By Yuqing Zhu
Chinese rock musician Su Yang, 40, went on stage with his guitar in New York. He didn’t have any tattoos on his arms, nor did he wear a skull necklace. He wore instead a simple black t-shirt, black pants, and black sneakers. He sang about the rural life in China, and almost every single song started with wild flowers growing in the countryside.
Wild flowers are a common theme in traditional Chinese folk songs, which Su Yang is devoted to preserving by adding and mixing in western Rock & Roll elements. He brought his music to Modern Sky Music Festival in Governor’s Island last Saturday, and held a two-day exhibition of his paintings and music videos in SoHo, aimed at drawing millennials to traditional folk songs that might otherwise be forgotten.
“The young generation usually don’t know much about traditional folk songs. They listen to rock music, blues and jazz.” he said in Chinese, “The folk songs are dying, but you can’t force young people to look for them, and listen to those songs.”
Su Yang rewrote the folk songs, inviting rock music lovers to find a cultural origin in his Rock & Roll version.
This was the first time Su Yang performed outside China. He grew up in Yinchuan, a city near the second-longest river in China, the Yellow River. Along the river developed different local folk songs that has been around for centuries, said Su Yang, looking at the Hudson River in front of him. His exhibition, “The Yellow River Runs Forth,” was inspired by the music culture along the river.
“I hope the local voices along the Yellow River can be heard by more people in the world,” Su Yang explained in Chinese why he chose to perform in New York.
Su Yang used to play guitar in a band in the 90s, but later he quit. He said that the first time he wanted to write a song related to his hometown, an American TV series came to his mind.
“I watched as a kid an American TV show called Roots,” said Su Yang in a presentation three years ago. “[In Roots,] when people were humiliated, they mumble the songs from their homelands.”
Later, he said he started to visit small villages around his hometown, and looked for people (usually elder people) who remembered traditional folk songs that have been passed on for generations from mouth to mouth.
“I love his songs. They bring back my childhood memories,” said Rui Su, an NYU student who originally comes from Yinchuan. “I didn’t like folk songs when I was little. But I like Su Yang’s interpretation.” The lyrics about the flowers sounded familiar to her.
When singing at the Modern Sky Music Festival, Su Yang sang Xianliang (which means “virtuous”) twice, which is about Chinese parents teaching their kids to be virtuous. But he creates a sarcastic image in the song by referring to a “virtuous” woman working at Moulin Rouge.
Anthony Fort, a PhD student at Columbia University Department of Music who doesn’t speak Mandarin, went to the music festival with his Chinese roommate.
“Some part of the music reminded me of Chance McCoy’s Gospel Plow,” said Fort. “And there were times that I was certain I recognized something influenced by Rock & Roll. But my roommate, who was listening at the same time, was convinced that this is from the region of Yinchuan.”
That night, Su Yang probably had fewer than 500 people in the audience, nevertheless he was optimistic. “Many Chinese students came to the music festival [last Saturday]. Also I saw some Americans. I think it’s a good starting point,” said he. Su Yang was also invited to Columbia University to share his music stories on Sunday evening.
“If New York City were one of my songs, I would say Jiazai Tianya (which means “My home is everywhere I go”),” said Su Yang at the exhibition. Last year, when he sang this song in the Strawberry Music Festival in Shanghai, China, over 10,000 young audience sang along with him.