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Bringing harmony to the people

Updated: 2012-05-18 09:52
By Mu Qian ( China Daily)

"Shanren" literally means "mountain men", but the namesake band insists on using pinyin for their English name, because they believe subtle meaning is lost in the translation.

The group's frontman Qu Zihan puts it like this: "We all come from the mountains, but shanren also implies wisdom. We want to make music with Chinese characteristics."

The outfit from Yunnan province has taken their Chinese rock to South Korea, Spain, Britain, the United States, Canada and Indonesia in recent years.

Simultaneously, the band makes an annual trip to places "out there" to learn from traditional folk musicians and find inspiration.

In 2011, they traveled to Chuxiong, Nujiang, Lincang and Ximeng in Yunnan and recorded local folk music, some tracks of which are samples on their new album, which comes out next month.

"When you live in the city too long, you feel empty and need to recharge," bassist Ai Yong says. "We find the meaning of music in the mountains, where music is an organic part of life."

Shanren released its first CD Shanren Band in 2008, after performing in grassroots venues for almost 10 years. The album tells stories about ordinary people.

Returning Money is about a man who's crazy to get back money he lent. Study pokes fun at Yunnan natives who speak Putonghua with an accent. Thirty Years is about the difficulty people from the provinces have finding jobs in big cities. Shanren uses many Chinese instruments, most of which are from Yunnan's non-Han ethnic groups. They include xianzi, a plucked instrument of the Yi ethnic group; bawu, a Hani wind instrument; and the Jino's sun drum.

Shanren used the standard Western rock format of guitar, bass and drums when it was founded in 1999. But they found the instruments' limitations made it difficult to forge their own style.

"We couldn't make breakthroughs with Western instruments but discovered endless new possibilities with Chinese instruments, especially those belonging to ethnic groups," Qu says.

"We also learned different harmonies when we visited Yunnan's folk musicians."

They often dance onstage, because they believe dance is inalienable from music.

"Only when you dance can you really feel the music," Qu says.

Qu and drummer Xiao Ou are ethnically Han, while Ai is Va and Xiao Budian (a stage name that translates as "The Little One") is Bouyei.

"Many ethnic groups live together and influence one another in Yunnan," Qu says. "Culture develops through exchanges."

Qu grew up in mountainous regions of western Yunnan and learned many ethnic songs. He didn't realize those tunes' values until much later, when he wanted to make his own music after singing Taiwan and Western rock covers for many years.

"We want to borrow from traditional folk songs, but the music is still about contemporary people's lives," Qu says. "I don't like the idea of protecting traditional music forms, as if they're cultural relics."

The new album presents renditions of traditional folk songs. The band says it hopes to create a more uplifting feel than previous releases.

"We used to be more cynical, but now we believe music should bring happiness," Qu says. This attitude shift comes from the two years that Shanren spent in Guiyang, Guizhou province, where they played in nightclubs to entertain officials, businesspeople and gangsters.

Qu believes the nightclub experiences are beneficial, because they no longer regard themselves as high artists but, rather, simply people who play music.

"After those years, we're able to perform on any kind of stage," Qu says.

Shanren tries to promote its music in a broader context, as the country becomes more tolerant of rock. The group became one of the few rock bands presented on TV variety shows when it was featured on Hunan Satellite TV's Camp of Happiness.

"We don't refuse the mainstream," Qu says.

"Through appearing on entertainment TV shows, we found many ordinary people like our music. They just didn't have a channel to hear it before."

Shanren will tour the country in June to promote the new CD and will perform at the Big Love Music Festival in Sichuan province's capital Chengdu on June 23.

The band also plans to tour Spain, Italy and the US later this year.

Experience has taught them foreign audiences easily appreciate their music without knowing Chinese, they say.

"The best thing about music is that it brings different peoples together," Qu says.