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Sounds and Smog

By Carl

There are many sounds which have contributed to my experience of Beijing. One of the most prominent has been the deep, throaty hacking up of balls of phlegm. This sound can be heard everywhere in the city, emanating from every direction like cicadas in the tropics. No place is too public, no occasion too austere; man, woman and child freely dispel unwanted mucus at every opportunity. I’ve never attended finishing school, but this native habit has certainly brought to my attention a very British sense of ‘manners’ that run through me. That said, a few days in the congested mass of Beijing has led me to understand the reasons for this trait. On overcast days when the sky is grey and the air is humid, the pollution engulfs the city in a cocoon of smog. Breath becomes short and buildings in the distance disappear from view. Standing at the summit of the beautiful Jinsung park today,we looked  out over the Forbidden City. In view was the grandeur of Beijing’s past, and also the reality of it’s industrial present. One could barely see to the end of the majestic landmark before the thick smog obscured our view. Hazell and I have even undertaking some spitting ourselves. It seems to be the only way at times to cure the raw throat and gritty taste induced by the city’s atmosphere.

A more pleasant aural experience was encountered at the Time Out Beijing, Chinese Folk showcase. This event took place at a club named Obiwan, which is situated on the bank of lake Xihai. The Chinese Folk scene has expanded in recent years, and the evenings performers were some of the biggest players. The exposure in Time Out had obviously attracted many ‘Westeners’ as well as the hardcore Asian fan base, and this created an interesting atmosphere as the first artist Xiao He took to the stage. Subtle stage lighting illuminated Xiao’s short grey hair, as he began strumming his modified acoustic guitar. At his feet sat numerous effects pedals which he uses to warp the sound of his primary instrument. He uses a laptop in conjunction with this to further process and loop his output. The more esoteric of the two acts on show, Xiao strained and contorted as he  wrapped his mouth around the Chinese lyrics. At times he sounded like Can’s Damo Suziki on a particularly heavy trip, gesticulating his way through enchanting lyrics, which in many ways became more surreal due to their incomprehensibility.

The second act Hanggai provided a change in pace. They squeezed six performers on to the tiny stage, with the frontman striking an imposing presence with a mohawk, ponytail and traditional Mongolian dress. He was joined by a range of traditional Asian instrumentation alongside guitars and drums. What ensued was at times best described as a good old-fashioned barn dance, Chinese style. They whipped through a repertoire of fast paced folk songs, reminiscent of a Romany Gypsy drinking party. The crowd got fully involved and were jumping around, clapping and singing along in a language most of them couldn’t understand! By the end of the show the lead singers grin couldn’t be wiped from his face and the same could be said for the audience.

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