Shanren: Left Foot Dance of the Yi and Other Chinese Folk-Rock Anthems

Left Foot is a varied album but not a restless one.
Left Foot Dance of the Yi and Other Chinese Folk-Rock Anthems
Riverboat / World Music Network

That’s interesting. The press blurb says that the four members of Shanren, who are also members of one of the 26 ethnic minority groups that live in the province of Yunnan, saw a parallel between their own situation and the fringe existence of Chinese rock musicians in the 1990s, when the band was formed. “[T]he band came to see the outcast position of Chinese rock musicians as a mirror image of the Yunan [sic] tribes’ struggle for cultural identity. Early Chinese rock and rollers were considered to be on the fringe by members of the mainstream Chinese machine and so their sounds were drowned out by the louder, brasher conventional pop music pumping out of urban cities.”

It’s an equation that would probably not have occurred to any minority group in any English-speaking country during the same period of time, since the same conditions did not apply, rock musicians were not a minority creeping diligently and bravely around the outskirts of society, and how naturally and unexpectedly things get tweaked as they move around the world: what different forms they take as they respond to their area’s pressures and releases.

The same press blurb wants to compare the group to the Pogues — “Likened to having the energy of the Pogues, the raucous Chinese indie folk quartet Shanren plays traditional instruments alongside amplified Stratocasters” — but if that’s true then they need a better recording because one of the key sources of that energy is invisible on Left Foot Dance of the Yi, and that’s the implicit threat of unstable mutiny from the band’s front man, the possibility that he, or one of the other musicians, might get so volatile and drunk that he decides to say, “I’m going to punch someone, or I’m going to stop playing and do something else.” The energy might become so restless that it bursts out of the song into some other, less contained, area of physical activity. Left Foot is a varied album but not a restless one. It’s an album of reliable harmonies, the men on “La Suo Mi” hopping in gladly to add to the group effort, the flute brilliantly round, liquid, and clear, nothing veering or really threatening to veer, the musicians making “Whee” noises with clean-living willingness on one reggae-sounding track.

You can smell it though, you can sort of smell that energy lurking inside the title song when you hear the shrill noise that shoves the music forward until it’s almost uncomfortable — not quite, just on the edge there — and then the hard gallop of their singing voices — and I can see how, in the flesh, they could absolutely sound like the Pogues. Just not here, where the rowdiness is kept inside its paddock.

But one of the other parts of that energy is present and audible, and that’s mateship, or communal grace. They’re a group of men who like to be together, singing and playing. They enjoy the “Left Foot Dance” song so much that they applaud themselves at the end as if to say, “That was a good thing and look, we did it well.” The song itself was taught to them by “a family in Daguokou” while they were travelling around their home province, searching for material in as many places as possible. Left Foot is a deliberately sociable album. It’s clear from the blurb that the musicians are aware that they’re not just representing themselves as a discrete quartet, they’re also representing the Yi and the Wa, and whoever else, and the experience of coming from a rural mountain area to the city, where they found some field recording noises in a transport station to overlay through the music in “Wandering”. Community enjoyment and self-respect seems to supplant and dismiss any anger or despair that they might have been expected to feel as they contemplate the subsumation of their customs and musics by the Han majority. That could be the key to the non-rowdy and respectable aspect of their sound: they feel the pull of a duty other than music.

RATING 6 / 10