Highly polished (and now often imitated) 12 Girls Band is selling out venues across North America.
Benjamin Chen is a difficult person to get hold of.
Rushing from city to city, the president of C&S Media International is busy—very busy. Chen is helping manage and coordinate the North American tour of an internationally renowned band that is, to put it simply, hot.
At least its last seventeen performances, staged everywhere from the Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles to the Beacon Theater in New York City, have been sold out. Its music sells like crazy, and a line wraps around for at least an hour for post-performance meet-and-greets.
There is just one thing: its musicians do not speak a word of English.
The thirteen women of the 12 Girls Band (a thirteenth was added in 2003, but the name remained the same) do not seem to have any trouble attracting attention and fans, however. They are, after all, among China’s best and brightest (and most attractive) women.
Wang Xiaojing, known as the “father of Chinese rock music,” selected the women from more than 4,000 contestants who were studying in Chinese music conservatories in 2001 with the goal of expanding the band overseas. And he hasn’t looked back since.
The band’s popularity spread like wildfire. In 2003, their debut album sat at the top of the charts for 30 weeks in Japan. They eventually held the distinction of having the highest sales numbers of any Chinese musical artist ever in Japan.
Wang is not surprised.
“The music is fresh, and the girls are really quite pretty,” Wang said in Chinese after a concert at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.
And audiences everywhere are noticing. The 12 Girls Band debuted at Number 62 on the Billboard Album Chart in 2004 with their album Eastern Energy.
A United States tour in 2004 was so successful they repeated it again in 2005 and are currently finishing their third tour through thirty North American cities. They performed in Shanghai for the Live Earth concert hosted by Al Gore. And to emphasize their mainstream popularity, one of their Shanghai concert videos was the foundation upon which PBS stations launched summer pledge drives.
Ann Porter, a concertgoer at the band’s performance at the Los Angeles Greek Theater, said she heard a 12 Girls CD playing in a Thai restaurant in Pasadena once, and it immediately caught her attention.
“It sounded like Russian [music] but kicked up a few notches,” Porter said.
The band’s music is best described as a modified Renaissance of traditional Chinese music; the thirteen women draw on 1,500 years of Chinese music, playing conventional instruments such as the gu zheng (zither), yang qin (a type of hammered dulcimer), pi pa (Chinese lute), di zi (bamboo flute) and the er hu (a two-stringed violin), but they also infuse it with electronic keyboards and a punctuating percussion.
The band plays not only as artists but also as representatives of the new Chinese music scene.
“I know very little about Chinese music,” Porter said. The only exposure she had had to Chinese music before the concert had been a Chinese opera presentation.
Porter said the band’s music was also a type of diplomacy.
“Music is a place to start,” she said. “It’s not the end project of a cultural exchange…but when you get one group of people hearing different things, it can provide an opportunity to ask questions.”
Kevin James, another concertgoer, agreed.
“The East has always been a bit mystical, and this is a way to grow together,” James said.
Wang said he has noticed a significant increase in the amount of Westerners interested in the 12 Girls.
Since their first tour in October 2004, “it’s very obvious that there are more and more Americans coming,” Wang said.
“Because Westerners don’t quite understand China, we want them to understand [it better],” said Yin Yan, a band member who plays the er hu.
Some Chinese musicians, however, have issues with the band’s spread of what they call Chinese culture.
“Well, they are doing something, but they brought the most superficial things of the Chinese music culture,” said Bright Sheng, a distinguished composer, conductor and pianist at the University of Michigan, in a phone interview.
“They should be educational,” Sheng said. “The things they bring should be more authentically Chinese…It’s just so Hollywood-y to me.”
The 12 Girls cover everything from more traditional Chinese music to the British band Coldplay’s ‘Clocks’ to ‘What I Want for Christmas is You’ to ‘Georgia on My Mind.’
Still, Sheng agreed that their presence is better than none at all.
“[Their music] certainly is a good way to get into [increased understanding between the two countries],” Sheng said. “And when you get to know a culture or a nation that is so foreign, that is the way to go.”
Nancy Chen is managing editor of US-China Today.