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A Former PLA Soldier and an American Journalist are Creating China’s First Music Festival For Kids

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Liu Jian has long harbored a rock ‘n’ roll dream. As a student at the PLA Academy of Arts in the ’90s, during the tail-end of Chinese rock’s so-called “golden era”, he would often sneak out by climbing over the campus walls to watch live music concerts in Beijing. Having dropped out of high school, he later left the military college before graduation again to pursue the same goal of becoming a musician.

However, the dream he’d had since he first heard rock music at the age of 16 was not an easy one to attain. In Beijing, he “lost himself” among all the music and literary circles in the “coldest winter ever” in 2000, before moving to Shanghai where he regularly performed music in bars across the city. “Rock music changed my whole life,” he says.

But it wouldn’t be the only thing to change his life. In 2005, Liu met Rebecca Kanthor, an American journalist with a shared passion for music, at a live house in Hangzhou. They married and had their first child in 2012, at which point Liu, now a literary editor with a series of books to his name, realized it would be significantly more difficult to hang out in smokey music bars and at noisy, messy festivals.

“We took our daughter to a music festival on a rainy day when she was six months old,” he says. “We couldn’t find a place to change her diaper, and there was no water in the portapotties. In the end, I had to change her diaper on the lid of a trash can because it was the only spot that wasn’t wet. On that day I told Rebecca, ‘let’s not go to music festivals anymore – we don’t fit there, because it’s a young people’s place.’ But her response was, ‘We’re not young because we have a kid? So we have to change our entire life?’ At that moment, I thought ‘why is there not a type of music festival that the whole family can share together?’” 

Kids at Hand in Hand Festival

For Kanthor, it wasn’t just a practical issue. “I always take the kids to things that they’re interested in but I am bored, or I’m interested and they are bored — there are so few things where everybody can have a good time.” And as a music fan, she found kids songs frustrating. “The 两只老虎 [‘Two Tigers’, a Chinese version of ‘Frère Jacques’which has long been one of the most popular kids song in China] song just annoys me. What is that about? The lyrics don’t make sense.”

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Liu was similarly disappointed. “When my daughter had grown up a little bit and I wanted to find some music for her, 90% of songs I found online were from last century that I had heard when I was little. There is not a single representative work from this century. Every industry has developed so much, why did kids music stop? As a musician, I was really sad. I asked myself what I could do?”

Inspiration struck when Kanthor returned from the U.S. with some kids music CDs. “When I saw the cartoon covers, I didn’t feel like listening to them,” says Liu. “I thought they were just more childish kids music albums. But she put it on and once I heard the beginning of an electric guitar… I couldn’t believe it was the same record I had just seen. It was a complete rock song with a full band. I’d never known kids music could be this good.”

The album was from Grammy and Emmy Award-winning Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band. After listening to the whole album, Liu decided to invite the band to China to perform a gig, an idea which soon transformed into that of a music festival — for kids and their families. They would call it Hand in Hand.

Lucky Diaz (photo courtesy of Hand in Hand)

This was in 2015. Liu and Kanthor spent two years asking consulates, journalists, friends, and pretty much anyone they met for recommendations of kids music performers that were popular in their home countries. To date, they’ve signed agreements with acts from 20 countries to represent them in China. There are rock bands from the Netherlands, reggae musicians from South America, and a (kid-friendly) metal act from Finland. “We want to introduce all types of music from different countries and cultures to kids to let them have a general impression,” says Liu.

But as any promoter here will tell you, booking an act is one thing — there’s a lot more work to be done to actually get a band to China for a performance. “It’s hard to get any band to China,” says Kanthor. “We have to go through everything just like any other music festivals. We have to get the permission, to translate all the lyrics, and it’s actually hard to translate all the songs into Chinese. It takes a long time. We had to submit all the actual songs and all their information as well.” 

Fortunately, the lyrics that the bands are performing are unlikely to see them run afoul of the authorities here. One thing that I love about the bands we bring is that the lyrics they’re singing are very meaningful,” says Kanthor. “It’s not just that their melody is good, but the lyrics are the things that if you’re parents you definitely want your kids to get this message, but without beating you over the head with it.” 

At Hand in Hand, songs might be about how girls can wear boys’ clothes, ride a horse backward or climb onto the roof just like boys; or about a little kid who always wanted a pair of fancy designer glasses when he grows up he realizes the most important sunglasses are the kind that fit.

Liu admits he cried when he was translating the lyrics. “When I see my daughter dressing up in front of the mirror, I always want to say something to her, like ‘beauty is not just about appearance’. These songs told me how to communicate with kids. The musicians did what I want to do but I could not.”

Hand in Hand holds kid-friendly festivals

The very first Hand in Hand International Children’s Music Festival took place in late May last year, in Nantong, Jiangsu province. Before the two bands, American act Lucky Diaz and Family Jam Band and Dutch outfit Hippe Gasten (pictured above), came to China, the musicians had never met the organizers, who in turn had no idea who was going to show up for their first event.

Kanthor prepared them for the worst. “Before the bands came, I told them, ‘You know Chinese families are a little bit different — they are a bit more reserved and want their kids just to sit and be well-behaved, so you should be prepared. Its gonna be difficult.’ But afterthe first band performed five minutes, everybody understood. Even if they don’t speak English, they got the body language and the excitement. The music is so catchy, they can’t sit still. As long as you tell them it’s ok to jump up and down, Chinese families will.”

Lucky Diaz

Liu was blown away. “Everybody just immediately stood up and went nuts until it ended. Rebecca cried backstage – we did the right thing. Who said Chinese kids are not cool? You just never gave them a cool environment, and never let them hear cool music. There are no boundaries in music. I was changed by rock music that made my blood burn. Children’s understanding of music is just the same as mine, or even better.”

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And it’s not just the kids who are getting a musical education. “An entire family will be there — grandma, grandpa, mum and dad, and kids. And maybe all of them have never heard live rock music like this before,” says Kanthor. “One time in Chengdu, there was a grandma who was so excited she jumped on the stage and was dancing, and we said, ok you have to come down off the stage!’ Afterwards I went to talk with her and she said, ‘I have never heard that kind of music before. It was so much fun!’ That made us feel so good — we can share this with so many people, it’s not just for kids, it’s for the whole family.

At Hand in Hand Music Festival, which now tours the country, they’ve taken care of the practical side of things too. Parents can change the diapers of kids in a clean area and put their strollers in a certain area; new mums can find a quiet room for nursing their babies; and the noise level has to be below 90 decibels as a standard.

“Every time we go to a new city, the partner organizers get nervous, and in the end they go ‘oh people love it! Let’s do it again!’ Now we feel more confident,” says Kanthor.

Hippe Gasten on stage at Hand in Hand

“Over the next five years, we will bring the coolest bands from more than 10 countries to perform in over 100 cities in China. Only five years, then I have my own dreams and stuff to do,” says Liu. “I knew this was gonna be exhausting, but if I didn’t do it, I would regret it when I’m old.”

The hope, says Liu, is that they’re laying the foundations for others to follow. “Just like MIDI started the first music festival in China and now there are so many, I hope there will be more high-quality music festivals for kids in the coming years. It is time to change.”

Hand in Hand will be in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, on Children’s Day (Friday June 1) and Beijing this weekend. On June 10, Hand in Hand will be on the beach of Zhoushan, an island in the East China Sea. For more details, see here.

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Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van