Showboat to China

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 16, 2011 | Go to article overview

Showboat to China


Byline: David Smyth

THE more successful a musician becomes, the more demands on their time there are to prevent them from being creative. Tours, interviews, general promo work, all hold back the vital task of making new songs. Be thankful then, for the British Council, which is currently sending some of our best songwriters on extended trips to China charged with a simple task: go and make art.

Just after Christmas, Jamie Woon, the BRIT School graduate who made waves this year with a dubstep-inspired soul sound, will head to the northern city of Xi'an for six weeks. The 28-year-old from New Malden was selected by the British Council and fellow organiser the PRS for Music Foundation, alongside electronic experimentalist Imogen Heap, folk musician Gareth Bonello and pianist Matthew Bourne, who are or have been on separate trips to other parts of the country. The work they produce will form part of UK Now, an ambitious celebration of British arts running in China from April to November next year, but generally speaking their brief is vague, and all the more inspiring for that.

"New work is expected to come out of it but it's not restrictive in terms of what they bring home," says Cathy Graham, the British Council's director of music. "We can't tie artists to a particular expectation, though we hope there will be manifestations in both the UK and China."

"I don't expect to have a giant epiphany and start writing Chinese music," Woon tells me. "That kind of immersion would take a lot longer. But I'm looking to write as much as possible and there's no doubt that it will have a big influence on me."

Heap is currently engaged in creating a new song inspired by a day in the life of Hangzhou, a city to the east of 8.7 million, recording the regular activities of local residents. "I want to find the heartbeat of Hangzhou. To find a rhythm. A pattern. A physical thread between everyday goings on in the city and its inhabitants," she says.

Once he's seen Xi'an's Terracotta Army, Woon's main plan is to host his own show on the city's local radio station.

It's a place known for its underground youth culture but he still feels he can offer them something new.

"I really jumped at the idea of radio time," he says. "The idea is quite liberating, to be able to play the music that I grew up on, but in China, and to find some connections too. It gives me an incentive to immerse myself in local music as much as possible so I can also play that."

He is better placed for an enriching experience in China than many UK acts: his father is Malaysian-Chinese and he spent five weeks travelling around the country three years ago. Even so, he plays down the connection: "My dad spoke Chinese to me until I was about four but then he gave up. …

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