While record companies discuss algorithms rather than aptitude in 2022, one guitarist in Beijing continues to fly the flag for what it means to be a true artist.
Finland’s Jukka Ahonen came to China in 2011 on a university exchange program. After learning Mandarin in Nanjing and then spending some time back home, the now 38-year-old returned to the Chinese capital in 2016 and has been getting by on his own sounds ever since.
Ahonen performing a trademark solo with one of his many projects since arriving in Beijing. Image via Shang Photo
Now, he is a member of one of China’s most popular cover bands, Peking Floyd. And, alongside his own personal ventures (which those in the industry know to be a complex form of non-mainstream guitar riffs with non-standard timeframes and mystical sounds), the Finn is composing music for hit Chinese feature-length films.
On the way to Ahonen’s apartment, he sends us a message which reads, “If you haven’t gone down the hutong yet, could you pick me up a sandwich from the 7-11?” A small price to pay for the insightfulness to come.
His small and cozy abode is a minimalist’s paradise. A tiny kitchen by the door is proceeded by a flight of stairs where a small hatch, resembling a child’s treehouse, leads to the rest of his space which is mainly filled with guitars, some in better condition than others.
Those who know the long curly-haired Ahonen understand he is as talented as he is egoless. The man is a laowai cult hero in Beijing’s music scene and although he’s not as financially stable as some of his hotel-performing cotemporaries, money can’t buy the feeling of watching an audience enjoy his creations.
“I don’t care if people find my music alienating. There’s always somebody in the audience who loves it. If there are 100 people and five care, then that’s cool with me,” he tells That’s. “I’ve turned down a lot of commercial gigs that just do cover sets. Some bands play at embassies and sometimes it’s just about which musicians are available. They practice once for a couple of hours and end up butchering the songs. I want to play my own stuff. I tried playing in a house band for a week, but if you play every weekend in a hotel, you can never play your own music.”
Ahonen has played every genre from punk to prog. These days he concentrates more on the latter. A unique, complex and layered brand of music, to the ear it sounds smooth, but the process is anything but.
Ahonen on stage with Hazemaze. Image via @achiiiie_
This 'purity over payment’ attitude has served Ahonen well so far and he certainly doesn’t believe that earning a living in more commercial and sophisticated environments is anything to be looked down upon. A regular appearance at a hotel or a bar can earn up to RMB20,000 per month, and that's not including the free food and drink.
As he rolls another cigarette, Ahonen presses play on an intense Jazz playlist and begins to expand more on what has shaped his musical insights.
“I listened to Nirvana for one or two years straight,” smiles the Finn. “I got a guitar and learned all Nirvana's songs and started a cover band. Then, I saw Jethro Tull on TV and it was something I’d never seen before. My mind didn’t know anything like that existed.
"I enrolled in university to study ethnomusicology which gave me insight into all kinds of music cultures around the world. In that science, all music is treated equally, it doesn’t matter if it’s Mozart or someone blowing into seashells. I started to understand many different music cultures and how there is no right or wrong.”
For those of a younger generation, Jethro Tull were one of the pioneers of progressive rock. Their medieval grunge compositions continue to fill venues 55 years after the band’s formation.
Ahonen’s bread and butter is not just being in bands. Previously, he’s been invited to play as a session guitarist on some pop songs and there’s been the odd bit of guitar tutoring. Most recently he is composing scores for Chinese films alongside composing partner Lu Chuang. The pair worked on the Chinese movie 你好再见 (Hello Bye) which proved to be very successful and, after its initial release, racking up more than 31 million views online.
The movie, which stars Zhang Zifeng and Guo Qilin, is about a futuristic world where people use brain implants to streamline conversations. A Black Mirror-style plot for sure, but in writing compositions for the screen, the guitarist is easing back on his usual complicated approach to music.
Ahonen and his well constructed pedal board. Image via Shao Qiang
“I just play the scene over and over again in my head, or on my screen if I get the footage beforehand while jamming on an instrument,” says Ahonen, while strumming a couple of air guitar chords and explaining how he produces music for movie scenes.
“Communication with the director is key. At first, film composing can hit your ego hard. You could have been working on a one-minute scene for a week. Finally, you feel like you have it and proudly send a demo to the director, and they just say no.”
“I like minimalism. For example, in one of my bands, SHA! the sound is not that complicated. In some songs, there’s just one looping riff but it's displayed or scattered in different ways,” he explains.
Ahonen and his musically diverse SHA! bandmates. Image via 24D Space photographer
SHA! have been playing in China since 2017 and each member is bursting with talent. Their prog-rock-orientated psychedelic instrumentations require a deep knowledge of musical theory. It’s a long way from the plug-in and play vibes, and reaching an end product that satisfies everyone can sometimes take time and lead to differences of opinion.
The band’s keyboard player, David Bond, knows Ahonen better than most. Their friendship has always remained firmly intact, even if the practice space dynamic can create some tension.
“There is always conflict in the SHA! practice room,” says the soft-spoken American. "It’s part of our creative process at this point. Ahonen usually comes in with some outlandishly counted out riff, then I have to go through the painful exercise of actually learning how to count, then play and then adapt to the drumming.”
Trombonist Daniel Rothwell has been with the group since 2018 and says while disagreements can happen, there are rules the group has put in place to make sure it never gets out of hand.
“Let me summarize the danger zone,” remarks the Englishman, expanding on one of the aforementioned rules. “The danger zone is a place in which musical meandering is encouraged. When on stage there’s nobody to ask for directions but ourselves, so we are forced to get creative.
“Dealing with complex time signatures adds complications and often some disagreements about what should go where and why. Compromise comes from clearly understanding our intentions as a unit via experimentation and embracing happy accidents.”
Ahonen’s playing style and appearance have made him one of Beijing’s best known performers. Image via @催景华
Original music aside, one of Ahonen’s other bands, Peking Floyd is arguably the most popular expat group in Beijing, if not China. The music of Pink Floyd has an international fan base that spans generations with tribute acts regularly performing all over the world. When Peking Floyd was formed in 2017, there was a feeling this was going to be an extremely popular venture.
Pink Floyd cover bands occupy a special nether region for performers and concert-goers. While Ahonen can’t claim that performing another group’s songs has the same integrity original music does, there is an added kudos that goes with trying to tackle such special, complicated, and in some cases, personal songs.
“Peking Floyd are the only cover band I could do,” says Ahonen firmly. “We have fun shows. If you cover Pink Floyd, you have a lot of freedom. Most Pink Floyd cover bands try to make it sound the same but, in the songs, there is so much room for experimentation.”
Lead singer and bassist Scott Slepicka backs up the guitar player’s ethos. Slepicka believes some of the bands staying power and success has been down to how Ahonen approaches the famous back catalog.
“Any decent guitarist can memorize a lick or a solo, but nobody plays at the level he does. There’s just something in his fingers. His tone makes you turn your head and say, 'Wow! That dude can play.'”
As we wind down our conversation, there’s the sense that his pursuit of playing from the heart and not for the purse is one worth continuing. Breaking into the music industry is as much about luck as it is about talent, but Ahonen certainly has the creativity and ability to rival any modern player.
“I’ve never tried to be famous and I don’t want to be. Don’t get me wrong, I would like the money that comes with being famous, but I’m never going to dumb anything down or sell myself out.”
SHA! is currently in the process of releasing an album, while Peking Floyd are at the height of their popularity. These projects are just two examples of the many Ahonen is involved in. As he continues to be one of the most sought-after musicians in the city. He’s certainly a long way from that teenager in Finland who got his kicks listening to Nirvana. Realistically, very few talented people ever “make it.” But, as Kurt Cobain himself once said, "Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are."
[Cover image: Jukka Ahonen and long time friend and collaborator David Bond playing together in Peking Floyd. Image via 山羊]