maybe the best value of the whole week-long festival are the few dozen Roma gypsy bands who travel from the Hungarian hinterlands, Romania and the Balkans to play. No other rock festival can boast such a strong world music line up, and that's thanks in part to the world music lable Putumayo, which brought the gypsy bands to a special Roma stage on the festival site. A big name on any world music rankings, Romania's Fanfare Ciocarlia pulled a bigger and more boisterous crowd on the World Music stage than several of the western groups playing the main stage.

Sziget is more established and laid-back hippy than many among the dozens of more opportunistic recent arrivals to Europe’s festival scene. It started in 1993 as a way for Hungarians to party off the traumas of a post-war era of totalitarian socialist rule. In the hometown of classical greats like Franz Liszt, the event is starting to pull really big name rock to its main stage. There's plenty of local talent to fill the other 20 stages offering world music, jazz, blues, electronica and lots of other stuff that's not easily categorized. Promising magicians compete for attention with mind-bendingly sexy belly dancers from Turkey who perform in a giant tea tent of hookahs and tea.

Like most everywhere else there's punks and drunks littered around the main entrance who can't afford to come in. Just as well because you have to leave all bottles at the gate - Coca Cola is a major sponsor. The festival has moved on from its hippy origins. ATM machines around the site make it easy for a few hundred stalls to sell. Sziget organizers have everything covered, including a branch of Hungary Post allows festival goers to greet the folks at home.

There's no shortage of t-shirt stalls but the invisibility of security– try finding someone who can tell you where the exit is when you’re tired – allowed some of the inebriated to go stark naked mad. Others were better covered. A grandly sized EU tent had the most comfortable couches south of backstage. There was more than the rain to tempt festival goers onto the deep blue couches. Like free pens and balloons - you have to do a quiz to get an umbrella. Outside beefy men in yellow impermeables power hose the loos. Inside local thinkers and polticians debate the cuntry's issues with youngsters and their musical heroes.

Next door in this "Civic area" of tents the country's culture ministry try to engage youth on the country's parliamentary process by offering pens, mugs and t-shirts. Given that they're emblazoned with a print of the parliament, one of the city's finest looking buildings - and that's saying something in Budapest - the maroon coloured t-shirts are worth having, if you can answer enough questions about the Hungarian political system.

Socialist sports rain down on the Sziget site too. Anyone bored by the music can play table tennis, for free. Budapest is a dream festival town, something to thank socialist egalitarianism for. Great public transport and millions of square metres of accommodation in this town were built by the socialists – the underground system is an identikit of its deep-bellied counterpart in Moscow, Pyongyang and everywhere else Soviet engineers took their trade. There's plenty of traces of the old communist era in the shop signs and proletarian looking old signs for state-owned restaurants and shoes shops which have faded into the decorous, unpainted facades of downtown buildings.

With sights like that this city doesn't need a festival to bring backpackers in. Yet caretakers and housekeepers of the graceful old tenements built during the Austro-Hungarian empire hang out with clipboards at Keleti train station to spot anyone loading a backpack, rasta hats and faded Guns n Roses t-shirt. Others just camp.

(to be continued, watch out for photos coming soon)


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03
What is it about Chinese punk that gets Scandinavians and Germans so excited? While traveling in Europe this week I read a two page spread on the Beijing punk scene in a German music magazine, and see Joyside and Subs all over the Scandinavian music websites.
 
Not a whimper in UK or Ireland, or Madrid of any Chinese band, aside from your’s truly on Beijing Beat. Scandinavia and Germany have however proven welcoming touring grounds for the likes of scream-a lot Subs, and a bunch of other bands from around China. Subsidies have helped – the Norwegian city of Bergen last year spent public money sending middling bands over to China, releasing two CDs of Bergen music in China, and welcoming return visits by Chinese punks, who then drew on Norwegian connections to secure gigs across northern Europe. There has been some, but less, traffic in the opposite direction: Back in Beijing, illed as the "Drum King of Scandinavia," Emil de Waal is back in Beijing this weekend to play a drum set at the Mao Live over in Gulou.
 
German label Flyfast made a documentary titled Beijing Bubbles on punk band Joyside. While grateful of foreigners help, Liu Hao the hulking bass player with the Shane McGowan grin and attitude to booze is also wary of foreigners’ attention: “I hope they don’t consider us a Chinese band, I hope they just consider us a rock and roll band. We don’t need their curiosity. Some foreigners think Chinese rock is lovely and curious, and I don’t want to be that.”
 
Joyside took their name from a carnival in ancient Rome. The band had considered calling themselves Foreskin Ring after getting bored of the moniker Size Matters – the latter “because Liu Hao was so much bigger than us.”  Say that in Swedish.


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29
 
After a few great years Yugong Yishan is being knocked to make way for yet another mall. Incongruously located in a bus carpark in the city’s seedy (but being-gentrified) Sanlitun bar strip, Yugong Yishan hosted big names like the International Noise Conspiracy and an after-party for Ian Brown. Hailed among local rock fans because it was run by people who knew their music and knew how to serve a good drink cheap, Yugong Yishan bade farewell with a loud farewell party Friday and Saturday nights. Propreietor Lv Zhiqiang passing out the booze to regulars and all the local rockers who played at the box-shaped, one-storey venue off Gongti Bei Lu.
 
Located opposite the north gate of the city’s iconic Workers' Stadium, the bar was rare in Beijing for spending money on tweaking a decent sound system into place. The word is that the bar is moving into the old city to take over an historic old property which has housed imperial concubines and more recently a failed chic-club, Rui Fu. Lets see if the bar’s old regulars will make the trip over – the old Yugong Yishan also got a lot of passing trade from other Sanlitun bars, something unlikely to happen in the new location given it’s in a neighbourhood where passing trade is mostly old timers on Flying Pigeon bicycles pedalling by. It’s one to watch.
 
Rock will be represented hence in Sanlitun by dive bar Kai, where every Thursday night Tagteam Records spin a “corporate-free, additive free” dose of indie rock to a gang of students and addicts of cheap (and watered?) drinks.
Nearer to Yugong Yishan purported new location, Mao Livehouse on Gulou Dongdajie hosts brit-pop nights by local bands like Gentleman and Black Heart and Billows Fairytale. The larger, swankier Star Live, host to Sonic Youth’s Beijing gig, is still hanging in there, but charging RMB40 a head for what often look like half houses you wonder how long it will last before going the karaoke way. Newer venues emerging: like the Bank, on Gongti Dong Lu can charge RMB80 at the door because they play a glossy mix of dance and Mandopop.
 
And we still have the Stone Boat, a lovely old period building set in a lake inside ancient Ritan Park where usually experimental bands like Panjir (they blend sounds from China, Central Asia and North America) play.
 

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Nuggets from our archive

2004 - The CLUAS Reviews of Erin McKeown's album 'Grand'. There was the positive review of the album (by Cormac Looney) and the entertainingly negative review (by Jules Jackson). These two reviews being the finest manifestations of what became affectionately known, around these parts at least, as the 'McKeown wars'.