Interview with Sam Debell, Percussionist for Shanren (Part 1) Posted on 8 Dec 03:28

Tea Horse recently sat down with Sam Debell, percussionist for ethnic folk-rock outfit Shanren 山人乐队, to talk about the politics of performing ethnic music in China and abroad, the band winning reality television show Zhongguo Hao Gequ 中国好歌曲, and the evolution of the Yunnan music scene. You can see footage of Shanren’s performance on the TV show in an earlier Tea Horse blog post. We've also blogged about Shanren's musical expedition to Jinuo Mountain.

Tea Horse: Most people know you as the British guy in Shanren, an ethnically Yunnanese band. But sometimes you appear with the band and sometimes you don't. So what’s your exact role in the band?

Sam Debell: The first time I played with Shanren was in 2002. I was playing in loads of bands in Kunming at that time. So I've always had a relationship with them where I can go do my own thing.

TH: Was that a rule that you set from the beginning or did everybody just understand?

SD: Everyone kind of understood. My role has evolved so I am a non-essential member, and they can gig without me. I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where me not being able to make it to the gig means that they can't play. There's always a rumor going around that "they've fired you for being white," but that's just not true. The band always wants me there, but there is an authenticity issue with the kind of music we play. That normally applies for overseas. Organizers don't want me to appear. They intentionally take photos of the band with me outside the frame.

TH: That's got to feel good.

SD: I've seen the other side of that for ages in China. In China, the organizers say, "Oh we want a white guy!" But actually it's exactly the same in the West. It's still image based. There's the narrative of Shanren being these Chinese guys playing their traditional music, and sometimes the narrative would be thrown off by having me on stage.

TH: Was it your choice not to appear on Zhongguo Hao Gequ, or the producer's choice?

SD: The producer wanted me to be there. I had an excuse because I had to go back to England for Christmas and that's when they filmed the first episode. Once I'd missed the first episode they couldn’t add me in afterwards. I didn’t want it to become about the laowai (foreigner) wearing Yi ethnic clothing playing a melody on a leaf (An ordinary leaf is a common instrument in traditional Yunnanese music. A note is produced by blowing across the edge of the leaf, making it vibrate – Tea Horse). It would immediately take the attention away from the music itself and put it onto this thing the Chinese love so much, namely “foreigners accepting Chinese culture.” You see all these CCTV programs like that (CCTV is the Chinese state broadcasting network. –TH) So this one was kind of a self-censor.

TH: You mentioned that this happens a lot overseas. Was this the first time it happened in China?

SD: Yeah, I'd say so... If it were an article in a magazine where you could explain the situation clearly, it would be different. But with TV you don't have that luxury.

TH: Lately we’ve seen a string of bands with strong ethnic roots doing well on these singing shows. What’s going on?

SD: It's hard to say what CCTV’s policies are. Shanren were quite clear that it was – to their surprise – a pretty open competition. Most of the time [the show has] already decided who wins according to their policy of what kind of music they like. But Zhongguo Hao Gequ wasn't like that, and they’ve had two winners that are in the ethnic rock category (Hanggai 航盖 (Mongolian), and Shanren (Yunnanese)). It seems to me that a band exhibiting Chinese characteristics is more likely to be successful than a band that's imitating Western music. There is this need to feel that China is producing original music.

TH: I think it’s a good thing. Usually in China you see traditional music presented in a very scrubbed-clean way, and dumbed down to be modern entertainment. This is one of the first times I’ve seen a music group with ethnic roots present their music in their own way. No one is telling them, “Chinese culture should look like this.”

SD: I think it's just because of the nature of that TV show that allows the ethnic music to be expressed in a way that can be received successfully. Whereas normally, like you said, it's all song and dance troupes presenting generic ethnic culture, but there is no real original thought behind it. The band has been on a lot of TV shows and they thought Zhongguo Hao Gequ was the best one in terms of tastefully dealing with music – not trying to make monkeys out of the performers – kind of respecting the fact that they are doing their own thing.

J: That's great.

S: Yea. [Shanren were] pretty positive about the show in general. Although they said it was hard work.

TH: It looks intense.

SD: Qu Zihan 瞿子寒, the lead singer, was always saying: "If we lose, whatever." But I knew that he was getting stressed. The main problem was they had to live in the studio for 3-4 weeks, constantly coming up with new music, and all of the back and forth with the producers. "Oh, we want you to play this song." "Oh, no we don't. The lyrics aren't straight-forward." "Oh yes we do, we want you to do it, but we want you to mix it with this song, and we want you to cut it from 7 minutes to 3 minutes." Things like that. At one point the band were like: "We just want to quit." But they managed to get over it and win.

TH: How did the band select their material for the show?

SD: It was a tough question. Do you play your best song first, or do you save it for later? Because you might get voted out without having the chance to play it through. There was a dialogue with the TV people about all of this, and about how the band should present themselves and what their narrative is. This helped reinforce the narrative of them being these Chinese guys that are doing their traditional music and persisting through the years. And it's good for them to have that experience because I've been going on about them needing to promote themselves like that for a long time. And they're like "yea whatever, let's just go and play."

TH: I think this also shows us that Chinese media is really getting a bit more sophisticated, too.

SD: Yea. We haven't really heard about that happening before. It definitely hasn't happened before on other TV shows that we've been on. Normally they just want you to sing to a backing track, and they think it is a huge hassle when you insist on playing live. Now they're realizing that they have to actually let the band play live and do good sound. And audiences want to see that. So that's a good thing. It's pretty positive.

TH: I want to get back to your story. You said you were playing in Kunming in 2002. When did you come to China?

SD: I came to China in '96, and stayed for a year. During that time I traveled to Yunnan and I really liked it, so a year later I relocated here. And that's when I got into the underground rock scene in Yunnan. There were only 7 or 8 bands. It was a real underground, a sort of golden age for underground rock music. No one had a concept of “making it.” Rock music was banned from all mainstream media back then so it was very pure. Everyone just played music because they liked it. And this whole Yunnan musical identity, a lot of it came out of that period. It was rock bands with rock instruments playing Yunnan melodies.

TH: People talk about the fact that Beijing had this punk scene back then, but we don’t often hear about what was going on in Kunming.

SD: The Beijing punk scene got the media attention because it was so flamboyant and colorful and totally went against people’s image of what China was. There was a media agenda, whereas I just thought the music [in Kunming] was cool. We were exposed to the Beijing scene by then. They actually came to Yunnan and kind of crushed the local scene.

TH: The Beijing punks?

SD: Yea. They had a big tour here, and a lot of the [Kunming] rock bands started playing punk music after that. Before that a lot of the bands were doing their own thing in a local Yunnan style – their own weird ethnic rock music. But that got steamrolled by the punk stuff, and that’s persisted to today.

TH: But there was a lot more to the Beijing scene than that. I’m thinking of bands like Wild Children 野孩子 and guys like Song Yuzhe 宋雨哲.

S: The River Bar scene… that was a pretty cool era, and also quite influential for us. We were all fans of Wild Children. Before I was playing with Shanren I played with a band called The People's Rhythm. We also had the concept of taking Yunnan music and putting it with a slightly different rhythm section, and some world music influences. It was a learning period. And actually Qu Zihan was our guitar player. I remember practicing with them and we were listening to Wild Children. That was probably like 2002. We had no idea Zhang Quan 张佺 (singer/instrumentalist with Wild Children – TH) lived in the housing complex opposite us in Kunming. We met him on the street, and we were like "what?!" So we started hanging out with Zhang Quan. He was in Kunming for that period.

TH: I didn't realize he had come down quite that early.

S: Yeah, he’d moved to Yunnan already at that point. And then Xiao Peng 陈志鹏, the drummer, also came down. That was the beginning of this trend of musicians "retiring to Yunnan." We had the Yunnan Mountain Festival in 2002 in Lijiang. That was the first real festival in China. I don't care what people say about MIDI. MIDI was like a little school event. This was like a massive outdoor rock festival. A lot of people came down for that, and they had the Dali/Lijiang experience. A lot of people stayed and didn't go back.

TH: Who were the headliners for that?

SD: Cui Jian 崔健, obviously. Second-hand Rose 二手玫瑰 played, and a lot of bands that are still around today. Shanren played, Wild Children played, Ruins 废墟, Miserable Faith 痛仰, and Brain Failure 脑浊.

TH: Where were you coming from musically when you landed in Yunnan? Did you have a strong interest in ethno-musicology or non-western music at that point?

SD: Yeah. I think basically with percussion you have to. When I first started playing percussion, it was all about making up my own stuff. But after doing that for a while I realized that you have to limit yourself to be able to express yourself more. It's a complex idea, but if you're just making stuff up, if you actually listen to what you've done, you end up playing the same thing all the time. It's like drum circles as opposed to real percussion crews. Drum circles are a cool thing to do but it always ends up more or less the same. Whereas once you've had to really focus and learn Cuban music for example... I went to Cuba in 2000 and stayed there for about 4 months. Cubans are very precise about the way that you have to play. "No you're doing it wrong!" they'll tell you, repeatedly! Coming through that experience gave me a respect for doing traditional music as close as you can to how it should be. And I suppose I came to Yunnan and encountered ethnic music a bit and I had this interest in learning but I never really saw enough of it. It's kind of funny because I was interested in it but I never really found the right stuff. It just goes to show how deeply buried it is if you don't know what you're looking for. You can't just turn up in a village and expect to find stuff. You need to be introduced. So I was travelling around not knowing really where to start. In the cities you can't see it. It was really only really years later that I started to appreciate the depth of it while traveling with Shanren, with the right introductions in the places we wanted to go to. But going back to your original question: I did have the interest back then. I just didn't have the means to find what I was looking for.

Stay tuned for the second installment of this interview, where we will be talking about Sam’s experiences with field recording, Shanren’s musical evolution, and what makes Yunnan so musically interesting.

Shout out to Dylan Cairns for transcribing this interview.

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