Reality Singing Shows Boon for Chinese Folk Rock Acts Posted on 25 Aug 00:55

Lately there’s been a lot of doom and gloom in coverage of the Chinese underground music scene. Read this LA Times piece and you’d be justified to think the Beijing punks are on the verge of getting packed off to re-education through labor camps. Others are skeptical of the political-crackdown hype. Blogger, venue owner, and musical impresario Badr Benjelloun instead characterizes Beijing's malaise as an overdue hangover after a binge of easy money, easy gigs, and relatively cheap rents. Ask about China’s other major cities and the answers vary from mildly optimistic to downright grim. It is not uncommon to hear insiders complain it’s harder to organize festivals, harder to bring in international acts, and harder to run venues.

However, one bright spot can be found in the surprisingly well-received appearances by underground bands on reality TV shows like The Voice of China (中国好声音), Sing My Song (中国好歌曲), and The Star of China (中国之星).

 Sing My Song in particular has been a boon for underground folk-rock. Hanggai (航盖) and Shanren (山人乐队) won two of the show’s three seasons, representing the folk traditions of Inner Mongolia and Yunnan Province. Other underground folk artists, like Moxi Zishi (莫西子诗) and Xi Ban (戏班), have received significant boosts in popularity when mainstream artists covered their compositions on these shows.

Why folk rock bands with strong ethnic minority roots seem to dominate Sing My Song remains an open question. It could be that producers and/or judges are eager to score political points for promoting bands that are distinctively Chinese. Alternatively, the format of the show, which showcases original music, might inherently favor acts with traditional roots, because rock, rap, and pop music are still considered Western derivatives, and thus less original.

 Hanggai have been a significant force on the international world music circuit for years, but their Mongolian inflected rock had a tough time catching on with mainstream audiences at home. Winning the second season of Sing My Song in 2014 changed all of that. Here they are performing their self-titled song in the first round of competition.


 In the first round of the 2016 season, Shanren played a relatively unadorned version of 30 Years 三十年, a composition that now stands as a modern Yunnan folk classic. For the 48-hour songwriting challenge in the final round, they created Up and Down the Mountain 上山下, which was performed with the assistance of a celebrity guest, distorted guitar riffs courtesy of the house band, and generous amounts of hair spray. 


By the time of the songwriting challenge, the bands have already been brought into the stable of one of the judges. Members of Shanren told me that there was a lot of back and forth between the band and their mentor. Diehard fans will notice that part of their self-titled rock epic “Shanren” gets recycled as a bridge, an addition made at their mentor's suggestion. Overall the band felt that their creative freedom was respected to a surprising degree given this is a CCTV show. 

Haggai and Shanren have undoubtedly gained a lot of momentum since their big wins on Sing My Song, but you don’t have to win the crown in order to win legions of new fans, as Moxi Zishi demonstrated on the first season of Sing My Song in 2014. An underground singer/songwriter from the Yi ethnic group, Moxi already understood the power of television because a cover of his Yi-language song Fear Not 不要怕/阿姐撸 propeled pop singer Jike Junyi (seen performing with Shanren above) to the top of the heap in the first season of The Voice of China in 2012. When Moxi personally appeared as a competitor in the 2014 season of Sing My Song, his hopelessly romantic If I Must Die, Let It Be In Your Hands 要死就一定死在你手里 won the hearts of just about every woman in China, if not those of the judges. This enviable feat garnered him a career as a pop songwriter and singer of saccharin duets, but the folk underground has been far more interested in the meanderings of his improvisational folk-jazz outfit, the Moxi Zishi Band. The large and eclectic band was recently trimmed down to 5 members, and the sound was tightened up, yielding an alt-rock act that appears ready to take stadiums across China by storm. For now, since we’re focusing on the roots music of China’s ethnic minorities, let’s enjoy Moxi at his folky best singing Fear Not. While this song is arguably becoming a pop standard in China, the Yi-language lyrics and Moxi’s distinctive vocal inflections reveal its traditional roots.


Another underground band that was covered on a mainstream singing show was Xi Ban (戏班). While not a folk band per se, this experimental percussion ensemble borrows elements from traditional Chinese opera and narrative folk songs. The vast range and inherent strangeness of their repertoire made it all the more unlikely that would ever receive mainstream attention, until up-and-coming pop singer Tan Weiwei (谭维维) covered them on the 2016 season of Star of China (中国之星). In the video below we see that the judges and audience once again seem to respond to music that harkens back to Chinese roots.


So far Xi Ban has yet to enjoy the surge of interest enjoyed by the other artists above. This may be because they had a less of a fan base to begin with, or it might be that merely having a song covered doesn't bring any lasting momentum. Or perhaps it is their mercurial nature. The band have veered between genres as diverse as experimental dub, traditional folk and jazz-funk, while continuously reshuffling personnel. Fans have every right to wonder exactly which Xi Ban they should be supporting.

While underground bands are always sceptical of working with mainstream media, it is clear that Sing My Song presents a unique opportunity for Chinese acts with traditional roots. Underground folk-rock artists now routinely debate the merits of appearing on the show. Are they selling out? Is it a valid option for increased exposure? How long can the party last? At a time when most of the Chinese underground is complaining about dismal prospects, the folk-rock contingent seem to have discovered Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket, with all of the mystery, fortune, and temptation that entails.

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