For our upcoming Adventure Issue, which is out this week, I spent days wracking my brain trying to figure out what band would be most appropriate to write about. I considered guitar-smashing grunge bands, tattoo-loving skinhead punks and crowd-surfing MC’s – but in the end I decided on a quieter option: folk-rock quartet Buyi.
If you live in Beijing then you’ve probably heard of Buyi, who play frequently at 2 Kolegas and folk-rock enclaves like Jianghu Jiuba or Jiangjinjiu, but you might not know how important they are to China’s indie folk scene. In my ignorance, I thought of them as a local gig band – until, that is, I checked out their Douban and saw that they had almost 14,000 fans, which, to put it in perspective, is more than renowned folk experimental artist Xiao He, and twice the number of widely praised folk-rockers Nanwu.
Part of the reason Buyi (whose Chinese name 布衣, which means “the common people”) are so well loved is that they’re among the oldest folk rock bands around. Hailing from the Ningxia capital of Yinchuan, Buyi started up in 1995 after several of their members returned from studying at Beijing’s MIDI Music School. “We all liked rock music, and would listen to music together every day, singing songs,” says Buyi singer Wu Dingyue. “After a while I wasn’t satisfied and wanted to sing my own songs, so I just started my own band.”
Though Ningxia, which out in China’s wild west, boasts a rich history of traditional music, the live music scene in Yinchuan left something to be desired. “At that time the Ningxia music scene was pretty small, and most were cover bands; almost none of them made their own music,” Wu says. “There was no place to play shows, no bars, and you had to arrange all the shows yourself.” So in 2000, the band made a leap of faith, and hightailed it out to Beijing. “We needed to be going to more shows to work ourselves out.”
Though the group only knew a few players in Beijing’s burgeoning rock scene, they soon formed their own community. The band settled in a courtyard and began living the hippie dream, which soon enough inspired scores of other musicians from their hometown to move to Beijing.
Since then, a veritable Ningxia community of musicians has built up around Buyi and 2 Kolegas, and the group have released several studio albums that showcase a mature, evocative mix of traditional folk and modern rock. Their music marries the big-guitar sound of 90s Western rock with the delicate whimsy of traditional northwestern folk, creating an earthy mix with the guzheng (古筝) and hulusi (葫芦丝) alongside electric guitars and trumpet. The result is music for nomads: a soundtrack that, with rollicking riffs, gypsy-like beats and the rough, visceral growl of singer Wu Ningyue, paints the mystery and romance of Ningxia’s Wild West plains.
Check out the band playing a rendition “Fall” (秋天) from their 1997 album of the same name at the 2004 Midi Festival: