The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Beijing Beat

29

Sure, most of the audiovisual product in even the smallest Chinese city is 80% bootlegged. But leaving the numbers aside - 1.3 billion people will buy more of the stuff - it appears that worse offenders in the whole CD piracy problem may be the Russians. I remember a couple of years ago travelling through central Asia and finding dozens of traders in the capital city department store (invariably called Zum) selling collections of MP3s on CD, the product having been shipped in from Russia. Well they're still at it. Zum in Odessa, the black sea port in southern Ukraine where I found myself this week, sells collections of big name artists' albums for about EUR3.50 each. That's 11 albums - most of Pink Floyd's back catalogue on the "Pink Floyd Diamond Collection' CD I examined. Manufactured in Russia, according to the salesgirl, each collection is packaged in generic, rather tacky artwork. Chinese counterfeiters tend to reproduce single albums - including copying the packaging to exacting detail - and sell each for about EUR1.60 each. 11 albums would cost considerably more the Chinese way. It's hard to know who'd doing more harm but on numbers the Russians are selling more knocked-off music cheaper.  

 


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26
I’ve been trying to work out how and why the Uyghurs - a 20-million strong people (or 'minority' in official China speak) in western China have produced a string of groups playing Beijing bars– got so good at flamenco guitar. Way over West in Kashgar a dusty old city near the Pakistan border, a long-haired gangly guitarist called Askar rules (there’s also Arken). Did he simply copy the Gypsy Kings and set off the craze, or does it run deeper? Askar’s 2001 album, the populist Tilag (Blessing) was recorded in both Chinese and Uyghur languages and mixes both flamenco guitars and the local traditional sounds.

 But what is this Chinese man doing playing virtuoso flamenco? This whole town on the western frontier seems to specialize in Flamenco. There are teenagers standing in doorways who don’t need much encouragement to start plucking away. Two more who we met dueled for an hour, each trying to best the other and seeking our judgement to decide the duel.

These aren’t any ordinary Chinese of course. This is Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur people, who have a lot more in common with the Turks than they do with the Han, China’s majority ethnicity group. Flamenco comes from the Arab conquest of Spain – it was Arabs who gave the music to Spain, not vice versa. Arabs came east too and brought Islam to groups like the Uyghurs, who (like Tibet) only came under direct Chinese control in the last century. There’s a big selection of CDs of the local stars in the windows of little shops selling shampoo and cola which dot this old city of baked earth. Out on its margins a vast new Chinese city of concrete and tiles has its own KTV (karaoke) bars and larger CD shops which itzy bitzy Mandopop that’s as heavy on sythesisers as the local’s music is on guitar.
It’s more ironic then that the best of the locals head to karaoke-drenched cities to make their living. Arken plays a series of bars in Beijing and Shanghai. Several other troupes stay on the road and some have moved to America. A combination playing the Saddle Cantina bar in Beijing is a mix of Uyghur and Han Chinese as well as a Uyghur émigré returned from the US.

Andalusia, the home of flamenco, after all takes its name from the Moroccan Arabs who once ruled here: it was Al-Andalus to them. The songs are pure Arab lyric poetry and the “ay-ay-ay” call that interjects songs comes from “ya a-in” or ‘oh eye” the call of Arab beggars.

Flamenco isn’t the only music in Xinjiang. Local popular music draws on influences from ethnically close Turkey and geographically close Pakistan. There’s also the technology and the synthesizers and drumbeats from Mandarin pop. China’s audiovisual counterfeiting industry means there’s cheap access to western sounds.

Two local metal bands, Taklimakan (after the oil-rich desert which occupies a huge chunk of the region) and Riwayat, Darwish meanwhile takes their sounds from Central Asia since they’re Uyghurs based in Kazakhstan. There’s a lot left unsaid in Uyghur songs, which tell of a people subjugated. Rather like Irish poetry during Penal Law days. Social themes such as labour and heroin addiction among local youths juices the words of Sirliq tuman or Secret Mist by Abdullah Aldurehim, drawing melody from sufi ritual songs and words by composer Yasin Mukhpul. Local composers are figures of authority, writes Dr Rachel Harris, a musicologist at the School for Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in London who I hope to talk to soon.  Dutar or lute players sing more allegorical songs: Omarjan Alim from Yili Valley sings in his Mehman the Guest “I invited a guest into my home… invited him to sit in the place of honour…but my guest hasn’t left, now he’s made my house his own.”

On the other extreme, a Madonna wannabe from Hotan, Aytalan sings about fun and hinted sex, usually a big taboo in these parts. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of it all, and seek a long chat with David Mitchell, a musicologist and all-round instrumentalist who plays in Panjir, the most experimental, and arguably accomplished proponents of Uyghur music.

This multinational and multi-instrumental grouping has blended the Uyghur’s music with jazz and flamenco in all-out jamming sessions and on a CD. The best place to watch Panjir is the Stone Boat, literally a stone boat built to amuse members of the imperial court on forays to Beijing’s ancient Ritan Park. Today the Stone Boat bar/café is an in place for expatriate journalists and Sinologists, and its most ‘in’ band is Panjir, which performs on a small stage that juts into the lake water. The mystery deepens.


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26
The traffic and the haze are back to normal and now the foreign rocers are back too - an outburst by Bjork and a squeeze on visas kept a lot of people away. French electro rockers Air are first into the fray, coming to Beijing's Yugong Yishan tonight. How the hell can anyone afford the RMB700 you pay at the door to get in – 500 in advance? Local bricklayers and assembly line workers don't earn that in a month. Yugong Yishan didn’t charge anything for the one year birthday of their new venue, when the owners’ friends, the likes of Mickey Zhang and Meiwenti Sound came by to say a fairly electronic happy 'birthday to you.' I'm really keen to see how many people show up. Alternatively, you can have a good night of local rock for RMB30 (EUR3) at D-22 or Dos Kollegas.  
 

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21
On a trip through the Balkans and Eastern Europe lately I’ve been impressed by the café culture (and the coffee) – and in Sofia by a sweet little deal between Onda, a local café chain, and world music specialists PutoMayo. Onda’s store on Angel Kanchev, a busy downtown thoroughfare, is hung with the label’s attractive wall hangings and the in-house speakers of course rotate Puto Mayo records. Puto Mayo is a New York-based label which specializes in world music: best selling titles include Arabic Groove and Latin Lounge.

Café culture is more rooted in Bulgaria of course than it is in China but the Sculpting in Time chain in Beijing have done this kind of deal with Modern Sky records and it seemed to work really well: the label's CDs are displayed prominently near the till in Sculpting in Time stores. 

Starbucks raised eyebrows when it did a distribution deal with artists including Paul McCarthy. That deal in retrospect makes perfect sense. Coffee culture is taking off in China and since the country seems to love the chain-store approach to everything – hence the success of Starbucks, KFC et al for whom China is the number 1 growth market – it would seem logical to distribute CDs through chains like Blenz, Pacific Coffee, homegrown brand UBC, and Starbucks. So what's holding the deals back?

PutoMayo in Onda, a cafe in Sofia


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07
 
On a recent visit back home I was impressed by how many rural Irish businesses are travelling to China to buy or sell wares. Well, there'll be lots more foreign brands and musicians, at Music China, Asia’s leading event for the music products sector will bring together suppliers, distributors, dealers, musicians and artists from all over the world when it takes place from 9 – 12 October at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre. 1,100 exhibitors at the show will come from 22 countries and regions, and will include pavilions from Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Taiwan and the UK. Some big name brands are coming to introduce their instruments to the Asian market – they want to sell, not necessarily manufacture here.
 
Period Piano will display a rare antique Pleyel piano – the kind preferred by Chopin - manufactured in Paris in 1839 and restored to full playing condition after being discovered in an old French chateau. Wealthy Chinese are invited to the company’s pavilioin to make “a sound exactly as Chopin himself would have played.”  German-based Warwick is inviting bassist TM Stevens to their stall to show off their “extremely limited edition’ Streamer LX LTD 2008 bass, a “beautiful and precise” instrument. Warwick will also show the newest version of the Framus Panthera model, the Panthera Classic Custom.
 
This year there'll be loads more drums at Music China. World-famous cymbal-maker Zildjian will show their new ReZoTM Crash cymbals, part of the Custom series that was developed with the assistance of legendary drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Zildjian will also invite jazz drummer Bill Stewart to introduce its new cymbals. Another endorsee, the "innovative, cutting-edge" drummer Marco Minnemann will be performing on their stand throughout the show.
 
Sponsored by Remo, Music China will have a Drum Circle for the first time in 2008, allowing visitors to the show to get involved in music making, even if they’re not musicians. Facilitated by the talented Kumi Masunaga, a professional percussionist and drum tutor, the Drum Circle will take place in the outdoor area outside halls E5 and E6. People sit or stand in a circle and each are given a percussion instrument of some kind. The facilitator leads from the centre of the circle, and improvised rhythms are created; music is made in the moment. It is not a drum class and it is doesn’t follow any cultural-specific rhythms, it is completely free-form. Thus there is no audience – everyone is part of the performance!
 
Most useful for the export-minded Chinese instrument makers, US-based music trade body NAMM will return to Music China this year after two very successful sessions in 2006 and 2007. Betty Heywood, NAMM’s Director of International Affairs will moderate the sessions, which will include a big issue panels, a Chinese retailer forum and eight general seminars. Topics and speakers include:
 
“The Impact of Weakening Economies on the Global MI Industry” – panel discussion featuring Huang Weilin of Guangzhou Pearl River Piano, Jon Gold of Fender, Werner Husmann of Steinway & Sons, Joe Lamond of NAMM, Wu Hsieh of KHS, and Cheng Jian Tong of Roland. (In English & Chinese). “Survival and Development – A Closer Look at the Chinese MI Retail Business” – CMIA Retailer Forum, featuring Zhou Baoqing of Changchun Xinwei Piano, Huang Maoqiang of Sichuan Shengyin Music Co., Liu Weiming of Tianmu Music Co., Zhu Wenyu of Bestfriend Music Co., Zeng Zemin of Beijing Hsinghai Piano Group, and Zhou Wenhua of Gibson China. John Lee of Tom Lee Music will talk on the “Challenges and Opportunities for Musical Instrument Business in China Today” while there's another talk - “How to Tap Into the Leisure Market by Creating Musical and Cultural Activities in Your Community”  -by Mo Beiqian of QingdaoHaiyun Musical Instruments
 
 

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06

Lately, during the 29th Olympic Games, animal rights action group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Asia-Pacific (PETA) went around the city checking out “healthy, humane” restaurant options in china’s capital. Not easy, given that the Chinese brag about eating everything with four legs and its back to the sun, besides tables.” Dog and donkey meat are easily found in Beijing: vast suburban dog markets are often blamed for supplying back street butchers on quieter days. Seeing shivering kittens, puppies and even ducklings for sale on the streetside in Beijing’s commercial areas I know this is not the most animal-friendly country in the world.

To show there are better dining options than bull’s testicles (available in many Beijing eateries) PETA selected three city vegetarian restaurants and ranked them gold, silver and bronze. Its number one choice was what it says is China's oldest Buddhist vegetarian restaurant: Godly Vegetarian at No. 58 Qianmen Street, which specializes in dishes like King Kong Huo Fang (stewed mock pork), sweet-and-sour mock ribs and fish, lion's head (mock meatballs) and preserved leafy vegetable steamed stuffed bun. Pure Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant took PETA’s silver ranking: run by Tibetan monks who use only natural organic ingredients to make creatively named dishes such as "hot tears fill the eyes glazed noodles" and "countenance of mercy, words of love stir-fry." Third ranked is Still Thoughts, a newer establishment inside the Meijuan Hotel in an old-town laneway. PETA claims an increasing number of world-class athletes are chucking cholesterol-packed meat and dairy products from their diets including former track-and-field star Carl Lewis, winner of nine Olympic and eight World Championship gold medals.

In Beijing to push the organisation’s operations here – it’s not clear if he’s actually managed to open an office - PETA's Jason Baker asks “who needs heart attacks, diabetes, and obesity, which are all linked to meat consumption?”
More interesting than the ranking is PETA’s activism in mainland China, which is sensitive to criticism of its animal (not just human) rights standards lest it effect its ambitions to become a regional champion of the clinical trials and cosmetics testing industries: testing new products against nasty things like toxicity. It’s very hard to get anyone in either government or industry to go on the record on this subject this summer. Partly because a new EU law outlawing sales of animal-tested cosmetics coming into force next year will make it very hard for cosmetics made in China (which makes testing on animals compulsory for cosmetics sold in the country) to be marketed in the EU. PETA, which has for some years had a presence in more liberal Hong Kong, has been trying to engage the Chinese government, to at least make conditions at testing labs better. We wish them well, but they’ve got their work cut out for them in China. I’m also looking forward to trying some of Still Thoughts’ spicy mock-pork intestines dry pot and shredded veggie duck pancakes. 


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05
 
I’ve been both touched and engrossed by the interviews I’m doing as time allows lately for the Irish Times, on the continued suffering of millions of Vietnamese who came into contact with Agent Orange during and since the war that finished, more or less, in 1975. These are the civilians and fighters – and their children - who came in contact with the millions of barrels of this nasty dioxin sprayed on Vietnam to burn jungle vegetation and make the flushing out of Vietcong guerillas easier.
 
In Hanoi the reconciliation between US and Vietnam is complete, judging by the noisy group of adopters clutching Vietnamese babies at the Thang Long water puppet theatre on Dinh Tien Hoang Street. Couples from Florida to Nebraska rock the wiry haired babies to silence while the dragons, frogs and ducks are dragged along the water by puppet masters concealed behind a curtain while musicians play scores on traditional gong drums and reed flutes.
 
But behind the smiles for American civilians there’s a battle to get US chemicals companies like Dow and Monsanto (which manufactured Agent Orange) to compensate more than 3 million Vietnamese living with the after affects. The local the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) has been a fighting a class action law suit against the chemical companies all this year in American courtrooms: when Judge Jack Weinstein ruled against them in the Brooklyn District Court they went to the Court of Appeals – rejected again – and now place their hopes in a Supreme Court ruling expected in October.
 
Trouble is time is running out for many of the victims. Certainly for Dang Hong Nhut, who remembers skin rashes and diarrohea when fighting in southeast Vietnam. These were followed by numerous miscarriages in 1973 and 1975 before in 1977 she gave birth to a deformed still-born child. Her husband, also exposed to Agent Orange, died of intestinal cancer in 1999. She’s since then had intestinal and thyroid tumours removed to avoid succumbing to cancer herself.
 
Locals aren’t the only ones seeking justice. US veterans who were in battlefields sprayed with agent orange now work with VAVA. One of those I talked to, an Irish American veteran called Bernie Duff led a volunteer team in orange t-shirts from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi to raise funds and awareness about the ongoing after-affects of agent orange. Parachuted into Vietnam as a 19 year old soldier, Duff developed skin cancer caused by being under planeloads of dioxin-heavy agent orange.
 
This year in Quang Binh province he recalls visiting a homestead that lost 12 of 15 family members to the after-effects of Agent Orange. Support has been forthcoming from NGOs worldwide. Veterans from Australia, New Zealand and south Korean – who in Cold War solidarity fought alongside the Americans in Vietnam – are also seeking compensation. The Koreans lately won a case against the chemical companies that made Agent Orange, but its unlikely to be enforced.
 
American politicians gave into years of veteran activism in 1991 to pass the Agent Orange Act which, while never acknowledging that Agent Orange was responsible for their ailments, ensures that the illnesses are seen as service related and hence covered by veteran healthcare.
 
But the Act makes it very hard for the children of veterans to be covered. This is very significant since Agent Orange syndrome has tragically manifested itself in the mangled torsos and oversized heads of millions of Vietnamese kids. The only illness covered by US veteran cover is spina bifida. The trouble is it may not manifest itself till much later.
Here’s what Duff says: “It has gone on without anyone doing anything for so long that it is way overdue for someone to do something now.”

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21
After a month of nothing, Beijing’s live rock music scene is back. Hopefully. Saturday night, August 23, “against many odds” say organisers, several of Beijing’s finest will take the stage at Dos Kolegas for a night titled the ‘Goodbye Summer Blowout.’ Dos Kolegas has been a ghost of its usual self the past month due to a blanket ban on live shows where drink is sold – a police precaution feared such alternative bars and tunes would be a magnet to pesky alternative types prone to protesting. It’s impressive that 2 Kolegas got the go ahead in advance of the Closing Ceremonies but then orgainsers behind the show is the irrepressible Tag Team Records blowout at 2 Kolegas. Bands to play: RandomK(e), Lonely China Day, Arrows Made of Desire, Fire Balloon. Another dynamo behind these gigs is percussionist and promoter Jon Campbell – he’s in both Black Cat Bone and Random K – whose YGTwo Productions brings a lot of gigs to China. There’s two more shows on August 30, one at Mao Live and the other at 2 Kolegas –the latter featuring blues stalwarts Black Cat Bone.

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21

There’s no end to the number of newspapers and magazines in China I thought while picking up the People’s Railway Daily the other day on the 30 minute new bullet train from Tianjin to Beijing south station. It’s type face and design suggest it’s done as a contract publishing job by the People’s Daily for the country’s railway company, also a giant state-owned operation. The contents were dull: lots about engines, engine oil and soporific speeches by railway management officials.

There’s a lifestyle section though and I figured it’d be receptive to some tastily written public relations pieces for Beijing GAA Club (of which I'm media officer): a bunch of foreign men and women playing a funny kind of football in the Chinese capital would make for a nice light hearted lifestyle kind of piece. So back in the office I contacted the editorial department. When we finally ascertained who’d be in charge of the lifestyle pages – there were four journalists with claims to that – I got the distinct impression that what mattered most was not the quality of the words – my Chinese colleague was going to translate that – or the photos, but rather what kind of gift we’d be offering. After humming and hawing on the Chinese side we got to the nub: RMB200 (about EUR20) would get us the coverage, another 100 would get us more space.

Now that puts me in a dilemma: pay the cash and get coverage or be moralistic about it. PR companies in China as a rule slip RMB200 to journalists attending press conferences – they call it “travel allowance” and without it you’ll get no journalists (who have also expect a souvenir and a meal from publicity-mad western companies mad for market share here). But by handing over the cash like this you’ll get a bland reproduction of your press release. Chinese newspapers are a boring read because their wordy, flowery articles, devoid of detail or critical analysis have often been paid for. If noone reads the article why bother paying to place one in the first place. Our dilemma was however easily solved: Beijing GAA doesn’t have the money to pay for articles.  


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15

It's pretty embarassing if the sponsors of the Beijing Olympics have their goods knocked off, copied and sold in the host city's markets. Well that's what happens here: Olympic squads are loading up on fake Nike, Speedo gear in markets like Yaxiu, around the corner from my office. Sports brands which have spent loads of money on backing and clothing national Olympic squads suffer the indignity of being ripped off, under the noses of the Chinese police.

Welcome to China. Music companies know all about Chiense pirates. And they'll be stung again by the Olympics. Athletes like their tunes as much as everyone else and many are flying home with cheap, counterfeit versions of the CDs they'd otherwise buy for a lot more money in Oklahoma, Brighton or Dublin. CD/DVD shops in Beijing have tried to mask the business - they've been ordered to pull counterfeits from the shelves. But the larger, down-town stores are going to elaborate lengths to sell bootlegs. A Diana Krall CD for RMB65, and a Suede best-off for RMB38 seemed pricey for Beijing. Similarly, where a few weeks before the shelves heaved with new Hollywood releases, the only DVDs on offer yesterday were older classics like John Wayne's Rio Grande and the film versions of Ernest Hemingway classics like A Farewell to Arms. When I asked where the newer, cheaper stuff was I was led down a rabbit warren of corridors to a small window-less room where a dozen people were flicking through albums of CD and DVD jackets. So no law broken. But point to the DVD jacket that catches your eye and one of the two staff heads back out the door, to return after several minutes with the requested discs.


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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.