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Rage Against the Regime
The Village Voice, August 17, 1999

Cui Jian Brings Music to the Masses

"I can't believe this is New York," Cui Jian shouted as he faced the masses at SummerStage two weekends ago. "It looks like Beijing." Sure enough, Chinese fans showed up by the hundreds at Central Park to see their favorite aging rocker on his third U.S. tour since 1995. Five days later, the 38-year-old musician— China's first and biggest rock star— seemed comparatively unfazed by the Asian majority at the Bowery Ballroom, where day-of tickets went for $35— over half the monthly salary of the average worker in China.

Sporting old Nikes, a pink and red flower-print sport jacket, and a pale yellow guitar, Cui Jian (pronounced "Tsway-Jenn") opened Friday's show with peculiarly effective punk- and hip-hop-influenced songs featuring drummer Bei Bei, who deftly manipulated the awkward four-tones of Mandarin into a forceful rap. Cui, often criticized and censored by his homeland's cultural wardens, continued to reveal the scope of his sound with jazz, country rock, and even an unlikely incorporation of ska.

When the raspy-voiced singer, who spoke in Chinese and halting English, dedicated the rock ballad "Tsu Zho" ("Stepping Out") to the "liu" (or overseas) students living in the U.S., many in the audience sang along word-for-word with rather moving religious zeal. At the show's climax, Cui donned a crimson blindfold for "A Piece of Red Cloth," his most damning attack on communist oppression. After similar performances a decade ago, the Chinese government canceled his tour. When he sang his Tiananmen Square anthem, "Nothing to My Name," a handful of listeners waved glowing cigarette lighters. One bespectacled thirtysomething man held up his Star Warsglow-in-the-dark plastic saber. And suddenly, the irony kicked in: This isn'tBeijing. —Claudine Ko