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15 July 2015

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Changsha's Indie-rock Scene after Dark by Tim Jonze

Striking gold … UK indie musician Sam Genders in Changsha Photograph: Changsha Morning Post

As gigs go, you could say this is one with a difference. In fact, let’s call it several differences – by my rough estimation, about 724 differences (and counting). For one thing, there’s a translator on-stage, encouraging the young crowd to blow up the balloons they’ve just been handed from the stage. For another, there’s a brass section, whose day job involves parping away as the house band on China’s version of The Voice. Then there’s the fact that the frontman of this unlikely rock combo, a Mr Sam Genders of Diagrams (and formerly Tunng), only met his bandmates a few weeks ago, after a frantic search to locate Changsha’s alternative music scene.
Rock royalty at Changsha’s 46 Live House. Photograph: Guardian/Tim Jonze

I could go on to list the other differences, but I probably need to add some explanation. Sam Genders is in Changsha, the capital of China’s Hunan province, for a residency, organised by the British Council and PRS, in which several UK musicians are assigned to different Chinese cities for several weeks in order to foster relationships with their Chinese peers. How they do that is largely up to them: collaborate on songs, build connections, play live shows, or simply gain an understanding of each other’s musical cultures. Over the past month in Changsha, Sam has played a song at an open-air show (for which he was rewarded with a meal of pig’s brain – “like a meaty blancmange”) and starred as a guest guitarist for the up-and-coming rock band 大木 (or Da Mu, which I’m told means “great timber”, or if you’re of a more cheeky persuasion, “big wood”) during the city’s Orange Isle music festival.

Doing all this has brought challenges. Like many Chinese cities, Changsha is growing at a pace that’s hard even for locals to keep up with, and despite being merely a mid-size Chinese city it already has a population close to London’s.

Yet the healthy arts scene, while growing, is yet to flourish at a similar pace. There’s minimal music infrastructure which make it difficult to stage an impromptu gig like this. Thankfully, Genders struck gold when he was introduced to Ye Xiao (see video above), a guitar wizard and music producer who was so impressed with Genders’ songs he offered to put together a band for his with local jazz act Easy Band and the aforementioned brass section. As Ren Li, one of the city’s key players in the music scene, tells me: “These are pretty much the best musicians in Changsha.”

Arriving at the venue is something of a surprise. You don’t – and wouldn’t expect to – find many symbols of western alternative culture in Changsha. Yet walk downstairs into 46 Live House and you’re magically transported to grimy indie-rock London: posters of the Libertines and the Sex Pistols adorn the walls, a well-stocked bar serves G&Ts and beers, and the stereo pumps outs New Order. As culture shocks go, it’s pretty weird to be shocked by your own culture.
For a performance only rehearsed for a few hours, the show is an undisputed triumph. The band have adapted to Genders’ gentle, intriguing tunes with admirable delicacy, allowing the song’s complexities space to breathe, and the audience are appreciative. They even blow up their balloons and release them into the air at the correct time (full marks to the translator).

Not lost in translation … Sam Genders. Photograph: Changsha Morning Post

The audience go even wilder when Genders returns to the stage to rock out for a song during Da Mu’s headline set. He even goads the crowd into screaming “Encore! Encore!” This amazes Angus Bjarnason, who is here from the British Council: “It’s often hard enough getting Chinese crowds to pay attention at all,” he says, “so screaming for an encore is a sign of a very good show.”

The stress of performing gone, it’s finally time for Genders and his bandmates to unwind in the traditional English way: an after party. It’s also time to unwind in the not-so-traditional English way: an after party that involves driving to a midnight street barbecue for beef tendons and the local Changsha delicacy: stinky tofu (it’s surprisingly delicious).