We’ve done some posts on China and Taiwan music in the past, but those were about the general music scene. Today I’d like to feature two videos created by Brendan Madden, who lives in Qingdao, is a teacher and member of the band Dama Llamas, and keeps up with the scene in northern China. I’ll also feature a few other bands you might not know, and some comments about where I think things are headed.
These two mini-documentaries show the trials and tribulations of trying to establish modern music venues in China. So far, the audience has too many non-Chinese expats along with too few locals, though locals form most of the bands themselves. Right now, Beijing is the hot spot in northern China with the most popular bands in the country. Outside of Beijing, legitimate venues are hard to come by and the money isn’t very lucrative. In these places, rock n’ roll comes strictly from the heart.
These two videos are courtesy of Tripfilms.com, a site specializing in travel videos from all over the world. Here is Part 1:
Right now, Beijing is exploding with really awesome live music. We just had a festival in Qingdao, Max 09, www.qingdaomax.com (actually it was shut down by the government and we were forced to take all the bands to a local bar to play). It was still a really good time and the bands fuckin’ blew my mind. Snapline, The Swamp, Ziyo were my favorites. Really amazing, and every band was so different.
A couple of other of may favorite bands are TooKoo (Beijing) and the Dama Llamas (Qingdao) but I’m a little biased about them cause its my band.
As far as the scene goes, the talent is there, the drive is there, but it seems like the money is not. Its pretty hard to justify going to a club paying a 50RMB cover and then being charged 20-50RMB per drink when you can have just as good of a time drinking 2RMB beers in the street. I feel like most of the shows I have been to in China are rarely full and half foreigners and half Chinese. And then from a bands point of view, its tough to go out and spend thousands on new gear, alcohol and drugs at the bar, transportation costs, accommodation costs and then play free shows. Its a fine line that has to find a balance that I don’t think is there yet. However, some of the bands are getting good enough where in the larger cities they can charge a lot of money. As an example I just saw that the Carsick Cars (amazing by the way) are charging 180 HK dollars for their shows in Hong Kong. That’s pretty impressive.
So I guess to stop my rambling, the live music explosion is gonna happen, its just waiting for the market catch up and the pop phenom to die down.
Musically, I think more and more synths with dancy beats are on the horizon and coming fast.
Seriously check out The Swamp. Their recorded music is good, but their live shows are some of the most mind-melting around.
Brendan, thanks for spending the time and effort to create these videos. They really give us an insight into the struggles incurred trying to build an audience from scratch in a land where this is all very new.
Another hot Beijing metal band is Brain Failure. Their Douban site is here and you can stream six of their songs.
Here’s a song from the Carsick Cars, whom Brendan had mentioned…
Hell United are three metal bands based in Shanghai that have joined together to try and increase the popularity of that style. Those bands are Chaos Mind, October Capricorn and Six Shot.
I also want to feature Hard Queen, a Shanghai band that recently released Holiday, their debut CD. If you like them, you can also check out their Neocha page.
Here’s another video of Hard Queen, to give you a better idea of their music.
For those of you unfamiliar with Zhong Chi, her music is pop tinged with a spacey, otherworldly essence. You can stream her entire Easyworld CD here. Just go halfway down the page on the left. I think her style could make her a breakout artist. Here’s a video to check out.
Of course, nuthin’ like a little Pinkberry…
What is the state of music in China right now? From a Cantopop standpoint, there are plenty of popular singers doing the usual ballads that sell so well but aren’t my cup of tea. I have to admit, I’m not as enthusiastic as Brendan is with the rest of the scene. Too many bands haven’t mastered their instruments and tightened their performances. Music tends to be relative so after living there awhile, the bands that were better than average seemed much better than they really were. When I returned to the States, I quickly discovered that $10 small club bands were far better than most of what I had seen in China. A friend of mine who was a professional DJ/producer spent five years in Shanghai and had the same experience as I did when he returned to the States. But that’s a progression that WILL take place, and bands such as Cold Fairyland are already excellent musicians with terrific songs.
Several Chinese bands are making great music right now. Better venues need to be created, this kind of music needs airplay, and producers need to keep their hands off the bands and stop trying to turn the decent ones into pop acts.
Maybe the bigger problem is that there has never been a “transition” band to take their audience from Cantopop to indie and rock. The great transition band in the rest of the world was the Beatles and the two key albums were “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”. They took a generation from “yeah, yeah, yeah” to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. If an ultra popular Chinese singer could make that same transition, then I think the audience would follow. I’ve always wished Wang Fei would have cut a CD that was similar style wise to the Cocteau Twins, one of her favorite bands. It would have jump started progressive music in China and I’d bet she tried, but couldn’t convince her label.
I agree with Brendan that synth, dance, trip hop styles will be the first to break through. I’m a big fan of Shanghai’s I-GO and their synth beats.
How do I keep up with the Shanghai music scene? That’s easy; I bookmark the best damn music blog in China and check it out on a regular basis!
Steve, interesting stuff. You also know this forum is a ‘desert of culture’.
There should be a topic on Michael Jackson and China.
Michael Jackson? Musically, he’s been irrelevant since the mid-80s. He’s notorious for his past fame and post fame strangeness. I’m not sure what connection he has in China, though. He was never mentioned in music conversations when I was there.
Tibet? Taiwan? Evil western media? How many times can we say the same ol’ things without ever reaching a conclusion? That’s why I think it’s a good idea to post different topics sometimes, and also to check out TonyP4’s blog for a good joke or two. 😉
Eventually these Indy Chinese rock will make it to Taiwan just like the Taiwanese rock scene have done.
I am tired of all of the bickering so I haven’t been participating but thank you steve for sharing this music.
p.s One of these days I will write my travel blog
Kyle Smith says
It’s fascinating to see a music scene that is emerging in an era of technology, and how that fundamentally shapes the nature of distribution and associated media.
Chalres Liu says
Check this out:
It mostly features the MIDI Festival. I had thought it’s a Beijing only thing, but it seems to be expanding to other cities.
@ Charles: That’s a really good link! Thanks for posting it.
I’m going to be in Beijing on the weekend of the 10th, and wouldn’t mind checking out a show or two, if there are any going on. Does anybody know if any of these bands will playing then? Thanks.
Hopefully one of our Beijing bloggers will respond but I know when I was in Shanghai, there was an English paper that listed all the local concerts for the next week. I’d suspect the same thing exists in Beijing. If we don’t hear from someone before that, you should be able to get a listing while you’re there.
Thanks Steve, I’ll keep my eye out for one of those.
From a friend in LA:
Lifejourney from LiuZhou…apparently they are set to become pretty big on the Chinese music scene. Go to their site and take a listen…good stuff!
Hongkonger replies: YES! They are pretty good! Socialist John Lennon reincarnated as a Chinese vocalist – now that’s great karma~Ha ha ..! I wonder if someday a Yoko Ono will enter his life?
@ hongkonger #10: Nice find! The Neocha site streams all their songs. I also found this one video on YouTube:
Shanghaiist is a good site to keep up with the music scene there, along with Andy Best’s blog that I linked to at the end of my original article. If you’re going there for a few days, you can usually find out who’s playing where. I’m sure there’s a similar site for Beijing, just haven’t found it yet. Lime, I’m still looking! 🙂
hongkonger, did you know Lennon had a song called “Instant Karma!”? I have a feeling you did. 😉
My fav verse (Lennon’s Instant Karma)
Instant Karma’s gonna get you,
Gonna knock you off your feet,
Better recognize your brothers,
Ev’ryone you meet,
Why in the world are we here,
Surely not to live in pain and fear,
Why on earth are you there,
When you’re ev’rywhere,
Come and get your share.
Here’s a YouTube video from Zee Avi. This comes courtesy of our good friend Jed Yoong, who is our guide to the Malaysian music scene. Thanks, Jed!
Great article Steve – although I should admit I am a bit biased, as Brendan is a friend of mine and I used to play with the Dama Llamas when I lived in Qingdao! I agree with you that the Chinese scene lacks the depth of talent that you’d find in the UK or the US, but that’s something that will come. And honestly, the bands that Brendan mentions – Snapline, Ziyo, The Swamp, and Carsick Cars – have been responsible for some of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. I just wish that Hong Kong had a scene like the one in Northern China.
@Lime – try City Weekend for Beijing music news and listings:
Apparently Snapline are playing at D22 on the 10th – highly recommended. Great band, and a really cool venue.
@ Rory #14: Ha ha, I just sent that exact site to Lime this morning. Got it from a friend of mine who used to live there, so that’s definitely the place to look for concert schedules. Thanks for letting us know.
Are you familiar with any Beijing or other Chinese artists not mentioned here that are worth a listen?
@Steve – here are some more Chinese bands that are worth checking out:
SKO – pop-punk band from Beijing. They’re not all that original (they remind me a lot of Green Day) but catchy songs and a lot of energy. They put on a great show.
Hedgehog – an indie three-piece group with an incredibly cute female drummer/singer. Their sound is somewhere between Nirvana and Sonic Youth.
Lonely China Day – until I saw The Swamp play, this was probably my favourite post-rock band in China. They combine a Radiohead/Mogwai influence with elements of classical Chinese music. Their first album on Tag Team Records, Sorrow, is fantastic. Actually, Tag Team has a lot of great bands, and they put on shows at 2 Kolegas in Beijing quite often as well.
Sulumi – this guy is a bit more out there, he’s an electronic musician. His music sounds like a Nintendo game soundtrack gone wrong (I mean that in a good way!) Again, his label Shanshui Records has a lot of interesting artists.
Guai Li – a punk band, similar to Ziyo. Their singer Wen Jun is incredible. They’ve got links to one of the Beijing scene’s first punk bands, PK14 (who are also fantastic).
Watched the July 4 Boston firework with music show. Feel a little down with the wonderful American music. America has about 500 years of civilization vs 5000 for Chinese. Our music is just behind in quantity and quality. Is it due to our lacking of the 2 extra half tones (5 vs 7) – my music knowledge is limited so I could use the wrong terms or we do not have a language to record music like the west does.
Steve had an answer. Steve, if you found your writing, would you re-post it here and I will save it in my blog for permanent record. Steve said that Chinese invented the two half tones and used by Europeans and Chinese forgot the whole idea.
There were many such great ideas in China and also in India. If we do not improve them, we would let others to use them and pass us by. Many modern inventions such as oil drilling… were re-invented by the west from a documentary on TV. Luckily Chinese had written language to record such inventions.
For your enjoyment, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouFvBxbr6lk&NR=1
History is always made by those who made use of things. Inventors get forgotten quite often.
Nobody remembered the guy who invented television. (He died in poverty, suing the networks).
Really, the cold hard truth is, it’s not the inventors who make the world, but the “exploiters” who make the world.
All the Intellectual property laws only came along after Western countries have “exploited” other people’s ideas. US consistently violated British copyright laws in the early history.
And really, today, corporations own most of the copyrights and patents anyways.
I say let the Americans “invent”. Japan exploited their inventions in the past, China will exploit their inventions in the future.
200 years from now, people won’t even remember which American invented the digital watch, any more than they will remember which Chinese invented the Gunpowder.
@ R4K: I collapsed your comment because this is a music/culture post. No politics allowed here. Culture posts are a refuge from the political stuff on the rest of the blog, and the commentators here are very protective of that status. I’m sure you can find another post somewhere where your political comment would fit.
Please feel free to comment on the bands or singers themselves, link to cool videos like TonyP4 did, or talk about the state of music in China.
@ rory #16: Thanks for the suggestions, rory! I did a little checking on the bands and found a few links…
SKO has a song on the music site Sutasi where they were finalists in their band contest. I also found this clip on YouTube.
We featured Hedgehog and their drummer Atom on a previous post. Here’s a link to their performance at Beijing’s D22 and this official video of their song “Wink”:
I wasn’t familiar with Lonely China Day. You can hear a few songs on their MySpace site. They also had an “official video on YouTube:
Sulumi was another one we had mentioned previously but I’m not sure if we posted a video. Here’s a YouTube clip from the 2008 Blip Festival and a track from their MySpace page.
We haven’t featured Guai Li yet. I tracked down this homemade YouTube video of theirs from the club Logo in Shanghai, taken by a friend of mine. I also found a five parter from D22 of which you can catch the first part here and link from there to the other four.
@ TonyP4: Tony, I know exactly what you’re referring to and remember writing it up a long time ago. Years ago, I was reading a book about Chinese inventions that most Chinese don’t even realize China invented and one of them was the first “modern” scale. Before that time, a pure scale was used with no flats or sharps. Have you ever heard Buddhist monks chanting? If you close your eyes, you can imagine they are Gregorian chants; the scale is the same. Meanwhile, someone in China (I believe it was south China but I’m not sure) had created a scale with flats and sharps that the Europeans coming to Canton heard and brought back to their continent, where it caught on and from it developed Baroque music. However, this scale never caught on in China proper and gradually disappeared. Eventually, it made its way back from the western world to China where these days, many of the world’s premier classical musicians are Chinese.
Let me go back to my local library and see if I can find that book again. Rather than do it from memory, I’d prefer to copy the exact passage since it’s been close to 20 years when I read it so I might have some of the details wrong.
Speaking of oil drilling, the ability to drill deep wells was invented in China over a thousand years ago but not for oil. It was for salt! In Sichuan province, salt was very valuable and a state owned monopoly. Because it was buried so deeply, the Chinese developed the ability to drill depths of, if I remember correctly, well over 1000 feet. The advantage they had over the rest of the world? Bamboo! Bamboo sections could be sealed in long lengths and were very strong. The rest of the world was not able to drill to such great depths until the invention of carbon steel pipe.
Hopefully, I can find that book and list many more inventions that originated in China. You’ll be surprised when you hear them!
During our casual e-mail exchange, Bing Ding says the follows. It is long but quite interesting. Bing Ding plays traditional Chinese instrument.
I don’t mean to show off or charm. Just would like to share my ideas. I think if you read through you will find it interesting. I beg for your indulgence.
Music cannot be judged by their complexity nor their quantity. It is a form of arts and arts (such as poetry, painting and cooking) are from the needs of the people. They are subjective. People in different cultures have different needs.
Music is either bad or good but no such things as better or worse. Music is either well written or poorly written, well played or poorly not. That’s all. Of course, music is not just a chain of sounds. The King who just died did not produce music. His stuff is entertainment. It is a exciting show. Not music.
Chinese’ need of music is different from the West. Their cultures and spoken languages are different. The late Leonard Bernstein was excellent when he compared the world’s musics in his lectures at Harvard. He was right about their difference as well as their commonality. The difference is cultural but the commonality is music. In other words, the difference is their sounds, the melodies and the scales. The commonality is they all follow the same music theory. The tone A is physically universal: 440 cps. It is science.
Chinese music are basically pentatonic. i.e., the scale is structured based on Do Re Me So La, and not the Fa and the Ti, the so called half steps. It doesn’t mean we don’t have these half step tones in our music. It is just that they become accidentals. That’s the way we’ve been used to hear for thousands of years. Anything else won’t sound like ours.
Classical Music was folk based too but it came into well developed forms much, much earlier than ours. In the West, music was more democratically available and was developed freely by many artists and musicians. Their materials soon extended to beyond folk tunes. Our music was monopolized by a handful of elites. Tu Fu wrote “此曲只應天上有，人間那得幾回聞”. The 天上 was the imperial court. Therefore they were restricted in development. Until 1949 when the Communist took over, they decided to make a big jump. To jump over a 300 hundred year gap, they employed the Western techniques directly into Chinese Musics. Melodies are still Chinese and folksy but the harmony is all Western. Sorry I don’t want to bore you guys too much now.
Let me just comment on these two switched pieces:
They were bad. The Serenade was written for the violin and the 二泉映月 was written for the 二胡. They were very well written respectively. But when they were written for their respective instrument, the composer knew the tonal quality, the range and the expressiveness of each. When switched, those qualities could not be displayed. 二泉映月 must be played with an 二胡 and it must be a low voice one. When I play it, mine was tuned at A (inner string) E (the outer string). The limited range (there are only 2 strings) forced the musician to slide up and down and that creates a very special voice-like melancholic tone. Like a weeping human. 鞋鞋聲. The Violin cannot reproduce that at all. Same for the other way round. The Serenade is a serious, meditative tune. The 二胡 was limited in its range and too much sliding. The vibratos (the vibration of the left hand) on the 二胡 is not majestic because it is too free. It becomes too sad (like moaning) instead of romantic (like singing). That is the difference.
Of course, a violin can play any Chinese music and vise versa because as I said before, the tone A is an A no matter on which instrument. That’s their commonality.
One piece is an exception. The Butterfly Lover 梁山伯與祝英台 was all Chinese operatic materials but particular written for the Violin. Only a Violin can play and express this piece in full. You can’t use an 二胡 to play it as good. That’s an exceptional masterpiece. But it was not a traditional one. It was written in the late 50’s by two graduate students in the Shanghai Conservatory. They were condemned during the Cultural Revolution. They didn’t write any more. And this becomes the only great Chinese piece in the last 60 years. Here we go again.
Thank you for your time,
I still think we have handfuls of very good traditional Chinese songs like the Butterfly Lover. Sad to say ‘big jump’ in China always means the reverse.
@ TonyP4: Most of the great classical works of the Central and Eastern European composers started off as Slavic folk songs that were then developed into full symphonies. That’s where the cultural values of the country play such a large role in its musical library. However, the modern world doesn’t really run on classical music, it runs on rock, folk, jazz, rap, etc. There will always be a market for classical instruments but its really a niche market these days. New instruments, electronics, and a desire for new sounds constantly push music development.
Currently, the music most Chinese actually purchase and listen to is either pop ballads or classical. Eventually, this will expand into new genres and we’re witnessing the very beginnings of that expansion. Every generation wants their own sound, their own style and their own unique singers and bands.
Forgot the second link. Now include both.
二胡 维也纳 中国艺术家 Vienna Chinese artists Wonderful and miserable 二泉映月
Serenade 小夜曲 (二胡) with Chinese artist playing a 2 string Chinese violin
Quite similar to 12 Girls Band’s fusion of Chinese instruments playing western music.
It seems every Chinese instrument has a western equivalent. It could be the Silk Road brought the cultures together.
Bai Ding says:
THe Butterfly Lover could have been a great, world class symphony. The movement where it describes how 祝英台 is trying to resist her father’s demand is very emotional. The Violin is 祝英台 and the Brass Section (the trumpet, etc.) is the father and they crash each other leading to the climax when she jumped into the open grave. And the part about the two lovers meeting （樓台會), where the Cello plays 梁山伯 is quite touching too. But it is still not as profound and heart wrenching as Classical Music or Operas. And you have to find one that’s played really well.
I came to this site to post a follow up comment on the China Rock videos but ended up learning more and more about the China rock just from the comments…
If anyone is in Qingdao, look me up and we can try to put some shows together!
@ Seabass: Thanks for stopping by! You might also be interested in checking out a couple of older posts on FM. Here’s one from January 14th on Taiwan’s Alternative Music Scene and a much earlier one dated November 8th on the Indie Music Scene in China. This older Chinese music thread was one of the first I ever posted when I was just learning WordPress so the quality isn’t very good compared to now, but the comments section contains all sorts of goodies.
Sorry it took so long to post your comment. Since you were new to the blog, it got caught up in our spam filter until I freed it just now. 😉
@Steve – thanks for finding links for the bands I mentioned, sorry for being too lazy to do so myself! I’d like to share links to a couple of articles about the music Beijing scene which I thought were interesting. First up, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has written a lot about contemporary music in China:
Notably, he named a solo improvisation by Carsick Cars’ Zhang Shouwang as one of his top-ten classical music performances of 2008:
Also, a few people here may be familiar with the name Michael Pettis – he’s a finance professor at Tsinghua University, and has become a well-known commentator on the Chinese economy. He’s also a huge music fan, and is the owner of D-22. James Fallows wrote about him in The Atlantic a while ago:
@ Rory: Keep ’em comin’! The comments section in our music posts are always better than my writing, ha ha. And stay tuned; I’ll be posting something soon on Louis Yu, a Chinese student going for his PhD in Vancouver who also does a radio show and podcast featuring indie music from all over the world. One of his podcasts is especially geared for Chinese listeners. We’re putting it together gradually since we want to pack as many features, interviews, etc. as we can into the post.
No problem with the links. It’s fun for me to explore each new artist, find videos and websites, check out songs, etc. The fact that you sent them in is the key factor. When we all put our heads (and music knowledge) together, it ends up being quite a collection that we can all share with each other.
@ Steve & Rory
I went to the show at D-22 in Beijing on the 10th, and it was a hell of a lot of fun, and to make it even better, I was able to take a Chinese friend who had never been to a rock show before. Really appreciate the tip you guys!
@ Lime: Hey, glad to hear you had a great time there! When you get a chance, could you write up who you saw and what you thought of each band? I’d also like to hear about the crowd, its composition and how they reacted to the concert compared to a non-Chinese crowd. From your brief description, it sounds like the crowd was really getting into it.
Sorry, I know I’m way late on this as I’ve been travelling for the past few weeks. As Steve requested, I’ll do my best to comment on the show at D-22 in Beijing on the 10th of July.
D-22 is smallish grungy place full of graphiti and abstract art; I really liked it. I will also mention that they had pints of draft beer for 15 kuai, which, being on a long back-packing adventure, I was delighted to see. Getting in was 40 kuai regular, and 30 for students, and I felt this was pretty reasonable, even though they wouldn’t take my North American student ID. The crowd was about half and half Laowai and Chinese, perhaps leaning a bit towards the Laowai, and the majority of those in attendance, both Laowai and Chinese, struck me as regular attendees of rock shows in Beijing. There was one German who I remember kept yelling “Beer!” and wildly gestuclating at the bartender in that trying-to-use-body-language-to-overcome-the-language-barrier-but-not-yet-very-good-at-it kind of way while the bartender patiently kept shouting back in English “What beer?”, but he that was the exception as far as I could tell.
The bands, I’m afraid, I won’t be able to review with confidence, because, not having seen any of them before, and not having paid close enough attention when they were introduced, I’m not one hundred percent on which band was which. The listing was Snapline, Birdstriking, Speak Chinese or Die, and These Are the Powers, and I believe Speak Chinese or Die was the first one we saw. They warmed the crowd up. Pretty straightforward post-punk indie-sounding stuff, but obviously professionals. I particularly liked their cover of the Carsick Cars’ Rock ‘n Roll Hero at the end.
The next band, I’m not really sure, but by process of elimination, I’m guessing they were Birdstriking. They were my favourite, by a long shot. The band was a pair of white guys (somebody said they were Canadians expatriots living in Beijing), who did a really intense set of noise-electronic stuff. Reminded me of Death from Above 1979, but even more hardcore and far less musical than that. They were really high energy, all over the stage and through the crowd. They got the crowd revved up, though all considered, I think that if they had played the same set in a North American bar, people would have been hanging off the rafters by the end. D-22’s crowd was a bit more subdued, but they were getting into it, and it provided a nice segue into the main attraction of the night.
These Are Powers from Chicago were playing what I think was there first show in China (this is the one band whose identity I am sure of). Their stuff I would also describe as experimental noise rock, but with a dancy edge. Crowd really got into them, even more than the former band (though I felt that it was quite a step down in intensity myself). Even got a bit of a mosh pit going in the front (all Laowai in it of course).
We were a little worn out from the dancing and moshing after the end of These Are Powers’ set, and went to drink some beer, so- I’m ashamed to say, we didn’t actually watch much of the last band’s (probably Snapline) set. Sounded good from the back of the bar though.
That about covers it. I’d strongly reccomend checking out a show at D-22 to anyone passing through Beijing. It seems like they have them pretty regularly. (http://www.d-22.cn/). Thanks again to Steve and Rory for the info, and sorry about the tardiness of my review.