from: TIME Asia

September 2, 2002 / VOL. 160 NO. 6

Finally, China rocks.
An insider's account of the nation's own long-awaited, mud-luscious Woodstock

by Kaiser Kuo in Lijiang

I am seized suddenly from behind by a dozen war-painted, whooping Naxi tribesmen, borne high above their heads and marched to the thundering rhythm of drums toward an uncertain fate. At last I am released, but not yet free—not before I've autographed all their T shirts, ticket stubs and notebooks. "You guys were great yesterday!" shouts one of the abductors, obviously a fan of my band, Spring and Autumn. He elaborates by doing his best impression of my head-bang while thrashing on an air guitar. Meanwhile, Miserable Faith's musicians kick off their set with a groove-heavy bass riff, and the 50 Naxi kids around me—all painted like football hooligans—start up their mad moshing again. True to the matriarchal traditions of their tribal culture, the girls match the guys slam for slam.

Maybe it won't go down as the defining moment in Chinese music history. But the two-day Snow Mountain Music Festival, which launched on Aug. 17 on a picturesque mountainside near the town of Lijiang in China's southwestern Yunnan province, may set the record for the highest altitude outdoor rock concert. The thin air at 3,700 meters has sickly Beijing rocker boys taking oxygen hits onstage between songs. The crowd at Max Yasgur's farm in 1969 may have been a hundred times bigger, but "China's Woodstock" can boast at least one thing in common with its American counterpart: the mud. It's been raining in Lijiang for a solid month. Not far from the festival grounds, mudslides have recently killed more than 50 people.

It's a wonder that the show—featuring 18 bands from all over China—has come together at all. A similar event planned for last summer at the seaside town of Beidaihe was canceled, to the surprise of few. Beidaihe, after all, is the setting for the Communist Party Elite's annual summer retreat, and that first abortive "Woodstock" was scheduled to begin just after those meetings concluded. Timing hasn't been ideal for the Snow Mountain festival either. The 16th Party Congress, at which the party is expected to usher in a new leadership lineup, is set to take place this fall, and the run-up is a peak period of political sensitivity across China.

What's more, the festival is the brainchild of Cui Jian—never mentioned in the Western press without his Homeric epithet, "Godfather of Chinese Rock"—whom authorities view as a crypto-dissident. Cui has had his share of shows canceled by authorities. But this time organizers have enlisted local and provincial authorities, including Lijiang's powerful tourism administration, as sponsors. Rock musicians performing outside the realm of state-sanctioned culture have reached a tacit accommodation with party officialdom.

The chief concern for organizers and authorities alike is drugs. The festival's slogan, printed on the T shirts worn by staff, reads "Music Is a Natural High." The organizers have warned bands not to bring illicit substances, threatening to search them thoroughly at the airport and subject them to random urinalysis. The bands' playlists also receive a cavity probe. In the early morning hours of the first day of the festival, each act is asked to send a representative for what is described as an "extremely important meeting." There, the organizers announce that six songs—including five by rap-metal act Miserable Faith—have been stricken by local government sponsors for unhealthy lyrical content. The band originally scheduled to go on second, Masturbation (whose singer has a penchant for removing his clothes onstage), is bumped further back in the lineup so that local party officials, unlikely to stay too late, won't be exposed to its antics.

My band, a progressive metal quintet, is moved up to the second slot on Day One. As I take the stage and look out on 3,000 soggy revelers, an electric charge runs through me. Literally. The amps are not properly grounded, and my fingers on the fret board feel like tongues on the posts of nine-volt batteries. The Korean stage crew shrugs its apologies, and we start our set. The rain reaches a crescendo in our second song but the audience's spirits aren't dampened. Heads bang, a few brave souls surf the crowd, and we manage not to pass out from oxygen deprivation.

Instead of Woodstock innocence, cynical commercialism—by now a defining Chinese characteristic—rears its head at the end of Day One. Dou Wei, best known as the ex-husband of Canto-pop diva Faye Wong, bores half the audience into an early departure with an hour of pretentious ambient electronica. At the end of his set—during which a steady barrage of bottles and cans is hurled onto the stage—Dou cackles wickedly and says, "You've been tricked!" Tricked indeed: "We know the music is entirely inappropriate for this kind of venue," says one of his synth-geeks later. "And the music really has nothing to do with Dou Wei. He doesn't really perform. He just stands there, and with his name we get paid more than we otherwise would."

The sun comes out on Day Two, and the festival's eponymous mountain finally puts in a brief appearance: the snow-capped peak looms high above the natural amphitheater to stage left. The audience swells to more than twice the size of the first day's; ticket prices are slashed, and whole families from the environs of Lijiang turn up. Miao minority women in ornate, outsize headgear wander the periphery and look on curiously; sanitation workers move through the crowd picking up garbage with chopsticks. I catch only one whiff of dope smoke—surprising, considering that cannabis grows wild all over Yunnan. But the cops just downwind from the lone toker don't seem to notice. They, and the helmeted security guards in front of the stage, nod to the beat—some even take furtive photos and risk the occasional fist-pump.

Not all the locals are happy about the festival. Xuan Ke, venerable patriarch of the Naxi Ancient Music Orchestra, gripes, "Some Peking University students went to the mountain and five students lost their lives because they coughed. Here, there will not only be coughing but shouting and drumming. Then our very calm mountain will be changed, destroyed by this loud music." In the end, though, the mountain tolerates our intrusion. The music is good and loud, and the festival, for all its compromised counterculturalism, is a success in the eyes of the fans. They rock the night away, no one dies, and as the sun comes up the future looks bright for Chinese rock.