Contemporary Chinese music can often feel dramatically polarized. On the “modern” side, one could lump all of the sugary KTV Mandopop and simultaneously rebellious and conservative Western-influenced indie rock. Then on the other, more “traditional” side, one could place all the folk, revolutionary period and classical Chinese music. It’s a rough split, admittedly, but one that speaks to the dramatic schism that Opening and Reform’s ensuing influx of Western culture has created within Chinese musical culture.
Li Daiguo, an Oklahoma-raised ABC who has been based in China since 2004, offers a refreshing aberration to this bifurcated environment. His music, played on a mixture of Chinese and world instruments, joyfully mines numerous folk traditions, continuously pushing the boundaries that instruments like the erhu or pipa are generally held within. On a chilly Wednesday, he held captivated what was surely one of Yugong Yishan’s quietest audiences to date.
Li is based in Chengdu, though he spends considerable time touring, and while living there, I was fortunate enough to see him play a dozen or so times. This extended exposure has allowed me to get beyond his virtuosic mastery and further into the probing, open-ended themes that his music explores.
The mastery tends to leave most first-timers dazzled, and often blown away: a Li performance will involve any combination of huqin, hulusi and other increasingly obscure Chinese folk instruments, violin, clarinet, mbira, beatboxing that slides from hip hop to Four Tet-like electronica to tabla-mimicking Carnatic Indian beats and finally, almost casually, over-tone throat singing (from all accounts: an extremely difficult craft to learn).
If all of this musicality were strewn together in a “look-at-me” medley of instrumental ostentation, most might probably forgive him. But Li’s performances have never been about showmanship; they are explorations of consciousness and the internal life, with pieces that leap purposefully from a Bach-like contrapuntal melodic line to rapid bluesy-riffing to screeching cat-claw white noise. Through it all, motifs of existential conflict, spiritual yearning and playful non-sequitur appear. Experienced live, his music is often rapturous, while never losing its sense of modest folk tradition exploration.
Dressed on Wednesday in blue worker’s uniform, a red and white striped hat and his signature over-sized owl glasses, Li cut a figure somewhere along the lines of Where’s Waldo, Taoist sage edition. His first set was split between a pipa-like instrument and violin, his beatboxing and throat singing lending rhythmic agency to the sometimes serene, sometimes unnerving mood.
His second set, featuring Beijing-based musician Mi, continued along this more theatrical vein, with Mi’s childlike scat and jibberish interspersed between her gorgeously high-pitched, folk minority-styled melodies. The two have played together for years, and their comfort with one another was clear, as Li slid easily into the background, while Mi, on accordion, lifted the mood to a place of confused hysteria and searching—a sonic exploration so germane to her generation’s current situation, yet one so rarely expressed in public.
Li Daiguo's Douban (most often updated): http://www.douban.com/artist/love.betternonsequitur.com/ Myspace (not as regularly updated): http://www.myspace.com/specialaffection Musician's website: http://love.betternonsequitur.com Written for Beijing City Weekend, originally published December 17, 2009: http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/beijing/articles/blogs-beijing/the-beat/li-daiguo-at-yugong-yishan-december-16-2009/
20-something Australian-Chinese MBA student at Duke's Fuqua School of Business (Class of 2013). Previously worked in business education and international development. Interested in social progress, culture, travel, languages, joyful living.