Adventures in China

Oct 10, 2017

If you’ve been following my social media, you’ll know that last week I travelled with Ben Paley, Roger Wilson and John Spiers to play three shows in China. Open air, city centre stages, Huiming Culture Communication brought world music into the heart of Wuhan and Shanghai. But why did we go, it's just a gig, why was it such a big deal?

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We didn’t have much time to connect with other bands as our schedule was so full, but the sound checks and snippets of gigs I heard were amazing, these were serious musicians making innovative contemporary traditional musics – no generic, touristy money-makers here. We were the only English act, and I recognised the plight of the universal touring musician: We may be carrying an oud, a kora, or a melodeon, but we were all hanging around waiting to sound check. One evening had a distinct sense of Celtic Connections about it, with groups of bands sitting around a soulless hotel foyer, mingling here and there to exchange musical ideas and a beer or two.  

Funded by the government and sponsorship, the festival had a very good set up. Great PA, stage, lights, big screens etc, but those same screens showed adverts for the sponsoring car company between sets, somewhat shattering the nourishing, artistic world-music-vibes the artists created...

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Inventively produced by Tian Wang, employee of Huiwang Cultural Communications who oversee multiple festivals, the organisation was impeccable.  Despite being thrown instruments from literally all over the world and the obvious language barriers, tech crews did exactly what was needed, including building the best stomp box I’ve ever seen. The main workforce though were volunteers, mostly students. The whole event felt very youth-led, the festival office was in a hotel bedroom hangout space, with take away wrappers strewn everywhere.  Our guides, Betty, Luna and Victor, had very good English, which was useful because there is generally little spoken, and my Chinese has quite some way to go.  They were enthusiastic, dedicated and helpful; they were also our biggest fans – especially the group in Wuhan who had been listening on repeat to the only two tracks available in China.  They were so excited to meet us, we arranged a version of ‘The Weavers Daughter’ to play in the set.

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This raises an issue of trying to connect with Chinese audiences – accessing information and music.  While they could buy my CDs after the gig, as far as I know there is no other way to get them elsewhere, or to hear of new releases or tours.  There is no Amazon; no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram; no Soundcloud, or connection to my personal website  – the Chinese government tightly control what media is available. While I was there, I set up an account on the approved equivalent, We Chat, so I now have a good number of Chinese followers to share information with, and yet another social media page to keep updated….

All in all, we spent 42 hours in airports or in the air, for 3 x 45 minutes on stage.  That doesn’t seem like a very productive use of the world’s resources, but the impact of the trip went deeper, both as personal experience (I ate frog!), and as a step to engaging more in the future. I made good connections with local managers wanting to develop touring in China, and the reception by audiences shows that there is real potential for sharing English music to enthusiastic Chinese listeners.

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Although international touring is a great feather for my cap/CV, it doesn’t feel like we are going global.  Rather, I have one audience on this side of the world, and another in China.  I can’t foresee how these worlds could connect as one fan base just yet, though it is early days and certainly something I am interested to explore.

This begs the question: Why? Nice paid holidays for me and the band? A good money-making venture if we sell a pile of CDs? Or is there an important act of sharing going on, working on the assumption that it is good to connect with other cultures, to learn from one another and build understanding?

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What do they get from us? From my recent research with Sarah Price into English audiences of traditional songs, connecting with the material and understanding why the singer loves the song are central to enjoyment – in this context these can be difficult to communicate, but there is clearly more going on. There is certainly an interest in English cultural tradition, and they seemed to enjoy the sounds we made, but there is also a desire to connect with the rest of the world. I know some people at home were disappointed that we went to play in a country which has such tight governance, they felt we were supporting the regime.  But if their day-to-day life is so separated from global concerns through media control, could international touring and joining Chinese social media systems go some way to helping to connect – participating in their systems rather than maintaining the blocks they have in accessing ours?

I certainly learnt a lot about Chinese culture from just a short visit, and I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing all about what we did on our holidays…