As the Chinese government stage-manages every aspect of the Beijing Olympic Games, the array of tricks they're employing to ensure that their country is portrayed well in the international media is stunning. Admonishing a country of carton- an-hour cigarette smokers to stub 'em out? Check. Getting things like "chicken without sexual life" off Beijing menus? Done. Cranking up a mysterious weather-making machine to ensure bright, sunny days? Believe it or not, yes.
But beyond their desire to make their roads look empty and prevent the Olympic athletes from noticing the, ahem, security cameras in their dorms, the biggest heartburn-inducing fear among Central Committee members is that some free-thinking Western performer is going to swan onto a stage somewhere and launch a pro-democracy rant, thus forcing the government to let loose their entire nuclear arsenal on the offending artist's home country.
These concerns have led the government to augment their already byzantine restrictions on foreign performers during the Games. Even under-the-radar performances are under heavy scrutiny; entertainment mag Time Out Beijing's June edition was banned from newsstands, and their August issue will be folded into September because there isn't enough non-Committee nightlife planned during the Olympics to fill the pages. Bars are forbidden from hosting live music and a local music festival was cancelled, meaning the thousands of foreigners visiting the city will have a difficult time finding musical entertainment beyond the sanctioned cultural performances on the official Olympic calendar.
A majority of these concerts focus on China's glorious cultural history, with a mixture of Peking Opera, symphony orchestras, dance performances and folk music. It's all perfectly highbrow and ensures that nobody confuses the host country with a dictatorial, propaganda-driven sweatshop. Beyond the obvious issues of artistic freedom, this clampdown is a tragedy; by only letting China's visitors see their preapproved music events, the government is also reinforcing their country's image as a utilitarian, creativity-free zone, hamstrung by tradition, propriety and productivity.
Why not find some time in the schedule between the Wang Jiaxun Percussion Music Band and, say, one of the three scheduled Disney concerts for a group like Hanggai? This Beijing crew is composed of six musicians who were originally from Mongolia. The members started out in punk and rock bands, but, inspired by the full-throated singing style and sparse instrumentation of the music of their homeland, found a way to smoothly integrate both styles without diluting either.
If there were a Chinese version of No Depression (like that would pass muster with censors), Hanggai would be cover stars. Their recombination of folk styles and edgy contemporary music is roughly analogous to what y'all-ternative musicians have been doing to American roots music for decades. Except, you know, in Chinese ... and with really deep vocals. Hanggai's music is — like the best alt-country numbers — fantastic to drink to, and the band has received considerable acclaim for their live performances. So why not put them on a stage, or better yet, a bar? The songs on Introducing are imbued with centuries of cultural history, but they pulse with the frantic pace of modern city life. Hanggai are indisputably Chinese, but also incredibly accessible for novice listeners who have yet to acclimate to the unique tonal complexities of Asian music.
Vocalist Sa Dingding similarly fuses Chinese musical traditions with a contemporary approach in a way that Western listeners should appreciate. Her Mandarin, Tibetan, Sanskrit and glossolaliac singing is inscrutable to non-polyglot ears, but her fluid vocal method completely eschews the squeaks and squeals associated with contemporary Chinese pop singers. The production on Alive creates swooning electronic textures that pivot off traditional Chinese instrumentation, undergirded by propulsive rhythms. Occasionally danceable and pop-oriented, Sa Dingding's music is prismatic and nuanced — it draws as much from the centuries of culture in her homeland as it does from her collection of counterfeit Cocteau Twins CDs.
Sa Dingding's efforts to trumpet the ruling party's lines may help her avoid charges of being a counterrevolutionary, but it doesn't appear that the singer will be performing at any officially sanctioned events. It's the country's loss; her music is a beautiful representation of the rarely seen artistic side of Chinese email@example.com