A group of Chinese independent-minded musicians is spreading modern Chinese folk music by drawing inspiration from local experiences in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.
These entrepreneurial artists are making opportunities for themselves and other musicians, and some have found popularity by expressing the hopes and fears they find on city streets.
Both the performers and promoters say they’re doing what they love and willing to make sacrifices for it. Some are learning as they go, while others have had experience that helps guide them.
“In a man’s life, youth might be the only period one would pursue the hobby of playing music without any worry,” says Fan Qie, a stage name that means “tomato.”
Fan Qie, who declines to reveal the real name, is the founder of Youth-us, an independent folk records label started in his hometown of Shanghai in August 2011.
“We do it because we simply love it,” the 26-year-old ballad singer says.
Fan Qie started to listen to folk songs in middle school and was deeply influenced by the Chinese campus folk singer Lao Lang, who was very popular at the time.
It was no surprise to his acquaintances that he quit Shanghai International Studies University, where he majored Japanese, to focus more on music.
“From the bottom of my heart, I knew that whether or not I graduated from the university, I will play music,” Fan Qie says.
In 2009, he formed a partnership with a friend to establish an ill-fated record label.
“It did not end well because we did too much, including rock, folk and other styles,” Fan Qie says. “There was no focus and soon we drained our resources.”
The experience led the young man to strike out on his own with Youth-us, which is dedicated to a local niche.
“It is no exaggeration to say that I might be the only one who has founded a records label to focus only on folk songs in Shanghai,” Fan Qie says. “Folk songs are delicately composed and performed by artists who want to reveal small things happening in life and their own feelings about it. The songs are gentle and can always bring city people the sense of healing.”
Like him, Beijing native Hao Yun uses his hometown experiences to inspire his folk music.
At 34, the Beijing native has been a music teacher, a music executive and a member of a motorcycle gang. Now he is dedicated to urban folk music as a performer. Relying only on a guitar and his voice, Hao speaks of the changes in Beijing, both in its people and the city itself.
From iconic singles such as “Beijing Beijing” and “Suddenly I Thought of the Word Dream,” Hao’s works showcase what is bitter and sweet about living in the city.
This Friday, Hao and his band will perform at Qingshuiwan Art Center in Shanghai as part of the “Guinness Made of MORE” concert series which is to showcase China’s growing independent modern folk genre.
“Many people find my songs full of Beijing flavor in lyrics and melody. That is because I grew up in Beijing. If I was raised in Shanghai, my music might be full of Shanghai flavor,” Hao says.
“If I have time, I would like to take a stroll in Shanghai’s alleys and feel the city’s uniqueness. Each city has its own unique culture and characteristics. Similar incidents may lead to different emotions among people from different cities. Folk music is an art form that releases city people from pressure,” the singer adds.
Hao says many of his best-known songs are inspired by his life experiences. Hao combines influences as disparate as Peking Opera, Chinese lute, blues and folk.
His music possesses broad appeal for both young and old.
“My fans are from five years old to seniors,” Hao says. “One thing they have in common is that everyone needs to be inspired and relieved of everyday cares.”
Urban folk, he says, “is really a release of emotion. My inspiration originates from my understanding of life.”
While Hao has performed all over China at music festivals and shows, Fan Qie’s label represents around 10 folk artists, few of whom have gained any level of fame.
Fan Qie’s musical clients write, play and sing their own songs. Some are just starting to write songs. He helps them plan their records, arrange performances and mold the singers’ career paths.
All the singers are amateurs who have other jobs, but who have a passion for playing their songs for audiences.
Fan Qie, too, holds down another full-time job, doing marketing at a magazine.
“All of us need to first earn our own bread and then we can invest energy in our hobby,” he says. “I also have a bar close to Baoqing and Huaihai roads.” The bar, named Cloudy, sometimes serves as a place to rehearse.
Some singers signed with Youth-us will perform this Saturday at the Tiny Dream Music Festival in Beijing. They have also performed at other local music festivals such as the Strawberry Music Festival in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as bar events.
“The market for contemporary folk songs is growing, especially compared to other genres. In the next two or three years, more people are likely to become fans,” Fan Qie says.
He says his aim is to make his artists a commercial success “so they are not just playing for themselves.”
To attract young talent, Fan Qie arranges tours at universities and promotes folk songs on websites such as Douban.com. He found one of his singers, Chu Yunjie, who is studying law at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, through the Internet.
He says that while some musicians may not dedicate themselves wholly to music, he won’t push them away.
“Some young amateurs will pursue their education abroad after signing with us,” Fan Qie says. “But I will still give them guidance on planning their music career.”
Hao, the Beijing singer, says great folk music is the product of musicians who are true to themselves.
“As a singer, I like to focus on creating music and expressing my innermost thoughts to the audience through folk songs. Rather than spending a lot of time on studying what the market likes, I focus on creation only,” he adds.
Hao says he uses both music and humor to engage his audience, no matter where he is.
“My live performance is always like a gathering for friends. I’ll sing songs from my new album this time,” Hao says, adding that he plans to continue to travel and live new experiences. “It gives me inspiration and hopefully, I will use it to create more good work.”
Hao Yun’s Shanghai performance
Date: October 18
Venue: Q.Hall of Qianshuiwan Art Center, 1/F, 179 Yichang Rd
Tickets: 180 yuan (150 yuan in advance), 100 yuan for students