Folk in the forest
Published: Sep 12, 2011 08:16 PM Updated: Sep 13, 2011 09:22 AM
If the idea of live music in the woods wets your whistle, the place to go is Zhangjiajie, in South China’s Hunan Province whose biennial Zhangjiajie International Country Music Week, 2011 – currently ongoing – has become a popular local event within just two years.

Unique location

People like me, who have been going since 2009, keep returning for a reason: there’s fun to be had on the lakes and mountains, and it’s not about big names – this year’s eight Chinese groups and 32 overseas bands like Bruce Guynn & Big Rain, Mark Levine Band and Fulcos and Brown you probably won’t recognize – nor is it the necessarily the price (it’s completely free).  

It’s more likely a combination of both these and the event’s location, six scenic spots in the city’s Wulingyuan Forest Park. 

The half-dozen rugged stages are set up among the lakes, trees and city’s signature Tianmen Mountain but you won’t have to move around – the bands tour among the stages, which can be a challenge in itself. Travelling by boat on Baofeng Lake, rope bridge, telpher and foot along rocky mountain paths with instruments, often with a bit of extra rain thrown in, means the event must mean something special for the performers.

“We’ve never thought of performing in such a great place with blue sky and green trees… seeing so many travelers stop and gather in front of our stage [is] the biggest reward on this trip,” Bruce Guynn, lead vocalist and founder of Big Rain, told the Global Times. 

The four-man-band, including singer-songwriter Byron Bonham, guitarist John Cirillo and Danny Bertoldi will perform 17 songs selected from their several albums since their debut in 1994. 

While many overseas bands choose to open their performances by greeting their audience with a newly-learned “ni hao,” Big Rain hopes to go further by debuting an entire song in Chinese, “Pengyou” (“Friend,” by rocker Zang Tiansuo). 

“It’s quite difficult to learn Chinese but it’s worth it. This Chinese song has a strong melody and a good topic about friendship. We try our best to sing each word not just by knowing the pinyin but knowing the meaning,” said Cirillo, who wrote several songs for a Chinese singer some years before. 
Musical Mayor
The festival, which began over the weekend and lasts up until Friday, features not only folk but country music and dancing. Big Rain will share the stage with Central California’s Tracy Barns, who specializes in country rock songs. Barns, known for her soulful bluesy performing, plays with sister Maria Werth. 

People will also have the chance to appreciate Zhangjiajie’s local Sangzhi folk music, which has been listed as an intangible national cultural heritage.

“I’ve heard of Sangzhi songs before, but this is the first time I’m hearing them live. And these and songs dances are awesome!” said Changsha’s Li Xueyi. 

“The sound effects are not as good as some indoor concerts. But the atmosphere is the best and it is one of my greatest musical experiences,” added fellow member Kong Xiao. 

From 2009, the tourism city has taken every means available to attract people to enjoy its local beauty, including the Country Music Week and an animated music video, which portrayed guitar-toting mayor Zhao Xiaoming performing the classic song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” This year, Zhao has been immortalized in a water-ink painting, bringing him the inventive nickname “Water-ink Mayor.”

“From the very beginning, we planned to bring a great musical experience to travelers,” said Peng Yaogeng, one of the organizers. “So we didn’t charge any money for admission. The first event turned out to be a great success.

This time, more local folk artists have been invited, ranging from Australian Aboriginals to Spanish Flamenco dancers.”