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Yin Special: Wuhan Rocks

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Yin (音, “music”) is a weekly RADII feature that looks at Chinese songs spanning hip hop to folk to modern experimental, and everything in between. Drop us a line if you have a suggestion.

While Beijing can lay a strong claim to being where Chinese punk first originated, one city where you’d find particularly vehement objections to that notion is Wuhan. Until the events of recent weeks, if you asked anyone with even passing knowledge of the Chinese music scene what they most associated with Wuhan, the most likely response would’ve been “punk.”

The novel coronavirus that has since made global headlines has of course changed that. But it’s not changed the fact that Wuhan is a city that’s made a major contribution to the rich fabric of Chinese music — and not just through punk. Here’s a reminder of some of the great music to make it out of this great city, from math-rock to hip hop to post-punk and more:

1. SMZB – “Great Wuhan”

Not sure why Spotify lists this track as “Untitled 3” but anyway — hard to start anywhere else really. If there’s one band that’s synonymous with Wuhan it’s old school punks SMZB. Led by Wu Wei, who also owns legendary bar Wuhan Prison, the band formed in 1996 and have long worn their love for their city — and their anti-establishment politics — firmly on their sleeves.

Nearly 25 years later, they’re still going strong. Wu put out a letter this week via Unite Asia, affirming that the band were all well and that they would be releasing a new record in May. That album, entitled ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE EAST, will also feature a track in support of Hong Kong.

This song, from the album Ten Years Rebellion, is a hopeful ode to the band’s hometown, with a chorus that declares:

“Here is a punk city– Wuhan!
“We sing this song for you — Wuhan!
“We start to rebel and fight in Wuhan,
“Everybody cheers for you!”

2. SUBS – “Down”

One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite Chinese bands. SUBS’s central pairing of Kang Mao and Wu Hao have been based out of Beijing so long it’s almost easy to forget that the two — who put on easily one of the most powerful live shows in China — first met in Wuhan in the late ’90s. There have been numerous changes to the country’s music scene (and to the band’s sound) since SUBS formed in the early 2000s, but throughout they’ve remained stridently committed to the DIY principles that the band was first founded on.

3. Chinese Football – “Dog’s Diary”

While SMZB will forever be entwined with Wuhan’s musical history, math-rockers Chinese Football are at the forefront of a new generation of bands redefining the city’s sound. In the last few years, they’ve worked hard to build up a well-deserved following both at home and — increasingly — abroad.

This song comes from last year’s highly likeable Continue? EP, which we wrote about here:

Yin: Chinese Football Kick Out the Math Rock Jams on New EP “Continue?”

4. Lonely Cookies – “Aliens Take Me Away”

Gig venue Vox has been at the heart of Wuhan’s music scene for 15 years, with a reputation that reaches across the country and a tagline that reads “Voice of youth, voice of freedom.” That position has been cemented in the last few years with the launch of their Wild Records label, which has a host of highly listenable releases that unfortunately haven’t made it to Spotify — go give them a spin on Bandcamp instead.

This track is a shimmering slice of indie pop from quartet Lonely Cookies, with vocalist Feng Han’s call for extraterrestrials to whisk her away from the mundanity of everyday life feeling especially pertinent for a city currently in the midst of a lockdown.

5. Chinos – “Dawn”

Founded in 2002, Chinos began life doing Britpop covers, but 2015 album Until the Break of Dawn (their second LP) showed they were more than capable of carrying their own tunes.

6. Hopscotch – “A Wishful Way”

This band haven’t been heard of for a while now, but for a time in the early 2000s they were one of the most buzzed-about acts coming out of China. Led by singer Tian Yuan, who joined the Wuhan outfit aged just 16 and would later go on to become a novelist and actor, the band were signed to Modern Sky and featured in a Channel 4 documentary in the UK, with their dream pop sound briefly garnering attention across Europe.

7. A Hidden Trace – “You’ve Changed But I’m Still a Child”

A solo project from Chinese Football frontman Xu Bo, A Hidden Trace began in 2006 as a way to indulge his “acoustic emo” and dream pop tendencies. 2013 album title I Like To Make Friends With People Who Like Wes Anderson gives you an idea of the ambient aesthetic A Hidden Trace tends to deal in.

8. Hualun – “Walking On Ice”

One of China’s preeminent post-rock bands — a title there’s a serious amount of competition for — Hualun make thoughtful, intelligent instrumental music. Although they’re mostly based in Beijing these days, they originally formed in Wuhan in 2004.

This track carries even more emotional weight than most, coming as it does from the soundtrack to Hu Bo’s moving epic An Elephant Sitting Still.

Related:

25 Films From the 2010s That Will Help You Understand China

9. BigDog – “Continue”

Switching it up a bit here, three-time Iron Mic champ BigDog is Wuhan’s OG rapper. He featured on the first series of Rap of China but was knocked out in the 1-on-1 battles before making it into the final 40 and never really hit the mainstream like some of the other stars of that show. Nevertheless, he’s been a key organizing force in the underground Chinese hip hop world for years.

10. Panic Worm – “New Medium”

This post-punk quintet are another of the city’s new generation of bands; “Some might say they’re the offspring of the once famous Wuhan punk movement,” reads their Bandcamp bio. This track, recorded at Vox Studios, came out last year amid the band’s hectic touring schedule and as a follow up to their well-received Ruby Eyes-backed debut album Elusive Magic from 2018.

11. The Queen’s Garden – “Broken”

Redolent Glamorous Bygones is the name of the album that this track is pulled from. That gives you an idea of the kind of grand vision this psych-ish rock quintet are aiming for, as do their stated influences of The Black Angels, Kikagaku Moyo, and The Velvet Underground.

12. Mad Rat – “Half Angel, Half Devil”

Formed in 2016, this Modern Sky-signed act — named after a theme park ride — mixes new wave, disco and stadium rock for a poppier, polished version of AV Okubo’s genre-mashing sound (see below).

13. AV Okubo – “Breakwave”

One of Wuhan’s best-known bands, AV Okubo were among the biggest alternative acts in the country around a decade ago thanks to their mix of new wave and disco punk sensibilities combined with a raucous live show — something they took to SXSW in 2010.

Here’s the retro-tastic video for this song, which brings us full circle by featuring a cameo from SMZB’s Wu Wei:

Unfortunately, the availability (or lack thereof) of Chinese music on Spotify put some limitations on this playlist, but there’s a lot more from Wuhan out there than just the above. This is a good place to start if you want to dig in further and you can read more about the city’s rich musical heritage from Andrew Field here.

武汉加油!

Cover photo: SMZB’s Facebook

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.