Music lover and Fulbright scholar Nick Frisch went to Beijing to become immersed in China’s emerging music scene. In our guide to Music+Travel Worldwide, he shares what he learned with you. We caught up with the globe-hopping journalist for the downlow on this up-and-coming scene where Eastern and Western traditions are meeting in innovative ways. Find out more about Nick, the scene and his Beijing picks, after the jump…
Museyon Guides: How would you describe the music scene in Beijing today? Is there a “Beijing sound”?
Nick Frisch: There is not yet a “Beijing sound” like there is a Manchester post-punk sound or a Williamsburg indie sound. Beijing’s music scene is still churning out too many bands and songs that are pale imitations of various imported styles alongside the truly new and creative stuff — and more innovative stuff doesn’t have a “sound” that you could call Beijing.
There are, however, sounds that could only arise from China today, and especially Beijing — artists who are fully familiar with Chinese and Western musics and cultures, but don’t write or play music with that division in mind. This organic combination of technique, tonality, and sound — a fusion of Chinese and Western musical influences inhabiting a single human being — occurs most frequently and influentially in China, and mostly in Beijing with its many music schools and venues and strong cultural traditions.
MG: The city is rapidly changing, expanding and developing — how is that reflected in the city’s music scene?
NF: Beijing’s incredible dynamism — a pace of change that is invigorating and sometimes terrifying — is reflected in the music scene’s diversity and popularity despite its relatively small size. These are some dozens of talented musicians who are punching above their weight. Luckily, favorite clubs aren’t torn down as regularly as some favorite restaurants or quaint streets. There is, however, high turnover among music fans, many of them study-abroad students or other artists whose residence in Beijing might not be permanent.
Beijing’s increasing accessibility to the rest of the world has also made it a refuge for many foreign artists, musicians, and writers who might have moved to Paris in the 1930s: culturally rich, still affordable, and increasingly open. The large African and Russian communities are reflected in the music one can see here, though many in the English- and Chinese-speaking communities have yet to take note.
MG: Where’s the best place to see a live show? Describe the best show you’ve ever seen.
NF: Last summer, the punk band Demerit gave a terrific show down in Shanghai. There is less of a music scene down there, so the crowd was especially excited and hugely responsive, and the band are born performers.
In general, a versatile venue like Yugong Yishan is a great place to take in a band you like.
MG: Any insider tips/dos and don’t for people visiting Beijing, or China in general?
NF: Don’t drop into any club on any given night and always expect to see something dynamic and innovative — you might get lucky, but many bands are still in a very imitative stage. Scan the listings in The Beijinger or City Weekend to get a sense of what’s available, and what will be good, then try to make an educated choice.
MG: What’s your idea of one perfect night out in Beijing?
NF: Warmish autumn weather and three shows at three different venues in the Drum Tower area — Yugong Yishan, Mao Livehouse, and Jiangjinjiu — where the timing lines up perfectly so you can catch all three.
MG: How do you find new music?
NF: Beijing’s music scene has the advantage of being comparatively small with just a few key venues, so you can make the rounds of a handful of venues and catch up with nearly every new up-and-coming artist. The bands are quite web-savvy, and it’s never too hard to get your hands on some recordings.
MG: For people just getting into experimental music, where should they begin?
NF: For “experimental music” in the purer sense of the word, 2 Kolegas should be the first port of call — it is their specialty. However, Beijing clubs are quite ecumenical, and you can find electronic or noise music many places on many different nights.
In the broader sense of experimental, if you want to see Mongolians taking their traditional tunes onto rock instruments, or Uighurs weaving their traditional music into jazz, or a hardcore punk band trying to find the right notes and words to make their style work in a Chinese context — these are all forms of experimentation that happen in every club in the city.
Drum Tower photo: faungg/Flickr