DOWN: Indie Rock in the PRC does both at the same time. This documentary by Andrew Field and Jud Willmont follows some of China’s most famous and popular indie rock bands, showing them performing, and featuring interviews with the band members. It is a great way to get a unique perspective on one of the lesser-known aspects of contemporary Chinese society.
Music in general is a great way to learn about foreign cultures and faraway places, especially because music itself often transcends linguistic boundaries: where words fail, music speaks. Chinese music has a long history, and has developed unique characteristics that echo even in today’s popular music, as John Meyers explains in his article on contemporary music from the Berkshire Encyclopedia of China:
Contemporary Chinese popular and classical music, although often incorporating Western elements such as symphonic form or rhythmic patterns, remains grounded in Chinese culture through the use of traditional instruments or melodies, through the use of subject matter from Chinese history, and through the use of modalities that allude to Chinese arts or philosophy.
Just as music draws from history, and musicians reference history in their music, some music becomes history itself. From Bach to The Beatles, and from Woodstock to Live Aid; music has proven time and again to possess social, cultural, political, and emotional powers well beyond rhythm, melody, and harmony. The song below by Cui Jian (who, as the “grandfather of Chinese rock,” also appears in DOWN:Indie Rock in the PRC), 一无所有 yi wu suo you, or Nothing to My Name as it is often translated, became almost inseparable from the student protests in China during the 1980’s, but has, in my opinion, lost nothing of its power and urgency. To learn more about contemporary rock music, visit the DOWN: Indie Rock in the PRC website, where you can watch the trailer and read more about the bands and musicians in the documentary.