The face of Chinese folk music

By Jack Aldane Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-21 21:48:01


A Bao, a peasant singer famous for his folk music. Photo: Courtesy of A Bao
A Bao, a peasant singer famous for his folk music. Photo: Courtesy of A Bao


Inside suite number 1998 of the Chateau De Luze Hotel on Guanghua Lu, Chaoyang district, a small-framed man in a starched white flat cap and grey hooded sweatshirt tunes in to watch China Central Television (CCTV) news. He pads lithely around the room when Metro Beijing knocks and enters, his attention divided between the news and the sofa he politely offers to vacate. His luggage is a modicum of clothing and technology, none of which suggest the high-end garb of a wealthy celebrity.

Yet Zhang Shaochun, whose stage name is A Bao, is one of China's most recognizable faces. A Bao, 43, rose to fame as a traditional Chinese folk singer after becoming the first winner of TV talent show Xing Guang Da Dao (The Avenue of Stars) in 2004.

Since then he has performed in the 2006 Spring Festival Gala and enjoys regular TV appearances on CCTV3, a music channel. His short stay in Beijing is in order to train for a celebrity sports show titled Celebrity Splash.

A Bao's voice is unique for its wide range. He repeatedly refers to his "special voice," which he says doctors have attributed to "abnormally long vocal chords." A falsetto by default, A Bao is iconic as the peasant singer who wears a white towel headdress on stage.

Claim to fame

Originally from Shanxi Province, A Bao owes a lot to the modern world for his fame and fortune. TV gave him his big break, the Internet his nationwide fan base ranging in age from 16 to 60. But A Bao insists he prefers the simple life. He does not use a Weibo account or indeed own a car, despite owning a villa inside Beijing's Sixth Ring Road with several garages. He removes a Styrofoam advertisement from behind a wardrobe in the hotel suite, showing a split-image of himself, one as the towel-wrapped folk singer, the other as an R&B crooner in all black.

"I don't like using this stuff," he says shyly, thumbing the scroll button on his Chinese cell phone. He beams as he hands Metro the device, praising the one week battery life as though it were a cutting edge app. His modeling of the grey tablet doesn't pack the same punch as Chinese music celebrities Jay Chou or JJ Lin, but A Bao has only ever advertised food products, namely Jing Cheng Foods.   

A Bao discovered his talent for singing at the age of 4. Despite his innate vocal talent, A Bao says his inspiration to sing came from an elderly folk singer from his hometown in Shanxi named Xing Ru, now deceased.

Proud of his folk roots in Shanxi that blend Chinese with Inner Mongolian styles, A Bao says he knew he was destined to become a professional singer from the moment he began practicing. His home life in Shanxi, he says, was modest, though not poor. 

Two weeks before the interview with Metro, A Bao was spotted lunching at a steamy family-owned restaurant in Chaoyang district.

"These guys can't believe I'm actually eating here," he told Metro with an air of mischief.

Over a bowl of steaming noodles, he said, "I only like eating at places I used to eat at in Shanxi." Dining customers soon began to murmur. For five full minutes, coyness stirred intensely, until one customer, a businessman, asked A Bao excitedly if he was the famous A Bao from the television.

Simple life

"Change is inevitable after you become famous," A Bao says, sipping tea from a complimentary hotel mug. He claims he enjoys the attention he receives in public, though it frequently overwhelms him.

"People ask for my autograph, my photo and are always asking me to sing for them. I rarely go out without a mask on these days. But the part of me that wants a simple life will never change," he says.

A Bao left home aged 17 to pursue his career, traveling far and wide across China as a troubadour singer. His initial employment, he says, was to sing at wedding celebrations and funeral gatherings in small villages.

Encouraged by his parents to sing on the condition that it earn him a decent living, A Bao says he was paid well for the ceremonies.

"Three hundred yuan($48) per performance was pretty good in 1987. That kind of money is what 5,000 yuan is to most people today," he says.

It was during his tour of China that A Bao began to crave fame. However, talent contests on TV in China during the 1990s tended to accept candidates who were either student musicians or qualified professionals.

"I remember signing up to many competitions and getting eliminated in the first round because I was a salt-of-the-earth folk singer and not a trained virtuoso," he says.

The experience of working without enjoying credit as a professional singer was hard for A Bao to accept throughout his 20s. 

"I still remember the long nights, the painful waiting for a break that I felt I deserved at that point," he says.      

Big break

Following the advent of Xing Guang Da Dao on CCTV3 in 2004 however, A Bao grabbed the chance to scoop nationwide recognition. His performance of the song "Red Flowers on a Mountain" won a majority vote in the final round of the contest, propelling A Bao to superstardom overnight.

"Now I'm 43, and am still the most watched singer on CCTV3. I'm the station's record-holder for ratings," he says, smiling from ear to ear.

Wielding the Styrofoam board juxtaposing images of the old and the new A Bao, the singer says he feels equally comfortable being a rural singer as he is being a modern pop artist. However, he worries his older fans are losing touch with his music as it begins to take on more influence from the West.

A Bao says his older fans find it difficult to accept his modern image. Yet, despite seeming nostalgic, A Bao says he feels he was perhaps born too soon, rather than too late.   

"There is still a small part of me that feels that if I had been born 10 years later, I would have found fame sooner, and perhaps would have learned to embrace it all much better," he says.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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