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City indie music folks really rock

SHANGHAI'S small indie music scene is multifaceted and growing, both above and underground. There's a new label just for city bands, plus music collectives and a folk-rock community passionate about telling stories. Ben-Darrow Goodman reports.

Armed typically with acoustic guitars and stories to tell, Shanghai's folk-rock musicians are individual singers and songwriters who are establishing a community within the indie scene.

A notable folk-rock personality is guitarist Liu Jian, who started playing when he was 16. After being expelled from high school for playing punk music in the school, he joined the People's Liberation Army.

It was in the service that he began writing songs.

Now 32, Liu is both a musician and published author. He has written two novels, "Out of the Army" (2008), a sequel to his first work, "Rock Soldier."

The debut novel is a semi-autobiographical portrayal of young and restless musicians who enlist in the army after being expelled from school.

Liu wears several creative hats. He is a music organizer as well as singer, songwriter and author.

In 2005 he formed Shanghai East District Power, a collective of 10 folk musicians from eastern parts of the city. The group has played many shows and released a CD, "Shanghai East District Power Unplugged."

He recently formed a second collective, Shanghai Folk Rock United.

"The difference is more people and more diversity," Liu says. The original team was only 10 individual acts all from eastern parts of the city, but Shanghai Folk Rock United now has more than 20 musicians from throughout the city, including suburbs and rural areas. He expects the group will soon number around 30.

The idea is to have many Folk Rock United shows, each featuring four or five artists.

Folk Rock United performs tonight at 696 Livehouse near Hongkou Football Stadium. The next show will be on May 28 at the same venue. In both shows, Liu will play alongside three fellow singer-songwriters.

"I think folk suits Shanghai," says Liu. "The weather here is mostly comfortable. The people here prefer their food sweeter, unlike Sichuan's spicy fare."

One of his fellow musicians and story tellers is New Yorker David Warner who arrived in Shanghai three and a half years ago and mixes Chinese and English in his lyrics.

"I studied Chinese back in high school, and it was my major in college. I always knew I would end up in Asia," Warner says. "China is the mothership."

Warner, like Liu, started playing guitar around the age of 16.

"I try and mix it up, half and half. If you don't understand both, you won't understand part of who I am.

"In my opinion, Shanghai is going through a salon art movement as France did in the 1800s," he says.

"There is an underground scene and it is actually underground, we've stumbled on shows up on the third floors of unmarked buildings."

He sees a real and sizeable city folk scene. Sometimes the songs are stories, sometimes they're performance.

Information about the shows can be found at or

(Writer Ben-Darrow Goodman is a young musician in Shanghai Folk Rock United.)


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