Rock in a herd place

Jon Campbell

TANG LEI DIDN'T ask to run China's most recent rock festival. In fact, she didn't want to do it at all. When a fruit-grower friend from Inner Mongolia called to ask if she could put together an event in the autonomous region on the last weekend of July, she turned him down immediately.

'I thought, 'It's so far away'. Plus, I'd never been there before,' says the woman behind Little Bar, the preeminent rock club in Chengdu, Sichuan province, and one of the most significant live venues on the mainland.

The friend and his contact at the Gegentala Tourist Centre eventually convinced Tang to sign on. But it took a trip from the grasslands to Chengdu and a computer presentation to change her mind. 'I saw the photos of Gegentala, and I was so moved,' she says.

This explains why Tang is sitting in a modernised yurt, gazing over the rolling plains of Inner Mongolia on the third day of the Gegentala Grasslands Music Festival. A pack of horses ambles by and every so often the tent is filled by the roar of a small plane taking tourists on scenic flights over the area. With the grasslands extending as far as the eye can see, it's easy to realise why Tang changed her mind about organising the rock festival.

Over the past few years, mainland rock fans have been treated to a number of large-scale events - often dubbed Chinese Woodstocks - in far-flung corners of the country. Gegentala, 145km north of Hohhot, is merely the latest. In 2002, thousands turned up at the foot of the Jade Dragon mountain outside Lijiang for the Snow Mountain Music Festival. Last summer, the Helanshan Music Festival, held in the desert outside Yinchuan in Ningxia province, attracted an estimated 120,000 people (attendance was apparently bolstered by a popular international motorcycle tour).

The big rock fest is an opportune showcase for emerging bands, even if better known performers are given top billing to boost audience numbers. They're a heartening alternative to the regular 'beer festivals' that are little more than stadium concerts featuring the first wave of rock and metal bands from the 1990s.

It's the same set-up at Gegentala, where rock veteran Cui Jian is indisputably the top draw. But Tang has stayed focused on the strategy that made Little Bar such a success. 'I wanted to give newer and younger bands a chance,' she says. 'If we don't support them, who will? Without this kind of opportunity, they'll be playing in bars forever.'

There were also logistical concerns to think about for the grasslands festival. 'A place this far away, younger bands would be more willing to come, and to put up with the conditions,' she says. 'They were OK living in yurts and using public bathrooms with no showers.' As it was, the bus ride from Beijing took 20 hours, as opposed to the advertised seven.

Tang set two conditions for the investors in the event. 'The bands had to get paid decently - and the sound gear had to be the stuff that Cui picked,' she says.

She declined to get involved with the financings, but it didn't prevent the heartache of seeing the local tourism centre raise prices for food and accommodation over the three days. Rental for a large yurt, for instance, shot up from 220 to 1,200 yuan.

Tang also soon realised there was more to her role than simply lining up the talent. Tourism officials failed to provide the bands with adequate accommodation and transport as pledged. 'I wanted to put together a committee to split the responsibilities: media, bands, sound, etcetera,' she says. 'But in the end, I knew if I didn't do it, nobody would.'

It's hardly surprising that Tang needs three coffees to start her day. 'I'm doing the work of 10 people. I'm looking after more than 100 musicians - their food, transport, accommodation, and more. Then, there's more than 100 media people. I'm taking calls about directions, and now I'm arranging return tickets for people.'

The music aside, what these big festivals also have in common is a reluctance to advertise that they're actually rock events. 'The licensing for this concert was no problem,' says Tang. 'The local government figured it would promote Inner Mongolia, and bring in tourists. They were very supportive, but maybe that's because they didn't get what it was all about.'

Organisers usually call their events kuanghuan jie (festival of revelry), rather than yinyue jie (music festival) or yaogun jie (rock festival). The last would be the most accurate, but would have set alarm bells ringing. They might have got away with it in Gegentala since it's far away, Tang says. 'If we tried to do this in Beijing or at the Great Wall, well ... Anyway, it was a smart idea not to use the word 'rock'.'

It helps that the Gegentala festival coincides with Nadam, a Mongolian holiday traditionally associated with revelry and games. The different schedules dovetail neatly: the horse racing, wrestling and dancing occur in the hours before the rock music begins in the early evening.

But the combination has made for some surreal scenes. 'They were racing horses around the stage while we did sound checks,' says Kang Mao, vocalist for Beijing punk band Subs. 'It was crazy. We had to run out of there to avoid getting trampled.'

While Kang and her band were evading thundering hooves, Guo Dagang and his metal band, Tongue, were hobnobbing with international models on a beach in Guangxi. Guo's band arrived for the last day of Gegentala after performing in a series of concerts associated with the Miss Bikini World Pageant in Beihai.

'There were models from all over the world,' he says. 'They used babes to support and promote rock.'

Guo certainly has no gripes about the new approach to spreading the rock gospel. 'We need to use as many different ways as possible.' The pageant and concerts were held under the aegis of the officially sponsored Beihai Beach Tourism Festival, but a rock show initiated by local officials doesn't strike Guo as odd. 'The government wants to attract investment, so they asked people to organise an event.'

Tang cites similar experiences with Gegentala. 'The investors had no real theme in mind,' she says. 'They wanted to stage a music event, but didn't know what kind. They figured rock music would go over well on the grasslands.'

Securing finance invariably presents organisers with a major challenge. Music industry executives estimate that it costs between 600,000 and two million yuan to organise a large-scale festival.

For now, investors are clearly attracted by the idea of rock festivals, whatever the location. But Patrick Deng, who helped put together the jamboree at Lijiang, says such interest isn't always helpful in the long term. 'In investors' minds, these events are promotional, and they think, 'Why would we need to do them more than once?''

For all the praise heaped on Lijiang, organisers failed to build on the good vibes and stage a second festival. 'There were money problems, but there were lots of reasons it wasn't successful,' says Deng. 'Every time someone puts together one of these large-scale shows, they're doing it for the first time.'

Consequently, the experience gathered from one rock festival seldom transfers to subsequent ventures. That's why he decided to help Tang with some of the logistics for Gegentala. 'Eventually, the people who are organising events like this will come together,' he says. 'The more we work together the better it can be. But it will take time.'

As things wind down at Gegentala, Tang tries to stay upbeat despite her miserable encounters with Gegentala's tourism co-ordinators. 'As long as the sound is good, and the bands are good, you can consider a festival successful,' she says. 'Lijiang and Helanshan were musically successful. Sure, there were complaints: it was cold and rainy at Lijiang; at Helanshan there were mosquitoes. But no matter what, the music was successful.

'Every time the music starts up, suddenly my fatigue disappears.'