Seasonal English teaching program makes big contribution to Shenzhen’s music scene

Posted: 04/26/2013 1:00 pm

Chances are that if you live in Shenzhen and you are an expat, you will have come across someone from CTLC. Perhaps it was the over-enthusiastic crowd of youthful-looking Americans in Coco Park or maybe it was that earnest backpack-wearing laowai conversing seriously, phrasebook in hand, with a corner store attendant in the outer districts of the city.

CTLC stands for the Center for Teaching and Learning in China. It is a teaching program that places foreign teachers in Shenzhen public schools. It began in 1998 with a group of 13 teachers who came out to Shenzhen as part of a work/study semester abroad trip with the University of Memphis. A bit later, it expanded to 50 teachers and a coordinator to look after them. Not long after that, it absolutely exploded.

There was a time (accounts vary, but let’s say about 2008/2009 to be sweepingly general) that if you stumbled across a foreigner in Shenzhen there was almost a 50/50 chance they were from CTLC. They were everywhere. Now that there are more foreigners in Shenzhen, CTLC doesn’t have quite the monopoly on foreigners it once did; but even in its current incarnation it still has a very big footprint. Aside from teaching, the one area CTLC has had a massive impact is the local music scene. Venues like Rapscallions, McCawley’s, La Casa and Frankie’s all owe a great debt to CTLC and continue to feel the program’s presence when it comes to acts playing and audiences coming to see them. La Casa was one of the first places to start up with open mics, closely followed by Rapscallions when it opened in 2011.

To my mind at least, 2011/2012 was something of a breakthrough year for local music in Shenzhen, largely due to timing, the talent, and availability of artists. CTLC was definitely a vanguard of that sea change, mostly due to the sheer size of the program and the kind of talent that comes along with it.

Not long after the program relocates to Shenzhen (August each year) you start finding more and more of the program’s members turning up both on and off stage at open-mic nights. Moreover, CTLC acts as one big social network, so the sheer amount of bodies the program can pack into a room iis a welcome boost to any venue. To be honest, it’s probably a key factor in why so many venues started doing things in such a short space of time. Musicians + alcohol + large audience support, will always = happy venues.

Essentially, CTLC works because it has a wide-range of talent ripe for cherry-picking by Shenzhen musicians already on the scene. In 2011, a certain threshold was reached, and the scene has never looked back. Current local bands like BRUE, The Friendly Cannons and InFuze each have their fair share of CTLC members, and there are other bands who’ve already come and gone.

At the heart of this is the familiar rhythms of expat life that many expats will recognise. CTLC is a year-long program. Many teachers stay for more, but most do not. In terms of the musical scene in Shenzhen, CTLC’s best feature is also its worst. Year after year incredibly talented musicians turn up, but year after year they also leave. It’s the nature of the beast, and there is something almost heartbreakingly profound in it. As someone who has lived in Shenzhen both within and without CTLC I can say the only thing to do is make the most of it while it lasts, whilst simultaneously holding fast to the knowledge that something else equally unique – though very different – is just coming into view over the horizon.

In short, the local music scene in Shenzhen, aided in no small part by the CTLC program, has never been in better health. You should go enjoy it in its current incarnation while it lasts, as this time next year it will be a very different creature altogether.

More info on the local music scene at shenzhenlocalmusic.com 


Shenzhen all set for city’s first ever Hip Hop Festival this weekend

Posted: 04/17/2013 10:00 am

A wise duo once said “Alright stop, collaborate and listen”, and while I may be pushing it a little by quoting Vanilla Ice in an article about a hip hop festival, I can’t think of a more applicable lyric for this city’s barrier breaking venture coming up this weekend.

The Hip Hop Festival, which is set to boom-shake-shake-shake the room this coming Saturday, is another example of a fusion between the local community and music – and this time with the added accompaniment of break dancing, graffiti art and DJing.

Show director and host Adrian Blackstock is pumped to get it started. “A big part of my job was organising the cultural direction of the show. It was important for us to incorporate all elements of hip hop – the graffiti, dance and products are equally as important as the rapping.”

This type of festival is a first for Shenzhen, and follows the successful Blues and Folk event, which is set to make a highly anticipated comeback this year. Despite the “tricky, tricky, tricky” task of pulling this all together (that’s the last one I promise) it seems the team are now focused on the performance ahead.

Adrian added, “We made the decision to do this in December and it’s been a real team effort, with everyone spit balling ideas from the start. I’m anxious but excited about making this happen. It will just be good to put on a show and see people enjoy themselves.”

And enjoy themselves they shall! Set in the beautiful F518 area of Bao Bao, the festival boasts superb musical talent from all over the world in addition to the involvement of local artists and businesses.

The event is being put on by Shenzhen Local Music, and is supported by The Nanfang. We’ll see you there!

Event details here.


Nanfang TV: Shenzhen gets its very own Harlem Shake before big hip hop festival

Posted: 03/20/2013 10:35 am

My inbox and Facebook feeds have been filling up with mentions of Shenzhen’s very own version of the Harlem Shake, dubbed the “Harlem Noodle Shake”, organized by Shenzhenlocalmusic‘s Rue Moyer.

The goal of the video is to promote Shenzhen’s upcoming Hip Hop Music Festival, which you can find more about here.

In the meantime, check out the Harlem Noodle Shake!


What’s the key ingredient to a timeless song?

Posted: 06/29/2012 11:24 am

(from maniadb.com)

This isn’t about a subject specific to the Shenzhen Local Music scene, but it’s certainly at the front of every musicians mind: What does it take? What’s the key ingredient to writing songs that blow people away…and continue to do so decades after they’re recorded?

Is it melody, groove, lyrics, voice, luck or what? Recently departed Elliott Kettler argued that every great band in the history of music wrote all of their mind-blowing music in the midst of their drug haze. He’s adamant that drugs push a musician into the next realm. Other people believe the best music comes from tortured souls; people like Ray Lemontagne or Tom Waits.

Whatever it is, we’ve all experienced it. We throw on a track with little to no expectation and by the 2:00 minute mark we’re caught trying to justify the steady flow of tears fighting their way to our cheeks and searching the cracks between the walls which we hide between in the attempt to understand. Why…why does this particular song take a hold of my soul and, as my best friend Thadd puts it, “pull on my heart-strings”? For me, one song that has this effect every time is “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Look at the play on words of the verse:

They are one person,

they are two alone,

they are three together

they are four, each other

and the metaphor in the line:

Love isn’t lying it’s

loose in a lady who lingers,

saying she is lost and

choking on hello

In this particular song they touch on all that is beautiful about connecting ideas, memories, and emotion with notes; creating a story through combining these tones in an order, then coupling with lyrics and driving it home with dynamic.

Notice how the finger picking by Steven Stills creates the feeling of movement, walking,  maybe raindrops and a steady flow forward, the emotion in Crosby’s vocal control (left earphone) provides stability and comfort while Nash’s trembling high harmony causes tension, making us feel so fragile, as though we could break in pieces with just a breath (right earphone).

And the music structure perfectly complements the lyrics. Minor chords usually evoke sad feelings while major chords make us feel happy (to put it simply). See how C.S.& N. craft their story around these emotions. It’s art. It’s honesty, and it chokes me up every time.

Take a look:

(Image from DiscoveryChannel.com)

The verse ends with, “Only to trip at the sound of goodbye…”  Devastating; real; painful… Life.

Maybe some of you reading this have never heard of Crosby, Stills and Nash and weren’t aware this song existed. Doesn’t matter. Discovery is half the fun. Surely after listening you’ll understand why I feel inspired to share this beauty with you.

Regardless of your flavor in music, great songs all have something in common. They all are a meaningful combination of music, lyrics, emotion and the culmination of a soul’s life at the time of composition. It’s hard to be yourself…but I think that this is really the key ingredient.

Rue Moyer is the founder of popular local music site Shenzhen Local Music.  He contributes a column on the music scene in the Pearl River Delta to The Nanfang each week.


Shenzhen music blogger gets tossed from a bar for shooting video – is that fair?

Posted: 06/21/2012 9:02 pm

I came across a situation recently that made me question what kind of conduct is appropriate when inside live music venues in Shenzhen.   In fact, I was told to leave a venue for taking footage of the band without buying a drink.

Last weekend I was at OCT Bay, Shenzhen’s crème de le crème in structural aesthetics and local hotspots, for a business function. While there, I wanted to scope out the Detroit band playing at CJW and get some blog footage. Simple enough, I thought…

Below is the video I took before getting the boot from the owner.

Honestly, I didn’t think twice about walking into a public place and snapping off a few photos. But maybe that’s just it…Is a bar a public space? Does free entry mean public? Does public mean freedom of press? Does participating in social media mean you’re the press? Are there any rules? Blah… I don’t know.

Maybe it’s my ignorance. Maybe the rules aren’t clearly defined. Or maybe society is evolving so rapidly that new norms haven’t yet been established. Either way, before this experience I wouldn’t have thought twice about rules of behavior when dealing with a venue. Here’s why:

My thinking (perhaps a touch assumptive and direct):

“Last time I checked this isn’t the early 1900’s, there’s no shady looking fella’s protecting the doors and this bar isn’t hidden down some hallway behind a kitchen in the basement of a random building… What you might expect of a swanky New York bar 100 years ago. It’s in Shenzhen’s Mecca of public spaces. Besides, it’s 2012 and the internet is the vehicle which manages both our social and business lives and openness has proved rather beneficial for most businesses in the 21st century. So, surely any venue owner wouldn’t shun the chance to gain some buzz through media coverage, regardless of the type.”

His thinking (I presume, anyway):

“I run a private bar and music venue. We cater to a certain clientele with a certain spending habit. We’ve got a reputation in Beijing and Shanghai as being a classy joint that always has top international live music. If you want in, you need to reserve a table, buy a drink or get out.”

The issue:

I wasted no time in taking a video and didn’t bother to first buy a drink or spend any money. I don’t represent a well-known magazine or media outlet in the city and didn’t announce myself beforehand, so they don’t know me from Steve. Fair enough. But, I didn’t see a list of rules posted outside the entrance. Did you? Should there be?

Given both our ways of thinking, things happened the way they did. I know I learned a lesson on how to approach a venue, with regard to gathering media footage for my blog. But really, I’m interested to see what your opinions are. Everyone I’ve spoken with has a different point!

Some points I’m still thinking about:

  1. Do you have the right to not be photographed/filmed?
  2. Does someone taking a photo have the right to photograph/film you without your consent?
  3. Do venue owners have the right to decide these rules within their own establishments?
  4. As a user of recreational, social media platforms, do you have the right to post and distribute these photos?
  5. Do you have a set of norms you think about when entering a bar/venue space? Why so?

What do you think?

Rue Moyer runs the popular music website Shenzhen Local Music.  He contributes a weekly column to The Nanfang.


Open Mic Night: A city’s need for live local music

Posted: 06/14/2012 5:18 pm

The Nanfang is pleased that Rue Moyer, the founder of Shenzhen Local Music, has joined as a weekly contributor.  Each Thursday, Rue will look at the local music scene in the Pearl River Delta.  You can read more on his website at Shenzhen Local Music.

Music is ingrained in us. It’s as intricate as the DNA that makes up our being and as rhythmic as a heartbeat. It was always a matter of time until the need for music in Shenzhen was backed by an obvious enough demand. The time is now. How do I know? We have 3 regular open mic night’s happening throughout the city.

In nearly every city, in every country around the world you can find at least one open mic night. These vehicles for expressing creative freedom, either for showing off your goods or merely conquering some stage fright, are a staple to music communities worldwide. They offer a welcoming stage to any level of musician for presenting well-tuned pieces or rough drafts to an audience which, at most times, will listen. At the very least they’ll refrain from booing!

In countries like America, an open mic is a neutral stage upon which musicians can test their newest riffs and producers, agents, and pro musicians can scope out undiscovered talent. From a venue owner’s side of the bar, they can pack the joint with free live music, minus the free booze musicians usually get. Unfortunately, Shenzhen isn’t Nashville and isn’t sought out for its musical prowess, so local music and open mic nights have barely even existed. As anyone that’s lived here for more than a minute can attest to, the only real rhythm you feel comes from the thousands of construction workers hammering away all day. However, most of the red clay has been replaced with foundations; the sea reclaimed for city building projects and now, after more than 30 years, people have taken root. Now, as Shenzhen approaches its 40th birthday, a community for music is starting to bud.

Sunday Nights at 10pm

The first to start looking for live local music, a place that has been doing it long before it was practical and remains by far the most interesting, is La Casa in Coco Park. Need proof? Check out this video:

This is David Seymour, owner and active participant in open mic, singing his own song, “Old Joe Hammer”. It was 2am and we’d gone through 8 musicians by this point. Notic, everyone huddled around the stage, each person pounding away on some form of percussive instrument; djembe, Cajon, washboard, chairs, tambourine.  Jordan’s even wailing on a water jug! It’s tribal, it’s simple and it’s intimate. It’s authentic. Ask most customers why they’re singing along on a Sunday night until 2am and they’d tell you it’s because they want to experience raw music backed by travelling talent. La Casa offers a small stage with a minimal setup, and most people play a mix of covers and originals.

Mondays, 9:30pm-Midnight

The second venue to offer an open stage was McCawley’s in Sea World, Shekou. It’s been on about a year or so now and fills an otherwise empty 2nd floor and generates revenue on Monday night. This stage is completely different from La Casa’s. Here, musicians get access to a fully equipped stage setup; instruments, amps, band space and an atmosphere which epitomizes the Rock & Roll scene. And, Rock is likely what you’ll hear if you pop in. Shekou is the hub for long-term expats in Shenzhen. Many of the residents are middle-aged and raising their families here. Incidentally, most of the musicians relive glory days by jamming away on Hendrix, The Beatles, and Clapton tunes. Shekou is also where most of the live music in Shenzhen happens, so more often than not musos from the local venues stop in to help the open micers feel like real rockers. On occasion, you’ll even find local Chinese busker musicians strumming away.

Thursday Nights

As of 2 weeks ago, the third open mic is on Thursday night at Rapscallions Café Bar, just around the corner from La Casa in Coco Park. When you walk into Raps you won’t find a stage, just some mic stands and an amp. Why? It wasn’t designed with music in mind. But alas, the owner is himself a musician. After little deliberation and keen enthusiasm, Darragh made music a priority for Raps.

Brian Wegener singing at the 2nd Rapscallions Open Mic Night

Music started about 2 months ago with John Hutton, a local teacher and old school tunes player. I’m talking 60+ year old music – sweet, huh? Within a week, he added fiddle extraordinaire Graham to his show. Shortly after, I met Darragh and introduced my entourage of players and a Xinjiang, flamenco style trio to the mix and now music is on all weekend. Audience support and crowd turnout blew our expectations out of the water, so we’ve added a Thursday night open mic night. In the two weeks we’ve run it, we’ve had more than twenty musicians peel out of the woodwork to pick away on the guitar.

Raps is quickly becoming a house of music and gaining a reputation for a venue to hear tunes you may have long ago forgotten.

Shenzhen isn’t known for its music scene. It’s only ever been a transient business city, as it remains in its infancy. But the infant loves music the same as the old man. And, the infant has the advantage of being introduced to the best music from its grandfather’s generation. This international city has the advantage of drawing a highly talented, culturally diverse populace from which to build its music foundations from. Believe me when I say, it’s only a matter of time.


Is Shenzhen a cultural wasteland?

Posted: 06/8/2012 7:00 am

Good work is being done by Rue Moyer over at Shenzhen Local Music to bring Shenzhen-based musicians together and breathe life into the local live music scene.  He has previously said the local music scene was paltry when he first arrived five years ago, and at night, the soundscape lacked the diversity of even other first-tier cities, let alone places like London or New York. Using music as an example, I dug a little deeper to see whether Shenzhen lives up to its reputation as a cultural wasteland. 

As he was leaving the city last month, one Shenzhen expat lamented that previous cities he had lived in in the Middle East held concerts of interesting heavy metal and alternative bands from the West, while Shenzhen had…Westlife. Expats have long lamented the poverty of the music scene throughout mainland China. 

The local government is investing money and talent to increase Shenzhen’s recognition as a city of culture, but as has been argued before, a government or corporation cannot simply provide culture like a permissive parent. Culture is what happens when people get together and do what people do, reflect on the past and dream about the future. 

Shortly before the Olympics in 2008, blogger Chinabounder said “Mandopop – that is Mandarin pop music – is characterized by softness. No hard edges are exposed on which listeners might cut themselves some independent thinking.”

This is not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon. In Ancient Greece, the musical system was one of eight keys. Each key represented a different emotion. But Plato, when he was describing a harmonious society in his “The Republic,” wanted all keys — except for the type that relaxed the listener, and the type that stirred patriotic feelings — to be banned. Westerners who have had some level of success singing Chinese songs include Uwechue Emmanuel (郝歌) who specializes in conventional love songs that “relax” the listener, and Red Laowai (红老外), who sings patriotic songs in praise of China and its government. This supports Plato’s theory of a harmonious society needing to censor its music.

Although they do not occupy the mainstream, there are singer-songwriters, based in Shenzhen no less, who do write songs that explore dark themes and involve more melodic and rhythmic innovation. These include Zhong Bin, whose lyrics explore themes such as modern alienation and having no roots, and Liang Ying, who draws influence not from Chinese artists such as Teresa Teng and Faye Wong, but from Western acts such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. 

In late March last year, a group of these musicians who had produced the album “Sound of Shenzhen” performed at the Shenzhen Concert Hall. It was around this time that Bob Dylan was over the border in Hong Kong, but a music scene by and for locals is a much more significant development than expat musicians (who would be making music wherever they were) making music. 

So, true culture is out there. It just has the good sense to keep its head down.