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Expats shake up indie music scene
By Mark South (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-02-08 06:20

"Shanghai has a lamentable live music scene," the entertainment section of a guidebook to the city begins, but this could all change thanks to a small army of axe-wielding musicians from overseas.

House bands playing Western pop songs may have thrived in recent years, but while Beijing boasts a cutting-edge underground scene, Shanghai has been a little more reluctant to embrace alternative music.

"In the past if you wanted to go and see live music in Shanghai it would almost always be a Filipino cover band doing Hotel California," said Karl Moore, half of British duo Shanghai Laowai.

"Don't get me wrong, the house bands are very good at what they do, but in the eyes of many there was a real dearth of original alternative music."

A teacher, Moore concedes that at 30 he is probably a bit old to make it as a teen heart-throb, but the pursuit of fame and fortune is not Laowai's motivation, he insists.

"This is Shanghai, we know there aren't any record executives trawling the bars looking for their next big signing. We started the band because very few people were playing the kind of music we wanted to go out and listen to. There was a gap so we decided to try and fill it."

It is only recently that bands such as Shanghai Laowai, A Fistful of Laowai and The Living Thin (formerly known as T is for Trebuchet) have emerged and been able to find venues to play and an audience to listen, but Moore is adamant their attraction is more than just a novelty.

"For the Chinese audience that is probably part of it, we have even been on TV because we're seen as unusual, but we've been around for a year and people wouldn't still be coming to see us if they didn't like the music," he said.

A major figure on Shanghai's live music scene, Robb Spitzer has been in Shanghai for the last three-and-a-half years working for China West Entertainment, a concert promotions company that brings foreign acts to China.

Although professionally involved with full-time performers, he has kept a close eye on Shanghai's home-grown crowd.

"There is a real mix of people. There are professional musicians who are brought over to play in house bands, there are music scholars who have come to China specifically to engage with traditional Chinese music, there are people who have been in bands before and just play for fun, and then there are others, like Shanghai Laowai, who are really trying to do something original," he explained.

This is not to mention the legions of DJs and producers armed with computers and turntables, and an active Jazz and Blues scene, with house performers at hotels and bars stretching their repertoires to include original material.

"The alternative scene is still very small, but it is growing and new venues are springing up all the time," Spitzer adds.

He and Moore both recognize that when it comes to alternative music Beijing has a considerable lead over Shanghai, but they are confident the city they call home is catching up.

"For some reason Shanghai has been more of a pop city," said Moore. "I have students, and these are 28-year-old men, who tell me their favourite band is the Backstreet Boys. That would be almost unheard of in the UK.

"Karaoke and cover bands seem to have been the norm here, but music with a few rough edges is beginning to come through."

(China Daily 02/08/2006 page2)

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