Jul 28, 2013

Listen up Kunming

Where the rock’s at (and the yaogun and the jazz and the trad …)

Punk rockers at Camel BarCamel Bar has fun artThe crowd at Camel BarOur Camel Bartender readies the absinthe
Kunming punk band 零一路 plays Camel Bar, and the hometown crowd takes it in.
The group show at TGC NordicaTGC Nordica
When we looked a little lost after we got out of the cab, a neighborhood man knew right away we were there to see the gallery. He directed us toward the alleyway that is the home of TGC Nordica, an art and theater space/cafe. The group show on view was super cool!
Guitar jam at Wenlin MementoZoltan's Trio at Alei Lounge
l: Guitar jam at Wenlin Memento; r: Zoltan’s Jazz Trio at Alei Lounge
South Cats' keyboardist at Camel Bar
The keyboardist from South Cats, also on the bill with 零一路.
The lead singer of 零一路 at Camel BarCamel Bar's bathroom
The bathroom at Camel Bar had one of the greatest interior decorating schemes we’ve seen in China.

We were ecstatic to find that among the wide range of experiences that Kunming offers is a lively art and music scene. There’s a small but growing network of art galleries, and you can find live music somewhere, every night of the week. People make stuff here! Creative stuff!

Perusing the events calendar on GoKunming ahead of time, this is one area where we allowed ourselves heightened expectations. Our plan was to take it easy on the daytime tourist stuff, and follow an aggressive schedule of nightly rocking. Two shows a night, some nights. Venues were various, from western restaurants to dedicated rock clubs to the aforementioned art galleries, and the styles of music was similarly diverse. We were excited.

And we weren’t let down. We found music even when we weren’t looking for it. Small combos in bars played covers everywhere you turned. And in Green Lake Park, large groups gathered under every tree to play traditional tunes. Our every move was soundtracked.

As far as intentional music, there were a few standouts:

Zoltan’s Jazz Trio played abstracted standards at Alei Lounge Club and Tapas Bar, with a bass line through out that could have walked us all the way back to Luzhou. The band was two-thirds Chinese (Zoltan himself is Swedish, I believe), and the audience skewed young, fashionable and local. This is a precedent that we would happily see repeated all week. You see, even with hopes so high, there was a fear that the whole scene would be a grafted-on, expat-only social affair. Something unsustainable and exclusionary. It was great to find that this wasn’t the case.

At Wenlin Memento, a sophisticated little club with an NPR vibe and a family crowd, we caught an acoustic jam with guitarist 鄢文杰. He and his friends were wicked talented, their fingers dancing all over the fret board with speed and mellow agility. Our only complaint was that the club was so smoky that we had to leave before the performance was over.

Our favorite show, however, had to be 零一路, a Kunming punk band, at the Camel Bar. They were opening for another local band called South Cats (whom, to gauge audience reaction, was the real reason everyone was there), but to us, their scrappy little punk show was it. Incorporating influences like Nirvana with a yaogun sensibility, they totally rocked. There was a nice give and take between the bassist and the guitarist as dueling frontmen, with the guitarist prowling the stage like a wild animal kept in check by the bassist’s stern rhythm. They did a punk version of “The Powerpuff Girls” theme song, and at times they were one dissonant chord away from thrash metal.

The band played to a loving and supportive hometown crowd. (And keeping with what I’ve experienced so far in China, the genders were an even 50/50 split. Go girls! And go boys, for making the girls feel safe and welcome!) The club was spacious and large, with two well-stocked bars — we even had absinthe shots, all proper with the sugar cube and the spoon and all. It may have been here that we decided for certain that Kunming is our next home. Not because of the absinthe, though. The music! It’s all about the music.

Every aspect of our trip outstripped our expectations, but none more than the opportunity to see live shows. And I didn’t even mention that all of this was free! No cover charges anywhere. Only good vibes and excellent music. The only thing we could say is: Yes.