Monday, October 6, 2008

Modern Sky Festival.

Modern Sky Festival.

Last week we went to the Modern Sky Festival, a music festival in Haidian park, Haidian district, Beijing. A music festival. You’d think it would be easy to get to, wouldn’t you? When we got out of the subway, Haidian park, a huge body of green on the map, was nowhere to be seen. It wouldn’t be seen for another hour and a half. What we crossed through was more akin to a post apocalyptic suburb of an abandoned metropolis. Where there weren’t highway overpasses there were fences. Apartment buildings stood up like ladders leaned against the sky, a solid grey by late afternoon. They seemed to be growing a lot of trees there. Maybe it’s not hard to see why, with the empty shells of luxury housing complexes shrouded in transplanted forests.

When we drew closer to the venue itself, the streets were bathed in red lights and maintenance workers shambled away from the stages in tired groups. The sound of drums started to rise against the chatter of the crowds.

We paid for our tickets, went inside, and passed crowds of stalls and milling teenagers to get the main stage. The band was some kind of Euro-techno-pop-y outfit. Not bad, it definitely had everyone dancing. Twin screens stood on each side of the stage, blaring neon-tinged video of the musicians. The girl on screen yelled into the mic. We decided to head to the smaller stage, where someone we had already heard was playing. This was Zhou Yunpeng, a blind folk singer who has already been called China’s Bob Dylan.

We caught him in the middle of the one song we know. On the album it’s a sparse affair of Zhou Yunpeng’s operatic voice backed by a chorus of traditional sounding voices. The live version was a little more sprawling with a backbone played on an upright bass by a hip looking Chinese guy, head bopping. I couldn’t understand more than 10 percent of the lyrics, but looking around at the faces of the people around me, I saw enough of the story.

This kind of folk music, long taken for granted in the US, recently re-embraced by the indie crowd, is rare in Beijing. When I played Zhou Yunpeng’s song for my roommate, he couldn’t believe it was a local band. Hong Kong? he asked. American? The slow acoustic nod of Zhou Yunpeng’s music masks a more bitter urgency, more ambitious aims. One song, translated ‘Chinese children’, is an epic drift from highs to lows corralled by the singer’s huge voice.

And where is this voice coming from? A guy perched on a chair onstage, black sunglasses surrounded by masses of long, black hair. Guitar in hand, he doesn’t make much motion as he sings. That doesn’t stop his voice from rising high above the audience packed into the hanger-like space. They shout back his words.

Obviously the crowd is mostly younger people. Despite a fair amount of Europeans and Americans among the Chinese, there really isn’t a huge international presence to the Modern Sky Festival. The annual festival usually includes one or two big name Western acts, but this year every band is Chinese. Due to complications with the Olympics, many concert venues were forcibly told to cut back on their schedules. The festival is no exception. The absence of such illustrious stars as Avril Lavigne is no loss. This year’s Modern Sky showed that the Chinese indie, rock, and pop scene can stand all on its own. Quite a feat considering that only last year the Chinese government banned Carsick Cars, the country’s best indie band, from opening Sonic Youth’s Beijing concert.

The fact that Modern Sky Festival went off without a hitch is not to say that music is no longer a political entity in Beijing. The younger generation is embracing the music as well as the message that creativity is not a province of the government. The music certainly has a mind of its own. One of Zhou Yunpeng’s songs, “To buy a house”, corners the trouble with finding your own space in a city where most of the property has been bought up by families and the government. Carsick Cars’ best song is ‘Zhongnanhai’, a reference to the cigarette brand as well as a sendup of the Chinese government’s state compound of the same name.

Woodstock the Modern Sky Festival is not. It’s still a blatantly commercial affair with ads rising up on most surfaces. But still, consider the context. This is not entirely mainstream music. This is China. The two don’t often mesh, but for three days, they co-existed pretty well. Though Carsick Cars’ screams of guitar noise might’ve been a little out of place among cell-phone ads, it was who was hearing their music that mattered most. I’m willing to bet they made a few hundred converts.

For those of you looking to know if the kids are still alright, in China, they’re still going. This is the real deal. It is art, music and a protest. Zhou Yunpeng is not a voice for everyone, but for those who hear him, I think it’s a comfort beyond words. As for Carsick Cars, after an hour and a half dancing, you still won’t know what hit you. These are things that cannot be co-opted.

I hope I’ve made a few people want to hear this music. If you do:
Carsick Cars myspace is here: , I highly recommend ‘Zhongnanhai’
Zhou Yunpeng’s song is uploaded here:
(sorry, I don’t know song name, album, track, etc, it’s from a mix. But still awesome)

Thursday, October 2, 2008



This past weekend we went to Fragrant Hills in Beijing's Northwest to go hiking and pick up trash, trying to help at least a part of the environment in China. The trip was organized by CET, our study abroad program. It was an early trip, so everyone was a little yawn-y after sleeping on the half-hour bus ride. When we woke up we were surrounded by mountains.

Our leader, a cool girl named Lauren who’s the American head of the Beijing CET office, passed out garbage bags and bamboo tongs and we all suited up. We met our guide, an intrepid looking member of the mountain’s hiking club who brandished his hiking pole while Beijing-accented Chinese spilled out of his mouth. Then we started up the mountain.

The hike was listed as medium to high difficulty. It was real hiking, rock climbing and all. It’s really incredible how you can be in the middle of one of the biggest cities on the Earth and in half an hour be in the mountains. There’s no hint of the city out there until your head pokes through the trees and you see the blankets of gray over tiny buildings. I’ve loved every trip we’ve taken out of the city and this was no exception. You can feel the air quality change, and you are utterly surrounded by wild forest.

Our guide stops every so often to tell us about a particular tree, a plant, a little piece of the place. He’s really proud of the mountain and it’s not hard to see why. For all of Beijing’s development, places like this still exist because people care deeply about them.

Beijing’s interaction with nature is an interesting one, I think. On the one hand there are the people like our guide and our fellow climbers. Among the people that passed us on their way to the top were spry seniors clambering over the rocks like children and a shaved-headed middle aged man climbing in shoes and track shorts and little else. Needless to say, they’re all in pretty good shape. There are also meandering couples listening, for some strange reason, to traditional music blasting out of their cell phones as they walk. It’s an odd mix of wanting to throw yourself into ‘nature’ and yet to stay out of it. I think the biggest motivation of all though is just to enjoy yourself. It’s nice being out here. It’s good exercise and it’s a beautiful place.

Our caravan of students, about 10 in all, stops whenever we see garbage on the ground. There’s actually not too much, outside of the omnipresent cigarette butts at resting spots. Our guide explains that he doesn’t often have Chinese people participating in these programs, most of the time the trash-collecting groups are foreign tourist volunteers.

When we get to the top of the mountain, we find a small ramshackle house surrounded by pecking hens and vegetable patches. The front room is a restaurant with an old couple beckoning from inside the doorway. Behind it looms a monstrous wood and cement lodge, not yet finished. Off to the side is a futuristic looking signal tower, all steel and yellow paint. The workers tell us it communicates with weather satellites.

And here we are standing on the ground. As we start to climb back down the mountainside, we cross through a few flat plains of grass and trees that look like plateaus surrounded by the valleys of the mountains.

We walk down roads that were built for cars and trucks, I assume, to make their way up to the top. The gutters are littered with cigarette butts and drooping plants. There are strange bugs and a praying mantis. The tanned cement stretches out and disappears into the trees.

We spend a good 3 hours getting back down, constantly going down thinner paths into denser woods. Still, piles of discarded food cartons crop up every so often. As we make our way down the thinnest trail, we dodge underbrush crowding our legs and spiderwebs around our heads. Our now full trash bags tied to our backpacks, our shoes skid on rocks that skitter down in front of us.

When we finally reach the ground, we land in the Beijing Botanical Gardens. There, a more genteel version of nature awaits those who may not want to confront it on such a personal basis.