Zebra Festival, in review

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2011 Zebra Music Festival

Edison Chen made his come-back headlining this year’s pop-heavy Zebra line-up.

Words and pictures Hugh Bohane.

This year’s Zebra Music Festival in Chengdu over the May holiday saw Edison Chen return to the China entertainment industry after a three-year hiatus (for those of you not familiar with the why, check this extensive wiki article on indecency). Rumours abounded during the promotional campaign (which was much later than in previous years), that Edison’s face had been deliberately left off many Chengdu posters in the lead up to the event, for fear of upsetting the ZMF’s family-orientated mission statement.

The ZMF is one of the the biggest in-land festivals in the country, with more or less a 90% local audience and is certainly one to keep an eye on for future, anthropological- reference. Now in its third year, there were a few changes to the festival. Held in co-operation with the local Chengdu municipal government, the 2011 edition chose to feature more Mandopop than in previous years. There were still exceptions: some alternative national and international rock, electro, nu-metal, hip-hop, reggae and ska bands. Apart from the pop-centric line up, many punters felt disappointed by the absence of the crowd-pleasing Xiong Mao/ Panda Club, which in previous years pumped out a steady feast of electronica until the wee smalls hours. Instead, there were only a handful of DJ’s, playing on stage 2 at selective times over the three days, usually having to shut down before 11 pm.

Logistically, the site of the Festival was cleverly picked in a beautiful, tree-lined park, which has become much greener and lusher since its first year. However, on-site signage leading towards the smaller stages was not always entirely clear. Running closely alongside the Festival perimeter and popping up in clear view, was some rather expensive residential housing, which may or may not have had something to do with the leaving out of the Xiong Mao/Panda Club this year?

One of the main location directors for the ZMF, apparently travelled around the world studying many of the major music festival sites, before taking into consideration where the ZMF should be located. The site’s exact address is on the outskirts of Chengdu, at Poly198 Park, about a 20 minute taxi or 40 minute bus ride from the town centre. Transport leaving the festival on the last day was limited, clogged and chaotic.

Tickets were modestly priced at 80 RMB for a single-day pass with no three-day passes available this year.

Altogether there were four stages. The main stage; a gigantic monstrosity that has actually grown since last year, making it more difficult for photographers to get those coveted wide shots, but allowing more space for the bands to move more freely. A second stage, a short walk away and comparatively much smaller, featured mainly DJs, beat-boxers and drummers intermittently. To the left of that, was a small stage with an African drumming workshop, held during the daytime. Further ahead was the final and smallest stage, consisting of a lone hip-hop DJ who supplied breaks for various popping, locking and break-dancing battles.

In-between the stages was a Graffiti wall, Parkour site, food and market stalls, Jagermeister tent (which got some folks pretty messy towards the end of each night in part due to the 10RMB shots), Budweiser tent serving crisp 10 kuai beer, the Skulduggery and Nova Clothing tents, NGO stalls, and many other smaller stalls.

The ratio of toilets to punters appeared satisfactory and not too heavy-on-the-nose.

In terms of the crowd, (who were mostly (but not entirely) under the age of 25) there were a few problems with some members of the audience getting crushed at the front of the barriers during a few of the bigger acts sets.There was also a security breach at one point, where some of the crowd managed to slip through the barriers causing a temporary lockdown back stage.

Security personnel were intimidating by sheer numbers, but on the whole their bark was much worse than their bites, at times even joining in with the crowd in some of the non-music funtivities.

The overall crowd reaction to the three days seemed to swing between fanaticism and indifference. Day One’s line-up appealed mostly to the Indie crowd, while Day Two and Three satisfied Pop admirers.

To view the full line-up, check out the festival website here.

Day One was hot and muggy and, despite the sapping heatwave, it began with an energetic, intense performance by Chengdu-based band Proximity Butterfly, who kicked off the Festival well and turned up the heat. Beijing’s Bigger Bang brought their danceable rock to a growing crowd.

A power cut (caused by a storm the night before) resulted in shortened sets for all bands that followed, but apart from the power cut, sound quality throughout the duration of the festival was a well-oiled machine.

French-Chinese duo Gemini blended their mixture of rock, electro, pop and hip-hop in pretty smooth fashion. Chinese indie rockers Convenience Store opened shop, selling catchy, pop-rock, as night fell over the 50,000 (or so) estimated attendees.The total attendance for the whole Festival over the three days this year was around 160,000, according to Festival officials. This was approximately 10,000 more than the first year. (ED: We continue to take issue with these numbers).

Canadian band Your Favourite Enemies came out to play, to the enthusiastic audience, who were by now stage-diving, screaming and collectively going-off. The lead singer declared in English to the crowd that although the band hailed from Canada, that China and Canada were “one family” and that playing in China felt like playing at home. The crowd despite any language difference showed that they agreed by way of loud and raucous cheers.

Singaporean ambient-pop icon Yida Huang serenaded fans with his boyish looks and bare feet, and looked no older than a high-school student. French band Success lived up to their name and were certainly one of the Festival highlights.The lead singer’s stage presence could be likened to that of a mix of Bryan Ferry meeting Iggy Pop, playing up to the massing swarm with plenty of on-stage antics. Chinese Pop singer Chen Chusheng closed Day One with his well-packaged, sickly-sweet Mandopop.

Day Two arrived with a cooler change. Organisers had worked hard to try to ensure that another power cut wouldn’t happen. Up-beat local Chengdu ska band The Trouble brewed up a nice jazzy start to the day and gave a most amusing interview in the Media tent backstage. Japan punks Good 4 Nothing got the mosh-pit well and truly happening, proving they have a solid fan-base among China youth today. Local Chengdu Chinese band Mosaic dished out some swaying indie-rock. Moyo Studios, this years Chengdu College band winners (who were all born after the 1990’s) had some unfortunate technical problems that marred what otherwise might have been an excellent set. Sound Toy came over more pop than rock. But that may indeed be their intended direction. Wang Xiao and Xu Wei continued the pop theme to a much larger growing crowd than day two, even with the spitting rain.

Day Three saw a return to the sweltering heat, but it cooled by night. Crowds seemed to be roughly the same size as Day Two, though it had further increased in time for the final act. Recent Global Battle of the Bands winners in Beijing and Hong Kong, The Amazing Insurance Salesman, whose band members are Chinese and Western, appeared tight, wooing much of the crowd — and then the Chinese Press, due to the lead guitarist’s flawless Mandarin. Chinese band Tong Dang gave a modest performance. Local Chengdu favourites, Mr Chelonian, in a clever blend of ska and reggae, gave a memorable set and were another definite pick of the Festival. Day Three seemed to run quickly and without any hitches.

On the second stage was someone who deserves an honourable mention, seventeen-year-old Chengdu beat-boxer, Cheng Cheng. Burning bright with his knack for rap…in another life he easily might have been a robot! Meanwhile back on the main stage, Australian rock-lite act, the On Fires, got the crowd singing a few ‘la, la, la’s’ and ‘oh, oh, oh’s’. Chengdu band Ashura, (spelt without the ‘h’ it means unhappy passions in Buddhism) was another favourite, as was Chinese band Brain Failure, both bringing a refreshingly heavier sound to the mostly pop-dominated Festival.

The final act was the much-anticipated return of actor/musician Edison Chen. Security was water-tight and Edison’s pre-gig press conference was brief. Edison preferring to shun the spotlight for the comfort of a tinted-windowed- black van, parked back-stage. One hapless fan back-stage, told by security that she couldn’t come into the front stage area, was forced to tearfully look on from behind the stage, as if grieving for a loved one. Eventually taking to the stage, it seemed that almost everyone in the crowd had a camera pointed right at him. Edison appeared shaky, choosing to sit down through some of the songs, turning towards the back right-side of the stage and at times occasionally turning his back to the ocean of on-lookers for longer than what one might consider normal. That nervousness did however wane towards the end of his hip-pop set.

For the ZMF to lead the way in the pantheon of Chinese music festivals, in my humble opinion, it would be nice to see less pop and more of the great burgeoning Chinese rock bands who are moving up in the world with great velocity. It would be exciting to see the inclusion of some more well-known international acts, that people are familiar with, so as to really ramp up the festivals reputation as another up and coming national institution for greater international musical-diplomacy. This Festival has enormous potential to put smaller, local musicians on the map, while fostering leading national acts, and at the same time presenting more big guns from the west, with earlier pre-festival promotion.

I spoke with Zebra Festival co-founder and current CEO, Scarlett Li, about the ins and outs of this year’s Festival.

“Our main loyal sponsors this year were Budweiser, China Mobile and Nova. We broke even this year after a three-year investment cycle. I am very happy with the progress we have made, in terms of the number of tickets sold.”

“I am pleased with the campus recruitment we have used, that attracts young, college bands starting out, so as to give them more exposure. Branding has been doing very well and we want Zebra to be a fun festival, that is more like a carnival, that attracts a wider audience base, of all ages.”

“We were happy to have a cross-over artist like Edison Chen perform, who is a fashion and music icon.”

“In the future, we would like to have more of a variety of food and non-music activities on site at the Festival. I think we also need to do much earlier promotion prior to the event and create more merchandise to sell at the event.”

“Next year we want to include more multi-media artists, such as French band Success. They were so fantastic.”

Click here to view some of Hugh’s Photo coverage of the ZMF.

There is also a slightly less culturally sensitive review over at Viceland.

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