Beijing's live-music revival

By Jay Birbeck
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, February 10, 2021
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With a population of 22 million people, Beijing possesses an extraordinarily diverse music scene. Rather than a "scene," it is perhaps better described as a collection of numerous different groups and movements, all contributing to a vibrant melting pot of collaboration and creativity. It's also astoundingly international, bringing together musicians and artists from across China with many creatives from around the world who have been drawn to the city's culture.

The Grembles performing in Beijing, Dec. 2020. [Photo courtesy of Lander Tee]

There are plenty of places in China's capital to find exciting new sounds. I have spent many late evenings playing with bands at raucous dance clubs in Sanlitun, Beijing's international precinct. On other nights, I'd often venture into the narrow alleyways of the ancient hutongs, honing my craft with other musicians at informal jam sessions hosted in cozy bars. 

However, throughout the first few months of 2020, the prospects of Beijing's once bustling music scene looked dire. Performance spaces lay empty, PA systems remained off, and amplifiers that once thundered with the sounds of vibrant guitar solos gathered dust.

But as the coronavirus was brought under control, Beijing's musicians roared back into action. Musicians across the capital seized the opportunity to play shows, open-mic nights, and jam sessions. Furthermore, with the pandemic still wreaking havoc across much of the world, international touring was indefinitely suspended, leaving local bands to fulfill audiences' cravings for live experiences.

One band to benefit from the renewed activity was The Grembles, formed in July 2020, who quickly became a regular fixture in Beijing's music scene. I was their bass player from July 2020 until January 2021.

Mathieu Lovelace plays the drums with Exit Through Singapore at Yunyintang in Shanghai, Aug. 2020. [Photo courtesy of Mathieu Lovelace]

"We feel blessed because many cities around the world have been unable to host live music during this period," said The Grembles' lead singer Gregor Carlin, a U.K.-native who has lived in Beijing since 2019. "It's been a little bit surreal, especially when you speak to your friends back home and they ask you what you're doing and you tell them you are about to play a show in front of 200 people." 

Lead guitarist Filip Sandén, a Swedish national living in Beijing, added, "We played a lot of live shows and open mics during 2020, despite COVID-19. This made 2020 much better for me than it would have been otherwise."

Beijing was not the only city in China to benefit from the return of live music. All across the country, bands and their legions of fans reignited performance venues, while rock favorites such as Hiperson and Wonder Sea sold out huge tours around China. 

Mathieu Lovelace, a British-French national and drummer of the band Exit Through Singapore described how his band was "able to play our debut show at Yunyintang in Shanghai last August to a packed-out crowd. There are few other countries in the world where that would have been possible." 

For me and many other musicians, the return of the capital's live music scene heralded a new appreciation of what makes it so special. The opportunity to play with and listen to musicians from around the world is of immense value to music lovers. Beijing's fusion of cultures and ideas is firmly reflected in the sounds and songs of the city.

"One of the best things about playing in a band in Beijing is the crowds. People in this city are generally optimistic and open to having a good time," added Carlin.

Being in China tends to introduce a different brand of music to people that would otherwise be unknown. Sandén described how foreign bands often try their hand at local songs. "We have been practicing the song '再见杰克' (zaijian jieke) by the Chinese band Tongyang. I used to play it with my former band — it's a good one."

Gregor Carlin performing with The Grembles in Beijing, Dec. 2020. [Photo courtesy of Lander Tee]

However, the state of live music in China remains fragile. Once again, this month, many shows were postponed through to March due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases. But this time, the mood is generally more optimistic and many musicians believe that they'll get back to playing shows as usual in a few weeks.

As the cascade of concert cancelations continues around the world, hopefully music lovers can take a little comfort in the story of China's music revival and the knowledge that their live music will too eventually return.

Jay Birbeck is a writer and art director. He has worked with news outlets including ITV. He received an MSc in Digital Humanities from UCL.

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