A concert in Shanghai
Before coming to China, I did a little research online about the indie music scene here. I'd had conversations about it with friends prior, and we'd all surmised that the underground Chinese music scene was like the US scene a decade or so ago. There, and growing slowly, but not thriving. The radio sufficed.
Upon doing some poking around online, that hypothesis turned out to be pretty accurate. In this article written by Chinese indie musician and writer Wan Li, a very detailed explanation is given for the current state of the indie scene here. This quote pretty much sums it up:
What controls circulation is capital. The distributors' only thought is to make money, fast, so they have no interest in nurturing a market, building for the long-term. They'd rather spend millions to snatch up Dao Lang's latest record rather than spending ten thousand to buy a record of rock music.
Interesting, but not surprising. I think the same thing could be said of practically any young indie scene. Too much risk for the labels, too little money, and too few listeners. But China is a big country, so there was bound to be some good indie bands, and some good venues to showcase them. Most of them, it turns out, are from up north in Beijing, but there's a couple of places in Shanghai that they occasionally come to play at, so I made it a goal to check one out while here.
So yesterday, after lunch, my roommate (who decided to come join me for the few days in Shanghai) and I navigated our way across the city and found the venue, which was strangely situated in the corner of a public park. From the outside, it seemed very Chinese, but as soon as we entered through the hanging plastic-strip doorway, it was all very familiar: black walls, photographs of previous shows on display, a billboard littered with band flyers (all in Chinese except for the band names, which were all English), a thin bar lined with stools, a slightly elevated stage, and the band that would headline that night in rehearsal. So. Awesome.
We asked about tickets and were told they'd go on sale at 8:00 at night, and that they'd be 40¥ (about $6 US). Score!
So after a day of shopping and dining at some of Shanghai's many sprawling malls, we caught a cab and slid our way back into the venue, grabbing a Qingdao beer and settling into a spot in the back just in time to catch the opening band.
They were just ok; a punk cover band that did a bunch of 50's and 60's American rock classics with a faster tempo and more distortion. The levels were kind of out of whack so it was just noise a lot of the time, but what made it cool was that the lead singer and drummer were Americans, and the guitarist and bassist were Chinese. For me, it's just cool to see how music can bring people together like that, even on stage.
I think one of the most interesting aspects of the show, though, was the mixed crowd. There were a ton of American ex-patriots, and you got the feeling that they were there all the time, missing home and looking for anything that felt familiar. So you had your middle-aged, middle-class couples, your hippy backpackers, your weird guys dancing by themselves in the corner between songs, and your foot-tapping, brooding wallflowers. Normally, I doubt they'd all be found at the same show back in the states, but here they were, smiling and getting along. But the crowd was far from just American. Between songs I could hear people speaking French, Russian, and Japanese. And aside from foreigners, half the crowd was local Chinese, representing every possible cross culture in existence from your post-emo technicolor kids to plaid-jacket v-neck hipsters, B-box boys, and would-be club DJs. And then, randomly, you had a handful of upper-crust Chinese girls in velvet-y dresses who appeared to have mistaken the venue for a wedding reception.
The headlining band, Casino Demons, were all Chinese, and much better than their opener. Their music wasn't groundbreaking, but it was well rehearsed so their sound was very tight and there were some catchy riffs that had everyone dancing and cheering. And on top of that, all the lyrics were in English! I'd almost forget where we were for awhile, and then the song would end with some banter in muffled Beijing Mandarin, and only half the crowd could laugh.
Then, when they were finished, a line of new musicians filed in from a side doorway, carrying cow-hide drums and various other percussion pieces. They were dressed in what looked to be traditional African garb, and sure enough, that's what they played and sang. I'm no expert on African music so I'm not sure what region it was specifically, but suffice it to say, it was awesome awesome awesome.
On the way out, we asked the bartender if the music was usually this varied. He shook his head in a look of amusement that mirrored our own, and it was obvious that he dug the music as much as we did. We finally left the building to find that some locals had set up a little grill and were cooking up chuars (meat skewers). What an amazing experience. China never ceases to amuse me.
posted by Mr. Linty @ 6:09 AM,