The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Beijing Beat

30

It’s the first time I ever bought a guitar in the same workshop it was made in. Well today I bought a US$30 from craftsman Mr Lay Lwin. In his 60s and dressed in the traditional wrap-around biyin 'skirt' that most Burmese men wear, Lay Lwin is chairman of Sein Shwe Lwin Guitar Garden, on Anawrahta road in the bustling Kyauktada township in downtown Yangon/Rangoon. The shop was a welcome detour in the downpour that blanketed the city for most of the day – this is rainy season. What got me was Lay’s smiling demeanour and loving attention with which he showed me each guitar. The US$30 price tag was also a clincher: prices fluctuate according to whether he’s using plastic or steel tuning gears, or if the strings and frets are steel or a cheaper alloy mix.

The top of the soundbox is pine, the sides plywood. It’s not surprising most of the country is still covered in forestry, that Burma would make guitars. Problem is much of that wood is being slashed by or for Chinese timber companies, who often pay off local officials to turn a blind eye as they drive their loot over the border into China’s Yunnan province. Still, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper earlier this week editorialized on the need to grow trees so the air can be clean and the country green, as if hardwood trees they’ve allowed to be chopped can be replaced overnight.

 

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28

Beijing Beat is in Burma this week, just as the country’s most famous citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi is on trial. There’s lots of well-armed police and military out on patrol, but this is no dour nation. The music shops, and there are plenty, sell guitar chord books and stacks of CDs and DVDs of local artists. Chinese pop is big in Burma. Staff sung along to Mandopop megahits while I was getting my hair cut at the East Boys hair salon on Seik Kan Tha Street A five minute walk away, three helpful attendants at the Man Thiri music shop – they produce and distribute CDs, VCDs and tapes as well as DVDs –  when I asked them for their best local folk and Burmese rock CDs plucked me out a work by harpist Haing Win Maung, and this by local hip hop/rocker Alex: Live at Inya Lake.

The local official press is farcically out of touch – the regime’s greetings to Azerbaijani leaders for that country’s national day made the page one lead yesterday – but there are plenty of chances to get alternative views in Rangoon/Yangon. There’s the paper boy selling Thailand’s The Nation on the street near my hotel, and then, in the hotel lobby, the staff watching satellite TV coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial, piped in by the country’s opposition in exile in Norway. That seems to be Burma: a very, friendly, nuanced kind of place. Badly run, unnecessarily impoverished, but also full of surprises. Number one for me was how it makes a good first impression: the new international airport in Rangoon is smart, glass and chrome and attentive, friendly staff. Nothing at all as chaotic as my recent experience flying into Dhaka, in neighbouring Bangladesh. But then nowhere do you hear chaotic Bangladesh’s multiplicity of voices, and debate. I’m looking forward to checking out the live music scene, particularly the Lazy Club, where apparently aforementioned rocker Alex regularly plays.


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08

A couple of months ago I was in Guangzhou, that sprawling capital of concrete and spaghetti junctions and home to the Canton Fair. Like Shenzhen, the other big city in Guangdong province, home to the largest concentration of factories in the world, Guangdong is about commerce and being as successful as Hong Kong, which is technically part of Guangdong (once Canton). More suprised was I to find a flowering of musical talent and record labels (like Starsing). My favourite guangdong sound is dombra (a stringed central Asian guitar-like instrument) playing singer Yerboli, an ethnic Kazakh from China's far west, who's moved about the country's richer cities playing in bars and at Han Chinese banquets. Thanks to That's PRD magazine for drawing my attention with their complimentary article timed with the release of Yerboli's article on Old Heaven Records in Shenzhen. Listen to him on myspace.


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03

 

Indonesia’s record industry is in tapes. Everyone in the city of Bandung on Java seems to own or aspire to a guitar. A local music scene leans heavily to soft, poppy rock. Local favourites East Station play something like the Cardigans. Young Indonesians are faultlessly fashionable, hip to the tail-piped jeans and a lot of Indie hair dos. There’s an awful lot of bootleg music product hawked on the streets of every major Indonesian city, CDs in flimsy soft packing sold for EUR0.50. Guitars are cheap – Yamaha manufactures locally, sells its entry level acoustics for about EUR40 at the Gramedia chain store in Jakarta malls. There’s a 50-50 break down between folk and classical guitars – the Bandung bands seem to play both.
Indonesia is a very tolerant muslim nation – the most populous in the world. Bandung’s guitar heroes pedal their tunes under the minaret of Bandung’s main mosque – which at night is almost eclipsed by a giant Dunkin Donuts sign.
The tolerance was explained in a song, translated for me, by a clove-cigarette smoking bandman: “Indonesians go to Saudi Arabia for haji, but the Arabs coming the other way to play around with local women.” Jemaah islamiah seems very far away indeed.
Have a listen to one of my favourite Indonesian bands, Dewa 19, on Myspace.

 


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12

Oasis will play in Beijing on April 3 - at the Capital Gymnasium, not the Worker’s Gymnasium as preferred by Kylie and Kayne West. It’s not clear what the band’s reasons for coming are but they shouldn’t have high expectations, nor hopes of making money. Their arrival hopefully marks the end of a long period of paranoia in China’s Department of Culture which issues performance licenses: pro-Tibetan chants by Bjork at her Shanghai show last year annoyed the bureaucrats, already worried about blemishes to China’s Olympics year. 

I can’t see how Oasis will make any money off this tour, considering the band has never had the cachet of Suede or Sonic Youth among China’s tiny rock community. Granted, those two groups solidified their local reputation by actually coming and playing here. Ticket prices range from RMB200 to RMB1600: 20 to 160 Euros.

I reckon there’ll be tickets for RMB50 – five Euros – on sale outside the venue on the night.

The band’s tour China:

  • April 3rd, 2009 - Beijing Capital Gym
  • April 5th, 2009 - Shangai Grand Stage
  • April 7th, 2009 - Hong Kong AsiaWorld Arena

 


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18

Venture capital is pouring nicely into China’s music scene. See Chinese ringtones specialists Hurray earlier this year spending US$3 million on a 61% stake in Taiwan's Seed Music Group Limited. But will those big deals stop, now that pension funds won’t be so easy to hand cash over to the VCs? The man who knows a lot about these things, Ed Peto runs events managers Red T Music and writes a fine blog, OutIndustry.

Heck, in researching this blog I've gotten bogged down in the other blogs out there on the China music scene. I like both http://www.music2dot0.com/ and China Music Radar. There are others out there too, mostly started by foreigners living in China. The best English-language blog written by a local Chinese fan - and likely the best of all the blogs on Chinese rock, Rock In China.

I've come to the conclusion that they're all snazzier looking than Beijing Beat but that many of them, especially the expat-authored blogs, seem to blur out after a few fantastic entries and then go silent for a few weeks, then a few months. I'll have to meet some of the folks behind these. More on the VC later: I'm meeting Modern Sky next week.


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17

I’m in Dalian to

Queen Sea big shark, lovely pace with Where Are all the passengers until we suddenly move up a serious change of gear and tempo. My new favourite China sound is the The Guai, listened to at Yugong Yishan the other night. I’ve been looking for them online.

Black Cat Bone
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16
I was wondering where the Glamorous Pharmacy CD release party was. Now I know: The band, famous in China for its its theatrical stage moves, played their new tunes for an audience of intimates at the Penghao Theatre is a badly needed café theatre on Dongmianhua Hutong, just off the Nanluoguxiang bar strip. A courtyard, roofed, adjacent to a comfortable café-restaurant, the Penghao was also a perfect venue for I heart Shakespeare, a selection of the Bard’s words peformed by expat and local amateur actors.
To avoid being knocked over by car or man since the Naluoguxiang area’s been invaded by retro shops and camera swaying tourists I don’t go down that way anymore: hwo this place changed in 2 years – which is probably why I didn’t see the theatre. All the state media attention in China tends to go to huge vanity projects like the egg shaped National Theatre near Tienanmen Square, designed by French architect Paul Andreu.
Nearly every city has one of these outsized but infrequently used cultural venues, or is copying one of the famous theatres of the world (knock-offs of the Sydney Opera House abound in China’s interior cities). Not a lot happens at these places as government cash tends to be reserved for state-run troupes the likes of which did the Olympic Games opening ceremony. These state-paid performers are rarely fountains of fresh new theatrical ideas. Which is all the more reason why the country needs the like of the Penghao.

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15

I understand why Filipino musicians are so in demand as minstrels for hire in hotels and bars around China. International hotels like them because Chinese audiences and western musicians don’t always gel well: Chinese performers, I've seen are usually shy in front of expatriate audiences, who in turn often don’t know if they're supposed to boo a bad performance and usually can't communicate with performers they like.

Those thoughts were confirmed for me during a chat with Alvaro Rottenberg, general manager of the Kempinski in Shenyang, an auto-making city in China’s north. Rottenberg hires a Filipino band to entertain a mostly Chinese clientele at the hotel Paulaner-themed bar. Another Filipino band plays five sets a night in an Irish-themed bar at the Holiday Inn down the road in this BMW-making town, which freezes to -25C on December nights.

Bar bands from the tropical Philippines - also staples in Dubai hotels - look Asian, speak English and understand what westerners like to hear. In China they’re also usually able to sing a bunch of Chinese songs that sound passable enough to please Chinese customers. Why not Chinese musicians? Because they don’t have enough of an English-language repertoire, says Rottenberg. Filipinos by comparison are often praised as human jukeboxes, capable of switching from Green Day to Glen Campbell, as the clientele requires. Granted they've usually got the words filed away in plastic-sheet binders, which they flip through as the night and the requests progress.

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14
There’s a lot of talk about fakes being back on China’s streets because of the global economic slump. I’m not so sure. First of all, the economic slow down isn’t so apparent in China, which has a lot more growing to do. It may be more to do with Mp3s and the fact that gadget-friendly Chinese, who never really got used to tapes or CDs in the way that music geeks spend hours poring through the content in a Dublin or a New York music shop. China has had pirates and stores of counterfeit product for as long as it has had CDs and DVDs. And now that its easier for local music fans to load up for free from the Internet, they’re not even bothering to pay RMB10 – a euro – for the pirated CDs they used to buy. I got to thinking about this the other night when pedaling home through the Sanlitun bar area. In 2003 on most street corners here there was plenty of pirated product to be had by itinerant salesmen setting up shop atop a cardboard box. They’ve all disappeared, as have the characters who beat a nightly circuit of local bars with suitcases of RMB5 (EUR0.50) CDs and RMB7 (EUR0.70) DVDs – for economy and easier carrying packed in soft plastic packaging rather than the elaborate casings you get in local shops – which also sell counterfeits. The latter have survived, though in lesser numbers and some, like my local audiovisual store, sell genuine product now. Open till 11 every night, the store is located right opposite a police station, so the owners are obviously law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.

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Nuggets from our archive

2005Michael Jackson: demon or demonised? Or both?, written by Aidan Curran. Four years on this is still a great read, especially in the light of his recent death. Indeed the day after Michael Jackson died the CLUAS website saw an immediate surge of traffic as thousands visited CLUAS.com to read this very article.