Friday, September 5, 2008

The Spirit of Underground Chinese Rock

Beijing has been good. A little too good actually. So good I've decided to extend my trip by two weeks.
The main reason is due to an incredible music scene that has inspired me to self-impose a mission to explore and discover the spirit of underground Chinese rock in Beijing---China's music capital.

The expression 'spirit of underground [Chinese] rock' was used by a local barista I've befriended. I'll refer to him here as Gu. Gu, a knowledgeable Chinese rock connonsieur, expressed to me that he felt that the 90s were the golden era for Chinese rock.

If you're familiar with the violent and bloodied happenings in the central square of Beijing in 1989 (of which I can't even discuss here at this time) then you could imagine, to at least some extent, the traumatized, scared, nervous, and complex mindset of the Chinese people and the tense social climate of Beijing that developed in response.

So then, you could also imagine that art would function has a vital, yet closely monitored, outlet for some people in China.

And the most daring artists willing to respond through music did so in the early-mid 90s. I've learned that some of those artists were banned from performing and others were..."in trouble," to put it lightly.

It seems that since then rock in Beijing has gone through alot of change.
Since I wasn't around the rock scene in the 90s I'm not really going to try to make any comparisons to the way it is now. (That could be done credibly, only after lots of research and spending alot more time here than I can afford). However, there have been some big changes.

So what I can offer are snapshots from the underground and a description of my sense of modern happenings based on the few weeks I've been here and based on the people I've spoken with. There's alot to represent because there's alot happening.

The first show-show I saw here was Queen Sea Big Shark at one of my favorite local venues, the Mao Live; located in the neighborhood of Gulou Dongdajie, which looks like a Greenwich Village NYC with Chinese characteristics. However, Gulou Dongdajie remains far less commercialized by U.S. chain stores than does Greenwich.

After riding the metro, and then a "tik tik" motorcycle-rickshaw straight up to Mao on a Saturday nite, my buddy Kareem and I were totally stoked to hear some live music; something I had been eagerly anticipating for over a week. The energy was flowing that nite, because the guy up front let us into the soldout show for free!

We raced in to this:
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Hold on because shit is about to get crazy.

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Queen Sea Big Shark had this crowd upside down. The indie-dance-punkish band are local faves and it's clear why; they're fun and their shows become spaces to let loose and get crazy. In the Beijing underground, I've learned that that's one of the most important elements that brings people to shows. Kids really dance alot at shows; which is really refreshing. Except instead of calling it "dancing," they call it "pogo-ing."

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Queen of the underground.

My first Beijing show did not disappoint. One of my strongest interests and attractions to Beijing was to learn about how kids subvert popular culture out here.
I couldn't have asked for a better nite to get introduced to it all.

My favorite band in Beijing so far has been 24 Hours:

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These two girls, (singer/bassist) Zhang Chen and (guitarist/backup singer) Ren Yi Lan, as well as homeboy drumming and back-up singing have been, distinctively, the most garage-y band, w/ edgey surf and no-wave elements; i.e. stuff you can really twist up to.

Also, at the same venue (D22), playing w/ 24 Hours on a different nite was Bigger Bang:

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Bigger Bang, the self-described thrash band was commanding. They had the indie post-rock and edge-y surf and alternative thing going on as well. I've learned that Sonic Youth has been really influential here. Some bands out here can really tap into that distorted alternative edge really well. Bigger Bang manages to do that while at the same time offering their own spin.

You may have noticed lots of girls in these pictures. I'm not being biasedly selective.
Beijing has an astonishingly high girl demographic and representation in the music scene here; it's 'astonishing' in that I've never seen another city even come close to this level of equality.

Out of 8 bands I've seen in the last couple weeks (excluding a ska and experimental show which was male-dominated) 7 of them were lead by girls. Beijing's biggest rock acts are lead by girls.
According to some people I've talked to, riot grrrl band Hang On The Box has been really influential.

When I ran into the girls from 24 Hours in the neighborhood, they told me that this has been a phenomena that has especially flowered in 2008. 24 Hours told me that more and more girls are realizing they can start bands too and that it's fun to do so.

The only all-boy band in the indie scene I've scene, other than Joyside, have been The Honeys:
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An umbrella, guitar, sometimes a drum, and clever little nice songs. I admired their passion for comfort (hence the couch).

Bring on the fucking hardcore already!:

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Subs fucking rages it. Definitely one of, if not my favorite performance so far.
I wouldn't call Subs straight up hardcore, but they've got some hardcore peppered in their straight n' heavy, dead-on rock-out punk jams. Extremely movable. I'm lucky I even got a picture because I didn't even want to leave this exciting crowd.

There's a show this Saturday I'm looking forward to, but there's a very special Beijing band playing a show on Sept. 12. Catching this show was the main reason I decided to extend my visit (plus, there's so much to see in this city. I don't even have time to write in this blog!).

Now that the Olympics are over, shows are in full effect! Post-Olympics, post-rock; that's where it's at.

In this country, where fr33dm of speech has been severely curtailed, fr33dm of movement and fr33dm of sound still reign in the underground.

This subculture is not only vitally important but never forgets that fun is important.

Trying to "discover" the Spirit of Underground Chinese Rock has been a fascinating, unique, and fun experience I'll cherish for the rest of my life. I keep getting distracted in my "discovering" process. Along the way I just keep dancing instead!...Maybe that's when you know you've found something.


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