Freedom, Beijing Style

One of my projects while in Beijing is to research and experience the city’s notorious “underground” live music scene.  The scene is not that underground really--for several years now clubs have been operating in the open, featuring gritty Chinese rock bands.  One such club is 2Kolegas, which opened up two years ago.  Run by veteran rocker Liu Miao 刘淼 and his partner , the club is located beyond the Third Ring Road on Liangmaqiao Street.  It’s in a Drive-in Movie Theater Park.  The area of its location is parkland--meaning field and forest.  The club itself is small, and patrons can sit outside on a dirt-grass field and drink their beers while enjoying the (cough, splutter) clear Beijing night air.

On Saturday night, the first day I arrived in Beijing, I had dinner with some Dartmouth pals and other old mates at our usual spot, a choice Yunnan restaurant called 云南印象 located off the East Third Ring Road.  After dinner we met some other mates at 2Kolegas ( (also known as Dos Kolegas). 

The band playing that night calls itself Ziyo 自游 ,a pun on the word 自由 which means “freedom” in Chinese (  The literal meaning of this nonsensical name is something like “self swimming.”  The lead singer is a Chinese American woman named Helen Feng.  The rest of the band are Chinese men:  Da Ming and Wang Hui on guitar, Mao Mao on drums, and Zhang Jie on bass.  All of the musicians in the band are young and gorgeous, and full of an indescribable energy.  Especially Helen--she just blew everyone in the house away with her performance, which I would liken to a Shamaness hellbent on exorcising the demons that are plaguing her tribe. 

Though few if any of us could understand the words of her songs, let alone whether she was singing in English or Chinese, we knew that we were receiving a powerful message.  One word did come out clearly.  It starts with F.  If Johnny Rotten and Alanis Morrisette had a female love child, she might sound something like Helen.  We were all spellbound by her raging performance, and some of the audience, both male and female, were no doubt lovestruck as well.  While most of us were focused on the lead singer, occasionally she gave way to the guitarists, one of whom had his shirt off.  His taut muscles shone in the spotlight as he jammed his ass off, to the crowd’s great pleasure.  The other band members were rock solid.

It’s hard to fit the music of this band into any particular genre.  Personally I detected influences here and there of bands ranging from the Cure and REM to the Sex Pistols.  It was a postpunk melange with a bit of a hardcore vibe to it, but there were tender moments as well. 

After the concert, we gathered around poor Helen, who was sitting at a table outside trying to rehydrate after her sweat-drenching performance.  The girls in our group gushed over her--obviously her angst resonates deeply with her female audience.  Then we shot a few questions at her.  Offstage she was calm and cool, and for lack of a better word, normal--apparently she had exorcised her demons onstage and sent them kicking and screaming back to the Underworld.  Apparently her band has been playing together for three years now.  They started out playing jazz, funk, all sorts of genres, but if you read her blog, she says that her real breakthrough came after she was holed up with a broken jaw and spent her recovery time listening widely, and eventually came up with “the sound” for her band.  I’m sure the other band members would agree that it was a collective process of mutual discovery.

The band now has a contract with Warner Music.  My instinct is that they have a bright future.  Though its hard for a China-based rock band to break into the international music scene, let alone make it big in China, this band has the potential to push that envelope.  It has that winning combination of creativity, raw talent, and charisma.
Needless to say, I want these guys in my film.