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Sally Can't Dance: Inside China's Blossoming Music Underground

Sally Can't Dance: Inside China's Blossoming Music Underground

Zhang Shouwang and Yan Yulong performing at Sally Can’t Dance. Image Courtesy of Fan Yan

There’s something brewing in Beijing’s underground music venues. For the past two decades, the country’s music scene has been sprouting experimental, DIY, and indie roots, giving form to an avant-garde music scene that is continuously producing interesting, avant-garde work that, while still mostly underground, is doing much to introduce genre-bending, risk-taking techniques into the country’s musical output.

And while they still have much work to do in order to make the scene sustainable, they’ve got their sights set on exporting their sound out West. One of the major supporters of the music development is Chinese experimental music festival Sally Can’t Dance, which took place in Beijing this past weekend, and is one of the only music festivals showcasing the experimental music scene on a national scale. Founded in 2008, the 2012 edition of the two-day festival was curated by Josh Feola, the founder of Beijing indie music platform Pangbianr, and Zhu Wenbo, organizer of Zoomin’ Night, an influential weekly Beijing showcase.

The Creators Project chatted with Josh Feola about his experience curating this year’s festival, and how he envisions the future of the experimental music scene in China.

The Creators Project: What inspired you to get involved with Sally Can’t Dance? Can you tell us this year’s curatorial focus?
Josh Feola:
My involvement with the Sally Can’t Dance festival came out of my position as booking manager at the venue D-22 and also my experience organizing shows of experimental and avant-garde music via my organization Pangbianr. Sally Can’t Dance had always been held at D-22 since it started in 2008, though the curator changed each year. No one stepped up to curate the festival in 2011, so Michael Pettis, D-22’s founder, wanted to make sure it happened in 2012 to keep continuity.

I was eager to co-organize the 2012 edition with Zhu Wenbo, who was the brains behind D-22’s Zoomin’ Night. Zoomin’ was a weekly experimental music showcase that was populated by primarily college-age (and younger) musicians. It ran from August 2009 until D-22’s closure in January 2012.

Over the past year, both Zhu Wenbo and I have tried—with events like East by Southeast and Harsh 2nd—to create more cross-pollination between the Zoomin’ Night scene and some of the more established musicians active in the field, such as Yan Jun from Subjam and the collective who runs the label NOJIJI and venue Raying Temple. The main curatorial focus of this year’s Sally Can’t Dance is to continue this trend, to present a more thorough integration of several generations of avant-garde Chinese musicians. The 2010 Sally Can’t Dance took place near the beginning of Zoomin’ Night and the end of Waterland Kwanyin, an earlier series of experimental music concerts organized by Yan Jun. At the time, there was very little overlap between the two scenes. In the two years that have elapsed since then, the Zoomin’ Night musicians have matured and developed stronger musical identities, and there has been more exchange between different niches within the experimental music community. The goal of this Sally Can’t Dance is to provide a syncretic snapshot of these different niches, and encourage more dialogue and collaboration among them.

It’s nice to see that this year’s line-up features artists from regions outside of Beijing and Shanghai. Do you intend to create a more diverse dialogue?
Yes. Another major objective of the festival was to reach beyond Beijing and Shanghai, which effectively dominate the musical landscape. We wanted to put together an authoritative, geographically comprehensive lineup of the most idiosyncratic and progressive experimental musicians active throughout mainland China. For some, it’s a rare opportunity to play in Beijing, and it’s certainly the only time all these artists will be together on the same bill.

2pi Festival was the first experimental music festival in China, followed by Mini Midi and Sally Can’t Dance. Why do you think Sally Can’t Dance is the only remaining one?
The limiting factor here is money. It’s a major investment to do a music festival of any kind in China, and the audience for harsh noise, drone, free improvisation—all the styles that fall under the very imprecise rubric of “experimental music”—is far too small to financially support a large-scale event. One of the biggest reasons for this is the lack of a DIY music infrastructure in China. There is almost no system of small labels, blogs, zines, venues, and promoters to allow for the diversification and evolution of micro-scenes. This kind of infrastructure exists in the US and Europe, so you can have a power electronics festival in New York City and it’s a sustainable venture.

This situation is still far away from being a reality in China, but the progression you mention is evidence that the DIY phenomenon is growing. The festivals you mention above were organized by musicians who also actively self-released their albums: Li Jianhong (2pi festival and label/CFI), Yan Jun (Mini Midi/Subjam/Kwanyin Records), Li Tieqiao (first Sally Can’t Dance). Yan Jun built a dynamic community with his Waterland Kwanyin series, and Zoomin’ Night built up another community from the student base. In the last year more boutique, musician-run labels have sprung up, such as China Free Improvisation (Li Jianhong and Vavabond) and Fuzz Tape (MeiZhiYong), which both focus on releasing Chinese experimental music in very specific genre niches. There are also more journalists paying attention to the underground now than in previous years. We’ve invited several music writers from outside Beijing to come to Sally Can’t Dance to bolster this trend.

We are not expecting Sally Can’t Dance to be profitable—we’re not even expecting it to break even. We are providing a festival environment to perpetuate this small, growing community in the hope that it will contribute to a larger trend of long-term growth and eventual sustainability.

What inspired you to create Pangbianr? What do you expect for the future of experimental music in China?
I started Pangbianr in 2010 with a group of friends I’d bonded with mostly through going to shows. At the time I worked a nine-to-five job at a tech startup in Beijing. Before that, when I was in high school and college, I was very musically active. I played in some punk and hardcore bands when I was younger, toured the US extensively as a musician, and then got into noise, drone, and heavy psych later on. I spent a summer in Los Angeles and played in some bands with the owners of Not Not Fun, a DIY experimental music label. Seeing how NNF operated and going to shows in Los Angeles—at a time when the scene around No Age was just getting started and those kids were actively curating underground shows at The Smell—was very influential on how I thought about music culture later.

So after a year of casual concert-going, I quit my job and focused 100% on Pangbianr and the Beijing music scene. I lived off of savings from that job for six months and took a deep dive. I had already known Yan Jun for a while but around the time I started Pangbianr I also became interested in the Zoomin’ Night scene. Becoming more active in that milieu—and, later, becoming the booking manager of D-22—convinced me of the high potential and sheer creative energy lying dormant in Beijing’s music scene. The entire “alternative” musical history of China is incredibly short: in popular lore it dates back to a single performance Cui Jian gave in 1986. So I’m fascinated by the processes of scene formation and stylistic development at work in Beijing, which are totally different from what I experienced in the US. Being a small part of this process of unlocking hidden potentials is my biggest inspiration to keep Pangbianr going. I hope by sharing my experiences and knowledge I can facilitate more DIY activity within the local scene.

I have witnessed that the audience of avant-garde music is growing fast in China, what are the important criterions to fostering the scene?
The most important factor is creating an organic sense of community. This comes from regular events, documentation (live audio and video, digital downloads, physical products), and critical analysis (media coverage, blogs, etc). I have tried to do all of these through Pangbianr, with mixed results. It’s also what Yan Jun has been doing for over a decade with all of his projects, as well as Li Jianhong, Zhu Wenbo, and many others active in different corners of the scene. Sally Can’t Dance is a big deal, a big spectacle, and the positive feedback we’ve gotten so far reflects the growing audience you mention. But to keep growing that audience, you need the people grinding it out on the underground, grassroots level with the small weekly shows and no-profit labels.

More and more experimental Chinese musicians are gaining recognition outside of China. How do you think Chinese contemporary music will position itself internationally in the next few years?
I predict that awareness and appreciation of Chinese underground music outside China will continue to grow at a steady rate, as it has been for the last five years, and that at some point within the next five years, there will be a breakout success that will change the game. As a rough metric, the number and frequency of Chinese bands appearing at SXSW are good indicators of the steady growth I mentioned. In 2012, there will be seven bands from mainland China at SXSW. To my knowledge, this is the most Chinese bands that have ever played together anywhere outside of China. For one of the bands, Carsick Cars, it’s their third consecutive appearance at the festival. This reflects a broader trend of Chinese bands touring more extensively in the US, Europe and Australia, and attracting funding from labels and corporate sponsors to underwrite these trips. All of this attracts more and more media attention, albeit biased and usually ill-informed. I just read an article about Carsick Cars in an in-flight magazine that hits all the cliches about rock’n’roll in a Communist country with a rapidly developing capitalistic consumer base, blah blah blah. You can find similar articles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, and other widely read trade publications.

All of this is certainly raising the profile of Chinese music internationally, but there is still no “household name” Chinese band anywhere in the West. Ironically, a mainstream, middle-aged, middle-class reader of the New York Times is more likely to be able to name-check a Chinese noise rock band than is a 20-something hipster living in Williamsburg. There is very little coverage or awareness of the Chinese underground within other undergrounds. This will change. Underground labels in the West are just now starting to release Chinese music. With our viral culture, it’s not hard to imagine an underground-buzzed Chinese band percolating up and receiving “alt mainstream” coverage, like maybe a Pitchforkreview. (I don’t think there’s a single Chinese band on Pitchfork, isn’t that nuts?) That will draw a lot of attention to Chinese music, and then others will pick up on it and dig deeper — maybe one band breaks out, but that band’s members have side projects, and label-mates, and a whole scene around them, etc. The idea of a “Chinese Underground” (actually, it will most likely be the “Beijing Underground”) catching on and receiving more critical attention internationally will be the tipping point.

But how do we get there? That’s what I’m working on, my main mission really. I have a kind of strange identity in the scene here because I’m an American, and even though I play in “Chinese” bands, I don’t necessarily have the same responsibilities or priorities as a Chinese musician. So my crucial task is to find ways to mediate my personal experience of using music as an entry point into Chinese society to a wider international audience. I’m about to start a column about the history and current state of Chinese avant-garde music for Tiny Mix Tapes, a music website with an intelligent, interested, and critical-minded readership. During South by Southwest this year, I’m co-organizing a house show via pangbianr with Shawn Reed of the underground cassette label Night-People, which I hope will create meaningful relationships and experiences for the Chinese bands I’m going with and their cultural and intellectual peers in the American underground. These will be the most recent advances in an ongoing evolution. The Chinese underground is still in the very early stages of its development.