Rock in the PRC: Sizing up China's evolving festival scene in Nanjing

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: November 2nd, 2010 | Updated: June 29th, 2012 | Comments
Proximity Butterfly rocks Nanjing Sascha Matuszak muses on the history and present of music festivals in China after checking out the first Nanjing International Music Festival. This has been a banner year for live music festivals in China (at least as far as media coverage goes), but rising demand among music fans has been shadowed by concerns that profit-seeking local governments and commercial-minded organizers—along with technical and logistical shortcomings—risk giving festivals a bad name even as musicians and fans clamor for more. >>> It's 10:45 pm in Nanjing. Chengdu-based rock band, have just finished playing a killer set at the city's first official international music festival, and now they have just under an hour to catch the last train to Yiwu, where they will play another show tomorrow night. The van cruises the city's rainy streets at a maddeningly slow 50 kmh and the driver ignores the band's pleas to speed up. Two babies are crashed out in the back seat—one is my eight-month old son, the other, his "girlfriend" and the band's original groupie, is two-year-old heartthrob Aixi Love. The little ones are at peace, but the band's grown-ups are feeling the strain of playing China's festival circuit. Drummer Wang Yong is stewing over something—it could be the unwanted advances of their female manager, the disorganization of the festival, or his own playing, but he won't say. Lead guitarist Cong Pai, drunk off tall cans of Asahi, is crying in the back seat with his Swedish girlfriend Mimi. From time to time he yells out, "I don't want to be fake, I want to be real! I want to be real!" He's focused on his own demons right now, but he might as well be talking about the entire festival scene in China: it's a little kid bawling for recognition, desperately trying to express its own passion, rage and angst while the government teams up with promoters to milk a new opportunity for all the cash and exposure they can get.... Nanjing International Music Festival crowd

A brief & incomplete history of rock in China

It's taken the scene quite a while to get this far, of course. Outdoor music festivals in China began with the pioneering efforts of the Beijing, where the first festival was held in 1997. More emerged as scattered bands of musicians put on guerrilla shows throughout the country with little to no official approval. Soon enough, it wasn't only music fans who began to take notice. Realizing that the kids were more about partying and blowing off steam than challenging Party authority, local governments began supporting "international music festivals." And the fact that festivals can create not only cultural capital, but also real profits (though not necessarily for the bands) made them all the more appealing. In the past few years, it seems nearly every city in China—from first-tier provincial capitals all the way down to fifth-tier backwaters—have cobbled together stages and lineups in order to cash in on the new bonanza. Once a marginal phenomenon, China's music scene is, it seems, going mainstream. For bands like Proximity Butterfly, that's meant more opportunities to play throughout China but, as band after band learns the hard way, the festival circuit has more than a few shorts and glitches. The van finally pulls up to the band's hotel. They now have about 45 minutes to grab their stuff, pack it all into 16 different bags, load them all in the van, and get to the train station in time to load their gear onto the slow train to Yiwu. Canadian bassist and long-time Chengdu resident Heather Judson turns toward me just as her daughter Aixi starts to wake and says, "every tour we have ever done has just been absolutely crazy." Nanjing International Music Festival: Klezmofobia "Yeah," adds Joshua Love, her American-born husband and Proximity Butterfly's lead singer, rhythm guitarist and head baggage man. "I don't know how we've been able to keep it up for all these years...."

School of rock (with Chinese characteristics)

Nanjing is as good a place as any to size up China's festival scene circa 2010. It seems like it should be a hopping international city with at least half as much glam as nearby Shanghai, but the global wave appears to have passed the city by, despite a large population of college students. Before the festival kicked off, even Nanjing University's vaunted ties to America's John Hopkins Univeristy haven't done much to internationalize the city beyond the campus gates. Perhaps the morbid history entombed in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial keeps people away; perhaps the weight of tradition in a city that was capital of both the early Ming Dynasty and the short-lived mainland Republic of China is too much.... or maybe the international crowd is simply drawn to nearby Shanghai. Whatever the case may be, the Nanjing International Music Festival's long-term hope for success lies with this university town's students. That's how China's young music festival scene began anyway, with the students. A decade ago—which can seem like a century given the incredible changes that have swept through the country—I saw trip hop pioneers Morcheeba perform at Chongqing University in front of a crowd of maybe 10,000 students. The kids watched politely... and then awkwardly... as Morcheeba ended their show with the chant of "Free China." Back in 2000, Morcheeba packed up their gear, probably wondering if the language barrier had anything to do with the lack of a response from the kids, and left, never to return. Local police watched them pack, smoking and smirking, as thousands of students quietly filed back into their dorms trying to figure out what it was exactly that they had just heard. Nowadays, a Western band of their caliber would have quite a different experience. Proximity Butterfly on tour in Nanjing

Chengdu: Enter the Butterfly

In 2004, just a few years after Morcheeba played Chongqing, Proximity Butterfly played their first show at Chengdu's Science and Electronics University—an early example of an increasingly common phenomenon: Western-Chinese hybrid bands (Shanghai's Gemini and Boys Climbing Ropes others of note). Joshua taught at the school and his students put together a stage for him and two other local Chengdu bands, Ashura and Soundtoy. The bands played in the auditorium till well after midnight to a very receptive crowd. "Heavy metal blasted through a wall of speakers to about 700 kids shaking their heads off and ripping their own shirts in a frenzy," said Joshua. "The bands were warned to not incite anything too dangerous, but the audience was so utterly happy to have this kind of event that nobody was frenzied with anger. It was such a great experience. There were banjo players and harmonicas, acoustic and massive heavy blasts blaring through shrieks of furious energy." The band knew they were on to something. Even though Chinese rock had been around since the early 1980s when Tian'anmen Square, the Midi School of Music held their first recital/festival and the rock scene rose like Lazarus from the ashes of the 1990s and charged forward into a new century.

Little bar, big scene, heavy dreams

In Chengdu, the Beijing and Shanghai during those heady years of the late '80s when China's student movement was gaining confidence and strength. Though the movement was stopped dead in its tracks in 1989, Chengdu's bands became part of a national network connecting gritty towns like Wuhan, Xi'an and of course Beijing, along with flashier Shanghai and college towns like Nanjing. By 2003, local scenes had grown enough to support touring acts, setting the state for the current music festival boom. For veteran bands, it's a matter of playing cities they've been playing for years, just under the new banner of "International Festivals" and the increase in media coverage, money (not that the bands themselves necessarily see much more money) and audience sizes.[callout title=Where to find the bands]King Ly Chee King Ly Chee home page Start from Scratch Records Douban page To book 荔枝王 in China contact: 黃佳斯13810123826 Klezmofobia Klezmofobia home page Klezmofobia Douban page Klezmofobia MySpace page Proximity Butterfly Proximity Butterfly home page Proximity Butterfly Douban page[/callout]Jon Campbell, another expat veteran of China's rock scene and author of a forthcoming book on the subject, explains that "there have been large-scale gigs for rock bands for a lot of the past five-plus years; the city governments getting in on it isn’t new either.... I think that what’s new is the coverage of it. Where before, there was zero coverage, now it seems that it’s okay for domestic media to cover it (and interest from abroad continues in the 'gee whiz' vein). Not that the coverage implies any understanding of what a music festival is," Campbell adds, "but then, so few festivals themselves have any understanding, so how could the media?" (For more on Campbell and the recent Zhenjiang Midi Festival, check out this post from China Music Radar). Still, it's not as if nothing has changed other than levels of exposure—at least not for Proximity Butterfly. When they began their first tour in 2006 in support of their first album, Arcana, there were no tour buses, no promoters, no flyers and the equipment, if it existed, might just be a mic and a speaker. The community was tiny, fractured and dedicated, leading to small shows that left deep impressions, as Joshua recalls. "At that time people were so excited to see live shows that even though the venues weren't entirely packed, you got people staying until the wee hours of the morning singing and hanging out, sharing stories and jokes and being basically content with the overall energy." In fact, it was at a show in Nanjing in 2007 that Cong Pai, Proximity Butterfly's lead guitarist, first saw the band he would later join play. He was a young kid out of Beijing, just 19 years old and already doomed to be a rocker. His sister let him listen to Guns 'n Roses when he was six years old and that was that. He started his first band when he was 16 and went to every show he could. "The first time I heard them I thought they sounded real hippy," said Cong Pai. "And that sound was similar to what my band was playing at the time, so I liked them right away." When Cong Pai's band broke up less than a year later, he and Joshua teamed up to jam and found that the chemistry was there. After a few phone calls back and forth, Cong Pai sent all of his stuff down to Chengdu and moved in with Joshua and his family in a country suburb of Chengdu called Flower Town, a fitting place for Cong Pai to learn more about being a 21st century hippy in China (and I should know; we were Flower Town neighbors for a few years). Part of being a hippy (anywhere) is being broke. Among China's many emerging bands, Chengdu's Butterfly aren't alone. Pretty much every band on the circuit in 2010 has been playing for years, in some incarnation or another, and whatever cash they can make touring and selling a few CDs after the show in invariably supplemented with some sort of day job. But perhaps with this new wave of media coverage, things could start looking up for broke veteran hippy bands.

Kicking it hardcore with King Ly Chee

If there is anything Riz Farooqi wants the youth of China to know it's that persistence pays off (check out the video of their Nanjing performance for proof). Riz is the lead singer for Hong Kong while Cantopop phenom after Cantopop phenom rolled across the city like successive saccharine tsunamis. "The hardcore scene where we're from (Hong Kong) is dead," explains Riz. "Our 'glory days' were in 2001-2003. Ever since then everything regarding heavy music in Hong Kong has been disappearing. But the past few years have seen an insanely dramatic rise of heavy music-related events up in China. I mean just the list of internationally known heavy bands that have landed on the shores of China to tear it up shows that stuff is brewing and it's only going to get bigger and bigger. Those bands didn't even come to HK because there's no market for them here." Riz is a high-energy guy, about 175cm with a stocky build and tattoos up and down his calves. In Nanjing to play the festival, he and his band are decked out in long shorts and flat-rimmed fitted caps... a snappy take on hardcore skank-inflected fashion. The rain is positively steaming off of him as he talks about the upcoming Najning set, the album they are about to release and the sheer joy of having an audience to play for. "In terms of hardcore, every city in China has something brewing. We started in 1999 when there was nothing around China. There were punk and metal scenes for sure—but not hardcore. To see it grow from nothing to what it is now is amazing." King Ly Chee are hoping to break through and get to the point where they feel they've really earned the title of "Godfathers of Chinese Hardcore," an honorific a handful of younger Bejing-based hardcore bands have bestowed upon them. But they're realists, and know that hardcore punk is a niche market in China. Even if King Lychee or some other band were to break out, the impact on the music scene as a whole might be minimal. Still, with hundreds of millions of kids looking for something new and exciting, a niche audience in China might eventually equal the entire concert-going public in many a decent-sized European nation or large American state. Nonetheless, the frustration is palpable at times: With rock music in China, scores of bands that have all been plugging away for years with nobody really breaking out of the small circuit to make a name for themselves across China and, perhaps, beyond, even as bands like Beijing's postpunk Carsick Cars begin to tour internationally. Campbell talks about a mediocrity that has blanketed the scene for so long for a variety of reasons: undemanding fans, uncritical media and no cash being spent to upgrade the festivals—as the 2010 Nanjing Festival's lack of equipment clearly demonstrates. "There are festivals all over China, a lot of festivals all over China," he said. "But the rock 'headliners' have been the same for most of the past decade, and there aren’t many of them that are inspiring performers." "I believe that there are way more stages/festivals/opportunities than there are bands to fill them.... There is no incentive for bands to evolve beyond mediocrity, because there are so many chances to play and so little quality control. Eventually, the top of the heap will stop signing on, leading, one hopes, to an audience that starts to think about what it is they’re paying for. But I’m pessimistic about that happening, because it’s been status quo for so many years." Riz is, however, enthusiastic about the fact that the word about Chinese rock has been getting out. "I’m inspired by the fact that mainstream media can cover the festivals, even if their coverage leaves something to be desired. Because it wasn’t so long ago that the idea of a music/rock festival wasn’t even acknowledged in the Chinese press." Nanjing International Music Festival fan

The kids are all right

Not many of the kids standing out in the rain in Nanjing to watch their favorite bands can distinguish between hardcore, rock or klezmo music. They just want to hear something new, something interesting that departs from the standard pop fare that dominates most Chinese media. Midi put rock music on the scene and many of the young people waiting for the arduous sound check to finish are veterans of last years Midi festival. Grace Sun is here studying at Nanjing Xiao Zhang University and she only wants to see Xinjiang. She is a tiny, quiet girl with long, dyed hair. She wants to speak a lot more than she does, but she doesn't trust her English yet so all her emotions are expressed through furtive glances at the lead singer of Gemini, jerky swipes at the bangs in her eyes and rapid-fire answers to my questions. Gemini are a decent band, but only because they are in China. In the West, they would basically be a garage band lucky to get a gig or two—and this goes for most bands playing the Chinese festival circuit. But for Grace, they are the Real Deal. "I saw that Nanjing was holding an international music festival on Fakebook, I mean Renren Wang [now-defunct Facebook clone], and when I saw that Gemini was playing I had to come out here," she said. "I saw them last year at the Midi Festival. They're my favorite band. Excuse me...." She runs off to catch the lead singer before he moves onstage for sound check and has her friend snap a photo of the two of them with her cell phone. She holds up two fingers and smiles as cutely as possible. "I finally got a close-up!" she breathes. "At Midi all the pictures I took were so small."

Chinese sound check

Soundcheck at the Nanjing International Music Festival is a nightmare. The rain has been coming down in cold, drizzling sheets all morning, hampering efforts to get the wiring in place, fix the mikes and get the speaker system synced up. But the rain is not the real problem. Proximity Butterfly arrived the night before and were told that they would be doing sound check at around 9pm. They waited until 1:30am to get the go-ahead from the organizers to head to the stage before the whole crew finally turned in and went to bed. The next morning, the band mill about in the park alongside the placid Yangtze River as the familiar truth about festivals in China unfolds. The cables for the soundboard didn't show up until 10am and there is no sound engineer to hook them up when they do arrive. A concert-goer with a bit of sound engineering experience steps up to the plate and tries to get things moving, but every time he asks a question about the gear, the answer makes him laugh out loud and shake his head in dismay. The sound and the lighting are both connected to one power source, so no matter what the sound engineer does, there's a constant buzzing sound throughout the show. There are no monitors onstage so the band can hear nothing but their own instruments. "If you don't have monitors, then you can't hear a thing," explains Joshua Love. "So when we're playing we have no clue what the audience is hearing and we can only look at each others' hands and try and figure out if we're all on the same page." Organizer Da Fei is stomping around the grounds with a cell phone attached to each ear. He is a large, round faced Shenzhen native with a curly afro. He yells in Cantonese into one phone and Mandarin into the other. Older men in suits with skin like cigarette stains stand nearby and watch him. They are local government officials, the sponsors and ultimate bosses of the show. They don't like what they see, but they can't really do anything about it. Not only are they clueless about festivals in general, but the overall lack of equipment, staff and organization probably has something to do with the deal they struck with Da Fei's company to host this festival in the first place. So when Da Fei takes a break from his cell phones to flash a show of commiseration with some band members over the sorry state of affairs, all the bands and the officials can do is just glower at him. He makes his way to the sound board and looks on uncomprehendingly as the bassist for Gemini and the "volunteer sound engineer" try and jerry-rig things. Da Fei looks up at me, smiles conspiratorially and boldly admits the truth. "Man, what complete chaos. We were supposed to have this much cash (he lifts his had to chin level), but in the end we only have this much to work with (he lowers his hand to waist level) and with the rain and all...." He sighs and shakes his head before someone important catches his eye and he yells a greeting to them and stomps off to slap some band aid across another gaping wound in the situation. The lead singer for Bai Fen Bai is standing beside some speakers just to the left of a small waterfall that is slowly flooding the stage. Xiao Fan is a tiny waif of a girl, but once the entire punk rock scene of Chengdu went to war over her. Now she's a folk singer with short cropped hair, harmonica skills and a cynical opinion on what lies behind the facade of many a "international festival." "You know this is all about washing money right?" she says as the speakers pop and whine like the broken-down hyperdrive on the Millenium Falcon. "Face and money, that's all the government cares about. We just gotta hope some kids decide to come out in the rain... but they don't like my band's music anyway." The dismal, consistently incompetent nature of music festivals and/or concerts in China has many artists echoing Xiao Fan's bitter complaints. It is never easy to get the show going and there are often money issues. Things have improved—Proximity Butterfly report that they haven't been stiffed in years—but the organization and set-up seem just as much a comedy of errors as they have always been. "I can understand why performers would feel that way, because money isn’t being spent on artists," said Jon Campbell. "Or on good quality equipment, facilities or technicians. Or anything that performers or audience members can see." "So sure, there’s money disappearing, but it all goes back to having an understanding of what a festival is. A lot of people are tending to see festivals as a way to make money—obviously there is a lot of talk of promoting a city/region/etc, but there would have to be an economic incentive as well. But I think that the reality is that there doesn’t end up being a whole ton of money...." At around 2pm on Saturday, just two hours before the scheduled start of the show, not one band has yet to successfully go through a sound check. Joshua Love is developing a head cold so he returns to the hotel for some R&R. As we trudge back down the long, wet path from the stage to the main gate of the park, we pass about 2,000 people waiting in line at the gate. Girls in tight skirts or daisy dukes huddled under umbrellas, little riot China grlz with spiky dyed hair and big fat boots, random dudes holding their girlfriend's umbrella and the occasional gang youths with hard looks, black shirts standing fast in the rain. "Wow," murmurs Joshua through a slowly sealing nose. "This might kick off after all." Nanjing International Music Festival girls

Traditional Jewish Music For China?

Klezmofobia from Denmark is the first band to hit the stage at just passed 4pm. They're stoked to be here because it's their first trip to China and for the past two weeks they have been playing for foreigners, diplomats, and affluent Chinese. Rainy, dreary Nanjing is their first chance to play for China's hungry youth. They met a promoter at the Expo. They've had a tough time. The trip started out great with a show at the Ninth Gate Festival in Beijing which attracted "80% foreigners," but things took a turn for the worse when the band realized that their visas were single-entry working visas. They would have to get new visas if they were to go to Korea for the festival and then go to Shanghai for the Expo show. The Danish ambassador went to bat for them, which, though it would normally be a good thing, caused a few problems because the Danish president recently came out strongly in favor of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee's decision to give the prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. As a result, Chinese visa officials gave the ambassador a hard time. The band had to cancel their Seoul trip, which hurt because that festival brings in about 100,000 people over three days. So they settled for a show at the Expo and were glad that they did. "The Expo was stressful, but we got them," said drummer Jonathan Aisen. "We got the Chinese. Our music is very active—we make the audience sing with us, dance with us... at first, the Chinese all just sat there but then they all stood up and danced. They were line dancing, circle dancing—it worked." The band have toured Europe many times and make regular appearances at mega-festivals like Sziget in Budapest, where dozens of bands and hundreds of thousands of fans converge on an island in the middle of the Danube River and "get real freaky" for three days. All bands take every show seriously, especially professional ones like Klezmofobia, so there is no arrogance, no condescending tone when they speak of the crazy Chinese tour filled with visa issues and transportation problems and sound check foul ups. Sure, the organization and gear quality of the shows in China can't compare with the European shows, but no one at Sziget is going to make time to hang out with the band for a few days and take them to a temple or a bar or to a local noodle shop. "The goal was not to play for rich Americans," added lead singer Channe Nussbaum. "We wanted to play for Chinese and many of our shows up until now have been for a mostly foreign or affluent audience; this time we are playing for students who are out here in the rain... I don't think any of these kids have ever heard traditional Jewish folk music before, so I am excited to see what happens."

The Show

When Klezmo's drums, horns and strings kick in underneath Channe's chanting, wailing voice, the crowd lets out a collective sigh of awe. Channe was right. They have never heard this type of pirate-inspired old school trickster-priest music before, and they're not sure what to do. Channe helps them out by diving into the crowd and before they know it, the students of Nanjing are circle dancing in the mud. After the set, the band breathlessly gathers their gear for an early morning flight back to Copenhagen. Channe is gathering bags, hugging new friends and throwing her hands up in the air to punctuate each sentence. "Did you see that? I was right there in the middle of the crowd! They were all dancing... great show." Next up is Xiao Fan's band, Bai Fen Bai, who play a mixture of romantic ballads and sad folk songs. Not the best act to follow Klezmo's electric run at the young crowd, but it doesn't matter because the speakers sputter to a halt as the rain intensifies. Sheets of water to pour down onto the stage. An hour passes and the restless crowd is treated to spotty hip hop before Bai Fen Bai can finally do their set. The kids clap politely as Xiao Fan croons her way through the songs, but they are obviously waiting to be blown away. Soon enough, Proximity Butterfly takes the stage. They crush their first track. Joshua's balls-out singing and the band's fast-paced, boot-stomping music—the band earns many a comparison to Jane's Addiction—resurrects the wilted crowd, giving Da Fei & Co. a glimmer of hope that their incompetence would be masked by the band-fan connection. After their third song, the crowd is cheering wildly and a small mosh pit has developed. People are whistling and waving their hands in the air while Joshua exhorts them to scream along with him and just go wild. Night falls during their set. The rain eases and the crowd is ready for King Ly Chee. An extra platoon of cops make their way to the stage and place themselves between the band and the kids. King Ly Chee's members pace back and forth, psyching each other up while plugging in and tuning up. The crowd rumbles in anticipation. And then, an explosion: One second the band members are clustered in the middle of the stage, the next a wall of sound cut through by Riz's growling vocals hits like a tidal wave. The crowd reels for a second and then all hell breaks loose. The mosh pit spreads and spilled kids pile up in front of the guards in the no-go zone between the crowd and the stage. A fight almost breaks out between the kids and the cops, and Riz takes heed, stopping to call on everyone to calm down and get into the music. The band repeatedly teases out the crowd's fury until finally Riz is crowd surfing and singing at the same time in order to relieve the tension that had built up and avoid a all-out brawl between the students and the cops. "Every show we’ve played in China always goes off the way it did in Nanjing," says Riz after the show. "What you witnessed is the kind of madness we’re able to bring to a crowd. We’re a hardcore band–hardcore is always about interaction between band and audience because we’re not rockstars, we’re exactly those people in the pit. We listen to heavy music, and we listen to it to get our angst and fire out... in the case of Nanjing, it was just that they were not prepared that’s all. It was their first music festival and they weren’t expecting a band like ours to bring that type of passion from the audience. So they were just taken by surprise I think. If they were well-prepared they would’ve actually put metal barriers up like other Chinese international festivals always do. And we didn’t want this to be Nanjing’s last music festival so we tried our best to calm people down." Gemini is the last band to play and their softer, Gallic rock style helps bring the curtain down on the first night of the Nanjing International Music Festival without any power outages, electrocutions or brawls. It's been an amazing 24 hours for everyone involved. At the end of the night Da Fei lights a cigarette and gives me his "coulda been much worse.... Damn, had the sun been out there would have been twice as many people... but hey, we pulled it off. Can't wait till next year. Trust me, it'll be better next year." Maybe. As the bands for day two file into the hotel, Proximity Butterfly, King Ly Chee, Klezmofobia and Gemini are all off on planes and trains to gigs in other cities in front of other eager fans. Every single one of those bands has firsthand experience with the circus of Chinese organization and every single one of them—in one way or another—pins their hopes on the rising star of the Chinese youth, hungry for more music and ready to be blown away. After the show, Cong Pai endures an existential crisis that carries on through the ride to the hotel and most of the train ride to Yiwu. He is trying his best to be real in a fake, fake world and the tall cans he sucked down after the show bring that issue to the forefront. After the show at Yiwu, which the band describes as a "joke," Cong Pai recovers and manages to give an optimistic appraisal of the rock scene from the farmhouse he shares with the rest of the band on the outskirts of Chengdu. "Chinese rock is definitely going to keep growing," says Cong Pai. "There is a hype surrounding the term now and the values and style of rock music are starting to mix in with the lifestyles of the new youth. It's pretty mainstream now and becoming part of the pop culture. I can't imagine rock going anywhere but higher up in the future."
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