Chinese rockers turn to tradition in quest for modern

NEW YORK, US, Shaun Tandon- The heavy bass and drums set the rhythm for a Western rock song, but a Chinese suona horn pierces above the guitars as a warbling voice sings in a villager's patois -- all while the band is in drag.
Second Hand Rose, one of China's major non-mainstream bands, has embraced a cultural mishmash with the cadences and mindset of Western rock infused with folk traditions that, in the group's rendition, have turned subtly subversive.

Frontman Liang Long, at a recent show in New York's Central Park, donned bright orange floral prints, beads and lipstick as his voice -- in northeastern Chinese dialect -- drifted into an operatic warble.
Guitarist Yao Lan performed rock riffs while wearing a shiny red skirt, but interludes on the suona -- an oboe-like reed instrument held like a trumpet that is played at funerals and weddings -- punctuated the songs.
The band was a leading attraction at the inaugural US edition of China's Modern Sky Festival, which sought to introduce the country's bands to New York and booked prominent Western acts such as singer Cat Power even though the audience was predominantly Chinese.
Liang said that Second Hand Rose, which is touring the US East Coast, was not simply seeking attention through its fusion of styles but was looking to innovate at a time that China -- and its musical landscape -- are rapidly changing.
"It's not like you can just use a Chinese instrument and give the music an exotic tinge," said Liang, eschewing his colorful outfits for basic black as he spoke to AFP in Greenwich Village's Washington Square.
"Rock already has its own history and forms, so it's not so easy to break that open and add something. It really took some time," he said.
- Rapid changes in Chinese tastes -
Liang said that Chinese musical tastes are being transformed by a proliferation of homegrown music festivals. He expected a decline in the popularity of Hong Kong Canto-pop and perhaps big-ticket Western rockers.
"The Peking Opera was a very popular art form at the beginning of the 20th century, but it's in a difficult position now. Why is that? It didn't change with the times," he said.
"In China, rock music has a relatively short history. So even though it's getting more mainstream, it's entirely possible that next year, something else interests the masses and rock music suddenly loses its appeal," he said.
Liang places a rose behind his ear in concert. But the band's name is also a critique of what he saw as "second-hand" recycling of Western rock in China when he started in the late 1990s.
Liang said he was inspired by Nirvana's do-it-yourself spirit but he turned to the traditions of his home province of Heilongjiang. The androgynous look, he said, comes from a gender-bending folk theater of the northeastern region.
- 'Useless rock'? -
Unlike China's rock godfather Cui Jian, who was blacklisted for rallying behind the crushed 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square, Second Hand Rose has enjoyed audiences at state-run theaters and coverage in official media.
But the band has flirted with social commentary. One song, "Allow Some Artists to Get Rich First" -- performed on a Beijing stage with statues of pigs -- is a play on former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's famous saying when he opened the economy, "Allow some people to get rich first."
Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau, a Dutch scholar who studied Second Hand Rose as part of a dissertation on Chinese music and eventually became the band's drummer, said that some fans considered the music to be nationalistic due to the embrace of traditional instruments.
But he said: "We actually want to project more of an inclusive idea, where musical sources, people with different backgrounds, can communicate directly."
The band is planning a new festival in China to bring together world influences. But as for now, the band has a purposely ambiguous motto -- it calls its US tour "Useless Rock," an allusion to questions about music's role in modern China.
"When we came onto the scene, we were asked, 'Why the hell are you playing rock in a local dialect like an uneducated person?' We were in reaction to the mainstream," Liang said.
"But 10 years later, with rock music becoming more mainstream, we want to ask the question from a different angle: Now that you have the attention of people in China, what are you going to do with it? What is its use?"

Friday, October 10th 2014
Shaun Tandon

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