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Nova Heart Helen flash small.jpg
Helen Feng, lead singer of Nova Heart, has been dubbed 'China's Blondie', but the comparison doesn’t go quite far enough. Sexy, provocative and confident, she’s perhaps more of a femme Jim Morrison, constantly feeling out the boundaries of appropriateness in order to nudge them that bit further. A recent stage dive left her on crutches for months, and she’s just as bold offstage as on. Intelligent and articulate, Feng brims with opinions on American imperialism, Chinese politics, and the identity of the Beijing indie rock scene.

Born in Beijing, but raised in North America, Feng has been a major shaker in Beijing music circles since moving to China in 2002. In 2004 she started the punk band Ziyo [自游], in 2007 co-founded the electro group Pet Conspiracy, and in 2009 she and her partner, Philip Grefer, founded the Chinese music collective, FakeMusicMedia. Nova Heart is Feng’s long-planned solo project, and has the full force of her energy and professional experience.

Last Saturday I lay on a grassy slope in Bondi Beach, sizzling in the sun, with Feng, her guitarist Zhong Can and bassist Bo Xuan, and various other musicians and organisers who had been involved in the Sydney gig the night before. See below for our conversation. And thanks to Shaun Hemsley of tenzenmen for his contributions.

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At The Zoo, Oakland, U.S. Image by Randy H.Y. Yau

Yan Jun is a creative polymorph. Search on his name on the Internet and you’ll come up with a list of roles – from experimental sound artist, to critic, to curator, to performance poet – and stories of his pioneering in China's underground music scene from the late 1990s to early 2000s. In 1998 he began the independent label, Sub Jam, initially to publish zines and later for music CDs; and in 2004 he established Kwanyin records for the release of more experimental works. From June 2005 to December 2010, Yan and his Sub Jam community organised a series weekly of performances called Waterland Kwanyin at the Beijing Bar, 2Kolegas, serving up rock, experimental and electronic music to an ever-morphing crowd of listeners.

Both Sub Jam and Kwanyin continue, supported by a regularly updated blog (see here for Yan Jun’s own), as do gigs, and the general greasing of communal and creative activities for which Yan Jun has become widely known. Meanwhile Yan remains one of China’s most important experimental artists, pushing the limits of sound, language and music in his own performances and recordings. Translator, Maghiel van Crevel once said Yan Jun makes things happen, and there is no doubt that Yan has this generative role. Raised in Lanzhou, but based in Beijing since the late 1990s, Yan is something of a creative catalyst, preferring the early and ambiguous stages of invention and putting a high value on the amorphous in artistic communities.

I met with Yan Jun last week in a Korean restaurant in Beijing, where we chatted over kim chi and corn patties. A generous conversation partner, Yan is modest yet brims with ideas; self-deprecating in both his philosophy and humour. Our discussion covered topics well beyond China’s experimental arts scene, and is chockers with food for thought, so I’ve posted a longer interview than usual here. Read on for Yan’s provocations on the role of art in an age of consumerism (ala Beijing’s 798 Art Zone) and that of culture in a new world shaped by the power of the Chinese economy.

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Zhang Shouwang, frontman of Beijing rock group Carsick Cars and experimental band White, is possibly the most famous musician in Beijing’s indie music crowd, famed for his support of Sonic Youth and for being the man behind Beijing rock anthem Zhong Nanhai among other tunes.

Such is the openness of Beijing’s cultural scene that, only a week after I’d started asking around for his number, I was sitting on the grimy steps outside D-22, sharing a beer with the man himself and talking over the drones of a noise outfit playing inside.

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Pangbianr 旁边儿 in Chinese means ‘next to’, or ‘to one's side’, so it’s an appropriate name for a group based on the idea of community. Existing at the fringes of Beijing’s fringe culture, Pangbianr is a collective of Chinese and non-Chinese musicians, filmmakers, artists, distributors and general cultural enablers, working to create a DIY arts scene.

Pangbianr run events and a website – they also have an organic community farm beyond Beijing’s sixth ring road! But that’s another story, and you’ll have to check their website for that.

Below is my interview with Josh Feola, Pangbianr’s chief mover and shaker.

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"The club space is long and narrow, with the bar on the right and the stage at the far end as you walk in. There is a balcony that runs from behind the stage right up to the front of the club. The walls of the club are painted a muddy red typical of old Beijing, and all along the balcony we have hung up the Matt Niederhauser posters of the best bands and musicians that have come out of the club.

On big nights when the club is full – it can take about 300-350 people – the bands are surrounded by the audience, above, below, in front and around one side. That generally gets them pretty juiced up. In the audience we typically get a lot of repeat customers – mainly lost wild kids, musicians, and people involved in the music scene. I suspect that they like to come often because we never charge them for admission or drinks and it’s the only time and place in which they are treated like stars. Maybe because of that repeat crowd we sometimes get accused of being cliquish, but I am not sure that there’s much we can do about that, and it’s easy to become part of the clique – just show up often and talk to the musicians. Everyone is pretty friendly."

Michael Pettis is the guy behind D-22, and the record label, Maybe Mars, which runs as a side-project to the club. An ex-merchant banker, equities trader and professor of finance, he also has a love of music – specifically finding new bands and being at the generative core of new scenes. Pettis has played a huge role in the flourishing of Beijing indie rock, providing the venue, the label and a profile for the music overseas. He speaks passionately about the club, the personalities involved, and what might well be a history in the making. Read on ...

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Hedgehog, Image by Matthew Niederhauser

At a small bar in Beijing, called D-22, sixty years of rock history are currently being mashed up in one thrillingly experimental moment. It’s almost like the entire canon of pop music has fallen out of the sky – punk, folk, reggae, rock, noise, rockabilly – and young Chinese musicians and their audiences are making of it what they will, taking a bit of Johnny Cash with a bit of Radiohead, Bjork and Joy Division and jamming it into something of their very own.

For the past four years, New York photographer, Matthew Niederhauser has been documenting this musical scene, posing his subjects against a red wall in the back room of the club or capturing them in action on stage. Joyside, P.K.14, AV Okubo, Carsick Cars, Hanggai and countless other Chinese bands have passed beneath his lens, mythologised by his consistent style and focus on D-22.

A selection of these photographs have recently been published in a book, Sound Kapital, which conveys the colour and dynamism of this scene. Click ‘Read More’ below to see some of these pictures, and to read Niederhauser describing what he calls the ‘creative orgy’ currently taking place in Beijing.

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20081213_white005.jpg Shou Wang and Shen Jing from White. Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

The other night I met Shaun Hemsley, founder of the Australasian indie rock music label, tenzenmen. Shaun first went to China in 2001 and, after developing an interest in Beijing’s underground music scene, began helping tour bands travelling within and outside of China. Before he knew it he was one of a tiny number of non-Chinese people who knew about independent Chinese rock, and so he began tenzenmen in an effort to get its music out to a broader audience.

Tenzenmen now works closely with the Beijing-based label, Maybe Mars, an American run company attached to the venue D-22 where most of the Beijing rock and punk bands play. P.K.14, Xiao He, Carsick Cars, White and Joyside are some of their bigger acts, and you might recognise some of these names from recent tours overseas (P.K.14 played Melbourne Festival last year).

Stay tuned for more on Maybe Mars, the club, and the bands over the next few weeks. In the meantime, check out tenzenmen’s website, and have a listen to some of the music. A few tracks are also available to sample here.

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Hanggai press photo1, lowerer.jpg

Mongolian band, Hanggai, are at the forefront of China’s folk-rock musical scene – a movement that has been gathering pace since the early 2000s and has been covered in previous posts (see Dawanggang and Zhu Xiaolong). Inflecting their native folk songs with the energy of rock and roll, Hanggai provides a unique take on traditional Mongolian music, maintaining the presence of Mongolian culture as a contemporary force in Beijing.

Internationally, Hanggai’s success is growing, and they now play some of the largest music festivals. They are regular performers at WOMAD, have played Roskilde and even Wacken, the world's biggest metal festival. I caught them in Sydney Festival’s beguiling Spiegeltent, which they filled with the rousing sounds of throat singing, the morin khuur (a horsehair fiddle), the tobshuur (two-stringed lute), banjos and electric guitars. The crowd was hankering for more, and word is they might be touring Sydney later this year.

Later I spoke with the band’s leader, Ilchi, about China’s contemporary music scene, the commercialisation of ethnicity, and the essence of Mongolian music.

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Drawing on the musical traditions of ancient China, Central Asia, and contemporary rock, Song Yuzhe’s compositions are a heady mix of the wild and the spiritual. In his ten years playing Beijing’s independent music scene Song has dipped into folk, religious music, and the experimental, forging a highly-charged style of his own.

With his band, Song Yuzhe plays as Dawanggang, and has just released an album that I am featuring as this week’s post (click 'more' below to see how you can listen to this). The album is called Selections, its songs taken from a broader ongoing project called Huang Qian Zou Ban, or, Wild Tune, Stray Rhythm, which does a good job of describing its loose but virtuosic tracks.

These recordings feature instruments such as the Uyghur ghejek, a horse-head fiddle, a shaman drum, the organ, saxophone, and some instruments that Song Yuzhe created himself. Dawanggang often play these songs live in front of audio-visual projections of traditional Himalayan, Xinjiang, and Mongolian musicians, the band essentially jamming with the musicians playing on the big screen behind them, engaging them in the live performance. This is something to see. These recordings are just a taster ...

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Zhu Xiaolong is best known for his role as guitarist in the band, Shetou, a pioneering Chinese rock band that played the underground scene from 1998 – 2004.

In 2002 Zhu Xiaolong formed a second band, Iz, with his Kazak friend Mamer and a group of other Beijing-based musicians. Both Zhu Xiaolong and Mamer had grown up in the Western province of Xinjiang, and Iz drew on the Kazakh, Uyghur and Kyrgyz musical traditions of this desert region to create an energetic contemporary sound. Their music had a big impact on other musicians and inspired a movement of Central Asian influenced Chinese rock and folk music.

Xiaolong left Iz in 2004 when he left Beijing. In 2010 he was living in Sydney where I recorded him play the 2-stringed Kazak instrument, the dongbala.

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