Back in the Autumn of 2011, I went to a gig in one of Beijing’s historic Hutongs. It was a remarkable gig for many reasons and I don’t know why it took me so long to revisit the notes I wrote that night. Here are those notes…
Yang Jima and Song Yuzhe live Jianghu Bar, 7 Dongmianhua Hutong, Beijing
The young Chinese men and women smoking cigarettes in this Hutong hide-away in Beijing do so with intensity. They take each drag with a ferocity that is alien to me. It is as if by not inhaling a single breath without tobacco, they are sharing in the pain that stifles Yang Jima, the beautiful Tibetan woman that sings for them.
At the far end of this small but packed back room, Yang Jima glows red. Although barely visible through the thick smoke, both her beauty and her pain are tangible. Her voice is crystal, clean and keen: a thing of fragile aching beauty that darts like a silverfish straight into the darkest recesses of the heart. With lyrics inspired by Buddhism and her Monba ancestry, she sings, speaks, prays, mutters lines mantra-like into the microphone. Her eyes are perpetually moist, perhaps from the cigarette smoke, more likely from the sadness that pours from her.
To her left sits the folk musician Song Yuzhe, who plucks loosely at a banjo, barely exposing the brittle bones of a rhythm, less still a melody. His playing is raw, markedly different from the gloss that usually surrounds Yang Jima’s recordings. He is earthy, real, and a long way from the over-produced sheen of the studio. On her right, a drummer fills the empty spaces with intricate percussive verse: always intuitive, filling gaps, cementing the three of them together.
When Song Yuzhe sings, it is with a deep booming voice, a timbre not dissimilar to Nick Cave when he used to sing murder ballads deep-rooted with guilt and torment. Song Yuzhe delivers Absurdist poetry in a unique baritone amidst fractured soundscapes drawn from bowed and plucked 8-stringed banjo, guitar, and the hypnotic drone of a Jews harp. My companion translates: “Go swim in the sea; the sea is fat. Some Chinese wine is fake.” It might not make sense to me as an outsider, a non-speaker and a non-smoker, but as with the entire performance, the energy and the emotion are familiar. They smack of conviction.