TRADITIONAL ETHNIC MUSIC IN CHINA
Naxi Classical Music Orchestra
Many minorities have their own music. Tibet, for example, has its own traditional secular and religious music. Traditional Tibetan instruments used in religious music include bamboo flutes, human thighbone flutes, conch shells, cymbals, hand drums, bells, oboe-like flageolets, conch shell trumpets, and drums made for two skull halves placed back to back.
Mongolian Khoomi singers are men who appear to produce two notes simultaneously. One sound is like the metallic warbling of a juice harp, the other sound is like a moaning growl. Also known as overtone singing or throat singing the sounds are made by carefully controlling the larynx, mouth and abdominal muscles. Some of the songs are meant imitate the noises made by sheep and goats.
Ethnic musicians suffered in the Mao period. One singer in Inner Mongolia had his instruments and recordings smashed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and was imprisoned for 11 years because he sang longingly about mountains in Mongolia rather than ones n China.
Xibei Feng (northwest wind) is an interesting style of folk music from northwest China, with a slightly reggae-like beat. The soundtrack from The Yellow Earth and Red Sorghum features xibei feng.
Traditional music played by ordinary people is said to be most alive in the Hu Jia Ta region of Shaanxi Province, a cradle of Han culture. An old farmer named Li Sheng Cal, who sings to the accompaniment of the erhu, is said to be particularly good. There is a group in Gansu that traces its root back five generations to the Ming dynasty.
Communist-Party-Endorsed Ethnic Music in China
Popular Miao singer Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “At the forefront of state-sponsored minority representation are the ‘song and dance troupes” that appear regularly on television. These shows portray minorities as exotic and unthreatening “with bright clothes and wide smiles and who are fanatical about singing and dancing. Many disparate minority groups often perform on stage together to symbolize ethnic harmony. Songs are often performed in Mandarin.” [Source: Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs , New York Times July 16, 2011]
The lyrics are frequently apolitical paeans to the rugged allure of China’s borderlands. In 2009, the Mongolian singer Wulan Tuoya had a major hit with the crisp, karaoke-friendly “I Want to Go to Tibet.” The song’s music video looks like a public relations campaign for Tibetan tourism, juxtaposing government-financed group dances with video clips of the Beijing-Lhasa express train.
The status quo poses a challenge to those who wish to perform traditional songs as they are, with lyrics often describing less salubrious aspects of minority life. “About 80 percent of my songs are about hardship,” said Aojie a Ge, a Beijing-based musician from the Yi minority of southwest China. “But can I perform these songs? Of course not. I still need to survive.” Many such programs are political in nature: Mr. Aojie recently returned from a week in Yunnan Province, where he helped local entrepreneurs develop a program promoting patriotic songs.
While Mr. Aojie enjoys the stability and prestige associated with his position, he is aware of the artistic limits imposed by the authorities. The government, for example, ultimately decides where he can perform, as well as the language of his songs. “Of course, I have objections,” Mr. Aojie said. “In other countries, you can raise them. Here, you can’t.”
Naxi Classical Music Orchestra
The Naxi Classical Music Orchestra still plays 1,000-year-old music from the Tang and Song dynasties in Lijiang in the Yunnan Province. During the Cultural Revolution, members of the orchestra buried their instruments to keep them from being destroyed by the Red Guards.
The group was founded by Xian Ke, a musician who spent 21 years it prison for his love of Western classical music. He launched the orchestra when he was released from prison in 1978. Many of the musicians had also spent time in prison.
Describing the music, Maggie Farely wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The sound is rich and resonant, an interplay of a high-pitched bamboo flute with an array of chiming gongs, stringed instruments that are bowed or plucked, even an old Persian lute that...is now only used in Naxi music.
Many of the musicians are in their 80s and few young people are learning the music even though a school has been launched. There is a danger that music will die when the musicians die.
Su Yang and Folk Songs from Ningxia
Jiang Wanjuan wrote in the Global Times: “Though he's been hailed as the best folk-rock musician in China, Su Yang prefers to simply introduce himself as a man from Ningxia, a husband, and the father of a teenage son. The 42-year-old singer/songwriter’s debut album, Xian Liang (Able and Virtuous), released in 2006, was a big hit in the folk-rock world in China and remains popular and influential. The tunes of the album were mostly adapted from the folksongs of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where Su grew up. His second album Xiang Cao Yi Yang (Like The Grass) was released in 2010. [Source: Jiang Wanjuan, Global Times, December 17, 2010]
At first, he was worried that his tunes might be too old-fashioned for modern people, but to his surprise, the melodies not only touched people in his hometown but also countless others from elsewhere in China. Su attributed the success to the instinctive power of the music. "If my first album helped build my image as a folk singer, then my new album gave me a chance to present folk lovers with a better production of my music," said Su in a recent interview with the Global Times.
Su has taken his time with Like The Grass, three years in the making. He explained that collecting the old tunes from communities and giving them a new life that can be accepted by modern people is no easy job. His mission to stir people's memories and revive the disappearing folk tunes means he had to travel to a lot of places to find and study from people who could still remember and sing them.
Su said that most local people now only remember the tunes but not the lyrics, so he sometimes had to complete the words by himself. He works only in local dialect, as in his eyes, language is key to folk songs. "Every community has its own language. It may not be widespread, but it must be the most sensitive and influential one to the people living there. When you sing in your own original language, the power is the strongest." When collecting local tunes, Su also noticed that people's life in rural areas have dramatically changed, so he decided to adapt the traditional tunes, mostly from Northwest China, with lyrics that reflect their new life
Also, as a pioneer of rock music in Ningxia, Su presents it to a larger audience group with modern instruments, although careful listeners can still find the sound of traditional Chinese instruments such as the suona (reed oboe) and banhu (coconut banjo) in his music. The lead single of Like The Grass mixes the sound of suona and percussion. According to Su, it is a general description of people's lives in the rural areas of Northwest China, where they are born, live, and die quietly, just like the grass.
Compared with the last album, Su says Like The Grass is closer to people's real lives in rural areas, which is shown thorough details like a husband and wife's quarrel and the sound of village gossip. "In the new album, I want to show people the changing villages and small towns and the new lifestyle there, instead of the old image stuck in people's mind." He said. The song "Ballad of A Couple" in the new album features the complaint of a countryside woman, who wants to divorce her old-fashioned husband for the more glamorous life that her neighbors seem to have, but later changes her mind after hearing the village officer's reasoning.
In his his hometown of Yinchuan Su did not see a car until he was six. He lived there for over three decades, and was a street vendor, cable repairman, and construction worker before he became a full-time musician. He did not receive professional music training but taught himself many music instruments. When he was studying in a vocational school when he was 18, he happened to hear a student playing guitar in another dorm. He was fascinated and traded that month's 20 yuan ($3.01) in food coupons for the instrument that started his music journey.
Later, he also formed a rock band with some local friends, but felt his music was somewhat directionless until he was inspired by African folk music and decided to adapt Chinese folk songs. "In 2002, my friend gave me a CD and I was deeply touched by the tribal tunes. Although I didn't understand the lyrics, I felt it was similar to the folk songs in Northwest China, " he said.
Like his debut album, Like The Grass will also provide elegant and close English translation of each song, as Su is aware of his expat followers. Influenced by Western musicians such as Dire Straits, Queen and Scorpions, Su said he always wonders if it would be better if he could understand the lyrics. "I don't understand English, but I can feel the emotion and rhyme of the English songs, but if I can understand the lyrics and details, I think I will enjoy it more."
Mongolian Throat Singing
Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “Mongolian throat singing---a fiendishly difficult practice that musicologists know as overtone singing---has often attracted interest, sometimes covetous, from outside Mongolia. The Russian region of Tuva, which borders Mongolia, tried briefly in the 1990s to brand it as Tuvan and impose a licensing system on throat singers. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]
Frank Zappa, the late American musician, jammed with a throat-rock ensemble called Huun-Huur-Tu, and folk music aficionados around the world have long marveled at how a good throat singer can produce two or more distinct pitches simultaneously in an otherworldly mix of melody and tone.
Throat singing is generally accepted to have originated in the west of what is now Mongolia. It is thought to have originated among herders mimicking the sounds of animals, water and the wind. The practice developed alongside animist beliefs that all natural objects have souls or spirits whose power humans can harness through mimicry.
Throat singing was spread by the explosive conquests of Genghis Khan and his descendants, one of whom, Kublai Khan, took control of China in 1271. Mongolia, which later fell under China’s sway, became an independent state in 1921, but, with a population of only 2.8 million today, it is deeply wary of its 1.3-billion-strong neighbor and longtime rival to the south.
Alternative Ethnic Music Scene in China
A growing roster of alternative performance sites and music festivals has allowed Chinese ethnic minority musicians to enjoy an unusual degree of financial security and cultural prominence. But in China, where the central government maintains a firm grip on popular media and cultural events, minority musicians walk a fine line: play it safe and they may lose their audience; go too far and they may lose their stage. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs , New York Times July 16, 2011]
Alternative ethnic artists include Mamer, an experimental musician from the Kazakh border region of China who plays a long-necked lute, and Zhang Quan, a folk singer from the arid northwestern plains. Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, " Aojie a Ge, the Beijing-based musician from the Yi minority described above, rose to national fame in the late 1990s with the pop trio Mountain Eagle. Although he grew up in the Liangshan Prefecture of Sichuan Province, one of the country’s poorest regions, he has largely assimilated to city life. He wears shoulder-length dreadlocks and designer jeans. His celebrity has earned him a prestigious job directing programs for a performance group affiliated with the All China Federation of Trade Unions, a government institution."
Robert Saiget of AFP wrote: “After 10 years of constant touring, Mountain People -- from the mountainous southwestern province of Yunnan -- have become renowned for their amped-up traditional Chinese instruments and energy-packed shows. As well as becoming a favorite band in Beijing, the Mountain People are revered in their home province of Yunnan and regularly tour overseas.” [Source: Robert Saiget, AFP, June 18, 2012]
Mongolian Rock Band Hanggai
Hanggai drinking song The Mongolian rock band Hanggai has toured Europe, played alongside big name acts like the band Coldplay and earned plaudits in the international press. But here in China, the growing popularity of the Mongolian rock band Hanggai has not exactly inspired adulation from the authorities. A festival organized by the band in the suburbs of Beijing, according to the New York Times, attracted “a swarm of state security officers who monitor the crowd with suspicion, impatience and a hint of curiosity.” [Source: Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs , New York Times July 16, 2011]
Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Last month, a few hundred foreigners and young Chinese packed a popular bar to see Hanggai play a final set in Beijing before embarking on a national tour. Projectors washed the stage with glimpses of lush grass hills, blue skies and galloping horse “a subtle reminder of what many Mongolians say is being destroyed by a coal boom orchestrated by Han mining companies.”
“After each song, fans from the band members’ hometowns in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region climbed on stage to present multicolored silk scarves to the band, a traditional gesture of respect. When Huricha, one of the band’s vocalists, growled, “We will bring you to the grasslands,” the audience burst into applause.
But such flourishes of ethnic pride are counterbalanced by moments of uncertainty. At a Hanggai show in Shanghai the following week, one night after Shanren played on the same stage to a sold-out crowd, the police stopped the show after the opening act, saying there had been complaints about the noise. The band was disappointed but forbearing. “They don’t need to control everything the way they do,” Ilchi, the band’s leader, said later. “Rock concerts are very safe. It’s only music after all.”
Six City: Uighur Hip-Hop
Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley wrote in The Atlantic, “In Urumqi’s poorest districts, some Uighur youth have turned to a non-traditional outlet for maintaining cultural pride: hip-hop. Since 2006, this home-grown rap and dance scene has drawn together thousands of Uighur fans across Xinjiang, and has even managed a feat the founders didn’t expect to achieve: attracting Han Chinese fans. Ekrem, aka Zanjir, was the first Uighur rapper and a co-founder of Six City, Urumqi’s most popular rap collective, for which he now serves as producer and business manager. It’s a part-time gig. In his spare time, he moonlights as a software developer, while other members of the collective drive hospital shuttles or work in traditional Uighur dance shows to make ends meet. [Source: Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley, The Atlantic, October 29, 2013 ***]
“In a simple basement studio wedged between tire stores in a Tianshan strip mall, Ekrem and three other Six City MCs crammed around a computer and a single microphone. On a shelf was a stack of records from their idols American hip-hop stars like Snoop, Eminem, Ice Cube, and 50 Cent. The men would have fit comfortably in urban America: Ekrem wore a black Dodgers cap, while Behtiyar, a fellow member, had slick-backed hair and wings tattooed on his forearms. Eager to show off, one rapper called “MC-5" started to freestyle. ***
“He was good. Rap in Uighur is fluid and quick, and the vowels come in rapid succession, from the back of the mouth, producing a smooth sound. “Uighur is much better for rap than Mandarin,” Behtiyar explained. “Uighur is phonetic, like English, so it’s easy to make dope rhymes.” By contrast, he said, it is more difficult to sing in Mandarin. ***
“But even Six City writes half of their lyrics in Chinese. Their reasoning for this is purely pragmatic. According to Ekrem, it makes Six City’s music more accessible to the mass market of Mandarin speakers. “And the Chinese Government censors less when you mix in Chinese lyrics” he said, with a smile. The collective has had to adapt to government pressure in other ways. “There’s a lot of lyrics we can’t express, so we have to be smart” Behtiyar said. Six City steers clear of politics and discrimination, and instead focuses their songs on Uighur pride or problems of drug and gambling addictions in Urumqi’s low-income neighborhoods. It’s an important way to raise awareness about the culture, and “show China that we’re not a bunch of primitives” says Ekrem, referring to a frequent Han stereotype of Uighurs. ***
Shanren---meaning “Mountain People”---is known for its eclectic style ‘songs move fluidly from electronica to reggae to metal “and arrangements inspired by traditional music from the country’s ethnically diverse southwest, a mélange of loose falsetto harmonies and twangy pentatonic lutes. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs , New York Times July 16, 2011]
Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Growing up in a poor and mountainous village in southwest Guizhou Province, Xiao Budian, the band’s lead multi-instrumentalist, said a music career was beyond his imagination. The son of a cow herder and member of the tiny Buyi minority, Mr. Xiao left home on his 19th birthday, spending his high school tuition fees on a one-way train ticket to Beijing. “I wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain,” he said.
Mr. Xiao initially lived with his older brother, a rock musician who had amassed a collection of foreign music and movies during his years in the capital. One day, Mr. Xiao heard Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a documentary about World War II. “It was so simple, just a voice, a guitar and a harmonica,” he said. “But its power was tremendous. It was like an atom bomb.”
From their vantage point outside government channels, Shanren can breach subjects off limits to musicians like Mr. Aojie. For example, “30 Years” is a Shanren song based on a Yi folk tune. Qu Zihan, the band’s frontman, changed the lyrics to reflect the difficulty of finding good work and love in the big city. “Even though we have rebellious things in our music, they’re really not so obvious,” Mr. Qu said. “We just want to approach things from a different angle, to make people think.”
Lao Qiang Puppet Music: the Chinese Blues or Maybe Heavy Metal?
In July 2013, NPR reported: “To find a homegrown musical alternative to conventional musical tastes, just travel to the edge of northwest China's Shaanxi province, on the middle reaches of the Yellow River, on the southern edge of a vast plateau of dusty badlands. By the standards of wealthier southern China, the area is poor, dry and coarse. [Source: NPR, July 19, 2013 ]
“On a recent afternoon, local musician Zhang Junmin joins his fellow band members on a hill behind his village. They're there to perform a style of music called Lao Qiang, which is roughly translatable as "Old Tune." Zhang says it's been passed down in his family for centuries. If you didn't know better, you might think you were hearing the hard-knock life story of a Mississippi Delta bluesman.
“Zhang says his father was close to illiterate. Zhang himself was too poor to attend school. He farmed the land part of the time, and played music the rest. He says he learned his art the traditional way. "If I couldn't pick up a tune on my instrument, my papa would get mad," Zhang recalls in a raspy voice. "He'd come over and slap me upside the head. That slap would wake me up, and then I'd get it. If he didn't slap me, I wouldn't concentrate. And I wouldn't get it."
“Traditionally, Lao Qiang musicians would accompany a puppeteer, who would tell stories from behind a screen. It wasn't until a couple of decades ago that the musicians came out from behind that screen and performed on their own, in full view of the audience. The origin of Lao Qiang music is a matter of some dispute, but Zhang says the most plausible explanation he's heard is that it is descended from the chanteys of boatmen on the Yellow River (lots of "hey's" and "ho's") as they rowed barges laden with grain to the imperial capital at Chang'an during the Western Han dynasty, roughly 2,000 years ago.
“Zhang's band launches into a rip-roaring tune about combat among warlords during the third-century Three Kingdoms period. The string section saws away with such gusto that horsehairs come flying off their bows. A percussionist thrashes out a furious beat on a wooden bench. The musicians holler the song's lyrics in unison, as Zhang thrusts a banjo-like instrument called a sanxian into the air like a rock star. He says it's the stories that give the music its brash spirit. "Even in the coldest days of winter, we perform for five minutes and we're sweating," he says. "It's mostly the combat scenes. They just fire us up. It's not like we're trying to get fired up. We just can't help it!"
Beijing-based music critic Wang Xiaofeng says that when he heard Lao Qiang for the first time about 18 years ago, it reminded him of heavy metal: very physical and somewhat operatic. He adds that Lao Qiang is way outside the mainstream of Chinese popular musical taste. While many Chinese have gradually become aware of Lao Qiang music, the art form remains pretty obscure. Zhang Junmin says he's doing everything he can just to keep his family's tradition alive. "We don't want this music to be buried in the ground," Zhang says. "It belongs to society, and we should find a way to pass on our legacy. That's my dream."
Image Sources: YouTube UNESCO (Naxi orchestra)
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated December 2013