by Ernie Diaz
Rock is dead; hard to argue the fact. Sure, you’ll still spot the odd teen in a Led Zep shirt (especially in Singapore – go figure), but that’s just tribute to the past. Still plenty of long-haired Chinese stalwarts covering the Eagles at expat bars, but they’re flogging a corpse. Don’t burn your denim jacket yet, though. Unlike non-Haitian humans, musical genres can be reanimated after their demise, given enough juju power. You don’t necessarily like the undead, but the beat goes on. Think disco’s unholy rebirth as techno.
To revive rock, we’ll need blood. Young blood, energized and unrefined. Then we’ll need some all-but-forgotten cultural component. Rural black folk from the Mississippi Delta, lamenting their fates? It’s been done. How about rural yellow folk from the Pearl River Delta, moaning, wailing, yowling like hutong alley cats in heat? If the rock purist in you recoils, that’s good. Means we’ve got something here.
Actually, Nancheng Erge’s got it, fusing Satan’s preferred gateway music with Quyi. Quyi is a catch-all term for just about any Chinese folk performing style you could’ve found from a West Lake teahouse to a Gansu camel market, before radio killed the sidewalk star.
That catch-all element means rock group Nancheng Erge can back up their power chords with more sizzling, far-out combinations than a Hong Kong food court. Dagu – that’s a subset of Quyi, using doggerel to boast, an obligatory nod to rap. So’s Daoqing, whose syncopated beat and repetitive chanting evoke the ad nauseam effect of your finer electronica. There’s even Xiangsheng, so the band can rock out whilst relating a humorous but ultimately pointless story, ala legend’s legend Frank Zappa.
So Nancheng Erge has something for everybody, but rock for all. The bass, drum, and guitar players see to that. The addition of bamboo clappers and erhu pushes the envelope to a new address: the former serves as cowbell, which no good rock band can have too much of, and, in the right hands, the latter can squeak out a high-fret solo more fluidly than Randy Rhoads.
Opening the envelope and reading the riot act, Erge is in charge of vocals and traditional material. He’s liable to sing you a marble-mouthed Beijing Jingyun Dagu, or a ghostly Guizhou folk aria. What you won’t get is the basso profundo growling of modern metal, like Cookie Monster heaving up a batch of Oscar the Grouch’s pruno. “Rock ‘n’ roll, we feel, is not about roaring angrily. We have reinvented the genre by combining it with Quyi,” Erge says immodestly.
And hey, he can be immodest, megalomaniacal even; he’s authentic, and authenticity is the whole of rock’s law. Derivative pandering is music’s killing offense. We’d need electric bleachers, not chairs, to do justice to all the Chinese pop crooners wondering when they’ll get a decent movie offer.
But this is no exercise in promoting a band, even one as original as Nancheng Erge. Nor is it a pop-bashing; too easy. Rather, we want to weigh the possibility of Chinese Quyi‘s being the alchemical ingredient with which to revive rock.
Let’s look at some lyrics, and imagine them with the appropriate musical backing.
Er Ren Zhuan is a Quyi form from the North, and Xiao Shenyang is its last apostle. Acrobatic stunts are part and parcel of good Er Ren Zhuan, so imagine this chubby-cheeked gent leaping off the stage monitors, then singing:
Taking someone else’s road, blocks the other’s way!
Walk another man’s road, and there’s no way left to go!
Follow others’ footprints, and the path is much too slow.
We can applaud the appeal to individualism, but this sort of ham-handed advice-dishing as art was perfected long ago by Dio, may he reign in hell.
Suzhou Pingtan was a bit more sedate and refined than Er Ren Zhuan, and offered plenty of romantic tragedy, the stuff of hits. From “The Courtesan’s Jewel Box”:
Alas, the love-blind girl,
She met a faithless young man,
That Li Jia, before they reached home,
He had already changed his heart.
This is the kind of straight ahead balladeering that made Tom Petty a household name from Terra Haute to Des Moines. Add an extra-nasal chorus and these lyrics could have legs.
Plenty of heroic history to work with in Quyi, also, such as “A Bannerman’s Story of Hua Mulan”
If the brushes that write history will not record one’s name,
Then only with the sword may one transmit his name!
Sigh for the bearded one whose lifelong hustle only buries him in emptiness,
Still no better than Hua Mulan who marched to war in her father’s place!
You can imagine Rush coming up with something like this, no? Given a three-minute synthesizer intro.
But that’s why we write rather than perform. Who’s to say we should scour Quyi for content reminiscent of bands long-consigned to the discount bin? Maybe we should be searching for the quintessentially Chinese to trigger the desired alchemic reaction. Take “Records on Rescuing Mother”, for example:
Buddha’s image is the golden body.
How silent are the inner gates;
The wind raises the pearl curtains;
Incense smoke swirls;
Everything is blurred in the realm of the immortals.
Eh? Perhaps some accompanying flute, resolving into a full-on two-axe attack? Or maybe such spiritual lyrics are best left to Enya and other New-Age types. Whatever Quyi’s potential as a rock catalyst, the devil’s in the music, not the details.