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Festival Goers Sing the Blues

When music school head Zhang Fan initiated the Midi Modern Music Festival in 2000, he was attempting to accommodate a presentation for his students.

Zhang is principle at the Beijing Midi School of Music and the event he staged five years ago is now China's biggest annual outdoor music festival. Some 80,000 attended this year's four-day event held earlier this month at Beijing's International Sculpture Park.

The Beijing Midi School of Music, established in 1993, is actually not a school of Midi (musical instrument digital interface) but an institute devoted to the teaching of modern music such as rock and jazz.

The first festival was held in the school hall. About 30 bands performed and the audience was made up of students or budding rock musicians.

The second festival saw an increase in interest and about 40 bands performed.

By 2002 the event reached a milestone because it was moved outdoors for the first time. At the new campus of the Midi School, located near the Fragrant Hills, 52 bands and thousands of rock fans from Beijing and other parts of China attended the three-day showcase. The press and other media began to compare the Midi Festival to the legendary Woodstock event in the United States.

Safety concerns

However, the 2003 Midi Festival was postponed due to the SARS epidemic. This year's event was the biggest yet, but it's original April billing was scrapped just three days before its opening performance after safety concerns grew.

The festival had become a victim of its own success. Far too many people were expected to attend and organizers became afraid of a similar Lantern Festival stampede in Beijing's Miyun County which killed 37 in February. The government moved in and asked Zhang to postpone the event until a bigger venue could be found.

The fifth Midi Festival therefore was moved to Beijing International Sculpture Park, the venue for the World Carnival in July and August.

The square in the middle of the park occupies 40,000 square meters of land - plenty for the Midi Festival.

But post-festival, more problems have surfaced. People living close to the park have complained about the noise and the future is in doubt. Performances took place from 3 pm to 10:45 pm but unlike the carnival, residents could not get any compensation as the festival is a non-profit event.

Thus the four-day festival nearly ended after two days because the residents called the local government to intervene. But festival-goers from all over the country simply could not accept such a let down at short notice.

"We were informed that the festival was postponed after we bought the train tickets in May, and this time while on the train to here we learned that the last two days of the festival were cancelled," said Lin Di, lead singer of the Shanghai-based Cold Fairyland, which was scheduled to perform on the fourth day. "We borrowed money and left our jobs to join this festival. Such a result was of course one we could not take."

Fortunately, the festival and government came to a compromise at the 11th hour. The festival could go on, but the performance had to be advanced and shortened to from 1:30 pm to 7:00 pm.


Because of its closeness to residential buildings, the park has great disadvantages. When the festival was held at Midi School, many people from other parts of China could camp on the grass of the campus lawns, enjoying each other's accompaniment and music long into the night. However, the Sculpture Park is covered in concrete ground and closes at 10 pm.

It seems that the Midi Festival has to find another place next year. A possible choice would be the new section of the Sculpture Park which is still under construction. There will be no buildings close to the section and a camp area may be created.

Though many aspects of this year's festival were unsatisfactory, both the musicians and audience had a good time.

"This year's stage and light were much better than those of the previous festivals," said Lin from Cold Fairyland, who did perform on the third day. "The model of a large-scale music festival is already in shape."

Forty-five bands performed at this year's Midi Festival. Compared to the last year, which was dominated by rock, 2004 will be remembered for its wide range of music.

Among the performers were folk setup Bu Yi band, jazz band Xia Jia Trio, punk band Brain Failure, and hip-hop from Kungfoo.

"At the Midi Festival there will always be some bands that suit you," said Yuan Ye, a 24-year-old web editor from Beijing.

Yuan first attended the event in 2002 when he was a student at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He has been attending ever since.

"Gigs in bars are always limited to a small circle of people, but here is a place open to every one," he said.

What makes the Midi Festival special is the free association between the performers and the audience - the atmosphere is relaxed.

Almost every time there was an intermission, African drums started up sparking spontaneous mass dancing.

Music festival lovers from around the world mingled in the park, among them Canadian Jon Campbell, Australian Jeremy Lee and Chinese Guo Long.

Lee also played drums in a group called "Handsome Black" which performed on the second day of the festival.

"I like both playing on stage and off stage. But by playing off stage, we come closer to the people," said Lee.

Other people also gathered in groups to drum and sing. People from different parts of the country got to know each other through music.

"It's not very easy for me to find people who share my interest in rock music," said Hu Jie, a 20-year-old student from Tianjin Institute of Urban Construction. "Here are rock fans from all over the country. It's great. Here I sing when I want to sing," he added.

Stalls selling CDs, books and T-shirts attracted many customers.

The Midi Festival has turned into a national party. The next move of the festival will be toward a marketing strategy.

The Midi Festival was celebrated for being a free event, though this year the audience had to pay a 10-yuan (US$1.2) admission for entering the park. All the musicians performed free and paid their own travel and accommodation expenses.

"In 2002 I came to Beijing to see Midi Festival and I was deeply impressed," said Lin from Cold Fairyland. "The audience came here because of the love of music. As a musician, I have always dreamed of performing on such a stage."

Though many bands volunteer to perform at Midi Festival, Zhang said that he hoped the event would get some funding from ticket-selling or sponsors in the future so the musicians could be paid proper fees and make the festival more professional. However, Zhang pledged ticket prices would not price music lovers out of the event, and said he would aim to keep entrance fees between 10 yuan and 30 yuan (US$1.2-3.6).

"Our aim is to attract as many people as possible and bring them happiness," said Zhang.

(China Daily October 20, 2004)

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