UPDATE: Unfortunately, due to some visa problems, Chinese rock act Re-TROS will NOT be performing this Thursday, July 17 at St. Petersburg's Local 662. Ticket refunds are available at the Welcome Desk at the Museum of Fine Arts.
It’s hard to imagine a world without The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis or Led Zeppelin, let alone one that evolved without rock ‘n’ roll at all. But up until the 1970s, China was this world: isolated from the rest of mankind for centuries, lacking in innovative sonic growth, not only barren of diversity but discouraged from it. Chairman Mao’s 10-year Cultural Revolution and legacy of destruction set the population back even further as the “impure” elements of Chinese society were violently suppressed or eradicated altogether.
The disillusionment that followed his death in 1976 paired with an increasingly open marketplace spurred the start of yaogun, or Chinese rock music, not to mention prompting a complete transformation of China’s musical landscape.
Writer, musician and promoter Jonathan Campbell was entrenched in the Beijing music scene while living in the city from 2000 to 2010. In his 2011 book, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, he pairs his experiences and first-person accounts with historical background, quotes and anecdotes from key players.
China underwent a musical revolution just like everywhere else, but it was born from entirely unique circumstances, amid a period of increased openness to the West that was still limited by the government’s heavy restrictions and regulations. To complicate matters even further, China was a few decades behind the rest of the world musically, and issues of accessibility to Western music — which arrived in a tightly controlled trickle — proved another handicap, since the previously isolated populace was effectively starting from scratch, in a creative vacuum.
There was no history or culture of rock ‘n’ roll in place, no instruments to make it with or teachers to learn from, and no chronological, evolutionary or stylistic context to the music that did make its way into China. Reference points — like where an artist fit into the greater rock ‘n’ roll landscape, what the artist was responding to or influenced by, and even when the music was originally recorded and released — were unavailable.
So how does a society create a culture of rock music with no foundation, education, or tools to do it? With a lot of trial and error, in fits and starts, and not without a few misfires along the way.
Campbell sets a light conversational tone as he discusses the growth of yaogun. The self-taught Yaogunners — both the people who played the music and those who promoted, sold and appreciated it — worked around their country’s restrictions by developing an entire method of transcribing music, called badai, through repeated listens. Dakou, remaindered cassettes discarded from everywhere else, became the only source of foreign rock and pop music for yaogunners, and dakou shops rose up to sell them. Live music platforms began to proliferate, from rock parties in homes to the rise of venues and music festivals. And finally, a unique cornucopia of punk, metal, pop and indie rock has started making its way out of China to audiences around the world, and key players and influential artists have made strides in a musical environment that is still less than 30 years old.
Campbell has encyclopedic knowledge of the Chinese music scene, and gives a talk on his book this Wednesday night, in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts exhibit My Generation: Young Chinese Artists, which features installations, video, photographs, paintings, drawings, and mixed-media works by 27 artists who’ve emerged from China since 2000.
Also in conjunction with the exhibit and lecture is a Thursday evening performance by a bona fide Chinese rock band: Re-TROS, short for Rebuilding the Rights of Statues. Frontman Hua Dong was exposed to rock ‘n’ roll at an early age and began writing and playing music as a teenager, his education furthered when he studied abroad in Germany. He played in seminal Chinese rock outfit PK14 upon his return before hooking up with bassist Liu Min and drummer Ma Hui. The trio formed Re-TROS in 2005.
Their sound is dark, seething, danceable post-punk conspicuously influenced by bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division and early Talking Heads. In fact, Re-TROS happened to be recording their 2005 debut EP Cut Off! in New York when they caught the ear of composer/producer Brian Eno. He was working in the same studio, liked what he heard and ended up playing keys on a few tracks. This early support from an iconic artist likely helped spur the international draw of Re-TROS as much as the band’s distinctive sound and solid songwriting skills; Hua Dong’s disjointed, high-toned vocals (with feminine backing by Min) address dark-themed topics, and he gets around censorship laws by composing lyrics in English and then altering the translation for the censors — as in the tense and dissonant scorcher “Hang the Police,” which he translated as “The Police are Laughing.” So far, Re-TROS has managed to get away with it; a sophomore follow-up to 2009 full-length Watch Out! Climate Has Changed, Fat Mum Rises is expected sometime this year.
An Introduction to China’s Contemporary Music Scene with Jonathan Campbell, Wed., July 16, 6:30 p.m., Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, $5 (includes museum admission)
Re-TROS (Rebuilding the Rights of Statues) with Sonic Graffiti, Thurs., July 17, 7 p.m. doors, Local 662, St. Petersburg, $12 (concert only)/$15 lecture and concert.