The von Trump family

The recent visit of the Addams family, sorry I mean Trump family, to the Pope afforded ample fodder for the “enemy of the people”:


Did Tweety’s hapless advisors fail to point out that it wasn’t a Godfather-themed Halloween party? Not to mention the gender angle (see here):

Either I’m not a woman or my female share of timeless wisdom comes with a mutant variation, because rich girls in luxe outfits hanging round a bunch of guys and saying nothing doesn’t exude much intelligence, let alone “power”, to me. Maybe I’m misreading what “feminine power” means in this context. Is it something biological—like when your internalised resentment at patriarchy coils so tightly into your Kegel muscles that your eyes start glistening? Flicking male hands away from you may indeed be a symptom.

Among several gems from US TV, Jimmy Fallon was good:

Everyone in the US was watching closely and looking for some white smoke to see if we had a new president.

More drôlerie

Following the succès de scandale of the Li family Daoists’ tour of France, and my inept flirtations with Franglais (consisting mainly of “enchanté”, “apéritif”, and “encore”), here’s a little story:

Sidney the Snail has done well for himself. He shuffles into a luxury car showroom and announces chirpily to the salesman:
“Morning! I’d like to buy an Aston Martin Rapide S, please.”
“Certainly sir,” goes the salesman, “and did you have any additional features in mind?”
“Well actually… Does it happen to come with a big letter S on the boot?”
“Um, no sir—but I’m sure for an extra consideration we could paint one on.”
“Money is no object, my dear fellow.”
“Very well sir. Um… might I make so bold as to enquire just why you wish to have a large letter S on the boot of your new sportscar?”
“Well you see… I’ve always dreamed about surging past all the traffic, and them going,
‘Wow—just look at that S CAR GO!’ ”

Alas, I can’t begin to think how to translate this for Li Manshan.


Reluctant as I am to play into the hands of the fatuous “Paul Nuttall and the UKIPs”, this local landmark in Bedford Park may seem to suggest that the continent, with its fancy foreign monuments like those of Pisa and indeed Paris, isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.


The leaning pillarbox* of Chiswick.

Left-leaning too, you note… Is this the kind of subversion that scares off a certain old friend of mine?!

Did you hear about Karl Marx’s vegetable garden?
It’s a Communist plot.

QMZ pose 1993

Identity parade: the usual suspects.


* For younger readers whose grasp of Old English is less than perfect, a “pillarbox” was an ancient device into which were inserted objects called “letters”, written on paper (often with a “pen”) and enclosed in an “envelope” with a “stamp” attached. By a mysterious alchemical process, the addressee would often receive such missives within the space of a mere few days.

Ritual: the FA Cup, and a Sage


Following a heady week with the Li family band, Mahler 9, and Turangalîla, the FA Cup final is another Grand Ritual, which even I hesitate to compare with the Daoist jiao Offering.

After such a difficult season for Arsenal, I’m so happy for Arsène Wenger that they won. His victory also confirms my renewed infatuation with French culture. For me, in an age when Premier League managers last about as long as Italian prime ministers, Wenger—the archetypal wise father-figure—exemplifies the continuity and values of tradition, and our culture stands or falls with him. I’m delighted that Alan Bennett (still less of a football fan than I) expresses the same pleasure in his diary.

While Sanchez is driven and divine, Theo Walcott comes and goes, and Mehmut Özil, “floating, vulnerable muse”, is sometimes rather too languid, his inspiration elusive and intermittent. If someone doesn’t translate his autobiography Die Magie des Spiels soon, then I’m seriously going to have to learn German—as if Nina Hagen and the Matthew Passion weren’t enough of a stimulus.

Ronnie can lose games too—but it’s the principle (Oops, I nearly came out with “It’s not whether you win or lose, but….”). Like Daoists, he and Wenger negotiate expediencies and maintain a core of inspiration in a mundane cutthroat society. Like Li Manshan, Wenger adroitly juggles a pool of performers—OK, this was expediency, but however did he come up with Mertesacker on the bo cymbals (Shurely shome mishtake?—Ed.] after all this time?! Génial!

While I’m about it, amidst a plethora of mercenary fuckwits posturing on the media stage, the Premier League has seen a sudden and unlikely flowering of civilized generous continental managers, pleasantly marginalizing the former Chelsea incumbent—sulky, pouting, self-obsessed, throwing his toys out of the pram. “Remind you of anybody?

My secondary education was inspirational, with several brilliant eccentric teachers in Classics, Music, and English. However, having excelled at football at primary level, at my secondary school we played rugby rather than football. Otherwise I would now (Now??? Come off it—Ed.) be joining Sanchez, Özil, and Walcott in the Arsenal forward line-up, and you would all be spared my crazed ramblings on Daoist ritual and WAM… The rest wouldn’t be history. And isn’t really anyway.

Daoists and Confucians


On tour in France, spellbound yet again by the Li family Daoists’ performances under the august aegis of the Confucius Institute, who better to cite than the Grand Maître himself:

子在齊闻韶,三月不知肉味,曰: 不图為樂之至于斯也。

After Confucius heard the Shao music in the kingdom of Qi, he didn’t notice the taste of meat for three months.* He said, “I had no idea that music-making could reach such heights!”
Analects §7.14.

My comment, precisely 2,534 years later:

Jones notes: Lil Ol’ Me feels the same on hearing the Way in Paris! [1]

I feel blessed to have found this subject—fieldwork, inspiration, ritual, laughter. And now to take a rocking sextet on tour, all at ease with each other, great mates.

For more from Confucius, see here.


* The Analects doesn’t appear to contain his later comment, “Stuff this for a lark, anyone fancy a burger?”


[1] 巴: short for Paris 巴黎, not 巴蜀 Sichuan. Or Bali, for that matter. Note how I replace Shao by Dao.

The whole long dragon 一条龙

To bring this little French tour to fruition has involved a lot of work. A long chain of people has made it possible, from the Cini people in Venice (2012) and Thomas Roetting in Leipzig (2013) to Adeline Herrou and Hélène Bloch at Nanterre, the brilliant Yan Lu of the Nanterre Confucius Institute, Kersten Zhang our able fixer in Beijing, the Clermont-Ferrand CI team, Nicolas Prevot, the Centre Mandapa, and Li Bin in Yanggao.

Indeed, the roots of our tours, and my whole project on the Li family, go right back to Chen Kexiu’s early research and the 1990 trip to Beijing led by Li Qing.

Again, with the Li band we riff on “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China”:

(me:) Without Chen Kexiu there would be no Steve-and-the-Li-band
(Li Bin:) Without Steve  there would be no Li band tours
(me:) Without the Li band there would be no Steve

As I observed (my book, p.339):

The audiences go wild, their faces rapt; I love the feeling of turning on audiences to this music that has enchanted me for so many years. Our hosts always latch onto how very special this tour is.

Yan Lu prepared one of the most detailed schedules I’ve ever had in four decades of orchestral touring. And I love it when we’ve done all possible preparation, and then just naturally come together in haste, improvising to make the little details work, carried along on a wave of enthusiasm.

The Daoists fit into it all and always put on an amazing show night after night, so that we and everyone, dazzled by their brilliance, see that it’s all been worthwhile.

Still, all this is merely an occasional interlude for them: their daily “rice-bowl” remains performing rituals for their local community in the Yanggao countryside.

The Li band in France: notes

It’s worth rounding off these vignettes of the Li family on tour with some of my daily notes, as a little contribution to the ethnography of one, um, caravanserai on the global bazaar—and also as a further illustration that Daoists are Real People, not mere Faceless Paragons of Ancient Wisdom.

18th May
After a long journey from Yanggao via Beijing, the Daoists reach our hotel at 7.30am. Alas, despite my blandishments at the desk, they have to wait all morning for their rooms to become available, but I catch up with them as they rest on sofas in the foyer, letting Li Manshan sleep in my little room.

I take Li Bin, Golden Noble, Erqing, and Wang Ding round the corner to Rue de Rome, helping spendthrift Li Bin buy a preliminary round of gifts for his guanxi network back home: he asks me to help him choose four bottles of olive oil and ten bottles of vin rouge. Confessing my ignorance, I try to muster a little bon goût. He wants to splash out on more posh bottles, but I choose vin pretty ordinaire, trying vainly to control his reckless spending. A friend of Erqing has even asked him to buy him a particular vintage of Château Lafite. I tell him to forget it. Still, imagine—twenty years ago the average annual income for a Yanggao peasant was still only around £100.

We do splash out on an adapter, though. This has become a touring ritual, since they never bring the ones we have bought on previous trips. They keep it busy with recharging their mobiles and i-pods.

At midday we go round the corner to Rue Budapest for Sichuan noodles. They drink Erguotou liquor. We chuckle over our Confucian hosts’ quirky arrangement over expenses: 20 kuai each per meal for them, a mere 15 kuai for me. This causes much mirth: do I get less because I’m too fat?! After lunch, and after a meeting with Teacher Wang, now abbreviated to “hold meeting” (kaihui), their rooms are available—three doubles (sociable types that they are, they wouldn’t even want singles).

It’s so great to be on tour with a brilliant sextet who have been doing rituals together for thirty years, and who are now in the rhythm of touring abroad too. Li Manshan is a wise laissez-faire (wuwei?!) leader, Li Bin an able fixer, Golden Noble and Wu Mei best mates, and Erqing and Wang Ding are cool too. We slot into our secret language, always laughing, dusting off old stories, devising new takes.

At 6pm our hosts Adeline Herrou and Yan Lu, with her assistant Alessandra, come to our hotel to guide us to the conference banquet. Arriving a bit late in a downpour, we are fortunately siphoned off to another quieter restaurant nearby so we can get to know our hosts in peace. Yan Lu is géniale, petite, full of joi de vivre. We give her our favourite ritual couplet written by Li Manshan, and local dried apricots from Yanggao. It’s been a long first day (and their travel from Yanggao itself took nearly 24 hours before that), but after taking the metro home, Li Manshan and I have our usual sweet chat outside the hotel.

19th May
We have a good breakfast; they eat plenty of everything, with lashings of coffee. I no longer have to help—they’re even experts with the egg-boiling contraption.

I end up in Golden Noble and Wu Mei’s room, where we have a nice chat. I mention the Wang family Daoists of Shuozhou just southwest of Yanggao. Wu Mei knows Wang Junxi’s guanzi-playing and likes it, having seen his videos online; he has appeared in a secular show with them, but there was nothing much for them to talk about!

Now that my film and book are out, we can relax without my constant pedantic questions. But I’m always in fieldwork mode—I just can’t help taking notes. Li Manshan tells me more about the Temple of the God Palace in the southeast of his village—site of the original settlement Dazhaizhai 大寨寨.

53 GN and WM amused cropped

Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Golden Noble and Wu Mei amused by my notebook, 2011.

The Daoists busy themselves preparing for our first gig at the Nanterre conference: while Li Bin packs all the stuff to take, Golden Noble checks their sheng mouth-organs, Wu Mei works on his reeds. Their rooms are scattered with the debris of touring: shavers, battery chargers, mobiles, i-pods, cymbals, a solder (to tune their sheng), fags, pot noodles just in case, cigarette cartons, gifts of dried apricots…

We take the train to Nanterre, and after a canteen lunch the splendid Hélène Bloch takes us on a reccy of our pre-concert route to and through La ferme du bonheur circus on campus—it’s just like being back in Yanggao, as it really is a farm, with sheep, a peacock, and lovely laidback warm people. I dream of running away to join the circus; there’s a new release of La strada just out. The peacock displays for Li Manshan but not for me, a typical show of xenophilia (chongyang meiwai 崇洋媚外)!


La ferme du bonheur. Photo: Hélène Bloch.

After my film screening, the Daoists are waiting outside to lead the audience through the campus to the farm, where we all take a tea-break, and then to the concert hall.

The hall is small, but the gig is amazing, as always. Our encore of the Mantra to the Three Generations, with me joining in, goes well.

Nanterre encore

As Ian Johnson observes in his book The souls of China (pp.37–40), the progression of the Li band to minor international celebrity has been a gradual process, from Chen Kexiu’s research to the 1990 Beijing festival, through to our foreign tours (cf. my book, ch.18).

For what it’s worth, such northern ritual styles do perhaps lend themselves better to the concert format than many southern Daoist groups, the entrancing wind ensemble supplementing the vocal liturgy and percussion.

We take the train back to our hotel, then go for supper. Li Manshan has given me two bottles of lethal Fenjiu white spirit from Shanxi, which we (all except him—he’s not a drinker) polish off with our meal. I’m TP again. I stagger back to my room to take stock, then around midnight Li Manshan knocks on my door for another “meeting” outside. First we gravitate to my bathroom for me to explain how the taps work, and he tells me his story about a Chinese guy who brought back the hotel soap as a present, and his mate says “Uurgh, this foreign white chocolate tastes disgusting!”.

We adjourn outside for more jokes, and fond reminiscences of Li Qing. As always, our most intimate moments are late at night, tranquil, alone together. These tours just get better and better. Yan Lu and all our hosts love this, and so do we.

My two rules for when the time has come to leave China:
1) when I begin to enjoy drinking baijiu white spirit;
2) when I begin to like Chinese pop.

In the old days such tours were inevitably accompanied by a gaggle of superfluous apparatchiks on a freebie trip abroad. Now the Daoists have their own private passports, and on tour I look after them on my own.

It’s also amazing how much Chinese food abroad has improved over the last couple of decades. “Long gone are the days when” we have to endure sweet-and-sour pork—though even that has a certain nostalgia for me. With a busy schedule, and several good Chinese restaurants on our doorstep, I feel no great need to educate the Daoists in the richesses of French cuisine.

20th May Saturday
By 5am I’m chatting with Li Manshan again outside the hotel over a fag. After a quick breakfast we all take the new line 14 to Gare de Lyon. Streetwise Erqing is useful on the metro, noticing our route, watching out for signs—I no longer need to marshall them so closely, but the spectre of losing a national treasure in New York in 2009 still haunts me.

SanskritWe’re in plenty of time for the 8.59 to Clermont-Ferrand—whose Chinese name Kelaimeng Feilang, preceded by Aofonie (Auvergne) reminds me of one of the Li band’s pseudo-Sanskrit codas, such as the one at the end of the hymn Diverse and Nameless!

I go off with Li Bin to buy lunch for the band to eat on the train.

The lunch-pack of Notre Dame

(How could I resist? Just in case you’re not familiar with this one, it’s the answer to “What’s wrapped in cellophane and goes DONG?”)

Wu Mei and Li Manshan soon nod off, the latter tapping out drum rhythms even in his sleep. Later as I try to photo him chatting with Golden Noble, he tries to mess up my photo with his smelly sock.

They get excited seeing a field. To me it’s just a field. Wisely, they’ve long given up asking me technical questions about European agriculture. Golden Noble and Wu Mei have a beautiful chat—relaxed, thoughtful.

Our train is late, but hey. Valérie Bey-Smith and Wu Yunfeng, our keen Confucian hosts, meet us on the platform. Clermont-Ferrand feels pleasantly remote and eccentric—a bit like one of those Hunan mountain towns (where I’ve never been, BTW). We make hasty preparations for the gig in the conservatoire. After intros from the Confucius Institute and the Chinese consul in Lyon, my talk goes fine, with Valérie translating for me. I’m getting better at this. The gig is great—the audience goes wild.

The concerts only last an hour, but the Daoists are soaked in sweat. Still, it’s no big deal compared to their long rituals in Yanggao. The two sheng players, little trumpeted, have to work especially hard. In the trick sequence, even the way Erqing stays still for Wu Mei to slot the bell of his curved trumpet onto the pipe and then at once starts twirling it, playing all the while, is virtuosic. Wu Mei sometimes gets in a bit of trouble balancing the cymbal on his head, or the false eyes (walnut shells) coming loose, which all adds to the excitement—I observe to him that such little hitches should be a deliberate part of his routine, so as to show the audience how difficult it is, and keep them on edge.



Nanterre. Photo: Nathalie Béchet.

CF congratulations

Congratulations from the Chinese Consulate General in Lyon.

I get the usual erroneous compliments from the Chinese about me “discovering” them, and about the Chinese not knowing their own culture. OK, urban educated Chinese may not (I’m no great authority on Morris dancing either), but there has long been a wealth of research from native scholars, which is ongoing; and The Plain People of Yanggao have always been perfectly clear about their local Daoist culture.

CF group

After a nice meal with our hosts and innocent young students, they take us for a little tour of town, but we’re all completely knackered, and soon retire to our quaint hotel—next to the Hotel Ravel, I note.

Valérie, like our other hosts, is understandably ému (not Emu, or Rod Hull).

21st May Sunday
Up again by 5, I take a little stroll near our hotel with the band, admiring the market, and the murals on the wall next door.

murals CF.jpg

In a nearby square we find five little posts, correctly arranged for a bonsai Hoisting the Pennant ritual (my film, from 44.21) on a future fantasy visit of Li Manshan’s 5-year-old grandson and his schoolmates.

CF posts

Doing daily travel with a gig is tough—but like my former orchestral life, it incites camaraderie. Our previous tours have been less frantic, but this one is pleasantly condensed.


The touring life. Photo: Wu Yunfeng.

Valérie and Teacher Wu take us to the station, with thoughtful gifts of Gitanes (!) and food for the train. We were also happy to receive Clermont-Ferrand Confucius Institute umbrellas.


Valérie sees us off on the train.

The train ride is fun again. It’s much faster today, so we arrive early at midday, and take the metro to find the Centre Mandapa, a splendid venue for world music since 1978, led by the splendid Milena Salvini.

With Mandapa technician Milou we try out my film for a most successful screening; my intro goes well, and at the end Li Manshan and I take a bow. The Daoists love watching our film too.

It’s a lovely little area, so we have plenty of time to relax. They find the quirky antique emporium over the road. A succession of beggars ask us for fags, which they give gladly. Intriguingly, the Centre Mandapa is also right opposite the 1913 church of the Antoinist cult:


The state stance on “heterodox cults”? My photo.

We set up the stage during a tea-break for the audience, then the Daoists do yet another amazing gig. Though it’s a small room, my fears that the concert will be deafening turn out to be unjustified—it’s a great acoustic. I join them again for the encore (playlist #3, with commentary here).

It’s always good to see friends at our concerts. Several Shanxi people introduce themselves, excited to find the band performing in France; and today fine scholars like Jacques Pimpaneau, Robin Ruizendaal, François Picard, and Nicolas Prevot come along too.

One cultural difference: after a gig, sure we all want to get away, but the Daoists only drink with food, not before or after (usually), whereas we WAM musos make a beeline for the pub as soon as we have taken our final bow.

Our secret language (“black talk” heihua) is as arcane as ever, with all our inside jokes. Recalling a filthy joke that Guicheng told at a hotel party in Leipzig (I can’t possibly tell you that one), I only have to say “Can you sew this up for me?” for Li Bin to burst out laughing. We giggle again at Tian Qing’s “Eat a young monk” joke.

22nd May
We have a free day at last before the Daoists’ evening flight home. Last night Old Lord Li had a bath, slept till 1am, watched TV, slept again, and got a call from a family in Pansi village to determine the date for a funeral, so he was up before 4. Meeting up at 5 yet again, I take him to the bar down the road, where Tweety McTangerine comes on TV—Li Manshan hasn’t even heard of him, how enviable! Back to my room together to read Yan Lu’s draft article on the Nanterre events.

Li Manshan calls the Pansi family again at 6am. It’s a village that he likes best, and they most trust him. Then we have a good breakfast.

We stroll down together past the Opéra to the amazing Chinese department of Galeries Lafayette, brilliantly rendered as Laofoye (“Old Buddha Elder”). Li Bin and Erqing buy loads of perfume (“Hey guys, how many lovers have you got?!”)


Later Li Manshan and I buy toys for his young grandson: a trumpet and maracas, to go with the, um, Ming-dynasty instruments I bought him before.

We store our luggage and go for lunch, washed down by Leffe. Old Lord Li is drumming with his chopsticks again. Delightful mood over lunch, as always—everyone chipping in with stories, jokes, reflections. Over delicious yuxiang qiezi, I ask Li Manshan if he has an aubergine tree. Often the subject turns to their hymns, as well as the Zouma suite (playlist #4, commentary here) and funky Yellow Dragon percussion piece, and the whole calibration of the trick sequence—how to improve them, tempi, and so on.

They rest on sofas at the hotel, and I film Li Manshan telling another sh-sh-sh-shikuaiqian joke.

Notre Dame

Later we take line 14 to Châtelet, and wander round the little islands. I choose different flavours of Bertillon ice-cream on Île de la Cité for them. After a little guided tour of Notre Dame, we return home for a quick supper of  noodles and beer before Adeline and Yan Lu arrive, Lu thoughtfully giving them posh French chocolates. I have to go off to catch the last train back to London, but their taxi for the airport arrives early, so I can wave them off after all, but it’s a hasty parting.

If it’s a quick hop back home to London for me, their journey was not so simple:

22nd: 23.20 flight from CDG to Beijing,
23rd: landing at 15.20, 21.40 train from Beijing station,
24th: arriving in Yanggao at 03.44! But both Li Manshan and Li Bin had to rush off almost immediately to attend to village clients (for Li Bin’s diary after returning, see here).

I’ve been out of love with Paris for a while; the romantic image is hard to square with its gritty realities (rather like China, perhaps?). But this trip with the Li band naturally made me fall in love with it again. In this supposedly homogenised age—as with other cities like Leipzig, VeniceSeville, or Lisbon—we must delight in Parisian culture too!

After Daoist music in France (and Italy, and Germany), try Andean music in Japan

As I write these notes up, Haitink conducting Mahler 9 comes on Radio 3, live from the Barbican; and then next evening, another live broadcast of Turangalîla! Perfect. I hear echoes of the Li family rituals in both: all the contrasts of monumental tutti and intimate chamber styles that we find in a Daoist ritual. But that’s just me… If only Messaien were still around to hear the Li family in Paris!

Posted at 5am to commemorate daily sessions with Old Lord Li.

Vignettes 6: Wang Ding

WD 2011

Wang Ding learns the ropes, 2011, flanked by Li Manshan and Golden Noble.

Over our various foreign tours since 2005, apart from the core group, we’ve used various people as the sixth member, and Li Manshan’s pupil Wang Ding (on vocals and gongs) fits in well.

Whereas before Liberation the sons of Daoists began learning from the age of six or seven, since the 1990s they only begin when in their 20s at least, whether they start from scratch or adapt from the background of gujiang shawm bands. Li Manshan laments that what few pupils he now has only take it up for the money—he considers them unreliable, perfunctory, jobsworths. In 2010 he took a pupil, a twenty-six-sui-old man, but by 2011 he wasn’t “coming out much.”

By then Li Manshan had another pupil who had been learning since earlier in 2011: bespectacled Wang Ding (b.1975), from nearby West Shuangzhai. He left school after junior secondary; by 2013 he had two children. Since West Shuangzhai has its own fine group of hereditary Daoists, he started learning with Yuan Lishan there, but he soon began to get more work with Li Manshan, so informally became his pupil.

Wang Ding takes the job quite diligently. He has a serious demeanour—almost too serious, the Daoists felt. I liked him, but at first Li Manshan didn’t rate him much. It’s not just a question of a talent for singing or instrumental music, or simply looking the part when taking one’s place before the coffin. Fitting in socially is also a major criterion—just as in a London orchestra (or any social group), personality counts.

Happily, by 2013 Wang Ding had grown in confidence. As he learned the ropes, Li Manshan wrote out some hymn texts for him, so he mastered the basic vocal repertoire. As of 2015 he had learned most hymns, and sings well, making a useful addition to the vocals; he sometimes plays the drum on procession, directs the kin for Transferring Offerings, and he decorates altars too. And now he is far more relaxed and sociable; Li Manshan has come to value his diligence and sense of humour, so he too has become one of the lads, and is now a regular member.

After all the complexity, intensity, and exuberance of the main programme, in France we giggle over my inspired idea for an encore in Germany four years ago: the dangdang gong player should come onstage all on his own and solemnly play a solo, one note per slow beat, taking a bow at the end. The audience might even buy it as a somber and austere meditation:

The Great Music is sparse in sound

This was Wang Ding’s first trip outside China—indeed, outside Shanxi. It was great to have him in France, and I’m proud for him.

Vignettes 5: Erqing

Another essential member of the Li band’s foreign tours is Erqing (formal name Huang Shuangping, b.1978), a son of Li Qing’s oldest daughter, also based in Upper Liangyuan. He dropped out of school at the age of fifteen sui after only one year of junior secondary, and started learning with Li Qing the following year, along with Li Bin.

Physically he reminds me of Li Qing, with his rounded face and occasional wispy whiskers. Apart from singing, he is a fine sheng player, and he’s great on the large bo cymbals in Yellow Dragon. He can play the guanzi well too—he and Wu Mei make a fine team on large and small guanzi on the rare occasions when they use a group of seven Daoists.

Erqing and WM

Wu Mei and Erqing in ritual performance, 2009.

Performing with great dignity, Erqing would be a core member of the ritual band, but since 2004 he has mainly been doing temporary labor outside; his long-term absence is unfortunate.

If Wu Mei has been persuaded to remain, they couldn’t hang on to Erqing. Alone among the group, Erqing is widely travelled within China. He moved to the county-town in 2004, working as a driver. In 2005 he began finding temporary work outside—as labourer, electrician, driver, and so on, usually working in a team of around twenty Yanggao men. He has worked as far afield as Jiangsu and distant Fujian. He bought a flat in Yanggao town in 2010. He did a little time as a Daoist on visits home in 2012–13, but was mostly working outside, with stints in Inner Mongolia, Shaanbei, Ningxia, and Shandong. Thus he can speak passable standard Chinese when necessary.

Such labouring trips each last about a month. All the places are the same to him: they go to work on the building site, sleeping in grotty communal dormitories with around twenty men; at least they eat OK in restaurants. They just go there and do the gig and take the money. That’s life. From 2009 the Daoists’ fees were increasing modestly, but Erqing was already making at least 6,000 kuai a month, well over twice as much as he could make as a Daoist at home. Perhaps as he gets older he will return to the more modest earnings to be made from doing rituals back home.

He’s cool about taking time out, and says his fee for this tour will be a little more than he usually earns, so I don’t feel bad about insisting that he comes on tour.

When I ask Golden Noble and Wang Ding why they don’t go off to do laboring work, they say they lack the appropriate skills.

Now Erqing only keeps his hand in on his brief returns to Yanggao. But he’s still brilliant. I’m glad he’s making a good living, and maybe he will come back to ritual when he’s older. In Paris he was useful on the metro too. Along with Li Bin, he’s a bit of a foodie.

Vignettes 4: Wu Mei

I’ve already written a tribute to Wu Mei’s artistry.

WM Nanterre raincoat

Wu Mei improvises rainwear with a bin bag, Nanterre.

Wu Mei has become a local star, a true musician renowned for his amazing guanzi playing, just as outstanding as that of his seniors. He plays sheng (if he gets a chance) and percussion too, and sings the vocal liturgy.

WM on sheng 2013

Wu Mei on sheng, 2013.

Around 2009 he was often working as a welder in town, having learned the trade from his older brother. For this he received the princely sum of 120 kuai a day, as opposed to 80 kuai for two days working as a Daoist; his monthly earnings as a welder were more than twice what he could make as a Daoist. But during the busy winter season he was still working fifteen to twenty days a month as a Daoist, and seven or eight days a month in the summer. By 2011 he was happy to be working full-time as a Daoist again—not least because as a star attraction he was now able to command an extra half share more than the others.

I’ve described Wu Mei’s constant explorations on the guanzi. I love his new refinements in the exquisite Zouma suite (cf. audio playlist, track 4, from 2013), adding little bits of vibrato on some sultry low passages, like Billie Holiday.

He gets a standing ovation for his trick sequence, and so he should. This year I note a sweet new gesture—yes, it’s an ear trumpet:

WM tricks CF

Tricks, Clermont-Ferrand.


Nanterre. Photo: Nathalie Béchet.

I’m pleased with myself for thinking of following the exuberance of the tricks with the total contrast of the solemn Invitation ritual, which we first added on our German tour in 2013.

Vignettes 3: Golden Noble


Golden Noble at the soul hall, with conch and flag.

Another indispensable member of Li Manshan’s band is Golden Noble (Jingui, formal name Zhang Shiyu, b.1968).

He is son of Li Qing’s younger sister—so though he is twenty-two years Li Manshan’s junior, they are considered the same generation. Born and raised in Houying village just southwest, he began to learn ritual with Li Qing at the age of twenty-one sui in 1988 after graduating from senior secondary, biking over daily to Upper Liangyuan to study with Li Qing. He has become an outstanding ritual specialist, with a fine voice—his intimate solo recitation of the Invitation verses is so beautiful that Li Manshan always lets him do it. What concert audiences might not realize is that when not required for the vocals, he’s also a fine sheng player. I have come to value him very much.

Li Qing taught both Golden Noble and Li Bin to determine the date, and they decorate coffins too. Wu Mei, being unrelated, wasn’t taught all that solo business.

With his lively interest in ritual, Golden Noble recorded rare vocal items sung by senior Daoist Kang Ren not long before his death in 2010, and he has kept some precious additional notations of Li Qing that he copied (see under Thanking the Earth).

LMS JG on train

With Li Manshan on the train from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand, 2017.

In France he was good-natured as ever. On tour our concert version of the Invitation ritual is highly condensed; for village rituals, of the twenty verses of “Vowing with hearts at one we Invite” he generally chooses around five, and in concert only three. After the rather long first concert I joked with him that he had sung all twenty! I also noted that he sometimes only went up to top do, whereas usually he descends from a high mi—he’s not even aware of this, which shows how focused he is on delivering the text.

CF Invitation

Golden Noble leads the Invitation, Clermont-Ferrand.

Vignettes 2: Li Bin

Li Bin 2011

Li Bin on sheng, 2011.

Li Manshan’s son Li Bin (b.1977) seems like a typical entrepreneur in the religious market, but he’s a master of all five skills of the Daoist. Ian Johnson writes eloquently about him in his The souls of China.

Li Bin is gradually taking over the reins from his father. For our foreign tours he is our main link to get all the complex paperwork done, and I’m in constant contact with him online. He always answers my queries promptly, in between ritual segments.

Li Bin began learning with his grandfather Li Qing in 1993 after graduating from junior secondary. In awe of the wisdom of his elders, I tended to underestimate him; though seemingly rather concerned with the more mundane aspects of the business, he knows a lot, and his keen sense of humour hints at his acumen. He is not only an anchor on the sheng mouth-organ, but sometimes takes a turn on guanzi or drum, apart from the cymbals and vocal liturgy; he determines the date, decorates coffins and altars, and makes paper artefacts.

Since the 1990s the lineage has spread into the county-town as never before. Li Manshan’s younger brother Third Tiger was first to move to town, to take up a state job around 1990. Since 2006 he has been employed in the county anti-corruption unit, where, with his sincere intelligence, he has risen to high rank. He makes a good living, with several sidelines. But he loves the Daoist rituals, and can offer a lot of detail about the old masters. He even tells me he is keen to get back to ritual practice when he retires!

Since the 1990s it has become common among Daoists for the son to run a funeral shop in town while the seniors remain in the old village home. Of Li Peisen’s sons, Li Huan moved to town in the 1980s to determine the date from a base there; more recently his younger brother Li Hua, and his sons, have opened funeral shops in town as a base for their ritual band; in 2016 Li Hou followed suit. Li Bin moved with his family to the county-town in 2007, initially as a stepping-stone for his son to get a better education—seeing it as a route towards betterment, just as his forebears had done under successive regimes. He went on to buy a first-floor flat there, running a funeral shop with his wife on the ground floor. This is where I stay on my rare forays into town to take a shower and see old friends (in that order)—we call it “the five-star hotel,” as it is handsomely furnished. Li Bin has managed to buy urban registration for his son—that’s always the priority.

In 2010 Li Bin bought a little car for the princely sum of 48,000 kuai. On the bumpy village roads, any car will have a tough time. In 2013 he upgraded to a fine Nissan hatchback, and in nine months had already done 13,000 kilometres, almost all on local business. His car has a posh sound system and, for his rare excursions outside the vicinity, satnav. He did a hundred funerals in 2010, not including countless determining the date sessions, decorating about forty coffins, and all his work in the shop making funerary artefacts. In 2012–13 he did 118 funerals, including eight three-day ones; in the winter he had fifty days’ solid ritual work without a single day off. He knows that Li Manshan’s health is fragile and that he should help him work less as he gets older, but they often have to split into two bands, and don’t like to turn work down. For a diary of Li Bin’s ritual activities after returning from our French tour, see here; for his busy schedule even during the Coronavirus scare, here.

Li Bin has a firm grasp of all aspects of the Daoist arts, but developing his business seems uppermost in his mind, all the more so now that he is based in town. In Adam Chau’s phrase, he is a real “household entrepreneur in the religious market”. Though his earnings can’t compete with those for temporary manual labour, he does quite well (or he would do, if he didn’t spend it all). He has become used to a more comfortable life than those still left behind in the villages. Well connected, he enjoys eating out with a wide network of friends, not only gujiang, singers and members of the county opera troupe, but also cadres, teachers, and so on—a far cry from his father’s tranquil home life.

The diplomat of the group, he is the first port of call for visitors like Chinese and foreign journalists seeking soundbites. He can speak standard Chinese when required, and his “bilinguality” is even evident from the two different kinds of name-cards he distributes—one for his local clientele, one for his diplomatic contacts with visiting dignitaries.

The card he uses locally is headed “Ninth generation of yinyang in Upper Liangyuan,” whereas his diplomatic card reads “Hengshan Daoist music band, Shanxi.” He even uses his elegant given name Bin (“civil and martial”) on his local card, but the more colloquial Bing (“soldier”) on his diplomatic one. The local card reads “the whole chain of supplies for funerals,” with a list of services on the back; instead, the back of his diplomatic card lists their Intangible Cultural Heritage status and foreign tours.

Li Manshan and the others haven’t got a name-card. Neither have I. In a typical exchange one day, I ask him:
“You got a name-card, then?”
“Oh yeah!”
“Um… can you give me one?”
“Sure—whose do you want? I’ve got loads of ’em!”

Li Manshan does have to be a shrewd band boss, maintaining the livelihood of his group. He now goes off to work (rituals, determining the date, decorating coffins, and so on) with a smart shoulder bag bought for him by Li Bin, but he makes a less convincing businessman than his son. Whereas Li Manshan tots up the fees on the paper lining of a cigarette pack, Li Bin works them out on a calculator. Of course all this is a common generational contrast. Li Manshan’s demands on the material world are modest, and he remains firmly rooted in old village culture. He wouldn’t contemplate leaving the village or the land—it keeps him healthy and active, and he doesn’t like the bustle of town life. There’s not exactly a connection with being a Daoist (indeed, urban Daoists are more likely to excel, even without land), but it’s part of his personal discipline.

Remarkably, almost alone among all the rural Daoists whom I know, Li Bin has been devout since his youth. Among various Daoist artifacts that he has ordered from Longhushan (distant headquarters in south China of the Orthodox Unity branch of Daoism) for sale in his shop, he keeps a statuette there of Zhang Daoling, ancient founder of the Orthodox Unity branch. Every morning when getting up at home, and every night on his return, he lights incense before the statuette.

He is simply adapting to circumstances, as Daoists have always done throughout history—competition and syncretism with Buddhism, urbanization and the shift of economic power to the south in the medieval era, and so on.

On our foreign tours, whereas the village-based Daoists carefully hoard their fees, Li Bin spends with abandon on gifts for his guanxi network. In Paris, now dangerously armed with a credit card, he spent with abandon on gifts like vin rouge, olive oil, perfume, watches, and leather bags. To me it seems profligate, when he has a family to support—but I dare say such gifts are a calculated investment for him, consolidating his guanxi. By now he has built up a substantial power-base, and people trust him.

But now Li Bin could well be the last generation of Daoists in this fine lineage. And this is perfectly understandable. Would any of us want our sons to do this job? Many elements mitigate against youngsters taking it up—state education, migration, upward mobility, pop culture… Parents (including Daoists) naturally want their children to do well in school, find a secure well-paid job in town, and get urban registration—whereas working as a Daoist is a tough life, with long days in poor demoralized villages for a rather small fee. I’m not going to pontificate about perpetuating the illustrious ancient Chinese heritage, and nor should anyone else. [1]

See also Li Bin’s ritual diary.

[1] Much of this and related posts is adapted from my book.

Vignettes 1: Li Manshan

Li Manshan is as adorable as ever.

I was determined to get to CDG to meet the band off their Air France flight from Beijing, but it arrived early at 5.30am, so in the end I just had to wait for them at our hotel right by Gare Saint Lazare. We met up there at 7.30, Li Manshan giving me a big grin and a hug.

Now 72 sui, he is gradually giving way to his son Li Bin, only doing nearby rituals. But he still can’t turn down requests to go and determine the date, and he still decorates coffins. This process of handing over must always happen, but no-one ever describes it. Personalities within a ritual group, the transmission from father to son as the latter gradually takes over—all such detail is absent from both historical records and most fieldwork reports. If only we could document it in detail for ancient Daoist masters like Du Guangting.

Li Manshan has new headgear, now a more trendy baseball cap, not as sweet as his old one, but hey. He only takes it off, reluctantly, when we enter Notre Dame. He also has a new mobile, the same old make, but with a new ringtone that sounds like The magic roundabout, so another of my names for him is Zebedee—who would have liked the Daoist Pacing the Void. I miss Li Manshan’s old kitsch ringtone of The little wicker basket.

After his lovely gift to me of the old folding stool he made, I gave him a digested translation of The good soldier Švejk, a copy I must have bought in Beijing in the early 1990s. I inscribed it to him:

Old Lord Li, superstar Stepping the Cosmos and Pacing the Dipper

“Old Lord Li” references one of our favourite ritual couplets pasted up at the gateway of the scripture hall, hard to translate elegantly:

Seated in lotus posture firm as Mount Tai,
Old Lord Li thoroughly resolves the male and female elements.

And Stepping the Cosmos and Pacing the Dipper are rituals in the family’s manual collection.

Old Lord Li is immediately hooked on Švejk. I knew it would be just his cuppa tea—the innocent common man muddling his way jovially through an irrational state machinery. He can’t put it down. Later, suitably, I also give him my old spare toothbrush to use, as he hasn’t brought one.

After catching up together and working out our day, I go off with Li Manshan for the first of many meetings with Teacher Wang, now abbreviated to “hold meeting” (kaihui).

How amazing to be on tour again with this brilliant sextet who have been doing rituals together for thirty years, and who are now in the rhythm of touring abroad too. We use our secret language, always laughing.

In the concerts, the others (like Wu Mei for his amazing tricks on the wind instruments, or Golden Noble with his solo recitation) may attract more attention, but Li Manshan is right at the heart of everything, drumming unerringly, singing intensely, subtly directing. Even the twisting route he improvises on the tiny stage as he leads the final Chase round the Five Quarters, unsheathing the “precious sword” to sketch talismans on the ground, is magisterial.

LMS on train to Nanterre

On the train to Nanterre.

Late at night we have our usual sweet chat outside the hotel. It’s been a long day, but they’re troopers.

Li Manshan is always tapping away on his fingers (even while sleeping on the train) or on his chopsticks as we wait for our meal to arrive.

LMS at Hotel Ravel

Clermont-Ferrand: two of my favourite masters.

Following a quick weekend flit to Clermont-Ferrand, after our last gig back in Paris he had a (rare) bath—the concerts are hot work, and they’re all bathed in sweat. He then slept till 1am, watched some TV, slept again, got a call from Pansi village to determine the date after a death, and was up by 4am.

We meet up in the foyer at 5am for fags outside, lovely. I take him to the bar down the road, full of workmen on the early shift, so I can have a café and orange juice as we chat with the Wenzhou people behind the bar. Trump comes on TV—Old Lord Li hasn’t even heard of him, how enviable. Back to my room together to read through a draft article by our wonderful Confucius Institute host Yan Lu that she has just sent me.

Li Manshan calls Pansi again at 6am with more guidance. It’s a village that he likes best, and they most trust him.

After our hectic schedule, we’re all glad to have a final day free for sightseeing and buying gifts. While his son spends a fortune, Li Manshan just wants to find a couple of toys for his young grandson.

LMS and WD

With his pupil Wang Ding.

A quick farewell hug, and they embark on their long journey back to Yanggao to resume their busy ritual routine. Hardly had they got back home when both Li Manshan and Li Bin had to rush off to separate villages to determine the date for more funerals, which is the start of another sequence of tasks for them over the next couple of weeks (for Li Bin’s diary after their return, see here).

See also The Li band in France: notes.

Depping with master singers

Just home from Paris after an unforgettable time with the Li family Daoists. It already seems like a dream.

Nanterre encore

Our encore, Centre Mandapa. Photo: Nicolas Prevot.

As an encore [English term—Ed. When in France say bis!] I joined in with the Li band, singing the Mantra to the Three Generations a cappella (audio playlist track 3, cf. 2001 version, track 2: commentary here).

For anyone fortunate enough to do fieldwork on Daoist ritual, I thought this might remind us of the benefits (indeed the very possibility) of participant observation; but it was also an opportunity for me to keep my hand in after a year apart from the Daoists. Having remoulded the proverb “Mr Li wearing Mr Zhang’s hat”, I enjoy refuting another popular one, “The monk from outside knows how to recite the scriptures” (wailaide heshang hui nianjing 外来的和尚会念经).

Long schooled by accompanying Mark Padmore and the Monteverdi Choir on my violin, I now have to set aside my instinct to invest words with meaning, instead trying to latch onto the lugubrious timbre of the voices of Li Manshan and Golden Noble, and Wu Mei’s guanzi. Li Manshan’s bushy eyebrows are a useful image here.

During rituals, when we sing a cappella hymns we stand in two rows of three, facing each other across the altar table. So usually I’m either playing small cymbals over the other side from Wu Mei, or playing gong at the other end. But this time I found myself standing right next to him and Golden Noble for the encore, with Li Bin (also brilliant) on my right, all of them subtly supporting me. I realised Wu Mei is not only one of the greatest wind players in the world and a brilliant player of the bo cymbals, but (like Li Manshan and Golden Noble) a fantastic singer too. Not just his nasal timbre and the projection of his voice, but the taste of his choices—where to inject extra volume and fervour, rise up high, or put in a tiny variation. Listening carefully to each other as always, dovetailing, with subtle “rules” about where to take a breath and where to sustain. There’s much more to their singing than meets the ear—the texts of the a cappella hymns are rendered with great intensity and concentration.

Over fags outside the hotel we had worked out an edited version of the Mantra, segueing smoothly from the end of the 1st verse directly into the coda of the 3rd verse. With a very subtle accelerando, its exuberant repeated final couplet begins from a high do the first time, soaring to an exuberant high mi on the repeat:

Vowing this evening to attend the ritual assembly,
Leading the deceased spirits to ascend upwards towards the Southern Palace!

We noted a nice pun, glossing “ritual assembly” (fahui) as “French concert” (Faguo yinyuehui)—the extra characters to be recited silently (monian), like a secret formula. Li Manshan congratulates me again on my silent recitation—”The only thing you’ve learned properly, Steve!”

In rituals back home they don’t always give their all, but on tour, wanting to put on a good show, they are magnificent. Standing in with the Li band—whether at a Paris concert or at a Yanggao funeral—is one of the great musical experiences of my life, “and I’ve had a few in my time I can tell you” (take your pick—Christmas Oratorio in Weimar, B Minor Mass in the Barbican after a tour of Japan, and so on…).

After all my tedious academic questions, being right in the middle of the action with these master Daoists (not “musicians”!) is overwhelming for me. Li Manshan, Golden Noble, and Wu Mei are right on my case. There are no passengers—Erqing and Wang Ding (Li Manshan’s pupil, a welcome new recruit to our touring band) are great too. Focusing on the vocal ensemble, surrounded by Li Manshan’s sparse and subtle drum patterns, the regular crotchet beat of the gong, and quavers on the bell, I also have to remember where to beat out the occasional syncopated cadences on the small cymbals with Li Manshan’s drum accents.

It reminds me of my occasional depping with them in Yanggao for funeral segments (my book, pp.325–6) when they’re one short—waiting on the substitutes’ bench. It also has a disturbing echo of my orchestral experience—that’s another depressingly familiar phone-call from orchestral fixers,

“Can you come and do a Messiah next Tuesday in Barnsley? I’ve tried everyone, we’re absolutely desperate!”

Thanks a lot…

Our chats turned to the singing of the revered older generation of Li Qing and his colleagues. Li Zengguang was admired as a vocal liturgist; Li Qing’s own voice declined somewhat with age. Some had fine voices but less mastery of the texts; other masters who knew all the texts perfectly were somewhat variable in intonation and vocal ability. Apart from their astounding instrumental ensemble, I doubt if there’s ever been a more brilliant vocal group than the present band under Li Manshan, working together almost daily for thirty years.

A fine turn of phrase


Further to my old theme of our irredeemably modern ears (and here), Simon Rattle,* on one of his early early-music outings with the Age of Enlightenment, was rehearsing Mozart with the band.

After one finely polished phrase, he stopped us and said admiringly,

“Wow! I’ve been waiting all my life to hear it played like that! … Anyway, now I’ve heard it, I don’t like it—can you just play it normally, please?!”

*As a stammerer, I hesitate (sic) to call him Sir Simon Rattle. As in the (real) line from a waggish Radio 3 announcer:

That was Sir Simon Rattle conducting Brahms’s 4th symphony. Next week’s guest conductor is M-Mark Elder.

But I now learn from Felix Warnock, encyclopedic authority for orchestral stories, that this line goes back to Symphony Hall in Birmingham, when both the CBSO and the Hallé were rehearsing on the same day for separate concerts. At the stage door, bumping into an old colleague he hadn’t seen for some time, one muso asks another,

“Hey! Are you here for Sir Simon?”

So the other one goes,

“No, I’m here for M-Mark!”

The Li family Daoists in France

Paris gig poster

First concert yesterday on our mini-tour of France, our fifth foreign trip since 2005. Not least, we haven’t seen each other for a year, so it’s great for us to catch up.

After a procession leading the audience through the circus ground on campus at Nanterre, the gig was unforgettable—profound and exhilarating. The audience went wild, and I’m proud for them. They’re right up there with Bird and Dizzy’s band; or with a senior string quartet who have been working together for decades, playing the Heilige Dankgesang on long tours, constantly delving deeper into the inner meaning.

Living the reclusive life that I do, this sudden lurch into serving as their minder, roadie, and stage manager is an invigorating shock to the system. They appreciate all my work—but since I always depend on them when I’m in Yanggao, it’s great for me to able to repay them a bit by looking after them for a change.

In my book (p.335) I wrote about our foreign tours:

Once we’re on the road, looking after the Daoists is an infinitely rewarding full-time job for me. Between sorting out daily logistics with our hosts, shepherding the Daoists round airports, stations, hotels, and restaurants, explaining how things work (showers, coffee machines, and so on), interpreting, helping them buy souvenirs, and keeping everyone in good spirits, I manage to find time to ask further questions about their life stories and rituals. Apart from working as their roadie, I enjoy being stage manager too. Li Manshan observes that they all want to do good concerts for my sake, so I won’t “lose face”; but they take pride in the gigs for themselves, irrespective of my pedantic concert professionalism. Elsewhere I note their high standards back home despite the careless attitudes of their village patrons, and here too they really care about adapting to the demands of a concert. We constantly discuss how to refine their stage presentation, and they get more polished at taking their final bows.

If course one of the insights in spending time in the ”natural habitat” of their home environment is to reveal their humanity. But touring, outside the narrow field laboratory, further helps me relate them to the hubbub of the global bazaar.

They’ve brought me a couple of bottles of Fenjiu “white spirit” from Shanxi, so after our gig we all polished them off over a convivial meal. At midnight Li Manshan knocked on my door and we ended up sharing loads more stories, “having a meeting with Teacher Wang”, and fondly recalling Li Qing, reflecting on this whole amazing story since my first visit in 1991.

Back in Paris tomorrow for our last gig at the Centre Mandapa—for anyone at all nearby, not to be missed!!!

The versatility of the Chinese peasant

stool folded

Folding stool, Li Manshan, late 1960s.


On tour again with Li Manshan and the band! Just wonderful to be with them again. More notes on our trip to follow soon, but meanwhile:

I’ve always been amazed by my Chinese peasant friends’ ability to make things work in straitened conditions back home. Their DIY skills are wide-ranging, from fixing dodgy electrical connections to tweaking the reeds of the guanzi oboe.

One of my favourite illustrations of this (my book, p.21) is the way Li Manshan conscientiously mended his satellite dish—surely a natural skill of Daoists, given their understanding of constellations and experience in Pacing the Void!

Also from my book (p.134):

One day at a funeral as Li Manshan sits calmly on the kang brick-bed of our poor host, preparing yet more documents for ritual burning, I notice the charming paintings on the wall, framed by maze-like decorations. Li Manshan recalls, “I used to like making that pattern—I did some for our house in 1969.”

In 2013 he gave me a lovely little wooden folding stool that he made in the late 1960s. His mates had seen one in in a nearby village, so he walked over there and took a good look at it, drawing a design. Back home, he couldn’t find the right kind of wood, so he talked the reluctant village storekeeper into giving him some. It’s only willow—cypress would be better, as he observes. Anyway, it shows Li Manshan’s versatility.

By now the village little opera band was transformed into a propaganda troupe, known as “club” (julebu), but the cadres were lukewarm about promoting it. Li Manshan, despite his class label, went along sometimes. Assuming that he had sprung from the womb with a fag dangling from his mouth, I was amazed to learn that he only began smoking at this time, when the others kept offering them to him. He has made up for lost time since then. On a brighter note, he began brushing his teeth occasionally.

One day the stool may end up as a priceless museum relic, folk art. For now it’s a lovely gift from an eighth-generation master Daoist to a wannabe foreign disciple; when he made it, it was a little display of creativity and individualism in a period of tedium and repression, by a young man from a family under a cloud, trying to weather the storms of Maoism.

Intimate histories

One of the more niche contemporary works in which I have not only taken part but played a star role is Jack Body’s Intimate histories no.2: Ssteve.

Jack Body (1944–2015) was a lovely man, a fine composer and a great proponent of East Asian music. He was much missed (see obituaries here and here, as well as n.3 here), despite recent allegations.

We met at the CHIME conference in Paris in July 2004. He came up to me after my somewhat s-stop-and-s-start presentation, and I braced myself for the usual polite compliments or tedious academic queries. Charming as he was, far from the pious well-meaning sympathy of us Brits, pretending to ignore my herculean struggles (immortalized in A fish called Wanda), he came right out with it: “Hey SSSteve, that sure is an impressive stutter you’ve got there!” For me at least, that’s already half the battle—helping me get it out in the open. Jack was more Kevin Kline than John Cleese.

We had a laugh and a chat, and he asked me if I’d be prepared to record an interview based on my reflections on both my imp-p-pediment and my route to Chinese music, that he could use as the basis for a new electronic piece. I thought it’d be a good way of publicizing the whole issue of stammering. As you see from his notes, we recorded my ch-ch-ch-chat on a break from our 2005 sessions at SOAS with the amazing Hua family shawm band.

Listening now, I am struck by how much more fluent my speech has become since then. Now, for Jack’s purposes I might even have to fabricate a speech impediment—which indeed is one of the most fascinating ways whereby some speech therapists suggest that we can move towards greater fluency. It is the most amazingly liberating feeling to stammer on purpose, varying the severity and style of the blocks, taking control at last—I do recommend it to fellow-sufferers, even if it takes work to sustain and then modify.

Having exposed my most discomfiting “secret” (sic), I could hardly refuse to further embarrass myself by giving him a few samples of my rubbish erhu and shawm playing too.

In the end I didn’t entirely concur with Jack’s treatment—sometimes I found his musical dramatization of my stammer rather too sinister. And I can’t judge its impact on the listener as a composition. But it makes an interesting take on my distinctive sound, and an intriguing byway in my biography.

Signoffs and other cross-pond drôlerie

In our daily badinage on orchestral tours of the US of A in the Good Old Days, we got into the habit of handing over to each other by imitating CNN’s signalling style:

And they say there could be more revelations to come. Wolf.

[Wolf Blitzer, [1] of course, was an “anchor”. Considering that Britannia Rule the Waves (just dig that funky optative verb there, folks—”You Wish”, as the Argot of Yoof [2] would have it), it’s curious how we don’t much go in for anchors. [3]  I guess we consider them beneath us…]

Rather like my teacher Paul’s empirical use of classifiers, we interpreted it as a fixed signoff at the end of every sentence, which led us to:

I thought the Adagio was really too slow last night. Wolf.

I’m starving. Let’s go eat. [4] Wolf.

Usually, rather than an interrogative (“Wolf?”), it’s declaimed confidently in the matter-of-fact descending fourth tone.

It does seem wise to keep such signals simple:

On stage at the end of a concert, among ourselves we would also adopt the brilliant casual signoff,

Well folks, I guess that’s just about it for tonight!

This works particularly well after an obscure or meditative work. Like:

Join us next time for another wacky episode of Ockeghem’s Marian Antiphons!

For an equally zany intro for such pieces, see here; and PDQ Bach is also essential listening. Wolf.


[1] OK, we Brits have our own proud tradition of silly names, but American names are in a class of their own. Following the credits at the end of a Hollywood movie is like reading an avant-garde poem, plunging into an exotic cornucopia containing all the cultures of the world. Though if Tweety has anything to do with it, there will be no more films, no more culture, no more world. Nothing, as Stewart Lee observes.

[2] The Argot of Yoof: a popular media pub, always packed at lunchtime. Near the somewhat quieter Aardvark and Climbing Boot.

[3] Unless you count Piers Morgan, who tries unsuccessfully to lose the initial W.

[4] For me at least, there’s an illicit thrill in uttering the formulation “go eat”. Similarly for “Can I get” instead of “May I have”—a quick web search reveals mainly  the usual pompous British indignation yearning for ethnic purity, though one writer suggests rather elusively that “Shakespeare probably would have loved it” (as in the little-known line from Romeo and Juliet: “Can I get a Diavola and a supersize Coke to go?”). Can I get or May I have, that is the question. See also my thoughts on “Who is this?”.

More useful socialist vocabulary

I’ve mentioned several distinctive terms in the vocabulary of former socialist countries, like China and the GDR. But still more usefully:


It’s good to learn that what is called caffé corretto in Italy (an espresso “corrected”, with grappa, or what the Chinese term with blunt accuracy dub “white spirit”) was known in Communist Albania as a Lumumba. (Garton Ash, The file, p.45). Well, you do need a snifter to get through all those Norman Wisdom films. (Cf. elsewhere in north Europe, where it is a somewhat different beverage.)


This is rather in the spirit (sic) of the cubalibre[1] one of my favourite tipples in Spain as a change from my standard G&T. By contrast with the mealy-mouthed measures of English pubs (which should come with a microscope), both are notable because you are presented with a large tumbler into which the waiter pours an unlimited quantity of gin/rum/bacardi, leaving only a token amount of room for a casual dash of tonic/coke.

The cubalibre is quite familiar to our Spanish waiter, but I always enjoy the little ritual we go through whereby he looks enquiringly at the range of spirits behind the bar while I specify, with one of my few fluent phrases,

… con Ron, por favor!

Back in Blighty, the Spanish influence on my own domestic aperitifs is clear in my generous measures from the Azure Cloud Bottle—to which my address on the home page pays fitting homage. I ring the changes by buying the occasional bottle of Tanqueray, purely in homage to Amy.

In China, where the 1957 Anti-Rightist backlash following the Hundred Flowers movement was prompted in no small measure by the recent Hungarian uprising, the threat of liberal agitation was charmingly known as goulash deviationism. That sounds funny to us now, even if at the time it was a taint that could ruin people’s lives and destroy whole families.

The Lumumba never caught on in China—whyever would you want to dilute white spirit? But they did stage a rally to protest his killing in 1961:

[1] “Free Cuba”—descriptive or prescriptive?! Cf. the British tabloid headline
“Free Nelson Mandela”,
to which a reader wrote in,
“I dunno what a Nelson Mandela is, but if it’s free, can I have one please?”

And now we have this headline, which could do with a bit of punctuation:

Come on England

Just remind me again, what is music?!

Hardly was the ink dry (or whatever we should call it nowadays) on my comment

It’s worth replacing the vague term Western music with Western Art Music (WAM), if that’s what we mean; and observing how European folk traditions are an equally precious part of our heritage. “Music” can be a misleading little word: just as there’s more to music in Shanghai than its opera house—such as amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs or temple fairs in Pudong—so music in Lisbon is more than the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. Symphony orchestras and erhu solos are but the tiny shiny tip of the iceberg.

than I perused the BBC4 schedule to find:

The Birth of British music
The legacy of Austrian composer Josef Haydn in Britain.

Hmm. Discuss (with the aid of Bruno Nettl; cf. Das Land ohne Musik).

Of course, it’s just an amusing casualty of knocking up a snappy publicity blurb. And to be fair, it’s the third in a series that runs from Purcell and Handel (sic) through Haydn (sic) and Mendelssohn (sic­—well that’s quite a lot of sic). I’m not blaming anyone—making programmes about four WAM composers who lived or spent some time in Britain is cool by me (cf. They come over ‘ere…).

Still, it combines two common misapprehensions—about history and about class. Much as I love Purcell, I’m sure the engaging presenter Charles Hazlewood is perfectly aware that even British ART music (BAM!) goes back a little before that. This isn’t my forte, but never mind Tallis, Byrd, Lawes, and so on (whatever would Francis Baines have said?!)—how about the medieval mystery plays and early manuscripts, or musicking at the time of Boudicca?!

And anyway, if we’re talking about “British music”, there’s that social ellipsis again—how about broadside ballads, singing and fiddling in tavern culture, early wind bands, and so on?

This casual use of language is just as bad as the (still more common) other extreme, which is to date the origins of British music from Lonnie Donegan or Frank Ifield.

I’m sure it’s a great series on those four composers. “British Art Music from the 17th to 19th centuries” doesn’t make quite such a snappy title.

Conversely, here’s another misleading title, this time from the Guardian:

The 20 best music documentaries.

There are some great films in this list (including Amy and, at No.1, In bed with Madonna), but it’ll be disappointing for those expecting to find coverage of WAM, flamenco, musicking in Sardinia or India, and so on. Again, the title The 20 best documentaries on Anglo-American pop doubtless struck them as pedantic.

Just saying, like…

New paperback out!


Just received the new paperback edition of my 2010 In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and very handsome it looks too. Which is the main thing…

Apart from addressing a vast area of ritual practice that has hitherto been neglected, I haven’t yet noticed scholars taking on board a basic point, that besides our usual image of household Orthodox Unity Daoists, household (not just temple-dwelling) Complete Perfection Daoists are also common.

Do rush online and buy it! LOL

Some Portuguese epigrams

For Nick—
f the reader finds this post a tad arcane, just wait till you see his WAM anagrams

Further to my little Lisbon jaunt, I’m always disappointed at my total lack of success when I try to busk it in Spanish by randomly adapting Italian—but it’s even more futile to further modify my crap Spanish into bacalhau (sorry, I mean cod) [1] Portuguese.

I soon dispensed with my old Portuguese phrase book (less entertaining, and less sinister, than Teach yourself Japanese)—its very opening phrase suggests a similar deep anxiety about even setting foot outside our own green and pleasant land:

There’s been an accident.

I flew TAP (Take a Parachute). Indeed, the flight prefix is further abbreviated by omitting the middle letter, so not for the only time, I found myself flying TP (Totally Pissed).

Aboard TAP flights, with impressive urbanity in the vein of Mots d’heures, the airline regales the traveller with a pithy and somewhat obscure epigram evoking the saudade of fado. It seems to recall a sad incident in the colourful past of an early Lisbon femme fatale, perhaps a widow of French patrician stock (even a refugee from the guillotine?):

Colete Salva-Vidas sob a Cadeira [2]

I’ve added capitals for clarity, but in order to preserve the ambiguity of the original I have refrained from supplying what seems to be a missing apostrophe—indeed, could it even be an exhortation?

Either way, it is far more evocative in Portuguese than in its prosaic English rendition

Life jacket under the seat.

Cf. Airplane:

Airplane is packed with little visual detail like that, requiring as much long-term revisiting as the Ring Cycle. Even the opening sequence is a too, er, deaf ‘orse.

And I’m keen to dally with Mme [sic] Salva-Vida’s [just as sic] enticing daughters

Rolagem, Descolagem, and (black sheep of the family) Aterragem,

also commemorated in TAP’s onboard annotations. Again, their names are so much less elegant in English:

Taxi, Takeoff, and Landing.

For a new addition to the family, Proxima Paragem, see here.

Just had one of those wacky dreams:

In Lisbon, invited implausibly to some suspiciously traditional social event with an old friend, we make our tortuous way there by means of a badly bombed Escher staircase. Arriving unscathed, I mingle suavely with the locals. Pleased with myself for managing to utter a grammatically convincing phase, I exclaim “Progresso!” “Si,” my Portuguese friend nods, “Esta Truro.”

How pitilessly my subconscious satirises my naïve aspirations to insider status.

For another dream, and a Portuguese limerick, see Ogonek and Til.

[1] Altogether Now: The Piece of Cod Which Passeth All Understanding.

[2] Cadeira: twinned with Madeira.

Jottings from Lisbon

Just home from Lisbon, where I screened my film for a select and rather posh CHIME conference. How good to have a few days to enjoy cobbled streets, tiles, and little wood-lined trams—authentically scattered, as everywhere, among decrepit building sites.

Back in the 1990s, annual working holidays in Lisbon (as well as Parma, Ludwigsburg, Amsterdam, Paris, and London—happy days) were a regular gig while we were doing Mozart operas with John Eliot Gardiner.

On the same principle as seeking out flamenco in Seville after the Matthew Passion, it was always good to go in search of fado in Lisbon after our concerts there. Fado can be great, as long as we don’t expect it to be flamenco—this is a bit like relationships altogether (tutti, bemused: “This is a bit like relationships”.)

The old-style fado bars, holes in the wall, have become ever more elusive, long outnumbered by glossy tourist restaurants. As ever, a good sign is the lack of a sign.


Fado singing, 1993. My photo.

We found a good little fado dive this time too, rather by chance. And then on our last night our fine hosts kindly took us to the Boteco da Fa in the Alfama, a classy joint that nonetheless has a great atmosphere—it’s just a little room that can pack in around fifty aficionados. We heard Sandra Correia

and Augusto Ramos:

The quintessential saudade (“missingness”!), a first cousin of the duende of cante jondo in flamenco (and see several other nice intercultural equivalents under that saudade link), was much in evidence.

Both singers are well known performers in “concert”, and in a club like this the atmosphere is quite formal (the rather good food can only be a brief diversion between—not even during!—sets), but Augusto also doubles as a waiter there, and they’re pouring their hearts out just a few feet away from you.

Focusing as I was on the intensity of the singing, it took me a while to realise how great the two pluckers were too— Luis Guerreiro, the leading guitarra player, totally at ease, always exploring patterns and harmonies, his riffs even featuring the occasional soupçon of  Django.


Brilliant fado pluckers. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Being in Lisbon, we were able to express our appreciation with warm applause—I read that

According to tradition, to applaud fado in Lisbon you clap your hands, while in Coimbra one coughs as if clearing one’s throat.

Could Coimbra have been a British colony?!

Our group from the conference included the brilliant Xiao Mei and two young Chinese conservatoire performers. I relish this recent rapport, this new sense of equality. Xiao Mei, most enlightened among Chinese musicologists, is always in fieldwork mode, lapping it all up, as were the younger musos, recording on their posh smartphones and chatting in breaks with the musos. A wonderful evening— Chinese Twitter will be abuzz with it, and that’s just so inspiring…

fado group

Sandra Correia, Xiao Mei, and Enio Souza, dynamic conference organizer.

In a small way, all this reminds us all why it’s worth replacing the vague term Western music with Western Art Music, if that’s what we mean; and observing how European folk traditions are an equally precious part of our heritage. “Music” can be such a misleading little word: just as there’s more to music in Shanghai than its opera house—such as amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs or temple fairs in Pudong—so music in Lisbon is more than the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. Symphony orchestras and erhu solos are but the tiny shiny tip of the iceberg (cf. here, and my post on folk musicking in Italy).

Nor would any visit to Lisbon be complete without a serious overdose of nata:


Whereas the English custard pie is only good for slapstick. Typical

* * *

Meanwhile at our conference on Chinese music, it’s always good to hear Xiao Mei introducing her work on shamans and trance, with her amazing videos of rituals among the ethnic minorities within the PRC.

Since the conference was held at the Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau, the music of Macau was one theme. With typical impertinence I suggested that studies of music-making in Macau might be inspired by Ruth Finnegan’s seminal book The hidden musicians, exploring all the diverse kinds of musical activity in Milton Keynes, whose population is less than half of that of the Chinese metropolis. Macau’s cultural life outside official institutions remains to be explored—for instance, no-one has yet made the connection with the household and temple Daoists there. [1]

* * *

Back in May 1993, Lisbon was among several wonderful venues for our series of performances of Le nozze di Figaro:

That’s a live concert recording at the Queen Elizabeth Hall after we returned to London. Soon after that I returned to Hebei for my second visit to Gaoluo and further survey of village ritual associations.

On a free day between Figaro shows, I visited the resort of Cascais, a pleasant excursion just west along the coast. On the street I came across a blind busker called Rosa, then 36, from Almada just across the river. She accompanied her songs on the triangle, occasionally checking the lyrics in Braille.

Cascais singer

Rosa, 1993. My photo.

I assumed she was just another blind beggar who never comes much to anyone’s attention, unless you count me. So imagine my surprise, today, when none other than Xiao Mei saw my photo and told me that Rosa (now “Dona Rosa“, with a backing band) had come to give concerts in China! And sure enough, she’s now become a star on the world music circuit, having been “discovered” (not by me—I kept her to myself) but since 1999 and more widely since 2004.

How was I to know?! Can I indeed claim to have discovered her, like Yang Yinliu discovered Abing?! Hardly, since I’ve sat on the fruits of my casual fieldwork for 24 years. I am reminded of the occasional blind bard from Shaanbei who materialises, bemused, on glossy Chinese TV extravaganzas.

Here’s one of several YouTube clips of Dona Rosa:

As usual, the exigencies of the world music big band distract from the atmosphere of her solo singing. Try this instead—from a concert at New Year 2008 in the Concertgebouw, no less:

Still, from a BTL comment by fjcnunes I also learn:

It’s sad and lamentable that this great lady is still begging on the street of Rua Augusta, Lisbon. This was the case in June 2014, when I saw her there and took a picture with her. In her words, she gets paid “next to nothing” to play in Portugal and is forced to play on the streets to make a living. Probably the promoters and organizers get the lion’s share of the revenues from her concerts. I wonder if the same would have been allowed to happen to Cesária Évora? If you happen to travel to Lisbon, Portugal, please pass by Rua Augusta and purchase one of her CDs, directly from her. At least you’ll know where the money’s going.

* * *

Anyway, that chance find in Cascais was typical of the kind of superficial yet rewarding little jaunts one can fit in as a touring muso—like flamenco in Seville, dance houses in Budapest, tralallero choirs in Genova, and so on.

The Alentejo, just across the river (a kind of poor man’s Pudong?!) is famed for its folk choral singing. I haven’t caught it live yet, but it’s evidently a rich tradition.

In Cascais I also enjoyed the parade for voluntary fireman’s day.


Parade for voluntary fireman’s day, May 1993. My photo.

All this belongs to my recurring theme of delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse. In the present climate, we must relish our cultural diversity all the more. And yes, that does include Mexican migrants and Syrian refugees. All those Brits who find themselves (not) with an extra 350 million squid a year to spend might lavish a bit of it on educating themselves about the traditions of their newly-alien neighbours.

For sequels, see here and here.


[1] See e.g.澳門道教科儀音樂/澳门道教科仪音乐,; for a major community ritual for the 2003 SARS epidemic, see

Li family French tour confirmed!

I’m delighted that the visit to France of the Li family Daoist band is now confirmed, so do please consult the Upcoming events in the sidebar, come along, and do tell all your friends!

Early Daoist instruments

Just in case you haven’t noticed this under my selection of photos of the Li family Daoists (PhotosDuh), I like it:


The earliest instruments in the Li family collection, from the Hongwu era of the Ming dynasty..

Seriously though folks, I found these in the county-town as gifts for the young son of Li Manshan’s daughter Li Min. The perfect gift for the scion of a household Daoist: yunluo gong-frame, guanzi oboe, and drum—all the ensemble lacks is a harmonica to represent the sheng mouth-organ.

Can’t take my eyes off you


By contrast with slow intense WAM, and as a change from female singers, here’s Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ finely-crafted original version of Can’t take my eyes off you (1967), with its smoochy intro leading the funky “I love you baby”:

I note Woody Allen’s comment from Manhattan, in a cab with Diane Keaton:

You look so beautiful I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter.

See also Modulation: Schubert and Coltrane.

Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up doing a gig at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty (cf. Rāg Malkauns):

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi—click here and here for the remarkable work of Nicolas Magriel.

I outline some of the diverse bowed lutes of China here; the erhu is the least traditional of them, but you must hear this astounding playing. See also here.

The Korean haegeum is distinctive:

Irish fiddling can be irresistible (for more from Liz Carroll, listen to Dear Old Erin’s Isle here):

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands (see mainly here):

Poland has some fine fiddle traditions too—here’s Stanisław Klejnas, from a village near Łódź:

From Iran, here’s Mohammad Reza Lotfi on kamancheh:

Kamancha playing from Azerbaijan is amazing too. I used to have a clip here of an Azeri party—complete with mobile phones, naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and no fancy fakelore costumes. But it’s disappeared, so we’ll have to settle for a reified official concert version:

And here’s a stellar gathering of players, all with their own distinctive styles (with thanks to Jeffrey Werbock, himself a fine exponent of Azeri music):

Note also the lyra of Crete and the Pontic Greeks. And here’s a taksim on violin by Salih Baysal (1973):

For more violin taksim, click here. See also New sounds of Anatolia.

For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar (featured in a wonderful muqaddime prelude here), but they use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:

Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s just a start. I leave jazz fiddling to another post… For yet more, see fiddles tag in the sidebar, introduced here. For more concerts at the Bhavan, click here and here.


Talking of acronyms, one that slips less lightly off the tongue is ENSRC, a useful network for Chinese religion led by the indefatigable Philip Clart and Vincent Goossaert.

I welcome spoof suggestions for what ENSRC might stand for, à la LUFTHANSA…

There’s been a recent flurry of discussion there about Daoist lu registers (not the lu emoluments that I miss), discussing their varied formats and functions (have we no homes to go to?!).

I don’t think anyone has yet suggested that such registers were ever rolled up in the form of a scroll, but if they were (by analogy with baojuan “precious scriptures”, sometimes rendered as “divine rolls“), they might be known as

lu rolls


Following on from silly Chinese acronyms, seasoned travellers will be familiar with the airline acronyms—anyway, there are loads online. Among the highlights (PC temporarily suspended in favour of transmitting historical linguistic creativity—Ed.) are

Queens And Nymphos Trained As Stewards

which leads nicely to

Let Us Fuck The Hostess As No Steward Available

Of numerous versions for TWA, I like

Try Walking Across


Always Late In Takeoff, Always Late In Arrival

Cf. the old one about the BA poster

Breakfast in London, lunch in New York

To which some wag has added

Luggage in Bombay

For Air Portugal, see here.

Strings and voices

SMP Miller

The Matthew Passion, staged.

My splendid neighbours Fiz and Mike just held a great 50th-wedding anniversary party. Otherwise gifted with fine taste, they inexplicably cajoled me into giving the guests a burst on the erhu Chinese fiddle—oblivious to my plea that its plaintive timbre really needs to be experienced at the hands of someone who can actually, like, play the instrument. After all, like Bernard Bresslaw in The Ladykillers,

I just sort of… picked it up.

Judiciously waiting until everyone was suitably inebriated, after a rousing (and apparently not entirely unrecognizable) erhu rendition of Jerusalem à la chinois (mercifully brief—my friends have suffered enough), I boldly attempted not to entirely mangle Bach’s so-called Air on the G string.

Bach on erhu and saz

At short notice I secured the estimable services of another neighbour, Martyn—possibly the leading exponent of the Turkish saz in the whole of Bedford Park (sic)—who sensitively provided the bass line. Without regard to expense or the feelings of the public, we stretched to nine strings between us—four and a half each, three of them doubled (“Go figure”). As if it didn’t represent enough of a challenge, I rashly tried further to fill in the texture with the occasional juicy bit of counterpoint by “singing” (I use the word loosely). So I now admire fiddlers who manage to sing at the same time (actually, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself—perhaps it’s not so common to hear fiddlers singing counterpoint as they play).

A World Music version of Bach is an Idea whose Time has Come, if not necessarily the intonation. We didn’t so much play the Air as hint at it, an esquisse in roughly drawn lines. Thankfully, no audible trace survives of our rendition (“Case for prosecution collapses due to lack of evidence”)—nor, for that matter, of the ear-scouring Chinese wind-band version that our shawm band had played for a friend’s wedding during our, um, heyday. But undaunted, I did later record some Bach on the erhu.

The Bach Air is another instance of music that we can only hear with our own modern ears (also here)—imbued by the old cigar ad, and its whole ubiquity in popular culture. But in performance (OK, in the right hands…) it can hardly fail to move—eighteen bars of intense perfection.

Like Christopher Small (Musicking—essential reading), I now greatly value playing in an informal setting for people I know. In post-industrial societies this has inevitably been diluted by the exigencies of concert economics, with the irony of coming together to share “intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers” (George Lipsitz, cited in Musickingp.39).

Still, the Air always moves me by association with memorable concert renditions in which I’ve taken part over the years—like in Windsor Chapel once on my birthday (as part of the Bach 3rd suite, all the more moving in between exhilarating trumpets and ecstatic fast jazzy string noodling), and as an encore in Budapest with Trevor Pinnock.

And here’s a version on the ethereal theremin (among the early experiments of hYrtis, a work in progress…):

It can be beautiful as an a cappella setting too:

Like the Mahler Adagietto, another media staple that transcends its hijacking by popular culture is the Barber Adagio, equally moving in string quartet and orchestral versions, as well as this ethereal choral arrangement:

Although the Agnus Dei text was added later to fit the melody, it gives me a pretext to play Bach’s version from the B minor mass, sung again by the divine Michael Chance—more vocal and instrumental intertwining:

Just as divine as the Barber is Lux Aeterna, a choral version of Elgar’s Nimrod:

For more a cappella singing, click here; and for Indian and world fiddles, here.

Wordplay with Daoists

Sometimes when I’m with the Li family Daoists I wear my SOAS T-shirt, which bears the name “SOAS, London University” in most of the Oriental and African languages taught there. The Chinese version, on the back, reads

伦大亚非学院         Lunda YaFei xueyuan,

Lunda being short for Lundun daxue (London University),* Yafei short for Yazhou (Asia) and Feizhou (African), and xueyuan meaning academy.

One day in Italy the ever-lively Third Tiger, Li Manshan’s younger brother, frowning as he tried to interpret these six arcane characters, asked me,

What’s Lundaya feixueyuan supposed to mean?

We all burst out laughing, as usual. He was reading it not as three binomes (Lunda—YaFei—xueyuan), but as Lundaya—some weird transliteration of a foreign name, perhaps?—and feixueyuan, “anti-academy”. But his interpretation has stuck; it has a further resonance when adorning my own back, since with my championing of more earthy folk sounds I’m (ever-so-slightly simplistically) notorious for my anti-conservatoire stance… On my next visit to Yanggao I just had to bring a SOAS T-shirt to give him.

In similar vein (my book, pp.331—2), Li Manshan and I have a lot of fun with the name Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Chinese translation Feiwuzhi wenhua yichan is itself flagrantly at odds with, um, the Chinese heritage. I set the ball rolling by wilfully getting the name wrong, calling it Feiwenhua wuzhi yichan, “Anti-cultural materialistic heritage.” Li Manshan, now designated as a Transmitter of the ICH, takes up the riff: when I joke with him, “You’re an Intangible (feiwuzhi)!”, he comes back with: “Ha, I’m a Waste of Space (feiwu 废物), more like!” This becomes our regular name for the project.

For more T-shirts, see here—oh, and here. And for more wordplay with Daoists, here.


*Another regular sources of giggles on visits to rural latrines is the common re-formation of Lundun with the characters 轮蹲, “taking turns to squat”, further elaborated in our revision of Lundun dashiguan 伦敦大使馆 “London embassy” to  轮蹲大屎馆  or “Taking turns to squat in the big London shithouse”…

Corpsing: Inuit culture and Haydn

A much-discussed piece of “salvage ethnography” is the film Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922):

For his 1926 film Moana, see here.

More recent is a highly praised film from Zacharias Kunuk, Atanarjuat: the fast runner (2001)—click here for a trailer. It enacts an ancient legend while lavishing great anthropological care in evoking early Inuit culture.

But Nanook of the North is to some extent a fictional creation too, blurring the lines between documentary and drama. It is an early case-study in a substantial discourse in the ethics of visual anthropology that leads on to Jean Rouch, representations of the Yanomami, and so on.

As to vocal styles, in katajjaq throat-singing (e.g. Voices of the World, CD 1 §12), the duet is considered to come to an end when one of the singers laughs, loses her breath, or breaks concentration (LOL).

Hard to imagine a performance of such charm at certain other recent swearing-in ceremonies…

Now I’d like to seek ethnographies of changing life in Inuit communities since the time of Nanook (preferably not containing the words “traditional way of life” or “vanishing culture”—“but that’s not important right now“). This is a lively topic in ethnomusicology—there are many studies to add to my reading list, such as Maija M. Lutz, The effects of acculturation on Eskimo music of Cumberland peninsula (1978), Beverley Cavanagh, Music of the Netsilik Eskimo: a study of stability and change (1982), and studies of throat singing by Nicole Beaudry and others—as an introduction to the detailed work of Beaudry, note her thoughtful reflections in Shadows in the field. See also First Nations: trauma and soundscape.

Here’s a trailer for the short film Throat song (2013), in which a young Inuk woman, lost in a community that has been tragically separated from its past, begins to connect with other victims of violence in her community, and seeks to reclaim her voice:

Throat singing also inspires a lively experimental scene, with singers such as Tanya Tagaq.

* * *

Corpsing is one of the pleasures of musical life in WAM too—we’ve all done gigs like that. I can’t suggest here the numerous ways in which fiddle players try to corpse their desk partners by a tiny little gesture of resignation at the repeat of a minuet, or a fake sforzando attack on a pianissimo entry.

Generally “the show must go on”, but once, the Allegri string quartet were performing the intimate, intense slow movement of a Haydn quartet when the viola player let out an extended and voluble fart.* The leader giggled sotto voce, and as the mirth spread (even to the miscreant, who’s generally the first to keep a straight bat) all four of them were soon so helpless with laughter that they just couldn’t keep going, and had to leave the stage to compose themselves.

To be sure, this is at a certain remove from Inuit culture. In the latter, as if you haven’t worked this out already, corpsing is intrinsic to the performance event; in WAM, it’s an illicit part of the muso’s “deviant behaviour“. For corpsing in the crucifixion scene of the Matthew Passion, click here; and for the suave Charlotte Green on BBC radio, here.

* I’m reminded of the old Punch cartoon:

Host (to guest who has just perpetrated an embarrassing histrionic effect) “Gad sir, you’ve farted in front of my wife”.

Guest, with air of studied nonchalance, “Oh, I’m most frightfully sorry, I didn’t realise it was her turn.”

Hope for our future

Amidst all the recent plague of misogynistic claptrap—exemplified by the Neanderthal spewings from Tweety McTangerine—all is not lost.

One of the very most inspiring stories of recent months concerned the brilliant ripostes (here) by indignant young female football players at a County Durham primary school to the Football Association’s advice (“naïve rather than sexist”???) on ways of recruiting more girls to the sport. Call me a Guardian reader if you will, but FFS, even The Sun expressed wholehearted admiration for the girls’ protests!

Their letters are just brilliant.

We aren’t brainless Barbie dolls.

Whether or not they’ve read the feminist classics yet (in pretty pink covers, perhaps, FA?), or even listened to Bridget Christie, they’re on the case, making mature cogent arguments way beyond the infantile rants of the leader of the Free World. There’s hope yet.

football letter

How thrilled they must be about England’s victory in the 2022 Euros! For more on women’s football, click here; for ancient Chinese female footballers, here.

Also inspiring is a recent complaint by a 7-year-old girl about a sexist road sign. For more hope for our future, see here.

The acme of ethnographic authority

If it’s proper language you’ll be wanting, by blessed chance I’ve just come across “The trade”, an early (1940) essay on pubs by Myles na gCopaleen that has found a respectable home in the fine anthology Great Irish reportage.

This is the ultimate insider’s account. Pubs were Myles’s office and his home—seldom can ethnographers have had such an in-depth knowledge of their chosen fieldsite. He shows great sensitivity to change in attire and interior design:

The result is a combination of utility (functional something-or-other architects call it), comfort and restraint—but no pints.

His poignant account manages to be both engaged and dispassionate. Just the opening paragraph is a too, er, deaf ‘orse—sorry, I mean tour de force (blame Keats and Chapman):

In the last ten years there has been a marked change in the decor of boozing in Dublin. The old-time pub was something in the nature of the Augean stable (it is true that Pegasus was often tethered there) with liberal lashings of sawdust and mopping-rags to prevent customers from perishing in their own spillings and spewing. No genuine Irishman could relax and feel at home in a pub unless he was sitting in deep gloom on a hard seat with a a very sad expression on his face, listening to the drone of bluebottle squadrons carrying out a raid on the yellow sandwich cheese. In those days a genuine social stigma attached to drinking. It was exclusively a male occupation and on that account (and apart from anything temperance advocates had to say) it could not be regarded as respectable by any reasonable woman. Demon rum was a pal of the kind one is ashamed to be seen with. Even moderate drinkers accepted themselves as genteel degenerates and could slink into a pub with as much feline hug-the-wall as any cirrhotic whiskey-addict, there to hide even from each other in dim secret snugs. A pub without a side-door up a lane would have been as well off as one with no door at all.