EACH OF THE three groups on the two-week China Music Lab tour was eager to discover how their music would go in France, as it would be all but one of their members' first performance outside China. But they could hardly have expected the reaction of one overexcited - and clearly confused - local early into the first show of the tour. As industrial rock group Tongue started to get comfortable with their surroundings, someone in the crowd screamed 'Jackie Chan!' That was in Rennes, a city in western France perhaps best known for Transmusicales, a festival of music that has taken over the small city every December for the past 25 years. It's fitting that the tour should start there; thanks to its festival, the city is known for showcasing unknown and up-and-coming talent, and the three groups united for China Music Lab - rock group Tongue, folk act Iz and electronic artist Wang Lei - known as the 'Southern Cui Jian' - are on their way up. Cui Jian is considered the grandfather of Chinese rock. Jean-Louis Brossard is the man behind both Transmusicales and Club Ubu, site of the China Music Lab tour's opening concert on June 17, the first of 12 gigs in seven cities across France. Brossard has already made two fact- and music-finding missions to China over the past year, bringing electronic group Supermarket, and punkette-turned-chanteuse Long Kuan to the festival last year. Pierre-Alexandre Blanc and Leo de Boisgisson brought the three Chinese bands to France under the umbrella of 86/33 Link, an association devoted to cross-cultural exchanges. The pair also opened the Bureau des Musiques Actuelles (Contemporary Music Office) in Beijing to promote French music in China with support from the French embassy. Blanc and de Boisgisson have brought a host of French artists to cities across China, a trend they hope to continue, as 2005 is the Year of France in China. But 2004 is the Year of China in France, and China Music Lab, billed not simply as a concert tour but a two-week long international exchange through music, is its only official contemporary music component. Beijing-based Tongue have attracted a large audience with their intelligent lyrics and hard-hitting industrial weight. Two of the members also play with Iz, a folk act that employs the traditions of the Kazakh minority, from which another two of its members come. And from his Guangzhou headquarters, Wang has developed a brand of electronic music that combines experimental electro and dub with traditional Chinese elements such as Sichuanese opera. But for Wang, it wasn't the image of Cui Jian that came to mind in the gardens of Paris' Palais Royale on that first day of summer. Chinese rock's elder statesman had played France before, but that was in 2002, and besides, he played in a club; Wang was about to play at the front door of the Conseil D'Etat, the political body whose powers trump those of the president. 'I still can't believe Wang's playing here, it's crazy,' says Blanc, the tour manager, of the only non-French act on the Palais Royale bill. But on this overcast day in Paris, Wang's attention wasn't on the venue as much as it was on his gear: during the sound check, he discovered technical difficulties that turned a potential afternoon of pre-gig relaxing into a frenzied session at the home of a sound technician searching for ways around the malfunctioning machine. Wang, a long-time Guangzhou resident, begs to differ with his tag as the southern Cui Jian. In the past six years since Cui released a record, Wang has put together an industrial rock album - with backup band Pump - and two electronic CDs - Belleville and one as-yet unreleased album titled Xin. Cui almost opened for The Rolling Stones; Wang was about to undergo a five-day collaboration session with Hightone, a cutting-edge Lyon-based dub band that influenced Belleville. While Cui's more recent material is seen by many to be a less-than-praiseworthy jump on the rap/nu metal bandwagon, the only bandwagon involved in Wang's recent work is the one waiting in his wake for others to jump upon. 'China can't have a second Cui Jian,' says Wang. 'The reason people compare me to him is to put me down.' As much as he dislikes the idea of comparing himself to others, Wang is constantly comparing his French surroundings with those of China. Whether talking about food, architecture, social graces or art, most of his sentences start with the words, 'In France ...' and wind up lamenting the long road ahead for China. It's easy to see why Wang is so taken with the country: it has been very good to him. Wang's journey to France began in Tongji, a small town near Chengdu where he studied traditional opera and dance. In 1988, after being blown away by the 1984 breakdance movie Breakin', he left for Guangzhou with visions of breakdancing big time. Then he found rock, whose boundaries he continually pushed. After a foray into Nine Inch Nails-style industrial rock, he discovered dub and experimental electronic music. 'Chinese people are used to hearing singing,' he says, agreeing that his music is an easier sell abroad than at home. But he is clear on his need for evolution. 'If I stayed doing the same style of music the whole time, I'd be finished. I needed to find a style that was comfortable to me, and I found dub. What's great about it is that it goes with everything.' To prove this, Wang has infused his form of dub not only with experimental electronics, but with the Sichuanese opera that defined his earliest musical education. But despite his Chinese seasoning, the mainland market has yet to dive in. Wang is not surprised, and has long been a virulent critic of the state of Chinese rock - audiences, critics and musicians. 'There isn't a single person who understands music in China,' he says. Waving off the often-invoked argument that rock 'n' roll has a less than 20-year history in China, he adds that it's not a problem of time. 'It's about attitude. Bands don't get the concept of why you do a band. There's no exchange whatsoever - within bands or with others. Life in China is a competition; nobody seems to be on the same side.' But Wang is not just a critic. In addition to producing music, he ran a short-lived record label and three live venues in Guangzhou which have all been closed due to triad, government, police and economic pressures. He's confident that his fourth venue, Live Home 3, will last longer than the previous projects. A major part of ensuring that the venue survives and thrives is the presence for half of the China Music Lab tour of three people who help run the club. The trio came along to get a glimpse into the workings of European venues in partial fulfilment of the tour's commitment to cross-cultural exchange. Each expressed a combination of awe and inspiration from what they saw in the tour's first five shows. Wang's first trip to Paris was in 2002, after he had just discovered and been inspired by dub, and he set to work on an album of new material from a Belleville crash pad. One of Paris' most international neighbourhoods, Belleville's population has followed immigration trends of the past several decades and is home to a large Chinese population. A friend there introduced Wang to Hightone and they spent a week living, playing music and hanging out together. 'After that I chucked all my ideas out and started again.' The result was the album named for his Parisian home turf. He returned to Paris last year for three months with help from a French government grant to record his now-finished album, Xin, which is still awaiting distribution in both France and China. The story of the China Music Lab tour began in 2001, when Blanc first met Zhu Xiaolong. At the time, Zhu played guitar in Tongue (he would later also join Iz), and, liking what he heard, Blanc promised to bring the band to France. Three years later, China Music Lab, the latest - and boldest - example of Blanc and de Boisgisson's commitment to cross-cultural dialogue, fulfilled Blanc's promise and then some: in addition to bringing the acts to France, he invited the partners in Wang's most recent live venue venture for a first-hand education in overseas venues. Wang would also spend five days reunited with Hightone, working out a 45-minute set that they performed not only for an Orleans audience, but also at Eurokeenes, a massive three-day rock festival in Belfort, the last stop on the China Music Lab Tour on July 4. 'Eurokeenes was definitely a moment of joy,' says Blanc. 'But every day was great, because it was happening. All my friends told me I wouldn't be able to do it.' Eurokeenes was a highlight for the musicians as well, beginning with their shock upon discovering the size of the gathered crowd - a reported 30,000 per day. Wang's Palais Royale gig was an unmitigated success. After several tense hours, Wang and a rotating cast of technicians and friends worked the bugs out of his setup, and thousands of people braved the rain to cheer on his set. A future partnership for Wang and Bowling Club is in the works for October. The collaboration between Wang and Hightone was another success. It was agreed that Wang would introduce three pieces upon which Hightone would elaborate, and vice versa. The rehearsal discussions were in fits and starts, the result of a combination of Hightone's broken English and this reporter/translator's severe lapses in his French and Chinese skills. Thankfully, most of the conversation occurred without language, and on seeing Blanc's expression upon hearing some of the recordings, it was obvious it was everything he had in mind and more. Asked if it was intimidating or difficult to work with Hightone, Wang answers quickly: 'It wasn't difficult at all. Their music is very relaxed and they all know their roles so well, so it was easy for me to fit in. It was a lot like painting: I'd add a bit of colour, and they'd add some more.' The collaboration has received more than audience approval at the Eurokeenes rock festival: Hightone is to record a new album this autumn, and they hope Wang will join them. Wang, who played three shows in Finland before returning to China last week, was excited. 'For my music, I need to come to France,' he adds, but quickly ruled out a full-time move. 'The ideal for me is to spend a few months of the year in France, and live in Guangzhou.' After all, Guangzhou - and China - needs his help. Blanc and de Boisgisson see their role as providing these opportunities, and while Blanc considers the tour an overall success, he stops short of declaring victory on all fronts. 'It was disappointing that most of the Chinese musicians didn't try to meet other musicians,' he says. With the exception of Wang, few took advantage of the opportunities to meet the international assortment of artists who crossed China Music Lab's path. While de Boisgisson also saw the tour as a general success, she also sees a potential problem. 'The million-dollar question,' she says, 'is 'What will the bands do when they get back?'' While the goal of the tour was to see things evolve, she was pessimistic, seeing a trend of stagnation plaguing Chinese rock bands. 'They tend to make decisions by not deciding,' she says, adding that making excuses avoids the necessity of making a serious commitment to the band and to progress. With upcoming trips back to Xinjiang for several of the members of Tongue and Iz, the smart money is on inertia, and both bands are in jeopardy: one musician must decide whether or not to quit his stable gig with a provincial dance troupe and move to Beijing for the band; another is expressing doubts over his future with his band-mates. But while Iz and Tongue's future may look bleak, Wang is making plans, and not just in terms of his Guangzhou club. He played three shows in Finland after the France tour, will return for shows in August, and again in October for more studio time and a possible recording session with Hightone. For the rest of the China Music Lab crew, however, it is still unclear whether the tour will have any long-term effects on their work. One hopes that they appreciate just how many people are eager to find out the answer.