Cleft in two by the Yellow River, the northwestern Chinese city of Lanzhou is steeped in history. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, it was a bustling Silk Road trade hub. Its famous Iron Bridge, built in 1909, is the oldest bridge still standing over the Yellow River today. After the Communists reunified China in 1949, Lanzhou became one of the region’s largest heavy industry centers and transportation hubs. As the policy of reform and opening-up gathered steam, the city’s economy continued to thrive well into the 1990s.
A flourishing art movement went hand in hand with Lanzhou’s reform-era economic boom. In the 1980s and ’90s, rock music captivated the city. Bootleggers sold cheap copies of popular Western artists — everyone from the Beatles to Bon Jovi to Metallica to Queen. At the time, money was plentiful, and Lanzhou’s budding rock groups found plenty of opportunities to practice and perform. In addition, the local culture fit perfectly with the values associated with rock music: Laid-back, hospitable locals love to drink and dance, and are open-minded enough to know good, boundary-pushing music when they hear it.
In 1986, Lanzhou’s first-ever heavy metal band, Beilei — translating to “flower buds” in English — was formed. Later, the city birthed a number of other acts, including bands like Canxiang (“Reverberation”), Huoluan (“Cholera”), Yinlao (“Cattle Brand”), and Wild Children, as well as the musician Wang Fan — all of whom cemented seminal places in China’s rock landscape.
For every metal band known across the country, countless other underground groups didn’t make it big. The majority of Lanzhou’s amateur acts disbanded before they even released their first albums, unable to make it onto the assembly line of China’s rock music industry. By the end of the 1990s, locals said that there was a band in almost every high school class. At the turn of the century, there were even a couple of bands formed of primary school students, with names like “Blood” and “The Failed Pregnancies.”
Since the turn of the century, Lanzhou’s economic growth has stalled. The chasm between the city and China’s cosmopolitan eastern seaboard has widened to the point that it earned the ignominious title of the country’s “Most Backward Provincial Capital” last year, with only the 97th-highest GDP of all Chinese cities. At its peak, Lanzhou routinely ranked in the list’s top 20; instead of competing with the likes of Shanghai and Guangzhou, these days it finds itself struggling to keep ahead of less glamorous cities like Huzhou, Xianyang, and Chenzhou — none of which you’ve heard of, I’ll bet.
Lanzhou’s failing economy is at dire odds with its wealth of cultural and historical heritage. The decline left a whole generation of those born in the ’60s and ’70s — who had witnessed Lanzhou at its most resplendent — in a state of cognitive destitution. Many turned to art as a means of vocalizing their confusion and contemplation, with some reinventing themselves as successful folk singers.
Folk music aficionados generally appreciate the genre’s stripped-back approach to songwriting, and a remarkable number of Lanzhou’s middle-aged musical pioneers — once the screamers and growlers of the rock scene — have put away their amps and turned toward an earthier sound. Channeling the Western folk canon, they write songs around acoustic guitars, bass, and drums, reflecting on their tumultuous last few decades.
After numerous facelifts, Lanzhou’s Near Wall — a bar that was once a mecca for the city’s metalheads — has now become something of a watering hole for folk musicians. The bar’s manager, Cao Yuwei, is 45 years old and was once a drummer in a local rock band called “Shi Die Guo Er” — a phrase that means “fruit that falls from the tree” in the local dialect. Warmhearted and friendly, Cao swaths himself in the floaty scarves, tops, trousers, and skirts these days, embodying a traveling troubadour’s aesthetic.
“Folk music or heavy metal — these are both externally applied labels,” Cao says. “There’s nothing good or bad about either of them. All you can say is which one is more popular at a given time.” The conversation turns to his opinions on folk music: “By my own definition, folk music must be imbued with life experience, with attitude, with your own reflections. With poetry as its very essence, folk music has a far higher threshold [for new writers].”
There does indeed seem to be a particular sense of poetry about the folk music in Lanzhou. Take, for example, the song “Lanzhou, Lanzhou” by the band Di Ku’ai, or “Low Wormwood”:
Lanzhou, always leaving in the early morning
Lanzhou, drunk in the warmth of the evening
Lanzhou, endless drips of the Yellow River flow to the east
Lanzhou, the end of the road is the mouth of the sea
Sadly, life calls the city’s inhabitants to work, and many local musicians leave, hoping to end up in a place where they can earn a decent living. Nevertheless, the ties of home are slow to break: The folk quintet Gajin met in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, but all of the group’s members hail from Lanzhou. They make music in their free time and are a fixture on the local bar circuit.
“Sometimes, when we’ve finished a meal of Chengdu hot pot and are done hanging out with local friends, we’ll shut ourselves away and start singing about Lanzhou beef noodles,” Gajin’s drummer, Guo Senbao, tells me. “Clear broth, white radishes, red chilies, and green vegetable toppings — one mouthful of it and the warmth will travel to your heart.”
Language, too, connects Lanzhou’s musical diaspora back to their hometown. The Chinese character that appears three times in the title of Gajin’s first album — in English, “So what, so what, so what!?” — is pronounced not according to its standard Mandarin reading of za, but according to the local Lanzhou dialect: zua. One track, “The Midnight Vagrant,” deliberately pronounces the line “I can’t sleep” as fei bu zhuo, as opposed to the standard Mandarin pronunciation shui bu zhao. Other lyrics reference the city’s notorious xingjiuling — drinking games that involve guessing the number of fingers on a hidden hand.
‘The contemporary youth.’ Courtesy of Gajin
It’s a similar story for Chen Xiaohu, an independent musician from Lanzhou who now lives in Xi’an, in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province. Born in 1991, Chen is most famous for his “Lanzhou Trilogy,” made up of: “Lanzhou Story,” based on sketches of the city and the stories of its people; “Goodbye, Lanzhou,” based on the history of the city and the natural environment; and “The Taste of Lanzhou,” based on the city’s cuisine and the lineages of its various delicacies.
‘Lanzhou Story.’ Courtesy of Chen Xiaohu
“Creative inspiration for the trilogy came almost entirely from Lanzhou, but the work itself materialized in a faraway land,” says Chen, before asking me if I know why.
I shake my head. “For me, the word ‘Lanzhou’ is not some kind of seasoning to be mixed into a song’s lyrics,” Chen says. “It is a faith, a hometown, a family. It is spiritual sustenance for all those who now live beyond its borders. Though they have chosen to say a physical farewell to Lanzhou, their souls will remain there forever.”
Translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A local band gives a performance during a concert in Lanzhou, Gansu province, April 15, 2012. VCG)