CCTV Music Review (Kind of)

CCTV (Chinese state TV) didn’t commission me. I’m just reviewing musical experiences in China. By that, I don’t mean Mr Oliver making his students wild at an end of year school show. Melodic music seems completely endemic here. Rhythm and blues do not. The exploration of music in China has been limited. Pop concerts are plentiful. Traditional music is out there. KTV is everywhere, seemingly only beaten in numbers by the dreaded mosquitoes.

Throughout travels, I’ve overheard piped speakers repeating at shrieking levels “wǒ ài Mǎnzhōulǐ” in deepest darkest coldest Inner Mongolia (内蒙古) to two people, in a field of ice. Actually, almost every province I’ve visited has had Mandarin language to its music. Rarely have I overheard local dialects, other than Cantonese in Guangdong. I’m convinced when my Granddad George Acton visited Qīngdǎo (青岛) and ShànghǎI (上海) in the 1940s, he visited at a time when local dialects were rife and strong. Whilst Mandarin has brought uniformity and literacy, it did also deliver annoying song xiǎo píngguǒ (小苹果).

Released in May 2014, the catchy Xiao Pingguo song refuses to go away. I think of it as China’s answer to the Crazy Frog. Wang Taili (王太利) and Xiao Yang (肖央) are the successful Chopstick Brothers (筷子兄弟). They’re not on my Christmas card list. Ever. They were even parodied by the Chinese Ministry of Defence, for recruitment purposes, in July 2014. I remember it being irritating then but if that’s how they plan to tackle the Taiwan problem, so be it. Siege by surreal music. Like Christmas songs in July, Xiao Pingguo never exits your head or seemingly airplay.

In education, I’ve witnessed a wealth of traditional instruments from China. Students plucking the Guzheng’s (古箏)’s 16–26 strings, or pear-shaped Pipa (琵琶), or similar Liuqin (柳琴) have formed mini-orchestras and solo acts throughout many school shows. A whole wealth of other stringed instruments hasn’t been seen in Xinjiang or Tibet, because I’ve yet to visit either region. I have heard and seen the two-stringed fiddle (Erhu 二胡) in action. I’ve had a go in Yunnan too. Maybe one day I’ll try it again. It can have an upbeat melodic ring to it, or deep blues. Mandopop and Cantopop covers haven’t been far behind.

Hugely popular song: WoMen Bu Yi Yang 我們不一樣 – by 大壯 Da Zhuang

There are countless string and pipe instruments throughout the land of China, with names too unknown to write and sounds heard rarely to explain. Clay, bells, silk too, and other instruments are fantastic to see in villages and countryside areas. The húlúsī (葫芦丝) is a gourd wind instrument that looks like a bulbous pipe swallowed a recorder. It can be played in a haunting manner, as witnessed in the foothills of Yunnan. Unlike Eason Chan, G.E.M., Jackie Chan, Jay Chou, the TF Boys, BTS, and other Chinese pop stars, I will miss traditional instruments like the húlúsī.

Dagu (大鼓) means large drum and would have been found in countless drum towers across imperial China. These days they can be found at school shows alongside the Zhangu (战鼓) or war drum. Likewise museums may encase them, just up the aisle from flutes made of bones. Yǎyuè (雅樂) translates to something like elegant music. The aristocracy and Confucius believed music could only follow one path for self-cultivation and governmental ruling. “March of the Volunteers”(义勇军进行曲 Yiyǒngjūn Jìnxíngqǔ) probably fits the yǎyuè mindset.

Originally known as The March of the Anti-Manchukuo Counter-Japan Volunteers, the national anthem of China can be found weekly at school flag raising ceremonies, all national holidays, supermarkets, and even playing from children’s toys. The national anthem was penned by Tián Hàn (田汉), a novelist and playwright). It was set to music by Yunnan’s Niè Ěr (聂耳) AkA George Njal, as was his wish. Sadly Nie Er drowned at a young age and never expanded on a blossoming and flourishing musical career. Many moons later I passed through his native Kunming and listened to the sound of heavy traffic. This after days of bird song, didgeridoo, and drums in Dali.

Hong Kong, the Magic Island Festivals at Zhuhai, Guangzhou, Dongguan (mostly Irene’s Bar) and Shenzhen remain the places I’ve seen the most live music during my years in China. A few live bands and DJs in Shanghai and Dali probably complete a short list for a large land. It hasn’t been that I haven’t been looking for it of asking for live music. Even before bloody CoViD-19 struck, it was hard enough to see live music and a million times harder to get tickets. Strip away the VIP, VVVIP, of Golden Platinum VIP options and music tickets are hard to find. Expect nothing for anything labelled VIP. The gimmicks are status only.

In Dongguan, whilst writing for Hubhao magazine, I was lucky enough to enjoy Netherlands band Atlantic Attraction. Their website is now about knees so I guess they broke up or faded out. I went looking for answers. None. Perhaps when I fly home to the UK via the Netherlands, Kevin de Haas will swap vocals and guitar for baggage handling, and Arend Lacked may have moved to Airbnb, or Joris van der Pole may have shed bass in favour of bus driving. The drums are out so perhaps Sibren Huijsmans will sell me a coffee. A good band. Missed.

Epic festivals at Hong Kong such as Clockenflap, seeing Paul Draper at Guangzhou’s Mao Livehouse, swinging by So What Livehouse and the various Brown Sugar Jar venues have been good experiences. Watching Mr Irish Bastard at an intimate night in Shenzhen or spending Christmas Day with an acoustic guitar concert will remain fond memories. And of course, Dongguan foreign band, Revolution, now dissolved… and out if their ashes, come Reload. That’s Sunday’s entertainment sorted. Big Band Theory at Murray’s were electric, as has been almost every music night at Irene’s Bar in Houjie town.

The journey through music in Asia and from China won’t end on leaving this country. I’m already booked into seeing The Hu, a Mongolian rock band later this year, complete with instruments, the morin khuur and the tsuur. How China can water down Mongolian dialect in favour of Mandarin in Inner Mongolia (P.R of China) is beyond me? Languages need preservation, and music has long imbibed that theme. I can’t wait to experience my next installments of Mongolian music after Taiga band in Bar Ink, Dongguan.

And of course, I can always say my former St. Lorraine students featured on a music video of the Sun Yat Sens. Wechat微信… Wechat微信…

And my Levellers lyrics were tattooed in Yunnan.

The motions of finality.

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste,

Last Wednesday evening, I watched the excellent Paul Draper, of Mansun fame, now going solo in Guangzhou’s Mao Livehouse. It was an excellent gig, even if returning around midnight to sunny Dongguan was a tad late. One thing for sure, the hustle and bustle of Guangzhou did not leave me feeling in a wide open space. The venue has great acoustics and with Paul Draper’s dreamy vocals, even if Beijing had left him a little sore of the throat. The experience was made all the better by discovering both new songs, and some old songs that I haven’t heard since they probably came out. I’m no super fan of Mansun or Paul Draper – but this gig was my favourite this year. I’ve been to one gig. That being said, I doubt many bands or artists will put on a better show in 2019.


I am tired of hearing that “you must be the best“. I agree and I disagree. Be your best by all means, but don’t accept that being the best of all others is possible. For me that is chosen by popular opinion. On one hand, one person could be good at organising groups or preaching ideals, on the other hand, that person could also be radical and likely extreme. You wouldn’t want Adolf Hitler organising a charity shop. He’d probably do okay on the bric-a-brac section or the novelty homewares. I wouldn’t trust him with the books or clothing. He had a nasty habit of being a bit selective. Similarly I wouldn’t trust Marie Curie in a charity shop. She’d be too busy messing around with polonium – and not obeying health and safety rules. Hitler would be a terrible co-worker for Curie. He’d no doubt fuel the rumours that she was a Jewish homewrecker. Yes, history has often been full of divisive figures. Something that you couldn’t say about Michael Jackson, without fear of a fan getting upset, until recently. Now old M.J.J. the noseless is fair game. Him being dead makes him an easy target, much like the poor boys he probably fiddled with.

So, why should we be the best? To be tainted by our weakness and our mistakes? To fall down on our swords? Does society spit out the mediocre and forget what we offer? Is there fault in wanting to live a simple peaceful live? Are we either astronauts, astronomers or stargazers without need of answers? If a dream is unspoken, did anyone dream it?

I’m often asked why I like teaching. “Hey Mr John, why do you like teaching?” The answers I give are not always the same but usually I say something like, “Ugh. I dunno.” I want to be the one who makes the shy kid speak. I wouldn’t mind being the one who makes the noisy kid pay attention. If someone can make the dreamer join in, why can’t it be me? If you can’t impart teamwork where selfishness was, then I will do it. I like to defrost cold situations. We can all be the one who says hello to everyone, from the cleaners to the parents to the secretary to the delivery man to the security guard and the bosses.

It is important that in teaching, and for the bigger society, that we don’t create a sense of inferiority. Yes, there will always be outstanding people and we need them. We need the differences in ability, and we need the inability in order to thrive. Our faults can be assets. Without negative experiences or bad times, division, or difference, we’d not have Joy Division, Radiohead or the lyrics of Paul Draper, singing Jealousy is a powerful emotion. We need less division and fear of difference. Events in Christchurch this week tell us that. Don’t fear better, don’t fear religions, just accept that difference is wonderful. I take pride in my hometown and the man who stood outside a Levenshulme mosque with a message of peace. Yes, he garnished some publicity, but that furthered his message and no doubt reached the people of communities like Christchurch and beyond. The real people no doubt felt the support. The haters probably struggled and held conflict in their hearts. For every message of love, we can win. Can’t get fairer than that, right?

“To destroy someone, you must observe these rules; At number one; Everybody’s got their weakness; Get people on your side.”
Paul Draper – Friends Make the Worst Enemies

During the hike in Nepal, it gave me a feeling of community and harmony unfelt before. Along the way many single people, groups and couples enjoyed guidance from experienced guides and porters. These local experts are well-trained, respected and hard-working. They don’t cut corners. They work safely and never hurry their clients. You’re their guest and for a moment you are treated just as one of the family. They extend their hands to stragglers and solo-trekkers alike. Do you need a porter? Maybe you like the challenge. Maybe you want a luxury and to have someone lug your backpack to leave you free to explore a little more. The benefits of the guides and porters far outweigh not having assistance. They know the weather. They know the altitude and signs of sickness, and how to acclimatize more carefully. They’re really honest people too – but I’m sure a bad apple is amongst the cart. I’d trust them though. Some pay their porters or guides 2,000-2,500 NPRs per day. Some pay their hired hands’ accommodation and food on top. They’re all fair about their fare from day one. They even meet with clients in advance and explain their terrains. Most guides speak English – and many have learnt Korean, Chinese, Spanish and French. They’re a talented bunch. Having a guide is not necessary but even from someone who twice set out on a challenge without a guide, I would in future throw serious consideration to a guided tour. Maybe in the future Manaslu, Chitwan and Annapurna will call me.


10th February 2019

On leaving Pheriche, we rounded the pathways through Pangboche and looked for a place to stay. No rooms at the inn, and with enough sunlight to carry on, we walked forward to Deboche. With light fading, we arrived into a warm room, a bright view and the setting sun casting purple tints over the surrounding mountain tops. The Paradise Lodge made a a good mushroom pizza and for me Dal Baht wasn’t on a list of foods to eat. The lodge, a stone affair with wooden interiors and a row of protruding beachhut style rooms was far from a grey house. The blue and white paints, and dark green trims made it feel very homely and traditional.

The following morning, we walked the short climb up to Tangboche, and after viewing the grand monastery we descenced to Punkitenga. Here we ate lunch, before walking (mostly) upwards until Namche Bazaar. The culmination of the journey was now in our hearts. The motions of finality were obvious. Less photographs, more savouring of the views and moments and even a tear in they eye, here and there. On reaching a crest of the footpath, my heart vowed to return, as it had done two years previously. One day, I’ll put the boot in, in a hard way. The next walk will be longer. I can feel it. There is a force calling me. The fat lump in my head is erupting in a storm of electronic signals and they all point to a new voyage of discovery in Nepal. Anyone want to join me?

Probably, to be continued….


A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. With this idea in mind, a challenge needs to be on the horizon. Always have something to look forwards to. There are things people want, and things people need, to keep their heads up. On damaging an ankle ligament this last week, I am now looking at deferring my attempt at the Spartan Race. I am now able to move the opportunity in Hong Kong, during June, to a later date in Shenzhen, possibly October. It may or may not be wise. I need to think it over. The right ankle has been strapped up for three days now. It feels more painful and sharp than before. The swelling has dropped from balloon-like levels to just plain bumpy. Instead of running, Muay Thai or football this week, I am contemplating a few hours of uplifting Morecambe & Wise on television. I was feeling my heart run slow, so I needed something fortifyingly enriching. Why wallow in shit when you can lay down and eat fine grapes?

“All men are fools, and what makes them so is having beauty like what I have got.”
Glenda Jackson, Morecambe & Wise Show

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā