Editor’s Note: This post comes to us from thruoutin, who is a Beijing-based musician and producer known for playing the pipa. He was invited to play at the Silk Road Great Wall International Music Culture Festival earlier this month, and graciously wrote a travel and performance diary for us.
Silk Road Great Wall International Music Culture Festival at China Peacock Garden
In early July I was contacted by Nevin Domer of Genjing Records about playing a music festival outside of Lanzhou in Gansu province. The organizers were looking for foreign acts to participate along with bands from all over China. Aside from some citywide festivals such as JUE | Music + Art and Fête de la Musique I hadn’t done any outdoor events. I immediately said yes and Nevin put me in contact with the show organizer, Liu Kun, who is the singer of the folk/rock group Low Wormwood. After a week or so of finalizing travel plans and accommodations I was set and started preparing for my trip. The festival would take place in a city called Jia Yu Guan in an enormous peacock park. Nay, China’s largest Indian peafowl park. Not really knowing too much else about the place or the festival, I did some research and discovered that Jia Yu Guan is home to the most Westwardly section of the Great Wall . Geographically it sits roughly on the same latitude as Mongolia and Myanmar, not too far from the Gobi desert. Already it was sounding like it would be different than anything I’d done.
August 1st, 2013
I got up early and once I got through security at the airport I could see there were about three or four other bands waiting at the gate. I didn’t really recognize any of them, but one super skinny Chinese guy with a baseball cap that read “Hockey” stood out. Later on I was told he was Xie Tianxiao; one of the first Chinese rock guys. I boarded the plane, put my pipa overhead and sat in my window seat. I was sitting a couple of seats behind the band Skip Skip Ben Ben. Another plus to playing at the festival in Jia Yu Guan would be getting to see them play. The flight over the desert and mountain terrain was breathtaking.
After a shaky landing at a tiny airport with only five gates, we were met by a swarm of volunteers and camera men ushering each band to private cars. I was greeted by a 16-year old girl holding a sign that said “thruoutin.” She ended up assisting me for the duration of the festival. We got to the hotel where there were more camera men, more volunteers, and I began to get this feeling that I had really left Beijing. No one was smoking cigarettes, disinterested and playing on their iPads. People were excited and I hadn’t even done anything yet. I had to repeatedly insist on carrying my own equipment, because after every turn there was someone working for the festival offering to hold my stuff. Next, we went directly to sound check, around 6pm the night before I was scheduled to play. It was hands down the earliest and most efficient sound check I’ve ever done, maybe, ever.
On the stage there were five people helping me set up all my equipment and making sure I had the right kind of table and chair. Even though my set-up is a bit different than the normal rock band, you could tell the sound guy and stage crew really wanted to make sure everything was working to the best of their abilities. The stage was by far one of the largest I had ever played on and could be compared to a smaller stage at an American festival or at MIDI/Strawberry festivals in Beijing. The best part about sound check must have been dusk, when the sun began to set over the arid hills in the distance and the peacocks started crying out to each other. They were just as loud as the monitor speakers on stage. With the sun still out at 8:45 we headed back to the hotel and I rested up for the next day. I laid on my hotel bed and wondered what alternate universe I had stepped into.
August 2nd, 2013
In the morning I went for a walk before breakfast to see what the area surrounding the hotel was like. The streets were large, wide, and nearly empty. There were lots of newly built apartment complexes and old people out doing their morning exercises. I eventually found a vegetable market and snagged some recordings of the vendors. I went back to the hotel for breakfast and was met by my volunteer who then took me to the festival. We arrived just before anyone had really started, so we headed over to one of the other stages and watched a traditional Gansu vocal group perform a couple songs. More and more people started gathering as the nu-metal group from Chengdu, Ashura (阿修罗乐队), started playing. It seemed like there were more police officers, guards, and swat team guys than there were audience members.
I was on next. I got all my equipment arranged and opened up with a new song that was basically pipa with vocals on top of a recording of roofing nails being pulled over a cement floor. I had people’s attention then and scurried on to the more beat driven songs I usually play live. The wind coming off the desert was whipping around the stage and my pipa was blown out of tune a few times. Despite this little hiccup, I could see people bobbing their heads and clapping.The sound was great, which is usually not the case for open air festivals and there was even one of those boom cameras buzzing around my head. After 40 minutes or so of battling the heat and wind, I played my last song, thanked the audience and left the stage. Almost immediately I was surrounded by volunteers handing me markers and asking me to sign their shirts as well as a writer for the local paper asking if he could interview me. It was a little overwhelming; I’m not used that sort of thing. I think these kids hardly ever have bands come out there and were just happy to see anyone. That made me quite happy, and reminded of living in the suburbs as a teenager and getting excited when some unknown punk/ska band would come touring.
After the interview I downed a couple bottles of water in the cabin where the bands were “kept.” Skip Skip Ben Ben did a great set.Their dynamic worked really well for the festival. There was a group of Chinese business men in the audience all holding on to each other and attempting to pogo to the music. After their performance we were all pretty beat, so we decided we’d check out the section of the Great Wall that makes the city famous. Unfortunately, when we got there the site had closed and only one of the watch towers was visible. The highlight was when Skip Skip Ben Ben’s bassist paid to ride on a camel.
August 3rd, 2013
My flight left in the afternoon so I got up early to do some more investigating and recording. From my hotel window you could see a gigantic dolphin structure. I walked that way and entered a park where people were dipping their feet in little streams and a group of cosplay girls were doing each other’s make up. I snuck around old ladies wielding nun chucks and park gardeners with lethargically swaying weed eaters. There was a waterfall people could pass under that had some terrific natural reverb. Covered in sweat I headed back to the hotel and packed my things. I went down to the lobby to check out was set off by the whole hotel staff and all the volunteers. There was even a news crew waiting outside. I didn’t know what was going on. They interviewed me about how I liked the city and the festival. I eventually found out that they were waiting for Xie Tianxiao to go to the airport and I had just so happened to come out a little earlier than him. While I waited at the airport for my flight, I was lucky enough to catch two of the bands that would be playing that day: Low Bow and Chui Wan. One of which, despite all the handlers, stopped to greet me.
The trip out to Jia Yuan Guan was definitely memorable and I would do it again in a second. The scenery was amazing, the people were more than hospitable and in the end I was extremely fortunate to have been invited.