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As we stress in HyperChina, listening to Chinese pop songs is a great way of boosting your command of the language as well as getting a deeper view of the people and society. Sadly, this has been often neglected by language teachers. Here, we want to encourage you to go and explore the Chinese music scene, not only for language learning, but also for the artistic surprises you'll encounter. (See HyperChina's "Music" section for a survey of different genres of Chinese pop music.)
CUI JIAN's 1995 U.S. TOUR
Cui Jian, China's most talented rock musician, completed his first U.S. tour in the summer of 1995. Concerts were given in S.F. (8/19) and N.Y.C. (8/26) The concerts were not promoted much in American news media, so most of the concert-goers were die-hard Cui Jian fans who were young graduate students from mainland China. The S.F. concert was so seriously marred by the sound system and acoustics at the performing venue (Fort Mason) that nobody could hear what Cui Jian was singing (well, you can't tell what he's singing even on records anyway) or what the band was playing. However, the performance was genuinely good and the audience was totally thrilled nevertheless.
After the U.S. tour, it seems safe to say that Cui Jian's popularity is doomed to be confined to the Chinese community and any hope of introducing his music to the Western audience appears to be non-existent.
DADAWA - SISTER DRUM: China's First World Beat Record Explores Tibet
This is the best music to have come out of China, ever (not counting, of course, Cui Jian, who is in a class all by himself). Vocals by Zhu Zheqin (born in Guangdong to Hunanese parents), who is now only in her early twenties; music composed by He Xuntian, an avant-garde composer from Sichuan now teaching at the Shanghai Academy.
The album was recorded in Shanghai, published and released in Asia by a Taiwan record company in the summer of 1995, and release in the West by Sire/Elektra in early 1996. It was an instant and huge hit in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.
Comparisons with Enya and new age music is unavoidable at first; but the listener will soon discover that this is a completely new form of music, especially for the Chinese listener. Despite all the ethnic Tibetan dressings (Zhu's Tibetan name - "Dadawa", a few sound samples from Tibetan music, and an exceptionally well-made MTV and album covers shot in Tibet), the music is neither Chinese nor Tibetan, but genuinely He Xuntian's own.
Unfortunately, bad marketing and product positioning (where do you file it in the record store? Pop, New Age, China, Tibet, Ambient? None of these seems right) have prevented this fine record from gaining the recognition it deserves in the U.S.
* Note: Dadawa's second album, VOICES FROM THE SKY (Chinese: YANG JIN MA; released in 1997), has now been released in the West. Recommended.
FAYE WANG'S NEW ALBUM
In the movie "Chungking Express" (Chongqing Senlin) (which was released in the U.S. by Quentin Tarantino), the big-eyed, skinny actress who plays the snack joint worker secretly in love with a policeman is actually the most popular female singer in the Chinese-speaking world at this moment. She is Faye Wang, or Wang Fei (though also known as Wang Jingwen, Wang Fei is her real name). Wang Fei grew up in Beijing, and migrated with her family to Hong Kong when she was in her late teens. She started out singing Cantonese pop in Hong Kong, and in 1994 her first Mandarin album Mi (Riddles; Enigma) shot up to number one on Taiwan's top-ten chart and stayed there for months.
Wang Fei has a crystal clear voice, a typically Northern, super straight-forward personality, and an idiosyncratic dress style. Her directness and sometimes blunt manners may just be a typical Beijing native attitude; however, those traces make her stand out among entertainers in Hong Kong and Taiwan, who are normally so eager to charm. Wang Fei's distinct and trendy dress style changes as swiftly as that of the youth in the West. At various phases of her career, Wang Fei has been accused of imitating Bjork and the Cranberries.
As for her music, like in all Hong Kong pop records, original songs by Chinese composers are rare, but Western tunes with new Chinese lyrics are common. Wang Fei has included songs by Tori Amos and the Cocteau Twins in several of her works. However, her much-anticipated new album Fuzao (Restless), which was just released in June 1996, contains all original works. Seven out of the ten songs were written by Wang Fei herself, and the Cocteau Twins wrote two others especially for her. Recorded and produced in Beijing, Fuzao enlists one of the most prominent Beijing rocker - Dou Wei - in music arrangement and production. By the way, Mr. Dou is Wang Fei's long-time boyfriend.
Over all, Wang Fei's new album sounds like a cheap imitation of Cocteau Twins. Her fans are a bit disappointed at the shortness of the album (only 35 minutes) and the stinginess of lyrics in the title song (only 22 characters.) Still, some die-hard Faye fans said that after repeated listening, the album just gets better and better. Well, we certainly don't recommend it (try her MI [Riddles] album instead).
"ENIGMA" PIRATES TAIWAN ABORIGINAL SONG
Most of you have probably heard the song "Return to Innocence" on the second Enigma album, "The Cross of Changes." Recently, people in Taiwan brought up the issue of copyright infringement concerning the illegal use a of Taiwanese aboriginal song as the theme in that Enigma hit. Enigma (Michael Cretu) used the main melodies of a song (track 1) from the CD "Polyphonies Vocales des Aborigenes de Taiwan" (Inedit W260011) without paying any licensing fees or even acknowledging it in the liner notes (only the initial European pressing contains credits to the samples).
Now that the song has been chosen as the official Olympics theme song, the Chinese in Taiwan are getting upset and want to take action on it (how's that for a change?).
For all you ethnomusicologists out there, you can also compare the much-aired song "Age of Loneliness" (track 7 on the Enigma 2 album) with "Tosonguyn oroygoor" (track 15) on a Mongolian vocal music CD, "Mongolie"(Inedit W260009). Yes, it's the same song, the same recording, lifted without credits or acknowledgment.
Dear Herr Cretu, what is this? Come on, give the "aboriginals" some credit! Let people know it's Mongolian and Taiwanese!
Latest Update (7/12): As a result of recent media coverage, news crews from the Associate Press, CNN, and others are beginning to pour into the Eastern part of Taiwan to interview the original vocalist of these songs, the Guo Yingnan couple. Guo's representative has taken the couple to an undisclosed location to avoid the harassment.
For suggestions on Chinese pop music, see the Music section in HyperChina. To be honest, you will be better off buying the following records and the ones we recommend in HyperChina than wasting time and connection charges on the Chinese music Web links we provide you in CHINA LINKS.