Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Live in Zhangye Prison

As probably goes without saying, performing rock music inside a prison to a crowd of Chinese criminals was memorable. For some reason, none of the Chinese people I was with seemed to find it as amusing as I did. The daily stares from Chinese people haven't fazed me for a long time, but as we walked through the room towards the stage, I couldn't help but feel self-conscious about a few hundred convicts turning in unison to watch my every move. The performance was on a rather official-looking stage in the cafeteria, with a red banner about World Aids Day; it seems the prison has a decent entertainment budget.

I hadn't practiced with them for months, and even on the stage I had not the slightest idea what songs we were playing. I finally asked Little Ma what song we were going to play first, and he just said "don't worry, we're playing the songs you know". For some reason the Guitar Club is not keen on learning new songs. The music went over pretty well with the audience, which included the guards at the front, and Little Ma knows how to entertain a crowd (not that I ever know what he's saying). The power went out during the middle of a song, which was slightly awkward (I'll refrain from making any cheesy comments about our "rocking out" here), but otherwise things went well. A few of the inmates actually performed, with mixed results, and I was unfortunately talked into a poor performance of an English song. I refuse to sing in front of a crowd of three in America, yet in China somehow I'm willing to sing in front of more than 200 prisoners. And Hotel California reared its monstrous, outdated head again, with just me and Little Ma playing guitar. I hope there aren't any serious long-term effects on my taste in music from my stay in China. But I think my favorite moment was near the end, when my friend encouraged the crowd to join him in a sing-along of a song that everyone but me seemed to know by heart, and I was treated to the spectacle of dozens of hardened young men singing their hearts out to a daydreamy Chinese song from the inside of a prison. Just when I think there are few surprises left in Zhangye...

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