The Modern Musical Magi Of Beijing
Djang San will be performing at Yugong Yishan on November 26 as part of the Dong Dong Music Festival and Convention
When I think of Djang San (Zhang Si'an) aka Jean-Sébastien Henry, the first image is of a one-man band. Add to that image 8 hands instead of two. One hand holds a trilingual book, another grasps a bizarre instrument unknown to mankind, the third grips a miniature bridge, the forth supports an electrified piece of tofu, the fifth carries recording device, the sixth strokes his chin existentially and the remaining two hands, well they are just playing his zhongruan (a traditional Chinese plucked instrument) or strumming a guitar, of course.
This modern musical magi has his hand on a lot of strings, his head in many an esoteric thought and his eyes fixed firmly on the road of life. We met up recently to chat about his most recent musical and mental adventures.
What is the point of it all?
As a young idealist, after first coming to China in 2000, I wanted to create a bridge between cultures, I wanted to show it was possible to go beyond cultures, educational backgrounds, political issues, also beyond the idea of races. I don't believe in the idea of races, there's only one, the human race.
In France the education most receive is about being all equal, so it doesn't matter where you are from and what's the color of your skin, we are all equal, on paper at least, which already is a good starting point I think.
My father was born in Spain and I grew up in Peru until the age of 6 or 7. I received some influence from Spanish and South American culture.
When in France I grew up surrounded by people from all regions of the world, people who had to adapt to the French culture, not always the easiest thing to do.
It wasn't hard for me to adapt to France, but I have always felt a little bit on the outside of the mainstrean because I had been exposed to different cultures at a young age. I have known from a young age we think and behave in different ways because the place and society we grow up in has a strong influence on everyone of us. I believe our personalities are shaped by our parents, our environment, our culture, our school, what's on TV, and what we know of our history.
So here is the point of it all, showing the possibility of going beyond boundaries, building bridges between cultures, opening people's minds both in Asia and in the West.
I chose China in 2000 because I saw the opportunity of creating something new. Beijing was also very cheap back then, so I thought I would easily have time to do music. When I first came to China, I felt people here were very open minded and very curious about the world, there was a need to know the outside world, a very strong thirst for understanding. That was also a strong pull for me to keep on coming back here. I think it all changed after 2008, after the financial crisis in the U.S, it's as if all of a sudden Chinese people had lost faith in foreigners, as if we were not that interesting after all.
As a foreign artist in Beijing I am both an observer and an actor. I will never be from here, I can speak Chinese, write it and read it, but my face betrays me.
It is interesting to be an observer. As I speak Chinese, I understand the conversations in the street, I know what people talk about in the subway and the bus, I'm also used to people's body language here, so there's a lot I understand now without even having to listen and speak.
I think I have become sort of a bridge between cultures myself, and I think my music and my thoughts on life through music are an echo of all this.
I wanted to call the latest release with Djang San + Band "Walls and bridges", because I think it relfects the idea of this album. Unfortunately, I checked on google and found out the name had been used by John Lennon.
I thought of a new name, "11 brides", each of the eleven songs being a bridge on their own. The band wasn't too fond of that new name so I joked and said "let's call it electric tofu", Carlo and Steno loved the idea, I changed the name to "Tofu électrique", just to push the absurdity a bit further.
I also consider myself an existentialist, I deeply believe in the absurdity of life.
Why do you think anyone should listen to what you have to say or what you have to play? what makes you special? is it your ego?
I consider my music as a result of my experiences in life, it is often about more than just the music, it's a reflection on a lot of different things. It is up to the listener to read between the lines or not.
People should listen to the music just to listen to something different, there are other things in music besides MTV or what Rolling Stones magazine or some of these other medias talk about.
Why would people listen to what I say ? No one has to, but I hope to bring a different vision of life and culture. The idea is it is possible to do something different.
When I play in front of audiences that are all Chinese, or even when the room is full of foreigners, all the people get it, like it, dance to it, or travel into their imaginations. This shows it is possible to do music that is not standard pop and move people with it. It also shows you don't have to be naked on stage to get people's attention. When I see the video clips of Nicky Minaj, Miley Cyrus and the likes, I think their image is everything, who cares about what you sing as long as you show your a$$ right ?
My music mixes a lot of different styles and ideas. I don't think there's a limit to what is possible, I don't like boundaries, I don't want to feel like a prisoner, I want to feel free.
What makes me special? I don't know, am I special? Who am I to judge myself? :-)
My ego? What ego? Aha.
If you had a time machine, when would you go?
If I had a time machine, I would go back to my childhood and tell young me to do as much music as possible as soon as possible and not waste time on anything else.
I would also go back to before the big bang and witness the beginning of the universe. I would finally know where we come from, maybe meet god, and end all wars before they even begin.
I would also travel to the future from now, but I might do that before I travel to the past and meet god and change the future, are you following?
An option would be to go live in the sixties, but it seems like a very chaotic time, very much like now actually.
On your album cover you plug some electrical stuff into a piece of tofu? Explain.
The electrification of the zhongruan and the name of the album "Tofu électrique" brought questions about the album cover, how should it be? I bought a few blocks of tofu in the nearest supermarket and started to experiment with the idea of an electric tofu. The result was pretty ugly so at the end I changed the cover quite a bit, to make it something abstract. The title is sarcastic, and absurd, everything is electric and electronic nowadays. Electrifying my zhongruan to bring it to the 21st century is simple. I'm sure it's possible to solidify a piece of tofu and electrify it to make it some sort of new guitar, I'm sure it will sound great. Find the album here at: https://djangsan.bandcamp.com/album/tofu-electrique
Explain this Theory of Intelligence thing. Where'd it come from?
I got the idea of the theory intelligence a few years ago, then I developed it little by little.
You can read it all here on my website www.zhangsian.com
In the last three years I have read about the life of pioneers and inventors like Ambroise Paré, Galileo, Pythagoras, Da Vinci and many more. I realized that in order to make progress and discover things, all these people had followed their instincts and based a lot of their work on logic and observation.
I have always been a very sensitive person. This sensitivity has pushed me to do music, as music became a tool to communicate in another way in order to exteriorize emotions I often feel I can't express with words.
The theory of Intelligence is a theory that comes out of pure feeling, observation and logic. It comes from my perception of the world, and it's a description of that perception.
I believe that as people, our understanding of reality is limited to our senses. We had to develop systems to quantify and analyze nature, systems to help us as interfaces to translate natural phenomenon. We have pushed those systems so far and discovered so much that we are now able to use those tools to transform reality, and even try to understand what goes beyond our senses.
I wanted to come back to the origins of science and philosophy, when everything was about observation, and create a system out of it.
Music is also a system, the organization of sounds. In ancient Greece, philosophers were also mathematicians and musicians.
In order to get closer to that idea, I decided to publish the theory of intelligence as both an album and a text. It's a concept album; people have to listen to the music as they read the theory. (https://djangsan.bandcamp.com/album/a-theory-of-intelligence)
You have produced an amazing number of albums. what makes your album 'Tofu Electrique" stand out? Or does it?
I have produced 26 albums, EP's and live albums since 2003, composing has become very easy for me, but in each recording I try to push my boundaries further all the time.
When I started Djang San + Band in 2013, I wanted to play songs I had recorded on solo albums, but had never or almost never played on stage. I started with the songs I had composed using Chinese instrument zhongruan, and now I have extended the set with songs coming from electro albums, jazz, experimental, and rock albums.
The band now composes some songs together, and the arrangements have changed the songs so much that I saw a necessity into recording those songs as a band. Carlo V. Fuentes and Steno are both very talented musicians I am proud to play with.
"Tofu électrique" gives a new life to some of my old compositions such as "Shenme Dongxi" or "Mad Horses", it also presents some new songs such as "She's a Witch", "Ghosts", "If you don't know", or "Two fishes". I recorded a version of "Two fishes" this year in the album "Love is a detention center for lonely people" but this version is so different it's like a new song.
This album stands out because it is mainly based on the idea of getting the zhongruan into the 21st century. I have done a lot with the zhongruan since 2002 and this album is a good representation of how this instrument can be used and recorded in a rock band, in a progressive way, jazz way, blues way and rock way. I consider this album as a stepping-stone for how the zhongruan can be approached; it is also a stepping-stone for me and the beginning of a new direction in my music.
What reaction do you hope to get by sharing your music and your theory of intelligence and from whom?
I guess there are many different reactions I want to provoke. One of the things is that I want to transmit the idea that it's possible to do something different in this world. We often have more possibilities than we think, but we often only look at what is in front of us, which limits our abilities. I hope my music can help creating a bridge between cultures. I hope it can open people's minds. The theory of intelligence is something I needed to put out there. I wanted to know if my theory was right or wrong and to see what people would have to say about it. It didn't really provoke any reactions yet, except from people closer to me that have really tried to understand it. I'm hoping people will take a look at it and challenge it, that's what a theory is made for. This theory is my way to ask people to think and have a dialogue.
Music is for everybody...anybody who wants to give it a listen. The theory is for people who want to think. If you don't want to think, don't read it just listen to the music.