Saturday, May 12, 2007

Virgin loos

Another find!

It's too early to add this place to the 'Favourite Bars' roll of honour, but the first impressions are very, very good.

There's a new performance space just opened in the Dazhanzi art zone. (I think Saturday's show might well have been its very first. I hadn't heard anything of it before. And - crucial evidence, this - the loos were spotless.) It's called the Dayaolu Workshop - and it boasts friendly service, a very cheap bar (beer and soft drinks only, but that's enough for a music/theatre venue), comfy barstools, beautiful toilets, a huge space (it's another of the converted factory units that characterize the area), and an excellent sound system (a big surprise, given the size and nature of the building - I didn't notice at first, but they've done a really good job of damping the place by completely lining the walls and ceiling with thousands upon thousands of egg-boxes).

On the minus side (or maybe not: I like obscure, word-of-mouth favourites), it is very difficult to find. In the last year-and-a-half the number of galleries, studios, boutiques, and coffee shops in the Dashanzi complex (an industrial estate in the north-east suburbs of the city, with dozens of East German-designed Bauhaus-style factories) seems to have multiplied tenfold. 'Art maps' of the area are starting to appear, but they're often inaccurate and/or hard to read. The ones we consulted yesterday appeared to show Dayaolu in two different locations (possible, I suppose, but apt to be confusing), and one of them had it labelled not as Dayaolu but as something like Chi Tai Music Group (perhaps the name of the company that operates it?). Ah well, we found it in the end (it's next to the fairly visible 'Pause Cafe', in the lane immediately to the right). And what a happy discovery! Nirvana is an ice-cold can of beer for 5 kuai.

I had been hoping to see the wonderfully named Glamorous Pharmacy - an experimental folk/jazz project blending traditional Chinese instruments with electric guitars and so on. I am obviously fated to suffer repeated frustrations and disappointments with this band. I caught them a couple of years ago at Yugong Yishan (one of Beijing's great small music bars), and they were mind-blowing. But a few times since then advertised shows failed to happen, or I wasn't able to get to them. I noticed they were supposed to be appearing in Shanghai when I was last down there at the end of November, and set out to see them, heart brimming with expectation; I was thwarted by the fact that the music bar hosting them had moved across town a couple of months earlier and had omitted to inform any of the listings magazines of its new address - I spent a miserable hour mooching around the streets in the neighbourhood of its former address, trying to ask passers-by where it was, wondering if it was perhaps just exceedingly well-hidden (that does happen quite a bit in China!).

And they didn't show up last night either. Instead, it was a solo show by Xiao He, the delightfully warped genius who created the Pharmacy (I've heard rumours that the rest of the band don't want to play with him any more because he's just got too weird). Great stuff, all the same. I think I've now seen him 6 or 7 times (3 times in quick succession: at my 'local', Jiangjinjiu, a few weeks ago, and then again last week at the Midi Festival), and it's been completely different material each time (I think a lot of it is probably improvised).

At first, I was beginning to speculate that perhaps Xiao He wouldn't even appear himself. For several minutes at the start as the theatre filled up, the stage remained dark while we were treated to an 'aural sculpture' of human sounds: sighs, weeping, laughter, a baby's cries, and some of his own vast repertoire of vocal gymnastics - shrieks, whistles, babblings and ululations. Multi-tracking 'tape loops' of short sound samples like these seems to be one of his key enthusiasms at the moment (he did a lot of that at the last Jiangjinjiu show - reminiscent of Brian May's extended soloing on 'Brighton Rock', back in the great early days of Queen).

I suspect he's the kind of guy that might well do something like that - subject an audience to a taped, performer-less show, just to see how they'd react. He's way out there, in John Cage territory, on that boundary between music and 'performance art'. But then again, perhaps he'd find it too difficult to restrain himself from going on stage - he obviously loves playing so much.

When he did finally show up, he played a one-and-a-half hour set with scarcely a pause, and it was quite spell-binding. The man's a great, great guitarist. He's perhaps not quite such a conventional virtuoso as some of the other guitarists around town I know, but he blends a wide variety of techniques very effectively, and he seems to me to have really exquisite precision and control of tone - he's just completely on top of whatever he wants to do with that instrument. His voice is amazing too: he does so many things with it, it's not just another instrument, it's a full orchestra. And there's tremendous vivacity and humour about his performance. He's so completely into what he's doing that he carries you along with him, and any scepticism you might have been harbouring gently evaporates.

This material transcends language, too. I wish my Chinese were better, so that I might be able to catch more of his occasional banter between songs, but 'lyrics' don't really seem to matter: I think most of his singing is deliberately indistinct, or perhaps just nonsense words or wordless babbling - a sort of avant garde scat. I really think he might be able to win an audience in the West. I wonder where might be the best place to showcase him; some folkie festival somewhere? Hmmm, a 'project' for the future.

Alas, the support band that went on next were a sorry anti-climax: a couple of young Chinese girls who were attempting to plough a similarly avant garde furrow, but without the benefit of Xiao He's winning personality or consummate musicianship. The wailing vocals were quite interesting, but the relentless, droning, deafening, computer-generated background was just too oppressive and soon wore out my patience.

Still, I look forward to the next event there. It would be a great venue for plays, film screenings, or private parties too (ooh, now there's an idea....). Dashanzi is bothersomely far out from the city centre, and it tends to be a bit dead at night, but.... I think this place could definitely entice me out there. Especially if Xiao He's playing again.

No comments: