This year is the Year of France in China, in case you hadn’t heard. While France’s reputation is fading fast in the Western world, they are putting on a PR blitz of epic proportions in this country, perhaps in a pre-emptive strike aimed to cut off any potential animosity before it has a chance to bloom. The Year thus far has been marked not only by an increase in the amount of snobbery, strong accents and wine around town, but also in large-scale art, music, theatre and culinary events. To contemporary music fans, the biggest event of the Année was the Trans in China festival; what was officially knows as (insert French accent here) Les Trans en Chine, a two-day festival organised by the people behind (more accent required) Les Rencontres TransMusicales de Rennes, an annual musical meeting showcasing the best up-and-coming artists from around the world.
The Rennes, France festival upon which the Beijing version was based, has been held every December for the past 26 years and has been at the forefront of every major musical trend and emerging artist since it began with a local showcase in 1979. Portisehead, St. Germain, Gotan Project and more played their first gigs at the festival; many dozens more played there as they were on the cusp of being ‘discovered’ by the rest of the world.
A dozen Francais artists—including electro-jazz troupe St Germain and tango-meets-dub-and-beats act Gotan Project, among others - played a massive stage in a downtown Beijing park to an audience of several thousand merry revellers, many of whom had French abilities that I recall having back when I was a good Canadian, in my pre-Devil days. The festival—through rain and shine—put smiles on faces, and will likely go down as one of the musical highlights of the capital’s recent history: It will certainly overshadow the last large-scale Year-of-France-in-China mega-concert: Old school electro artist Jean Michel Jarre’s performance in—wait for it—Tiananmen Square. But for me and the few dozen folks who attended the pre-concert two-day series of panel discussions on China’s music industry, the festival didn’t start off on such a high note.
During a discussion on the live music market, a major local promoter—who had worked on shows including Michael Learns to Rock and Roxette in Beijing—declared that Chinese people don’t like foreign music and thus, a concert featuring even a major name is a tough thing to pull off. You could hear the mood of the room change as the translation came through the headphones. Thirteen French music industry folk and the several other promoters and industry people from Beijing and beyond, it seemed, had come to attend this meeting of music professionals—and begun to look at and invest in China—for no good reason. Chinese people can’t ‘accept’ foreign music, he said, precisely because it’s foreign: They can’t get into it because it’s different.
(Here I could get into another diatribe on his label ‘foreign music’. But I’ve told you before about gigs in need of ‘black people music’ and ‘foreign bands’. Suffice it to mention that I could digress for many a page, but will stick to the story at hand.)
He’s wrong, of course, but not completely: There is a difficult situation at work here that’s partly a result of the recent opening-up of the cultural world in the Middle Kingdom and partly a result of the don’t-rock-the-boat attitude that has defined China for the past, well, forever. Here is not where a historical and political analysis of the country’s recent history will explain why more people didn’t come out to see the French festival, but I will say this: It’s not just laziness that prevents, say, a promoter, from taking a chance on bringing over an overseas act, and it’s the same thing that causes people to turn down Western food like bread and cheese and disregard the possibility of enjoying something like jazz. Sure, to a lactose-intolerant person, eating cheese is a difficult prospect, and many Chinese are physiologically averse to the digestion of dairy. And yes, some forms of jazz music are a little too academic for most people’s liking. But both a dislike of academic jazz and the digestion difficulties that cheese may bring are the results of actually taking in the music and the mouthful. The oft-induced phrase is not ‘I don’t like [cheese, jazz, foreign music].’ The phrase is generally ‘Chinese people are not receptive to [cheese, jazz, foreign music].’ (The word is bu neng jieshou, which means literally ‘can’t accept’ or ‘can’t receive’, but has the feeling of ‘unable to get into’). And when you hear something enough, well You have overseas acts performing to an audience composed of a grossly unrepresentative amount of non-Chinese, and an artist wondering why they got on a plane to play in front of their normal audience but thankful that at least they’ll probably get to see the Great Wall at some point after the show.
Luckily this panellist was followed by others who were more realistic, those who said that you won’t make a ton of money, but you can pull off a successful event; who acknowledged a long, difficult road ahead, but a road all the same; and who also suggested that, actually, Chinese people are quite likely to be into foreign music. They’re quite likely to be into whatever you have the chance to put in front of them, just like any audience anywhere: Good musicians have that effect on people. The key is getting them in front of the stage.
When I worked on the Beijing shows for Boston-based funk band Superhoney, the plan was to have one club show, at a now-demolished heavily-foreigner-populated nightclub-lounge. But the management also runs one of the biggest—and newest, at the time—combination disco-karaoke-lounge-bar in town, and, at the last minute, agreed to give funk a chance at both venues. The crowd at the disco is heavily Chinese, and fiercely loyal: Tuesday nights are only marginally less busy than Friday nights; seven days a week, dance music that is moving from techno toward pop hip hop and RnB more and more each day pumps through the four-storey-high sci-fi inspired main room through the wee hours of the morning. Young revellers that have the luxury of not only a growing amount of money - for some, it is money that they have made on their own, for others, it is the money of their parents, and still others are ‘kept’ by the money made by an increasing nouveau riche who feel the need to ‘keep’ others—but a growing amount of free time in which to spend it follow the steps of the in-house go-go girls emotionless atop their catwalks holding court over the dance floor. Also following the go-go girls’ lead are no shortage of company outings and business deal-sealers—the members of which have no fear of the necessity to apologise for their reckless behaviour at the office the next day, since it’s all a part of the night away from the office. Below them, the private karaoke rooms are always full, and come complete with all-you-can-eat buffets and the latest in sing-along technology.
Nobody was sure how the crowd would react to a live band, and we were certainly worried, despite the fact that we knew the band’s music was infectiously danceable. Skipping over the fact that there was no stage until t-minus a couple hours to show-time—thanks to an army of what looked like underage French sailors on shore leave with their tight striped black and white shirts and red scarves working furiously on a stage that literally appeared out of the blue—things began with a few confused faces - confused at the first sight of a live show setup in their beloved dance hall. After all, they had expected just another night at the disco. But in no time, the crowd was dancing, and the scene was little different from any other night at the disco. To wit: The last note of the last song of the final encore (yes, the audience did actually call for more) sounded, back came the techno, and the people were just as happy. Foreign music or no, these kids loved what they heard; it was just a matter of getting it in front of them. Perhaps the element of surprise is what works best.
In the case of the Trans in China festival, surprise may well have been an equally important weapon in the arsenal. To be sure, there was no shortage of promotion and articles leading up to the festival. But it’s difficult to give a good description of a band like X Makeena, for example, who combine hip hop, techno and drum and bass rhythms with rap, modern dance and costumed madness. Or the Afro-Carribean-Indian percussion-based traditional Reunion Island sounds of Danyel Waro? And many of the adjectives I just employed are lost, not simply in translation, but in meaning. A festival of this scale, held in a park where families picnic on the weekends was not meant only for the musically-inclined and informed: The point was to bring this music to a wide range of people, and so, the draw was less in the details than in the idea of an all-day music festival.
And several thousand people attended the festival. There was, to be sure, a heavy French—and foreign, in general - contingent, which is no surprise, since events featuring international acts—especially ones with as large a following as, say St. Germain—always draw the international community. And those of us familiar with the idea of a music festival—this being music festival season in most parts of the world - had to go because, well, how could you not?
The festival itself was both unmistakably French and completely Chinese at the same time. Upon entry to the festival grounds—which was an unprecedented, for China, grass field - two things fought to be the first thing to catch your attention: 1. The at-least-15-rows-worth of space between the front edge of the stage and the beginning of the grass seating area; 2. The police-to-audience ratio. Row upon row upon row of green-suited ‘security’ (not steroidally beefed-up concert security, but the lowest in the multiple-level local policing system, the bao’an) and alternating marching units of concert-t-shirted army boys, their military status given away by their green starched pants with yellow-red-yellow stripes down the outside, who, when they weren’t marching in double file, sat in what might have been the third and fifteenth rows facing not the stage, but the crowd. The stage was enormous. A work of scaffolding art. From its ceiling would be draped, for the last show of the first night (Gotan Project) a semi-transparent video screen. The lighting and sound equipment were awe-inspiring, as was the quality of the lights and sounds that came forth.
Along the softly upward-sloping grassy knoll that was the audience area, hippies Chinese and European danced, twirled sticks and hackey-sacked with the local hack equivalent: A small weight with feathers attached. The festival was not a festival in the culinary sense of the word as one stall selling sandwiches and a few pastries—though there were no shortage of forward-thinkers with five-star picnics—and its next-door juice and water booth were the only food and drink options (”Sacre bleu!” You’re thinking: A French festival with no wine?! So were we). Liquor consumption was a point of confusion, and reminded me of some of the world’s confusing marijuana laws that state that it’s not ok to buy or sell, or to use, but it’s not illegal as such: A convenience store of sorts just outside the gate—still inside the enormous park—sold beer and warned us to put it out of sight as we entered the grounds. Most of the crowd did as they were told, and once inside the space, one could guzzle for all the hundreds of pairs of official eyes to see.
When thunder and lightning cut short Danyel Waro’s set, the group decided to go acoustic, and secured permission from the authorities to step up to the edge of the grass with their drums and home-made percussive instruments, and played an inspiring - and intimate—set of songs that had the crowd jumping and singing along to an extent likely impossible from the mega stage.
A busload of French media of all kinds were flown in along with the 13 DJs and bands, and were busy photographing, videoing, recording and interviewing the more outgoing of the local revellers as they danced, screamed, disrobed (shirts from male bodies and nothing more; this was not a “Show us your tits” Woodstock) and, in the local parlance, wanr-ed (rhymes with ‘bar’: “Wah-er”) until they could wanr no more. Meanwhile, the scores of Chinese media were focussing on the foreign partygoers as they did whatever strange things that foreigners do at festivals such as this one. Perhaps if the sides combined their footage, an actual picture of the international makeup of the festival might emerge (the police presence will certainly be a major feature of the international coverage of the event, and I admit, I, too, fell victim to its Siren call).
Regardless of what picture emerges, what is clear is that the thousands of concert-goers, whether Chinese or French, or somewhere in between, were out enjoying music - foreign music. It is worth noting here that two Chinese bands were on the bill, though our party-pooping promoter friend might not really consider them ‘Chinese’: One was Wang Lei, a dub-electro artist who has most recently settled into dub (and, with a band, reggae) after forays into rock and industrial; the other was Iz, a Kazakh folk act whose current residence might be in Beijing, but whose inspiration (and upbringing) lays far west, at the fringes of the Middle Kingdom, where it looks more like Central Asia than China. That the two Chinese acts fit in seamlessly with the ‘foreign’ acts was probably a bad sign for their marketability in their homeland.
I hope that the promoter was there to see it, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t. After all, it isn’t easy to get into the whole festival thing, what with all the different kinds of music and all.