Diaspora diaries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am


Even in the darkest of Berlin nightclubs, DJ Zhao Bei stands out from the crowd.

Chinese faces are a rarity in the European DJ scene, but even more unusual is the variety of African dance music he plays, from a continental version of salsa to Afro-jazz to kuduro, from Angola.

Born in Beijing and educated in the United States, Zhao has never visited Africa but he is fascinated by the diversity of its music. Much of his time is spent on searching for ethnic tunes and mixing them with hip-hop and techno. Since moving to Berlin, in 2007, he has taken his vast collection to a growing number of the German city's clubs, and music festivals in Italy, Serbia and the Netherlands.

The son of quantum physics professors, there were high expectations for Zhao to achieve academic excellence. He says he 'consciously resisted the pressure' by aspiring to be an artist and a 'party guy'. When he was 12, he moved with his parents, who were taking up teaching posts in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He mixed with people of many nationalities and avoided the 'closed-minded' Chinese community.

'I started reading books at 14 and I came to believe that humans should live in big groups and babies should be raised by dozens of people,' he says, indicating that this was where his interest in Africa and tribal living began. 'We need a sense of community and togetherness.'

His ideals, however, were battered by the 'superficiality' of Hollywood. After earning a fine-art degree in Los Angeles, he landed a lucrative job creating title sequences for films and commercials.

'My life then was all about making and spending money. I shopped all the time and would spend US$400 a night partying and drinking. I had nothing for my soul.'

But after a decade in LA, Zhao, now 34, had had enough. 'Life in LA is a bubble. It's so detached from reality. People drive all the time and never take public transport. They're obsessed with how much money you have and who you know,' he says. 'But there're also extremely poor people. The further away I move from it, the more I realise it's a strange place.'

The commercial nature of his work also bored him. He wanted to make art and so he moved to Berlin, about which he'd heard many good things. 'In Berlin, no one cares how much money you have, partly because no one has much money.'

He lives on a small, unstable income. 'Now I make music. I'm poor but much happier. It's a cliche, but it's true.'

Berlin has revived the idealist in Zhao and he is now taking it upon himself to transform the city's clubbing scene.

'Many clubbers don't care about music. But when they hear good music, they instinctively respond to it,' he says. 'My main project is to connect modern sound with old musical forms from all over the world, especially Africa, because it has the richest music on Earth. I'm also planning to play molam [a country music from Laos]. These great genres are barely known simply because of economic and political factors. I want to wake people up. I believe I can make them go insane on the dance floor.'