Chinese Rockers Land On US Shores

US Tour Of Beijing-Based Independent Rock Bands P.K.14, Carsick Cars, And Avant-Folk Artist Xiao He Offers American Audiences A Glimpse Of China’s Emerging Music Scene

P.K.14 is widely regarded at home and abroad as one of China's best independent rock bands

P.K.14 is widely regarded at home and abroad as one of China's best independent rock bands. Photo courtesy Matthew Niederhauser

China’s music scene, which many in the West associate more with traditional Peking opera than punk rock, has gained a great deal of visibility over the last 5-10 years, as young music lovers raised in the 1980s and ’90s and weaned on a steady diet of dakou CDs have carved out a niche for themselves in places like China’s cultural capital, Beijing, and thrived in cities like Wuhan, Nanjing and Shanghai. To accommodate these emerging bands, a handful of leading independent record labels, led by Modern Sky (founded in 1997) and Maybe Mars (established ten years later) have sprung up in Beijing, putting on shows in rock clubs like D-22 and even large-scale festivals like the Modern Sky Festival.

Reflecting the rapid development of China’s independent music scene, Chinese bands have ventured outward and begun to tour the world, with post-punk bands like RE-TROS and punk rock bands like Brain Failure touring the US and Europe in recent years. This week, for the first time, Maybe Mars is bringing three of its top bands — P.K. 14 from Nanjing and Carsick Cars and Xiao He from Beijing, to the United States for a 10-city tour to give American audiences a chance to see (and hear) China’s new musical wave. From a release:

Maybe Mars Presents: A Showcase of the Chinese Underground. A formidable new wave of musicians has taken China’s music underground by storm.  Working well outside government-controlled media channels they have, in the process, turned the ears of the international music community towards Beijing.

Maybe Mars and its sister club, D-22, have found themselves at the center of the burgeoning scene.  The artists signed to Maybe Mars represent a fresh, independent voice in a country renowned for creative conformity and saccharine Cantopop.  For now, China remains in a tense state between the socialist idealism of old and a drive for wealth spurred by free-market reforms.  These contradictions tear at the country’s social fabric, while simultaneously provoking and inspiring younger generations to greater artistic heights, especially in the realm of music.

Given the brutal industrialization, destruction and reconstruction of China’s rapidly changing urban landscapes it is probably no surprise that Beijing musicians are heavily influenced by the no-wave sounds of New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s.   They have nonetheless reconfigured this vocabulary to fit with Chinese opera’s traditional delight with textural experimentation and a centuries-long history of infatuation with shimmering melodic structures.  With the sound of broken-down machines cranking out lovely pop songs, the unique sound emerging from China’s music underground aggressively questions the moral and social basis of the fragile modernity on which it subsists.

As Chinese bands rarely get the chance to venture outward — though that’s changing quickly — these shows are a great opportunity for American music lovers to experience an important, and emerging, part of China’s youth culture. If you’re in one of the ten cities on the Maybe Mars tour’s itinerary, definitely check these bands out. And if you’d like a sample of what you’d be hearing, you can download full albums by all three bands free on the Maybe Mars website.

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