Baoli Park, Chengdu
May 1-3rd, 2009
Zebra is the first music festival I’ve attended in China, and apparently, the first music festival in general for many of the attendees who made the trek out to Tulip Park, located next to the Panda Breeding Center in Chengdu’s northeastern suburbs. As it turns out, like everybody else I talked to, I was very impressed with the organization and crowd turn-out and participation.
The festival organizers have clearly done this sort of thing before: the park was well-signed, with ample distribution of port-a-loo and waste/recycling bin facilities. The main stage is truly impressive, with a powerful lighting and sound system, and carried the big-name pop and rock acts. The two smaller stages cater to specific genres—Panda (Xiongmao)—just like its Chengdu club namesake--hosts DJs playing electronic music ranging from drum-n-bass to hip hop, and the Deputy stage, organized by local indie hub Little Bar, hosts alternative guitar bands. Curiously, the festival’s Chinese name is “Robot,” and images of cute round robots abounded on signs and screens.
The crowd, while a good mixture of families and backgrounds, was still predominantly young students and 20-somethings out for a good time. Beyond the music, one of the most interesting ways to pass the time was to scout out the fashion scene. On the whole, classic rocker apparel, including dark drainpipe jeans, and high and low-top Chuck Taylor’s were well-represented. Apparently, pork pie hats are all the rage, for both genders, and for girls, super-teased hair was making a huge comeback, alongside panda eye/Robert Smith make-up. I spotted one guy with a classic Moz-style coiffe and plenty of prerequisite takes on the traditional Johnny Rotten spikes, mohawks and emo fringes.
The best, and most puzzling outfit was undoubtedly a young bloke wearing a full-length Jesus-style muumuu. He’d also gone to the trouble of getting a silver hand printed on to the top of his shaven skull. It made exactly zero sense to me until a friend mentioned that some Cosplayers—in which one dresses up as Anime characters (this is Asia, after all)—were out in costume. Behind the main stage, a hippie-Africana drum troupe was banging away merrily, surrounded by a disproportionately large crowd of people. I figured this was because some of the drummers must have been foreigners, and given the sort of dread-rocking, free-spirited types who often make up such drum circles, they would prove the perfect spectacle to curious Sichuanese kids, a little more insulated than their east-coast brethren, busy forming impressions of these strange, wild-looking laowai all the while. It turns out though that a high-profile Chinese movie star was shooting a scene there, and folks had just swamped the place for a gander.
Music festivals in general tend to attract a diverse brand of folks, and I’m used to seeing plenty of spacey, tripped-out ravers and “permanent festival-goers” at Coachellas and other similar gatherings. But it was a trip seeing the reactions of locals to my fellow foreign friends. I spent most of the afternoon hanging out with friends’ Josh and Heather, who had set up a tent and camped the previous night. Josh and Heather—of the local rock band Proximity Butterfly—both sport spectacular dreadlocks, and locals come up often to have their picture taken with them. An Australian friend, Cam, also happens to have locks. While hanging out by their tent, he would also have locals come up asking for pictures.
“You know I’m not in the band, right?” he would ask.
“That’s OK. Can I still get a picture with you?” they would ask.
And because seemingly every Australian but me has dreadlocks in this city, our friend Jessie, would get the most wide-eyed looks of all. Blessed with fabulously artistic taste, Jessie has pink/blonde dreads, a number of tattoos and piercings, and was wearing a leopard-print dress and pink Docs…in short, she looks about as un-Chinese as you can get. While leaving the park that night, we passed a row of security guards in formation. One by one, as they turned to see her, their jaws would literally drop, eyes wide as a baby visiting his first zoo, in utterly confused, fascinated wonder.
As for the music: overall, it was quite good, without being some display of breakthrough artistic innovation. We came just in time to catch Reflector on the main stage, an energetic pop-punk trio who—from the bass player’s theatrical strumming to the lead singer’s snarling vocals—screamed Green Day. Such music is a good fit for these sorts of events—it requires little prior knowledge of the band or music to nod along, and the band’s fierce attack and tuneful songs carried the audience stylishly. The kids close to the stage were having a blast, bouncing along with double rock-sign fist pumps, and there was the occasional crowd surfer.
The band which followed, Underground Baby, sounded similarly Green Day-esque, if with a slightly more expanded pop-rock sound. It may have been simply that I was standing further away from the stage, but they lacked the intensity and magnetism of Reflector. The slide continued with VC Super VC, decked out in all-white, exposed-chest Bowie-era t-shirts, with hats and boas to match. Their songs moved even further into bland pop-rock territory, including a couple of contrived solo ballads.
All of the bands, however, lacked nothing by way of on-stage theatrics—from extended windmills to timed leaps and back-against-back 80s guitarist camera close-ups—it seems every band that played has earnestly studied footage of Woodstock and Live Aid. Watching these boys with their long hair, matching suits and skinny pants strut about, it felt like what I imagine it might be like attending a Chinese theatrical production of “Romeo and Juliet”: all the moves and lines are perfectly orchestrated, but it feels somewhat second-hand and inauthentic. But, rock and roll has always been about miscegenation and cultural borrowing (some might say theft), so in the end, who cares? The crowd certainly didn’t mind the moves one bit.
The best act on the main stage that night was surely the New Cools, who drew further back for inspiration to the sort of synth-driven quirky new wave of XTC and the Cars. Their lead singer had charisma to spare: wearing a neon multi-colored white tracksuit, he robot-danced and squealed bi-lingual hooks like “Everybody is here now!” (In English) and “I want to be a famous director!” (In Mandarin) As always, it was fascinating seeing how bands, as well as the jumbo-screens before them, split between Chinese and English. At one point, the screens flashed: “Make some noise!” and “Clap your hands!” sans Chinese. There was a delay of a few seconds before enough people caught wind and the crowd kicked into action. Also interesting were the public service announcements, which varied from: “You’re here to cheer on the bands, not to pick a fight!” and “Sing along, but don’t spit!” right through to the rather Chinese: “You follow orders…because you are Zebra music fans!”
My favorite act of the day was Chengdu locals Mr. Chelonian (though I was informed that their name should in fact be “Mr. Turtle”). Either way, as last band on the Deputy Stage, they rocked with a sort of Guns ‘N Roses-meets-Peter Tosh swagger, jumping from bouncy reggae and ska rhythms to Little Richard “four to the floor” and Black Crowes-evoking blues jams. Such a rich mixture of styles displayed a kind of rock literacy and technical fluidity rare among other local acts. The singer in particular, has a smooth verbal dexterity unusual to Chinese singers, sounding like Brad Nowell if the late Sublime singer had grown up in Guangxi rather than Long Beach. I would also have to give their fashion style a thumbs up: the singer, in a loose polka-dot shirt, bandana and long curls, evokes Axl’s glory days, the bass player is all Slash, while both were off-set by the (excellent) guitarists Dali-hippie vibe. In such a way, they seem to neatly summarize the wonderfully eclectic hodge-podge of rock history that comprises China’s contemporary indie scene.