Breaking the sound barriers

Updated: 2011-12-02 09:51

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

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Breaking the sound barriers

China's rock 'n' roll icons, Cui Jian, Zheng Jun, Liang Long and He Yong, are from the North yet they are keen to win over audiences nationwide. Photos provided to China Daily

Chinese rockers are sounding out the North-South divide. Chen Nan reports.

Chinese rockers are increasingly breaking the sound barriers of the country's cultural geography. Rock 'n' roll has been a particularly location-centric genre. The chillier northern half of the country warmly welcomes rock shows, which often get a cold shoulder in the hotter southern regions. Indie band Miserable Faith is a case in point. The hardcore pioneers' heavy beats and furious lyrics are today well received nationwide. But in the early days following their 1999 formation, they were shrugged at throughout the southern leg of their national tour, which was inspired by the band's adoration of Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road.

The crowds sizzled for them in Beijing, Tianjin and Shaanxi's provincial capital Xi'an. But audiences were cool toward them in Shanghai, Guangdong province's capital Guangzhou and Fujian province, the band recalls.

Sometimes, they even had to cancel shows because of tepid turnouts in the South.

"It's so sad to have just a few people there when you stand on the stage, especially for rock 'n' roll," the band's vocalist and songwriter Gao Hu says.

"The audience's emotion is very important for us to unleash ourselves. We usually write songs when we are on the road, turning our feelings about different cities into lyrics. We expected the audiences to have the same emotions toward us, but we were wrong."

When they released their second album, Don't Stop My Music, in 2009 and toured the South again, they were surprised to find the song On the Road was the best received at their shows. They even named their tour after their namesake song, Heading to the South Later.

"Heading to the South, heading to the South, and my dream is in front of me; the light of dawn comes," Gao sings.

The song is softer and more poetic than their others.

"In our earlier music, we preferred to express our attitude sharply and directly," Gao says.

"With the second album, we came to see the world with an open and forgiving attitude. The album is warm but still powerful. We didn't do that intentionally but felt it was right. I think the change helped us feel closer to audiences in the South, who like expressing themselves in a gentler way."

Rocker Zheng Jun comes from Xi'an, which is often hailed as a Mecca of rock that has produced such big names as Zhang Chu and Xu Wei.

There's good reason for that, Zheng believes. He says his music style has been sculpted by the city's culture and local people's generosity, directness and hot tempers.

"(In Xi'an) you express your emotions directly, good or bad," he says. "There is no need to hide your feelings in the city."

But he found people in Zhejiang province's capital Hangzhou, where he went to university, "didn't get" his music.

"I felt alone there," he recalls.

"I knew that if I wanted to be a rock singer, I had to come to Beijing. The rock environment is strong like in Xi'an, and the city inspired me."

He slept in the subway because he had no money when he first arrived in the capital but shot to fame after releasing his debut album, Naked, in 1993.

His distinctive high notes and critical lyrics made him an iconic Chinese rock figure.

Although his national tours received the same applause in the North and South, he still noticed a difference, he says.

"When I perform in Beijing or Xi'an, the crowd starts to scream from the first drumbeat and soon goes wild," he explains.

"But in the South, it takes a while to get audiences fired up."

Rockers have made efforts to cross the divide.

Beijing rock singer/songwriter Wang Feng has infused uplifting lyrics and melodies into his otherwise cynical repertoire.

Xu Xiaofeng, the former CEO of Warner Music China and founder of National Music Industry Base, says a music company organizing outdoor music festivals must realize regional differences create cultural distinctions. Consequently, different attitudes toward rock 'n' roll are inevitable.

"It's mostly because of different personalities, in addition to dialects," he says.

"People living in North China are straightforward and emotional. They tend to express emotions. Most of the rock singers and songwriters are from the North, which enables them to easily connect with northern audiences," he continues.

"But southerners are quieter and more introverted. They like soft music and often consider rock to be too heavy."

But those boundaries are being overcome with time, Xu explains.

"There are a lot of really curious people out there, especially the youth," he says.

"This is just another kind of music they will talk about, and rockers are still putting it out, because rock 'n' roll deserves a place in that discussion."

Music critic Huang Liaoyuan says the regional differences mostly affect young upstart rock outfits trying to go national.

The 2008 Rock Heroes concert brought to the stage the genre's biggest names - Cui Jian, Zheng Jun, Zheng Chu, He Yong and Tang Dynasty - and attracted more than 50,000 fans in Beijing and nearly 80,000 in Shanghai.

"Those rock icons from the last 20 years still have a powerful onstage presence that's hard for young singers to surpass," says Huang, who was one of the concert organizers.

He points to a 1994 concert in the Hong Kong Arena as an example. The concert featured He Yong, Dou Wei and Zhang Chu - called "Moyan San Jie", or "The Three Prominent Ones of Moyan Records" - and venerated rock band Tang Dynasty.

"It was an emotional night, and it was the first time mainland rock singers conquered Hong Kong audiences," he says.

"The concert was a landmark for Chinese rock 'n' roll.

"Those singers were young and it was their first time performing at the Hong Kong Arena. The reason they could make the audiences stand for hours and scream for them was the truth in their hearts and the great original rock they played."

Huang believes today's youthful rockers could learn something from their predecessors.

"If young rockers want to expand their spheres of influence, they should focus on the music and stay true to themselves."