Hi Sam Debell, can you introduce yourself a little to our readers ?
My name is Sam Debell. I have been involved in the Chinese music industry, specifically but not exclusively the Yunnan music industry, for about twenty years. I am a musician, venue owner, producer, and recently set up a label here in Yunnan called Sea of Wood.
What can you tell us about Kunming and its diference with other cities in China ?
Kunming is the Capital of Yunnan province, which has 25 ethnic minorities. At first glance it now looks like another big Chinese city, but below the surface it’s multi-ethnic make-up leads to a very different vibe. People are very straightforward, open and laid-back. The pace of life is slower and people have more time for culture. I believe Kunming has more active bands per capita than any other Chinese city.
You are a member of the band « Shanren » which is also based on music from the Yunnan region, how did you join the band and why ? How do you see the future of the band musically ?
I have been working with Shanren since about 2002. They were one of the early underground bands that attracted me to this city. Over the years our love of Yunnan minority music and instruments is what kept us on the same path. It also gave birth to a personal mission to establish Yunnan’s reputation as a source of music and culture.
Shanren have always had a bit of a schizophrenic musical direction. Although Yunnan music always has an important place, there are also other influences and considerations pushing and pulling the band’s style. Sometimes I don’t even know what to expect next.
Your music label is called « Sea of Wood », why ? Why did you decide to start a label in Yunnan, can you tell us about the bands you have signed to the label and introduce a few songs ?
When you set up a Chinese company you have to give about ten names that they apply for in order until they get to one which can be registered. 淼木 was about eighth on our list. When I saw that was the name I remembered doing shows in Yunnan back in the day and seeing a sea of blank expressions, wooden, you might say. So it became a feeling of setting stuff up in relative isolation. There has never been any kind of music industry in Yunnan so we’ll be facing wooden expressions for a while to come.
We have almost twenty bands signed to the label now of which six or seven have released albums to date. Our initial focus was on bands that incorporated Yunnan ethnic elements into their music but we later opened it up to anything that was ‘Made in Yunnan’. That became the name of the various shows and events we have done over the years to raise the profile of local artists. I would recommend listening to Manhu, who have made an impression on the overseas World music scene this year with their album ‘Voices of The Sani’. Puman have just released an album on Netease called ‘Puman’ which is a very nice addition to the Yunnan Reggae genre. Also there is ‘Mei-Rok’ also self titled, a poppy take on the music of the Wa people. Finally I would recommend Wood and Fire, a band from Nujiang that combines Nu and Lisu instruments with a Folky ensemble.
As a percussionist and drummer, what is your favorite style of music to play ?
As a percussionist I have always been fascinated by Afro-Cuban music. I spent a few months in Havana about twenty years ago and it was an unforgettable experience. The complexity and sophistication of the traditions in Cuba never ceases to amaze.
How did you start music and why? Which instrument did you start on (if you have) ? Can you give the readers a little bit of your musical background.
I studied French horn as a kid but I never really got into the classical way of learning. I was far too dependent of my ear. I gave up but a few years later got into playing the guitar. That eventually lead me on to percussion. The tradition-sensitive way of learning that’s associated with percussion lead to an interest in the traditional music of Yunnan, which, while far less sophisticated than Cuban music, is also very steeped in a feeling of roots. I have been collecting and learning to play Yunnan instruments for over 10 years. My house is full of them. It was actually got so ridiculous that it ended a relationship for me!
According to you which places in China and Asia are the best for music ?
Well of course I’m going to say Yunnan but that is related to my specific interest. I have always appreciated the level of musicianship and musicality in South-East Asia, especially Thailand and Indonesia. Then, of course, Japan. Shanren have played there several times and it has always been great to see Japanese people really identifying themselves by the music they are into.
How did the coronavirus afect you and how do you see the future of live music ?
Well, to b honest in Yunnan we got way relatively lightly. We never really had any community transmission, just imported cases, so life really got back to normal within a couple of months. As far as trying to run a music company is concerned, it was bit of a nightmare-no income for the best part of half a year. We made some changes and we’ve managed to get some commercial gigs to help tide us over but as for when we are going to start having real music festivals again it’s really anybody’s guess. For a while everyone was trying to get the live streaming thing going but it never really felt like an adequate replacement and the live streaming culture in China just doesn’t seem to fit with a band show. I think live music will make a comeback as things slowly get back to normal. People have realized what they’re missing and with TV shows like 乐队的夏天 raising the profile of bands in general I’m hopeful that things will get better.
What’s your favorite Chinese band/artist/song you would like to introduce to the rest of the world ?
That’s a hard question to answer. I need to think about it a bit more…
Wood and Fire