It’s a Friday night at 2 Kolegas, and the dimly lit bar is vibrating with a cozy, anticipatory hum. It’s the club’s first night open since they closed for renovations, and the crowd drifts like a school of lazy fish, waiting for soundcheck to finish. Tonight is Ningxia Night, otherwise known as Ningxia Zhizao, and everyone knows what that means. Everyone, that is, except for me.
“Who’s playing again?” I ask my friend, a 2K regular.
“Three bands are supposed to play, but that doesn’t really mean anything,” she says, taking a sip of her beer and shrugging. “You never know what you’re going to get—just that it’ll be a night of good music.”
2 Kolegas has earned a reputation as one of the best underground live music bars in Beijing. Its unique location, next to the capital’s one and only drive-in movie theater, is matched only by its history—the bar’s owners, and the majority of the regular musicians there all hail from the capital city of Yinchuan, an oasis of art and hinterland culture in the northwestern autonomous region of Ningxia.
On Ningxia Nights the musicians revolve on and off stage like runners in a relay race, each time clicking into a different position with the dutiful ease of Lego men on a building project. The overlap all seems perfectly natural—until, that is, you realize that the guy who was just crooning folk songs is now rocking some grunge, or that the dude finger-picking acoustic melodies is jamming out on some Hendrix-esque solos. This is a rare phenomenon in Beijing, where the music scenes are divided as if by Biblical decree, each to his own—the folkies with the folkies, the metalheads with the metalheads, the rockers with the rockers.
“At first, it was just another music night at 2 Kolegas,” says Beijing Daze music blogger Badr Benjelloun, a Ningxia Night regular. “But soon enough, I understood that it was a completely different beast: all the bands were related and in many cases, they grew up together. This was a gang of sorts and just like any gang, they have unwritten bonds of loyalty and support.”
The genesis of the group reaches back to 2000, when legendary indie rockers Buyi first moved from Yinchuan to Beijing in search of a more active music scene. They set up shop in a courtyard house near Fifth Ring Road that would soon become the home base for a number of rockers to follow. “Young Ningxia bands heard about how we were living in this courtyard and they all wanted to come to Beijing,” remembers Buyi vocalist Wu Ningyue. “After they’d been here a while, some of them just started living here and making music. I think our rock and roll life in Beijing was encouraging to young bands.”
In 2005, Liu Miao, another Yinchuan native, and his partner Gao Feng decided to open 2 Kolegas, after several years of scraping by with few shows and less money. “We just wanted a place to play and a way to make a living,” Liu says.
A scene quickly coalesced around 2K, starting out with early bands like Buyi, Nucleus and a ska outfit called Regular Pattern. Within a few years, this list would expand to include Skarving, Lidong, Wu and the Side Effects and, most recently, Whai.
“Yinchuan is a city of immigrants—80 percent are outsiders, and there are people from all across the country,” says Wu Ningyue. “Cultures from everywhere are always interacting, so people are much more tolerant, much more willing to accept new cultures. This kind of spirit really made us bind together.”
Ningxia also has a strong history of music, which draws from both indigenous shepherd folk music called hua’er and northwestern opera music known as qingchang.
“In China’s northwest, a lot of people like to sing,” says guitarist Li Xia. “When my uncle was herding sheep, he’d always be singing. My mother also, whenever she cooked or was washing clothes, she’d always be singing these really rich, northwestern folk songs.”
Benjelloun has a more romantic take. “Checo Fernandez from Wu and the Side Effects said it best—Ningxia is China’s Wild West,” he says. “The combination of those things with talent ... makes for some weird combinations, but it’s always got the same basis: a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners, sweaty, gritty approach to rock ‘n’ roll.”
The scene may not grow much bigger in the coming years—most of the bands agreed that Yinchuan’s music scene has grown large enough that younger bands are more inclined to stay home—but there’s no doubt the community will continue on.
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I'd making a video about Hui in China and i'd like to record some modern hui music for the piece, does anybody know the contact numbers for these bands at all? or where i could listen to them online, i've trawled around and can find info but no links to actually listen to songs, please let me know! my email is sharron.lovell(at) gmail - thanks in advance!