High Times with Shanren

Back in January, Kiwese hung out with the boys from Shanren 山人 (mountain men) in Beijing to chat about ethnic music fusions, tourism development in Yunnan and their upcoming trip to New Zealand for WOMAD.

Shanren are a band from the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau in the south-west of China, where the mountains are tall and majestic, the people are warm and hospitable and the traditional cultures of various ethnic minorities thrive away from the scurry of the metropolitan centres. The band, consisting of lead singer and guitarist Qu Zihan [瞿子寒], bassist Ai Yong [艾勇], drummer Ou Jianyun aka Xiao Ou [欧建云], vocal instrumentalist Xiao Bu Dian [小不点] and Sam [夏天] on percussion, are all multi-instrumentalists who possess an artillery of instruments, such the qinqin [秦琴] (a three stringed lute with high frets), the Yi banjo [彝族月琴], the sanxian [三弦] (a type of three stringed banjo), bamboo flutes, tooth harps and a smorgasbord of percussion. It’s a wonder they can all fit it all on stage.

Shanren's logo. Easier to appreciate the epic simplicity if you can read hanzi.
Shanren’s logo. Easier to appreciate the epic simplicity if you can read hanzi.

When Sam said they could meet for an interview at the Sheraton Hotel, I was somewhat puzzled. Aren’t these guys based in Beijing now? Why are they at a five-star hotel? All was to be revealed upon my arrival, as I walked passed the gaggle of Yunnanese girls in full ethnic headwear, costume and make up, past the illuminated signage full of curated snippets on the beauty and splendor of Yunnan [lit. south of the clouds] and through to the back room where the band had stationed themselves away from the formalities.

I shook their hands as I went round the room and asked them all to sign my guitar, bestowing Qu Zihan with a plastic bag full of Tsingdao cans, which Xiao Ou soon descended on with boyish glee. They seemed knackered, potentially hungover, and keen to wrap up what had been a morning of performing for people who were not exactly like regulars from their usual habitat of reggae bars and festival stages. Nervously placing my iPhone on top of a beer can, we commenced the interview.

Ai Yong was sprawled out on the chairs, while Qu Zihan was in a more able state to answer questions. “The band formed at the end of 1999, then it was on and off for a while,” he explained “at first, it was just me and Xiao Ou, followed by a bassist who is not with the band anymore. Then Ai Yong came along. And Sam. Then in 2007, Xiao Bu Dian joined in too. That’s pretty much how it went.”

Aside from the geographic significance behind the name, Qu Zihan says the phrase ‘shānrén’ also gives a nod to ancient figures in Chinese history who would choose to live a hermit [隐士, yǐnshì] existence away from the public eye, in order to dedicate their lives to art and culture. Think of reclusive but brilliant Tang poets, tucked away high up in the mountains, writing in perfect solitude. Kind of Romanticist in a way.

Shanren with some of their folk instruments. Photo from Jue Festival site.
Shanren from left: Ai Yong, Qu Zihan, Ou Jianyun, Xiao Bu Dian. Photo from Jue Festival website.

Though the band have been around since the late nineties, it’s only in recent years that they have released some studio recordings, including a self-titled EP (2009), the highly praised ‘Listen to the Mountains’ [听山] (2012) and their latest offering ‘Left Foot Dance of the Yi and other Chinese folk rock anthems,’ (2013) released last year to excited appraisal from international and Chinese music critics alike.

Listening to the album is a rollercoaster ride, underpinned by voices that bounce back and forth through the call and answer group vocals – a style that is perfectly realised through the crispness and succinctness of Chinese syllables. Bluesy hammer-ons and bends on traditional lute strings swim through the song ‘Thirty Years.’ The pop choruses heard in ‘Bi Li Tong,’ are starkly contrasted with haunting, dystopian wails atop bustling city soundscapes in the duel tracks ‘Wandering’ and ‘Lost.’ Hip-hop even rears its head in ‘Song of the Wa,’ featuring a rap from Ai Yong in his native tongue and record-scratching effects produced with a mouth harp. ‘The Crab’ is a reggae-infused mojito getaway, followed by the upbeat vibes of ‘Yi Wa’ which layers Chinese flute, rumbling percussion and loud group calls not unlike a Samoan sasa.

Qu Zihan saying it like it is. Image from Shanren douban page.
Qu Zihan saying it like it is. Image from Shanren’s Douban page.

“At first we called ourselves ‘ethnic rock,’ but it didn’t feel accurate,” says Qu Zihan of their inimitable style, “so we came up with the name ‘agricultural metal’ [农业金属]  partly inspired by ‘industrial metal’ [工业金属] in the West.”

The album is a triumph – the techniques, instruments, dialects, rhythms and melodies a cohesion of both the mountainous highlands of China’s south-west, and the influences they have encountered from lands of other altitudes – The Beatles, Nirvana and Bob Dylan were names that floated round the room.

“We try to bring the atmosphere of the mountains to the stage,” says drummer Xiao Ou of performing in a stage environment, “of course there can be a distance, but the audience can still dance and feel the vibe even if they are behind the handrails.” Xiao Bu Dian, who fashions a long plait of black hair, counters the point, “our music is not traditional – it’s a fusion with modern aesthetics,” he says “to me there is no difference in the delivery between being on a big stage and being in the mountains.”

Xiao Bu Dian rocking it on stage last year
Xiao Bu Dian rocking it on stage last year. Image from Shanren’s Douban page.

‘Drinking Song’ [酒歌] is Shanren’s signature track; the Chinese answer to ‘Bliss.’ “Xiao Ou probably drinks the most,” Qu Zihan says, as he ashes his cigarette in a recently drained beer can. “In Yunnan we have paojiu,” Xiao Ou explains, while cracking open another Tsingdao, “which is like baijiu steeped with things like quince, jujube, snakes and stuff.” Hold up, wait, what?! I was as perplexed by the concept of preserved snake liquor as they were by fermented apple cider. Laughter ensued and more beers were shared round.

Since forming in Kunming, the band have now moved from the fresh air of Yunnan to ‘the big smoke,’ where the phrase takes on a more literal sense with regard to Beijing. “That video was shot near Beijing,” Qu Zihan says of the video for ‘第五期,’ set alongside lush, flowing rivers and green foliage, “though these kind of places are getting rarer and rarer due to the pollution. Sometimes the entire region from Sichuan to the north-east is completely covered in smog. But most places in Yunnan are still good.”

Taken in Shangri La, 香格里拉, Yunnan last summer. The town was renamed after the mystical land in James Hilton's novel in 2001 for tourism reasons. Originally known as Zhongdian [中甸], it continues to remain so on most public buses.
Taken in Shangri La, 香格里拉, Yunnan last summer. The town was renamed after the mystical land in James Hilton’s novel in 2001 for tourism reasons. Originally known as Zhongdian [中甸], it continues to retain this name on most public buses.
In addition to the landscape, Yunnan can boast a healthy music scene, with Dali long having been considered the ‘hippie capital’ of China for musicians, while the capital Kunming provides a hub for local artists in the region. “I think the music scene in Kunming is great at the moment – nowadays there are a lot of music venues and it’s a definitely being included by more touring independent artists,” says Qu Zihan of his hometown. “There are definitely more opportunities for us here though, in smaller places there is not always an audience,” he says, “in Beijing, you just have to get on stage and people will be there to listen. That is the nature of this city.”

Mountain men. Photo from World Music.
Mountain men. Photo from World Music.

Shan Ren’s application for funding to play at WOMADelaide and WOMAD New Zealand were rejected by the Chinese Ministry of Culture – but instead of canceling, WOMAD agreed to fund the band themselves. “We are really looking forward to seeing acts from all over the world play in one place,” beamed Xiao Bu Dian. Hanggai, who Shanren have performed with on the Beijing circuit for years, played at the three-day camping festival back in 2011, which was extremely well received by the festival’s eclectic mix of sunburnt jivers. “Hanggai said WOMAD was a big platform for sharing music,” says Qu Zihan, “and I heard that New Zealand is where they filmed Lord of the Rings,” he added, “I wanna see that – it’s beautiful.” The boys will also be doing a cooking workshop at the Kunming Garden area, as fate would have it their hometown and New Plymouth are sister cities!

Xiao Bu Dian surprised me by with his knowledge of hongi custom and the didgeridoo of Australia, though the band are no strangers to touring outside of China – working hard with crowdfunding campaigns to get to Europe, South East Asia and the States in recent years. “Unfortunately we won’t have time to travel in New Zealand after WOMAD,” says Sam, who has been involved with the band for several years as a percussionist and dancer, “we are going to Australia for about a week, then Ecuador before that!” It’s a shame we can’t show off a bit of New Zealand ‘shan’ while they are here, I thought.

Typical me being a fan and having a photo with the band.
Typical me being a fan and having a photo with the band.

“Great t-shirt,” Qu Zihan remarked, pointing at my tie-dyed ‘大理风景’ [Dali Scenery] t-shirt bought on my recent trip to Yunnan. We talked about the rapid increase of commercial tourism in Yunnan, which was why they had been brought in to play at the Sheraton.

Ai Yong, who had been silent for the duration of the interview, uttered his first words.

“A lot of things have disappeared. Old villages are being torn down [拆, chāi] and local people are being told to move out. It changes people’s traditional lifestyles, but they come and cut down the rambutan trees, then smile together and have a toast. Even when we were kids I remember it being like this. Though it is happening not only just here in China, but all over the world.” Its not difficult to see what he means, when campaigns like this are fast becoming a reality. Note: apocalyptic music.

The symbol for 'To be Demolished,' 拆 [chāi] is a more and more common appearance as China work towards modernising the country. Image China Daily.
The symbol for ‘To be Demolished,’ 拆 [chāi] is a more and more common appearance as China work towards modernising the country. Image from China Daily.
The band feel strongly about preserving and maintaining the native mother languages of their regions, in an age where standardized Mandarin [普通话, pǔtōnghuà] is the expectation in schools. “In Kunming, there have been times where if you are wearing ethnic clothes and get into a car, they say Wa people have to give more money,” he says, closely followed by the only English of the interview: “…fuck you!”

The mixture of personalities and often-contrary opinions within the group is something I loved about Shanren. The banter and jokes that went down at each other’s expense – often dished out in a Yunnanese dialect, reflected the way they interact as a band who are never content to conform with one standard.

“There are some policies that give special consideration for ethnic minorities to attend school,” commented Xiao Bu Dian, who is of the Buyi People, “I think its okay.”

“Dude, you look heaps like this New Zealand rapper called King Kapisi,” I mention to Ai Yong, who has grown up in places all round central-northern Yunnan like Dali, Lijiang and Kunming. Turns out, the Wa People are of the Austronesian ethnic group, who have connections to the migratory history to the Pacific Islands.

“Stay and eat with us!” they warmly entreated at the end of the ‘official’ interview, exuding that warm hospitality that is often bestowed by the Chinese, “really, you should come and eat a bit.” Having had such a great time with them and even jamming some guitars, how could I refuse?!

Woah. A large banquet hall was set up for the ‘Colourful Yunnan: Quality Travel’ [七彩云南: 品质旅游] event, a Sims build mode-esque theme song played on repeat over the speakers while delegates in suits and cocktail dresses chattered away exchanging business cards beneath the faux chandeliers. Once we had sufficiently ravaged the buffet of vegetables, meats, seafoods, snacks, eggs, salads, cakes and fresh fruits, a high heeled hostess addressed the table in extremely polite putonghua and presented each of us with beverages and glasses with robot like efficiency. “There’s no word for ‘cheesy’ in Chinese,” Sam laughed, “I’ve been trying to explain it to them for years, but they have no concept of it.”

Having a feed with Shanren at the Colourful Yunnan expo.
Having a feed with the boys at the Colourful Yunnan expo.

Having visited Yunnan as a tourist, it was insane to see the other side it – the industry behind those upcoming, half-completed luxury resorts in Xishuangbanna. “What do you think of these adverts?” I asked Qu Zihan, as I shoveled more vegetable rice into my mouth. “They’re so boring,” [非常无聊, fēicháng wúliáo] he said, flicking through the glossy picture advertisements of Yunnan tourist statistics and new developments.

While the left foot is dancing the Yi, the right foot is treading a distinctive path of its own – and the world is listening.

Shanren. They are the ones truly representing Yunnan.

Shanren Schedule for WOMAD this weekend:

  • FRI 14th March: 8.15pm @ Chimney Stage

  • SAT 1pm @ Dell Stage – doing a workshop!

  • SAT 4pm @ Taste the World – doing a cooking class!

  • SUN 4pm @ Chimney Stage

Special thanks to Lin Yin for her help with transcribing and translation, Sam for sussing the meeting, Colourful Yunnan for the free food and of course the Shanren boys for being champs! See you at WOMAD!

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