Spring has finally come to Beijing, and everyone, myself included, is starting to wake up from self-induced hybernation.
Now my winter here was anything but uneventful, but one just can't be bothered to go out all the time with the wind howling and Beijing's dark, hazy winter skies. Nor can one be bothered to throw rocking parties and bring out top-notch live music. I was beginning to lose hope for this city, which all the locals brag is one of the most dynamic and happening places on earth.
Well, it's almost t-shirt weather now, and a few unheard of spring rains have blessed the city with some much needed greenery. It's like there's some conspiracy in Beijing that all the freaks wait to come out until the thermometer hits 20c. Last week, my mailbox and cell phone were suddenly flooded with invites to all kinds of parties, new bars and gallery openings. I can't believe I still have time to go to work these days.
Last week started with an exhibition at the LA Gallery up by the airport, which promptly turned into a backroom tea session and whirlwind tour of all the galleries and studios in the neighborhood, followed by a 30 person feast at a nearby Korean BBQ. We must have demolished a whole side of beef that night.
The next day, on invitation from someone I met the night before, I headed into a maze of hutongs, or old alleyways, to a poorly marked Qing-era courtyard house that now serves as the Jianghu Bar. Equipped with simple wooden furniture and littered with folk art from Yunnan and Tibet, this is the prime hangout for a group of young musicians and hipsters who mostly met each other hiking and jamming through China's mountainous frontier. Their favorite pasttime, after drinking, is holding improv open-mike jam sessions on a stage the size of my coffee table in the corner of Jianghu.
Kids were breaking out harmonicas, bongoes and just about anything that makes noise. There was plenty of scatting, plenty of freestyle blues, and more than one half hour drum trance. These are all things I thought I had left behind forever back in Yunnan. Thank goodness I was wrong.
This young lady, whose name escapes me, was being begged to get on stage all night. My cellphone mike doesn't do her justice, but rest assured, she's got a killer voice. I plan to spend a lot of time this summer up at the Jianghu bar, but don't bother asking me where it is; I'm gonna keep this place to myself for a while.
I used up all my weekend fizz on friday night. It started out in the normal way, with a marathon taxi run across the city at rush hour to meet my friends at a popular Xinjiang restaurant. Man I hate the traffic in this city.
The occasion: my buddy Hong Qi, a folk rocker from Xinjiang, was giving face to the backers of his latest album. Hong Qi knows everybody, and by the time I arrived at 6:30 (I left the office at 5), there were at least ten people at the table, including a Mr Hao, the senior editor for Rolling Stone Magazine's China edition, Old Men (more on him later), who is a filmmaker for CCTV, a couple of Xinjiang wanderers, and half of Hong Qi's band.
We managed to eat and drink there until 10:00, accompanied by impromptu songs from the Xinjiang contingent and several reloads of roast mutton kebabs. The smart ones found ways to excuse themselves along the way, but Hong Qi never lets me leave. I finally found a proper excuse, so I could run off to another jam session in another antique Beijing house, at Jiangjinjiu.
The expat trendchasers already know about this place, so I can tell you: Jiangjinjiu is a tiny music bar in the park area behind Beijing's Drum Tower. At least 150 people were packed in a room the size of a one car garage to hear a Chinese/Spanish outfit jamming out on a smooth latin-fusion groove. Hong Qi and co managed to track us down, Kro from the Kro's Nest (best damn pizza joint in town!) and a lot of the kids from Jianghu showed up, so we managed to take over half the bar. The stage is only about two inches off the ground, so we were more dancing with the band than to them. Definitely another place I'll be seeing a lot of in the future.
That was a great week, but this week was just taxing. The Roots, one of my favorite bands of all time, brought their amazing live hiphop/jazz/everythingwithabeat act to Beijing on their first trip to China tuesday, and gave an excellent show to a sold-out house at Star Live, just next to the Lama Temple. I've always respected these guys for their instrumental skills and rich knowledge of musical heritage. I guess they were out to educate the local scene, so they mixed their own stuff with musical interludes of everything from Maceo Parker to Black Sabbath and Method Man.
After dragging my worn-out body through another hectic day at the office, all I wanted to do was go home and curl up with a good book (I'm working on "Living to Tell the Tale", Gabriel Garcia Marquez's memiors), but then I realized with horror that I had to go back to the exact same club for another night of music and fun. Tonight was Hong Qi's concert and Old Men's birthday. I had to go. Had to.
Hong Qi has been in the folk rock scene for over a decade. He wandered into Beijing from Xinjiang with nothing but a guitar on his back about ten years ago, and has been constantly organizing music events and helping out small bands ever since.
His brand of folk rock has never caught on in a huge way, but he has a scattered and devoted following around the country. He's helped to popularize the idea that artists should write, play and sing their own songs, a practice rendered nearly extinct by China's karaoke culture, and he's dedicated to helping out any and everyone who does so. He uses his website , massive text messaging and his network of media friends to promote all kinds of 'genuine' musicians, be they into traditional Xinjiang music, Beijing-style rock, or something no-one's heard of. He's keyed in to all kinds of music scenes and cultural trends, and is the one who turned me on to Arlo Guthrie and the American folk scene. In short, he's a cool guy, if a bit bu kaopu sometimes.
True to his style, he gave up more than half of his stagetime to introduce a long line of smalltime bands and singers. The scene was much more subdued than the night before - we actually had tables to sit at - but the whole audience was made up of old friends and hardcore music lovers. A good time as always.
No night at Star Live - even the roots concert - is complete without a late nite visit to Jin Ding Xuan. A Beijing institution of sorts, the Xuan, as we call it, is an enormous 24 hour southern style dim-sum restaurant with an old-school Beijing style that sits right next to star live. The place serves great food, and the giant food halls on each of four floors are always packed. I actually had to wait in line for a table at two in the morning once.
This time Old Men had reserved tables for 30 people to celebrate his birthday after the show. Men Xinxi can trace his family line back to the Manchu invasion of Beijing which established the Qing Dynasty. He was an influential artist in the mid eighties, and picked up filmmaking sometime around then. He now works on a semi-independent basis as a documentary filmmaker for CCTV, where his claim to fame is the seminal film series "Twenty Years of Popular Music", in which he somehow managed to get the likes of Deng Lijun, China's first pop star, and Cui Jian, the godfather of Chinese rock and a political timebomb, onto the national tv network for the first time. A Beijinger to the core, Old Men has let me catch a glimpse of Beijing's older generation of street intellectuals, the generation who lived on cabbage and rice in their youth, hit the countryside during the cultural revolution, and whose poetry, art and writings captivated the nation and terrified the state during the eighties.
On the night of the party, these old men traded old stories and debated the fate of the nation between gulps of erguotou, Beijing's jet-fuel firewater, and broke out in duets of Beijing Opera while us young'uns sat there dumbstruck.
So now it's Friday, and I think I'm going to take it easy for a change. I have the whole summer ahead of me in this undefinable city, and I'd like to keep my liver with me for another couple of decades. Hopefully I'll be able to get around to making more blog posts while I'm at it.