English text by Vivian Hua; Chinese translation by Summer Fang
“The world’s image of China is that of a faceless factory worker, the tasteless new rich Chinese buying property everywhere, the 1.5 billion black dots in the horizon sucking up resources. It doesn’t realize that there are also 1.5 billion potential creative minds in this country as well. I think it will take time to make that true.” – Helen Feng of Nova Heart
“世界对中国的印象一直以来都是千篇一律，毫无特征的工厂工人，只有金钱却毫无品味的中国买家，以及用力耗尽资源的15亿人口。然而大多数人都没有意识到，这15亿人口也是15亿个潜在创造力。我想这需要时间去使其成真。” – Nova Heart (新星心) 的冯海宁
From The Outside Looking In
On the international stage, mainland China’s music scene is still a novelty. It lacks the long-established cred of its neighboring Japan or the global buzz of Korea; and though prominent, even its folk music receives far less attention than that of more Western-influenced countries in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Nonetheless, in recent years, certain Chinese artists have been fortunate enough to tour internationally, as well as receive write-ups from global music blogs. Due to the lack of other exposure, these cherry-picked artists have more or less come to represent China’s underground music scene to international audiences. Some in the Chinese music scene consider these representations limited and short-sighted.
“There are a handful of bands who are disproportionately covered in Western media… where the angle is not, ‘Look at this musically interesting new band,’ but, ‘Look, there’s punk [and] indie rock coming from China, how strange…'” explains Josh Feola, a booker behind monthly noise nights in Beijing and co-founder of the blog site Pangbianr. “We call that ‘China cred,’ and it’s a bogus but expected journalistic copout. Maybe you could say a minority of bands are getting attention, but not necessarily the kind of attention they deserve, and the rest get pretty much nothing.”
Helen Feng (冯海宁), of the musical project Nova Heart (新星心), is one artist who has been lucky enough to be embraced by Western media. She has toured North America and been featured on La Blogoteque, an internationally-reknowned documentary video series. Fluent in English and Mandarin, Feng was born in Beijing and currently lives there – but because she spent much of her childhood in the United States and Canada, she has a particularly unique viewpoint of the Chinese music scene.
“There are a lot more opportunities to go overseas now, but I think just being a Chinese musician doesn’t really help anymore,” Feng explains. “China does get a fair bit of attention. However, the old curiosity about China has been replaced by negative stereotypes, and even though you have more chances to go abroad, people always try and pin you as a copy of ‘blah blah blah’ because they refuse to believe that [your music] could be original. The only time they think, ‘Oh that may be original,’ is if you’re playing some Chinese traditional instrument or… taking very directly from Chinese music…”
She cites a scenario where a Western music critic called Nova Heart a copy of Happy Mondays, ignoring the roots of Happy Mondays themselves, who were influenced by disco and dance music that had been going on for decades. “It was so wrong it was laughable,” says Feng, “but that’s the way they had to see it. It’s the way the world wants to see it: ‘No, it’s from China; [it] has to be a copy of blah blah blah.’
Perhaps one reason for the world’s proclivity towards writing China’s music scene off as derivative is the very real fact that it was, in its early stages of development, highly shaped by foreigners living in China, also known as expats.
“目前在西方媒体特色访问的中国乐队屈指可数…而媒体对中国乐队的透视不是，‘你看这支新乐队很有自己的音乐特色，但是，‘有很多庞克和独立音乐是从中国来的，好奇怪…'”Josh Feola，博客网站旁边儿的创办人，同时也是北京每月一度的”噪乐之夜”活动的发起人说到，”我们叫这种文章写作‘中国’ 伪报道’，’但这是预期的虚假新闻业。也许可以说少部分乐队确实得到了一些关注，但并不算足够，大多数乐队则完全被忽视了。”
冯海宁，音乐项目Nova Heart （新星心）的主唱，是少数受西方媒体赏识的艺术家之一。她已经完成其在北美的巡回演出，个人成长历程也被全球知名的纪录片系列 La Blogoteque 收录其中。冯海宁不仅会说普通话，也能流利运用英语。她出生于北京并现居于此 – 但由于童年在美国和加拿大生活多时，冯海宁对中国音乐现状有着独特的见解。
冯海宁举了个例子。西方音乐评论家将 Nova Heart 项目称为 Happy Mondays （快乐星期一）的翻版，却忽视了快乐星期一本身的由来：这是一个受迪斯科和舞曲影响深远的音乐项目。”这种评论是错误及可笑的，”冯说，”但那是他们的解读，是整个音乐世界想要这样去解读中国音乐：‘这是来自中国的音乐，那么它必然是其他音乐形式的翻版’。”
Featured: Nova Heart & Snapline // 新星心 & 粉笔线
Both Nova Heart and Snapline are Chinese musicians who have received a fair amount of domestic and international acclaim, and these mini-documentary videos showcase some of that overseas attention.
[…] China’s Indie Music Scene: Transforming Contemporary Chinese Culture From The Bottom Up –…: […]
Vivian, thank you for writing such a fantastic, in-depth article about the Chinese music scene! I am in fact one of the committed “portion of people” trying to bring Chinese music to a wider audience. I am the guy who makes The Sound Stage – thank you SO much for including two of my videos on page 1 of your article! I was thrilled to see that when Josh Feola shared this piece on his Facebook.
I also wanted to let your readers know that things are indeed changing, even at this time of writing I think a lot of what was quoted on Page 4 is already becoming irrelevant! Since August I’ve been doing a radio version of my “The Sound Stage” series (which is fully financed by China Radio International, a Chinese state media organ) every Saturday night primetime 6-7pm on FM stations in nearly every major city in China where I play Chinese independent rock, folk, hip-hop and more – I’ve played a track from just about every band mentioned here in this article. I upload each broadcast here thesoundstage.bandcamp.com
Vivian, 这篇文章非常棒，关于中国独立音乐的见解非常深刻。感谢你写这篇文章。我本人也致力于推广中国音乐，让更多的人了解中国音乐。我就是The Sound Stage(音你而乐)栏目主持人。真的特别感谢你在你的文章中提到我的两期节目。在Facebook 上看到Josh Feola的分享，我简直太激动了。
同时，我也希望你的读者能了解到现在正发生的一些变化。事实上，在我写下这些评论时，你在文章第四页引用的一些业界评论已经不符合当前的情况了。从今年8月份开始，The Sound Stage（音你而乐）广播版开播——完全由中国国际广播电台独立承办，每周六晚上6：05点到七点，通过调频广播向中国主要城市传播。这档广播栏目中，我们会播放中国独立摇滚乐，民谣，Hip-hop等。你文章中提到的那些乐队，我几乎都有播放过他们的音乐。打开这个链接，可以看到所有往期的节目。
Hey Jonathan! Thanks for writing, and I love the work you do. I’ll definitely check out your Bandcamp… who are some of your favorite Chinese musicians at the moment? If you ever would be interested in putting together a Chinese music mixtape for REDEFINE, consider this an invite. Cheers and really good work on Sound Stage. 🙂
Vivian, I would love to, thanks! I’ll get to work on that right away. I really Residence A （A公馆）and their CD release party at MAO Livehouse was possibly the best show I’ve seen at that venue. I’m also very impressed by the music coming out of Dalian – namely, Which Park and Doc Talk Shock. Since I’ve started my show I’ve been branching out beyond Beijing and there is really cool stuff coming out of any and every city – Xi’an, Chengdu, Guangzhou. Check out Golden Cage, The Fuzz and The Muff. I’ll always have a soft spot for New Pants（新裤子）, though!
I actually also reached out to Josh about a mixtape idea! I wonder if you guys could collab on a series or if you could do one later on next year in 2014? (He’s slated in January.) No rush. Feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com, too! 😀
I’m cool with either! I’ve emailed you =)
This is really great. I read this from China, after having filmed over 30 bands in the last 2 months, to be released as a moment in time style documentary as soon as humanly possible. I hope to make this excellent, and spread it as far and wide as I can. Thanks for doing this. It needed to be done.
Thank you kindly! Please keep me posted when you finish your piece. 🙂
Speaking of expat bands, do you think there is a place in China’s music scene for expat bands to be taken seriously? It often seems to me that an expat musician is seen more as a novelty than anything, and that there seems to be little excitement, coverage or promotion about what expats are doing musically exactly because they are not burgeoning, Chinese musicians.
Are you speaking in terms of the local Chinese audience or larger international audiences?
My only real experience is with local audiences, both Chinese & expats. I’m unsure what the int’l audience thinks. I’d agree with this article concerning them.
Many expat bands are respected and treated as “locals” as long as they are truly creating something new and not just playing “drunken Jimi Hendrix covers.” Take the band Pairs, for example. They are one of the biggest acts out of Shanghai, and the lead singer and guitarist is from Australia. I guess what people take an issue with regarding expat bands would be a concept that is something of an opposite to what Josh Feola described as “China Cred” – call it Expat Cred? “Hey, we’re foreigners in China playing rock music” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Having said all that though, this IS China, so I think it’s only natural that people would be more interested in what local Chinese people are doing. Hopefully as the scene here gains more ground and international prominence, it won’t matter who you are or where you are from, but just what you are bringing musically to the table.
thanks for using some tenzenmen links too (and i’ve added the article to alternativechina.tumblr.com). anyone looking to hear or buy more chinese music can check out tenzenmen.com.
also – D22 is no longer there (as is their url)!
thanks for the double heads up!
Order a whole lot of Chinese vinyl, CDs, cassettes and even some shirts and posters from http://www.faroutdistantsounds.com