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  Beijing Scene

Heavenly Flowers
by Emily Richards

The experimental music of Anhui province singer Baoluo combines the sounds of western China and India, and has caught the attention of world music fans, including Warner Music

She stares at me with eyes glistening with excitement before breaking into laughter, the sound rising and fading as sharply as a firecracker. Against the dulcet tones of Indian musical pipes playing in the background, her laughter cuts through the air with its innocent disregard for decorum.

The source of this mirth is an elfish young woman, with a petite frame and wallflower demeanor. As she sits in front of me, speaking in softly accented tones, I am enraptured by her voice.

Baoluo, 30, experimental singer and doyenne of China's home-grown world music scene, has that effect on people. Not only is her personality infectious, but she remains something of a cypher.

Perhaps because Baoluo's life is full of contrasts. Her pixie-like features are framed by the black, chic bob of a catwalk model. A blue batik jacket is draped casually over a black silk dress. She says she gains inspiration from the diversity of Beijing society, yet hardly goes out and shuns the gossip-fueled culture of the city's elite. She cites such influences as Brian Eno, David Bowie and The Cure in the same breath as the Chinese opera music she studied as a child. Then she talks about her ongoing quest to find true punk music in China.

Perhaps it was this eclecticism that intrigued Warner Music Hong Kong when it picked up a demo tape of Baoluo's experimental music in 1997. Using only a keyboard synthesizer and basic recording equipment, Baoluo and collaborator Su Fang, 38, produced a unique, memorable sound that convinced Warner to sign them up.

A year later, her debut album Heavenly Flowers hit the Chinese market. Plugged by Warner as a uniquely Chinese offering to the so-called world music scene, her work is a blend of traditional Chinese folk music, Indian rhythms and ethereal vocals.

Commercially, her music fills a more practical need. It satisfies a deep, latent demand for intelligent music in a market saturated with saccharine-sweet Hong Kong ballads and overly-pretentious rock'n'roll.

Baoluo's artistic success is the fruit of a lifetime spent searching for her own unique sound. Born in Anhui province to actor parents, she came to Beijing in 1986 as a competitor in an annual popular singing competition. Her arrival coincided with the first stirrings in Beijing's rock scene, when music from abroad was just filtering into China and musicians such as Cui Jian were gaining rock-god status. Caught up by a sense of adventure, Baoluo dramatically changed from pop songstress to punk diva. Her short-lived stint in the early 1990s with punk band Self-Education (zi wo jiao yu) still colors her work with an untamed recklessness.

"Music is my life. It is like a religion, into which I put all of my feelings," Baoluo says. "If I feel like being wild, then I am wild. I really think that this comes across in my music."

Transforming the back room of her apartment in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing into a make-shift studio, the artist worked tirelessly with Su, who she met in 1986. Experimenting with Indian drums, arcane pipes from southern China and a simple keyboard, they started working on the demo of Heavenly Flowers.

"I don't know how or why we were thrown together," says Su, smiling mischievously. "It was as if I could see something in her that nobody else understood. She has an instinct for music that I have rarely encountered."

The album saw Baoluo trade the crashing guitar chords of her punk roots for the gentle flow of wooden flutes and Indian pipes that typify her New Age music. She employs such diverse elements as the drones of Gregorian chanting, the dreamy plucking of a Chinese erhu, synthesized tones and tribal drumbeats. And over all of this, Baoluo's voice meanders, rising and falling, sometimes harsh like a primal cry, until it climaxes at the song's finale with an ear-piercing scream.

"My greatest inspiration comes from nature," Bao says, before bursting into her trademark laughter. "When I listen to music from places far away, I feel like it is something that is played straight from the heart. This kind of music is very close to me."

Listening to Heavenly Flowers is a lot like leaving the grit and dirt of the city and being led on a wandering journey through the countryside. With songs ranging in length from 30 seconds to ten minutes, and sometimes ending abruptly mid-note, the path of her music often seems unplanned. Few songs have lyrics; others feature Baoluo voicing over synthesizers and strings.

An air of raw simplicity lies at the root of her music. Despite the ready availability of high-tech digital equipment, the album utilizes only a synthesizer and a basic sampler. Only one song, "Daylight," was recorded with the aid of a digital remixer, in a grudging concession to the commercial demands of Warner.

"We were never trying to be popular, funky or modern," Su says. "We never considered how what we were doing was going to be sold. That's what made us different from other artists in the first place."

Although Warner gave the couple a great deal of creative freedom, Baoluo's recent decision to break with the label also comes as little surprise. Their new group is Beijing Talk (beijing tanhua), recorded with musicians from Mongolia, India and Tibet.

"Music is about breaking through boundaries," Baoluo says with defiance. "What I play isn't confined by traditions or rules. When I mix different sounds together, I'm not concerned with whether it derives from Yunnan or Mongolia. As long as it speaks to me and sounds good."

In many music scenes abroad, such non-conformity could meet with commercial success. In her home country, however, Baoluo's following remains small but loyal.

"It is hard for people here to understand music that is very individual," Bao says. "But I know that there is at least a small group who will want to hear it. We've had people write to us amazed. They never knew this kind of music existed."

Baoluo's Heavenly Flowers (tiantang zhi hua) is available at most Beijing record stores.



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