Chinese Rock Rolls On

December 28, 1990|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING — "I want everyone to see me but not know who I am."

--"Fake Monk" by Cui Jian

Cui Jian may be the only rock star in the world who wants to keep his concerts hush-hush -- and with good reason.

This fall, just a few days before what would have been his first major public performance in months, China's foremost rock and roller sat amid the jumble of electronic guitars and audio gear littering his one-room apartment, explaining why the event was not being advertised.

"I have no interest in calling attention to myself," he said. "The political situation here is still very sensitive. The more sensitive it is, the more uptight we will be. That kind of sensitivity is no good for rock and roll. In our society, rock and roll has to find the holes, work between the gaps. That is the only way we can exist."

Such gaps still persist that word of Cui Jian's return to the stage spread quickly along Beijing's well-honed grapevine. Tickets were snatched up and then scalped. Expectations warmed the city's dull chill.

By the Saturday night of the performance, though, the gaps were closed: Several hundred young people showed up outside the intended concert hall only to find a couple dozen police officers, a crew of not-so-subtle plainclothes informants and the bad news that this night no one would rock out.

If rock and roll is about looking for the heart of Saturday night, those left standing in the street in their party clothes learned once more that in China these days, Saturday nights can be rather heartless affairs.


"I don't want to leave. I don't want to exist. I don't want to live honestly. I want to leave. I want to exist. I want to die and start all over again."

--"Starting All Over Again"

by Cui Jian

Cui Jian, pronounced "Tsway Gee-an," is the leader of a small but surprisingly diverse group of Beijing rockers spawned here during the heady, reformist late '80s and now struggling to air their art within the authoritarian grip of 1990.

Shanghai and Canton also have rock scenes, but they are influenced by the vapid, overproduced pop emitted from Taiwan and Hong Kong. In large measure because of the concentration of Westerners in Beijing, China's politically uptight capital is where rock and roll -- "yaogun" in Chinese -- has most firmly taken root in its rawest form.

Beijing's nascent rock scene boasts no more than 100 musicians at best. These days, performances are restricted mainly to venues patronized by foreigners and those few Chinese -- assorted entrepreneurs, would-be artists and the children of high cadres -- who can afford tickets as costly as $4 or $5. Bands slip and slide around town, breaking up as quickly as they form. A lot of them sound like your little brother's heavy metal garage band.

But there is some funk here and rap music. A few new-age composers. An all-female band of former classical musicians called Cobra, who, behind dark sunglasses, play down-and-dirty rhythm and blues. There's a newly released "Beijing Reggae All-Stars" album, featuring communist folk songs set to a light Caribbean backbeat. There's even a couple of Hong Kong and American producers beating the bushes for a fresh, potentially exportable sound.

Ignoring a wealth of dissimilarities, some foreigners liken the working-class grittiness of the Beijing rock style to that of Liverpool some 30 years ago. The American producer of China's first and only reggae album, Jeffrey Cheen, offers another stretched analogy:

"You won't believe this, but the feeling that I got when I first came here is that this is San Francisco in the early 1960s."

All this, of course, sidesteps the harsh realities of Chinese totalitarianism, which mean that rock and roll -- individualistic and anti-authoritarian at its core -- can never fully flourish here and could easily be squashed overnight.

"There is an inescapable conflict brewing," Mr. Cheen agreed. "But right now the musicians are trying to avoid that by laying down their message between the lines.

"Bob Dylan didn't start out singing, 'Let's overthrow the government.' Instead, he sang, 'I ain't going to work on Maggie's farm no more.' That's what Chinese rockers are doing."


"What should I say? What should I do to make a real me? What should I sing to make myself happy? I think about the snowy mountains and green pastures as I walk. I praise Chairman Mao when I talk."

--"New Long March"

by Cui Jian

From 1985, when Cui Jian first heard a rock and roll tape and never wanted to play Chinese-style music again, the baby-faced, 29-year-old former trumpeter has paved the way for Chinese rock and roll with poetic lyrics that often convey meaning on several levels at once.

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