Songs In The Key Of… Beijing

Maven Grace
Maven Grace

Maven Grace: “One of the best things about Beijing is its endless tug of war between the ancient and the futuristic”

Chinese-born Jason Magnus and his band Maven Grace take us through a playlist of Beijing’s most exciting and original artists

When people think of experimental or genre-defying music, Beijing is not normally the first city that springs to mind. You have to approach music in Beijing today by understanding China’s journey over the past seventy years. As soon as Mao raised the Red Flag over the Forbidden City in 1949, popular music was forced underground. Jazz was banned outright, and even the mildest Western music was viewed with deep suspicion. Out went Sinatra and Bing Crosby, and in came communal sing-alongs such as Brother and Sister Plough the Wasteland.

“But it’s never that simple. Yeats said art was ‘the cry of the heart against necessity’ and that’s a pretty good description of how popular music and songwriting survived and developed in China. You can’t kill something just by driving it underground. One of the best things about Beijing is its endless tug of war between the ancient and the futuristic. Hutongs stand next to skyscrapers, and bicycles compete with electric cars in an endless traffic jam. Nowhere is this tension more obvious than in the city’s music.

“After years of travel, performing and recording around the world, we found ourselves back in Beijing this month. A city of thirty-three million souls never stays still, but here, in no particular order, is a snapshot of the city we love, and of the brave songwriters and musicians who inspire us…”

To listen to the whole 10-track playlist in one go, check out the YouTube playlist

“Howie Lee is Beijing’s answer to Aphex Twin. He’s that good. A deliberate fusion of glitchy modernity and old folk melodies from China’s Western borderlands, Bei Hai is one of his most beguiling creations. By melding ancient melodies to modern technology, Howie connects China to its mystical past even as he gazes into a future he finds terrifying. As he says himself, ‘I believe in the Matrix and I believe we might already be in it.’ His self-made videos are incredible, too.”

“Yu Hong Mei is absolutely stunning, probably the best erhu player in the world, in fact. The erhu is a two-stringed instrument, often called a ‘Chinese violin’ in the West. But it is so much more yearning and mysterious than the violin, and in her hands this traditional ballad will break your heart. Maven Grace recently had the opportunity to record at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where Yu Hong Mei is now vice principal, and the erhu players we worked with were astounding. Music should be a permanent voyage of discovery, and her playing takes you to places you never knew existed.”

“Dead J is the alias for Shao Yanpeng, one of the pioneers of the Beijing electronic scene. His work tends to be quite minimalist, but the hidden textures and found sounds he uses can feel quite cinematic. He was recently asked to re-score Fritz Lang’s Metropolis by the Goethe Institute, and Brain Melody is one of his most beautiful songs.”

“Yao Lee is the grandmother of Mandopop. Ninety-six years old and still going strong, she got her first record deal in 1937 and was Beijing’s answer to Patti Page. After Mao took power she fled to Hong Kong to continue her singing career, and her vocal style slowly became more Western. But Rose Rose I Love You is from 1940, and in her sweet, unearthly voice you can still hear the ghost of pre-Communist China. When Bowie played Hong Kong in 1984, Yao Lee was the first person he wanted to visit.”

“And at the opposite end of the spectrum you have Torturing Nurse. The description ‘noise terrorism’ doesn’t do justice to Jian Jun (aka Junkky) and his collective. Using broken turntables and abandoned industrial machine parts, their sound is frankly terrifying. Unsurprisingly sanctioned by the Chinese government, they have still managed to put out great records like Assholemouthead and Stalin And Mao Listen To This. But The Lowest alternates between extreme noise and contemplative beauty, making it a slightly easier entry point. It’s like listening to Eno’s Discreet Music in the middle of a war zone.”

“The missing link between The Cure and early New Order, Gatsby In A Daze combine the austerity of Bernard Sumner et al with the exuberance and instinctive melodicism of Robert Smith. How To Prove Where You Are also shows that this whole thing is a two-way street – who would’ve guessed that the most inventive, authentic post-punk guitar music around right now was coming from China? And check out the very end where it all goes very Jonny Greenwood.”

Subscribe to Songwriting Magazine

“Hiperson are a five-piece fronted by Cheng Sijiang, Beijing’s answer to Chrissy Hynde. The band mean a lot to Maven Grace because we also have two female singers, and it’s so great to see Chinese women stepping into the songwriting spotlight. The Curtain is just a beautiful song.”

“Wang Wen are very important. They’re one of the few acts who have journeyed extensively outside China, and they really understand how to fuse Eastern and Western melodies together to make something unique. Rain Watcher is one of their most satisfying songs – think Mogwai playing with Ry Cooder. In China.”

暴动青年乐队 – RIOT JERKS
“We’re cheating slightly with this one because Riot Jerks are actually from Changsha, not Beijing. But they’re our friends, and we’ve just been playing with them at School Bar, the legendary Beijing punk club where Howie Lee and countless others started out. This clip is insane – like the Ramones jamming with Clarence Clemons whilst a five-year old Bez joins in.”

“This list wouldn’t be complete without Tan Dun. A graduate of the Beijing Conservatory, he has probably done more than anyone to spread Chinese music around the world, and he even won an Oscar for his soundtrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But here, in the opening movement of his Ghost Opera, East meets West as Prospero’s closing words from The Tempest are channelled through some particularly intense Chinese operatic vocals. In a way, this song encapsulates what Maven Grace are all about – wildly different traditions coming together in an attempt to create something new.”

Jason Magnus Maven Grace are a dream-pop collective from Hong Kong, Connemara, Rome and London. Their songs are sung partly in Mandarin and partly in English, challenging the listeners to share the singer Jason Magnus’s sense of alienation. Magnus founded the hugely successful Beijing Pop Festival where headline acts have included Nine Inch Nails, Public Enemy and Placebo. Find out more about the group at

There are no comments

Add yours

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Songwriting Magazine