Thriving underground music scenes starting to blossom in China's second-tier cities

British Council initiative gives UK musicians hands-on experience of music with Chinese characteristics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:27pm

You won't find too many Westerners among the seven-million population of Changsha in Hunan province. Nor will you hear much English spoken. Which is why it's something of a shock to walk down the stairs of 46 LiveHouse and find yourself surrounded by Sex Pistols and Libertines posters while New Order's Crystal blasts from the stereo: a faithful recreation of a Camden indie club, right down to the sticky floor.

China is changing, and at a pace so rapid one can practically feel the g-force. Yet while the economy booms - it is predicted to overtake the US at some point in the next decade - the cultural scene has often struggled to keep pace. Venues such as 46 LiveHouse might represent the dawn of an exciting musical frontier, but as local live promoter and theatre producer Li Ren says, there are a number of stumbling blocks in the way of building a healthy music scene in Changsha: lack of government funding; the likelihood of concerts being shut down by police; and a dearth of local promoters and managers.

Much of this is familiar to Sam Genders, the co-founder of British folk band Tunng who now makes music as Diagrams. Genders has spent six weeks in Changsha as one of five musicians to travel to China as part of the British Council and PRS For Music's "Musicians in China Residencies" programme. His brief there has been flexible - collaborate with local musicians, perform live, absorb the local music - but he has discovered that putting a band together is no simple task.

"Finding the right musicians, booking venues … it's all been a bit more of a logistical challenge than I expected," he says, as we tuck into the Changsha staple of pork and chilli peppers in a restaurant near his hotel. "I wouldn't have changed anything, though. I could have been in a rehearsal room nine to five most days, and maybe I would have gotten a few songs out of it, but I wouldn't have had this adventure."

Said adventure has resulted in plenty of sources for future inspiration: Genders guested with local band Da Mu at the city's Orange Isle music festival, performed at an open mic in the ancient city of Fenghuang (Phoenix) on a rusty acoustic guitar (for which he was rewarded with a meal of pig's brains), and became friends with local guitar wizard Ye Xiao, a prog-metal obsessive who composes for the mainland equivalent of The Voice contest. Ye provided a huge boost to Genders' trip by agreeing to act as his musical director; Genders hopes Ye will contribute guitar parts to a future song - fostering this kind of relationship is one of the main aims of the British Council's project.

It's not hard to see why Genders has been captivated by Changsha. The music scene's infancy, for all the difficulties this poses, is also what makes it exciting.

During my four days in the city I get to hear the stories of many local musicians and promoters. I meet the cool young staff at the Changsha Morning Post, which has become a key part of the puzzle when it comes to supporting the city's cultural scene. I hang out with Da Mu, whose members tell me how, with few booking agents or management companies in Changsha, you have to be self-reliant when it comes to contacting venues and organising your shows. And I watch C-Block, the city's most adored hip-hop group, play a packed show at Red Livehouse during which audience members are showered with (fake) dollar bills and baseballs while being dragged onstage to rap (the secret to C-Block's success is to rap in the local Changshanese dialect, and to gig regularly - something few artists manage in Changsha).

You can definitely feel the spirit of punk happening here. The DIY ethic, the simplicity of the music, people with something to say about the world

I also meet Chen, who is attempting to build a modern jazz scene in Changsha with his annual festival, despite the fact that the city is largely unfamiliar with the music and has only had live jazz for the past six years or so. "In that time we have started to attract an audience in the thousands," he says, before striking a less optimistic note. "But if you ask me what my hopes are for the next five years I would say that, actually, I feel hopeless. Because we have never received a penny of sponsorship … the Changsha international jazz festival is the only festival supported by private enterprise without any support from the government or other funds."

Yet despite the difficulties, Changsha's niche scenes are growing; for a sign of how they may develop over the next half decade, look at Wuhan in Hubei province, an hour north by high-speed train. This is my second stop in China, where I meet jazz clarinettist Arun Ghosh, also on the residencies programme.

The first thing that becomes clear to me in Wuhan is that it has a more developed music scene: the city is known as the biggest rival to Beijing for the title of China's "punk capital" and that is largely down to Wuhan band SMZB, one of the first punk groups in China at their founding in the mid-1990s. SMZB used to struggle for places to play: "If we found a bar and performed once, the next time the bar owner wouldn't let us perform again. It was too loud," drummer Zhu Ning says.

Eventually Zhu took matters in his own hands and - inspired by a tour of venues around Europe - began staging his own gigs in Wuhan. He is now the director of Vox Livehouse, the city's hippest venue, and the Vox Classroom, which offers support and guidance to musicians. Both venues helped Ghosh to launch straight into music-making as soon as he arrived in the city; during my time there, I watch him perform with the Vox, a band especially assembled for him out of the city's best players.

The music they make sounds genuinely unique - an unlikely combination of both sides' influences that shouldn't work on paper but somehow does: Ghosh's clarinet melodies dart across a rock backdrop that taps into Wuhan's punk roots - post-rock, stoner metal and Stooges-esque punk.

"You can definitely feel the spirit of punk happening here," Ghosh says between rehearsal sessions at Vox Classroom. "The DIY ethic, the simplicity of the music, people with something to say about the world they're in."

In Changsha, some of the musicians talk about striving to be more original, rather than simply imitating the sounds of the west - something Genders is keen to encourage. Yet over in Wuhan, the musicians are already accustomed to exploring sounds in the quest to hit on something unique.

"The interesting things happen when we're just jamming and I'll hear them play these amazing spaced-out riffs which I know are all theirs," says Ghosh. "These sounds might turn on fans of Jesus and Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine, but I don't think that's because they're listening to them and imitating them. I think it's more about having a particular state of mind that leads you [to those sounds]."

Can we expect to see China flex its cultural muscle as well as its economic one? Promoter Li Ren thinks so, saying the obvious knock-on effect of a vibrant economy is money in pockets to be spent on live shows, theatre and cinema. But SMZB's Zhu echoes the words of several artists, questioning if more money will bring benefits artistically. "There are two sides to everything," the drummer says. "The positive side is that it's easier for Chinese people to access international music now. The negative side is that everything is too fast - you don't have time to digest it."

From a British perspective, though, it's this pace that makes the Chinese music scene so exciting. Perhaps, as Genders says: "I'm almost envious of a young Changsha artist starting out now. There's still so much to explore, still so much you could do a new twist on."

Nobody knows exactly what China's musical future holds, and that's because the future is still all up for grabs.

Guardian News & Media