An A to Z of Chi­nese mu­sic

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is for Anita Mui, “the Chi­nese Madonna” for her song Bad Girl a decade ago, spawn­ing a gen­er­a­tion of sim­i­lar soubri­quets.


is for boy­bands. The Chi­nese love ’em – and no won­der. No­body can pout like a Chi­nese boy­band can; check out the on­line video from C-pop four­some Fire.


is for con­trol. The Chi­nese have been aware of mu­sic’s po­ten­tial as an in­stru­ment of so­cial “or­gan­i­sa­tion” ever since Confucius, who put for­ward the idea of ortho­dox rit­ual mu­sic as a kind of mass so­porific – with­out ever hav­ing heard of boy­bands.


is for the daddy of Chi­nese rock. When Cui Jian first per­formed the Chi­nese rock song Yi Wu Suo You (I Have Noth­ing) in the 1980s, it was the first time an elec­tric gui­tar was used in China.


is for easy lis­ten­ing, which Chi­nese mu­sic usu­ally isn’t. Es­pe­cially when it’s karaoke.


is for Fahren­heit, the Chi­nese boy band du jour – whose pub­lic­ity wheeze is to mar­ket each of its four mem­bers as a sea­son. Calvin is spring, Jiro is sum­mer, Wu is au­tumn and Ar­ron is win­ter. They ought to record What’s An­other Year?


is for gongs. You can’t re­ally do Chi­nese mu­sic with­out them.


is for hip-hop. The Chi­nese haven’t re­ally got the hang of this genre yet, if the lyric from Dragon Sun Squad is any­thing to go by: “I love hip-hop” it runs, “just like I love my mum and dad.”


is for in­ter­vals. If you can play a mi­nor third and a ma­jor sixth – prefer­ably on a gong – you can play Chi­nese.


is for J-pop: the Ja­panese ver­sion of C-pop. K is for Kung Foo Fight­ing. The orig­i­nal Carl Douglas kind from his im­mor­tal 1974 disco clas­sic, that is: not the many pale im­i­ta­tions which range from a Fat­boy Slim remix to the wa­tered-down trav­esty at the end of the movie Kung Fu Panda. L is for Lol­lipop. Not only do they look and sound like a boy band, they also live to­gether in an apart­ment paid for by their record com­pany. M is for man­dopop. That’s mu­sic sung in Man­darin, as op­posed to mu­sic sung in Can­tonese (can­topop). Canto artists tend to go mando, but not vice versa be­cause it’s harder for a na­tive Man­darin speaker to learn Can­tonese than the other way round. N is for names. Chi­nese names are in­cred­i­bly com­pli­cated and of­ten, to West­ern eyes and ears, un­in­ten­tion­ally hi­lar­i­ous. Take the di­vette known as Fish Leong. Leong Chui Peng chose the moniker, she ex­plains, be­cause the last syl­la­ble in her name sounds like “fish”. O is for Chi­nese opera, a mind-numb­ing on­slaught on the senses in which in­ex­pli­ca­bly en­tan­gled plots are al­lied to un­bear­ably repet­i­tive noise and the whole thing goes on for ever. Of course, many would say the same about Verdi. P is for piracy, which is even big­ger in China than bub­ble gum. Pi­rated CDs are sold in “le­git­i­mate” record shops, and the trade is said to rep­re­sent a whop­ping 95 per cent of sales. Q is for queasy, which is any sane per­son would feel, faced with the re­al­i­ties of the Chi­nese com­mer­cial mu­sic scene. (See un­der: P) R is for . . . dam­mit, there aren’t any ‘R’s in Chi­nese. S is for Sober, aka the Chi­nese Oa­sis. T is for Tu­van throat singers, who can sing two lines of mu­sic at once. But then, af­ter a few scoops, can’t we all? X is for Xun, a kind of glob­u­lar flute, a 7,000-year-old ex­am­ple of which was un­earthed in China re­cently. No, it’s not a typo. Seven thou­sand years. That’s how old Chi­nese cul­ture is. Y is for Yungchen Llamo, the feisty Ti­betan a cap­pella singer who also per­forms at the forth­com­ing Fes­ti­val of World Cul­tures. Un­like Sa Dingding, how­ever, Yungchen isn’t a fan of Chi­nese pol­icy on Ti­bet. Z is for zheng, the Chi­nese 25-stringed zither. If – like Sa Dingding – you can play one of those, does that make you a zheng-ius? OK, enough al­ready. U is for the un­ex­pected, which is what we should ex­pect from Chi­nese mu­si­cians over the next few years. V is for vast­ness. When Chi­nese mu­si­cians fi­nally do make it on to West­ern cul­tural radar, be pre­pared for a ma­jor takeover. W is for wit. Which, de­spite pious pro­nounce­ments, is some­thing the Chi­nese do pretty well. As in the de­light­ful YouTube clip of the two stu­dents lip-synch­ing to Back­street Boys’ I Want It That Way.

Yungchen Llamo and, be­low, boy­band Fahren­heit

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