History in the Making?
How unsuspecting Tuesday nights of experimentalism in a tiny bar may be indicative of our living in extraordinary times.
It's so much easier to appreciate your surroundings when you're showing them to an outsider.
I'd heard no end of compliments on my hometown, but never grew to really love Toronto until I showed it to a first-time visitor. This goes double for Beijing, where pollution is one of many hardships residents endure (among which us 'outsiders' have, I'll emphasize here to avoid sounding like a kvetch, in fact, chosen to endure), and the one that first strikes most new arrivals. I mention pollution because my most recent visitor, who is the inspiration for not just this installment of the column, but also for a re-evaluation of Things in general, reminded me of this (you'd think simply drawing breath on a normal basis would remind me constantly, but, alas, we humans are ever so adaptable): "I looked up at the sun," he said to me, "and it was this big fiery ball in the sky, and I thought, 'Something's not right.'" Something is, in fact, off when you find yourself, as many of us have here, staring at the sun and not feeling the effects of its solar system-powering radiance, despite remembering as a child that you could go blind from doing so. But the re-evaluation of which I speak did not come through contemplating the pollution with which I share my existence.
I like to show visitors a different kind of Beijing by taking them to a rock show at some point during their visit. As a guy who has at least one gig a month, it's nice when I can bring them to my show, but I do like to let people know that there is, in fact, a scene that justifies my existence here. It's not quite a trip to the Great Wall, but anyone can see the Great Wall. You have to Know Someone to find out about a good show or a bad show. Sometimes a bad show is also itinerary-worthy. Regardless, once the visitor is over the fact that there are actually rock shows in China, they generally enjoy themselves, at the very least on a purely sociological level, and can honestly say they've seen a slice of one version of the Real China.
One year ago, in my first installment of missives from the Middle Kingdom (happy anniversary!), I wrote of an experimental music night on a winter's day in the city's university district, and of the man who organized it, Yan Jun. Yan is a leading music critic, experimental musician, and the man who is personally responsible for putting Chinese experimental music on the map 'on the map' being a very relative term, as we're talking fractions of the fractions of folks attracted to any music not sugar-coated and packaged. But 'on the map' goes beyond the small-but-loyal local following: Since the night to which I referred at a not-well-attended university district bar, Yan has been invited to Oslo, Amsterdam, and Kuala Lumpur; in Oslo he wore his critic's hat, but in the latter two cities, he was a performer, invited for his way with ambient sound art. The Midi Music Festival, Beijing's annual gathering of 50 bands and tens of thousands of fans, invited Yan to host a small stage for last October's festival, where artists from around the world performed music not rock 'n' roll enough for the main stage. Sometime in there, Yan turned a random gathering of laptop artists into a weekly Event. Its 34th installment passed in mid-February with no end in sight to the weekly rotation of artists ranging from ambient to noise to post-rock and post-punk, capped with jam sessions part insanity and part genius.
Suddenly, these gatherings were garnering some serious attention, though to even call them gatherings is a stretch: It took a while before the event, held every Tuesday night (putting, one might say, the 'mental' in experimental) in a dirty little bar the size of your living room buried within Beijing's Drive-In movie theatre complex, drew a steady couple-dozen-strong following. But soon, international attention came: BBC DJ Steve Barker, longtime host of On the Wire, contributor to The Wire magazine, and a most-of-the-past-four-years resident of Beijing, gave an international shout-out to the series: "Yan Jun's continuing Kwanyin Waterland night," he wrote in The Wire's year-end look back at 2005, "was probably the bravest and most successful night of free improv anywhere in the world."
Here comes the revelation.
Perhaps it was the fact that my band was playing that Tuesday night that had me hoping for my place in History, but I am realistic about the local music scene: I know that, though standards are rising, it doesn't take much to get a gig, and that 'crowd' is an interesting way to refer to a group of 100 people gathered in a city of 15 million. And besides, there weren't 100 people that night, though the bar's tiny room was packed.
But the minute my buddy walked in the door, I re-imagined what was, prior to his arrival, a cold, dirty Tuesday night at a shitty little Beijing club, as a different kind of Event altogether. For one, there is the process of getting to the club. Imagine, in a language you can speak, convincing a taxi driver to take you into the Drive-In, navigating your way down the dark tree-lined drive through a small strip of clubs, restaurants, and RV rental outlets (by the hour or the day; with driver or without), across a grass field, left at one of Beijing's three old-school Volkswagen Beetles parked eternally in front of a filthy bar with the suspiciously-Apartheid-sounding name of Kafer Bar, and through the two Army-issue camouflage quilts hanging vertically in front of the door of 2 Kolegas (in Chinese, "Two Good Friends", in 'English', generally referred to as "Dos Kolegas"). The quilts are one line of defense against the winter chill: The coal stove, which is refuelled with coal cakes, bits of wood, and cigarette butts regularly, is the second, but the only thing that really works is packing the room full.
Once you're inside the bar, you know you're In. You look around at the kinds of people (some Chinese, some not) that you're sharing this Tuesday night with and it looks a lot like the kind of people you'd imagine would be at an event like this: The dork-hip set, the indie cool kids; the hippies and punks might not be exactly par for the experimental course, but they are here because Kolegas is that kind of a place, and, hey, Yan is that kind of dude. As he's told me before, Beijing doesn't have the kind of stratification between different types of music that traditionally would occur in other music scenes, especially here, on experimental night, where most local experimentalists only ditched metal and punk guitars a couple of years back.
I recently read Fury's Hour: A (sort-of) Punk Manifesto (Random House Canada 2005) by punk-turned-political strategist Warren Kinsella. We all want to see our Times as Historic, and certainly Kinsella was there when punk's History was being made. Reading it, though, I couldn't help but compare it to Beijing's current rock revolution, specifically nights like this particular Tuesday. This is not the beginning of History for Beijing music in general. The foundations of any Beijing Scene were laid in the '80s and rose up with the bands that grew out of clubs and into stadiums in the mid-'90s. But what is happening now is still Historic: A Hundred Schools, as the saying goes, are blossoming, in dirty clubs like Kolegas. New genres are finding followings, and none newer than the experimental scene that has sprouted around people like Yan. Certainly decades from now, thesis writers, authors, documentary filmmakers, and others will look back upon Tuesday nights in this cruddy bar and label it Of Importance. Many already are (arguably to the point at which the times become not so much Historic as much as Overdone).
It's tough to judge any form of music, particularly the kind of music that many people might be reluctant to even call 'music'. But one has to recognize that experimental music, sound art, or whatever name it goes under, is, right now, in Beijing, experiencing something of a Renaissance (a question: Is this the case elsewhere? It might be). It is in our nature, as hyper-historically-aware post-modern humans, to see events unfolding now as potentially historical. But, with my out-of-town visitor in tow on this particular night, it wasn't out of a desire to assign Meaning to what might be a minor event that I started thinking in terms of History. Certainly it wasn't the cacophony coming from the stage that made me think of History: high-pitched squeals, random drum and cymbal hits, the deep bass tones of a duo learning its way through an old-school Korg keyboard on-the-job, the faint strumming of a lute, and the accompanying folk vocal moans competed with each other to build something that was supposed to be a post-show jam session. The fact that the squealing was, by the end of it, revealed to be unintentional feedback speaks volumes about the quality of what was going on, but it does not end the discussion; nor does the fact that there were foreigners bashing away along with Chinese musicians.
What I came face-to-face with by dragging an unsuspecting visitor to this particular Tuesday night was the prospect that maybe I should believe the hype; that we are living in Significant Times. Not because the more offensive to the ear a form of music might be, the more historic, by definition, it must be. Just because I couldn't dance to it or even, for an extended period of time, bear to listen to it didn't mean that what I was hearing wasn't the steady beat of History. It was, and it beats on as long as people like Yan Jun are given the opportunity by a place like Kolegas.
* * *
The following links provide a bit more insight into What Is Happening:
Yan Jun's label
Yan Jun's blog (in Chinese, mostly)
Global Noise Online (a good English source for news from the fringes of the Chinese and global music scene)