The Yaogun Diaries, part 7

Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll".

Buyi (布衣)

Touching on another facet of rock music in China, I’m going to focus on another of my favorites, Buyi (布衣). Their name means “cloth” and the term is used to distinguish ordinary fabric like cotton from fancy stuff like silk. In keeping with this deliberately humble name, their music is perhaps unassuming, but full of passion and an appreciation for the plight of ordinary people. The band originally hails from Ningxia (宁夏) , formally known as the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a relatively small province in north central China (generally referred to as “northwest” given the coastal bias of the Chinese). It is the home of the Hui ethnic group, typically Islamic Chinese speakers. (In standard PRC fashion, the Hui only comprise about a third of their own Region’s population, with Han Chinese being the majority.)
A promo shot with a previous drummer.

Buyi’s niche is combining Chinese folk music with rock (plus a bit of the Western singer/songwriter tradition), and they’ve been around since 1995; they relocated to Beijing in 1999, and have remained a staple of the capital’s scene ever since. The constants in the band thus far have been lead singer and guitarist Wu Ningyue (吴宁越) and Zhang Wei (张巍), who plays guitar and guzheng. There has been some turnover at the bass and drum positions (purportedly a total of more than ten players). Wu claims to have been influenced by Cui Jian (崔健) along with such Western artists as the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and Nirvana.
Buyi live at 2 Kolegas, 2008-06-27.

I first encountered this band from articles about them in Beijing’s English language press, and when I first saw them live, I knew the acclaim was well-earned. Wu is a friendly presence on stage, chatting and joking (though of course I can’t understand a lot of what he says); the band plays very naturally, completely comfortable regardless of the situation – no doubt due to their long history and appearances at major festivals. I caught them first at 2 Kolegas in June of 2008 and posted a few pictures here. While there I picked up all the CDs they had available at the time, which included a self-titled collection that might best be characterized as demos, their then current studio album, and a live album.
Wu Ningyue doing the folk-rock thing at 2 Kolegas, 2008-06-27.

The oldest recordings are apparently not considered an official release, but they’re certainly worth hearing. There's no title listed, so I call it jut Buyi. It's a CD-R with no date on it, but I believe it dates from 2004.
It's a mixture of studio/demo recordings and live tracks. Here is one of the highlights, 为你唱首歌 ("Sing a Song for You").

"Wei ni chang shou ge"

The band’s first proper release was 那么久 (That Long), recorded in 2007.
In an interview with The Beijiner, Wu said that the recording was plagued by budgetary constraints and disagreements with the record label, resulting in a sound that “wasn’t unified” but I’ve always found it a great set of tunes, surprisingly polished sounding considering the band’s reputation. It opens with the superb title track, with anthemic electric guitars and a soaring melody on the guzheng.

“Name jiu”

It's kind of a sad song, in case you can't tell from the sound. There are only a few lines of lyrics repeated a number of times: "Time has been so long, the skies have been grey so long, and pain is on every side, and my dreams are behind me, so long after so long."

"Yang rou mian"

And this one is 羊肉面 ("Mutton Noodles"), an ode to a childhood comfort food.

On their 2008 live album 喝不完的酒 (Endless Wine), they revisit a few tunes from previous recordings as well as a few unfamiliar (to me) songs. With well over ten years of material to draw from, there’s no shortage of songs.

Apparently, it was released in a limited edition of only 1000 or so copies, so I guess I’m lucky to have one. It features four songs from That Long, two from the self-titled debut, and six others. 不累 ("Not Tired") is a perennial favorite from their live shows.

Bu lei

And here's a video of the same tune. I did say it's a perennial favorite.

The second time I saw Buyi live was in a very different situation from the cozy brick room at 2 Kolegas. They were part of a festival called the Thirteenth Month Festival, playing on a Sunday evening. Due to a mixup in the show’s start time, I missed most of their set (you can read about it here). They were on the huge stage at the Beijing National Convention Center, complete with full light rigging, video screens, and room to move around without bumping into one another.

Buyi on the big stage at the 13th Month Festival, 2008-06-29.

They had the opening spot for 苏阳 (Su Yang) and 郑钧 (Zheng Jun), two well-known Chinese rock artists. The little I heard sounded pretty much exactly like the live album. I think they finished with Bu lei (Not Tired).

Later in 2008 they released a live DVD, but I haven't seen it. It has the songs from the live CD plus a few more. Next time I have the chance, I'll have to get myself a copy.

The next Buyi show was my first time at 将进酒吧 (Jiangjinjiu Bar). It’s a tiny little place located between the Drum and Bell Towers, and it was so packed my friend and I ended up hearing most of the show from upstairs, where we couldn’t see the band at all. I think we were sitting directly above them with a couple layers of wood in between.

Buyi and way too many people at Jiangjinjiu, 2009-02-14.

I ventured downstairs to take a look and some pictures, and found a crowd that surely violated some kind of fire code crowded around a tiny performance area (not a raised platform at all). Buyi plays here often.

Barely room for Buyi at Jiangjinjiu Bar, 2009-02-14.

It was a cold night outside, but inside Jingjinjiu it was steamy and stifling, full of sweat and cigarette smoke. The band seemed to be in their element, and the crowd seemed to know every song inside out. They finished with one I had never heard before, which had my companion laughing and looking a little embarrassed. Most of the audience sang along with the whole song, especially the choruses and “la-la” sections.

Buyi doing "Roman Watch" at Jiangjinjiu Bar (though not on the same night I saw them there).

After we left the bar, my friend explained to me a little about the song. She said the lyrics were very dirty (which maybe explained why it wasn’t on any of the CDs I had), and involved the story of a couple with money problems. The boy decides to buy the girl a nice watch as a gift, but can’t afford it, so he steals it. He gets caught, and instead of being supportive, she abandons him. As he’s carted off to jail, he shouts a string of insults at her. These make up the chorus of the song. Years later, he’s out of jail, and somehow the situation arises that she needs his help, but he tells her where to stuff that idea, and she yells the same set of insults back at him. At least that’s what I got out of an explanation from a non-native English speaker who had only heard the song once very late at night after who knows how many drinks. I could have it completely wrong, and she could have been wrong as well – though I’m almost certain there’s a watch involved.

When I saw them again, it was back at 2 Kolegas, this time outdoors under a canopy. Although there was a drum kit present, Buyi’s performance ended up being just the duo of Wu and Zhang.

Casual acoustic Buyi at 2 Kolegas, 2009-06-14.

They played stripped-down versions of some Buyi standards, and were joined from time to time by others in a very loose atmosphere.

Zhang Wei on the guzheng at 2 Kolegas, 2009-06-14.

Finally, in 2009, the band released what is usually called (by way of some creative math) their second album; to add to the confusion, it is self-titled, but I suppose the small number of people who have the previous self-titled CD know the band well enough to not be confused.
Barring one track, it’s a studio recording, and features some songs that first appeared in live form on Endless Wine. And while Wu has described it as “more hard rock,” I’d say it’s actually got some mellower moments on it than That Long, though the rock tunes do perhaps rock harder, like the studio version of "Not Tired" - but I'll give you something different as a sample for the album.

The CD opens with a lovely mostly-acoustic track called 三疯 ("Three Crazy").

"San feng"

And as a representative of the band's other side, here is 光荣的愤怒 ("Glorious Anger").

"Guangrong de fennu"

To my surprise, the final track on the album is a live recording of 罗马表 (“Roman Watch”), the very song they finished with at Jiangjinjiu. It was fun working my way through the lyrics to see just how right or wrong I was about them. The first part is pretty close, with a boy whose girlfriend has high expectations; he steals money to buy her a “Roman Watch,” and gets caught. She just laughs at him; he says something rude to her, finishing “I did everything for you.”

The second verse actually seems to be about a completely different situation (or maybe it’s the same girl with a different guy). It's from a girl's viewpoint: she says her boyfriend has high expectations, and likes a girl who is well endowed, but she is flat-chested. So she goes to have surgery, but the surgery fails; the boyfriend just laughs at her; she says something rude to him, finishing, “I did everything for you.”

As to why it can appear on CD in China even though the lyrics are dirty… well, I think that deals with a quirk of the Chinese language. It is a language full of words that sound alike. Many people have heard about why eight is considered a lucky number: it’s because ba (eight) sounds like fa (wealth or prosperity). I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my posts that bats (fu) are considered auspicious because “good fortune” is also pronounced fu. Anyway, one consequence of this is that any dirty word can be replaced by another word that sounds the same but that isn’t dirty. Technically, no swearing is involved and no laws are violated, but most listeners know exactly what the real meaning is. You find a lot of this on the internet, since it's filtered in China and you can't post dirty words. That's what the whole "Grass Mud Horse" thing is about. So when they sing, "I laugh at your mother's force" (which doesn't really make sense), it's really something different about the mother that is being referenced.

As Iwas doing research for this post, I noticed a page on the band's official site labeled "Download" which has a three-song EP from 2009, including one song sung by bassist Lin Na (still written by Wu Ningyue). But I haven't figured out how to download it yet - if I do, I'll post an update.

Rock in China Wiki entry
Official website