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September 23, 2017

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Clash of the mini-titans at China school of rock

TIANJIN, China -- With neat ponytails and immaculate grades, the four 8-year-olds who bounded on stage would make any Chinese parent proud — but wielding electric guitars, these schoolgirls were ready to add another brick in the wall of rock history.

Dressed in blue-sequinned jackets, their band Cool blasted out a song by British pop-rockers McFly in a heavy style echoing 1970s megastars Led Zeppelin, complete with rock star jumps and fist pumps.

"I like to play loud music which annoys old people," said lead singer Zhou Zi, whose favorite toy is a big white teddy bear. "We like rock songs because they're crazy."

Cool's members lead parallel lives as students at a chain of music schools hoping to create a new generation of Chinese rock stars, and the band were one of more than two dozen child outfits battling for honors at a competition in the northern port city of Tianjin earlier this month.

The event — where bands offered a mix of foreign covers and original tunes — is a symbol of rock music's move into the mainstream of China's entertainment industry since it met opposition from authorities when it arrived in the country in the 1980s.

A band named Rock Fairytale — the eventual winners — played the Guns N' Roses classic "Sweet Child O' Mine" before the 10-year-old leader of another group, dressed in a spangly black shirt and leather boots, gave an impressive rendition of Queen's "We Will Rock You."

Boom, from China's poor Henan province, covered the Beatles' "Twist and Shout."

Asked what he knew about the British foursome, the band's eight-year-old lead singer Jia Tianyi responded: "They're probably from the U.S."

In defiance of rock cliche, irresponsible backstage behavior at the competition was limited to impromptu games of hide and seek between band members, while Cool's post-performance routine included eating peaches brought along by the bass player's father.

As well as attending normal classes, the band members also go to the Nine Beats music school in Tianjin, whose founder Li Hongyu says has more than 150 branches across China, and thousands of students in total.

"In the past, if parents wanted to children to study music, they would think of classical musical instruments ... but few kids studying classical music are happy," Li said.

"I believe that China's future rock stars can be found at our school," he added. "We are changing the direction of Chinese contemporary music."

China's first homegrown rock acts began to perform in the 1980s when the ruling Communist party relaxed cultural controls — only to be condemned by officials who shut down concerts and banned some songs from broadcast.

The student protestors in Tiananmen Square repeatedly sang "Nothing to my name" by Cui Jian, renowned as the father of Chinese rock, in 1989, and the song became a musical symbol of their defiance.

Cui was banned from playing large-scale concerts following the crackdown on the demonstrators in which hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were killed.

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