Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pictures at an Exhibition of a Headbanger's Ball--in Beijing

One of the things that I love the most about my job is that it lets me indulge my first love, international affairs. I cut my professional and academic teeth studying reforms in post-Soviet Russia. While my musical tastes in college weren't quite the same as they are now, somewhere I still have a tape of late '80s-early '90s pop in Russia and songs by Boris Grebenshikov and Akvarium, two bands that were pretty good for their time but sounded like excellent garage bands. When I was in Moscow in 1992, all the hip guys in the clubs we were in wanted to be MC Hammer, but the closest they could come was Vanilla Ice. (The best memory I have of that time is a line of wannabes striking poses to "Ice Ice Baby.")

So I was excited last night to see "Sound Kapital," a photography show at Govinda Gallery in Washington, DC's Georgetown. Govinda has been around for years--they feature photography documenting rock and roll, and over the years have had exhibits of John Lennon's drawings and amazing photos of Jimi Hendrix and other greats. The photographer is Matthew Niederhauser, a Columbia University graduate who has spent the last two years documenting the alternative/punk music scene in China, especially Beijing.

I love his photos because they remind me a bit of David Bailey's pictures of the '60s, which transport you to a very specific time and place in culture--which in this case is right now, in a country of over a billion people. Niederhauser basically became the house photographer at D-22, one of the major places to hear music in Beijing, in return for free drinks and access to the shows. He posed all the bands in front of a bright red wall in a back room of the club, so all the acts are framed by the same wooden floor, and worn background. But it's a heap of fun to see how diverse they are -- from traditional groups who look like they stepped out of a yurt, to long-legged women in blue jeans that seem to be channeling Debbie Harry, to four guys with mohawks jumping around like fleas. Or like Flea. It's not fair to place them all under the rubric of "punk" -- these are bands with all kinds of different sounds. But they are all underground -- no huge media machine behind them, and taking care not to alienate the government or the companies that press their records, who also don't want to alienate the government.

The companion book to the "Sound Kapital" show includes a CD of 17 of the bands that Niederhauser photographed -- and the music is amazing. The music has rich orchestrations and melodies, thumping drums -- lush vocals (in Chinese and in English). As I listened to it on the way home last night I was reminded at times of Patti Smith, of David Bowie, Blondie, the Clash, Rancid -- pretty much the whole history of what we now call "modern rock," and the sounds of pretty much my entire adult life. But these bands are developing in the crucible of the world's most populous country, lurching headlong into economic development, consumerism and othe elements of our 21st century. Niederhauser says that these kids are going to be all right -- which I agree with. They're funny and passionate, with a true sense of who they are -- and damn good.

iederhauser said last night that a lot of bands don't see music as American, or Chinese, or Brazilian or Russian--but that it's all music. Which is pretty cool when you think about it. These bands have grown up being able to hear music online so their influences are based on something much broader than a mix tape, handed down through multiple generations of fans. It was awfully cool to see a fellow Columbia grad who has truly done good. I hope he keeps up his work -- he's documenting other elements of how China is developing--but I hope he keeps up with the music pictures because they're capturing a rare moment in rock & roll -- when it returns to first principles, and reminds us how raw and passionate (and beautiful) it can be.

"Sound Kapital" is running as part of DC Foto Week -- so definitely try to check it out. On November 14th, Xiao He, one of the artists in the book, will be giving a free show at Govinda. And two of the bands are playing at the Velvet Lounge on Friday night. So if you go to check out either of those, please comment on the blog and let me know how fabulous they are!

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