Folk band narrates social changes through music

Wutiaoren Photo:

Carrying a disposable cup of beer, Mao Tao and his folk band member Ren Ke made appearance on the stage to warm applause at a September gig, which started with a song being sung in a local dialect and describing a vendor exchanging money on the street.

Not many music lovers have heard about the unique artistry of Wutiaoren, the folk band from Haifeng, a small town in southern China's Guangdong province, as it creates a new musical genre that combines the native vocabulary of the Teochew culture and insights into thought-provoking social anecdotes.

Music critic Zhang Xiaozhou said in an article that Wutiaoren succeeded in breaking the entrenched rules of folk music by chanting in the Haifeng dialect with distinct melodies characterized by Chinese folk operas and street quarrel-like tunes. "They have expanded the topics and narrative patterns that China's contemporary folk music could select," said Zhang in the article.

Since 2009 when the folk band released its first album, the Record of Town, with songs giving an original landscape of a countrified China, Wutiaoren has been dubbed as "news recorder" telling stories about social vicissitude and grassroots in a musical way.

The Southern Weekly, an influential newspaper based in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong province, has differentiated Wutiaoren's songs with other popular songs entertaining the audiences in an accolade speaking highly of the folk band's "style that reflects the ultimate significance of music" with its focus on what was happening around us.

Roughly, First Love, a song released in 2016, could be a perfect embodiment of Wutiaoren's indie musical genre.

When creating the song, the band members directly used a news story about a driver ploughing into railings after knowing his first love had married another man as part of the lyrics, increasing the melancholy of the sad song, which also ignites a hope for life with a lyric reading "the sun will rise again tomorrow for you".

"We want a new way to create our songs, some of which are inspired by media reports touching us first including First Love. Anyway, we do not intentionally do something unorthodox. It might be because first love is something that almost everybody experiences," said Ren, who gained inspiration from the world's different musical genres.

The arrangements of Wutiaoren's songs are compatible with the lyrics, which many music critics and fans attribute to the adoption of an instrument portfolio of guitar, accordion, harmonica and drum, which is helpful in making the songs convey stories that are more real and sympathetic.

"The contents of the songs are related to common things happening in our lives. Such kind of music can be widely accepted [by us ordinary people]," commented a user on Zhihu, a leading question-and-answer platform in China.

Ren links their interest in writing songs about lower-class people to famous Chinese film director Jia Zhangke, who has said that the reason why he always shoots films about ordinary people is because their stories are not the same.

"They [referring to ordinary people] are the majority, and they are around us," said Ren.

Mao echoed Ren, saying that they also listen to their friends' stories that could bring them inspiration and ideas.

With the increasing recognition among music lovers, Wutiaoren has been making songs that they can sing in Mandarin.

"In some cases, Mandarin songs could be more suitable to express what we want to express," said Ren, who once wrote an article in response to some fans casting doubt on their ability to create Mandarin songs. "As a creator, it is time to scrap an ability when you can master it very well … Creation is like an adventure. When you know where monsters and treasures are in a forest, it becomes meaningless," wrote Ren in the article.

But Ren stressed that the band will continue their tradition of being connected to the society in every possible way in an effort to let their music influence more people.

"Writing songs itself is a kind of integration into the society," added Ren.

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