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Steerage: Promoting Celtic music in China

Improv roadshow in Nanluo Guxiang (南锣鼓巷). Photo: courtesy of Xu Hang

Steerage (三等舱乐队) is probably the only band in mainland China playing Celtic music (also called traditional Irish music, 凯尔特音乐,或称爱尔兰音乐). All of the six members of the Chinese band are die-hard fans of the western genre now popular in some Asian countries like Japan and South Korea but not so much in China.

Steerage holds a jam session with  several Australian musicians of Irish descent every Monday night at James Joyce Pub in Beijing.

“You get to hear pure Celtic music here. Jam sessions where musicians gather to play together are quite common in  bars throughout Ireland.  Musicians could come in any time and join in the 'chorus' any minute. It’s impromptu and casual, and a good way for music lovers to communicate,” said Xu Hang (徐航), one of the three founders of Steerage who used to the band's Irish bagpipes player and now has become the band's most earnest promoter helping them with all the networking.

Inspired by a legendary tale

So what inspired the band to adopt the name Steerage? “There is a scene in Titanic, the Hollywood classic movie of 1997, that most people would still vaguely remember—Jack and Ross fled from the suffocating high society banquet for tap-dancing with lower-class passengers in the steerage (三等舱) of the big ship,” Xu said, “The red-blooded dance music was performed by a Celtic band and they were doing a pub session. Our name Steerage comes from that story which indicates the music is for the common public.”

“The jam sessions usually characterize an upbeat rhythm for creating a merry ambience for people to dance and be happy together. But Celtic music features more than dance tunes. It could depict epic themes that could strike heartstrings, like the melodious prelude to My Heart Will Go On by tin whistle (爱尔兰哨笛),” Xu said, adding that he was attracted to Celtic music because of the movie.

Besides Xu, the other two founders of the band are the Bodhrán (宝思兰鼓) player Li Ziwei (李紫巍) and Chu Jialin (初甲林), the tin whistle (哨笛) player.

Steerage is pretty much the only Celtic band in mainland China, Li Ziwei, the leader of the band, said half jokingly. “The environment for musicians is not quite good in China. There is no diversity, that's the problem,” he said, indicating non-mainstream music like Celtic has a slim chance of becoming popular and that explains its obscurity in the fastest developing Asian country.

However, though the name Celtic is hardly known to the Chinese people, genres derived from Celtic music have gained success here in the past decade, like the River Dance (大河之舞) and New Age Music (新世纪音乐) represented by Irish singer Enya (恩雅) and Norwegian band Secret Garden (神秘园),” said Xu.

“River Dance came to China in 1999, and the popular tap-dancing opera made Irish music known to Chinese people like me for the first time,” recalled Li, indicating what they are aiming to do is not only to advocate their band, but more importantly, to promote the music they all love.

Chu Jialin (初甲林), 28, the youngest member of the band, used to work as an IT engineer. But he has quitted his job to become a part-time English teacher so that could get more time for the band.

“I began to learn Boehm flute (波姆长笛) in college days and changed to Irish tin whistle (爱尔兰哨笛) two years ago. Compared with flute, tin whistle features more colorful rhythm and spirited beat,” said Chu, who once performed for Mary Mcaleese, the first female Irish president, in a charity event for migrant children.

“Steerage defines itself as a band that does pure Celtic music, just like the Celtic bands in the western countries. Like them, we integrate modern elements into old tunes to make the music more easily connect to contemporary audience,” says Li Ziwei.

Creating original music

But the music creations of Steerage are different from what they play in the pub sessions.

“We often get together to compose new tunes based on the old traditional ones,” said Li at the studio where the band was recording an EP. He learned to play Bodhrán all by himself because he could not find a teacher as only a few in China could play the traditional Irish instrument, a problem confronted by all the other members of the band. “Even if the instruments are the same, like violin, guitar and accordion, they are played in a different way which requires new skills.”

“So, we're doing the music all by ourselves,” he said.

Waltz (华尔兹) surely would be one of their most popular songs. Although different people may be enticed to different tunes, the soulful prelude of the beautiful song keynoted by violin and laced by guitar definitely could impress the majority.  

Xin Xin (辛欣), the talented violinist, began to learn the acknowledged “queen” of all musical instruments when he was only three and he has been loyal to it all along. “It is because I really like it. And the skills are quite different for playing it for Celtic and for classical music, although Celtic music also requires the violinist to be perfectly skilled,” Xin said.

“I love the music. It is a little bit dreamy,” says Xin, who has spent many years practicing classical music.

“For classical music, you really need to have cultural orientation to be able to enjoy it, while everyone could easily fall in love with Celtic music and it takes people in a meditative state most of the time,” said Xin, adding that he feels happy if his music can bring happiness to people.

Is Steerage doing anything to promote itself? “No. We focus on practicing our music at the moment. The fact is, it is not natural (meaning national) for us. To get the essence of the music, we need to be more curious and be able to immerse in it both physically and mentally—to absorb as many elements and 'colors' of it as possible. So, Steerage needs to be first ready before aspiring for a name,” Xin said.

Wang Chao (王超), the guitarist, is nicknamed 'doctor' by his team members, for the obvious reason that he studied at a renowned medical school for five years and then became a doctor in a big hospital. However, he decided to quit his job soon because of his love for music.

“I love music and hate sophisticated interpersonal relations of big hospitals,” says Wang, who is quite person but quite active in team discussions about music.

Hou Yu (候宇), the accordion player, was the last to join the band, and also works as a music producer for some TV programs.

“To be honest, I like all genres, such as local opera, rock and roll, etc. Musicians should always be ready to accept new things, because everything can be a source of inspiration,” said Hou.

None of the band members attended any music school. As to the importance of formal education, Hou said, “Creating good music demands three things—skills, talents and methods. And in this field, talent always trumps skills.”

“We come together because we are all quite into music. We enjoy the process. So, if things allow us to continue, we will definitely carry on,” he said.

Inside the recording studio

The five musicians experienced 'ups and downs' in the recording process for nearly six hours. The difficult part was, as a group, everyone had to be perfect to get a number done.

Waltz presented the biggest challenge for them. “It's a new song and we haven't practiced it a lot,” said Chu.

It was done several times but there were always some errors. And then they decided to save it to the last.

When all the other four pieces were finished, they felt ready to deal with the most difficult, but also the most beautiful one.

Except for the violin, Chu's tin whistle was supposed to lead in the second episode. Before his part came, the man closed his eyes to fully focus on the tune to get the best out of him.

And when it was finally done, Chu began to tap dance on the carpeted floor of the recording room to celebrate, just like a jovial child.


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