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East Meets Lower East Side: Shanren Play Mountain Music at Pianos (VIDEO)

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About four years ago, when I was rooting around for Chinese music videos, I was sent a charming animation from a band called Shanren. The song "30 Years" was about the trials and tribulations of moving from the country to the big city to look for work. This is a motif that resonates with all working folks, and I won't even go into the hundreds of great songs dealing with this from the West's Industrial Revolution right through to today. "30 Years" describes what is going on in China currently, as its rapid industrialization is causing a vast shift in population from rural to urban centers. I was therefore already interested when I was contacted by the band's publicist informing me that they would be playing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at Pianos.

The band comes from Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, with members from the Wa and Buyi minorities. The name Shanren means "mountain men." During a chat with James Pang, the band's Chinese manager, he mentioned that the people of these minorities live up in the mountains, are kind of wild living, like to brew their own liquor and dance. Being a lover of country music and bluegrass, I could not help but start drawing parallels between some of the characteristics of our own folk heritage and what I was about to see and hear. I was not let down. Listen to this music and tell me that you don't hear something that sounds remarkably like our own "Old Timey" music with its trance-like repetitions. People like banjoist Abigail Washburn have been mining these parallels for years, and you can hear why. (The band even uses something that looks mighty like a banjo!)

The song is called "Left Foot Dance of the Yi."

The Yi people, as I mentioned before, are one of the ethnic minorities of southwestern China. There's a family of songs called left foot dance songs ("Kind of Yi party music," their manager Sam Debell writes). This is the band's own arrangement of a very well-known left foot dance song. It's usually a circle dance, but the band adapted it, so they do it in a line (in a circle it must look positively Balkan... but I'm not going to get into that, at least not here).

A sample of the lyrics (xianzi is a stringed instrument) --

-Brother play the xianzi.
-Sister sing the song.
-The moon is already risen.
-And we're waiting to dance.

And something from our own repertoire:

"Late in the evening about sundown
High on a hill and above the town
Uncle Pen played the fiddle, lordy how it would ring,
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing."

To contact the band:
Sam Debell (Asia) at unitysam@gmail.com and +86 152-1027-0868.