If you picked up a NUVO last week, you probably know the Ai Weiwei show opened at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Friday. I had the privilege of spinning for the show's opening night festivities and as I began the process of selecting music for the event, I turned to my collection of underground Chinese rock.
In China's conservative cultural landscape, rock music still represents a powerful symbol of rebellion. So powerful in fact, that last month the perpetually rebellious Ai announced plans to release an album's worth of rock tunes.
"Some songs are like heavy metal, some are more punkish, and some are more pop," Ai says of the project.
With the arrival of the Ai Weiwei exhibition in Indy, I thought it would be a good time to profile a few of the leading voices in China's relatively young rock music scene. Think of it as a soundtrack to Ai's According to What, which remains on display at the IMA until July 21.
Any discussion of the Chinese rock scene must include mention of Cui Jian, an artist labeled as the "father of Chinese rock music." Jian shot to fame in the late 1980s when his song "Nothing to My Name" became an anthem for the student protest movement which culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
A classically trained musician, Jian began his professional career in 1981 playing trumpet in the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra. But his musical destiny dramatically changed course when the singer-songwriter heard a Beatles cassette smuggled into Beijing from Hong Kong.
So Jian traded his trumpet for the electric guitar and set about creating his distinctive sound - - a blend of traditional Chinese instrumentation and rock and roll with sharply written lyrics containing thinly veiled messages of social commentary.
Jian's propensity to mix music with social justice has frequently landed him at odds with Chinese authorities. For many years Jian was forbidden from performing in public and his music was banned on state-controlled Chinese media.
Despite this government suppression, Jian remains one of the most popular rock musicians in China and his music continues to evolve. Recently Jian has incorporated elements of electronic music and hip-hop into his sound. He's also received support from major Western stars, singing with the Rolling Stones at a Shanghai concert in 2006 and rapping with Public Enemy at the Beijing Pop Festival in 2007.
Inspired by the Velvet Underground, guitarist/singer/composer Zhang Shouwang formed Carsick Cars in 2005. Combining catchy pop hooks with destructive guitar noise, the band quickly became the darlings of the nascent Beijing indie rock scene.
The group's 2007 self-titled debut is widely considered the best document of the Beijing indie movement and contains a song often cited as the scene's anthem, "Zhong Nan Hai." Referring to both a popular cigarette brand and a residential Beijing neighborhood for top government officials, the song's cryptic double meaning perfectly sums up Carsick Cars' ambiguous political stance.
Although his lyrics occasionally dance around the subject, Shouwang has claimed the band's music is not political. Shouwang is more interested in creating visceral guitar noise. His masterful control of extreme guitar sounds recalls the best work of Sonic Youth, Carsick Cars toured with the group in 2007.
You may have seen musician/artist Zuoxiao Zuzhou in the Ai Weiwei documentary Never Sorry - - or maybe you saw him handcuffed to Ai in the artist's "Gangnam Style" parody video. Ai has called his friend and collaborator "the most important musician in China" and he chose Zuzhou to produce his forthcoming debut release.
Zuzhou is perhaps the most outspoken and provocative artist in the Chinese music scene. His croaking, out-of-tune vocals and brilliant lyrics have prompted comparisons to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits.
Eschewing the metaphorical commentary employed by most Chinese singers, Zuzhou takes direct aim at his lyrical targets. From food scandals to government corruption, Zuzhou takes inspiration from the everyday injustices of contemporary Chinese life. It's an artistic choice that comes at a great price: like Ai Weiwei, Zuzhou has been subjected to prolonged periods of indiscriminate detention by Chinese officials.
Aside from his 2010 collaboration with the Canadian rock band Cowboy Junkies, Zuzhou's music is nearly impossible to find in the United States. But it's well worth the work in tracking down any of the musician's LPs as Zuzhou one of the most interesting figures working in rock music today.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's podcast features selections from the Chinese underground rock scene.
1. Carsick Cars - Zhong Nan Hai
2. Dear Eloise - Castle
3. 10 - Gajang
4. Zuoxiao Zuzhou - 这些天的一天
5. Hang on the Box - Shanghai
6. PK 14 - Eden Garden
7. Carsick Cars - No Gu
8. Cui Jian - The Other Shore
9. Zuoxiao Zuzhou - 新年快乐
10. Carsick Cars - Guang Chang