Drumsticks to the floor, Chinese rockers set to roll


BEIJING -- Back home in a small town in northeastern China's Jilin province, Guan Faguo watched a lot of MTV broadcasts via satellite television, thereby acquiring a particular affection for the American heavy-metal rock band, Guns N' Roses.

He taught himself to read some music. He tracked down state music-school teachers to give him a few after-hours lessons. Then he and some buddies formed a band and made a little money playing at local nightclubs.

Their band wasn't very good, he readily acknowledges. But they played rock 'n' roll -- "yow-gwen," as it is pronounced in Chinese. And he liked that more than he's able to adequately express with mere words.

"The rhythm," the 22-year-old technician turned rock drummer says with a simple smile. "It's extremely nice."

So by the logic of youth almost everywhere, Mr. Guan recently traveled hundreds of miles to Beijing, checked into a youth hostel and turned over a considerable share of his life savings to enroll for three months as one of about 200 students in China's only school exclusively devoted to teaching the art of rock 'n' roll.

The school amounts to a classroom attached to a privately owned musical instrument store on the third floor of a dilapidated building in northwest Beijing. It opened just last year. But its newspaper ads have already drawn students from all over China, including another would-be rock drummer who journeyed all the way from Tibet.

"They all want to become rock 'n' roll stars," says Cao Ping, 32, the school's quick-witted musical director. "I tell them it's very, very hard. I tell them how it is."

Mr. Cao knows. In the mid-1980s, when rock 'n' roll was still in its infancy in China, he played music with Cui Jian, who soon became China's first big rock star.

"I thought I would be a star, just like one of the Beatles," he says. "But the joke is on me. All my friends became stars, but I got left behind. It is my fate."

Mr. Cao still believes in rock 'n' roll, though.

He hopes to soon bring together Beijing's best "underground," or amateur, rock bands -- there are dozens these days -- for a huge concert. The show's theme song would be "My Generation" by the English group The Who, one of the anthems for American youth in the rebellious 1960s.

And Mr. Cao's old friends -- among the elite of China's developing rock scene -- at times turn up at his school to teach China's next generation of rockers.

Their instruction transcends music.

"Just be yourself, relax. This is the most important thing," Liu Xiao Song, perhaps China's best-known rock drummer, advised Mr. Guan and about two dozen other young drummers at the school the other night. "When you're playing the drums, don't look like you're going to war."

While Mr. Liu loudly demonstrated various techniques for the students, the students followed along, using their own pairs of drum sticks to tap out rhythms on their thighs, book covers or even the floor. Given China's poverty and generally cramped housing, most of them can't afford drum sets or find a place to practice.

"Drums are the most troublesome instrument to play in China," laughs Zhao Nian, another part-time teacher at the school and the drummer for "Tang Dynasty," a mainland Chinese heavy-metal band whose videos are the rage these days on the Asian broadcasts of MTV.

"Tang Dynasty" is at the top of the Chinese rock scene. But its members' lives do not at all come close to those of Western rock stars. Mr. Zhao, 32 and hardly rich by any standard, still lives with his parents. His band still scratches around for a practice site.

Such conditions tend to give mainland Chinese rock stars a refreshing degree of humility often lacking in their Western peers -- a posture that comes naturally to Mr. Guan, the rock-and-roller in training.

"Sure," he reluctantly admits after a few minutes of prodding, "I'd like to be a rock 'n' roll star." But he adds earnestly, "It must be very difficult."

Riches don't interest him that much, it seems, nor the half-clad women whom he sees on MTV. In the end, what he really dreams about is very simple: "After I study here, I just want to go home and help my band play rock 'n' roll."

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