Taking Midi to the max

Updated: 2013-05-06 07:14

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

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 Taking Midi to the max

Cui Jian, the "godfather of Chinese rock 'n' roll", calls the Midi "the only music festival taking place in China for the sake of music". Li Lewei / for China Daily

Taking Midi to the max

 Taking Midi to the max

The music event has enjoyed a growing fan base over the past 13 years. Shan Yang / for China Daily

Taking Midi to the max

A music school with a modern rock outlook has produced an iconic festival, Chen Nan reports.

Back in the late summer of 1993, rock fan Shan Wei was an international relations student at Renmin University of China, selling pirated cassettes and CDs. The same year, Gao Hu had just arrived in Beijing to pursue his rock dream. And Zhang Fan, a Beijing native who became obsessed about rock 'n' roll after listening to Cui Jian's Nothing to My Name, was working at a company selling sound equipment.

The three rock enthusiasts barely knew each other then. However, just a few months later, Beijing Midi School was founded and brought them together.

Located on the second floor of a building near Shuang'an shopping center, China's first modern music school was started by the company where Zhang worked.

Zhang, then 26, became headmaster of the school, Gao came to study guitar and Shan made friends with students there.

This year Beijing Midi School celebrates its 20th anniversary. With more than 4,000 graduates, the school is considered to be the cradle of China's rock bands and rock musicians, such as singer-songwriter Xie Tianxiao and rock bands Miserable Faith and Second Hand Roses.

The three men have teamed up for the Beijing Midi Music Festival, China's largest and oldest outdoor music festival, which is also the brainchild of the school.

This month, the annual music festival will be held in three Chinese cities for the first time, expanding its influence from north to south: Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen in Guangdong province.

Gathering more than 100 Chinese rock bands, this year's festival will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the school. Pictures and videos of how the school evolved and how it gave birth to the Midi Music Festival will be shown to fans.

Most of the Chinese rockers, who are the main power performing at various music festivals and live house venues across the country, are graduates from the school.

The school is "the seed for our musical evolution", says Zhang. "Whenever I think of that, I feel proud. It's always interesting to see how much it resonates today."

Zhang recalls that he was appointed dean because nobody wanted the job. "People said that the school would die soon since few people knew modern music, let alone learning it," he says.

What made Zhang confident was rock music's appeal to a small but fervent band of devotees, who were hungry to explore the music genre.

Gao is one such devotee. As the frontman of the established rock band Miserable Faith, he has been performing at the Midi Music Festival since it began.

He says the festival "is like the Woodstock music festival, where music and peace meet. The school is like a utopian community. People share the same love for rock music," Gao says.

"With my friends at the school I spent my happiest days. We shared one bowl of noodles and one bottle of beer," he recalls.

The first festival was held on the school campus in 2000 - part of the graduation ceremonies for students. Thirty bands performed in two days, attracting not only people from the school but also thousands of other young people, who read the news from magazines or heard about it from friends.

The second year saw the audience double, and in 2004 the music festival moved to Haidian Park, marking the establishment of the first outdoor music festival in China.

Just two years later, the music festival started making money and has become a kind of lifestyle for fans, coming at a time "when young people in China were looking for a place to gather and share music", Shan says.

Shan had organized the Beijing Pop Music Festival from 2007 to 2009 headlined by New York Dolls and Nine Inch Nails.

He says what makes the Midi Music Festival special is "it never relies on big-name stars from the West".

It's an achievement to see Chinese rock bands receiving acclaim from festival audiences, he says.

Modern music genres including rock, blues, pop and jazz are taught at the school, which is still evolving today. It reaches out to children by offering a stage for kid bands in China.

Recently the festival circuit has grown wildly - in 2010, nearly 100 music festivals were held throughout the country.

"Midi is still at the center of the market and maintains its position for introducing original Chinese rock music because it has a strong backup from the school," Shan says.

In 2009, the festival hosted the first Rock Music Awards, and the lifetime achievement award-winner was Cui Jian.

Zhang is proud to note that Cui, his idol, calls Midi "the only music festival taking place in China for the sake of music".

Zhang Yuan, the frontman of indie rock band Dagon Power, went to Midi in 2007 for the first time, when he was studying in Tianjin.

The feverish atmosphere of rock 'n' roll stimulated the young singer to study at the Midi School and start his own band.

"The school is where we prepared ourselves for the rock dream, and the music festival is where we realize our dreams," the 25-year-old says.