A Canadian in Beijing: Hands in the Air at Beijing’s Midi Festival

One of my goals before arriving in China was to take in the live music scene here. That hasn’t been difficult in the least. In fact, it’s been difficult to balance getting up early for my part-time classes after taking in so much live music.

One of the prominent live music events of the year in Beijing is the MIDI FESTIVAL. Well, it’s prominent in the underground music world, that’s for sure. This festival takes places between May 1st and 5th in an urban park in the eastern Haidian district of Beijing. That’s quite close to where I live and I have been planning to attend this festival since arriving.

So I did.

Truth be told, I applied to perform at the festival when I was back in Canada. There was an advertisement via Sonicbids, an online submission service that I subscribe to and that enables the submission of one’s music for consideration for all kinds of events or services. I was not “awarded” a slot at the festival (although, it was a contest for a single opening and I’m sure there was stiff competition) and at the time I was relieved by this verdict, considering I would not have my band with me. While in attendance this week, however, I wished that I had known how to go through other channels to request a solo spot. I was truly missing the stage as I sat on the grass in front of it. And, I knew that my music would go over well there.

Perhaps next year?

The Midi festival is modeled after North American festivals. There are several stages with simultaneous music, food kiosks with greasy food, diverse markets (though both booths and sidewalk style, which is very Beijing), disgusting port-a-potties and cheap beer for sale in plastic cups. There’s lots of litter and sporadic tents set up on the edges of the site and, let’s not forget the requisite muddy sections in front of the main stage as evidence of hundreds of feet packed tightly against the stage, moshing across five days.

I was there on the final day, having just arrived home from Shanghai and deciding to take in at least one day of such an important musical event. Everyone who is anyone was there. It was a cool kids’ hangout and I simply had to go!

Unlike most visible grass in China, you can SIT on it at this festival and I spent a fair amount of time doing just that at the folk stage, feeling nostalgic about festival season in North America. Lawns in Beijing are not common and, besides, grass is considered dirty thanks to the regular deposit of urine, litter and dust. As a result, there are often “keep off the grass” signs or fenced off sections of what little grass I have seen. Seeing people sprawled across the expanse of green here at this public park was a very non-Beijing sight and it added to the nostalgia for home.

I went to the festival with Traci (see pic of us here, in our “cool” poses!) and she introduced me to several interesting people connected to the music scene in Beijing. I’m slowly making my rounds and finding that people are quite receptive to my interest in building my career here. Traci was also handing out flyers for an event this weekend called the “Maple Rhythm Beijing Concert,” which was a concert scheduled for after the Midi festival and featuring Canadian music. I was happy to see my friends’ faces on the flyers that were landing in the hands of the Beijing hipsters: Vinnick, Sheppard and Harte; The Jimmy Swift Band (no, there is no “Jimmy Swift” and we’re not related!); Alun Piggins; and The Road Hammers. (I have met the promoter for this event, too, and he is considering us for a tour next year – fingers crossed!)

I met up with other friends then and enjoyed a flip-flop between various stages. I took in some excellent Chinese and international bands from folk to hip-hop to rock, most notably “ZouYou” (or “Left, Right”) which was a Chinese progressive hard rock band with amazing musicianship and stage presence. Dave Stewart (from the Euthymics) was the Friday night headliner but he was unable to attend. In his place, he sent Imogen Heap and Nadirah X who each did a couple of songs and blew the audience away. I love Imogen voice and Nadirah X’s lyrics were incredibly powerful and politically potent. Another female artist, a famous Chinese pop-rock singer, also sang but I do not know her name. She garnered a huge applause from the audience when she took the stage, as though her presence were a big and welcome surprise. If anyone reads this and can tell me her name, I would really appreciate it. It was too loud to ask anyone and then it was too late.

Midi was co-sponsored by Greenpeace and I was surprised to see this, considering their radical environment actions and (I’m going to generalize here) the Chinese government’s typical aversion to radicalism! Between sets, the big screens showed hardcore live footage from recorded attempts to stop the transport of nuclear devices on ships, animal rescues, demonstration against polluting corporations, etc. It was incredibly moving to watch and the ten minute short was on regular repeat.

All of these performers (the three women mentioned above) finished off their set by collaborating on a song that was written for Greenpeace. It was empowering and got the audience excited despite the language barrier. The previous big screen visuals had helped to bring the points home without words being necessary.

I left the site late in the evening feeling filled up with music and reminded of how powerful live performance can be. Hands in the air in musical solidarity seemed to me to be another universal sign of camaraderie, belief, and commitment to being part of a movement. Whether or not our aims are the same, music has a cauterizing effect and brings people of all backgrounds and ideologies together, rocking in a crowded cradle of potential.

We can.