‘Mountain men’ Shanren create an infectious mix of ethnic folk music and rock

By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
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Combining ethnic music with rock elements, Shanren shook up the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) stage this year with their showcase of original tracks and folksong favourites.


Shanren recently performed at the 19th edition of RWMF

Literally translated as ‘mountain men’, Shanren hails from the Yunnan province in south-western China and was formed sometime between 1999 and 2000.

“They began as a rock band, so it was a small rock community in Kunming and everyone knew everybody and it was from there that the band was formed,” said Sam Debell, who plays with Shanren and is a respected musician in the Yunnan music community himself.

Sam (right) and one of the band member Qu Zihan, who is the vocal and plays the guitar during the RWMF 2016 press conference

Sam (right) and one of the band member Qu Zihan, who is the vocal and plays the guitar during the RWMF 2016 press conference

Representing some of the 25 ethnic groups found in Yunnan, Shanren was originally from a rock music community but always planned to infuse cultural elements in their music.

“That was actually always the plan. But the aesthetic was rock. It was originally about guitars, doing it for a rock lineup. And then, about 10 years ago, we started to incorporate more and more traditional instruments into the music, and then from there, we just got more and more interest in traditional music. It became maybe more and more of an identity for the band than rock music,” said Sam, who is also the director of education at Toning Drum Percussion in Beijing.

Hailing from England, Sam has lived in Yunnan for 18 years, and met the members of the band even before it was formed.

“I lived in Yunnan for 18 years and while I have been speaking Mandarin all that time, I have also been speaking in the Yunnan dialect. But I do not speak the actual tribal languages,” he said.


Sam, a percussionist, used to play numerous times with the band members, as he had an interest in the Yunnan music scene.

“I established a relationship where I played with them as a guest and not a full member of the band. Over the years, we stayed with that arrangement and in the last six years, I helped them oversee their management,” said Sam.

In Yunnan, there are about 25 ethnic groups all with different languages and different styles of music.

“All the songs, they have to learn the different styles of all the different groups, so if one person is from that ethnic group, the others have to learn it. So, it is a long learning process,” he added.

According to Sam, all the original songs are formed by the feel of music in Yunnan and some of them are written in the style of a folk song while some of the them are original songs with melodies from Yunnan mixed in with rock tunes.


Among the songs performed during the music festival was ‘Pay Me Back’, ‘The Drinking Song’ and a children’s folk song called ‘The Crab’.

They are inspired by anything in life when it comes to writing their music, whether it’s a real life incident happening to them or an advertisement they see on television.

A fun fact about ‘Pay Me Back’, is that it is about lending people money and trying to get it back from them. It was based on one of the band members’ real-life experience.

“They are not love songs, they are songs about little things in life. But the general inspiration is within Yunnan traditional music,’ said Sam, speaking for the group.


“The feel of the music, they have to pick up over the years because they are all of different ethnic groups,” said Sam.

Having grown up with the music and being musicians themselves, the instruments were fairly easy for the band members to pick up.

Depending on the songs, the band members would sometimes play traditional musical instruments to produce traditional melodies but rock it with a bass line and drum set.

With various ethnic groups such as the Wa, Buyie, Lisu, Nu and Jinuo influencing their style of music, according to Sam, the Yi ethnic group influenced a great deal of the band’s musical style. One of the main musical instruments used during their performances like the xianxi (a four stringed lute) and a bamboo flute were from the Yi people.

Having delivered a wild and killer performance with their fusion music at the 19th edition of Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) held from August 5th till 7th in Kuching, imagine how it would be if one of our local bands performed ‘Puteri Gunung Santubong’ or Kenyah folk song ‘Liling’ in a similar manner, but Sarawak style.

To know more about the band, check out their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/shanrenband or their website at https://www.sonicbids.com/band/shanren/

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