China's Latest Export: Anti-Establishment Music For Chinese indie band Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, the art of making anti-establishment music in a non-democratic state is all in the translation. For example, the band translated the title of its song "Hang the Police" as "the police are laughing."
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China's Latest Export: Anti-Establishment Music

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China's Latest Export: Anti-Establishment Music

China's Latest Export: Anti-Establishment Music

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From accordions to indie rock now. China, the world's top exporter of laptop computers, T-shirts, and toys is now trying to export that very music.

The country's largest independent record label has just released its first album in the U.S. by an indie band called Rebuilding the Rights of Statues. The band toured the U.S. before the album's release, and it performed at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, plus several shows in New York.

From member station WNYC, Lisa Chow reports.

(Soundbite of music)

LISA CHOW: The art of making anti-establishment music in a non-democratic state can come in the translation.

(Soundbite of song "Hang the Police")

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman: Hang the police. Hang the police.

CHOW: The three members of Rebuilding the Rights of Statues or Re-TROS for short, compose in English. This song is called "Hang the Police." The band is required to translate all of its lyrics into Chinese and submit them to the government for approval.

Meng Jin Hui is manager at Modern Sky, China's largest independent record label.

MENG JIN HUI (Manager, Modern Sky): Maybe sometimes, you know, when we translate, it might be wrong.

CHOW: For example, the band translated "Hang the Police" as "The Police are Laughing." Often they'll translate literally, and as is the case with any language, the literal translations sometimes don't make sense. And that can work to the band's advantage.

Still, lead singer and guitarist Hua Dong insists he's not intimidated by the government's censors.

Mr. HUA DONG (Lead Singer and Guitarist, Rebuilding the Rights of Statues): (Through translator) It's like a game of cat and mouse to see who can win.

CHOW: He believes dealing with the government forces his band to be subtler in its lyrics.

Mr. HUA: (Through translator) It's just different from the West, where people are very direct with what they say. They just say what they want. But in China, how we say things is not very direct. I think this adds depth to what we're doing, and it's fun.

(Soundbite of music)

CHOW: Hua's pragmatic view is typical of many rock musicians in China who grew up in the '80s and '90s during the country's economic boom.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Unintelligible). By the way.

Mr. SHEN LIHUI (Founder, Modern Sky): (Through translator) Actually, the Chinese government is not really that bad.

CHOW: Shen Lihui founded the Modern Sky label 10 years ago when his own band wanted to record an album.

Mr. SHEN: (Through translator) Within the last 10 years, it has changed quite a bit. Of course, the situation is still not ideal, but the government is more open and liberal than before.

CHOW: China's first generation of rock bands emerged a few years before the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Those groups focused more on politics. Today's bands, Shen says, are more interested in art.

But the art still needs some work, says Trey McArver. He traveled to China four years ago and discovered an indie rock scene in Wuhan, a grimy industrial city of more than eight million people where he now owns a club with a Chinese partner.

McArver says his first encounter with the music captured the excitement of his first shows in the U.S.

Mr. TREY McARVER (Club Owner, China): It was in this abandoned building on the fifth floor. It was dirty and there were all these kids there, you know, like, with like Mohawks and tight, black jeans, and just something that I had not seen in China at all.

CHOW: Then the music started.

Mr. McARVER: They couldn't even play their instruments. They would play for like 30 seconds or a minute, and then they would just like have to stop and then they would start over or try to go to the next song. And in way, it was like super punk rock but it was also just kind of like, oh, so this is what it's like.

CHOW: Many bands, McArver says, are simply copying things they've heard from Western acts. Re-TROS' musicians say they're influenced by groups like Interpol, Gang of Four and Joy Division.

(Soundbite of music)

CHOW: McArver says while Re-TROS' songs aren't completely original, the band still has something to say.

Mr. McARVER: It's a little bit more thoughtful and it's very sincere.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. McARVER: They're not making music to be cool.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

CHOW: A steady performance schedule earns Re-TROS the equivalent of $300 a month, barely enough for the three to live on in Beijing. But right now they say their main goal is to make music.

Liu Min is Re-TROS's bass player. She says one benefit to releasing an album in the U.S. is to show Americans a side of China they might not have heard before.

Ms. LIU MIN (Bass Player, Rebuilding the Rights of Statues): (Through translator) We don't expect it will be a big seller. But of course we are excited to come to the U.S., the most developed rock and roll market in the world. And if Americans hear us, they might see the progress that rock and roll music in China has made.

CHOW: They might also hear a little room for development.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Chow.

(Soundbite of music)


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