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November 17, 2010

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Songs beyond 'I love you'

CHINGLISH reggae is what Kiwi musician Steve Storm calls his sound. The Chinese speaker composes in English and Chinese and his lyrics fly in the face of the mainstream music scene. He talks to Katie Foley.

Musician Steve Storm by far prefers the Shanghai of 1995 to its current glitzy incarnation, saying it had real character then.

The New Zealand-born musician has come and gone but has lived in the city for the past eight years and has earned his keep as one of the few Western musicians who sings almost exclusively in Mandarin.

Storm first arrived when he was 27 years old, after a career as an officer in the Royal New Zealand Navy. "I get chronically seasick, so it wasn't a good career choice," he observes. Thereafter he worked in bars and nightclubs in both England and New Zealand. He's a vocalist, drummer and guitarist.

When he landed in Shanghai, it was with the four-piece band, Robin and the Hoods, on a six-month contract at a local hotel.

The year was 1995 and Shanghai after dark had a completely different feel to it.

"Back then they just wanted to know foreigners and at the time there were no pubs or nightclubs - no, actually two nightclubs, so entertainment was pretty much all in the hotel bars," says Storm.

When the four wide-eyed musicians arrived, they didn't know quite what to expect. What they got was a punishing schedule of performing six nights a week, five sets a night, 45 minutes a set. He says he loved every minute.

"By the end of that contract, man, I could not sleep for a whole night - smoking, drinking, partying all night, whatever - and then the next day I could still sing clear as a whistle," he recalls.

A six-month stint in Kuala Lumpur followed, but Storm eventually found himself back in New Zealand when the band broke up.

He then completed a bachelor of arts in Chinese and departed for China immediately after the last exam. He taught English and performed in Taiwan for a year and a half, before finding his way back to Shanghai in late 2001.

Storm says he always had an eye toward his own CD and reasoned that playing Chinese music with Chinese bands in Chinese pubs would give him an advantage when the time was right to record.

When that time eventually rolled around in 2009, he fashioned Chinglish Reggae with his Western and Chinese band mates.

He says he wants to make music that flows in the face of China's mainstream music scene.

"A lot of reggae has a deeper meaning, rather than just this 'I love you, you love me - I left you, you left me' rubbish," says Storm. "That's what is lacking in the Chinese music industry - it's all love songs, nothing with any depth - and the way Chinese write lyrics is just blatantly obvious."

Storm takes the same approach to writing music in both English and Chinese, aiming to get foreigners to listen to Chinese music in a way they can appreciate.

"So they don't necessarily go, 'oh my God, I'm not listening to that, it's in Chinese,' but so they will go, 'wow, man, what the hell is that? That sounds really interesting, that's got a good groove to it.' They forget it's in another language - the same with the Chinese you know," Storm adds.

His self-titled CD was released this month and includes 12 songs, six in Chinese and six in English. It's inspired by his experiences making a living as a Chinese-speaking Western musician in Shanghai.

He writes all the lyrics in English first, translates them and then has a native-speaker friend check that everything is exactly correct.

The fact that Chinese is a tonal language gives him a good starting point, he says.

"That is one thing I loved about the Chinese language - that it's already musical, it just needs to be applied to music on top, but it is already there," says Storm.

His current six-piece band includes two Chinese musicians and three Brazilians. In several songs they include an erhu, a two-stringed traditional Chinese instrument.

Storm says living in Shanghai for eight years has given him a perspective opposite to what appears to be the prevailing sentiment.

"That there is more to life than money - I think this would be my biggest lesson in Shanghai," Storm says.

"I always felt down with myself until I was about 36 or 37 years old because I would look at my friends in New Zealand who are lawyers and architects and have got these humongous mortgages and two ex-wives and two and a half kids and one and a half dogs and all that, and they are depressed as crap."

He concludes that while he thinks Shanghai's development has taken away some of its old charm, the appreciation for live music has added greatly to the nightlife.

Steve Storm

Nationality: New Zealand

Profession: Musician

Age: 43


Self-description: Nice nutcase.

Favorite place: My house - my home is my castle.

Strangest sight: People in pajamas on motorbikes.

Motto for life: "Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance." - Albert Einstein

Worst experience: My ex-girlfriend. I am going to be single for the rest of my life.

How to improve Shanghai: More live music.

Advice to newcomers: Be open-minded and don't judge this place by your own culture, because it's not.


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