We met the Midi Music Festival, an annual now-four-day rock festival that last went down in October, 2004, in the previous “Foreign Devil”. Originally scheduled for the first days of the “Golden Week” holiday beginning May 1, the festival has grown from an afternoon showcase of the school’s student bands to a four-day rock-fest drawing fans and bands from around the country and the world.
In many ways the Midi Music Festival is like any other festival anywhere else: Bands, fans and stalls; booze, merch and dope. For 2004’s edition, 45 bands, mainly from Beijing, were scheduled to take to a stage set up on the Midi School of Modern Music’s quad, a football-field sized plot of grass and crab-apple trees just inside the west Fifth Ring Road, the highway that, at the time of this writing, is the outermost concentric circle of interstate circling the capital, but will eventually be encircled by the Sixth Ring Road, which, in turn, will eventually be outdone by further ring roads. The Midi’s quad is an anomaly: It is one of the only plots of grass in the city—and the country—upon which it is ok to walk. As in years past, thousands of music fans young and old joined confused local residents looking for the source of all the renao, the excitement, at October’s festival. Word was that 10,000 people came for each of 2003’s three days of music, and the numbers were only going to increase.
In many ways, the Midi Festival is completely unlike any other festival anywhere else. The difference is in the details: The snack food of choice isn’t vegan burgers or pita pockets, but rather, lamb kebabs. The CDs and clothing on sale are, with the exception of a few DIY products, pirate goods. And the fans: Not many festivals draw hippies, punks, metal-heads and ravers; then again, not many festivals are held in a city where rock music didn’t exist twenty years ago. In Beijing, any chance that any one of the aforementioned fan-bases has to show their support, they take. The fans are drawn by their favourite bands—and their general interest in doing rock things—and the bands are chosen not based upon who will go well together, but upon their popularity in the local and, in some cases, national scene.
I have watched Zhang Fan, dean of the school and organiser of the festival, field multiple phone calls from bands wanting to be on the bill, some just days before the show. I’ve been on the other end of that phone call before, so I know what they’re going through. “I’m so sorry,” I heard Zhang tell his phone with the sincerity of a father to his toddler, “but it’s just too short-notice. We just can’t add you guys. Let’s try again next year.” Rolling his eyes after finally extricating himself from the conversation, he says to me “That was this God-awful band from Singapore.” Our conversation soon turns to the other as-yet unconfirmed acts who will be added to the bill over the course of the next two weeks before the festival starts.
The Midi Festival is a perfect representation of the variety of music that falls under the category of yaogun—rock and roll. A jazz trio of three of the best musicians in Beijing is preceded by a death metal band and followed by a pop-punk act. But that’s part of the fun of the festival, and besides, with free entry (or, in the case of last year’s event, a 10 yuan [US$1.20] park entrance fee), nobody’s going to complain.
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In late April 2004, the buzz in the Beijing air isn’t just the encroaching Gobi Desert in the springtime sandstorms that coat the capital in a haze of dirt. It’s the buzz about the upcoming Midi Festival. A fourth day has been added, and people are excited. BBS’s are a-flutter with the news.
But on April 28, t-minus three days to show-time, word started to spread that the festival’s been called off. We were used to this kind of rumour, and at first it was just that: The previous year’s postponement from May to October was because of SARS: Back then, not even the heartiest of rockers were very interested in getting together with 10,000 others.
The rumour’s plausibility was enhanced by the general belief that the guanxi—the connections and the good relationship—that the school had with local authorities was too good to be true: Somehow, the school had appeased the local cops to the extent that the annual event could be held. It was only a matter of time, folks said, before the Powers That Be withdrew their tacit approval (which was, more accurately, their unwillingness to care enough to step in and cancel the show).
Turns out the rumour was true: The concert was cancelled because of “safety”. A new official line, the result of one too many accidents - a major gas leak in Chongqing, a stampede during a Spring Festival fair outside of Beijing, a growing number of coal mining disasters and explosions in fireworks factories, the list goes on—put “safety first”, as if to say that safety wasn’t initially first. When a slogan is held high by the Party, it is not done so half-assedly (we are no longer in the age of the ‘Kill the Sparrows’-type of campaign, but we are not as far from it as one might expect). As a result, local authorities’ unspoken consent to the festival became outright refusal.
The logic behind the cancellation was that because admission to the festival is free, the school couldn’t control the amount of people who showed up. Without control of the crowd numbers, naturally, chaos ensues—this is rock music, after all, and it was obvious to Those In Charge what that means. Chaos means a lack of safety, and, well, we can’t have that (could we in previous years?). Fair enough, if the logical progression makes sense. It doesn’t, since well over 10,000 fans came to the previous year’s festival and without major incident took in jazz, rock, death metal, and more.
Yes, the Midi School had some issues to deal with, and they had already gotten in touch with the folks behind Denmark’s massive Roskilde Festival to exchange ideas with the organizers on how to better set up the venue. But more likely, the reason the festival was cancelled was because should anything happen, the official in charge of the district would have to resign his post, following the pattern of every other tragedy that got the ‘safety first’ campaign started. Large-scale events of all kinds were being cancelled across the country as high-ranking politicians became nervous.
So, three days before the festival was to begin, it ended.
I was told by the Midi School’s dean not to fret about the cancellation; that they’d do it bigger and better in October. All would be well. I was more than a bit pissed off, but I realized that I was in the minority: Others would just shrug their shoulders and that would be it. “This kind of thing happens all the time,” I was told repeatedly. “This is China.”
This wasn’t the first cancelled concert in Beijing rock history, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. It was only upon arrival at Yanxi Lake in 1998 that most fans discovered that the several-day-long rock festival was cancelled. And there was a concert that my band at the time was supposed to play in downtown Beijing in the summer of 2001. Outside of a shopping mall just west of Tiananmen Square, seven nights of free concerts were held featuring local rock bands. On the seventh night - the night that we were supposed to play - after the sound check and perhaps an hour before the show was to start, the cops pulled the plug. The foreigners in the crowd got pissed off, and we asked in vain for an explanation. Chinese rock fans, meanwhile, quietly began to file home. “This is China,” they said to us, confused at our insistence upon knowing the reason behind the cancellation. “What does it matter? It’s cancelled.”
It’s fascinating to me that the authorities would come to the conclusion that hosting a rock concert would be more dangerous than cancelling it. Picture Lollapalooza, cancelled for no reason two days before its start - or two hours. What’s more unstable: a crowd of rock fans watching a concert, or a crowd of rock fans prevented from watching a concert?
Here I should mention the near-riot that ensued when Japanese rock band, Brahman, took to the stage at October 2003’s festival. Cans, bottles, fruit and anything else that could be hurled at the stage supplemented frenzied shouts at the “Jap Devils”. The Midi School certainly learned from the incident, and so have I: Midi’s not inviting any more Japanese acts and it has become clear to me that the only way a riot might ensue at a rock show is if there are Japanese on the stage.
I have been to punk shows where drunken mohawked kids pogo like it’s 1979, to death metal shows where musicians and fans are equally scary, and to nü-metal gigs where head-banging could easily have led to head banging, but nothing has ever happened. Brahman wasn’t even a hard-edged band: they were Rock-Lite. But they were Japanese. And their reputation, in China as in other parts of Asia, is still based upon Second World War actions of the Imperial Army. China’s right: The Japanese need to step up, discuss and apologize for their WWII record. They ought to teach their schoolchildren about what happened. But the Chinese also have a lot of work to do: A majority of Chinese people I have met harbour a deep seated and subconscious hatred of Japan that belies their intelligence in other matters. Just mention the Japanese and the conversation will take a horrible turn.
At October, 2003’s festival, once it was announced that Brahman was to take to the stage, all hell broke loose. Likely, some drunken idiots felt inspired by the atmosphere to add their projectiles to the fray, a-la anarchists at a peaceful Seattle protest. But for the most part, the insanity was directed at Brahman. Not even the pleas of Zhang Fan—who is known and respected by musicians and fans alike for his support for the local scene—or even the singer of Thin Man, a popular and poppy Rage Against the Machine-esque local act (who has seen their share of fame in Japan) could appease the zealots. Brahman tried to win over the crowd with music, but the crowd, who had listened with open ears, over the course of the festival’s three days, to everything from punk to pop, wasn’t interested. They were focussed not only upon Japan’s war record, but also on an incident that occurred two weeks before the concert:
For three days, it was reported, upwards of 400 Japanese businessmen staying at a hotel in Zhuhai, Guangdong participated in an “orgy” with local prostitutes. Some went so far as to say that the sex-romp was an intentional move to further humiliate China on September 18, which is already considered China’s Day of Humiliation—the day that the Japanese invasion of Manchuria began in 1931. Forget that Zhuhai is nationally—and internationally - known for its prostitution and that the police could have made a similar bust on any day of the year and come up with johns from around the world (and, mainly, from around China). This is the situation that Brahman—and all Japanese citizens—are up against. And not even cancelling Beijing’s favourite annual music event could anger fans as much as Japanese involvement in one of the world’s oldest transactions.
But I digress.
The fans that had come from out of town for the Midi Festival in May of 2004 didn’t seem to be too worried that they’d just travelled halfway across the country for a cancelled concert. The members of a motorcycle club from Shaanxi province, who had already arrived, were chilling on the quad and the small dirt road that flanked the campus. A few stalls selling clothing, CDs and DVDs went up - not the dozens that would line the road when the festival was fully up and running, but a few nonetheless.
The school had already gotten an American jazz group—lead by drummer Royal Hartigan—to come to teach Master Classes and play at the festival, so Hartigan’s band played a small concert: There was no stage and only pieces of a PA system, but they played to an audience of a few hundred Midi Festival loyalists and even jammed with a few students and alumni.
Local clubs picked up the slack, and, with just two days to prepare, every one of the bands that was scheduled to take to Midi’s stage—and many that weren’t—had a gig in a local club. Like the festival, these gigs were held from afternoon. So instead of the usual eight-band evening at a rock club, there was a 20-band day. October’s rescheduled festival was bigger and better than before, despite the near-cancellation halfway through the festival’s four-day run, when neighbouring apartment residents complained about the noise. Fans didn’t riot then either; a deal was worked out and the show went on.
The Midi Festival will go on: And it is poised to be one of Beijing’s only rock institutions. Clubs have come and gone. The Lijiang Snow Mountain Music Festival, which was held in August, 2002, in Yunnan province, in the country’s southwest, wasn’t quite the ‘Chinese Woodstock’ that it promised. Torrential rain was only part of the problem (it was held during rainy season): Fans just didn’t make the trip. Meanwhile, people are calling last year’s Helanshan Music Festival, where 18 rock bands played over three nights in the desert outside of the north-western city of Yinchuan, Ningxia, a success, and there is talk that it—like the Yinchuan Motorcycle Festival around which it was organised—will become an annual event.
But none of them will be Midi.