Red Rock - The Long Strange March of Chinese Rock and Roll
CRIENGLISH.com Web Editor: Mao
When people think of Chinese music, they probably imagine its revered Beijing opera or Chinese traditional instruments. Typically, most people in the West aren't even fully aware that China has its own rock and roll music.
Language barriers and lack of exposure keep many of China's contemporary rock bands out of the world's music arenas. But those like Canadian Jonathan Campbell who have watched China's rock scene grow are trying to bring China's "red rock" to the rest of the world...
Red Rock, by Canadian Jonathan Campbell, traces the history of China's rock and roll scene. [Photo: courtesy of Jon Campbell]
Andrea Hunt has more:
Jonathan Campbell lived in Beijing for almost ten years watching and experiencing the transformation of the capital's local rock scene. He decided that 'Yao gun,' or Chinese rock and roll, had a fascinating story that he could share with the Western World.
His book, Red Rock, which traces the development of Chinese rock and roll, was just recently released internationally to curious readers abroad.
"I wanted to write about it because I'd been involved in the local music scene since almost upon arrival. And I thought it was a really interesting story that hadn't been told fully, as far as I could tell, in the English language up until then. So, I started thinking that the ten years I was in Beijing was the end all of Chinese rock and roll's history, and what I found is I was really interested in how yaogun came to be, how it came to look like it did, and so I spent a lot of time talking to early first generation rock and rollers and people who were around and watching."
Jon Campbell is a Canadian who lived in China for 10 years. During that time, he studied, was a drummer and worked bringing bands to China as well as taking Chinese bands abroad. He is now living in Toronto with his Chinese wife. [Photo: courtesy of Henry Campbell]
Western countries developed their rock and roll music over decades of transformation with names like Elvis, Little Richard, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and so on. But none of that happened here in China. Instead, China's rock materialized only during the last thirty or so years since the mid 1980s.
"Because Chinese rock had such a short history, they had to squeeze a lot of development into a very little amount of time. So, I think it's a very special breed of rock and roll music- there's a lot of it that's identical to rock and roll in everywhere else on the planet, but there's a lot of it that's very particular to China because of the path it and its practitioners took. So, I think it's a different context. So, it's a very different product, that's what makes it interesting."
The main difference is that because China was completely cut off from the West, the influx of music to inspire Beijing's musicians was limited. Bands and artists such as Cui Jian, known as the father of Chinese rock, were only able to get their hands on new music through making copies of other people's cassette tapes.
"They were grabbing whatever western music they could that was outside of the norm and not what music you would think of that would create rock and roll, like the Carpenters and John Denver, Lionel Ritchie and Wham who came in 1985 to Guangzhou, who made a huge impact on these musicians who were starting to get interested in things outside the mainstream."
Other pivotal points include a Filipino surfer band concert in 1982, later, British boy band, Wham. Then, China's own Cui Jian sang 'Nothing to my name' to awed crowds at Beijing's Workers stadium and released his first rock album in the coming years. Other key players included Tang Dynasty, Black Panther, and all girl rock band Cobra. The ground was laid for the 1990s.
But after years of swapping and taping cassettes, one technological innovation changed everything. The internet gave downloading and peer to peer sharing savvy Chinese access to a whole new world of music.
"It's the same everywhere else right? Everyone with a computer now is a potential rock star. In the past ten years, if something was big in the West, let's say-rap metal-at the tail end of the 80s and 90s. Obviously, with digital technology and these days with access through Google music and baidu, with all these things, it's going to have a huge effect. Whereas we were talking at the beginning where the inputs were so limited on the first generation, now you've got inputs being so unlimited that it's night and day difference."
Rock is by no means the most popular genre in China, but it does have a following. Chinese rock music is now available all over the internet, but it's still not readily intercepted by international listeners.
Most people in the West wouldn't really find these bands themselves. Campbell's mission has been to take bands abroad, like the Subs, Beijing's famed punk rock stars. He found that foreigners had a profound curiosity for Chinese bands, simply because of their origin. With the SUBS, the audience was quickly won over.
"What I'd like to see with this book is the world paying attention beyond just mere curiosity. I think the people who inspired me to write this book, their music made me want to share it with the world. I hope this book gets far enough out there that people can say, 'Oh, it's not just a weird thing that China has rock music, it's China has rock music and it sounds like it could be really cool and I'd like to listen to it."
Campbell points out that there is a disconnect between what people believe about China and what is actually going on. In the particular case of music, the idea of Chinese rock is so inconceivable to many because people don't understand the historical context that created it.
It still may be awhile before everyone abroad is listening to Chinese rock. But if you consider how far Chinese rock has come in only about thirty years, there is really no telling how far it can go.
Traditional Guqin The guqin, a seven-stringed plucked zither, is China's oldest stringed instrument.
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