Shanghai World Music Festival: China's music festival high season goes out on high note

Travel, Travel | by Fred Shasta
Posted: May 26th, 2011 | Updated: May 26th, 2011 | Comments

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It's been a busy spring on the China music festival circuit, despite a number of changes in dates and sites (not to mention outright cancellations), and, as the spring season winds down, it's time to review. (Check Rock in China for useful calendar listings of many of China's music festivals and China Music Radar for festival news and reviews.)

In spite of periodic grumblings among fans, musicians and promoters about government meddling (usually under cover of half-hearted excuses like "the weather"), tens of thousands of music fans have seen scores of acts, both Chinese and international, perform at dozens of festivals throughout the PRC in the spring of 2011.
[pullquote]Beijing seems to be both the hottest and coldest place on earth for music festivals right now.

— China Music Radar[/pullquote]

And though the fact that China has a healthy music festival circuit doesn't quite compute with the likes of Alex Hoban of Vice's Viceland Music blog, who traveled all the way to Chengdu's Zebra Festival to prove that "China has music festivals too"—only to get sidetracked by what appears to be an unfortunate Chinese cop fetish—those who have spent more than a few jet-lagged days hanging out in China have discovered that yes, there are indeed rock bands and DJs and groupies and all that kinda noise in China. They've also discovered that the energy of a music scene that's still figuring itself out and the enthusiasm of an audience that has yet to fall into the reflexive hipster snarkiness of your average Vice reader, can be weirdly intoxicating. Addictive, even....

For the difference between snarky-outsider vs. earnest insider takes on it, go no further than to compare ChengduLiving's take on the Zebra Festival with that of Hoban (to be fair to Hoban, we should note that his goof of a Zebra post isn't representative of the man's talents as a journalist; check out his series on pop music in East Asia published for the Guardian as evidence.) There is only one cop photo, which notes that the fuzz "were laid back and pleasant as always." Cheers.

Christian Zehnder at the Shanghai World Music Festival

Suffice it to say, if you're in China, you like music, and you're willing to forgo the usual tourist offerings for a weekend among exuberant kids (and, yes, generally chill and often slightly comic cops), there's plenty to see and hear. True, across the board, it's not really up to snuff with the best of the West, but there are moments of brilliance, and the experience of witnessing a youthful music culture coming into its own is fascinating, even when it's frustrating.

All that aside, Zebra 2011 is history, as are Shanghai's Beijing-based Shanghai this year, with the Ocean Midi Festival scheduled for August), the Strawberry Festival (staged in Beijing, canceled in Suzhou), the Avril Lavigne-headlined China Music Valley International Music Festival Beijing and the Intro 2011 Beijing Electronic Music Festival.

I was lucky enough to catch one of the last of these festivals last weekend in Shanghai—the Zhongshan Park, starting with "global yodeler" Christian Zehnder, a Swiss vocalist/guitarist/accordionist whose overtone singing spans the bizarro territory between, say, Bone Machine-era Tom Waits, Tuvan throat singing and a central European fairy-tale wolf's howl.

The mixed expat and Chinese crowd was into it as an afternoon drizzle set in. Umbrellas went up, and it was clear that the local Chinese audience was quite taken with Zehnder's vocal gymnastics and his band's carnivalesque riffing on European folk music (as for me, I could almost see the Fasnacht troupes in their creepy-cool Waggis costumes marching through the streets of Basel, Zehnder's hometown).

I had a chance to chat with Zehnder during the Iranian Ensemble Shanbehzadeh's set. While two percussionists beat out Middle Eastern hybrid rhythms (a bit of Eastern Europe, a bit of the Balkans, a bit of Africa and a lot of Persia) and frontman Saeid Shanbehzadeh whirled and wailed on both Iranian bagpipes (!) and vocals, an affable Zehnder and a bandmate enjoyed Tiger beers by the concession row (10 RMB Tigers, by the way, earn festival organizers a thumbs up). They'd been to Beijing, he said, and he was impressed with the enthusiasm of the Chinese crowds. Would he come back to China? In a heartbeat.

Next up was a favorite of the Chinese crowd, Guiyang's own Gong Linna, a Björk-like sprite of a woman who, rather like the aforementioned banned-in-China Icelandic chanteuse, blends an experimental vocal sensibility with a unique take on folk traditions.

Unlike Björk, however, she doesn't extend her experimentalism to electronic music, nor does she (as far as we know) harbor sympathies for Tibetan independence.

In the end, Gong's piercing vocals and wide-eyed facial contortions (conducted beneath theatrical pseudo-tribal eye makeup) proved something of an acquired taste; as the Chinese audience sang along, many a foreigner drifted toward the refreshment stands or chatted in the drizzle with friends.

Finally, Amadou et Mariam took the stage. The blind performers—they met in a school for the blind in Mali, began performing together, and eventually married—were led to their spots on stage by assistants. As soon as Mariam took her microphone and Amadou strapped on his guitar, however, everything locked into place and, within minutes, the band had the crowd moving.

Playing a sparkling, upbeat and infectiously melodic Afro-blues driven by steady polyrythms over solid dance beats, the duo, backed on vocals by two dancers and the band, cut through the drizzle to connect directly with an audience eagerly anticipating one of the biggest acts in contemporary African music. Spontaneous dance circles broke out amidst the crowd, with random pairs coming together and flying apart again, cheered on by happy onlookers. "It's the most joyous music out there," a friend later said, and it's hard to argue after having seen a mixed Chinese-foreigner crowd cut loose and join together in sincere appreciation of Amadou et Mariam's soulful, buoyant performance.

China's 2011 spring music festival season may be history, and the government's frequent freakouts over issues of free speech (a Chinese rock musician was taken aside for a firm talking to after speaking out in support of detained artist Ai Weiwei, for example) mean that the plug could be pulled on any given event at any time, but music fans in China have much to look forward to, both later in the year as the late-summer/early-fall festivals kick off, and in years to come.

And, finally, if you find yourself in Shanghai, there are still smaller local festivals ahead—for example, Music Fever 2011 at Mao Livehouse, Spring Reggae Fest at O'Malley's and the CanCham Music Festival at Big Bamboo Hongqiao—check out Shanghaiist for details. Beijing and other cities will all play host to their own local festivals; check local city guides for details.

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