Renmin Park, volume 1 (the music)
Most of the music that I heard in Jingjiang was uninspired Taiwanese pop and Euro-pop, blaring from tinny speakers in every shop and out of every taxicab window. The most interesting music was found in the parks, where the traditional music was played. On most Sunday’s I would head down to Renmin Park and sit in this tiny pavilion that was home to a music club that performed music from the Beijing opera. Depending on the time of day, different musicians would be there with their erhus, pipas, shangxians and various percussion instruments. There was never any shortage of singers. Each would wait their turn and then stand up and belt out some song written long ago about love lost, stolen or betrayed. Most of the players were great, most of the singers were not so great, but they all approached the music with such passion. There were a few singers that seemed head and shoulders above the others, at least to these untrained ears. I was always welcomed with much fanfare. A seat was made available (after a few visits they knew that I preferred to sit in the back) and tea was poured and someone always made sure that my cup was full. No one in the “club” spoke any English and all I could master in mandarin was “happy new year”, so no words were exchanged, but none of that mattered. I recorded dozens of performances.
About half way through our stay I caught a lucky break. I was introduced to young man by the name of Eric Chen. He spoke excellent English (he learnt it by watching American movies) and he was a music freak. He was also desperate to talk to someone about music, because, as he told me on our first meeting, he was “not only the only person in Jingjiang who had ever heard the music of Radiohead, but the only person who had ever even heard the name Radiohead”. We quickly became friends and we spent a lot of time together. One day there was a knock on the door and it was Chen carrying an, almost portable, stereo system. He also had dozens of CDs with him. My introduction to the Chinese rock scene began in earnest. Chen introduced me to the ground-breaking, emotionally gut wrenching music of He Yong; the dour, introspective sounds of the brilliant Dou Wei; the prog-rock tinged musings of The Tang Dynasty; the melodic Cure-meets-Steve-Earle pop of Xu Wei and the inspired innovative sounds of Zuoxiao Zuzhou (ZXZZ). He introduced me to dozens of more artists that had sprung up on the Chinese rock scene since the ”new openness” of the late 1980’s. He showed me videos of legendary concerts in which some of these artists had performed and cemented their reputations. It was a great awakening for me. Two of the artists that I really became attached to were Xu Wei (but only his first album, as all of us hipsters know full well) and Zuoxiao Zuzhou. There was something about Xu Wei’s guttural voice and simple, haunting melodies that really attracted me and the breadth and unusualness of Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s work still fascinates me today (sort of a Leonard Cohen meets Nick Cave by way of Tom Waits; Zuoxiao Zuzhou contributes a lyric and lead vocal to one of the songs on Renmin Park). We decided to cover a song by each of these artists on Renmin Park (ZXZZ’s “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side” and Xu Wei’s “My Fall”). Chen translated the lyrics and then I turned those translations into song lyrics. Here are the original songs as recorded by Xu Wei and ZXZZ: