Kunming. The south-western provincial capital of Yunnan, China’s very own Shangri-La of tourism. Images that spring to mind are probably not whiskey-swigging, tattoo-covered electro-pop divas.
Having far exceeded one’s tolerance levels for crap pop music and ‘Xiao Ping Guo,’ Kiwese was excited to check out local bands Strange Days and South Acid MiMi Dance Team at the latest addition to the MAO Livehouse empire.
Generally considered as a stopover for travellers roaming through the backpackers’ paradise of Yunnan, Kunming is often overlooked for the more colourful, natural beauty of surrounding areas. However, at this bizarre double-bill at MAO Livehouse on a Friday night, I found there to be a community of music lovers and locals who are building a new scene for themselves to play in, away from the tourism developments that permeate much of the province.
MAO Livehouse is a household name on the Chinese live music circuit, with venues in Beijing and Shanghai hosting local and international acts of big and small. The Shanghai branch has begun taking the name out west, with MAO Kunming opening just last month and MAO Chongqing set to open early this year. MAO Kunming has replaced the previous tenants Pro Livehouse 坡现场 and according to the bar, are the only dedicated livehouse in town.
Wisps of Radiohead and cigarette smoke hung in the air, above punters who all appeared to be provisioned with a lit cigarette in one hand and a photo-ready cellphone in the other.
Local Kunminger, Yuan Luo, 25yo, who introduced herself as Eva, works behind the drinks token booth as a volunteer whenever there are gigs on. “Other bars just invite bands to play as background music every night, people come to buy drinks and chat with friends. But here, it is all about music.”
“Young people are smarter than before, now they know what they want and they know how to avoid what they don’t like,” she continues, “five or ten years ago, young people just followed popular culture, but they didn’t know whether they actually liked it or not.”
“At MAO we welcome all types of music, as long as the musicians are passionate about it,” she says, while dishing out drink tickets to a trio of pierced and tattooed patrons, “but we do notice that not everyone likes all styles, like country or mín yáo 民谣 (folk)… so maybe we lose numbers for those events. They can have beautiful lyrics, but people might not give it a chance.”
“Kunming is a travelling city and we have many guests coming through every year. So I think it is much easier for Kunming people to open their minds and learn about new things.”
I mention interviewing the local folk-rock band Shanren 山人, who moved from Kunming to Beijing several years ago. For many Chinese bands, Beijing and Shanghai seem to be considered the L.A. and New York of China, where bigger audiences and more established scenes can be found. “Yeah, [Beijing and Shanghai] are more developed and we are developing,” she says, “ten years ago almost all the local bands went there to try make it big. But now it is different, and a lot of bands are coming back.”
First up on the ‘Lets Rock with Different Ways’ bill was a popular local band called Strange Days 奇怪的日子, who take their name from the Doors’ 1967 album. The band played an hour of plodding instrumental riffs, including one or two songs with vocals that got the crowd moving and singing along.
The set ended with the frontman shoving his guitar through the lighting rig and letting it loose in the crowd.
“It’s not just about selling beers and tickets. It is our mission to introduce people to new music.”
South Acid MiMi Dance Team 南方酸性咪咪领舞队 took the stage next, in what was possibly the most bizarre live show I’ve seen in China so far (Chengdu’s Chao Ren Tian Tian 超人田田 as a close contender).
CSS/Grimes styled beats emerged from the stage, the crowd moved in and the smuggled Soju came out…
The group is formed of three members Weilin, Jin and Zzuiii, identifiable by their lunar/aquatic themed homemade masks and childlike vocals, which teamed with preset electronic beats and K-Pop style sychronised dance moves saw them careen through songs such as ‘ARE U FEELING SICK?’ and ‘NUNUDUGU.’ The stage was ultimately invaded by a throng of local dance fiends and members of Strange Days. A very drunk Finnish man proclaimed his love for the group at the end of the set, but an encore was not granted.
So there are some pretty unique and original things going down in the Kunming music scene, with a growing community of people who are supporting it. But what of the MAO brand’s expansion mission out west? Are all venues in the region destined to be stock standard copies of the successful prototypes on the East Coast?
Greater professionalism appears to be a key goal of MAO Kunming. I couldn’t help but think MAO Kunming could do with some ground rules for photographers – the entire stage was teeming with them and they impeded the bands and the audience from viewing the stage. In saying that, I guess the venue provides a platform for everyone to practice their stuff. “We are still learning and are going to study at MAO Shanghai,” Yuan Luo says, “they have the same model and they want to make it better, like a more professional chain store.”
“It’s the same brand. Now they are getting more fēndiàn 分店 (branches)…” she offers, struggling for the word in English, thinking for a moment, “it’s like WalMart,” she concluded.
Short of the independent music scene being quashed in a South Park WalMart type scenario, it seems MAO Kunming’s revitalisation of a dirty old venue will pave the way for more livehouses to open in the city.
“We are only one venue and we cannot hold down that many bands,” Yuan Luo says with genuine enthusiasm, “big market, more competition, better concerts and better bands!”
Thanks Yuan Luo aka Eva for her insight! And to Strange Days and South Acid MiMi Dance Team for putting on a great show.