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VIRAL TUNES

Zhang Gasong, a folk musician from Northwest China’s Gansu Province, has released a collection of songs about life under the Covid-19 quarantine. When not stuck at home, the singer-songwriter travels his native land to record and preserve its rich folk tunes before they vanish with time

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

The clip begins with a bearded Zhang Gasong in rounded sunglasses plucking the sanxian - a three-stringed Chinese lute - with what appears to be a bank card.  

Zhang, 31, sings in the gravely vocal style of China’s northwestern folk tunes, his black medical mask lowered to his chin: 

“If I had known I would stay home for so long / I wouldn’t have only bought two packs of Red Lanzhou cigarettes. / If I had known they would shut the village for so long / I would have stolen more time with my love. / If I had known I’d be staying home for so long / I wouldn’t give my only mahjong set to my friend / If I had known the village would be locked down for so long / I would have filled up my belly with alcohol…”  

Near the end of the video, an elderly woman appears in the background. Zhang turns back and asks her, “Isn’t that a good song, grandma?”  

Zhang’s clip went viral in early February, getting over 40,000 reposts on Sina Weibo in a few days and millions of views on short-video platform TikTok.  

The song, “I’ve Been At Home for So Long,” about life in a northwest Chinese village under quarantine, came as a surprise hit for Zhang, a singer-songwriter of note in China’s folk scene. He was the subject of the award-nominated documentary Stammering Ballad (2018).  

Years ago, Zhang left his hometown seeking fame as a musician, visiting hundreds of cities as what he calls a “traveling minstrel.” But Zhang said he’s been slowly returning to his roots. His songs, full of humor and power, all grow from the soil and dust of the hometown he had once left behind. 

“Everyone has a natural emotional bond with the folk music of the land where they were born and lived,” Zhang told NewsChina. “Some people might find folk music not fancy enough. But folk music is real history. It’s the ancestor of music.” 

Cure for Quarantine Blues
On January 17, after collecting folk songs in Tianshui and Dingxi, Gansu Province, Zhang returned home, a village in Jingyuan County, Gansu Province to celebrate the coming Spring Festival.  

The singer rode his red three-wheeler to the market for some pre-holiday shopping. He bought a bundle of matches, two packs of Red Lanzhou cigarettes and a plastic jug of liquor. Zhang was expecting a classic family gathering.  

Then Covid-19 happened. The village was locked down and villagers were told to stay in their homes. By February 1, Zhang’s family had run out of fresh food and were living off the leftovers from their Spring Festival feast. To cheer everyone up, Zhang made up the song on the spot. The next day, Zhang recorded “I’ve Been At Home For So Long” in his backyard. He had his first internet hit. 

But instead of spending a lot of time online, Zhang said he concentrates more on the little things in life, preferring to chat with family while appreciating the moon, barbecuing in his yard and playing cards with his uncles.  

“As long as you don’t check the news on your phone, you find that being quarantined in a village is not that bad,” Zhang told NewsChina.  

Zhang wrote nine more songs about life under quarantine. In songs like “Farmers’ Rock to Fight the Outbreak,” Zhang ridicules the unreasonable methods some local authorities have adopted to fight the pandemic:  

“Red badges on their sleeves, they act like savage beasts / they smash up mahjong tables and smack around families.” 

He wrote “Slogans of Epidemic Prevention” about the tongue-in-cheek public awareness messages splashed on the walls in his village:  

“If you’re bored today and go stroll around / tomorrow Covid will put you in the ground”, “Go ahead and try not wearing a mask / try and try until you die”, “For a lifetime of fun stay home for two weeks / go out and get your legs broken, answer back and lose your teeth.”  

He also wrote “Admonition” about Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital who was among the first whistleblowers warning of a possible SARS-like outbreak, later acknowledged as Covid-19. Police investigated Li and forced him to sign a letter of admonition promising “not to make false comments on the internet.” Li died from Covid-19 on February 7. He was 33.  

Last year, Zhang signed to Beijing-based label Thirteenth Month. 

Label founder Lu Zhongqiang told NewsChina that his work reminded him of classic folk songs about the loss and longing of ordinary people, such as Zhou Yunpeng’s “Chinese Children” and Chuan Zi’s “In Happiness,” “Zhang Qianhua” and “I Wanna Marry.”  

“His songs carry both humanity and realistic criticism. I think musicians have a responsibility to record social changes, phenomena and incidents,” Lu said.  

The Village Alien
Zhang said that he is not thinking about messages when writing his songs. Most are improvised and spontaneous - a strong feature of the folk music traditions in northwest China.  

Anything in life can spark a song in Zhang. For the past decade, he has been collecting the happenings and sounds in his hometown with a digital camera and audio recorder. Some of them he samples in his songs, such as the soft rustle of wheat, farmers ploughing their fields and even villagers’ snorts and coughs.  

Zhang was born in a poor, remote village in Gansu Province, but grew up with its rich musical traditions. Each year, the village holds a temple fair where locals showcase their talents. His father would perform Qinqiang, a folk opera form from northwest China, while his uncle played traditional instruments such as the sanxian, banhu (a bowed string instrument) and qinqin (a two-stringed instrument).  

Zhang grew up writing songs. He and his siblings wrote “Blackout” about how kids would have fun in the dark during the village’s frequent power outages. They also wrote a song for their donkey. 

The village began changing around 2000. More villagers were leaving for the cities to find jobs, Zhang said, and often would come back with new and interesting things. Some would return with motorcycles. Others had beepers clipped to their belts. 

It was a new classmate, the son of a contractor in the nearby city of Baiyin, that really opened his mind to new ideas. Zhang remembers he was different than other local boys. He wore fancy glasses and had a different air about him. The village boys called him “the alien.”  

Zhang’s unusual friend had a Walkman and liked rock music, which at the time in China was still underground. He introduced Zhang to rock musician He Yong’s “Pretty Girl.” “When I heard the song, a loud voice popped in my mind, crying ‘I wanna do that!’” Zhang said. 

Zhang often sat for hours looking toward Baiyin, imagining the street lights and all the interesting things happening there.  

That year, he took a summer job at a construction site in Baiyin to save for a guitar. But since nobody in his village could teach him how to play, he played it like a sanxian - which uses a large plectrum and distinct fingerings. 

By high school, Zhang’s musical tastes had turned to Chinese rock and indie. He devoured albums by folk artists Zhou Yunpeng and Wan Xiaoli, and the northeastern rock of Second Hand Rose. He seldom listened to folk songs. “For a long time, I’d forgotten the tunes of my hometown,” Zhang told NewsChina.  

In 2008, Zhang enrolled in the Central South University of Forestry and Technology in Changsha, Hunan Province. But he spent more time playing music than studying. He and four other students formed a rock band called The Hunter and sang about what he calls “typical cliched sentiments of youth.”  

In his junior year, The Hunter was rehearsing at a local bar when Zhang started humming a northwestern tune from his childhood. “I realized everyone was staring at me when I looked up. There was a glimmer of amazement in their eyes. At the time I realized that the music I was familiar with the most since I was young had the incredible power to impress listeners,” Zhang said. 

Poster for the documentary Stammering Ballad

Have Folk, Will Travel
In 2011, Zhang took his show on the road, booking any show he could get at venues and bars in different cities and provinces. He describes himself as a “wandering minstrel.” He would sleep wherever he performed, from bars to underground pedestrian tunnels.  

Zhang’s touring schedule picked up quickly. The following year, he dropped out of college. In 2013 alone, he performed 103 shows across the country.  

He gave up writing sentimental songs and turned to themes of rural life. Many are inspired by real stories from his village. “Old Zhang” is based on the wealthiest man in his hometown. He has nine daughters and was the first in the village to travel to the provincial capital of Lanzhou and taste a bowl of its namesake noodles.  

Zhang would spend months at a time collecting folk songs for the villages of China’s northwest. He has met with more than 100 folk artists, collecting 1,000 songs in nearly 30 music styles. 
 
He has a particular interest in veteran folk musicians. “When you hear them singing, it’s like reading a history book. They are all skilled in their arts, and, from my perspective, are much wiser than monks in temples,” Zhang told Shanghai news portal The Paper. “They’ll say something just casually, and it will leave a deep impression on me.” 

Over the years, Zhang has developed his own style that he calls “ga folk.” He says it comes from the soil and everyday life, rewriting the old tunes in an innovative modern way. He has released five albums: The Smell of Soil (2014), The Mountain Village (2014), A Happy Life (2016), Ga Folk (2017) and Stammering Ballad (2018).  

Zhang married in 2015 and settled in Dali, Yunnan Province, an area that over the years has become a vortex for creative people from all over the world. He divides his time between Dali, collecting folk songs in the northwest provinces and on tour.  

In 2018, director Zhang Nan filmed a documentary about Zhang. The film Stammering Ballad was nominated for the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award at the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam.  

“He has a very assertive and positive attitude about his rural experience, and he tours his rock and folk in different cities, which is a modern approach. The contrast in him is interesting,” Zhang Nan told NewsChina.  

Lu Zhongqiang said he signed Zhang to his label after watching him perform a two-hour show at a Beijing bar last October.  

Lu said Zhang’s biggest advantage over other folk artists is his lack of ceremony. “No matter the occasion,... he’ll naturally improvise a song and sing it out loud. The music just naturally flows out from him,” Lu told NewsChina. 

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