Stage lights flash and plastic sheeting snaps as organizers hustle to prepare for veteran Chinese rocker Cui Jian (
Cui, 44, regularly jams in Beijing bars, but he hasn't played a major venue in his hometown since 1993. The concert, titled "A Dream in the Sunshine" is scheduled for today at the Capital Stadium in the heart of the city.
Cui won fame in the late 1980s with songs such as "Nothing to my Name," voicing the hopes and anxieties of a generation of Chinese entering adulthood after the death of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and the end of orthodox communism.
His songs then were relatively straightforward rock ballads, weighted with daringly honest lyrics and a gritty vocal style. Since then, he's added hip hop, funk and reggae sounds to his signature style.
The cacophonous bustle of sound check and tuning guitars stops as Cui steps up to test the microphone during rehearsals on Friday. Strumming a guitar, the man often referred to as China's Bob Dylan belts out a few lyrics in a voice that's half-gravel, half-mead, and for a minute the stadium is quiet as people wait to see if he'll keep singing, but he stops.
"He's a hallowed ancestor," says Kaiser Kuo (郭怡廣), an American-Chinese rock musician and journalist. "He struggles hard to stay current and changes his musical styles a lot, but most people in their heart of hearts wish he would do the aching ballads [that made him famous]."
Dozens of hangers-on, from relatives to groupies to ex-managers, loiter around the 10,000 seat stadium soaking up the atmosphere as Cui and his band rehearse.
Cui checks the microphones, repeatedly lifting his trademark baseball cap emblazoned with a bright red star to run a hand through his thinning hair.
"They look like a bunch of jaded old guys," said a marketing director for Warner Music China during a phone interview. "I am a huge fan of [Cui's] music, but I know his concerts probably aren't going to be that [visually] exciting."
Maybe, but in a nod to criticism, Cui's Beijing show yesterday was set to have strobes and filtered lights, drizzling confetti, digital artwork flashing on a massive screen behind the stage and back-up singers and dancers.
Cui, a classically trained trumpet player, used to wear peasant clothes onstage in a nod China's agrarian revolution and the communist upbringing that both nurtured and constrained his creativity.
Today he sports urban chic -- drab olive T-shirts and loose khaki pants -- but he still sings about the disenfranchised and celebrates "The Power of the Powerless," the title of his fourth album.
Singing about migrant workers and Internet-addicted teenagers, as Cui does on his latest album, might not sell out the Capital Stadium but it keeps him true to his vision.