live music

Jan 10, 2015

Huun-Huur-Tu comes to Chongqing

And we do, too

Huun-Huur-Tu on stage at NUTS Club in Chongqing, December 2015
Peter filming 小舟 at 16th Bystreet Music Bar in Chongqing
Peter, in action, at 16th Bystreet Music Bar
A mixologist at NUTS Club
The bartender pours some kind of ’tini at Nuts Club.

I’m not going to lie, this weekend away was a little difficult. We only had a few days free, Peter had a cold, and the trouble I was having purchasing concert tickets at one point had me in tears. (A Chinese-language website, international banking and computer-related issues all conspired to let me know that I was a failure as an adult.) The dark, cold winter days only amplified our discomfort.

But we weren’t in Chongqing to be comfortable, we were there for the music. And the hot pot. But, mostly the music.

First up, 小舟. We dropped in on our favorite hole-in-the-wall venue — the 16th Bystreet Music Bar — to find him and his friends doing a loosey-goosey jam. 小舟, unbeknownst to us at the time, is actually a Beijing folk-rock artist of some renown. Sound at the Music Bar is kind of crap — the house drum kit has the timbre of a bucket of nails — but these guys were really great. With each new player to take the stage, the style meandered from traditional to funky, or sometimes both at once. The audience was small but into it, and the staff particularly was having a good time. You could tell that they love working at a live music venue.

Huun Huur Tu from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The whole reason for our trek, however, was the legendary Tuvan throat singers of Huun-Huur-Tu. Peter has loved these guys since the early ’90s and the second he saw that they’d be at Nuts Club, he said we had to be there.

Nuts is now in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. (Lots of stuff is in malls in China.) Jogging through the empty corridors, past closed-down shops — we were late, because getting anywhere from anywhere in Chongqing takes FOREVER — we followed the sound of music to find our destination. New Nuts is slightly bigger than the old club, and they now have one of the best bars in China with a meticulous staff.

When we arrived, the four men of Huun-Huur-Tu were already on stage, wearing their traditional Tuvan costumes. Between songs, Sayan Bapa — one of the group’s original members — addressed the crowd in English, explaining the meaning of each piece. “Each of our songs is a short story,” he said. About friendship, love, loss, homesickness and, of course, horses. All very human things, but some more specific to the nomadic Tuvan culture than others. Before a song about caravan migration, Bapa joked, “[it] usually takes three months, but we’ll play a shorter version.”

Some of their songs are as old as the 12th century, he told us. And the group plays mostly traditional instruments — including one wooden clopper that mimics the sound of horse hooves perfectly. But their vital spirit and the plain emotion that comes through the music keeps the experience from feeling musty. Live, the overtone singing becomes something you feel as well as hear, and it was almost as if you, too, were there on the central Asian grasslands, with the nomads. And the horses. It was a truly fantastic performance.

After the show, the guys changed into street clothes, and sat around the merch table eating takeaway noodles. We shook their hands on our way out, but being shy (and unsure of which language to address them in) we didn’t say much beyond “thank you” (and 谢谢).

Dec 2, 2014

We Nova Heart Chengdu

A weekend in which we rock in the big city

Chengdu Nov 2014 from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The Lion's Head Meatball at the chicken restaurant
Our weekend was all about the music, but we found some time for food, too.
Helen Feng rocks Little Bar
China’s Blondie rocks Little Bar.

Helen Feng is the Queen of the Beijing indie rock scene. It’s a small kingdom, admittedly, but one that looms large in our hearts. So earlier this month when Helen Feng came to Little Bar in Chengdu, we had to go.

Her voice is rich and inviting, deceptively delicate but delivered with precision and power. You can hear Debbie Harry when she sings, but Helen Feng is entirely a force unto herself. Nova Heart, her current project, is a shoegaze-electronica act that maintains the intensity and spirit of Feng’s punk past. We listened to her Soundcloud on repeat in the weeks leading up to the concert.

While in Chengdu, we hit up all of our usual spots, only to find that things have changed. Joker Bar’s still there, thank goodness, as is the Sultan. But Lazy Pug owners Danny and Dana have moved to Bankok! To open an American-style BBQ joint! The original, however, is still alive and thriving, thanks to local Stella and her Swiss husband. Devastated at the potential loss of their favorite date spot, the couple stepped up and bought the place! Stella filled us in on all the news during our visit. Apparently D&D are sick of the under-heated Sichuan winter, a feeling we understand quite well. But we’re pleased to report that the Pug is still serving up the best taco in China.

In the spirit of rock and roll, this trip we made a big effort to try some new Chengdu things. Not too far from our favorite hostel The Loft, there is a large grey building festooned with red stars, and a giant chicken on the top. It’s something we drive past several times each visit, and finally, this time, we went inside. It’s a fine-dining restaurant with a revolutionary theme, and really, really delicious traditional cuisine. One could really splash out there on hundred dollar (U.S.) fishes and deluxe cuts of meat; we went with the more modest but still fantastic Lion’s Head Meatball and perfectly seasoned stuffed buns. It was one of the best meals we’ve had in China.

Things are much more casual down by the river. Jah Bar sits unassumingly in a small strip of bars down a small alleyway. Not just the best bar in Chengdu, but the best in the world, said someone somewhere online. That’s not a review you ignore. Jah is a cozy little room dominated by a big stage in the middle. There are guitars, basses and a drum kit for anyone to play, and a loosely organized jam swelled up as the night went on. Talented locals and foreigners swapped in and out, going jazzier here, funkier there. It’s a scrappy room, and a lot of fun. The bar did just the basics and food came from the street vendors outside, who delivered BBQ to hungry patrons much to the Jah Bar cat’s delight.

Next door, we found Carol’s by the River. A little brighter and more spiffy — and nowhere near as cool, but they did have a late-night pizza. And a DJ, and some dancing fools. It was Ladies’ Night, and the girls at the table next to ours were having a great time.

But this is all preamble. Little Bar, Saturday night was the main event. Nova Heart took the stage shortly after the finish of the opening act (荷尔蒙小姐 — The Hormones, who were quite good). In person, Helen Feng was electric. She flirted and joked with the crowd, who loved her in return. Little Bar is small enough that the gig felt incredibly intimate, but Feng really has the star presence that could fill a whole stadium. Which made it all the more special that she was there with just us. Feng threw herself into her performance, jumping and dancing around then striking impish poses. And that voice gripped us all. She sings in English, but the emotion she conveys needs no translation.

Then, at ten on the dot, the concert was over. As is the custom at a Chinese rock show, everyone packed up quickly and left in an orderly fashion. A small crowd lingered outside, where Nova Heart CDs were for sale. We bought one, and raved about what we had just seen for our whole journey home.

Mar 2, 2014

The Chongqing stopover

Oh, let’s just stay

Ciqikou, teeming with tourists
An acoustic performer at 16th Bystreet Music BarHere's Sheldon!
Need some “Big Bang Theory”-inspired art? You can find it in Ciqikou.
We eat hot pot in Ciqikou.
The return to Sichuan spice at our favorite Chongqing hot pot.

Chongqing has been our transfer point often enough that we’ve developed a cozy routine: Check in at the Perfect Time Hostel, snack and mingle with the tourists in Ciqikou Ancient Town, eat hot pot at the place, and take in a drink at the 16th Bystreet Music Bar. Maybe hit up Carrefour for some imported goodies. Then, catch the bus home to Luzhou.

Once we settled in this time, however, we just wanted to stay. The weather was nice, Ciqikou was humming with activity — we saw some shops go up literally overnight. And we didn’t have anywhere to be for at least a month.

Adding on some extra days meant we had some time to go exploring around the city; we went book shopping, Sichuan-food eating, and neighborhood wandering. “It feels like we’re back in China,” we said to each other as we meandered down a small alleyway filled with hair salons, mahjong parlors and kids playing outside. Sanya is on the mainland, too, but it felt like another world.

The main event was a Saturday night surprise, to us, concert at the Music Bar. The band drew a small crowd, made up of a small group of their friends, us and some other extras, but they were amazing! Their music mixed Chinese traditions and western rock influences — Dylan, Hendrix, Costello — in the best way. It had a dark and moody vibe that held together through it all, and the frontman had a simmering intensity that captivated the small audience. It may have been a mostly friends event, but they performed like they wanted to rock the world. I just wish I remembered their name.

Nov 30, 2013

The return of Hank and Summer

Our first friends show us a new place

Hank and Summer treated us to a Mid-Autumn Festival feast.

After 2+ years in Luzhou — plus, now, gallivanting around the countryside — Peter and I feel like we know our city pretty well. I know where to buy the good beers, how to go to the doctor, and where and how to get dry cleaning done. We’ve got friendly relationships with shopkeepers and restaurant owners all over town, and I can tell cabdrivers how to take the short cut to our home.

But by no means are we experts. As we repeatedly have to learn.

We’ve recently reconnected with Hank and Summer (our very first friends in China!), and they knocked down a presumption that we were absolutely sure was correct: There is no live music in Luzhou. (Other myths we’ve invented about Luzhou-ites: They don’t buy canned food. OK, they do, but they don’t have can openers. The corn is terrible here. Maybe the stuff the street vendors sell is leftover cattle feed. They don’t eat chicken eggs, only duck eggs. They don’t have garbage bags. They adhere strictly to the one-child policy. And so on … We now know that we know nothing.)

They treated us to a National Day dinner, with their other friends Fayla, a local piano teacher, and her boyfriend Sid, a Pakistani student at the Medical College. (Not from the terrorist part, he assured us, after Hank made a joke about bombs.) But the real action happened after dinner, when they took us to their friend’s wine bar — real wine being another thing we assumed didn’t exist in Luzhou — where a live band played rock standards and backed up karaoke singers from the audience. Summer didn’t sing; she had done so previously and garnered a less than lukewarm reception. “No one would look me in the eye,” was her recollection. Apparently, this audience took their singing of other people’s songs seriously! But, undaunted, Fayla and I each took a turn, and Peter jumped on guitar to play along with China’s favorite song, “Country Roads.”

I'm singing!Hank is arm wrestling!Peter is playing guitar!The host is auctioning off a bottle of wine!

And music wasn’t the only fun. In between sets, a vibrant host took the stage, working the audience and giving away bottles of wine and beer. Then there was the arm wrestling competition. Hank was our table’s champion, showing off some surprisingly spectacular guns even as he lost.

It was a little like being one one of those crazy Chinese variety shows that dominate the airwaves here, and definitely a new experience for us. So, yeah, even a small city way out in the bumbles of western China still holds some surprises. Which is awesome, because we still have another year here.

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 …