On Blues and Folk Music…

The following article appeared on the Shenzhen Local Music site on June 5th. I’m reblogging it here as I haven’t written anything in five months. Because I am useless.

Blues and Folk: Music of the People

In one word, folk and blues music is history.

In their own way, each of the two genres is the history of a race of people. That history has been challenged, corrupted and co-opted by others over the centuries, but ultimately it is the story of a group of people set to music.

Blues for example has its roots in slavery. One theory goes that the ancient African tradition of dying clothes indigo during mourning was uprooted to fledgling America, and when slaves had to dye cotton in the fields the idea crystallised. “The blues” is more of a feeling than a musical style – the profound world-weariness of the perpetually downtrodden – and this is where the genre’s sentiment comes from. It’s why ‘feeling blue’ means what it means.

Folk music is similar. The word ‘folk’ comes from the German “volk” which literally means ‘people.’ In the past, so much music was in the hands of the few – the composers, the aristocrats, the monarchy; the tiny minority that could afford it basically – that folk was the only music ‘the people’ had. Folk and blues are the musical genres of the non-privileged: while imperial nations enslaved blues-singing African-Americans overseas, they sent their own folk-singing natives into the workhouses of home. Either way, it’s the music of the oppressed, and the music tells their stories.

And what stories.

You cannot mention blues music without a discussion of Robert Johnson. Destitute, dismissed and ignored during his lifetime, he only became successful after death. The story goes that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to learn the blues, and nowadays every guitarist worth the tiniest speck of salt credits Johnson as one of the most important musicians of all time. Eric Clapton called him “the most important musician that ever lived.”


The Devil’s in the Delta…

Blues formed in the early 1900’s in the Deep South, and has gone on to be one of the world’s most enduring musical genres. Artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker helped popularise it in the 1950, before the genre started to seep into rock n’roll. History came full circle when musicians from the country that had done so much to create the blues in the first place (carting half a continent of people halfway across the world has never been Britain’s finest moment) took a weird fusion of blues, rock n’roll and folk and churned out the Beatles. The Fab Four almost single-handedly created modern music, and there would be no Beatles without the blues. Simple as that.

Folk music is a little different. Folk formed out of an amorphous mass of anonymous musicians handing down songs by word-of-mouth. Over centuries. “Trad” is a word you hear a lot in British folk circles (meaning literally “traditional”) and in many recording credits you’ll see this little abbreviation. Basically, no-one remembers who wrote it because the singer is irrelevant, which is lovely as it’s the direct opposite of the celebrity-driven current raft of pop music. The song and story is what matters.

Many folk songs are brutal, telling the stories of common people as they try and eke out a life under the cosh of their psychotic overlords. One “trad” favourite of mine is the ‘Bonnie House of Airlie’ a song about war, rape, pillage and murder in Scotland. Another is “Bruton Town (the Bramble Briar)” which is about two noblemen who murder their sister’s lowborn lover. Death crops up a lot, as death happened to be the defining point of life. Imagine Game of Thrones, only with more acoustic guitars.


I got me the Hipster Blues…

Both blues and folk music have changed a lot in the last few decades. Blues went electric, and the styles and techniques the genre spawned are now found in everything from dubstep (no, seriously) to thrash metal. Folk music too has morphed, but somewhat awkwardly, with the term now meaning almost any music played with an acoustic guitar. Mumford and Sons are folk, the Lumineers are folk, Gotye is folk; it’s a bit messy.

Ultimately though, I think it’s the people hammering away at acoustic guitars, whether in the West or in the warrens of Shenzhen, that keeps folk and blues so relevant. At its heart, both genres are music played by people, about people, for people, and therein lies the genres’ most enduring feature.


On Thinking Again on China…

As I’m not there anymore, I’m slowly beginning to shift back to an outsider’s perspective on China. However, I’ve still got enough of the inside scoop to sift through the mountainous heaps of media bullshit regarding the place with something approaching expert skill. Now that I’m back in the West, I’ve noticed that a favoured pasttime of a great many correspondents is amateur PRC myth-busting. The deal is this: China is such an inscrutable (you could look up the word “inscrutable” with regards to China, it has a long history) place to outsiders that journalists revel in being the only ones able to hit the nail on the head and get through to the real truth. Essentially, the sentiment is: “we understand China, everyone else is just spouting misinformation and falsehoods.”

Everything they say about China is true. Or can be…

The march goes ever on and on…

Allow me to be one such authoritative asshole for a moment. The thing people who have never been don’t understand about China is its scale. Yes, everyone knows China is big – big country, big population, big economy, big industry, big army, blah, blah, blah – but I promise you, you don’t properly get it. Accepting a theoretical idea is one thing, seeing what it actually means is another. Being in the crowds, seeing the skyscrapers, the factories, the pollution, the vehicles, the queues, the supermarkets and so on, that is something else entirely. It is my belief that such impossibly large scales mean you can say anything about China and somewhere it will be true. Moreover, not only will it be true somewhere, it will be true in large enough numbers (for Westerners at least) for it to be regarded as fact.

Try this. “China is rife with corruption.” Simple enough statement to prove. I could point you towards the offices, police stations and boardrooms of thousands of corrupt officials. There are plenty. However, if you were to say “Chinese officials are noble,” I could quite easily provide you with the names of thousands of such unwaveringly principled teachers, police officers, government workers, etc, that you would think China is the most upstanding place on Earth. Next: “China is oppressive”. Easy one. I could take you to the prisons or compounds housing hundreds of dissidents locked away for nothing more than voicing an opinion, show you Tibet, Xinjiang province, the ex-Falung Gong temples, and all would prove that statement true. But, flipped around, what about: “China is tolerant.” Surprisingly not hard. I could show you the almost complete lack of police presence in thousands of city districts, how certain laws in the UK and the States governing day-to-day life are far more intrusive and restrictive and how Chinese schoolchildren are taught simperingly saccharine “love the world” slogans from age 5. Keep going: “China is unhealthy:” Baha, expert. I could show you the insides of my lungs after a year sucking up pollution in Buji. Job done. That said, what about: “China is healthy:” It wouldn’t be hard to point you in the direction of a great many thin, lean, tai-chi performing, jade-tea supping, steamed-vegetable scoffing octagenarians who have not only survived the Cultural Revolution but will most likely outlive us all as well.

Basically, with a population of 1.4billion people I challenge you to come up with a statement about China that is not true of someone somewhere. QED.

That said, challenging conventional wisdom is fun, so below are two excellent articles doing just that. The first takes on the commonly assumed fact that the Chinese are academically cleverer, and the second asserts that we should not be worried about China’s rise, but what will happen to the world if it falls.

See what I mean…?

On Black Panda…

During the last six months I spent in China I had the incredibly good fortune to scam my way into a band of exceptionally talented musicians. I’ve written about the group here on the blog a few times, but writing about music is about as effective as using interpretive dance to explain colour to the terminally blind. To learn you have to listen, for the listening leads to the love. And you will love. You will… At the very last gig we ever played in Shenzhen we had someone come in and film us, and a couple of the videos from that show are embedded below. The sound and video quality are as exceptional as the cameraman’s skills are shocking. We apologise for the uncomfortable lingering close-ups of our shiny sweaty faces, but hope the quality of the music acts as a suitable anaesthetic. The videos were recorded at our final gig as the V-Bar Sunday night hey-look-it’s-white-foreign-people cover band in Shenzhen’s Nanshan District on the 27th May 2012.

Ladies and gentlemen I present to you, all the way from the PRC, Black Panda:

  • Shelby Charnoff – Snarls
  • Amir Jafarian – Synths
  • Peter Hayes – Slaps
  • Alastair Dickie – Shreds
  • Elliott Kettler – Skins
  • (Honorary Member Jan Cattaert – Sax)

Wicked Game – Key of C#min

Superstition – Key of Life (D#min)

By the end of our tenure in Shenzhen we had destroyed no less than three electric guitars, blown out one amp, misplaced several mic-stands, electrocuted ourselves repeatedly through shoddy cabling, had an unceremonious, undignified and ultimately final falling out with our manager, taken naked modelling shots in a bath filled to the brim with RMB100 notes, played at a 1970’s communist-era village atop a mountain in the pouring rain, and all while been paid real money for the chance to do so. It was the very best of times.


On Leaving China, For Good…

So that’s it, I’m done, gone, finished, wrapped up; I have shut up shop and am hot-footing it out of here. My three year experiment with China is at its end.

I write this from a really rather swanky apartment in downtown Hong Kong (thanks Nick) using censorship-free internet and not a single cockroach in sight. My flight home is set for tonight, via Qatar and I am good. I feel happy, I feel content, I feel like things have come to their natural conclusion and I feel that I’m on the right track. Well, actually, I feel utterly shattered. I’m not terrible with goodbyes, but I do consciously try and deflect a lot of the interpersonal upheaval usually involved in them towards a “see you when I see you!” sentiment, rather than the “oh my God don’t leave meeeee!” tearful schism. I’ll get to the long-term in a moment, but I can unequivocally state for the record that, in the short term, my type of goodbyes tend to involve an overabundance of free-flowing drinks.

This was in the toilets of one of the last Chinese bars I was in. I really will miss Chinglish.

Hence shattered.

Friends both near and far

That said, “see you when I see you” is not necessarily an untruth. The world is smaller than it’s ever been, so there is no real reason to think I won’t see particular people – people who just so happen to live in far-flung places – again. I might not see them regularly, sure, but the world is now too intricate, too interconnected and far too complex to make broad sweeping statements about what will and wont happen. I ran into a guy in a Shenzhen bar only last week and it turns out his brother not only knows my sleepy local pub (Thorn Inn, hallowed be thy name), but saw his brother barred from it by the landlord a few years back. By itself, that is a mad coincidence, but it seems to happen more and more in the 21st century.

And particularly to me. In 2010 I ran into an old family-friend whilst backpacking in South East Asia; the following year a guy I actually worked with in a tiny country pub kitchen for two years singled me across a crowded Bangkok cafe and this year a mate who I lived with for three years at university got himself a law secondment to Hong Kong, a city (well, specially administered island region place thing, shush PRC, it’s not really Chinese) I can see from my old Shenzhen balcony. The yawning distances that used to be inherent in words like ‘abroad’ or ‘foreign’ really don’t apply any more. Far away is much closer than you think.

The Three Years of China

All in all, I’m happy with the way things have gone. Well, I’m happy now

For me, China Year 3 has been very different from the first two. I came back for a third year to make something of myself, both professionally and personally, and although I have done that it’s the considerable obstacles I’ve had to clamber over in order to do so that make me me feel the most smug and self-satisfied.

In the background is the building complex I lived in this year, shot from the Shenzhen/Guangzhou train. I was in the yellow, blue and grey one in the middle, 7th floor. The cockroaches would host grand dinner parties in my absence.

To me, it’s like this.

Year 1 in Shenzhen was a gap year: wholly about living in China, escaping recession UK, teaching English, travelling aimlessly and indulging my not-so-inner idiot with other people who were exactly the same. Glorious times. Year 2, was very similar, but I cared a little (lot) less about the teaching, more about the new role I’d been promoted to (coordinating and looking after all the new teachers just started their Year 1) and even more about my free time. Free time meant songs.

Year 3 has been a complete change. This year has been about keeping the worst of China at bay: my issues with visa bureaucracy, awful bosses, corrupt officials, terrible local manners, bad neighbourhoods and shoddy health are well documented on this blog, but as the year went on I realised something rather strange was happening as a result. I did loads of stuff. I ended up acheiving so much this year as a direct result of trying to combat all those things: I blog now (debateable victory I admit, but go with me on this), I write for umpteen different freelance magazines, I’ve been dusting off long-forgotten creative writing skills and have been playing more music than any time in my life. The musicians I’ve met in the last ten months have defined this year for me, and will probably be what I remember most about China 2012 when I’m thinking about it in 2062.

When people ask me, I’ll say I came back for a job. I’ll tell them it was awesome. It wasn’t. This year I’ve been undergoing regular work-related self-flagellation for the sake of professional experience (and lo and behold my CV is now awesome) as I felt it would have been impossible to get a similar level of experience back in the UK. However, a silver lining emerged: the attempts I made to balance the hideously uneven work/life equation arising from my sub-par employment have ended up filling my life to the absolute brim. This year has been about restaurant reviews, op-ed articles, magazine features, stories, song-writing, solo guitar skills (shred-tastic), acoustic performances, showmanship (or lack thereof), gigging, PA system set ups, seeing working China from the other side and giving my liver the best workout of its life. Simply put, the bad made me seek out the good.

July 7th, 2012, Guangzhou: ‘The Brew’ gig. Our band name was not ‘Grue,’ there were two not three of us, I am not American, we did not play rock and we were scheduled to start at 10pm not 9.30. The gig was promptly shut down by police a minute and a half into our second song.

The Soptastic Conclusion

Finally though, and most importantly: people. The people I’ve met while out here have made this experience for me. You magical magical sons of bitches; if not for you, my time here would have been a nightmare beyond belief. The friends I’ve had in China, though they are now scattered far and wide, are the only single reason I did not go completely and irreversibly insane. You are all brilliant, fantastic, ridiculous people, and I miss you all.

I’ll leave you with the last image of Shenzhen I snapped from the Hong Kong MTR yesterday on my way out. I might never be back, but then you really just never know…

Sayonara Shenzhen. The second tall building is called the Diwang, but it shall forever be known to me as the ‘Taser building,’ which is what I christened it the first day I saw it in 2009. Look closely, then tell all your friends.

Now, what’s next…?

On Chinese Street Vendors…

Chinese people like to sell things! On the street! Have a look:

Long fingernails are considered lucky in China (as in: “Hey look, I’m not a manual labourer! Look! Do manual labourers have long nails? I think not…”), but this lady cares not one jot. So buy her nailclippers.

These smiley people are always thronged around my metro exit (exit B if you wondered) in Buji trying to sell me all manner of deadly looking food. The Watermelon sticks are the least disagreeable option. And yes, that is a giant cleaver she is wielding.

Dried fruit and nut vendor, Huangbeiling metro, Luohu District. This lovely chap did not take kindly to the snap-happy foreigner, hence ninja creep-up-behind-you angle.

I believe the consensus on this one is “Miscellaneous iPhone Accessories…” Buji, Longgang, 2012

Another camera shy street-hawker. This guy sells the battered bottled water and assorted nut-based snacks to the commuters of Buji sub-district. From his bike. While scowling a lot…

While not street vendors per se, these opportunistic fellows congregate around metro exits in the more far-flung parts of the city (they’re rightly banned from the CBD as China really has enough road-traffic problems as it is) and try and capitalise on lazy people. They’re much more fun than regular taxis, and infinitely more dangerous.

This guy definitely takes the prize. Laid out on the floor of a frankly scummy footbridge in Henggang, outer Longgang were these beauties. The CCP would have you believe they grow into giant beanstalks. The amount of GM floating around this country I wouldn’t be surprised…

On Those Leaving China (and Kleptocracy)…

Life has been its usual tricky self and has got in the way of posts recently, apologies. The year is winding up, and I’ve been having too much fun to blog. Essentially, it’s the end of season. Right now a great many (if not almost all) of my friends living here in China are either leaving or back home already. I’m getting left behind for a month as I try to earn just a few more of those mythical renminbis before I too bugger off and it is a bittersweet feeling. I’m having a great time saying goodbye to everyone (lots of music, lots of parties, lots of Qingdao) but I feel more than a bit gloomy at having to be the one who stays on, alone. It won’t be that bad, and I only have a month or so left, but it will be a good feeling to get my feet back on UK soil (and also to tell my useless, opportunistic, parasitic, idiotic, inefficient and wholly disrespectful job where to stick it). I shouldn’t complain, as I’ll be travelling in Europe a fair bit July/August which will be very interesting to look at through a lens smogged up with 3 years’ worth of China experiences, but complain nonetheless I shall.

To all the people I’ve met; those who I’ve drank, ate, played, sang, ran, drank, laughed, derped, swam, bitched, geeked, moaned, whined, argued, cheated, conned, swindled, stolen from, grudgingly paid and generally gotten into shenanigans with over the course of this year (and indeed, all three years), you are – to a fault – brilliant. I will miss you all far more than I care to admit.

Also, despite my attempts to be nice about China (I shall, soon…) this article is just too good to pass up. It’s about how China is full of cheats, conmen, swindlers, thieves and vagabonds. Essential reading.

On the Gift of the Graft: Corruption in China…

This is a paste from an article I wrote for the eChinacities website about my experiences with corruption in China. I’ve been promising to write it here on the blog for about six months, but I’ve been hesitant to in case I drew any “unwanted attention.” Then I got a chance to make some money for writing about it. So I did. And damn the torpedoes: I only have about six weeks left, I speak nothing but the truth and this is by no means an isolated incident. China, get your act together.

Gift of the Graft: Corruption in China

May 31, 2012

There is so much irony in this photo. This was on the wall of the room in which I was made to wait while the consultant went off to “pay” the police officer.

“You are in China. You come to China as foreigner it is your responsibility to know all the laws of China and obey them. You get no special treatment. You go now.” Thus speaks the officious little turtleneck as he chucks my passport back onto the table, denies my visa application and storms out. My consultant yelps and scurries after him, but to no avail. Later, traipsing out of the police station, we learn that the particular “law of China” I have violated is one stating I must re-register at my local station every single time I re-enter the country. I have registered twice before (I live on the HK border and flit back and forth regularly) and have been assured – both by the local officers fed up of seeing me and my new company’s usually helpful consultancy firm – that so long as I am registered it will be fine, but not so here. This time it matters, and for whatever infuriatingly inexplicable reason I am now a long way up the proverbial creek with the CCP having just impounded my paddle.

My consultant is stumped, as am I. Sitting on the steps outside, I feel an overwhelming urge to do or say something regrettable in the direct line-of-sight of all the blue uniforms, but then I begin noticing that every single person strolling by is laden with stuffed gift bags. I also spy lots of red envelopes. It is the week before Spring Festival and I assume everyone has been shopping, but as a sudden cloud of comprehension passes over my consultant’s face, I realise that something else is going on. We depart, return the next day, wait patiently while my consultant disappears into the visa officer’s room and rise as one when he miraculously emerges fifteen minutes later. In his fist is a form marked with that holiest seal of Chinese officialdom: a red stamp. I’m in!

Gifting or grafting?

So what happened? It is a familiar story for many an expat. Turns out everyone walking into the police station had not been shopping, but – at this most ostentatious time of year – had been bringing in the requisite ‘presents of good will.’ Turns out we were the only people (dumb foreigners) in the whole police station without anything to offer. Turns out that with only five days before the holiday, the officers really couldn’t be taking any new cases into their brimming workloads and didn’t appreciate our ‘ingratitude.’ Turns out my consultant needed to be a little more generous. I ask him what present he brought to expedite things, expecting perhaps a bottle of wine or some fancy maotai, but he informs me nothing less than 1,500 RMB in a red envelope folded inside my application would have done it. I choke on my C’est Bon and the consultant laughs at my typically foreign squeamishness. He tells me this sort of thing happens all the time and apologises for the delay, saying he really should have thought of this beforehand. The unwritten rules (潜规则 – qián guīzé) of China are every bit as important as the written ones.

Now, corruption happens everywhere, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address that, but China makes the rest of us look like rank amateurs. There is even a three-pronged measurement system. The anecdote above is a perfect example of ‘graft,’ the most common of the three types of corruption rampant in the PRC: hong-baos (or lucky money) are common presents around Chinese New Year, and many a foreign teacher can attest to a welcome gift or two being passed their way. This is usually harmless, but it can have a dark underbelly. In many instances it is fine, but the second these gifts start to be ‘expected’ then things go awry. At this particular police station, so many people were bringing gifts that it became the norm, and those who didn’t were viewed dimly by the officers who had obviously decided that they were owed something in the first place. Cheeky scamps. It is not uncommon: not a day goes by without a story in some regional paper or other of people in public office getting sent down for offences related to graft. It is as much a part of modern China as rampant development, KTV bars and smog, and just as hard to avoid.

Rent-seeking and prebendalism

Gift of the Graft: Corruption in China

The second most common type of corruption is ‘rent-seeking’, which refers to all forms of corrupt behaviour by people with monopolistic power. Public officials, through granting a license or monopoly to their clients, get “rents” – additional earnings as a result of a restricted market – and therefore make a bit extra on the side. Anyone who has ever tried to set up a business in China will be painfully familiar with these sorts of extortionists. Coming in for regular criticism are the fire department and health and safety brigades, who need to grant you a license before your new business can operate. Surprise, surprise, lots of problems begin arising when you try to get one. That is, until a healthily fat envelope is delivered surreptitiously to the man at the top (here, graft bleeds into rent-seeking: as you can see, the categories themselves are as open and permeable as the wallets of those in charge).

Prebendalism, the third form of corruption, generally refers to those in public office who get (and abuse) perks and privileges through that office they take advantage of. This happens the world over – think the MP’s expenses scandal in the UK – but against the background hive of corrupt activity going on in China, it is yet another thing to get riled up about. It is worth noting however, that in the context of guanxi-based societal hierarchies, there may not be a monetary incentive. Prebendalism can be nepotistic rather than financial (favours for people within your guanxi circle rather than self-interest), which is something rather unique to China.

Reasons for Chinese Corruption

As with everything in China, there are many explanations and excuses. Some scholars maintain that corruption in China results from the Party’s inability to maintain a disciplined and effective administrative corps because they – in effect – have to police themselves. The CCP is so involved in every stage of the process that they have to set, obey, and uphold their own rules at the same time, which, according to Lü Xiaobo, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, is just “asking for trouble.” His approach is called ‘New Institutionalism,’ and it argues the government has failed to build enough incentive (salary hikes, non-vested pensions) and restraint (tighter supervision, actual punishment) mechanisms into the system to prevent underpaid employees from feeling like they deserve a bit extra. What is truly amazing is that the CCP openly acknowledges that this is the case. A government not known for owning up to its short-comings is fairly clear-cut about this: enough wasn’t done before, and now it’s a huge problem.

Countermeasures and responses

There are plenty of commissions set up to counter corruption, but they usually take a trophy or two before things return to normal. There is even a phrase for it: 杀一儆百 (shā yī jǐngbǎi). The Central Committee for Discipline Inspection and the Central Organization Department are both tasked with tackling corruption, but they are ineffective. Statistics from investigators Minxin Pei and Daniel Kaufmann show that the odds for a corrupt Chinese official to end up in prison are less than three percent, essentially making corruption a high-return, low-risk activity. They state in no uncertain terms that it is the leniency of punishment that has been the main reason corruption is such a serious problem in China.

Local officials may be targeted in the media, but senior CCP members are all but impervious. The CCDI and the COD also operate in secrecy, meaning that no one can see who is disciplined and how, leading to rather intense scepticism in the public. The one recent ray of light has been in the fallout from the recent Bo Xilai scandal in Chongqing. He is the most senior official in the CCP’s history to be brought low in the media, and there is now a palpable sense of sights being fixed much higher up the food chain. Bo Xilai may not have been formally charged with corruption, but the internet is rife with rumours and for the first time in living memory the Chinese population is beginning a real, open debate about it. The CCP in recent years has shown hesitant, yet positive progress towards the idea of reform, and perhaps now in the current climate the problem of corruption can finally be tackled. Until the comprehensive reforms needed are undertaken China will continue to be plagued by corruption, but at least now people are finally starting to talk about it on a national level.