Generalizing about China is a risky exercise. It's roughly the size of Europe, with 1.3 billion people, and there are huge differences among China's regions when it comes to things like food and culture. And that includes music. NPR's Anthony Kuhn introduces us to a kind of regional folk music that's a radical alternative to China's mainstream musical taste.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: While the band is tuning up their instruments, let me just explain where we are. This is northwest China's Shaanxi province, on the middle reaches of the Yellow River. It's at the southern edge of a huge plateau of dusty badlands. By the standards of wealthier southern China, the area is poor, dry and coarse.


KUHN: Bandleader Zhang Junmin launches into an old tune about the impermanence of beauty.


KUHN: The music is called Lao Qiang, which is roughly translatable as Old Tune. Zhang says it's been passed down in his family for centuries. Zhang's father was close to illiterate. Zhang himself was too poor to attend school. He farmed the land part of the time and played music the rest. He says he learned his art the traditional way.

ZHANG JUNMIN: (Through translator) If I couldn't pick up a tune on my instrument, my papa would get mad. He'd come over and slap me upside the head. That slap would wake me up and then I'd get it. If he didn't slap me, I wouldn't concentrate and I wouldn't get it.

KUHN: Traditionally, Lao Qiang musicians would accompany a puppeteer, who would tell stories from behind a screen. It wasn't until a couple of decades ago that the musicians came out from behind that screen and performed on their own, in full view of the audience.


KUHN: The band's next tune is a typical number about combat among warlords during the third century Three Kingdoms period. The musicians get totally into it. Horsehairs are flying off the bows of the string section. A percussionist flails out a beat on a wooden bench. And Zhang is thrusting his banjo-like instrument called a sanxian into the air like a rock star. He says it's the stories that give this kind of music its brash spirit.

JUNMIN: (Through translator) Even in the coldest days of winter, we perform for five minutes and we're sweating. It's mostly the combat scenes. They just fire us up. It's not like we're trying to get fired up. We just can't help it.


WANG XIAOFENG: (Through translator) It's a lot like heavy metal.

KUHN: That was Beijing-based music critic Wang Xiaofeng's first impression when he heard Lao Qiang for the first time about 18 years ago. Wang says Lao Qiang reminds him of heavy metal because it's so physical and operatic. He adds that Lao Qiang music is way outside the mainstream of Chinese popular musical taste, which he argues has two main qualities.

XIAOFENG: (Through translator) The first is that its melody is very easy to remember. The second is that its rhythm is very simple, just like disco beat.


KUHN: You can hear these references in the sort of light Western music you often hear in public spaces throughout China.


KUHN: That's the late Taiwanese pop songstress, Teresa Teng. Wang points to her tunes as an example of the sort of mild melody that characterizes mainstream Chinese tastes. Sure, Chinese musical tastes are diverse, but generally speaking, Wang says, Chinese aesthetics generally value moderation and balance. And by that standard, rock music is seen as noisy and harsh.

And while many Chinese have gradually become aware of Lao Qiang music, the art form remains pretty obscure. Zhang Junmin says he's doing everything he can just to keep his family's tradition alive.

JUNMIN: (Through translator) We don't want this music to be buried in the ground. It belongs to society and we should find a way to pass on our legacy. That's my dream.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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