As China Cracks Down On Cultural Fringe, Indie Rock Finds A Home In Beijing : Parallels U.S. economist Michael Pettis, an expert on China's economy and professor at Beijing University, is also a key figure nurturing a distinct American sound in Beijing's avant-garde music scene.
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As China Cracks Down On Cultural Fringe, Indie Rock Finds A Home In Beijing

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As China Cracks Down On Cultural Fringe, Indie Rock Finds A Home In Beijing

As China Cracks Down On Cultural Fringe, Indie Rock Finds A Home In Beijing

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

China's indie music scene is growing up. At first, they imitated Western rockers. But now they are developing a sound all of their own. The creative explosion has been helped by an American entrepreneur who is a finance professor by day and a music promoter by night.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The final gigs at the experimental music club called XP lasted into the early hours of the morning one weekend in July. Punk and experimental bands took the stage, one after the other for short sets. In between, the young crowd of Chinese and foreigners spilled out into an alleyway down the street from Beijing's ancient drum tower. XP's owner, Michael Pettis, started his first club in the 1980s when he attended business school and later worked in New York as an investment banker. Pettis plowed his earnings into a music club, which he finally describes as his Ferrari.

MICHAEL PETTIS: Well, I meant it's my Ferrari 'cause many of my friends in banking bought Ferraris in order to impress people. And I started a club in order that I could hang with musicians, and I thought that would impress people. It doesn't really, but it impresses me.

KUHN: At that time, on the Bowery in Manhattan, bands includings The Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads were emerging from that grungy cradle of punk music, CBGB. The poster-covered performance space downstairs at XP does look a bit like CBGB. Upstairs is the office where Pettis writes his finance blog. But Pettis, who's been in Beijing for over a decade now, says his upstairs and downstairs lives seldom intersect.

PETTIS: It's never seemed to me that there's a connection or that there needs to be a connection, just two things that I really enjoy doing. Fortunately, one pays for the other.

KUHN: Pettis also started a record label called Maybe Mars. He signed to it a stable of young Chinese musicians, including a group called Carsick Cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARSICK CARS SONG)

CARSICK CARS: (Singing in foreign language).

KUHN: Bandleader Zhang Shouwang talks about the creative scene that sprung up about a decade ago. His band was gigging at Pettis's previous Beijing club called D-22, which was an business from 2006 to 2012, and recording for Pettis's record label.

ZHANG SHOUWANG: (Through interpreter) We were the first generation to hear so much different music via the Internet and to be influenced so much by Western music. At the time, all these Chinese bands started coming out and doing what they liked and a primal sort of energy just exploded.

KUHN: A couple of years ago, Pettis signed a Beijing-based psychedelic group called Chui Wan to his label.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUI WAN SONG)

PETTIS: They don't sound like anything else I've ever heard. It's very hard to try to figure out where their influences come from.

KUHN: Pettis says he'll back this band whatever direction they take. Shanghai-based music and festival promoter Archie Hamilton says that China's rockers have become much better musicians and the indie music scene has spread to cities far from Beijing, such as Wuhan, Guangzhou and Chengdu.

ARCHIE HAMILTON: All these cities have emerging scenes, local bands, live venues. It's been a very, very positive decade I suppose. That said, you know, the last 12 months has been pretty harrowing.

KUHN: Harrowing, he says, because police have shut down many concerts this year apparently for safety reasons. But for years, officials have railed against rock music as bourgeois, decadent and subversive. Pettis counters that China's indie rock bands are one of its great cultural assets. He predicts that they will make China's cities more creative and appealing to the outside world.

PETTIS: This is not really sort of a - an unnecessary luxury. This is really part of the process of China's development. We need these young artists and we need them to do things that are going to be unexpected.

KUHN: At XP's final shows, the music went off in unexpected experimental directions. As it ended, Pettis says, some members of the audience thought the place was legendary enough to take a piece of it home with them.

PETTIS: The kids sort of reverently took down every single piece of memorabilia they could find at XP. All the posters were gone, guitar picks, set lists, they sort of took down the entire club.

KUHN: Pettis says he closed the club because its identity was not well-defined. He says, for now, his bands will find other venues to play until he opens his next club. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: As far as we know, B.J. Leiderman never played CBGB, but he did write our theme song. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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