To celebrate and share the works of the late, great New Zealand composer Jack Body, the NZ Consulate-General in Chengdu and long-time friend, composer and pianist Gao Ping 高平 invited the NZTrio to perform at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music this month.
Kiwese attended a press conference (oooh) with Gao Ping and the lovely folk from NZTrio: Ashley Brown (cello), Justine Cormack (violin) and Sarah Watkins (piano), all dear friends and musical comrades of this celebrated Kiwi music maker.
With a YouTube search of the name ‘Jack Body,’ you will find a mixed bag of NZSQ performance recitals and club remixes of the house tune ‘Jack Your Body.’ A truly spectacular name, for a one of a kind, fun-loving and inspired man.
Te Aroha-born composer Jack Body will be remembered for many things. He was an educator, photographer, traveller, editor, facilitator and mobiliser of New Zealand’s musical dialogue with the outside world. Having lectured at the New Zealand School of Music for over thirty years, Jack introduced the Indonesian gamelan to New Zealand, wrote countless numbers of works, invited talent from around the world to perform, write and teach in New Zealand, and even released a photographic series of penises!
Jack attended school and university in Auckland but later called Wellington home, where lived with his life partner Yono Soekarno in Aro Valley. Despite his fascination with the music and cultures of the world, Jack was based in New Zealand his whole life and dedicated himself to bringing the world to NZ and vice versa.
We are forever grateful for his commitment. Rest in peace, Jack.
Hi NZTrio! This is not your first time in China, is it?
JUSTINE CORMACK: I forget how many times we’ve been here already! Jack established these music links with China. He is the reason we have been able to come so many times.
How did this trip come about ?
ASHLEY BROWN: It was a lovely invitation from Gao Ping and the NZ Consulate. We’ve been to Chengdu twice before to play at the Sichuan Conservatory. We love the food and the people. We are beginning to get further into the local music, too. Gao Ping is currently writing a piece for us, a piano trio with guzheng, which is a very important and exciting project – a way for China and New Zealand to join hands in a cultural way. Hopefully it will be performed on our next visit to Chengdu.
Jack said he enjoyed coming to Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou to find Chinese inspiration. What do you think inspired him?
GAO: Mr. Body came to the Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan region really early on－ the first time was about thirty years ago. He travelled out to really remote villages to sample their music, including ethnic minority areas in Guizhou. He loved folk music – the music that derived from the original ecology. He collected a lot of material – this whole journey was recorded in a documentary called ‘Big Nose,’ which what Chinese people call foreigners.
Fieldwork, data collection, sound recording, all of this had an enormous impact on his later works. He was not only interested in folk music but customs as well, like the backstreet hubbub of hawkers and peddlers of Chengdu at the time. He recorded these voices and well as the chanting of workers, then later added them into his works.
What are the highlights of tomorrow’s performance?
SARAH WATKINS: One special piece in the program is for solo piano with voice recording called ‘The Street Where I Live’ – the voice is Jack describing the street he lived on in Wellington. It is nice to have that voice as part of this conference, even though he is no longer with us. The whole program is a lovely display of Jack’s interest in so many different styles of music.
WATCH KIWESE TV: NZTrio’s performance in Chengdu.
Featuring excerpts from Fire in the Belly and The Street Where I Live by Jack Body and Four Sketches by Gao Ping.
What kind of connection did Jack have with Chengdu and Sichuan?
GAO: The first time Mr. Body came to Sichuan was in 1986. Although I didn’t see him back then, he forged some great connections with several musicians here at the Conservatory of Music. Later when I moved to the U.S. to study, I invited him to a performance of his works. When I eventually moved to New Zealand, I had a lot do with him. To be honest, we have always been pushing this NZ and China music connection, he came to Sichuan in 2009 with some other Kiwi composers. He is a New Zealand composer who really cares about Chinese music.
His real ideology was based around a musical worldliness. Not a worldliness where everyone is the same, quite the opposite, he hoped that every place could protect what was unique about them, while also being able to mingle with everyone else. This is what he was about. Whether in his own works, events or festivals, he was always promoting this ideology.
KIWESE: You mentioned that the NZ environment influenced you to compose Bright Light Cloud Shadows (2007). To what extent does your environment influence you work?
GAO: Certainly an artist’s environment has a very deep influence on his art, but it is not always clear. When you write you are emerged in the process, but the air, the light, everything, is what you are in – it does something to you, but it is impossible to separate what that is. That particular piece Bright Light Cloud Shadows was written in Christchurch, that is my NZ piece, although the title comes from the painter Bada Shanren. If I was to write such a piece now it would be very different, because I live in Beijing where there is no light and no clouds…
KIWESE: In addition to having such a close working relationship with Jack, what was he like as a person? Any personal anecdotes you’d like to share?
JUSTINE: He had a really wonderful sense of humour, as well being generous and loving, he really took care of people. There always seems to be a sense of humour in Jack’s music, my lasting memory of him is that wry chuckle. The first piece we will play at the concert is called Pain In The Arse, where have to scream out things like ‘pain in the BUTT BUTT BUTT!’ He would be chuckling at us!
ASHLEY: My memories are sincerity. What he taught us is that collaboration shouldn’t be superficial, where two groups simply share a stage, but to find ways for cultures to intermingle. Eating the food, meeting the people and actually existing together, having an understanding of each other. Having a laugh, telling jokes and a glass of wine with the people you are going to be performing with is really important. Jack certainly showed us how to share a few wines!
SARAH: Certainly one of our first memories with Jack was when we were travelling in Indonesia and our van broke down. So we had to pass a few hours in the middle of nowhere. Jack wasn’t prepared to just sit and wait in the van for a few hours, he wandered off and came back a while later saying ‘come, come!’ He had walked down a dusty road and found some houses at the end, where he met some families who invited us back for a cup of tea. That sense of exploration is what I will remember about him.
You recently ran a Douglas Lilburn tertiary composition competition. Even here at this event we can see a lot of NZ university promotion, and you will have seen the increase in Chinese students in Auckland. Is there much of a Chinese base in the performance or composition departments?
JUSTINE: Definitely in performance, composition not so many. It seems to me that music is valued by Asian people in New Zealand, that really comes through in their commitment and energy to learning about music. Great discipline, which is often lacking in others (laughs).
SARAH: We encountered some Chinese students over the years, I’m thinking Jeff Lin, and there were a few in the competition.
GAO: Concerts like this are important in increasing China’s awareness of NZ music. I think NZ is known for its milk here, a little wine, but I try to tell them there are great artists and composers!
Any stand out young NZ composers in your eyes at the moment? 你们现在觉得那些年轻新西兰的作曲家是出人头地？
JUSTINE: There are so many. Isaac Shatford – he’s a first year composition student. We’ve even brought along some of his music. In the Lilburn competition he wrote a piece for piano trio, which Lilburn himself never wrote.
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 calledStrange 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
‘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.”
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.”
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.
“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 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 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!