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Beijing Blowing Up

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Foreign correspondent Nelsoner Zhang brings us up to speed on the burgeoning Beijing music scene.

Beijing Blowing Up

While many people outside China know about Beijing’s over-hyped art scene, most don’t know that the music scene is where the real exciting stuff is happening. In the past several years, many Beijing-based underground bands and musicians – most famously the experimental duo White, but also bands like Carsick Cars, FM3, Hang on the Box, Joyside, PK14, Re-Tros, Snapline and Subs, and artists like Yan Jun, Shouwang Zhang, and Shen Jing – have been garnering attention at home and abroad.

Like in most cities, a lot of what happens is driven by the local clubs and performance spaces. Because it is still largely run by musicians and music lovers, the Beijing club scene is both eccentric and aggressively eclectic. Beijing probably has almost as many clubs dedicated to new and original music as the rest of China put together, but that isn’t a huge number. Not counting about two dozen clubs that program cover bands, lounge acts and ersatz ethnic music, there are about a dozen clubs that regularly program new and underground music, along with another dozen or so smaller venues that do occasional and one-off shows.

If you visit Beijing there are four clubs that you have to see that really drive the music scene. By far the most important – considered by musicians and critics to be the epicenter of the new musical explosion – is the university district’s D22, which has already been called the CBGBs of Beijing by Rolling Stone. Home and watering hole to a non-stop collection of Chinese musicians, artists, intellectuals and hipsters, the club is located in the northwestern part of the city between the main entrances of China’s two most famous universities, Peking University and Tsinghua. It is best known for its underground rock, experimental and jazz nights, as well as being the home of the Beijing New Music Ensemble, which performs pieces by contemporary Chinese and foreign composers.

The owners of D22 seem pretty indifferent to the idea of maximizing revenues. They have no hesitation to program difficult music or obscure bands they happen to like, even during prime weekend times. They also take a perverse delight in pushing their musicians and their bands to experiment wildly, especially on Thursday nights, when they like to program some very weird stuff. For their sins they have been called pretentious, and it is certainly true that their programming isn’t always easy. The club has a good sound system and one of the coolest spaces in Beijing, and the managers and staff are certainly friendly enough, but they obviously don’t care whether or not anyone besides themselves and their friends likes the music being performed.

Nearly every one of the most innovative bands in the city is a regular, and there is always a large contingent of musicians in the audience, especially late at night when those who have been performing in other clubs pack up their equipment and come over for drinks and jamming. A number of well-known local musicians, including Hang On the Box legend Wang Yue, Joyside’s iconic Bian Yuan, and guitar wizard Shouwang Zhang, seem to be there almost every night.

The east-side counterpart to D22 is a bar called 2 Kolegas, located bizarrely enough in a drive-in movie theater complex (Beijing’s only) in the northeastern part of the city. The club programs a wide range of music, including ethnic music, punk, and experimental music. Perhaps because of its location and programming it tends to draw the coolest of the expat crowd, who live primarily in the eastern part of Beijing.

2 Kolegas’s most famous offering is the Tuesday night showcase curated by Chinese avant garde godfather Yan Jun. Regulars include many of the local expat celebrities, like Einstürzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld, and D22 owner Michael Pettis are regulars. Every Tuesday, Yan Jun programs some of the most experimental foreign and Chinese music around, and although there is a tendency to overdose on laptop music, it is nonetheless one of the best series of its sort, probably in the world.

During the rest of the week, 2 Kolegas is much more eclectic. The club itself is not a great space, and the sound system rudimentary, but it has a very approachable feel – attending performances there has been described as like hanging out in the living room of the coolest guy you know. It opens onto a small scraggly park, and during warm nights patrons sit outside and drink cheap beer, eat the local barbecue, and keep one ear on the loud buzz emanating from the bar. On any given night you might see a local punk or metal band, an unknown foreign band stopping through Beijing, or a collection of expats and Chinese musicians.

The third of the four clubs driving the music scene is the difficult-to-find Nameless Highland, a relatively unglamorous club that has nonetheless been a mainstay of the scene for years. The club is a big, ugly room with a small bar to the right of the large stage, and there is a rather forbidding balcony that surrounds the room.

Like at the other three clubs, the programming at Nameless Highland is very eclectic. Some nights, the club is overrun by heavy metal kids there to see the almost non-stop procession of death metal bands, which are hugely popular in China’s underground scene and have an enthusiastic following among Beijing’s teenagers. Other nights you might find yourself watching an ethnic performance that seems strangely incongruous in the club.

Nameless Highland has a particular affinity for theme nights, and often enough 10 or more local bands will be there to mourn John Lennon’s death, cover Nirvana songs, serenade Joy Division, or recreate the Ramones. It is not really a comfortable hangout, and usually empties out immediately after performances, with the musicians zipping off to places like D22 or the notorious What Bar after they have completed their shows and gotten paid.

What Bar, the final of the four clubs that drive the Beijing scene, is the city’s nomination for the smallest music club in the world. It is located on the road that runs immediately west of Beijing’s famed Forbidden City, undoubtedly the most beautiful location of any of Beijing’s clubs. The tiny six-square-meters space opens out onto an old, tree-lined street where old men sit nodding in front of their small shops staring impassively at the strange Beijingers who fill the club.

There are many things wrong with What Bar. It is not easy to find and is far from most places where people are likely to live. It is rare to see more than two bands there on any given night since two bands fill out most of the club’s floor space. The sound system barely works. The bathroom is unappealing. The seats are not very comfortable and every time someone comes into or leaves the bar the chances are you will have to stand up to let him pass.

Still, it is has been a local favorite for years and, along with D22, the place you are most likely to find yourself sitting next to a local music or art scene legend and swapping drunken stories (and getting drunk is the main objective at What). Nearly every seat is ringside and the walls drip with history. In addition, probably because there is very little pressure on the owners to draw in a large audience (where would they fit?), What Bar is the least concerned of any club in Beijing about whether or not a band or a performer has a large draw. This is a place where a famous local band that can easily draw hundreds of screaming fans will nonetheless drop in for an unadvertised show spread only by word of mouth among a dozen friends. Alternatively, a completely bizarre performance artist may take the stage for the first time in his life. The shows are uneven at best, but it is a great place to hang out.

These four clubs largely define the Beijing scene and program the most exciting music, but there are several others that play an important role. Among them it is worth mentioning three. Yugong Yishan is a large, well-designed space with a great light and sound system located in a parking lot just north of Workers’ Stadium. Very popular among foreigners, nearly every year it wins the local expat magazine vote for best music club in the city.

It is run by a former Chinese musician and his German wife, and it certainly is one of the best places in Beijing to see shows, but like most of the expat-dominated clubs in east side of Beijing, its programming tends to be a little staid. The audience usually consists of foreign scenesters who often have a barely unconcealed lack of interest in what is actually happening on stage, unless the performance is by a moderately fashionable foreign band or DJ. In addition the owners have a fondness for vaguely ethnic fusion and New Age music. Nonetheless, if you can catch a good band here, it is probably the best space in Beijing in which to see a show.

13 Club, located right next to D22 in the university district, is the home of heavy metal and old school punk and is, appropriately enough, a pretty ugly space, but with real character. Although it programs other kinds of music as well, its entrance is thronged nearly every weekend night by fantastically dressed Chinese punk and heavy metal teenagers, whose clothing and hairstyles are every bit as assiduously arranged as that of their American or European counterparts and who revel in the same countercultural slogans – although in China it is still a whole lot safer to show your contempt for George Bush and Tony Blair than to show disrespect for local leaders.

Finally there is South Gate in the 798 Factory complex in the far northeast of the city – an area that is Beijing’s answer to SoHo, replete with fashionable art galleries, trendy wine shops, hip clothing stores, and the occasional book shop. South Gate is a performance space with tiered seating and good acoustics. It is pretentious at times but programs some of the best shows you’ll see in any theatrical performance space in Beijing.

There is also a small but growing jazz scene in Beijing with its own clubs. CD Jazz Café, in the eastern corporate-dominated part of town specializes in an older expat audience, and tends a little toward jazz lite. East Shore Live Jazz Cafe, opened by a well-known Chinese jazz musician on one of the beautiful lakes in the city center, has probably the best overall jazz scene in the city, although even here they face stiff competition from D22, whose Sunday jazz nights feature an astonishing young drummer from New York and probably the best jazz band in town.

Beijing’s easy and informal attitude is probably not going to last much longer. As the amount of attention grows, the scene is getting more and more snobby, and many blame the newer clubs for the trend. This is not entirely bad, since it means artists will be taken more seriously and will have the confidence and support to grow, but it does also mean that the cozy old days are numbered. For the clubs, the increased attention and growing interest is unambiguously a good thing, and as Beijing takes its place as the leading music center of Asia and one of the world’s important music centers, its most important clubs are going to continue drive the scene in whatever direction it ends up taking.

By Nelsoner Zhang

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