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.

To be determined.

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

https://sunyatsens.com/

I opted not to take headphones with me, or earphones for the trek around Nepal. The soundtrack would be life and nature. However, if I was to take one song on that journey, then I’d struggle. Today, I watched the video of Ting Bu Dong by Sun Yat Sens. The track opens with producer Ryan Chambers on the didgeridoo. Throughout the track he continues flitting between this instrument, an acoustic guitar and backing vocals. Sometimes he manages two of the three. Talented bugger! Some of us can’t even play the spoons. The vocals kick in from Chris Bradshaw, who puts a J between his names. It could mean juggernaut or John, as in Lennon, I don’t know. Rob Laughlin on base, alongside Eric Charette on drums and a session guitarist in Brandane Mullane form the band’s entirety. The reason that I namedrop these guys, because somehow, somewhere and someday these boys could reach high. They’ve evolved since I first watched them at Magic Island Music Festival back in December 2016. They’ve gone from a group capable of pub gigs, to a professional looking, well-marketed and confident outfit. They’re more A-Team than A-list still. That’s a good place to be. With videography by the talented Ryan and drone footage, alongside their graphic design they can do anything they want.

The dreamy didgeridoo-opening has a touch of This Garden by The Levellers, and I’m feeling a touch of Dido in there. It has the played down nature of early Oasis-acoustic tracks without the overpowering aggression of a cocksure Gallagher on board. I’m expecting, “Today is gonna be the day…” but instead the song smashes in some Chinese. Why not? The reggae-indie rap is dreamy. The chorus is clear and takes me back to Nepal on that last walk. Songs that unlock memories and emotion are powerful things. The video showcases life in China, a wandering figure and gives your imagination an opportunity to test itself. Sun Yat Sens and their previous song WeChat was more Feeder and jolliness in style. My students feature somewhere in there around the minute mark. I hope that we all see and hear more of this band soon.

#15 – PYRAMID – GORAK SHEP 1300 – EVEREST BASE CAMP – GORAK SHEP 1800 ~ 12km

 

8th February 2019

We set out from Pyramid (5050m / 16,568ft) to Gorakshep (5100m) and then onwards to EBC (5360m). On Earth’s lands there isn’t much surface area above us at this point. The upper points above 7,000ft (2133m) is only about 7% of the total of Earth’s surface. 29.2% of Earth has land above sea level or uncovered by lakes and rovers. Our oblate spheroid of a planet has bumpy bits. The Himalayas (China/Nepal/India)) with the Karakoram range (China and Pakistan) are the only places to see peaks over 8000m. Only Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan (a country I know nothing about) can be added to those countries for mountains over 7000m. Going to other countries and looking for big mountains is near pointless. Aconcagua (6962m) in the Andes (Argentina) is as close as you will get. Anyway I now found myself above 5164m for a night’s sleep. The highest that I have ever snoozed.

If Lobuche is bleak, then Gorakshep could have meant shithole in English. The smooth mountain top of Kalapatthar hovers over the lakebed that sits by Gorakshep. We arrived, ditched our things at the Buddha Lodge, ate a late lunch and then started the Everest Base Camp trek. The final leg towards a hidden shadow beneath Everest. The lodges are mostly supply drops and shelters. There is discarded waste in piles, banners and tents ripped to shreds scattered here and there. Armageddon refused to stop in Gorakshep on account of it being totally dilapidated and uninhabitable.

The worst night’s sleep ever followed. Firstly, the windows were rattling amd pccasionally flying open. Cracks in some panes threatened to explode. The roof was rattling. Each room had a temperature lower than -25°C. Snow slipped through the edges of the window frames. The lodge shook with each gust. Worse still – we were running out of yak shit. The main lounge room was starting to cool. As I lay my head down headaches came and went. Even if I wanted to descend downwards, this was not the weather to open any doors.

In the lodge a group of three from the U.K. with their The Baton flag slept, alongside Rhys, Al and Spanish Albert. Everyone seemed to endure a restless night of anti-sleep. Hope of making ot through a night without the roof blowing off was broken up by regular piss breaks to the toilet at the end of the cold corridor. The frozen stinking cesspit in the ceramic western toilet was perhaps the warmest thing for several kilometres.

The great thing about having a sleeping bag comfortable to -25°C is that when it finally teeters over that temperature limit, you’re still a little warm. An extra blanket on top helped. The noise of the howling winds did not. Gritty frozen grains pounded the windows outside. It seemed that the outside desperately wanted to be inside. Sporadically the dirt of the outside world slapped the windows like bullets being fired from a gun.


9th February 2019

Morning arrived. Breakfast was devoured. We set out.

Kala Patthar is 5,545 metres (18,192 ft). It might as well be higher. It is no mean feat to get to the top and capture a panoramic view of the Khumbu glacier like all the postcard shops have obtained. A panoramic sweep of clouds in all directions and zero visibility doesn’t sell the same. To quote trekker Rhys from Cardiff, “Well it is the mountains and that means clouds.” It is what it is. Simple. Black rock, as Kala Patthar means in Hindi, might well just translate as bleak rock. I read somewhere that the ‘The world’s highest webcam, Mount Everest webcam, was located here’ on Kala Patthar. In those clouds, you could lose anything – including life! No prayer flags were visible yet needed. No mountain climbing permit was required – making this the highest point to scramble without license to do so.

The Khumbu glacier is supposed, by scientists, to have formed in the last Great Ice Age. That was around 500,000 years ago. On reaching Lobuche (4910m), my legs were feeling equally as old. The Khumbu region stretches from Namche Bazar out to Thame in the west and Gokyo. Gorak Shep, and Chukung mark the northern and western areas.  The Khumbu subregion is a third of the region known as the closely named Khambu. The lowest point is 3,300m high around Lukla. Visibility was so low, that my feet were barely in sight. The gamble and decision to stay an extra day was not appealing. With heavy snow forecast, we headed down – our target, “as far as we can go.” Well, after struggling over the open boulder and rocks fields lining the banks of glacial death below, we dropped into a valley leading towards the Pyramid. We’d later show some pretty bad windburn on our skin – and thankfully we escaped anything more serious.

Having sought cover just before lunchtime, we had cut a path through deep snowdrifts and found shelter. We were the only ones at the Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory. We hadn’t intended to stay again but we had no choice. After an hour a Chinese man and his porter/guide joined us. They said they were close to death out there. It was believable and no embroidery on their part. Barely two hours later and the blizzard vanished. The whiteout faded to a grey unsettling day. We chilled out in the warm lounge watching cricket, volleyball and eating too much. It passed the time before bedtime. Outside did not appeal to us.

#16 GORAK SHEP – PYRAMID ~ 10km

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10th February 2019

The walk continued as in the spirits of each day before. It was always about just going forwards, and not rushing. Some loose targets and aims were handy but they were never set in concrete. The journey was to be lived. The destination was just for inspiration. Some target Everest Base Camp for status, spirituality or homage. Some push themselves as far as they can go. Some want to do their best. There had never been a race to get anywhere and likewise we weren’t descending fast for the sake of it.

Within an hour, I did not think that I could walk any more. My head was pounding at the rear and I was walking so slow, that deep down I was beginning to worry. Fatigue had turned to exhausation and my mental condition was slipping to the negative. Ten minutes after passing Ishwor, Srirang and Livia on their way up, I had to stop. Here the cough that had been niggling me for nearly two weeks began to rasp at my throat. I tried to catch my breath. A moment later, I was staring at my breakfast on the floor. My nose stang. I smelled terrible. My mouth tasted like a yak’s arse. After a few moments of composure, I explained to Maria we must head down fast – but steadily and for her to keep an eye on me. Barely an hour later and I felt great – reinvigorated and fully oxygenated. Resurrection in a Buddhist land is possible afterall.

We soon appeared at the tombs and monuments, standing tall under a sunlit sky. The spiritual air of the location fell away as we descended the pathway to Thukla. Here we continued over the glacial rover’s stepping stones, banked left and followed a pebble-stoned pathway into the valley around Pheriche (4371m).

I was told by many not to stay at Pheriche when doing this trekking route. It sits deep in the shadows of the mountains around it and on a cloudy day, little light makes it to the village. This day it was basked in splendid sunshine. The Tsola River flowed beneath it. The Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) are based here but we dodn’t stop by. We spent an hour hiding from yaks, by squating by a frozen stream as they passed by and then doubled back. Eventually we joined a British couple, their guide and porter to pass by. The top end of Pheriche village seemed to have a melting-yet-dangerously-frozen-river-road down the middle. That had to be negotiated slowly. Empty buckwheat and potato fields lined the pathways. Following the top end of the village a few kilometres before the lower village appeared. The neighbours there must be quite fit.

Arriving at Deboche (3820m) today we had dropped about 1230m. That’s 1.23km (4053 feet – about 7/10 of a mile). Burj Khalifa is the tallest building at 828m (2717’) tall. It had taken just a few hours. The walk up had been broken down.

#17 0900 PYRAMID – 1600 DEBOCHE; #18 0930 DEBOCHE – NAMCHE BAZAR 1700: ~ 40km
#19 NAMCHE BAZAR – LUKLA ~ 21km
#20 LUKLA: ~ 4km

More to follow.

 

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