"Woodstock East" Has Music and Lots of Mud

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I am suddenly seized from behind by a dozen war-painted, whooping Naxi tribesmen, borne high above their heads and marched to the thundering rhythm of drums toward an uncertain fate. At last I am released, but not yet free — not before I have autographed their T shirts, ticket stubs and notebooks. "You guys were great yesterday!" shouts one of the abductors, obviously a fan of my band, Spring and Autumn. He elaborates by doing his best impression of my head bang while thrashing on an air guitar. Meanwhile, Miserable Faith's musicians kick off their set with a groove-heavy bass riff, and the 50 Naxi kids around me, all painted like soccer hooligans, restart their mad moshing. True to the matriarchal traditions of this culture, the girls match the guys slam for slam.

Maybe it won't go down as the defining moment in Chinese music history, but the two-day Snow Mountain Music Festival, which got rolling Aug. 17 on a picturesque mountainside in southwestern China, may have set the record for the highest-altitude outdoor rock concert. The thin air at 12,000 ft. had Beijing rocker boys taking oxygen hits onstage between songs. There may have been 100 times the crowd at Max Yasgur's farm in 1969, but China's Woodstock can boast at least one thing in common with its American counterpart: the mud. It had been raining in Lijiang for a solid month. Not far from the festival grounds, mud slides killed more than 50 people the week before the event began.

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It's a wonder that the show — featuring 18 bands from all over China — came together at all. A similar event planned for last summer at the seaside town of Beidaihe was canceled, to the surprise of few. Beidaihe is where top Communist Party leaders hold their annual summer retreat, and that first abortive Woodstock was scheduled to begin just after those meetings concluded. Timing wasn't ideal for the Snow Mountain festival either. The 16th Party Congress, at which the communists are expected to name a new team of leaders, is set to take place this fall, and the run-up is a peak period of political sensitivity across China.

What's more, the festival was the brainchild of Cui Jian — rarely mentioned in the Western press without his Homeric epithet, Godfather of Chinese Rock — whom authorities view as a crypto-dissident. Many of Cui's previous shows had been canceled. But this time organizers enlisted local and provincial authorities, including Lijiang's powerful tourism administration, as sponsors.

The chief concern for the organizers and the authorities alike was drugs. Festival officials warned bands not to bring illicit substances, threatening — emptily, it turned out — to search the musicians thoroughly at the airport and subject them to random urinalysis. The bands' playlists also received a cavity probe. Before the festival opened, each band was asked to send a representative to what was described as an "extremely important meeting." There organizers announced that six songs had been struck by local government sponsors for "unhealthy" lyrics. The band originally scheduled to go on second, Masturbation (whose singer has a penchant for removing his clothes onstage), was bumped further back in the lineup so that local party officials, unlikely to stay too late, would not be exposed to its antics.

As I took the stage on Day 1 and looked out on 3,000 soggy revelers, an electric charge ran through me — literally. The amps were not properly grounded, and my fingers on the fret board responded like tongues on the posts of nine-volt batteries. The Korean stage crew shrugged its apologies, and we started our set. The rain reached a peak during our second song, but the crowd's spirits were not dampened. Heads banged, a few brave souls surfed the crowd, and we managed not to pass out from oxygen deprivation.

On Day 2 the crowd swelled to more than twice the size of the previous day's; with ticket prices slashed, whole families from the environs of Lijiang turned up. I caught only one whiff of dope smoke — even though cannabis grows wild all over Yunnan province. But the cops just downwind didn't seem to notice. They nodded to the beat; some even risked the occasional fist pump.

Not all the locals were happy about the festival. Xuan Ke, venerable patriarch of the Naxi Ancient Music Orchestra, griped, "Our very calm mountain will be changed, destroyed by this loud music." In the end, though, the mountain tolerated our intrusion. The music was good and loud. The fans rocked the night away, and as the sun came up the future looked bright for Chinese rock.

Kaiser Kuo co-founded the heavy-metal band Tang Dynasty and plays guitar for the Beijing band Spring and Autumn