Monday, October 1, 2012

Fulbright wrap-up, two years ahead

For the sake of closure -- two years after the fact -- I've decided to post a short essay I wrote near the end of my Fulbright year summing up my months in the field. While this was never published, it got me into journalism, which now takes up most of my time. Hope you all enjoy.

According to the Chinese government, China has 55 ethnic minorities and they love to sing and dance. Occasionally, Chinese state television runs specials on minority folk music featuring big smiles, bright costumes and MIDI synthesizers. But real folk songs do not appear on television. They’re passed on from generation to generation in the country’s rural backwaters, and to hear them, you need to seek them out.  

I spent last year on a Fulbright grant recording these songs. More specifically, I was recording the songs of the Nuoso, a group of three million from the Liangshan Prefecture of Sichuan Province. I was attracted to the Nuoso by their history. Liangshan is mountainous and remote, allowing the Nuoso to remain a closed, slave-owning society until the 1950s. They were perceived as violent – while other regional groups accommodated Mao’s soldiers during the Long March, the Nuoso captured stray regiments. But isolation breeds idiosyncrasy, and Nuoso music is utterly distinct. The melodies are sad and delicate. They strain upwards like the mountains.

Liangshan Prefecture was registered as a political unit in 1952 after Mao built small administrative cities in the mountains. It has since developed a clear geographic hierarchy. Outside of Mao’s cities, paved roads turn off onto gravel tracks, flanked by market towns. Behind these towns run elaborate networks of footpaths – dotted lines on county maps, flecked with tiny villages.

At the top of the hierarchy is Xichang, the prefecture capital.

Southern and low-lying, the temperature in Xichang perennially floats between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It has a cineplex, a Yoga studio, and a strip of up-market coffee shops that sell blends from Jamaica and Brazil. The nightlife in Xichang is vibrant, and many streets are packed with outdoor bars. Spiky-haired kids with acoustic guitars wander among tables, singing Nuoso pop classics for change – songs by local heroes like A-Ge.

A-Ge grew up in Liangshan but lives in Beijing. He has dreadlocks, drinks Jack Daniels and wears AX jeans. Before going solo in the late 90s, he scaled heights of national fame as a founding member of the band Mountain Eagle. His first cassette sold 3,000,000 copies. Experience dictates that most Beijing cab drivers are familiar with his music.

But before his ascent to stardom, A-Ge could see the stars at night through the slats in his roof. His father was a “barefoot doctor” during the Cultural Revolution who, during his spare time, whittled Jew's harps out of bamboo. He traded them at market for sacks of rice. Because his village didn't have a radio, folk songs were the only songs that A-Ge ever heard. They were formative in his musical career – half of A-Ge’s lyrics are in Nuoso. They depict Nuoso festivals and pretty Nuoso girls. In his videos, herders in Nuoso costume sit on Liangshan mountaintops and gaze into the sunset.

These videos have become a fixture of inter-county busses in Liangshan. The road from Xichang winds up into the mountains; the temperature drops; apartment complexes turn into mud-brick huts. But A-Ge’s songs are known to all who ride. They trace the footprints of their singer from city to town to country.

In the middle of the hierarchy are Mao’s county seats.

County seats have Chinese fast food chains and Karaoke parlors. Local men squat outside of white tile administrative buildings and drink beer on the ground. Since A-Ge’s success, they have become saturated with aspiring Nuoso boy-bands.

The prevalence of the boy-band model in Liangshan is not surprising – there’s a strong precedent, and it doesn’t require much equipment or musical training. It does, however, require good connections, and by that token, emerging boy-bands are divisible into tiers. Fist-tier bands are typically cultivated by first-generation pop stars. For example, A-Ge provides harmonies and capital to the Sun Clan, his younger brother’s boy-band. Second-tier bands need day-jobs.

I spent a week in Leibo County with a second-tier boy-band called Yi Commune and their friend A-Su. When A-Su was an infant, his parents’ car drove off a cliff, and he was sent to live with his uncle. This uncle was rich – he owned a coal mine in the mountains, and A-Su worked there for most of his childhood. He was a star employee. Two years ago, on A-Su’s wedding night, his uncle gave him a gift of 70,000 Yuan, enough to buy a small house. For two nights he was so excited he couldn’t sleep.

Soon afterwards, Yi Commune presented him with an investment opportunity. A-Su would finance their debut CD and reap 50% of its profits. The CD was recorded in a month and distributed in county seats throughout Liangshan. It didn’t sell. A-Su lost his fortune.

Despite its losses, the album was a valuable experiment. Yi Commune spent most of A-Su’s money on songwriters – Nuoso musicians who, like A-Ge, live and work in Beijing. They wrote traditional concepts into contemporary genres. They recorded socialist gangsta rap and animist reggae. Apparently, one of Yi Commune’s songwriters had been listening to some Paul Simon. One night, after a few drinks, the band sang me Scarborough Fair in Nuoso. It was a remarkable rendition. It laid bare the strange relationship between art and industry; the idea that music can arrive by way of coal. It was a testament to the power of roads.

At the bottom of the hierarchy is the village.

During my field work, I often heard a story about an American pilot who crash-landed in a Liangshan village during World War II. The villagers had never seen a foreigner; he emerged from the wreckage and, by his appearance alone, broadened their understanding of the world. Soon, other things began falling out of the sky. First there was electricity, and then TV, and then soon enough, the idea of a global order – the idea that the village is poor, and that big cities have money. This idea was enough to start an exodus.

On one of my first trips to Liangshan, I met a retired local official on a market day in a crowded roadside town. He said he knew a man who knew some songs, and he would take me to hear them.
The singer’s house was an arduous two-hour hike from the nearest road. It was built from mud and straw. Smoked meat hung from the ceiling. The singer was 70 and lived alone. His wife was dead; his sons sent him money from Guangzhou. He sang about his mother in long falsetto strains. Although Nuoso songs can run on for hours, the singer stopped to lay down. He was unbearably thin. I wondered if he would last the winter.  

After recording, the singer lit a fire in his fire pit. He threw in some potatoes. Once they were cooked, he rolled them onto the floor. We scraped off the carbon with splinters of bamboo and ate them in silence. We could hear nothing but the wind.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Laowai Gig

In early June, 2008, I sat in a tiny straw hut in northern Beijing and listened to Wa man named Sai close his eyes, tilt his head back, and sing a heartrending ode to Chairman Mao. There were three identical huts in Sai’s “village”; each was fitted with two benches, a cooking pot, and a color television. Together, they comprised the Wa division of the Minzuyuan, or Ethnic Culture Park, an Elysium of ethnic harmony tucked neatly in between the Bird’s Nest and the Ming Ruins. In keeping with its goal of "promoting unity of all Chinese nationalities," the park’s Tujia can freely dine on Thai, and its North Korean Autonomous Prefecture is only a shuttle ride away from Qinghai-Tibet. The prettiest voice in his hometown, Sai had been plucked from Gengma, Yunnan by park cadres that spring and handed an unrenewable two-year contract. “How do you like it here, Sai?” I asked him. He shrugged. “Beats what I’d be doing in Gengma.”
The Ethnic Culture Park is the pinnacle of China kitsch. It screams for problematization, but its underlying problems are so deep-rooted that they seem impervious to change. We can blame it on Mao’s heavy-handed classification of China’s minorities in the 50’s, the CCP's almost Orientalist, exoticizing bent, or the plain absurdity of building straw huts in Beijing. But in the end, the biggest problem is an unshakeable feeling of condescension; the questionable morality involved in turning a minority culture into a spectacle. It’s a feeling that I’ve thought about at length, but until recently, never felt myself. 
Early last month, I sat in a small restaurant in Chengdu with two fellow Fulbrighters, David and Charles, enjoying a Sichuanese breakfast of spicy noodles and mangosteens. 
"Never, ever play a laowai gig," said David, using the Chinese word for foreigner. "It leaves you feeling... dirty."
“What’s a laowai gig?”
The biggest difference between my American and Chinese selves is that the latter doesn’t balk at the prospect of humiliation. So when Charles mentioned in passing that he promised an agent he'd play a laowai gig that night, my Chinese self immediately signed on. So did David’s. A couple of phone calls later, the agent swung by his apartment for a briefing. “Prepare four songs,” he told us, “and wear black leather shoes. You must absolutely not forget your shoes.” 
The agent picked us up in a company van at four, and although we arrived at around five-thirty, the trip felt endless. Urban Chengdu slowly fanned out into typical Chinese exurbs -- meadows of dust and rubble, eerily distant apartment blocks. About a half-hour into the void, we turned a right, passed some old Maoist slogans, and pulled up to a banquet hall that might have dropped right out of suburban Connecticut.  

The venue was an early spring festival reception for the financial giants behind a new gated community in the area. The average attendees were overweight Chinese men sporting flat-top haircuts and short-sleeve office shirts. Their wives chatted with the other wives about daytime television; their children picked at hot dogs and french fries from the buffet. The PA played L-O-V-E by Nat King Cole on repeat. A line of beautiful Chinese girls stood at the door wearing white gowns and heavy makeup. Behind them, another foreigner stood dressed as a chef. His name was Eric. He'd never cooked a meal in his life. 
The next half-hour was somewhat of a blur. The agent led us into a back room and threw us ill-fitting black suits and bow-ties. Once we were dressed, he pushed us onto a glittery silver stage in the foyer. We sang though an indie round and a bluegrass cover, drawing curious glances from a few kids around the stage. Before we could break into our third song -- a jazz standard for guitar and clarinet -- the agent tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for us to step off. We nabbed a bottle of Great Wall wine from the buffet, opened it with a plastic fork, and finished it backstage with the door girls. 

London, 1880

Chengdu, 2010


For as long as I’ve been alive, fear has been a deep-rooted aspect of the American psyche. The rise of China isn’t helping. Stoked by sensational media coverage, we live under the constant threat of an increasingly cocksure PLA, unfair trade policy, environmental catastrophe; the prospect of a G1 world with an authoritarian one-party system on top. But my greatest fear is a less-discussed potential consequence of these shifting dynamics. The subsumption and non-consensual appropriation of my identity as an American. The construction of a “Laowai Village” in that Ethnic Park -- a little, white-picket piece of New Jersey somewhere in between Sai's straw huts and Little Xinjiang.  

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A fond farewell to the Northern Capital

Sometime on Thursday morning, I will step off of a train in Southwest China, and my life in Beijing will be 750 miles behind me. This means no more underground rock scene, no more full days at the National Library, and no more English speaking company. And being all too aware of this, I've come down with a serious case of the lasts. A nagging compulsion to finally eat at that weird restaurant on the corner. To play a show at a bar. Finish my heavier books. Actually check out the Military Museum on the 1-line.

(shot down U2 American (KMT) spy plane, courtesy of Flickr)


Although I often feel that the Western news coverage of China is exasperatingly full of politically motivated sources, questionable details and rash overgeneralizations, this past October, Andrew Jacobs of the NY Times knocked one out of the park. Like many journalists before him, he wrote about the demolition of traditional neighborhoods to clear up space for apartment blocks and ridiculous Walmart knockoffs*. Jacobs found a delicious spin, however. Hawkers, he wrote, pushcart merchants that have haunted Old Beijing for centuries, “sing” one-line jingles to draw out customers, and these quirky, comforting melodies are vanishing along with their ecosystem. Like a Chinese analogue to “popcorn, get your popcorn!” or “extra, extra, read all about it!” Hawker songs have been replaced by tinny storefront speakers blaring short and unintelligible soundbites on loop, the volume set to max to out-obnoxious equally savage neighbors. The whole street ends up sounding like "CHEAPSCARVES STEAMEDBUNS CHEAP SCARS TEABUN SCSTECB RN," and the "get your popcorn" guy is forced into early retirement.

Naturally, I decided to add a hawker song-hunt to my last-days-in-Beijing itinerary, and last weekend, an American friend and I settled on a time and made the trip. After some deliberation, we decided on the most death-rattle hutongs of them all, those lying in the shadow of Qianmen, an ancient guard tower at the southern end of Tiananmen Square. During the Qing Dynasty, when Beijing's city walls were still intact, Qianmen was used as a gate to separate the aristocratic, predominantly Manchu "Inner City" from the sprawling Han slums outside. And then fifty yeas ago, Mao Zedong, in his tireless (and frighteningly successful) quest to de-beautify, demolished the old Inner City, expanded Tiananmen Square to four times its original size, and covered it in cement. Thus the burden of guardianship has shifted. Tiananmen is now blocked on all sides by high white fences, and the only entry points are underground tunnels fitted with giant security cameras that, if you're not careful, might hit you in the face on your way up the stairs.

But the old Outer City -- at least pieces of it -- are just as they've always been. The winding streets are grey and dirty, lined with crumbling homes, and bare concrete walls marked for impending demolition. The quiet there is its own presence. The day we went, it was cold and windy, and the inhabitants fleeted by like ghosts. An older, Mao-Suited hawker rode past on a corrugated flatbed tricycle, towing a load of something that looked like canvas, his voice resplendent. But by the time I'd taken out my recorder, he had turned a corner. We took off in pursuit, but to no avail -- within a hundred meters, he had disappeared into in the modernized ether. The filthy cement ground turned into newly lain brick. Sketchy little "hair salons" turned into phony antique stores. Phony antique stores turned into upscale Western restaurants. A couple of steps further and we were on the highway.


Turns into this

Turns into this

And there's your Old Beijing.

Because of its sprawl and its constant traffic, Beijing's soundscape is heavy with a deep, underlying hum, so that being on the street here sounds a lot like being on an airplane. Passing by a couple of pedestrians, I can never make out what they're saying to each other until they're a few steps away -- vague murmurs snap suddenly into "...should give him a..." or "...the dog ate..." and then disappear completely. Fittingly, what Jacobs points to as "traditional" sounds are the only ones that put up a fight against the traffic. For example, at 9:30 every morning, I'm woken by the sad refrains of a lonely shoe-sole repairman outside of my 16th story apartment. My recorder isn't sensitive enough to pick it up, but it looks like this:

(lyrics unintelligible)

Unfortunately, not all sounds can escape the noise pollution. For example, only in the quietest of neighborhoods can you hear the pigeons. For the past 1,000 years, locals have recreationally affixed polyphonic whistles to their tail-feathers, so that once they're out of the cage, they scream by overhead like a flock of 16th century Vortex Howlers

A few days after my largely failed hutong expedition, I walked into an underpass by the Xizhimen subway and was stopped cold by some of the most haunting music I'd ever heard in Beijing. Half way down the tunnel, a sickly looking man sat on the ground, covered in thick, filthy blankets, playing a suona for change. I put five yuan in his box, stopped, and listened

The feeling this man gave me was different from that of the violin player who I wrote about in November. He seemed as if he'd somehow fallen through the cracks -- instead of eerily blending in with the surrounding hustle, he was a counterpoint. A genuine trace of genuine sadness, shining through the din of forward motion. A photo-negative of the Qianmen hutongs, their silence turned to noise.

In the end, I realize that I have mixed feelings about leaving Beijing. But I also realize that they probably pale in comparison to the mixed feelings Beijing must have about leaving itself.


* "A dream we share – a dream of establishing an everlasting retail chain that Chinese people love patronizing, and that mingles with their daily lives – Wumart."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Maqie gives sage advice, Ma Yulong defies my expectations, and Jiugu sings Paul Simon

Last Friday, Maqie, A Ge's successor in Mountain Eagle, called me up for a pre-dinner chat at a teahouse north of the Forbidden City. He was finishing up an interview with a pudgy, nervous-looking journalist from the "Nationality Pictorial," a glossy periodical with a photo of Wen Jiabao on the inside cover. Their conversation felt like hard labor -- the journalist asked Maqie the same questions that journalists have been asking him since the 90's, and naturally, Maqie answered them by rote. "I want to/I think it's important to/Our appeal lies in that we combine popular music and ethnic minority music." Bam. To wrap things up, the reporter asked Maqie if he had any advice for young, aspiring musicians in Liangshan. "Stop forming boy bands," he said. "Every time I go home, there are thirty or forty new boy bands asking me what to do next. Do something different. Form a real band. Learn to play guitar."

Be more like Ma Yulong.

If Beijing's Liangshan Yi are connected like Beijing's hutong alleyways, then Ma Yulong is the Third Ring Road. He eats the fastest, drinks to get drunk and always foots the bill. His friends call him "Ma Laoshi," or Teacher Ma, though no one can explain how he got the title. In the late 1990's, Teacher Ma got a free ride out of the Sichuanese back country as a founding member of Yirenzhizao, the second most popular band in Yi history. But like A Ge before him, he decided that politi-pop wasn't the be all and end all of his musical existence, and in 2001 he amiably backed out. Unlike A Ge, however, Ma Yulong decided to try his hand at something more extreme, especially in the early 00's. Within a year, his new underground rock band, Sound Fragment, had established a small but loyal following. They've since released three LP's on Modern Sky, Beijing's flagship indie label. They sound like early Radiohead.

Here is Ma Yulong accompanying Maqie at a banquet. Note Maqie's uncanny resemblance to Bono.

The first time I met these guys, I was seated at a dinner between Ma Yulong and Laobai, The current front man of Yirenzhizao. Like any decent Chinese pop star, Lao Bai was wearing a bowler hat and suit jacket. Our conversation quickly fell into ruin. I told him I liked his music. He ran off a list of his government accolades. I asked him about his songwriting process.

"Life. Life is my songwriting process," he said.

Unlike Maqie, Laobai doesn't look enough like Bono to pull off the immortal rock star shtick, even if his music video features a really expensive looking horse. I couldn't settle on an appropriate response, so instead, I turned and introduced myself to the bearish guy on my left.

"Where are you from?" asked Ma Yulong.
"Oh, America! Bob Dylan!"

And thus, Ma completely defied my expectations, even if he didn't stray far from the script. For a more common opening exchange in China, replace the icon's name with "NBA!" "Obama!" or "do you have a gun?"

Ever since, my relationship with Ma has been largely defined by conversations that disintegrate into "have you ever heard of band X? what do you think of artist Y?" back-and-forth volleys. I try to disentangle English words from his Sichuanese-inflected Mandarin, which usually ends in a gratifying moment of clarity. For someone who had never heard Western music until his late teens, Ma has extraordinarily sophisticated taste. He's particularly fond of Brad Mehldau, Ali Farka Toure and John Cage. One time, he picked up the guitar at a party and sang through a mumbled, but immediately recognizable piece by the Tuvan experimental singer Sainkho Namtchylak. It was beautiful. But Ma is an island. As I sat and listened, spellbound, Taiyangbuluo (3:00) shrugged and went back to their wine.

Being in a Chinese rock band, even one as successful as Sound Fragment, is far from lucrative, so Ma supplements his income with stints as a hired songwriter and studio musician. Occasionally, he'll fly down to Yunnan to help his synth-pop buddies with side projects that always seem to be underwritten by the Ministry of Something Unintelligible. One time, I spotted Ma as an extra in a song-and-dance video about the pretty people of Liangshan, grinning sheepishly in Yi regalia, arms reaching towards the sun. "If that guy listens to John Cage," I thought to myself, "then anything is possible."


Ma told me once that starting Sound Fragment felt "surprisingly natural" given his background in ethnic boy-pop. I'm somehow unsurprised. Rock isn't too far from the blues, which these Yi guys all seem to have a serious knack for, even if they've never heard of Robert Johnson or B.B. King. HERE are Ma Yulong and Taiyangbuluo improvising a very short, and (at one point) very sweet little tune at a band mate's birthday party. That's me on guitar.

And in roughly the same vein, HERE is Jiugu, another former member of Yirenzhizao, singing Scarborough Fair in his local dialect. Try to ignore the background noise.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

An Yi pop star is born

A Ge's father was a barefoot doctor who, in his spare time, whittled Jew's harps out of bamboo. He was the only one in his village with the technical know-how, and also possessing a bit of an entrepreneurial flare, trekked out to market each month to trade them for bags of rice. Customers would play his Jew harps at festivals and small parties. This was the music industry in 1980's Zhaojue County.

The village didn't have a television or a radio, and thus, Jew's harp and mountain songs were the only music that baby A Ge ever heard. But it was clear that he had talent, and his father would bring him all over to sing for friends, relatives, and even patients. At eight, when A Ge packed off for boarding school in the county town, a teacher picked up where his father left off and entered him in a school singing competition. He won first place.

It was at boarding school that A Ge was first exposed to Greater China. Half of his classes were in Mandarin, which he mastered with remarkable speed. His school had a television, and he fell head over heels in love with Taiwanese pop music. He began to harbor ambitions of going to high school, and then eventually maybe even to college. But there was pressure on him to attend teacher training school instead, so he could return home and work instead of "blowing the family savings" on tuition. His father cut him a deal -- college, or a second hand acoustic guitar. A Ge caved.

About a year later, there was an explosion of cassette tapes in Zhaojue. While they mostly consisted of pop music from Hong Kong and Taiwan, there was some Western music as well, including a bootleg copy of Edelweiss. Slugging his way through Edelweiss, chord by chord, A Ge taught himself how to play.

In early 1992, A Ge organized all of his musical friends from the teacher training school into his first band, a nine-person acoustic guitar orchestra. (By this point, the guitar had taken a serious foothold in Zhaojue county. I asked A Ge if he had any recordings. He didn't). A Ge's Guitar Army was invited to perform a Taiwanese song in an all county singing competition, and obviously came in first. But A Ge was more impressed by two of the other contestants -- Jigequbu and Waqiyihe -- than he was with himself. He liked their style. They traded phone numbers, and began playing music on the weekends. Something clicked. Eventually they moved to Xichang, the capital of Sichuan's Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, where they rented an apartment, and started work on an album. Mountain Eagle was born.

Three years and three albums later, it was as if no other music existed in Liangshan.

Here is A Ge teaching me one of his songs at Beijing's only Yi restaurant:

Mountain Eagle was hailed as China's first ethnic minority pop band. They sold 3,000,000 copies of their first cassette, sung entirely in Yi. That's triple platinum in Sichuan and Yunnan, without as much as a whisper in the States. Welcome to China.

In order to truly appreciate the crazy, mixed-up genius of Mountain Eagle, you need to hear it for yourself. HERE is "Leaving Da Liangshan," the title track off of their third album. I should warn you that to the Western ear, this is really weird stuff. Like some sort of back-country Chinese "Eye of the Tiger."

Skip to the rap breakdown at 2:20.

While it might be easy for us to laugh this off, a little bit of cultural perspective will allow you to see how it could make a serious impact in mid-90's Yi Sichuan. HERE is a (face-meltingly awesome) video of an Yi shaman reciting (spittin') sacred texts. It was recorded this past summer by a professor at my university, and shows that rap-like music may have quite a history in Liangshan. Han pop songs, on the other hand, with their synth, set rhythm and music videos, were new and exciting, but still felt prohibitively foreign. Just as The Beatles brought Indian Raga to Rock & Roll and Paul Simon brought Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the top of the charts, Mountain Eagle brought Han pop music to the Yi.

Of course, this was well over ten years ago. Whenever I tell my Han friends that I've been hanging out with Mountain Eagle, they usually perk up and ask, "wow, what happened to them?" It's like if your Chinese foreign exchange buddy told you he'd just come back from dinner with the Gin Blossoms.

My hands-down favorite thing about Mountain Eagle is just how many other Yi musicians they've pulled into their orbit. Yirenzhizao are particularly notable. Current band members, former band members, and current members of bands of former band members all come together a few times a month for rowdy dinners that almost always end in orgiastic acoustic guitar sing-alongs.

This is what they look like:

But anyways, back to the story. In 1996, A Ge had a falling out with Waqiyihe and shocked the Yi world by going solo. He openly admits that he's at odds with the system -- the minute I switched my voice recorder off, he unleashed a hearty diatribe on artistic oppression, Han prejudice, etc.. He's aware that most of these songs sound ridiculous, but feels like he's circumstantially barred from producing anything better.

Though at the end of the day, things don't seem to be going so poorly for old A Ge. Within the past few years, he's founded his own song and dance troupe, written lucrative songs for Han pop stars, and single-handedly launched his kid brother A Hei's boy band Taiyangbuluo (Sun Tribe) to regional fame. Although the Tribe's first album essentially flopped, they've been living quite well off of random spots on Chinese television.

Here is a picture of Taiyangbuluo singing at an Yi New Year banquet sometime in November:

And HERE is the mp3. Admittedly, it's really not that great -- the Sun Tribe is melodramatic, off-key, and obviously wasted. However, I'm strangely drawn to that soaring harmony that comes in after about 20 seconds. There's something refreshingly organic about it, something that breaks away from the cookie-cutter timbre underwriting their televised existence. It's a faint, yet unmistakable whiff of the songs these guys grew up with.

A friend of mine once said that Han pop music sounded to him like a frozen TV dinner. There exist all sorts of different flavors and combinations, but they're only to distract you from the fact that you're eating a load of mass-produced garbage. Yi pop music may be just as frozen, but there's something about it that even the assembly line can't destroy... maybe replace the tater tots with a side of wild mushrooms. No matter how long they've been in the freezer, they've still got a serious one-up on plain old tots.

I think A Ge would agree, despite his misgivings.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Joys of Baidu Baike

Baidu is billed as a home-grown Chinese Google, and given that Google here is almost laughably prone to sudden, mid-query failure, it is by and large the search engine of choice for China's savvy young Netizens. For me at least, their most noticeable difference is that while Google often pulls up Wikipedia within its top 5-10 search results, Baidu summons its own (mostly) user-edited reference work called Baidu Baike.

Recently, I used Baidu Baike to find a Chinese perspective on the music of the Qiang people. Living primarily in northwestern Sichuan, the Qiang lost over 10% of their population in the earthquake last May, which has, according to state media, spurred a massive, government-funded cultural preservation effort.

No mention of preservation, but I did find this:

"Called "Lana" or "Lasuo" in the Qiang language, [Qiang mountain songs] are mostly sung during manual labor and in mountain fields, with relatively free rhythm... Their traditional lyrics used to express much hardship, reflecting the bitter lives of Qiang people in their old society. After 1949 [the founding of the PRC], the Qiang people rewrote many of their songs so they could sing new mountain songs for their new lives." (My own shoddy translation).

There's something wrong here. Claiming that the Qiang rewrote their songs after 1949 strikes me as heavy-handed, as if someone were to unequivocally claim that American slaves rewrote their songs after Lincoln. The way I'd like to see it, 1) when people are sad, they sing sad songs; when they're happy, they sing happy songs; and 2) in most musical traditions, songs exist for both occasions, which is why we don't have to rewrite them every time the wind turns.

Of course, the communists engaged in a lot of minority folk song collecting/rewriting themselves... but the Netizens must not have been informed.