Sign In


Interview: Shanren

From Yunnan to Beijing to Shanghai -- Jue Festival opens up Mao LH with a performance from Shanren. Folk rock from around the world.
2011-03-24 12:04:55

A highlight of the Jue Festival itinerary -- and a highlight for local music in general as it’s the opening night for Mao Livehouse’s new location -- is Beijing-based Yunnanese folk rock band Shanren, returning to Shanghai, with a fist-full of fresh, sunny, high energy folk rock tunes. Although the ethnic sounds of Yunnan are at the core of their music, their membership stretches out to Kunming and Guizhou, covers three ethnic minority groups, and incorporates a polyglot of world music and modern rock influences -- Afro and Caribbean sounds, rock proper, reggae, even some death metal, 'cause why not.

Their ten year journey as a band has seen them tour Korea, represent China at two major festivals in Europe, and undertake multiple national tours. Their show this Friday at Mao is a great way to experience the band in large-scale, outsized format, and a great opportunity to enjoy an act that represents the diversity of this country’s folk scene and it’s seemingly incongruous musical influences -- influences that are assumed, assimilated and re-transmitted as awesome.

A note about this interview: these questions were dished out to Shanren’s English-speaking guest percussionist Sam Debell, who asked the rest of the band their thoughts over dinner, summarized them, and sent them back. So it’s five guys answering with one voice. Which seems metaphorically apt.

Click here for their Douban page. Click play on those tracks and let that be your soundtrack for the day. Matches the weather like Pink Floyd to Wizard of Oz.

Click here for the event details. Shanren is this Friday at Mao Livehouse. Starts 8pm. 60rmb at the door.


SmSh: Could you introduce your band and describe your music? Where are you all from and how do your ethnic background(s) play into your music?

Shanren: Hello everybody. We are Shanren band hailing from Yunnan Province! Our sound combines lots of different styles but with through-running Yunnan Folk elements, which is why we are usually described as folk or folk-rock. We are all from Yunnan/Guizhou but from different ethnic groups -- Han, Buyi and Wa. Each member brings different influences to the music which helps us hold together a wider Yunnan identity.

SmSh: What are you earliest experiences with music and what were the first instruments you picked up? Do you come from musical families or communities?

Shanren: We were all more or less surrounded by music since childhood, if not from our parents then from the wider rural society where we spent our early years. Mountain songs were the main form of entertainment back then so they were certainly our formative musical experiences.

Despite this it was the guitar that inspired most of us to become musicians (with the exception of Xiao Ou, the drummer). We were all seduced by the sounds of rock music in the nineties…

SmSh: Are you enjoying living in Beijing? Did you move to that city to play music specifically?

Shanren: The move to Beijing was a move that any committed Chinese musician has to make if they are serious about getting somewhere in the Chinese music scene. It’s obviously hard to get on at first if you’re used to the Yunnan climate and lifestyle but now we’re acclimatized we can enjoy the positive sides of being here!

SmSh: What’s the music in Beijing like? Do you see Shanren as fitting in with the larger music community in Beijing or do you see the band as a separate thing to the music that goes in that city?

Shanren: Everything in Beijing is interlinked. It’s impossible not be influenced by the music around you. However, although Shanren fit into a very real, although fledgling folk revival scene in Beijing, we are still kind of on our own as a Yunnan Folk band.

We are part of the wider rock scene for sure but the closer we move towards folk the weaker that link becomes.

SmSh: There’s a rich, national folk music community in China. Who are some of your contemporaries that influence your music? Do you listen more to genres of music or individual bands/artists?

Shanren: I’d say both. Ye Haizi (Wild Children) were a big influence for us at first. Hanggai and Mamer are big role models in different ways. Basically anyone who is combining traditional music with modern in an inventive way is of huge interest. Aside from that we love reggae, rock and all kinds of ethnic music from around the world.

SmSh: You’ve been a band for almost ten years. What are the biggest challenges to being in a band in China? What’s the key to sticking together as a band?

Shanren: The internal relationships within in the band are certainly the most important factor. Everyone in Shanren band are close friends. We hang around with each other all the time -- it’s certainly not a professional relationship like some bands who only ever meet at practice or gigs. We’ve also been luckier than most in signing to two great record labels 13 Month and CMIP who have given us huge support.
Most of the ten years have been tough, really a struggle for survival to be honest, and I think the hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel is what has kept us going!

SmSh: How has your music evolved and changed over that time span?

Shanren: We started off as rock with folk elements and slowly with the introduction of more folk influences – instruments, etc. have become more folk than rock. Our songs span ten years which often makes our style seem eclectic but there’s quite an evident pattern to the way we’ve changed. When our second album comes out that will be more clear!

SmSh: What are some of your recent high-points as a band? Played a memorable show lately?

Shanren: We played at the Barcelona Merce Festival last September on the beautiful Cathedral Square. It was the first time any of us had ever left Asia and was kind of a dream come true for us. We really weren’t sure how our music would go down but everyone loved it. We were really impressed by how open the locals were to our music! Were also just came back from Midem Festival in Cannes, France, which was a really learning experience for us. Also, over Spring Festival we completed a long-time-coming tour of Yunnan, collecting folk songs and learning from the real ‘Shan ren’. I think it refueled our tanks for the near future!

SmSh: How would you describe traditional Yunnan music to someone who has never heard it before? How does it compare with other traditional forms of music?

Shanren: Yunnan Folk is a wide bracket that has 26 different ethnic groups for a start. Even just the Yi people have a bewildering set of internal categorizations and stylistic divisions. Each ethnic group has their own instruments, rhythms, and tunes. The richness and depth of the culture is a constant source of amazement to us. If there was a way to generalize then Yunnan folk is simple, honest, and genuine. There is an optimism and joy to it which differentiates it from the music from other areas -- in our opinion.

SmSh: How do you go about incorporating new ethnic instrumentation into your sound? Do you have an overarching plan when you compose songs or is it more open-ended jams that leads to new material?

Shanren: It can be both. The vast majority of our songs are conceived written by our lead singer Qu Zihan. He sometimes has a very clear idea what he wants and sometimes just let the musicians fill out the composition. When we are doing a reworking of existing folk melodies we try to have the instrumentation represent, as far as we can, the culture where the song originates. There’s also a lot of trial and error -- our songs are constantly evolving.

SmSh: I’ve read that you’re also influenced but ethnic sounds from around the world. Can you elaborate on these influences? What sorts of countries are you looking at when listening to music?

Shanren: World music -- as it relates to ethnic tunes that have been modernized and adapted are always very interesting in that they point to possibilities for Chinese ethnic sounds. African music is very rich, rhythmic and melodic. Also roots latin like Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian music, (which is nothing like pop latin that people always think about when we mention it), Arabian, Indian, Eastern European etc, etc, etc, all have their own messages that we do our best to interpret.

SmSh: You guys planning on sticking around after your show? Seeing if you can incorporate some German techno maybe? [Ed’s note: Paul Kalkbrenner plays after Shanren on Friday.]

Shanren: I think we might! We’ve got a late flight out the next day and if the show goes well we’ll be in the mood to party!


Shanren opens up Mao Livehouse this Friday at 8pm. Tickets are 60rmb at the door. Joker support.