Anyone with even a little knowledge about modern Chinese culture has heard a few C-Pop songs. For avid music lovers who want to explore beyond C-Pop, Chinese indie folk music (“独立民谣” Dú lì mín yáo) is a good start.
Starting in the early 2010s, the rise of music streaming services and social media gave new platforms to many indie musicians. Unlike their predecessors, who were limited by physical venues, the new generation of Chinese indie folk artists–such as Song Dongye, Ma Di and Yao Shisan–were able to find a following online. They gained popularity without having a deal with a major record label.
These artists have increased their mainstream recognition with the help of appearances at bars, live houses and music festivals. Independent levels have also sparked the growth of the Chinese indie folk artist. Their audiences might have grown, but many fans still perceive their music as a grassroots symbol.
For your journey with Chinese indie folk music, here are some musicians to check out:
1 Song Dongye 宋冬野
Song Dongye is one of the most representative Chinese indie folk musicians. He was first active in the music community of the Chinese social networking website Douban. Song is famous for his plain, yet touching singing style. His music touches on feelings like nostalgia and loneliness. Without much dramatic twists in his voice or melody, his music shows that “less is more.”
Many Chinese music fans got introduced to indie folk music through Song Dongye’s song “Ms. Dong”(“董小姐” Dǒng xiáo jie) from the 2013 album “North of Anhe Bridge” (“安和桥北” Ān hé qiáo běi). This album is probably the best entry album for new Chinese indie folk music fans.
2 Ma Di 马頔
Ma Di came on the music scene in the early 2010s. Similar to Song Dongye, he was first active on Douban. He founded a folk community online called “Ma You Ye” (“麻油叶” Má yóu yè), which nurtured many up-and-coming folk singers at that time. Ma officially launched his music career when he signed to the independent music label Modern Sky in 2013.
Influenced by modernist poets Gu Cheng and Hai Zi, members of the “Misty Poets” (“朦胧诗派” Méng lóng shī pài), Ma Di writes poetic lyrics, full of feeling. “Lonely Island” (“孤岛” Gū dǎo) is one of his most famous albums.
3 Yao Shisan 尧十三
Some of Yao Shisan’s pieces, such as “Queen from the North” (“北方女王” Běi fāng nǚ wáng) and “Queen from the South”(“南方的女王” Nán fāng nǚ wáng) share many similarities with the other artists mentioned. They all give a calm and nostalgic vibe. However, others differ drastically.
Born in Southwest China, Yao Shisan incorporates ethnic music elements from the region into his music. He sometimes sings in the Guizhou dialect with less sophisticated lyrics in a sincere and emotional manner. In his song, “Er Niang” (“二嬢” Èr niāng), listeners may find themselves laughing at Yao’s playfulness at first and then lost in the overwhelming emotions of his music.
I recommend you check out “Blind Person” (“瞎子” Xiā zi, a parody for Song poet Liu Yong’s poem “雨霖铃” Yǚ lín líng) and “Queen from the North” (“北方女王” Běi fāng nǚ wáng) .
4 Zhao Lei 赵雷
Raised in an open-minded family, Zhao Lei enjoyed a lot of freedom growing up. He first began his musical career by singing in the subway station. After graduating from high school, instead of going to college, Zhao devoted himself wholly to music.
As Zhao has never received any formal musical education, his music is relatively simple, especially in terms of production. However, the effortless melody matches perfectly with his truthful style. Zhao’s music represents his reflection on life.
If you like these musicians, feel free to check out these other Chinese indie folk musicians as well: Li Zhi 李志; Xie Chunhua 谢春花；Wan Xiaoli 万晓利；Di Ku Ai 低苦艾; and Chen Li 陈粒.