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 ZhongguoHao 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.
Sign up for the Tea Horse Newsletter at the bottom of the page to receive product updates and the "Best of the Blog" in your inbox.
The relationship between traditional folk music and modern hybrids like folk-rock and world music is a subtle one. Just a few weeks ago I conducted an interview with Liu Xiaojin 刘晓津 of the Yuansheng Foundation. In the interview Liu made the case that modern hybrids tend to dilute traditional culture, hastening its demise. On the other hand, cultural history is inherently a process of borrowing, adaptation, and evolution. Denying traditional culture the right to adapt and change is like caging a wild animal that ought to roam free. How do we resolve this paradox of saving valuable traditions while also encouraging them to thrive in a connected world?
Jiebulu (L), a recognized bearer of intangible cultural heritage for the Jinuo people, working with members of folk-rock band Shanren to develop new forms of Jinuo music. Members of Shanren, L to R: Sam Debell, Xiaobudian 小不点, and Ala 阿拉.
At Tea Horse, our approach to this paradox is to clarify the relationships between cultural roots and their hybrid manifestations, while respecting and encouraging the artists that work on all points on the spectrum of tradition. Clearly many of the oldest surviving traditions in Yunnan are in danger of disappearing, so the work of groups like Yuansheng is essential if we are to preserve an understanding of where we are coming from. At the same time, highlighting the work of modern adapters of those traditions can vitalize dying traditions and help introduce them to new audiences. The key, as I see it, is laying bare the network of influences that come together in an artist’s work. This enables listeners to dig deeper into the tradition, should they so desire, and gives credit and dignity to the bearers of the source tradition.
One folk-rock group in China that is doing a particularly good job of exposing their own cultural borrowings is Shanren 山人乐队. I mentioned these standard-bearers of Yunnanese folk-rock in a recent blog post covering their success on a reality TV music show. Earlier this year the band invited me on a trip to Jinuo Mountain 基诺山 in southern Yunnan, to accomplish just this sort of exposé of their musical influences. You see, the band has been playing a song that originates from the Jinuo people, but because of some miscommunication, the band had been introducing the song on stage as a folk song of the Achang ethnic group. Once they realized their error, the band decided reparations were in order.
After an initial scouting mission to find suitable teachers of traditional music, the band was returning to Jinuo Mountain to study the music intensively, and write a new composition based on Jinuo sources. The entire process would be documented by a film crew, and then cut into a mini-documentary about the creation of the new song. Hopefully, the film would not only debut a new song for the band, but also clarify the relationship between the band’s song and the source material, drawing attention to the depth of the original Jinuo music. Shanren hoped that this positive coverage of Jinuo culture would compensate the Jinuo people for the band’s earlier misattribution.
The completed mini-documentary on Shanren's expedition to Jinuo Mountain. For viewing inside China, try this link. Read to the end for an explanation of why my scraggly mug is the first shot in the video.
The earlier scouting mission successfully located Jiebulu 杰布鲁, a provincially recognized bearer of intangible cultural heritage, and his teacher, Zi Qie 资切, a master of traditional music who heads a cultural center that plays a major role in transmitting Jinuo culture. The scouting mission also helped focus the band’s interest on a particular Jinuo instrument, the qike – bamboo tubes cut to various lengths that are struck with dowels. Traditionally, a Jinuo hunting party would play the qike and sing on the way back to the village to announce a successful hunt. Different songs were sung depending on the nature of their catch. One of the distinctive characteristics of the music is that each member of the hunting party holds only own or two qike, meaning an individual can only create one or two notes. The result is that melodies have to be created collaboratively by the entire ensemble, much in the manner of hocketing, or in the interlocking melodies of the deconstructed gamelans found in Indonesia.
Jibulu's teacher, Zi Qie, explaining the use of an ingenious Jinuo whistle.
I was excited to join the trip, not only for the chance to learn about Jinuo music, but also to see how the cultural dynamics would play out. As folk-rock celebrities in China, Shanren would undoubtedly be given the royal treatment visiting a small town. But would they get the cooperation they needed to make the project a success? Local government offices will always be involved in any cultural undertaking of this nature in China, and they are often unwilling to take risks that might lead to bad publicity. And what about the Jinuo tradition bearers? Would they have any concerns about how their culture would be represented to the world?
In the first days of the trip, these issues were discussed at length with representatives of the local Intangible Cultural Heritage Office and Zi Qie and Jiebulu, our Jinuo music masters. Consensus was quickly reached. From an artistic point of view, the main concern was that the final product be distinctively Jinuo. Thus, it was agreed that the creation of the song would be a collaborative process between Shanren and the Jinuo musicians, but Zi Qie and Jiebulu had the final say to ensure the song used in the film was an accurate representation of their culture. If the band needed another version of the song that was more suitable for their performances, they could arrange this version at a later time.
Members of Shanren, Xiao Ou 小欧 and Xiaobudian trying out traditional Jinuo attire.
What interested me most about these discussions was the degree of cultural savvy displayed by Zi Qie and Jiebulu. They clearly understood both the necessity for broader recognition of their culture, and also the danger of creating misperceptions. Jiebulu clearly expresses these sentiments in the film, but I will also add that he repeatedly emphasized the need to make Jinuo music more accessible to young people, otherwise the tradition might be lost. He valued the insight provided by Shanren regarding what would be appealing to young music fans, but was cautious about watering down the tradition to the point that it lost its distinctive qualities. Both Jiebulu and Zi Qie felt that the final product should use the intro-body-bridge-climax-outro format of popular music, since without these aural cues, young listeners tend to find traditional music redundant. The lead singer of Shanren, Qu Zihan 瞿子寒 summarizes the outcomes of these discussions quite well in the film, so I won’t belabor the point, except to say I was impressed by the high degree of sensitivity and self-awareness displayed by Zi Qie and Jiebulu with regard to their traditional music.
The real “meat” of the trip was the process of studying and selecting traditional qike songs, and coming up with a suitable arrangement. I thoroughly enjoyed being a witness to this highly creative endeavour, and I have to say the whole thing went fairly smoothly considering how many creative voices were involved. The hitches were primarily logistical. Many of the traditional musicians participating in the project also worked at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Office so they needed time off for rehearsing and recording. While the office was clearly in favor of making the project happen, they still had to justify to their superiors the large investment of time and personnel, and it wasn't always easy to get everyone in the same place at the same time.
Xiao Ou and Ala in rehearsal with Jiebulu.
Our talented camera crew found the location for the final video shoot in a remote village about one hour’s drive up into the jungles. The hope was to shoot in a traditional Jinuo village, but there just aren’t many left, so everyone settled for a village of another ethnic group whose architecture resembles traditional Jinuo architecture. I regret to say I don’t remember the name of the ethnic group. They were an essentially undocumented people whose members occupy only a handful of mountain villages in the area. As surprising as this sounds, it is not uncommon to find “stranded” ethnicities in southern Yunnan who were either too small to be officially recognized as an ethnic group, or were folded into a related ethnic group when government anthropologists were surveying and classifying ethnicities within China in the 50’s and 60’s.
Lead singer of Shanren, Qu Zihan 瞿子寒, goes over the Jinuo language lyrics with Zi Qie just before the shoot.
Shooting the performance of Qike Ami, Shanren's new not-quite-Jinuo song, in front of a traditional not-quite-Jinuo house.
I’ve already written far too much about an experience that is already well documented in the video above. My only wish is to add some nuance and highlight some themes that repeatedly crop up in the work we are doing at Tea Horse. To wrap up I will just point out that I was simply a guest on this trip, coming along to enjoy the experience and hopefully get a good blog post out of it. At best I hoped some of the footage I took on my new camera would make it into the film (which it did), but I was completely bowled over when I watched the final cut and saw that my face is the first thing to appear on screen! Everyone on the trip did a short interview on camera, and somehow my interview segment was deemed to be a suitable introduction to the project. Truly, it is my honor to speak on behalf this project, both in the film and here in the blog, and help Shanren bring attention to the unique qike music of the Jinuo people. It was an immensely satisfying trip to take part in due to the fun-loving nature of the Shanren crew, and the incredible generosity and patience of our Jinuo hosts.
Sign up for the Tea Horse Newsletter at the bottom of the page to receive product updates and the "Best of the Blog" in your inbox.
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.
Sign up for the Tea Horse Newsletter at the bottom of the page to receive product updates and the "Best of the Blog" in your inbox.