祁紫檀 (Qí Zǐtán) is regarded as an indie folk singer-songwriter. We first came across her thanks to Soi Music TV. We were extremely excited to find such an amazingly and uniquely gifted artist based in Hangzhou and just had to investigate further. When we discovered she would be playing a show at one of the ‘zhou’s most fondly thought of musical haunts, 9 Club, then there was no way we were going to miss this gig.
祁紫檀 increased her profile somewhat by appearing on the TV program, ‘Song of China’. These types of mainstream shows are often not highly thought of in the West, on the part of those who are serious about their music (yes you can call us music snobs if you like), but in China they are seen as a more acceptable route towards bolstering one’s career credentials. Perhaps it’s because the Chinese, to massively generalize, don’t see being hugely successful as undermining artistic integrity to the same level many Westerners appear to? Perhaps it’s because there simply aren’t that many avenues down which to progress one’s career here because the music scene isn’t yet as developed and the country hasn’t experienced the same type of counterculture that the likes of the US and UK has undergone? Chinese people had rather bigger challenges to overcome in the 1960s than where to find some killer weed. I guess all I can really do is hypothesize from the point of view of my own, limited, Western mindset.
Another interesting difference you might often find in China, is you arrive at a gig around the time it tells you on the ticket and the artist is already onstage performing. No support act. No building of suspense. Boom. There they are. Well it is BOOM in the case of 祁紫檀. She has such an incredible voice you are immediately entranced. With nothing but an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, the modestly sized but obviously devoted audience are similarly transfixed and the sound fills the room, despite the occasionally irritating background noise from the other room in the venue where people continue to play pool seemingly oblivious to the immense talent that’s currently on display.
祁紫檀’s guitar playing style tonight is not at all flashy but very, very solid and is just what her songs and her voice require so is to her credit. She is more than just technically proficient, and some lovely flourishes on the frets really accentuate her lush vocal style. Just when you believe her voice has peaked she toys, either knowingly or unknowingly, with this assumption, gliding from note to note with absolute control over this her primary instrument, with shrill trills that render the need for any additional instrumentation largely unnecessary.
That stated, this reviewer did begin to wonder what a 祁紫檀 performance would be like alongside rigorously tight session musicians who would play her material truthfully whilst allowing her even more room to flex her vocal skills. As coincidence would have it, the guitar is put down and a guitarist joins her onstage. Whilst he is a fine player, and the audience appears to no less enjoy the songs the duo perform, for me this wasn’t quite the right fit and I felt I enjoyed her solo renditions more. Perhaps 祁紫檀 needs a guitar in her hands to best convey her merits as an artist at this stage, until the right match is found. When she is performing solo she seems more centered, with the right balance struck between instrument and voice. And, call me an old curmudgeon, but something doesn’t sit right with me when a performer is reading the words to a song off their mobile phone. With the guitarist playing the familiar kind of pseudo jazz chords you might well recognize if you frequent bars in China where people are playing covers/ballads, and the singer reading the words off her smartphone screen, suddenly it transitions from a 60RMB concert to a casual bar slot and I believe this is a perception 祁紫檀 needs to remove if she is to accede to a place her rich potential so obviously deserves.
When 祁紫檀 moves over to the piano things immediately take a turn for the better and we are back to enjoying arguably the most talented homegrown artist I have seen perform in China during the several years I have been here. I see no reason why, with the right support, 祁紫檀 cannot successfully tour globally. I could see her going down particularly well in intimate venues in the US and UK with fans who appreciate artists such as Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom, and Blue Roses (Laura Groves) though I also think she would have a much wider appeal regarding fans of indie and folk across the board.