Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Play it Again, Cui Jian

When I travel in a new city, I often like to set some sort of shopping task for myself. It’s usually not important that I find the thing; looking for it just gives me some kind of framework for wandering the town.

In Beijing and Shanghai, though, there really was something I wanted: Years ago, a friend gave me two cassettes by a Chinese singer named Cui Jian. He was China’s first bona-fide rock star. Just as the Beatles proved that rock ’n’ roll wasn’t exclusively American, Cui Jian proved that it’s not even necessarily Western. His music is a really interesting mix of traditional rock (he apparently loves Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones) and traditional Chinese instrumentation.

I enjoy the tapes, but I’m trying to upgrade all my cassettes to CDs. This turned out to be harder than I expected, and I’m not sure why. Maybe his original albums, from the late 80s, are out of print. This seems unlikely, though, given how popular he was back in the day. Possibly, his older music is too politically incorrect. He did get in trouble with the authorities around the time of the Tiananmen student protests. His music isn’t overtly political, but his lyrics (I’m told—I can’t understand much) are metaphorically about rebellion and make leaders nervous, without their being able to put their finger on a specifically offending verse.

Whatever the reason, I stopped in practically every CD shop I could find in Beijing and Shanghai, slightly annoying my traveling companions. I couldn’t find either album anywhere, though. I finally settled on a newer album that had Cui Jian’s two most famous 80s songs tacked on. It was terrible. I hated the new stuff—it sounded like an ill-advised foray into rap backed with Chinese opera instruments. And one of the older tracks was corrupted, and wouldn’t play at all.

Just today, though, I found a message-board posting that mentioned a Chinese Web site called YesAsia.com. I went to it, and as luck would have it, they have one of the two albums I was looking for.

I don’t regret the time I spent looking for the CD in China, but it’s good to know that sometimes these things can be purchased without even leaving my desk.

Thanks for being patient, John and Pipi!

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