A musical axe to grind

By Paul Tomic ( China Daily ) Updated: 2014-07-18 08:38:17

A musical axe to grind

Zhang Jieye/China Daily

A musical axe to grind
Iowa expat finds China connection
A musical axe to grind
Excuse me, while I check my phone
Several years ago, I attended a live music event on the outskirts of Beijing on a day so hot and humid that the air was damper than an otter's pocket. The audience sweated profusely, cursed profoundly, and drank prodigiously-an added bonus for the organizer, who watched gleefully as glass after glass of chilled beer disappeared down the parched punters' throats.

Sadly, the humidity meant the bands-mainly amateur expat outfits-were unable to finish any of their songs in the same key as they started. After just a few bars, every stringed instrument twanged dramatically out of tune, producing a sound so atonal that it sounded like a cats' chorus. Most of the bands reacted with stoicism, apologizing and smiling wanly at the audience.

Many punters left, but those who stayed grinned in anticipation as the last band, whose vocalist/rhythm guitarist was notoriously volatile, took the stage. Our man quickly showed signs of losing his cool.

Those who had witnessed his previous tantrums nudged their friends, alerting them to the coming storm. A cyclone of curses duly arrived about three songs into the set when the audience was treated to a master class in the fine art of the Anglo-Saxon expletive as the irate muso fought to retune his "axe", as guitars are known in the (pitifully) macho world of rock 'n' roll. The gig ended prematurely when he threw his instrument to the floor, cracking it badly, and stalked away, still swearing and gesticulating wildly, much to everyone's amusement.

Although extravagantly and expensively expressed, the poor man's frustration was perfectly understandable.

The Beijing climate and stringed instruments are not bosom buddies-in fact, they're barely on nodding terms. The days are either bitterly cold and as arid as the Atacama, or as sultry as a '60s sex starlet. Neither state is good for any musical instrument, but especially damaging to those reliant on high-tension wires suspended from a large block of wood to produce a sound. In summer, the moisture in the sodden air soaks into the guitar's body and neck, causing swelling and buckling. The winter aridity dries everything out, resulting in warping and cracking. The cycle is endless.

The task of safeguarding against these problems is Sisyphean; neck realignment, drying out, damping down, string replacement, protective coverings, oiling, waxing ... and repeat, ad infinitum. It's akin to painting the Forth Bridge, a structure so long that when the painters finish at one end, it's time for them to start over again at the other.

When I asked the owner of a local guitar shop for advice, he was blunt: "Don't own a guitar in Beijing. It's a waste of time and money."

So how did he keep the axes in his store, the most expensive of which retails for 70,000 yuan ($11,000), in mint condition? "Humidifiers, climate-control technology and lots of local know-how," he replied. "The electricity alone costs a fortune, and the maintenance process eats time."

That set us wondering why, in the face of such seemingly overwhelming odds, Beijing's guitarists persevere. Two reasons: they love their guitars, and making music is fun.

Beijing has a lively scene, with both expat and Chinese bands on show almost every night. Some of the homegrown bands are superb, combining talent and youthful verve to produce live music as interesting and exciting as anything you'll hear in the West. Sadly, my Chinese is so bad I can only understand the most basic lyrics.

With that in mind, I asked my manager friend if Chinese bands will ever crack the global market, or will the language barrier leave them scaling the rock face forever?

He laughed: "No way. Forget the language barrier, that's not the problem. The problem is the climate-it's impossible to stay in tune long enough to make a decent record!"

For more stories by expats in China, click here

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