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Postcard from Beijing

Robert R. Thompson
Poster image from

The Lovely Club and Mao's Tomb not only seem like two different Chinas from on another -- they seem to be on two different planets.

Mao's Mausoleum, Beijing. I am with a group of students attending the 2006 Harvard World Model UN in Beijing. Eight days into our trip, we find ourselves standing in line to see Mao Zedong in his tomb. The line moves quite quickly, considering its length and breadth. It stretches around and down past the austere, columned mausoleum which dominates the southern end of Tiananmen Square, and is perhaps a quarter mile long. The line is four and five people across, and winds around the front of the mausoleum then heads up the steps to the entrance. Before going up the steps, those in line may purchase artificial bouquets of red or yellow roses to leave inside the tomb.

Up the steps, the line moves with increased speed. It's amazing, I'm about to see Chairman Mao, dead almost 30 years. The line divides as we enter a huge ante room, which military guards carefully monitor to make certain that all enter two abreast through a door at either side of the chamber. The far end is dominated by a gigantic marble statue of Mao, sitting in a chair, looking wise and warm. The statue's pose is quite similar to that of Abe Lincoln in his memorial in Washington. Of course, in Washington, Abe himself is there in spirit only.

People are allowed to leave the lines and place their flowers at the base of the statue, where they stand for a moment. Some make small bows and wipe away tears. Through the doors at the rear of the ante chamber more guards keep us moving quickly; no pausing, no pictures -- just look then exit. And there he is… Chairman Mao, the founder of the People's Republic of China, the Great Helmsman. He lays in a glass-topped coffin, clad in his uniform, a light shinning on his face, a PRC flag tucked under his arms and covering him from the chest down. I have seen so many pictures of him while he was alive; I saw him on TV countless times when I was growing up in the '50s and '60s (when I knew of him as the leader of Red China). Now it's hard to believe that he, well his body anyway, is right there, a few feet away. As they pass by, many of the people are now openly weeping, as though Mao had died yesterday and not 30 years ago.

Mao watch image from

We pass through the doors into the next room, our heads spinning with the image of Mao, dead in his glass case. And there he is again! On watches, key chains, plates, cigarette lighters, commemorative coins, post cards... indeed, it seems his face appears on just about any object that one might stamp an image. So, here we are, literally steps away from the Chairman, and we are before a gigantic souvenir stand. But, unlike the numerous vendors that we have encountered crassly hawking similar items on Tiananmen Square (and all over Beijing) this shop next to Mao is tasteful, with the items displayed in glass cases, like the real thing next door, and with suitably high prices. The students stock up on Mao lighters and buttons. I refrain from any purchases; I've already bought my Mao watch from one of those street vendors near a restaurant where we ate the day before. I bought the exact same watch, which is for sale in the mausoleum for around $10 US, for 16 Yuan, or the equivalent of two American dollars. Mao is on the face of the watch, his arm going up and down to mark the seconds. Actually, his motion reminds me a bit of the Atlanta Braves' "Tomahawk Chop" fan salute. The watch was cheap, it seems to stop quite often, and I have to shake it to get Mao's arm moving again.

As we walk around the mausoleum and back up Tiananmen Square, we move through groups of people heading towards the line to see Mao (longer now than it was when we arrived at the Square earlier in the morning); it strikes me that the vast majority of the people around the tomb this morning are middle-aged adults and senior citizens. I suppose that young Chinese go with their schools on official outings. Yet the fact that so many older people are out on a Saturday morning to pay their respects to Mao serves to underline some contradictions that I had read about before I arrived in China, and have noticed during my time here. I realize that nine days in Beijing provides no more foundation for assertions about China than several days in Moscow, Prague, London, or New York provides a basis for judgments about Russia, the Czech Republic, Britain, or the US. Still, here I am, and I have to make do with the time that I have. So, I think that many of those young people are probably still asleep this morning. I saw some of them only 12 hours ago, at the other China, or, another China; a country of clubs and capitalism, a very different China than the one memorialized in Mao's tomb. Whereas the China of the tomb is the China of Maoism, of Chinese communism, of the 1937 Long March, and the 1949 revolution from which the PRC was born.

Last evening, we were in a setting wildly different from the tomb that I now stand next to. The Lovely Club is one of the many western-style clubs that, I am told, have blossomed all over Beijing. Techno music pounds non-stop, lights flash, the walls are covered with video projections, dancers gyrate on the stage and on the dance floor (which is on springs and actually bounces as the dancers speed up their frenzied moves). Liquor flows, and I see young Chinese awash in cash, spending it with impunity. The Lovely Club and Mao's Tomb not only seem like two different Chinas from on another -- they seem to be on two different planets.

This other China is a China clubs and commerce, of material goods and western products. I realize that when one goes, as I have done, to former communist states like Russia, Hungary, Romania, or the Czech Republic, it is easy to note the obvious: westernization, often in the form of food (McDonalds, Burger King, Dominoes, Pizza Hut, the Hard Rock Café, etc.), has flooded these countries. And it is easy to bemoan the way American / western food, movies, music have, in some respects, turned these countries into American clones. Observing Beijing's streets, it would be hard (except for the Chinese characters on the signs) to distinguish them from streets similarly glutted with billboards and neon in other large cities. Observing this, a few key questions come to mind: What might Mao think if he could take a stroll from his tomb along the streets of modern Beijing? What would he think of the Lovely Club? What would he think of the grandparents who weep at his bier? Have they failed to pass his teachings on to their children and grandchildren?

Apparently, the current crop of Chinese communist leaders is also uncertain about the fit between Maoism and the communist party's market-oriented reforms. Leaked minutes of a secret, high-level party meeting reported that "Officials and scholars who had been convened last month to advise senior Chinese leaders disagreed sharply on how to advance economic and legal reforms..." They are in quite a quandary. First, "they were alarmed by the resurgence of socialist thinkers critical of the lurch towards capitalism…" Second, there is concern over "the widening gap between rich and poor..." (The New York Times, 7 April 2006) The leaders who support the economic reforms are caught between the old style Maoists who want to return to Maoist ways, and their own concern over the negative impact of their reforms. The price of capitalism has indeed been high, but that was a price Mao was also willing to pay, as he pushed China's industrialization during his time as China's leader.

China's modernization has not displaced the nation's most vital piece of its past, which is located just a short ride from Beijing. It is, in all its awe inspiring grandeur, no less than Mao, the symbol of the nation: the Great Wall. Neither picture nor any description can prepare one for its magnificence. Like the Parthenon (another wonder of the past which I have seen) it completely lives up to its billing. The Chinese have invested much time, effort, and money in restoring major portions of the wall, near Beijing and in other regions of the country. From the top of the segment near Beijing, one can look in almost any direction and see the wall, extending into the distance. It is gray and majestic as it snakes up and down along mountains, which are rocky in some spots, thickly forested in others. Seeing this remains the most vivid memory of my China trip.

The memory is vivid not only because of the structure itself, but because it is impossible to stand on the wall and not imagine the suffering of those who built it; those who carried the stones, put them in place, and, as our guide told us, often filled the gaps between those stones with their bodies. And it is true that some things have remained the same in the new China. Whether during the time of Imperial China, or the People's Republic of China, China has never been for the people, at least in terms of any political, economic, or social decisions made by the leadership. The people serve the government, not the other way around. Following Mao's political dictates, the leadership allows no dissent, and even works to keep the Chinese internet free of democratic content (especially access to sites such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch). In fact, "Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo worked with China to restrict access to material or reveal the identity of users with dissident postings." (The Christian Science Monitor 14 February 2006).

Knowing this, it was fascinating to observe our guide's friendliness, openness, and spontaneity vanish immediately when asked about Red Square's infamous scene from 17 years ago. The same guide who regaled us with a lively, anecdotal packed tour through the Forbidden City was much less forthcoming as we walked around the Square. "What do you think about what happened here in June 1989?" inquired one of my charges. "The students were misguided. Chairman Mao knows best," she responded, as though he were still alive. When it comes to politics in China, it seems Mao is still alive.

The polarity of China is as oppressive as it is ironic. There is an unspoken pact between the government and the people, especially young Chinese people. The people focus on making money, shopping, clubbing, and enjoying the material goods of a burgeoning market economy. The government takes care of the nation's political life; at the cost of no political liberty, no freedom, and no dissent. Will the young Chinese continue to buy into this arrangement? Maybe, maybe not. As a Chinese student said to a member of my class at our conference, during a discussion of this 'bargain', "Oh yeah; yeah, we love Mao. Whatever." And my Mao watch? Darn thing's stopped, again.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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