His festivals are a hit with kids and families

When music fan Liu Jian and his American wife had their first child and thought their festival days were over, an album of children's music from the US sparked an idea. 
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Liu Jian, founder of the Hand in Hand Festival, with his American wife Rebecca Kanthor and two children

Though he failed to realize his own dream of becoming a professional musician, 39-year-old Liu Jian is now determined to bring music to Chinese children.

With his American wife Rebecca Kanthor, Liu initiated the first music festival for families with children in China last year and is planning more.

“We named the festival Hand in Hand, hoping that it will be a festival where parents and their children can enjoy music hand in hand and probably where families from different backgrounds can have fun hand in hand,” he explains.

Liu aims to present music from 20 countries and regions in 100 Chinese cities within five years at festivals where the sound is controlled to protect young ears and with areas for breast-feeding and diaper-changing.

Grammy and Emmy winner Lucky Diaz and The Family Jam Band from the United States and Hippe Gasten from the Netherlands will star in this year’s Hand in Hand Festival from April 29 to June 3, hitting eight cities including Shanghai.

“I hope with our effort we can at least show that children’s music does not always have to be nursery rhymes like ‘Two Tigers’,” says Liu. “Good children’s music can be as technically complicated as that for the adults, yet with lyrics delivering value to the children’s world.”

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Lucky Diaz and The Family Jam Band interacts with Chinese kids during last year's Hand in Hand Festival in Shanghai.

Liu remembers how Chinese rock music in the early 1990s lighted his passion for music, realizing what a powerful force music could be. 

Though having to make a living in other ways, Liu never stopped his bond with music. Apart from being a magazine editor and writing novels, Liu still composes and performs from time to time, even organizing a number of small music festivals in Shanghai and neighboring cities.

It was at one of those festival that he met his American wife. Their first child was born in 2012.

The first outdoor music festival the couple attended with their daughter in 2013 was a nightmare. With limited space in portable toilets, Liu could only change the baby’s diaper on a garbage cover. And the baby kept crying because of the loud music.

“‘Music festivals are for the young. Probably we should give it up since we are parents now,’ Liu told me at the end of the day,” recalls Kanthor. “But I love music and want to share it with my loved ones.”

That incident sparked the idea of a festival for the whole family. An album of children’s music sent by Kanthor’s mother from the US two years later drove Liu to put the idea into practice. 

When he listened to the record, it was not the children’s rhymes he had been expecting. 

“It was a fascinating piece with electric guitar, nothing like the simple rhymes that I used to hear,” says Liu. “And the lyrics were not just about simple observation as most Chinese rhymes are. It felt just like the rock music I heard in the early 1990s.”

The piece that hooked Liu was “Pretty Prince” by Lucky Diaz and The Family Jam Band. It starts out as a typical song about a princess with a crown and kissing a frog, but ends up with lyrics like “in order to be a princess you must be just and kind, the love you give is the love you will find.”

“It delivered the values of being good and kind to others, not just be obsessed with looking pretty,” says Liu. “It is exactly what I wanted to share with my daughter since I noticed about her princess dream. I did not know how to say it, but the song helped me perfectly. I told my wife that I will bring this band to China, at least for our own children.”

Liu reached the band and convinced them to perform in China. In online searches, the couple found more mature overseas musicians composing for children, which triggered their bigger ambition to inviting more groups to play.

After two years in preparation, the first Hand in Hand Festival debuted last year in Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu (Sichuan Province), Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province) and Nantong (Jiangsu Province), with more than 15,000 audience members attending.

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Young children and their parents are fully engrossed in the performances during last year's festival in Shanghai.

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Concerned over how such festivals would be received by Chinese families, the couple told musicians to be prepared for audiences who might not be too interactive. But to their surprise, most stood up and waved even before the first song finished. Liu noticed a mother with a baby in her arms nearly lifting both hands when the musicians called audiences to wave. And there was a grandmother who told Kanthor it was the most fun performance she had ever attended.

“We were so happy that what we loved was also appreciated by others. It encouraged us to keep on enriching the festival,” says Liu.

Liu has a long list of overseas musicians playing reggae, jazz, blues, metal, hip-hop, rap and rock who he cannot wait to see on stage for families in China.

“We have so much great music in the world. Don’t hide it from the children. Don’t underestimate children. They can be more open to new things than you think,” says Liu.

Liu admits that the language barrier may still be an obstacle, despite lyrics in Chinese and English being displayed on the big screen. But he has reached agreements with the musicians at the festival in making Chinese versions of their songs in the long run. And he is more than happy to open the festival stage to Chinese musicians willing to play for children.

“It is always worthwhile to do something for the children, isn’t it?” says Liu.

Hand in Hand Festival in Shanghai

Date: April 29, 10-11:30am; May 1, 10-11:30am, 1-2:30pm

Tickets: 160-560 yuan (booking tickets via WeChat at http://2f7.me/lxhuf)

Venue: Shanghai Art Theater

Address: 466 Jiangning Rd

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Hippe Gasten from the Netherlands

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Lucky Diaz and The Family Jam Band from the US

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