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Building a Rock Dynasty : Pop music: Hollywood guitar instructor Vic Trigger is a hero to the thousands of young performers he has taught across China.

November 03, 1990|NICK DRIVER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — A world away from the quiet streets outside, the boisterous crowd had been on its feet all night, rocking and singing along with the band of foreigners and Chinese. When the last 10-minute blues jam was nearing its end, the cigarette lighters flicked on and the audience started chanting "Trigger, Trigger."

For tonight's crowd, and for the hundreds of rock 'n' roll performers or would-be performers he has taught across China, Vic Trigger is a star.

His roadies are all U.S. Embassy employees. His equipment consists of a small tube amp and his guitar. And during a three-week tour that ended Thursday, his entire entourage consisted of himself and his wife, Suzette. But the lecturer from Hollywood's Guitar Institute of Technology is sure about one thing: Rock 'n' roll is here to stay.

With the sponsorship of the United States Information Agency (USIA), Trigger has been teaching guitar to young rockers from all over China.

When the USIA invited him to teach rock 'n' rollers music theory, he jumped at the opportunity. While Chinese rock is still undeveloped, it encompasses a range of genres from heavy metal to New Orleans Zydeco, according to Trigger, who says he feels comfortable doing everything from "bashing guitars with the heavy-metal guys to playing Zydeco with Cui Jian."

Cui is China's most famous rock star and has helped and encouraged many young rockers.

"Cui Jian is not just a talented rock musician, he is a talented musician," said Trigger. "He could play any kind of music and be good at it, and he cares about his music."

But the focus of Trigger's tour was to coach less experienced artists. As U.S. Embassy official Robert Daly put it: "Cui Jian is almost too good for this kind of thing. Most of these guys are still at the imitative stage, but Cui is very creative--he is good at writing music."

Most of Trigger's students grew up playing some Chinese or Western musical instrument like the classical guitar. More than one third of his Beijing students were from the classical guitar style Beijing Guitar Assn., but one of them said that "we have been converted this week."

Trigger's tour of four cities was not all fun and games. Music theory lessons started at 9:30 a.m., which according to one organizer is "very early in the morning for these guys." Afternoons were devoted to critiquing, which, Daly says, is "hard to take for some of these egotists."

Teaching was complicated somewhat by a translator who didn't know much about music theory. After a mix-up in the translation of such terms as accent, melody and groove, one band mangled Jeff Beck's "Freeway Jam" so badly that both they and the audience broke into fits of laughter.

Some of the theory left the students, the vast majority of whom have no music theory background, scratching their heads. One heavy-metal rocker with hair down to his waist said: "I just can't digest all this at once--there is too much theory, and if I am not up there with him playing while he explains it, it goes right through me."

But in spite of these minor problems, Trigger had nothing but praise for the 100 or so rockers he taught in Beijing.

"These guys have lots of talent. Many of them grew up playing traditional Chinese instruments," he said.

Trigger said he hopes he can get some guitarists over to the Guitar Institute of Technology for a yearlong course.

"People in China have heard of (the institute). They read guitar magazines that have our ad in them." He added that he would apply to the Los Angeles-Guangzhou sister city association for sponsorship. "If we could get four musicians over here for a year, then they could go back and teach others in China."

That might be the best way for rock 'n' roll to reach out to the hundreds of millions of potential listeners. Despite the government's recent close monitoring of bands with names like "Black Panther," "Tang Dynasty" and "Breathing" because of their potential for inciting masses of people, most of China is ignorant of, or uninterested in, rock.

A surge in the popularity of Hong Kong pop music--light disco-based stuff with a style quite different from rock--shares some of the responsibility for this. These softer ballads are more popular among Chinese audiences, and many musicians find they must play in this style to make a living.

When foreigners first started forming rock bands in Beijing in the early 1980s, many young urban Chinese became interested, and blues-based rock was came to China. But, Trigger said, Chinese rock still needs a stronger blues base.

"The whole of China could miss out on the foundation of rock as we know it in the West," he said. "Elvis, Buddy Holly, even the Beatles sang the blues, but when Chinese people think of rock, they think of the Carpenters."

The growth of traditional rock 'n' roll will depend on whether recording studios as well as musicians are willing to experiment.

"Producers have to realize that they can help shape the course of rock here--if these musicians all learn the newest rock techniques and all have state-of-the-art equipment, then are told that they can only eat a diet of (Hong Kong-influenced) pop music, then rock will never be accepted" by most Chinese, Trigger said.

Trigger said that while he enjoyed playing with accomplished musicians like Cui, he was more excited by the prospect of young artists learning about their craft.

"One embassy employee told me in the morning that the students would all stand up and leave at 12:30 to go to lunch, and that I shouldn't take it personally if I hadn't finished lecturing," he said. "I get so excited when I teach that I forget about the time. When all the students were still there at 2, he turned to me and said, 'I've never seen people do that before in China.' "

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