Sounds of the Street
Friday, July 20, 2012 | By: The Editors
Continuing with our series of content related to our forthcoming Music Issue, we offer a sneak peek preview of some of the street musicians we interviewed for our Street Dreamers cover story.
Street music does not have quite the same cachet in China as it does in many other parts of the world. There are limitations on where street musicians can play and whether they can take money from passersby. They are often treated with disdain, viewed as beggars rather than legitimate performers, in part a prolonged hangover from the days of the Cultural Revolution, when musical composition and performance were severely restricted.
Yet despite the difficulties, there are people across China playing for anyone who cares to lend an ear. Others are playing for themselves, just chasing the music as a form of catharsis. Still others hope to be picked up and fast-tracked to fame and success, and some have long since abandoned those dreams, happy just to earn a few kuai selling CDs each day.
Their motivations are entirely different, but they are united by a love for music and the desire for the freedom that comes with playing outside. We hit the streets to find their stories, moving from stellar success and lighthearted disillusionment in Beijing, through poets and “guerrilla musicians in Chongqing and Chengdu, and back to the wanderers who just keep moving, across China or overseas to the subways of New York. Here we feature recordings of and partial interviews with three of the musicians we found in Beijing, as well as a video of fantastically talented violinist Chen Cong. Make sure you pick up a copy of the Music Issue or a subscription from our store to read their full stories and those of the other artists we interviewed, including the infamous “Xidan Girl” and the street musicians playing the streets of Chengdu and Chongqing.
Wang Tao (王涛)
Age – 23
Time playing street music – 3 months
Instrument – Guitar
Song Style – Primarily love song covers
Quote – “When I’m playing out here, all of my emotions go into the music I’m singing. I don’t hear people’s voices and I don’t see their faces”
Wang Tao’s (王涛) eyes gleam with the intensity of a zealot tasked with defending his faith, and his voice takes on an irrepressible eagerness as he explains what inspires him to perform on the streets of Beijing.
“The most important part of playing out here is the search for ‘that’ feeling. Emotion is the soul of music,” the 23-year-old Shanxi native reflects. “I’ve found that performing in tunnels and out on the street, you don’t have any restrictions. You can take your own feelings and throw them into the music.”
Ge Feng (葛锋)
Age – “Too painful to answer”
Time playing on streets – 6 years
Instrument – Acoustic guitar
Song style – Ballads
Quote – “Maybe God made it so that humans have to work, but I can’t figure out what working in society today is all about. I just don’t know what everyone is doing.”
Ge Feng’s (葛锋) story begins like many a blues man’s, and like their tales his is also tinged with a sadness that overrides any sense of romance. Arriving in Beijing from his native Jilin Province in 2004 with nothing but a guitar and a dream of making music for a living, Ge’s first years in the capital were a flurry of musical activity.
Eight years and three albums later, he still haunts the same underpass in which he first settled down to play in 2006…
Wang Gengtian (王耕田)
Age – 52
Time playing street music – 5 to 6 years
Instrument – Solo singing and acoustic guitar
Song style –Folky
Quote – “When I do other jobs my heart just isn’t in it.”
Lina, Lina, where in the world are you?
Lina, Lina, Li-i-i-i-na, 你到底在哪儿呢？
Wang Gengtian’s lament echoes through the narrow tunnel beneath Dongsi Shitiao in Beijing. Seated on a folding stool with a music stand in front, Wang spends his days crooning in a rich baritone and strumming out Spanish-sounding melodies on his acoustic guitar.
How many letters have I written you? Why haven’t you written back?
At 52, it’s been 30 years since Lina left him broken-hearted, but the haunting guitar ballad written for her still draws in passersby…
To listen to some of the tracks performed by the Beijing street performers just click below!
Time playing street music – A lifetime
Song style – Classical
I lived with Chen Cong in New York City. He always cut his own hair, washed his clothes in the bath and ate boiled cabbage and meat every night. Aside from his intense smoking habit, he was the most frugal man I have ever known; even his cigarettes were black market.
He’d grown up in China, the son of a ballerina and a musician. His father had been the first violinist in the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra and had taught Chen how to play from a very early age. Chen was a promising kid who excelled in school, earning high grades and even higher praise from his music teachers…
Check out this video of Chen performing on the 57th Street F subway platform in New York, courtesy of story author Nicolas Broad:
Photos by Caroline Killmer.