Shanren - Left Foot Dance of the Yi
Shanren - literally "Mountain people" is a Chinese folk rock band that's been around for 15 years by now. Their native Yunnan province in southern China, with its poetic name "South of the clouds" and lofty mountains, is home to some 25 different ethnic groups. The province borders Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi and Yunnan culture naturally takes inspiration from all its neighbors, making it one of China's most culturally diverse regions.
However, the record begins with a journey away from Yunnan - from a haunting vocal arrangement that sounds like a distant echo of some renaissance madrigal, into an underground station in modern-day Beijing, as a train approaches the platform.
As many other Chinese bands, Shanren has moved to the capital in order to make a living from their music and to find inspiration in the Beijing music scene. The sonic journey from the mountains to the city also signifies the blend of rural and urban, folk and rock that make up the music framework of Shanren.
The protagonist of the album's second song, "Thirty Years," has also made the same journey, and in the lyrics he laments that nothing in the big city is there for his taking - be it work, money, love or music. In a break someone calls out to him to go back home to his plow and, so to speak, say goodbye to the empty promise of the Yellow brick road; but ultimately he needs the city more than the city needs him.
Shanren is trying to overcome this tension between traditional and modern life by combining the melodies of their native mountains with the drums and bass lines of rock. This puts them together with a number of Chinese bands that are seeking ways of making Chinese traditional music relevant in a new context, but also to preserve music and melodies sung by voices that would otherwise be hard to hear in the din of economic reforms and light-speed urbanization projects.
The members of Shanren not only represent different minorities from Yunnan, but they have also spent time traveling the province, recording songs and melodies they then incorporate in their own music. The track "Laomudeng village" is one such example of an old melody the band picked up and molded in their own style. As with other tracks of the album, it feels like some of the potential dynamics of the harmonic parts and the rhythm section have been lost in these new arrangements, or perhaps in the production of the recording, which sounds a bit flat and uninspired.
Perhaps that is why the very simple arrangement of "Mountain Grass" seems to give the melody more space to reverberate in its own history.
Other tracks, such as the immensely catchy "Bi Li Tong," might be better experienced live rather than on a studio recording.
And perhaps it is better to leave it up to the listener to decide for him/herself how well the experiments with Yunnanese reggae work, as explored in the tracks "The Crab" and "Yi Wa."
In conclusion, the album's strengths are the carefully composed selection of songs, the vocal diversity and the immediate and beautiful melodies. In the end it suffers somewhat for trying a little bit too hard to find its place in the heart of modern-day Beijing and what appears to be a run-of-the-mill production. I suspect Shanren's journey from the mountains of Yunnan to high-rises of Beijing is better told on a live stage. - Erik Conqvist
The CD is available at cdRoots
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