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China's invisible rock star steps out of the shadows

He has been called the Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen of China and is the country's first and most famous rock 'n' roll star. Yet it is practically impossible to see Cui Jian playing solo in major venues in his home town of Beijing.

Cui's socially and politically pointed music has kept authorities in the Communist nation in a perpetual state of anxiety. As a result, the 44-year-old star, known as the "Godfather of Rock 'n' Roll in China," has spent most of his 20-year career dodging censors and holding unauthorized and unannounced concerts.

Only last year was he allowed to play his first officially sanctioned concert in the Chinese capital, before 10,000 screaming fans.

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Before then, Cui's performances were routinely banned by nervous officials who feared he might incite social chaos among his angry and rebellious pack of devoted followers.

Despite such hurdles, Cui has refused to tone down his act -- either for the government or for conservative segments of society.

"[The Chinese]still like good children; they think rock performers have an unfriendly image," he said.

"But for me, if a person doesn't tell you the truth, they are not good to me. They might just want to flatter you and use you," he told Agence France-Presse in a recent interview in Hong Kong before a gig at the Hard Rock Café to mark his 20th year in the industry.

"The most important thing is to be truthful to yourself. If I am your friend and I can be myself, I'm not merely an idol. As a rock artist, you should have a closer relationship with the audience and treat them as your friends," he said, sipping tea in his trademark baseball cap and casual, loose-fitting clothing.

Rock was not the ethnic Korean's first love. While growing up in Beijing, he was classically trained, and the first instrument he learned at the age of 14 was a trumpet.

He was introduced to rock at the age of 20 when he listened to recordings smuggled in by his friends from Hong Kong and Bangkok.

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Cui swapped his trumpet for a guitar soon afterward and left the prestigious Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra to form a band, Seven Ply Board, which was heavily influenced by the Beatles, Talking Heads and the Police.

In a first for China, the band began performing Western songs in small hotels and restaurants around Beijing. Since then, Cui has recorded five albums, including last year's Show Me Your Colour, the first in seven years.

The Rolling Stones were the biggest influence on Cui's music. In April, he joined Mick Jagger on stage to sing the ballad Wild Horses in Shanghai during the Stones' first tour of China.

"They seemed very relaxed and were so full of life. At the same time, they were particularly bad and rebellious. They were not afraid to offend people. They were very earnest and really enjoyed life," he said.

Cui wants to be remembered as a bad boy, like the Stones.

"I want to break the godfather [of rock]image. I want to be a bad boy because that will give me more freedom. As a godfather, you are conservative," he said. "My songs are all about the freedom of living."

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Cui struck a discordant note with the authorities early in his career by appearing on stage blindfolded with a red cloth, singing the gritty protest song Nothing to My Name during the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The anti-establishment song, which became an anthem for protesting students, won Cui instant fame and made him an influential figure among the young.

But the government's crackdown on June 4 that year extended to the arts, and rockers like Cui. His 1990 nationwide tour, Rock and Roll on the New Long March, was cancelled midway through its run.

Twenty years on, there is still very little coverage about rock music on television, and only a handful of rock magazines.

Cui appeared on the cover of the Chinese edition of Rolling Stone magazine in March, but the issue was pulled off the shelves after three weeks and its second issue is now banned.

Although rock music is growing in popularity in China, Cui said, there are still no rock stations on government-controlled radio. Mainstream music is dominated by "people who have money to pay for advertising."

"I hope Chinese radio stations will not be affected by political reasons or commercialism. Every station should have its own music critics and its music style so there will be more competition," he said.

Cui described the development of rock 'n' roll in China as a "rolling egg," to stress the fragility of the medium. But he is hopeful for its future.

"It's rolling not very fast, very slowly and dangerously, but at the same time we will see a success. Then we'll see life after the success," he said.

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