I decided that I was going to listen to more Chinese music (gasp! While living in China and actively writing about music. Crazy, right?). I actually hear loads of local indie Chinese music just by going to clubs and livehouses, and that’s awesome, and then there’s all the mainstream stuff online or the big radio stations, and that’s cool too. But aside from your superstar Mando/Canto-pop and your underground indie bands, I know very little about everything in between. And because Chinese lyrics in songs are difficult for me to understand, the music has to be pretty stellar for me to be interested in it (more so I think than someone who’s fluent in Mandarin). It’s hard to find music like that, and near impossible if you’re not looking for it.
That’s why I was pretty stoked to see Liu Dongming last night at Yuyintang. Liu Dongming is a young Chinese folk musician, but plays a brand of very modern, urban folk. He’s originally from Shanxi (or maybe Shandong. English info on him’s a bit slim) but moved to Beijing a few years ago to be a musician and found himself struggling and playing wherever he could, including the metro. So basically, a perfect beginning for a budding folk star. Ends up he’s extraordinarily talented, both musically and lyrically, and has now built up quite a following after releasing a few EPs and albums and winning some awards.
He’s played with a few different set ups over the years, but last night he played an acoustic guitar and his band consisted of an electric guitar and bass guitar, so a really simple set up that they didn’t deviate from. Liu played and did most of the singing, with excellent backup harmonies from the bassist. The lights were low on the stage and they’d brought in three large Chinese lanterns which gave the place a nice ambiance. I mean, for YYT, this was a pretty classy set up.
But there was some stuff going on up front at YYT. First of all, a lot of people chose to sit on the floor in front of the stage. SIT ON THE FLOOR. AT YUYINTANG. I can see why they probably thought this was a good idea at first, as it was sort of that kind of a show, but I think maybe none of them had ever been to YYT before in their lives. Because if they had seen the filth and grime and shit (perhaps literal?) on the floor at YYT that I have they would probably be hesitant to even stand there. Yuyintang is brilliant but nothing on your body except the soles of your shoes should touch its floor, ever. And then take off those shoes before you enter your home. But here were these people (and girls in shorts! Shorts!) with their bare skin and hands and parts of their body on the floor. That’s how you get hepatitis. From YYT’s floor.
But still the best livehouse in Shanghai, hands down.
Also, people had pulled up chairs behind the sitters which is fine in theory, but YYT was actually pretty crowded for Liu Dongming. And as sitters take up about 3x more space than standers and no one could really move or reposition because of the chairs as more people showed up, it ended up that there weren’t so many people up front but a lot of people crowded in the back and it was all a bit awkward.
The music itself was amazing — uncomplicated but not simple. All three musicians were very talented, and even though I didn’t understand most of what the songs were about, I just assumed the lyrics were super deep and amazing, because that’s what the music suggested. Liu was actually quite varied in his song styles. Structurally, some songs were very Dylan-esque (with Liu even adding a harmonica). Other songs resembled classic (older-style) Chinese love songs. And then others were similar to more traditional Chinese folk music, if you can imagine workers singing in the fields from back in the day. But all the songs had a very modern feel, even with the traditional folk, so it wasn’t as if Liu was simply regurgitating traditional Chinese music or American protest songs.
To be honest, folk music in China is pretty much like folk music from anywhere else — in its sounds, song themes, composition, etc. — so I figured I would like him, even though I knew he sings entirely in Chinese, and I was right. He was really good. But an important factor of folk music that has set it apart from a lot of other genres of music is that folk is typically lyrically-based. The lyrics are an integral part of the song and purpose of folk, and traditionally it’s been a way to spread social awareness, grassroots movements, political ideas, etc.
So it was intriguing to imagine this popular Chinese folk artist, because as most people are aware, the Chinese Communist Party isn’t particularly fond of anyone who in any way reveals negatives in the policies or politics of China. Free speech, y’all: China ain’t got it. Today I’ve been going over the songs Liu has on his Douban page, looking up titles and lyrics so I could get some idea of what he was actually saying, and it’s pretty much right up the alley of any folk artist: songs about simple, everyday people, important events, social issues — but as far as I can tell, nothing overtly direct. Which is smart. Because you can’t say stuff like that here.
But it is still pretty cool to see artists out there who are not only producing traditionally-inspired, modern sounding music, but also doing it really well and sticking with the themes and purpose of that music.
This show was actually part of a concert series called Guinness More Music which is paired with Split Works here, designed to promote China’s growing modern folk movement. On one hand, a Guinness sponsorship gets good artists out and about to people who might not normally hear them (like me!) for a reasonable price and people can even make some money. On the other hand, bottled Guinness is nearly undrinkable and you can’t get anything else. Not even a Coke Zero, people! But I guess still worth it for the music. This is actually a six month series so there are going to be several more artists to look forward to. Details on the Split Works page.