We recently had a review and an interesting piece about Renmin Park published in the Southern Weekly, which is a Chinese language newspaper that comes out of Beijing. The journalist, Timothy Hathaway, has a very interesting take on the album. He is coming at it with a much more informed perspective on Chinese culture, so his insights are valuable. Tim also interviewed ZXZZ for his blog, China Beat, in which Zuzhou talks a bit about our collaboration and other projects that he is working on. I think that both article are worth the time.
A Walk In The Park is probably one of the songs on Renmin Park that make most people reach for the skip button. But it’s a very important song for the album, probably its most ambitious and, from a producer’s point of view, it’s one of my proudest achievements.
The singer and the lyricist of the song is Zuoxiao Zuzhou (ZXZZ), an extremely respected artist and a cultural jewel of the Chinese underground art scene. You won’t hear his music playing at the roller rink, but it’s bound to be in the collection of any self respecting Mandarin hipster. I was introduced to his music by my friend Eric Chen and I was blown away by the breadth of his recorded work and most specifically the intensity of his voice. In his work I hear strong influences of Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten and other artists who like to occasionally push boundaries. He is also a very political voice in a scene where being political actually has meaning. When Joby and Al presented me with the first musical draft of A Walk In The Park I knew that the ideal person to add to it was Zuoxiao Zuzhou. But it was quite a journey getting to that point.
The starting point for the track was me and my Zoom recorder in China. There are about a half-dozen field recordings incorporated in to this song including: a Peking Opera recital in Renmin Park; a class of my wife’s students singing the Chinese National Anthem; a bell tolling from the Bell Tower in Xian; a PA blaring morning excercise exhortations in the school yard where we lived; the song of the propane seller; and the din of human activity blended with the chirping of cicadas in Renmin Park. When I returned to Toronto I then sent these recordings to our friend Joby Baker in Victoria who assembled them in to a structure over which a musical template could be created. Alan then laid down his best Jah Wobble dub bass line that defined the overall feel of the song and Joby layered that with keyboards to suggest the harmonic direction. This was then sent back to me in Toronto where Pete laid down a drum part and I added the frenetic guitar outro. I then emailed that to my friend Eric Chen in Jingjiang who had tracked down Zuoxiao Zuzhou and had interested him in the project. Eric sent the track to Zuzhou who then wrote lyrics for the track and laid down his vocal. That track was then emailed back to me in Toronto where a few minor touches were made and then it was forwarded back to Joby who added a few more field recordings and finally mixed the song. Chalk one up for globalization.
Eric translated the song for me but, as I have said, there is always something lost in the translation. Zuoxiao Zuzhou told Eric to tell me that the lyric is a metaphor comparing a leisurely walk in the park with the cultural “walk” that is needed to successfully and honestly express oneself in Modern China.
Here is Eric’s translation of Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s lyrics as well as a couple of ZXZZ related videos. The first is of a live performance by ZXZZ (not for the unadventurous) and the second is a beautifully animated short, set to an amazing live recording by ZXZZ of his interpretation of the traditional Mongolian folk song Ulan Bator Nights.
About half way through our three month stay in Jingjiang I stumbled upon the only person in the entire city who was a fan of modern music and who also happened to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the modern Chinese rock scene. My wife and I were often dragged to these very uncomfortable “meet-the-English-speaking-freaks” gatherings, in which a handful of locals who were interested in practicing their limited English would show up and stare at us. On this one particular night a young man came up and introduced himself and upon hearing that my wife’s name was Patty, he said, “like Patti Smith?”. My wife and I were both a little taken aback and weren’t quite sure what we had just heard, so I replied,”…you mean Patti Smith…the musician Patti Smith?!?” He said, “yes, yes..Patti Smith, CBGBs, Horses…”. This was Eric Chen, we became fast friends. Eric learnt all of his English by watching American movies. He is a music fanatic, caught inside of a country that relatively little interest in the music underground, caught inside a city that is about as backwater as it gets when it comes to modern culture. Eric took me around Jingjiang and introduced me to the handful of musicians that lived in the town, but more importantly he schooled me in the modern Chinese rock scene. He brought me a stereo and stacks of cds by modern Chinese rock bands. I was floored by the intensity of the music. Here was a status-quo that an angry young man could really kick against. No Future, indeed. There was also something about Mandarin that lent itself to rock music. It’s all those hard consonants and those guttural sounds; it just makes for some good gut-wrenching belting.
Near the end of my stay I asked Eric to translate a handful of songs that I was, for whatever reason, attracted to. I quickly learnt that Mandarin may be a great rock language, but trying to bridge the gap between Mandarin and English was not going to be an easy task. I’ve come to the conclusion that Mandarin and English are like two software platforms that just won’t communicate with each other. Eric did a great job translating and then I had to take his translations and turn them into songs that could be expressed in English. Here are Erics translations of My Fall and I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side (written by two great Chinese musicians Xu Wei and Zuoxiao Zuzhou) with my hand written notes on the borders, followed by my further adaptations of the lyrics.
If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:
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: