Jul 22, 2012

Replace Your Passport: Rock out!

The premier rock club in Chengdu

☆ Side Quest: (New) Little Bar

Objective: Go see a rock show

We found the rock and the roll

Here in China, pop is king. Our students are constantly asking about Justin Bieber, Whitney Houston, Adele, et al. The hardest western band they’re into is Linkin Park. And the popular home grown acts are similar: all moon-eyed crooning with nary a crunchy guitar in earshot. For the last week of school, we played some rock videos for the kids and they were perplexed at best. (They were completely horrified by Sonic Youth.)

But that doesn’t mean there is no rock in China. It’s just something you have to do a little digging for. One of the mainstays of the Sichuan scene, we heard, is the New Little Bar in Chengdu. (New Little Bar is the younger brother of Old Little Bar. Both were founded by a hip collective of musicians and artists.)

As the great Sir Elton once said, Saturday night’s alright for fighting, so the Saturday night show was the one for us. One thing that’s different between Chinese and American concerts is that in China, if the show is listed from 8-10 pm, it starts promptly at 8 and the last band finishes at ten. (This includes set-up and break-down of 4 different acts!) In America, if doors are at 8, the headliner won’t even start their set until 11 p.m. or 12 at the earliest.

The little bar inside the Little Bar
The little bar inside the Little Bar.
Each member of Dongjiayan Band radiated personality.
Let’s conga!

We were still on New York concert time, so we arrived at nine — and missed the first two acts. Aside from the punctuality issue, however, walking into New Little Bar felt just like walking into Arlene’s or Rock Shop. It was dark and close, with a long bar down the side of the room and a small stage up front. The kids looked awfully hip, as well: one young man was wearing an aggressively loud button down shirt, and another had a Ramones-style haircut and thick-rimmed glasses. The scene was straight out of Brooklyn, making me realize how much I had missed going to shows.

Black River
The lead singer of Black River

The first band we caught was called Black River. Adorably, they all wore matching T-shirts, and they were decent with their instruments. But really, I was so euphoric to be back in a rock club that I just loved them.

About ten minutes after Black River left the stage, 董家堰乐队 (Dongjiayan Band) was ready to go. And they rocked from the first chord. Their style was loose and relaxed, and each band member radiated individual presence and personality. Their front man was especially charismatic — throughout the show, kids from the crowd kept coming up to wreath him with garlands. He sang at the top of his range, giving off waves of passionate, intense energy. The audience responded to that energy, pogoing and skanking all over the floor. At one point, most of the dancers joined in one large conga line and snaked around the room. When we got jostled by the dancers, that clinched it: We were at a rock show.

As their set progressed, however, my sense of “this is familiar and so comforting” was replaced by the thought that “this is really different and exciting!” I could recognize a ton of western influences: a ska beat with shades of reggae, metal, grunge, folk, British new wave … But 董家堰乐队’s music wasn’t just a mish-mash/rehash of those genres. It was something fresh and new.

We have since learned the term “摇滚” or “yaogun,” from “Red Rock,” by Jonathan Campbell. Yaogun literally translates as “rock and roll,” but as practiced, it’s a new Chinese genre that takes western music as a starting point, rather than just a Chinese version of a western sound. And I think that’s what we were hearing from 董家堰乐队, and that’s why it was so exciting.

Take a listen for yourself:

Listen to excerpts of Dongjiayan Band’s performance.

It’s time to stop goofing around and finish the darn game! Back to Luzhou it is …