Ethics and interpretation

Outspan

A much-told story about the late great Paul Foot goes something like this:

He was choosing some oranges to buy at his local street market when he noticed the Outspan label. (Quite correctly) full of righteous indignation about apartheid, he declared roundly,

“I’m not buying these! They’re from South Africa!”

“Quite right, sir,” said the stallholder. “All those nasty black hands touching them!”

What’s on in Stoke Newington

To complement my post on Alexei Sayle and his early travels behind the Iron curtain:

The other day, finding myself (in the old-fashioned, not New-Age, sense—what do you take me for?) in Stoke Newington, I recalled this fine routine—a historical vignette that already needs exegesis, given the area’s later vibrant image:

Alexei may have mellowed over the years since his angry standup and his cameos in The young onesbut he hasn’t lost his surreal edge, as we can hear in his recent BBC Radio 4 series Alexei Sayle’s imaginary sandwich bar.

Sandwich bar

He plans a sultry film noir aimed at the children’s market,

 Postman Pat always rings twice.

On rationing:

From 1939 to 1945 the government had permitted, indeed had positively encouraged men to bayonet people in the guts or set them on fire with flame throwers or bomb their houses from 20,000 feet, but when they came home they couldn’t have a tomato until 1957!

With the immaculate credentials of his upringing, he reflects,

I think despite all the chaos we create, the famines, the gulags, left-wing people are basically good people. Admittedly left-wing regimes might over time devolve into authoritarian kleptocracies whose autocratic rule is enforced by terror and torture, but we do mean well.

Despite my inordinate enthusiasm for Strictly, I applaud his critique (relevant also to the Chinese heritage flummery):

Everything is wrong with ballroom dancing: the clothes, the music, even the expressions on the dancers’ faces, plus of course the dancing itself. The reason for this is simple—you get points for it. Ballroom dancing is an aesthetic pursuit, an art form, which has been turned into a competition, the result of which is that everything is done to attract the attention of the judges. The competitors must try and fit into a series of rules rather than display emotion, artistry and invention, and so a tawdry, flashy, kitsch aesthetic takes over. […] If you see a couple performing a proper Argentinian tango you are watching a dance created in the brothels of Buenos Aires that reeks of melancholy and sex. Then you watch the ballroom version of tango, all gurning faces and robotic, angular, hideous movements. You are seeing a great popular art reduced to a terrible travesty.

On the topic of TV competitions, he might like the recent Mash Report headline:

Bake Off Winner Discovers You Can Buy Cake From Shops

Alexei elaborates on the Pannacotta Army line (“ancient figures of soldiers, sculpted out of soft white cheese”), and reminds me of the old Snow White and the Seven Samurai joke, which gave Tom Holt the title for his drôle book. Which might lead us to Nick Helm’s line:

I needed a password eight characters long—so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Among many gems is his account in Episode 2 of how a casual expression “Soup, swoop, loop de loop”, recycled as a forgotten piss-take after a London dinner party, came to be exported to New Zealand and immortalised in the dissertation

“Soup, swoop, loop de loop”: shamanistic incantations in Rarotongan food preparation rituals, University of Topeka, 2001.

I’m also enjoying his latest BBC Radio 4 series The Absence Of Normal.

Subtle revenge

Prague opera

Another Strange But True story from my mentor Paul, again bearing on the surreal Czech imagination:

In the early 1960s two players in the Prague opera orchestra were locked in a vendetta. Between performances the band used to leave their concert uniform in the green room. Every couple of weeks, one of them, coming in early and unobserved armed with needle and thread, meticulously took up the cuffs of his adversary’s concert trousers by a tiny bit.

Learning: Hu Zhihou

The guanzi oboe, leader of the shengguan melodic ensemble that accompanies temple and folk liturgy throughout north China, also has a foothold in the conservatoires—though it is far less popular a solo instrument there than the erhu or pipa. Just as I noted for the suona shawm, there is quite a gulf between folk and conservatoire versions of the guanzi.

Back in 1987, my official “unit” for my second half-year stint in China was the Central Conservatoire in Beijing. My main supervisor there was the great Yuan Jingfang, who (resigning herself to my frequent excursions to the countryside) managed to teach me a lot about the instrumental ensemble music on which she is the leading expert. My first book Folk Music of China was in large part a result of my studies with her.

While I already realized that folk ritual and instruments were to be learned through constant ritual experience rather than in the arid setting of the classroom, I thought I’d better show willing by taking the odd lesson from the guanzi master Hu Zhihou, himself a pupil of the great Hebei Daoist master Yang Yuanheng in the 1950s.

Turning up for lessons every Monday morning at 8am, the warm-up breathing exercise Teacher Hu set me was to smoke a couple of cigarettes with him. This was a real challenge for me, since at the ripe old age of 33 I had still only succeeded in training myself in the consumption of alcohol—absorbing that aspect of my violin teacher Hugh Maguire’s education but not his cavalier smoking habit.

Even my exploratory first fieldtrips to the countryside in 1986 were conducted without the social lubricant of sharing cigarettes. I was now becoming a fully-fledged yanjiusheng (研究生 “research student”, or 烟酒生 “scholar of fags and booze”)

So, egged on Teacher Hu, I obediently puffed away in the classroom before spluttering into the guanzi, failing to make much progress in coaxing more than a weedy squawk out of the poor instrument. Fiddling around with reeds and working out fingerings certainly stood me in good stead for my later (passive) immersion in the world of folk guanzi playing, but I can hardly claim to have made the most of his wisdom.

When in 2013 I brought the Li family Daoist band to Beijing to give a recital at my alma mater, I was delighted to find Hu Zhihou in the audience.

He had always been a keen student of folk guanzi playing. While I was “studying” with him, he was leading the suave conservatoire version of the Zhihua temple repertoire—albeit rather distant from the haunting original style. And like Yuan Jingfang, he had made an early  fieldtrip to Yanggao, where he admired the playing of Liu Zhong in Li Qing’s Daoist band—we were all spellbound by Liu Zhong then, in the days before it transpired that there were other Daoist guanzi players there who were even more respected.

Erqing and WM

Wu Mei and Erqing, 2009.

So now I was delighted that Hu Zhihou could relish the brilliant playing of Wu Mei. As I introduced them after the concert, I observed boldly:

“Teacher Hu, I must admit that you never managed to teach me the guanzi! But one thing you did teach me really well, for which I am eternally grateful, is smoking!”

Sure, it’s possible to do fieldwork in rural China without it (I refrain from drinking “white spirit” there, for instance, so I don’t completely go native), but the conviviality of the exchange of cigarettes may seem a necessary temporary expedient—a sacrifice for our art.

Writing about music

This succinct critique by no means invalidates musicology (if it does, then Uh-oh), but I’m fond of the expression

With All Due Respect to Ms Anderson, and indeed Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello,  Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Clara Schumann (now that’d be some jam session: cf. my fantasy dinner party), its many variations have been widely attributed. It’s another snowclone going back in sentiment to the Mists of Time (well, 1918), as in this fine piece of detective work.

Three paperbacks out!

After an interlude when my three Ashgate volumes (the first two being part of the fine SOAS Musicology series) suffered a prohibitive price-hike, they are now reissued by Taylor & Francis/Routledge in affordable paperback editions. You can order them here (under “Books”!).

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-02-28screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-05-17screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-07-19

The two Ritual and music books are all the more worth snapping up for their accompanying DVDs—the first making useful background for my film on Li Manshan.

While I’m about it, details of my 2016 book Daoist priests of the Li family are here.

And you can order Plucking the winds, my riveting account of the South Gaoluo village ritual association and its history, here!

From Bosch to Stańko

The labyrinthine crime novels of Michael Connelly are brilliant—set in L.A., packed with gritty procedural, historical, and psychological detail, with their protagonist Harry (short, indeed, for Hieronymus) Bosch.

A tangential delight permeating the series is Bosch’s fine taste in jazz. Continuing my trumpet theme, it was through Nine Dragons (a murky Triad case) that I learned of Tomasz Stańko, “the Polish Miles Davis”.

To remind us of the jazz scene under state socialism (see e.g. Pickham and Ritter, Jazz behind the Iron curtain), here are versions of First song from 1976:

And even a recording from 1970:

WOW… His ballads are great too:

For more Stańko in a post on Polish jazz, see here.

Practice makes perfect

More WAM ethnography:

Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.

Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes  did.

The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):

“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!”
—John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.

(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and

“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.”
—John Wilbraham (Jumbo) on Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Noddy)

(For more orchestral nicknames, see here).

Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:

Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole symphony perfectly.

After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,

“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”

“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”

Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.

Singers of the world?

Occasionally I accidentally view snippets of both The voice and Cardiff young singer of the world. Both feature remarkable singers—within their respective genres and social milieux. My reservations merely concern the blinkered media hype, with all its competitive ethos (for Alexei Sayle and others on contests, see here).* They jump through the hoops, displaying just the right degrees of individuality, gauging the prevailing ethos within their respective social and temporal fanbase. Image is is a major aspect of both events.

Bartok 1907

Bela Bartók recording Slovak folk singers, 1907.

And of course neither contest, and neither genre, reflects the diverse riches of “singers of the world”— even for the current scene, let alone earlier histories. For a more rigorous attempt to document the riches of world singing, see here.

It’s not that I really expect Romanian wedding laments, praise singing from Rajasthan, or the songs of Chinese spirit mediums to feature prominently in popular TV viewing; but even the impasse between those two contrasting contemporary Western genres is glaring. Neither can be regarded as intrinsically superior. For yet more, see here.

 

* Another fatuous Bible quote:

The race is not to the swift.

Who’s going to break the news to Usain Bolt?

To go: a parallel text

Further to Signoffs and other cross-pond drôlerie (NB n.3 there) and indeed my helpful exegeses of the alarming Teach yourself Japanese, here’s a parallel text, hopefully of use to travellers in either direction:

US: Hey man—can I get a Diavola to go?

British: A very good day to you, my dear chap. Now would you be so obliging as to provide me with with one of your fine pizzas, engagingly (and with a certain mischief, perhaps?) known as Diavola—enclosed, moreover, in some kind of disposable container, if you would be so kind; for such are the exigencies of modern life that I regrettably find myself unable to relish said comestible at your own fine place of purveyance, but, rather, will be reluctantly compelled to consume it in less salubrious and elegant surroundings while otherwise occupied.

I acknowledge my debt to the cheeseshop sketch. And, come to think of it, to the great Gerard Hoffnung’s 1958 Advice for tourists, still irresistible after all these years:

As with the Alan Bennett Sermon (and indeed as with live performance generally), the pleasure is augmented by the audience response, and the vignette it now affords us into that particular milieu of late-1950s’ English society.

In Hoffnung’s wiki entry I like the succinct description of his brief sojourn at the Hornsey College of Art:

He was expelled for his lack of gravity in the life class.

Foreign observers can educate themselves further on being English here and here. And indeed here.

Doing Hamlet

Here’s another story from the great Arthur Smith. I can only find a truncated version online, so I’m going to do an expanded paraphrase that I’m sure I heard him tell on radio:

Arthur had somehow got to know Kray henchman “Mad” Frankie Fraser. One day when they meet up, Frankie goes,

“Hello Arfur, wot you up to then?”
“Well Frankie—funnily enough, I’m doing Hamlet next month!”
With avuncular concern, Frankie goes,
You don’t have to do ‘im, I’ll do ‘im for yer—where’s ‘e live?”

This almost links up with the musos’ favourite prison examiner story.

Three studies of ethnic culture (not)

The benefits of the orchestral touring life: Noh theatre in Japan, 1992,
not long after fieldwork in Shanxi.

Three monographs on ethnic religion and culture that I haven’t yet seen—or even written:

  • On campaigns against popular shamans:

Striking a happy medium.

  • On the stagecraft of Japanese drama (Altogether now):

There’s no business like Noh business.

(For a rather more serious treatment, see here.)

And having added an acronym for British Art Music to the one for Western Art Music, how about the “classical” traditions of the Maghreb?

  • On the well-attested debt of the Western classical tradition (notably British music) to the nuba suites of North Africa, with reference to antiquated sexist ideology perpetuated therein:

WAM, BAM, thankyou MAM.

 

My favorite things

As if my musical life hasn’t been stimulating enough lately, BBC Radio 4’s fine series Soul music recently broadcast a lovely programme about My favorite things—one of the great jazz standards, a seemingly saccharine song whose complex harmonies have provided inspiration for musos, um, down the ages:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08r1vzc

Coltrane’s versions are justly renowned, like

OMG, Bill Evans too:

It’s almost too perfect to be vocalized, but here’s Sarah Vaughan, changing the mood again:

Women of Yanggao 3/3: singers

At a tangent from female members of Daoist families, or sectarians and spirit mediums, are the female vocalists who serve weddings, funerals, and celebrations—now mainly singing pop. As ethnographers we can no more ignore this than we can neglect pop music in our own cultures.

First I should give a little overview of gender roles in Chinese performance. [1] In their worthy goal of reinstating women into the story of Chinese music, the two articles by Cynthia P. Wong and Su Zheng in The Garland Encyclopaedia of Music: East Asia volume leave no space to spell out women’s historical and ongoing submission in society (cf. Lulu).

Though I’m happy to accept Zheng’s portrayal of Confucian culture as misogynistic, her “radical view” shouldn’t mean airbrushing the evidence of the submission of women. This is as serious as (and not unrelated to) ignoring the ever-backward supply of water, healthcare, electricity, literacy, and transport available to much of the population. Along with celebrating women’s musical contributions, and for all the complexities of women’s ongoing struggle, it is worth stressing their ongoing exclusion from power and choice in public society, underlining the persistence of patriarchal tradition and the limited scope of modern progress.

Both Wong and Zheng illustrate women’s contributions to early Chinese music history by referring to archeological excavations that show that female musicians were buried alive along with their dead master. A disturbing (if remote) echo of this is in posthumous marriage, which has been reviving in northwest China since the 1980s.

When women were allowed to survive their masters, they often worked as prostitutes. Zheng goes on to observe that, in ancient China, women could also be bestowed as a gift, and bought and sold—another enduring tradition today. What a lot of categories of prostitute upright Confucian men had to choose from—and some were even chosen to be concubines! We should indeed incorporate all this into our account of Chinese music history, but I struggle to see what there is to celebrate here.

Wong and Zheng briefly point out women’s progress in the 20th century. To be sure, foot-binding was successfully stamped out, and arranged marriages became exceptional; female education was no longer limited to a tiny elite.

Yet despite government campaigns, female babies are still routinely murdered or abandoned. Under siege from the draconian birth-control policy, women and men alike attend rituals to pray to the gods to be granted a healthy son. Girls are a burden: since upon marriage they will be lost to another family, rural parents invest mainly in the welfare and education of sons. Economic progress has been uneven since the reform period. Scholars note many instances of regression in women’s status: decollectivization and urban migration have been a mixed blessing. Women are still abducted and sold to poor older disabled men in less impoverished provinces; they continue to be subject to domestic abuse and are largely barred from public roles. Female leaders remain rare—at village, township, county, provincial, and national levels. Prostitution is rampant, though some women now rise to the artistic heights of working as karaoke hostesses.

Our accounts of women’s roles in Chinese music cannot assume that readers know all this. Any study of gender and music in China must include a broad assessment of women’s progress, or regression, and this must be based on detailed local ethnography (both for expressive culture and the society that nourishes it), rather than plucking out instances of female stars. In my chapter (n.1) I further outlined some issues of gender and class, violence and power.

Rural performance: overview
As in all areas of study, we should beware describing gender in performance mainly through the prism of urban state troupes.

At the bottom of the social pile, opera performers (xizi), like shawm bands (chuishou), were traditionally part of a litany of outcasts, and also in most places all-male until the 1930s. Along with other low-status men like grave-diggers, coffin-bearers, and cooks, they all play essential roles at life-cycle and calendrical events.

Since at least the 1930s women have gradually played a larger role in opera for life-cycle and calendrical rituals, though they have still little power within the troupe—the troupe bosses are male, making the arrangements with the male temple committee and controlling the fees. And by displaying themselves thus in public women are always vulnerable to moralistic criticism.

The vast majority of narrative-singing genres in the countryside, given their public nature (not to mention their primary ritual function of invoking blessings from the gods), are still performed by men. Bards in Shaanbei, for example, are traditionally blind and male (see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2). For Shanxi, Liu Hongqing’s harrowing tale of the dysfunctional families of blind itinerant performing groups in Zuoquan county is revealing of the wretched fate of poor people generally and the burden of care on women. [2]

At weddings and funerals, though laments sung by the female kin (once a means of venting frustration against the Confucian system, however impotently) have become rarer, women are often among small itinerant groups of beggars performing songs, accompanying themselves on clappers and erhu fiddle.

beggars

A group of beggars sing auspicious songs facing the coffin before offerings of sheep heads, 2001.

XX: a piece of (field)work
Most visible, vulnerable, and innovative on the public stage are the pop singers who perform on a truck outside the gate of the mortuary home (my film, from 30.32 and 1.07.32). These singers, both male and female, have become increasingly accomplished since the 1990s, performing arrangements of local vocal music and pan-Chinese pop as well as sophisticated skits. [3]

pop better

Pop outside the mortuary home, 2011.

Pop duo

The evening session, 2015.

On one of my occasional excursions into town, Li Bin has arranged for us to meet up for supper with young star gujiang shawm-player Bobo. I first met him way back in 2003 when he was a teenage pupil of a wonderful cultured gujiang shawm player. Then, he seemed shy and I could never find a way of chatting with him, but now, once we realize we can chat together, he is sweet, relaxed, and funny.

Then femme fatale singer XX shows up, all glammed up. So a Daoist, a shawm player, a pop singer, and a WAM muso take a convivial meal together. Endless joking, largely revolving around the theme of the local beauty (meinü) and the foreigner (laowai). While XX is adept at orchestrating the flirting, she is intelligent, sincere, clearly aware of the delicacy of her public position as a singer, yet not afraid to be seen in our company. Accomplished at presentation—outfit, make-up, hair, perfume—she acts the part, but behind it all there is an alert woman, strong by necessity. Allergic as I am to the word “feisty”, here it is the mot juste: she has to be considered a kind of feminist.

She enjoys showing me the vast library of photos on her smartphone, mostly but not all glam.

XX and friend

The selfie mania: two popular Yanggao singers.

I’m not quite understanding the rules here. My attitude to XX is different from that of my Yanggao friends, who see her at funerals all the time. They’re used to the local language of flirting: she can read their signs and knows how to handle them. Sure, I enjoy it—I can’t shake off my ethnographic instincts, but the context isn’t conducive to getting to know people better, so I go with the flow. My best chat-up line:

You’re nearly as beautiful as Li Manshan!

Knowing my devotion to Li Bin’s father, she takes this in good spirit.

While XX and I enjoy the banter, we’re both a bit wary since we realise our signs may differ. So she backs off—as even I do; as we stagger out of the restaurant I kiss her hand in farewell, which even after all the backchat still takes her aback.

On my next trip into town we all meet up again for supper. One reason for my visits to town is to take a shower at Li Bin’s place—much needed after ten days traipsing round village funerals. XX turns up in her posh black car—“I didn’t even have time to wash my face, only the car!” Still, she’s pretty dolled-up (tiny hot pants, black tights, heels, red coat), yet enigmatic as ever. Other diners come over to our table to share a toast, musicians who know all about me—people still thanking me for introducing Yanggao culture to the world. The son-in-law of a revered Daoist, whom alas I never even met, discreetly pays our bill and goes off before we can protest.

XX is even busier than Li Bin and Bobo, since she does weddings too, as well as acting as hostess for various gigs like yuansuo coming of age parties (see my film, from 5.26). So she drives off to get some sleep before embarking on a heavy series of three days of back-to-back wedding gigs.

By 2017 she had remarried, was pregnant, and no longer singing.

Pop at Yanggao life-cycle events continues to evolve, with both male and female performers constantly innovating; singers like XX are at the vanguard of local modernity, forging a role, negotiating old values.

For a further update, see here.

Conclusion
The tiny corner of China that is Yanggao county reminds us that we need grass-roots study, beyond simple images of educated urban milieux. As long as we remain mesmerized by urban stage performances, and by Confucian and Communist propaganda, we will never comprehend gender roles in the expressive cultures of the myriad local communities. But one point is clear: however much we unearth women’s varied roles in local cultures, and for all their “subversive strategies”, as long as girl babies are murdered or abandoned, as long as women are kidnapped from poorer provinces and sold to older (sometimes disabled) men unable to afford a local bride, and as long as women remain excluded from public power, their ability to contribute to expressive culture in the public sphere is likely to remain limited.

 

[1] Again, much of this is adapted from my “Gender and music in local communities”.

[2] Liu Hongqing, Xiang tian er ge: Taihang mangyiren de gushi (Beijing chubanshe, 2004). Still, the role of women is clearly increasing: see e.g. Zhang Yanqin, “Zhangzi shuoshu jiqi xijuhua qingxiang,” Minsu quyi 151 (2006), on narrative singers in a county in southeast Shanxi.

[3] See also the stimulating article by Zhang Zhentao, “Nü yueshou yu nü changjia,” Xinghai yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2009/3, pp.43–9.

Women of Yanggao 2/3: sectarians and mediums

The male domination of rural performance genres appears stark. [1] I’ll outline the overall context in my third article, but for now let’s focus on ritual.

As with most public roles, ritual specialists (such as household Daoists or members of ritual associations) are male—or so it may at first seem. The few exceptions to the male monopoly—nuns performing public liturgy, unmarried daughters taking part in their father’s shawm band—only prove the rule. However, the role of women in ritual transpires to be substantial.

Ritual and religion
Ritual, much of it religious, remains the main cultural engine of folk communities.

Again, male domination is apparent—temple committees, household Daoists, funerary officiants, yinyang, and fengshui masters. Women are often said to be unable to represent the community in communicating with the gods—their exclusion is starkly revealed in rain ceremonies, where, considered polluted and inauspicious, females are strictly forbidden even to witness the rituals. [2]

Yet ironically, it may transpire to be through religious behaviour—seemingly a bastion of male hegemony—that women’s power is most efficacious. [3]

Some major female deities are worshipped—notably the Bodhisattva Guanyin and a host of local “Our Lady” (niangniang), “Granny” (nainai), and “old mother” (laomu) or “holy mother” (shengmu) deities—often promising fertility (healthy male births!). Though women are neither part of temple committees nor heads of household for life-cycle rituals, they may comprise a majority of worshippers and patrons. It is perhaps at temple fairs that their role can be discerned most strongly: they are major agents in temple life.

Further, women may be strongly represented in local cults, in which their role as ritual specialists is only slowly becoming apparent. Sectarian and Christian groups may have a mixed membership, including performers of vocal liturgy.

But it is as spirit mediums that I suspect women most commonly subvert male power. Amazingly widespread, both among the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese, they have begun to attract scholarly attention as a major element of folk religion; [4] and they invariably sing. Though there are male mediums, such as the self-mortifying mediums who skewer their cheeks and flagellate themselves in trance under the direction of Daoists at the temple fairs of south Fujian (Dean, Bored in heaven), in most areas female mediums seem to be in a considerable majority and may indeed possess local charisma. They often practise initially as healers for individuals, but this tends to overlap with public representation, as they instruct their clients (or their clients’ offspring) to donate to the temple of the god possessing them and organize group attendance at temple fairs, often involving ritual singing. This may be a significant area where women forge a public role for themselves, even taking a leading role (for more, see here).

Houshan medium

Medium praying to the female deity Empress Houtu, Houshan temple fair 1993.

Houshan disciples

Medium’s disciples, Houshan temple fair 1993.

Yanggao
In Yanggao, mediums (known here as “great immortals” daxian 大仙 or “masters” xiansheng 先生, irrespective of gender) are as common as everywhere else (cf. Ian Johnson, The souls of China, pp.238–43).

XLY mediums

Worshippers cluster round mediums in a sideroom at the new temple at Lower Liangyuan, 2011.

In 2003 we met Chang Xiuyun (b. c1956) in a village north of Yanggao county-town. Here I adapt Wu Fan’s original notes—which she made quite unprompted by her male teachers. As she observed, the account contains some contradictions; but it’s still a revealing story.

Now living in Yaozhuang nearby, she originally came from Ningxia. Illiterate, she has three children. People generally come to her when orthodox medicine has failed. She mainly helps people in her home village, seeing them on the hour, two each hour.

The position of medium and patient is determined individually by the immortal (xianjia 仙家) inhabiting the former, but generally she sits on the south side of the low table on the kang brick-bed, by the window, with the patient to the east. At her own home she has an altar to her immortal, who instructed her to use the room to the east for healing there, facing west onto the alley.

A glass of water is placed before the medium. Her immortal occupies her after “three sticks of incense”. Closing her eyes, she feels the pulse of her patient to determine the illness; then (the length of time is determined by seven or eight immortals conferring, usually for five minutes or so) she opens her eyes and begins to speak in a hoarse male voice.

In trance her voice is that of the immortal. In her regular life she neither speaks standard Chinese nor smokes. But through her, the immortal may speak in standard Chinese, and she smokes when her immortal occupies her. At first she would sweat and turn red, but after a year or so she got used to it.

She uses incense ash to heal them, a weekly course. She has to choose the ash herself—it won’t work if others do it. If the immortal can cure the illness, it only takes three days; the ash is just a further precaution. After the end of the session the patient has to return home to offer incense to the ghosts.

While in trance (so her older sister tells her) she sings pop songs and Shanxi bangzi opera melodies. Her own immortal, Li Huaming 李华明, came from Shijiazhuang, where there is a temple for him.

Her immortal once told her in a dream to write a placard (“god place” paiwei) for “Great General Peng Dehuai, Daoist immortal” (Daojia xianjia Peng Dehuai da jiangjun 道家仙家彭德怀大将军, Communist leader who became a thorn in the side of Chairman Mao following the Great Leap Backward) and to put a picture on the wall of him riding a horse. Being illiterate, she had to ask a literate villager (and a Buddhist) to write it for her. In that case she found herself singing songs from Hunan or Hubei, because Peng Dehuai came from the south.

She works on her own, and doesn’t take money, just telling her patients which temple to give money to if their illness is cured—if they don’t do so, they’ll be punished by illness again.

If the immortal can’t cure the patient, he will speak through Chang to tell the patient which hospital to go to—in Datong, Zhangjiakou, or even Beijing. If the illness is incurable, the immortal tells the patient’s companion to summon the children back to take care of them, accurately predicting the death date.

* * *

Some of the mediums also take part in the amateur sectarian groups which are also popular. Of many such groups on the eve of Liberation (commonly known here as “charitable friends” shanyou 善友), two which have outlasted Maoist campaigns are the Bright Association (Minghui) and the Yellow Association (Huanghui) (my book, pp.44–5)—both voluntary intra- and inter-village networks. Whereas the all-male Yellow Association—at least here in Yanggao—used shengguan melodic instrumental music as well as vocal liturgy and percussion, the mixed-gender Bright Association only accompanies its vocal liturgy with percussion.

Shanxi sect

Sectarian ritual, north Shanxi 2003.

Over a couple of freezing days in December 2003 I attended an impressive two-day ritual of a sect in north Shanxi (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 3).

They performed precious scrolls (baojuan) in the classic 24-chapter format, that are unique to the sect and not featured in any catalogue or library. Though the sect was among those earmarked for suppression in the 1950s, they were now keen to gain official recognition, and enjoyed a good local reputation—thanks partly to the recognized moral integrity of their leader.

The ritual has been commissioned in fulfillment of a vow, by a woman who finally managed to have a child; not herself a member of the sect, she prepares and helps present the offerings but attends the ritual only sporadically. Over thirty people, both men and women, take part, of whom a dozen or so come from the village in whose temple the ritual is being held. This is not a public temple fair but a private ritual; the temple is only open to ordinary worshippers for temple fairs, and is not open to them now. Unlike ordinary worshippers, the sectarians are expected to observe the five precepts (wujie). For rituals they don yellow robes. Unlike the setting for the precious scrolls in central Hebei, where during the rare performances of the small group of liturgists a large “audience” mills around offering incense, smoking, chatting, and admiring the ritual paintings, here all the sectarians take part devoutly in the recitation, singing the texts and melodies with great gusto—they evidently perform them frequently. See also here; and for an update, here.

My third article on Women of Yanggao is here. And for recent work by Kang Xiaofei and Elena Valussi, click here.

 

[1] This introduction is largely based on my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Harris, Pease and Tan (eds), Gender in Chinese music, pp.26–40. See also Kang Xiaofei, “Women and the religious question in modern China“, in Goossaert, Kiely, and Lagerwey (eds), Modern Chinese religion II, albeit largely based on rather more literate sources.
[2] Note Xiao Mei 萧梅, “Huwu yujie qi ganlin: Xibei (Shaanbei) diqu qiyu yishi yu yinyue diaocha zongshu” 呼舞吁嗟祈甘霖: 西北 (陕北)地区祈雨仪式与音乐调查综述, in Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究·西北卷, ed. Cao Benye (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2003, with DVD).
[3] See e.g. “Gender and music in local communities”, n.36.
[4] See ibid., n.40, and Xiao Mei’s chapter in the same volume, based on her lengthy article “Chang zai wulu shang” 唱在巫路上 [Singing on the journey of the medium], in  Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huanan juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究·华南卷 [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, South China vols.], ed. Cao Benye (Shanghai: Shanghai yinyue xueyuan chubanshe, 2007, with DVD), vol.2, pp.328–494.

 

.

The great British tradition

In order to satisfy their new bedfellows, the “government” of the “United” “Kingdom” needs more time to insert some suitably misogynistic details into the Queen’s Speech. Perhaps aficionados of calendrical rituals can look forward to more parades too…

One obstacle to the prompt delivery of the Speech is a fine technical detail—just the kind that I relish:

Also known as the gracious speech [sic—SJ], it was historically written on vellum with ink that takes three days to dry. Although it is now written on thick goatskin parchment [YAY! Getting down with the kids—SJ], this also needs several days to dry, meaning a speech cannot be amended at the last minute.

I rest my case. Go on, Queenie, just tweet it. We all know how well that works

Resting case

Resting my case. After Li band tour, Paris.

 

Women of Yanggao 1/3: Daoist families

In China, as in most societies, public performance—of all kinds, including ritual—is still largely a male monopoly. In the course of thirty years of documenting ritual groups in the countryside, it has been distressingly possible for me not to meet any women at all; from local cadres to temple committees, from shawm bands to ritual specialists, public roles remain largely monopolized by men. As until very recently in the Vienna Phil, women are invisible. Their absence from our accounts of household Daoist ritual is understandable, yet partial.

It’s not easy for male fieldworkers to engage with rural women. In Yanggao the potential for such study was suggested by the easy rapport (with both genders) of female scholar Wu Fan, whose fine book Yinyang, gujiang led the way in incorporating women into the picture of Yanggao ritual life.

Even before we consider public roles (see the two following posts, about sacred and secular performers respectively), the female members of Daoist households play a significant role. Just as Daoists are Real People, not mere Faceless Paragons of Ancient Wisdom, I’d like to give a face and personality to these fine people.

So in this first of three posts I’ll introduce Li Qing’s wife Xue Yumei, Li Peisen’s wife Yang Qinghua, Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian and their second daughter Li Min, as well as Li Bin’s wife Jin Hua. I give the formal names of women in an egalitarian spirit that is quite misplaced—married women’s formal names are hardly heard.

That I can provide such little sketches is thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Li Manshan’s family since 2011.

* * *

In the “old society” (as in Europe until quite recently) women had many children, of whom rather few might survive. Childbirth was itself dangerous for the mother; many Daoists took successive wives after the early deaths of previous partners. In education, attending sishu private school was costly; only a tiny minority of the more affluent villagers could afford to send their sons to school. In Yanggao until the 1950s only very few males were literate—but no females were.

In 1953, at the same time as he was beginning to learn Daoist ritual with his brilliant father Li Qing, Li Manshan, aged 8 sui, also began attending school, then still in the decrepit Palace of the Three Pure Ones. The village of Upper Liangyuan set up a lower primary school, for years one to four. This was the official requisite age to attend lower primary after Liberation, but he was one of few children in the village who went so young—most of his classmates were four or five years older. Impressively, girls now began to attend too, though boys outnumbered them by two to one. In Year One there were around forty pupils, but as they dropped out after failing exams, by Year Four Li Manshan was in a class of only a dozen. Still, the school had around a hundred pupils in all, the beginnings of a modern education system.

If rural girls seldom advanced far in education under Maoism, they made rapid progress since the 1990s. An utterly unscientific survey among the grandchildren at Yanggao funerals suggests that girls are now going on to tertiary education at least as much as boys.

Xue Yumei
From 2013 I finally paid visits to Li Qing’s wonderful widow Xue Yumei (1925–2016; see my film, from 36.46).

LQ widow

Early in 1945, with Yanggao still under Japanese occupation, Li Qing was married, at the age of 20 sui. His bride Xue Yumei, one year older (brides were commonly a year or two older than grooms) came from a common family in Houguantun just west. As usual until at least the 1970s, they were introduced by a matchmaker. Like all village girls, she was illiterate; she had bound feet, again like all girls before the 1930s when warlord Yan Xishan’s campaign had some influence in Shanxi. But she was tall, with poise—a local beauty.

The wedding was one of the last grand events of the old society. Wearing a “python costume” (mangpao) with phoenix headgear, the bride was carried in a sedan—by then, sedan weddings were none too common.

The new couple’s first child, our very own Li Manshan, was born in the first moon of 1946. They went on to have three more sons and three daughters: the second son, Yushan (b.1954) later also become a Daoist. They had another son in 1956, but as Li Qing’s wife had no more milk, after three days they had to give him away to a family living opposite; and then having done so, they had no money to buy him back (he now lives in town, and does well—they sometimes see him). After long years of separation and trauma, the couple would have two more children—the youngest son Yunshan (Third Tiger, b.1969) training as a Daoist too. Xue Yumei had to labour in the production team too, despite her bound feet and the burden of childcare—not alleviated (in Yanggao at least) by notional crèches.

Traditionally only sons, not daughters, learn to perform ritual. Like most Daoists, indeed like most rural Chinese, Li Manshan doesn’t approve of girls learning. In recent years, a few Daoists in the area just northeast of the county-town have taught their daughters, but it remains a curiosity, and they never continue after marriage (Wu Fan, Yinyang gujiang, pp.262–7). Li Manshan’s own second daughter Li Min (see below) is highly intelligent, and graduated from senior secondary—not such a common feat in rural Yanggao. She appreciates the Daoist rituals, but it was inconceivable that she might learn.

During the Cultural Revolution she and Li Qing bore their sufferings with dignity. On his deathbed in 1999, recalling their tribulations under Maoism, he was wise and benevolent as ever, enjoining his children: “After I die, you mustn’t curse the village cadres or bear grudges!” When in 2015 I went with Third Tiger and Li Bin to visit Li Qing’s widow in her 90th year, she was clearly still moved to remind them of his entreaty, her own moral compass shining through.

LQ widow, SH, LB

In her old age, like many of the older generation, she preferred to stay on the land, living on a farm estate that Third Tiger runs in the rural southern suburb of town, where his staff could look after her. Though hard of hearing, she chatted with Li Bin as she sat outside on the ground, trimming green vegetables.

widow with veg

For a memorial stele to the couple, see here.

Yang Qinghua

LPS and wife

Li Peisen and Yang Qinghua, late 1940s?

Alas I never observed Xue Yumei’s activities in support of Li Qing, but Yang Qinghua, wife of his Daoist uncle Li Peisen (also known as Li Peisheng, 1910–85) was a respected local personality (for more, see my book, and film from 38.44).

Li Peisen had served as village chief under the Japanese occupation. Like his Daoist cousins, he owned surplus land. But in 1947, towards the end of the civil war, perhaps realizing land reform was imminent, he quietly moved his family to his wife’s natal village of Yang Pagoda in the hills just south, taking his sets of ritual instruments and costumes, as well as two trunks full of scriptures handed down in his branch of the lineage.

Moving to the wife’s village was quite a common expedient when her family lacked male relatives. But more significantly, people from “black” families tended to encounter less scrutiny outside their home village. The family of Li Peisen’s wife were well-off and well connected; both he and his wife are remembered as highly intelligent. Their move was clearly an astute way of sidestepping any investigations into his background—his economic standing, and his connections with the vilified Japanese and Nationalists. Yang Pagoda might make a safer base from which to survey the lie of the land under the new regime—the potential sensitivity of practicing ritual would have been a minor issue.

Anyway, Li Peisen wasted no time in displaying his political correctness. Amazingly, he now gains an honorable mention in the county gazetteer. In March 1949—just as family members back in Upper Liangyuan were being stigmatized with a “rich peasant” label—he was the very first in the whole county to organize a mutual aid co-op, consisting of three households. This is the only tiny glimpse of him in the official account, but with his prior experience as village chief in Upper Liangyuan, and as one of very few literate villagers, he went on to serve as brigade accountant in Yang Pagoda right until the Four Cleanups campaign in 1964 (for a 1965 outbreak of smallpox, see here). And meanwhile, when conditions allowed, he continued to lead a Daoist band. His wife helped him organize his schedule. Li Peisen’s move to this tranquil village, and his wife’s careful assertion of local status, were to play a major role in enabling the lineage to preserve its Daoist traditions.

In 2014 the couple’s children erected a stele to their parents.

LPS stele

Yao Xiulian
It took me quite a long time to appreciate Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian (b.1951). Even if we managed to understand each other’s dialects, she wasn’t used to conversing with a foreigner, and I couldn’t break the ice.

They were married in the winter cold late in 1971, when he was 26 sui, she 21 sui, with Li Manshan’s family and the whole society under a cloud. Still bearing the hat of “rich peasant,” he had little choice of bride, despite Li Qing’s repute. Li Manshan’s uncle Li Tao lived in Yaozhuang further north, and his bride came from there. She came from a poor-peasant family, and neither she nor her elder sister attended school, but over the years she has gradually picked up a few characters like their names. It was a very simple wedding—in this period even the shawm bands were only able to accompany life-cycle rituals in the more remote hill villages. Li Manshan remains eternally grateful to an uncle who came from Inner Mongolia for his wedding with a sack of white flour to make the prized gao paste for the wedding meal. The new couple lived in Li Qing’s courtyard complex, part of which had been allocated to another family after land reform.

Staying with them since 2011, I came to admire her unassuming hosting skills— not just with me, but her natural rapport with both female and male guests who constantly arrived for a “determining the date” prescription with Li Manshan—putting them at ease, exchanging local gossip, sympathetic. Though not a smoker, she is always ready to offer a cigarette to male visitors.

LMS wife

Yao Xiulian mending Daoist hats, 2015.

While not in great health, she washes and mends the Daoists’ costumes, and helps out with making the paper artefacts for funerals too. Without making a fuss over me, she worked out what kind of food I like, and prepared a range of delicious meals for the family. We eat meat sparingly; the basis is noodles and mostly home-grown vegetables—potatoes, beans, mushrooms, greens, as well as fresh eggs and succulent tomatoes. Actually, Li Manshan is on the road so much that his wife’s cooking duties are usually modest—though his patriarchal background obliges him to disparage her cooking, even with me (I resist the temptation to ask him, “Why don’t you cook for me, then?”).

Li Min

Li Min and baobao 2013

Li Min with Baobao, 2013.

Apart from Li Bin (Daoist son of Li Manshan and his wife), their three daughters are all highly intelligent too. In growing to appreciate Li Manshan’s wife, their second daughter Li Min (b.1975) (see here, and here) served as a bridge when she brought her young son to stay with us, in an astute move to make my visits more pleasurable for all; she not only interpreted for us, but at informal family meals I relished their thoughtful and humorous exchanges.

Jin Hua

Jin Hua

Li Bin’s affable wife Jin Hua is an equal partner in running their busy funeral shop in town. With Li Bin constantly away doing prescriptions, decorating coffins, performing rituals, and networking, she is often left to fend alone with the shop; this is a largely female-driven cottage industry. Along with her own chain of female supporters, they provide all the paper artefacts that will escort the deceased to heaven—houses, carts, treasuries, floral decorations, wreaths, “banner to lead the soul”, and so on. Though these artefacts are less elaborate than in south China, the whole process of making them is complex and skillful. I keep them company as they make the two treasuries, using sunflower stalks to make the frames.

As Jin Hua observes, it takes two people a whole day to make the two treasuries, but only one minute to burn them to ashes. I ask her why patrons still demand such complex structures that will go up in smoke, when they are otherwise so lukewarm about ritual. She explains astutely that the hosts have money and can afford to pay people to spend the time making them—but they themselves can’t be bothered to do all the work that is involved in organizing long complex rituals.

* * *

I’m aware that so far we have mainly found such women assuming domestic and supportive tasks, but their contributions should not be neglected. And in the following two posts (here and here) we will observe women taking more independent roles. For the status of women in Gaoluo, see here.

Mahler: quintuplets, and gender

I’m so permanently immersed in Mahler 2, 5, 6, and 9 that I sometimes neglect the 3rd symphony:

Here, apart from the overwhelming overall effect, I’d merely like to zoom in on a tiny detail (as I did with the syncopated percussion cadential pattern in the hymns of Yanggao Daoists): the use of quintuplets, often informed by Mahler’s instruction nicht eilen! (“Don’t rush!”). An example from the finale (fig.22 from 1.34.30):

Mahler 3

The figure returns at 1.40 18, and then with the full orchestra led by blazing trumpets at 1.41.16.

Quintuplets play a similar role in climactic moments of the 9th symphony:

like this passage (from 1.06.09):

Mahler 9——and just dig all those string glissandos. Such a rhythm creates a quite different effect from the more conventional alternative, like this magnificent recapitulation on the horns:

Mahler 9 horns

It is as if the quintuplets are struggling to emerge from the stone like Michelangelo’s Slaves. For further instances, see here and here.

While I’m on Mahler, here’s a fine comparative post about the climax of the 2nd symphony.

*Historical note: I chose these versions mainly for Bernstein, but it won’t necessarily strike the casual listener/viewer that there’s something else remarkable about them. The Vienna Phil is one of several orchestras that haven’t exactly led the way in gender equality: permanent posts were only given to female musicians in 1997, and even by 2013 the orchestra only had six female members. Historically authentic, sure, but…

Let’s hear it for Latvia

As if the visit of the Li family Daoist band to Paris wasn’t enough, now we can cheer 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko’s fearless hard-hitting victory in the French Open tennis final. Another victory for hope against fear, perhaps—and the power of the young.

She hits her forehands harder than Andy Murray—OK, the balls are lighter (watch this space), but at least they’re not pink and frilly, FFS.

Again, we need to note the power of sport as ritual.

Of course nationalism* is suspect (as in Macron’s fine rebuke “Let’s make the Planet great again”), UKIP St George flags and all that. When Andy won Wimbledon, “ending a 77-year wait” (“blimey, he’s getting on a bit”), sure it was wonderful, but I couldn’t help feeling, “So that’s what’s been missing from British history, eh—never mind defeating Nazism and setting up the NHS, apparently our constant sense of ennui has resided solely in our failure in a tennis tournament…”

So the thrill of Ostapenko’s win is mainly about her, but in this case it’s cool to get a vicarious pride for Latvia too. So let’s all go and educate ourselves about its modern history!

 

* With all due respect to Dr Johnson, “nationalism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” would have been better—patriotism is generally defined as more benign, though indeed we do need to keep a careful eye on that too.

Strange times

UK politics is providing almost as rich soil for the satirist as the White House, but even sober commentators can come up with some fine turns of phrase.

Amidst all the justified Labour excitement, with the Blairites eating lashings of humble pie, a classic line from Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon on confused ministers swept along on the tide of optimism:

It’s almost like they’re trapped in a hippy commune.

And Hugo Rifkind:

Jeremy Corbyn has resoundingly proved wrong all those people who said he couldn’t win an election. Although he seems to have done this by not winning an election.

It’s OK, we can take this.

More Daoist wordplay

I’ve already given some examples of the lighter side of fieldwork with my Chinese colleagues and the Li family Daoists.

Wu Fan has not only become a brilliant fieldworker, but (sure, this would be related) has a lively mind, with an inexhaustible supply of jokes. Setting off from some casual phrase in conversation, she links stories up in a long chain. Her book is a valuable companion to my publications on Yanggao—as a prelude to one of her classic lines, here I adapt part of my Introduction to it:

When my trusted long-standing fieldwork companion Zhang Zhentao brought along a young female student on our 2003 trip to Yanggao, I was none too pleased. I had a tried-and-tested routine of fieldwork with Zhang, and was afraid that Wu Fan’s lack of experience would get in the way. Coming from a comfortable urban background, she confesses that the conditions of rural Shanxi were a bit of a shock.

But she soon proved well able to endure the tribulations of fieldwork. After a few days staying at the bustling Xujiayuan temple fair—trudging through the mud, trying to handle complicated guanxi among the gujiang shawm bands, chasing around taking in all the diverse festive behaviour while finding time to talk to all kinds of people, after late nights recording the yankou ritual, sleep interrupted by bits of roof falling on our heads and huge moths practising their kamikaze bombing routine on us helpless victims on the kang brick-bed—she was in her element. Shock and novelty give way to familiarity, and soon she was feeling at ease.

It had been a bold move for her to abandon the security of a good job in Wuhan to embark on the dubious rewards of ethnomusicology—I hope she doesn’t regret it! If her background of “Western food” in a large city didn’t prepare her for fieldwork, her experience working in TV did perhaps give her one advantage: she has a natural ease when talking with people, making friends, earning respect, crucial skills that aren’t so easy to learn from a manual on fieldwork technique. Her rapport with people comes into its own when she visits poor blind musicians. Like her elder teachers, she really cares about these disadvantaged people. Apart from all the hard grind, it’s useful if fieldwork can also be fun, and moving. With her, it is—but it never stops her from analysing objectively.

I have always been immensely fortunate in my Chinese fieldwork colleagues, but before my very eyes Wu Fan transformed from a timid pupil into someone whom I could trust to ask all the questions on my mind, and more—to the point that I quickly became even more superfluous than usual, and I now feel I can look forward to an early retirement. Rolling her eyes every time she realized I was about to try and interrupt the natural flow of conversation to suggest an avenue that she already had on her agenda—all in good time, Zhong laoshi… Behind a demure exterior lurks a ferocious intellectual appetite.

I won’t dwell on the difficulties faced by a female fieldworker in a male-dominated society: the scholarly field looks increasingly dominated by women, and Wu Fan has some astute comments on gender issues. One of my most precious videos is of her comical early attempts to forge a bond with a group of tough young gujiang by perching insecurely behind their drum-kit to accompany them in a pop music medley—a sobering instance of participant observation for our times.

If we ever get round to making any useful general observations about Chinese culture, or even north Chinese ritual culture, it will need an awareness of all the local historical, economic, political, and personal factors that make up the experiences of millions of overlapping communities, and will require a whole new army of scholars with Wu Fan’s determination and aptitude.

So on that first trip of hers to Yanggao in 2003, there we were with the Li band at the Lower Liangyuan temple fair, filming the whole sequence of rituals throughout the day and taking the opportunity between them to seek Li Manshan’s wisdom. It had been a long day, but now we were looking forward to the evening Communicating the Lanterns (guandeng 觀燈) ritual. The writing of this term varies: in many ritual manuals it appears as “Closing the Lanterns” (guandeng 關燈)—which in colloquial Chinese means “switch off the light”.

After supper we all retired to the scripture hall to rest, as Li Manshan prepared while Golden Noble adjusted the tuning of their sheng and Wu Mei checked his reeds. We were all tired, but as time went by there was still no sign when the ritual might begin.

Li Manshan’s son Li Bin, always most solicitous for his visitors, asked Wu Fan:
“Aren’t you tired? Wouldn’t you like to go back and get some sleep?”

Wu Fan came out with the classic line, punning on the double meaning of guandeng:

“你不关灯,我怎么睡觉?!”
“How can I get to sleep if you don’t switch out the light?!”

Sgt Pepper

*Substantially revised and augmented!*

Sgt Pepper

Even I had been surreptitiously following the Beatles from the word go, and all their work is deeply affecting; but their later studio albums took our admiration to a new level. As I reflect in my introduction to this series, of course we didn’t—and don’t—need to “analyse” such work, any more than most audiences do when they attend a performance of a Brahms symphony. But studies like those of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online) show how music-making of all kinds can be deeply creative.

* * *

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was born out of the Beatles’ frustration with touring—an exhausting schedule through which they had to churn out the old numbers almost inaudibly beneath the hysteria. As they retreated to Abbey Road studios, the process of composition with George Martin (“collective creation”, as was all the rage in China at the time) lasted five months.

The Beatles’ previous albums contain many wonderful individual gems, but for me both Sgt Pepper and the following Abbey road are “choral symphonies”, song cycles, seamless wholes—even if only Side 2 of the latter was conceived thus. Individually he songs are gems, but with their themes of childhood and ageing, nostalgia, loneliness all in balanced contrast, they work as one long suite. It’s world music, in the sense that all genres are their canvas.

So while I introduce A hard day’s nightRubber soul and Revolver selectively, here I just have to go through the whole sequence. Wilfred Mellers considers Sgt Pepper:

We have seen how Beatle music began as a communal activity of danced song: and how in their second phase—as verbal developed alongside musical interest—it became concerned with human relationships in a social context. The songs were now to be listened to, rather than danced to; and by the time of Penny lane and Strawberry fields it was improbable that the numbers could even be “participated in” in live performance, since they were dependent on electronic equipment. This does not necessarily mean that the songs have ceased to have ritual significance, for the long-playing record is a more radical innovation than we once realised. It transplants ritual from temple or theatre to any place where two or three may gather together, including the home or commune, as well as club or discotheque. This is why the supreme achievements of pop so far are halfway between ritual and art. With remarkable verbal articulateness, though at a poetic level beyond intellectual formulation, the Beatles’ next disc, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, explores the perennial as well as current problems of adolescence—loneliness, friendship, sex, the generation gap, alienation, fear, nightmare; and perhaps could do so because the Beatles’ early “corporate identity” was always a synthesis of four different individuals. Yet if Pepper is, in this relatively traditional sense, art, it is also a ritual involving the young—through its electronic extension of musical sounds into the environment of the external world—in a ceremonial togetherness, without the prop of a church or state. This two-way function as art and ritual remains valid, even though the Beatles, in common with most pop groups, disclaim both moral responsibility and artistic technique: for that responsibility and technique may be intuitively independent of conscious volition is the heart of the matter.

No longer do the Beatles offer us a miscellany of songs; we rather have a sequence of intricately related numbers, forming a whole and performed without break. The verses, though composed “orally”, by trial and error, are printed on the record sleeve, so that we may go back and read them again, “like a book”: just as on disc we may repeat bits of the music, as one cannot in a live (especially in part improvised) performance.

None of the songs is a love song; and that the main theme of the songs is loneliness would seem to admit that the Beatles’ early attempts at tribal togetherness had failed—not as music, but as a way of life.

Here’s a playlist for the 2009 remastered version:

  • Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Mellers’ comments, illuminating the transitions and contrasts between songs, reveal just how sequential they are. He continues:

Sgt Pepper himself is an old-world character rooted in the camaraderie of a distant past: “It was twenty years today Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. So we open with a “public” number (by Paul), inviting us to the show, and recalling Edwardian military music, the circus and the working men’s club, delivered with extrovert rhetoric, and with approving audience-noises off-stage. Yet if the brisk rhythm, the jaunty fanfares and the military scoring of this first song suggest simple solidarity, the music is far from being what it superficially seems. In tonality it is curiously ambiguous: for while it gravitates towards a smiling G major, the introduction wobbles between dominant sevenths of D and F, and when we reach the tune itself and the Band, having been introduced, plays and sings, the rhythms of the tootling arpeggiated tune are tipsily displaced by cross accents (three against two) and the “open” tonality is clouded by blue false relations. So this public show-piece hides beneath its zest a certain jitteriness. The cosy world of Pepper may embody a truth; but it’s one that is dubiously relevant to young people today. On the cut-out included with the disc the Beatles sport their resplendent Edwardian uniforms as comic fancy-dress.

Referring to this “overture”, Alan W. Pollack reminds us:

Don’t allow any of the overdubbed effects to blunt your sensitivity to the well executed bassline, lead guitar licks, and drumming.

And he observes that the bowed strings in the fade-up ambient noise prepares us for their major role in She’s leaving home and A day in the life.

  • With a little help from my friends. Mellers goes on:

Indeed, the instability of this first song already demonstrates that although Pepper is a military man, very peppery, and runs a band of people playing together, they none the less play to a club of Lonely Hearts. So we’re not surprised when the public junketings fade out, after a reference to the “lovely audience” Pepper hopes we’re going to be, into a sad little song, also by Paul but with help from John, but sung by Ringo, commonest of common men. And he begins by apologising for his incompetence, as contrasted with peppery professionalism. […] The song epitomises the reasons why the Beatles needed one another and reveals why their awareness of “separateness” and “togetherness” was meaningful to the young at large.

Pollack’s analysis is here. Actually, for the first song proper on the album, I find it just too bold in its hamminess: I’m not prepared yet for such irony. But Now For Something Completely Different:

  • Lucy in the sky with diamonds—(Pollack here) psychedelic, as Mellers notes, a “revocation of a dream-world of childhood”, its vivid colours

those of a poetically recreated kids’ comic”. The music, too, preserves its innocence: a lazily wafting waltz tune undulates around the third of the scale (with dreamy flat sixths and sevenths in the accompaniment), and the fairy-tale scoring, tinklingly plangent, helps us to see and hear the lovely landscape as larger than life, the flowers “incredibly high”, the girl’s eyes “kaleidoscopic”.

An abrupt change to a rapid 4/4 brings further tonal refinements, and

the fade-out carries us back from trip, childhood and dream-girl to reality, though again with equivocal irony.

  • Getting better—balancing contrasts, as this album and Abbey road do. Pollack notes how the abstract Lucy is followed by this representational song, judiciously relaxing the tension. Mellers:

a raggedy music-hall song by Paul, evoking school rebel and angry young man. The scalewise-moving, non-modulating boogie-rhythmed tune expresses fury with rule and authority and lovelessness in personal relationships, with perky insouciance. […] Though the language is not only plain, but blunt, the music doesn’t allow us to take the self-denunciation, or even the denunciation of authority, very seriously. At the same time the diatonic simplicity of the refrain makes its optimism somewhat wobbly. This again indicates how the Beatles’ vulnerability is part of their honesty; so it’s natural enough that this emotional frailty should lead into the deepening commitment of the next song,

  • Fixing a hole: Pollack suggests that here the protagonist is actively fulfilling the potential of Getting better. Mellers:

We’ve moved from Sgt Pepper’s old-world club to the dubious potentiality of friendship; from there to a dream-girl or the fairy-world of childhood; from the dream-girl to a remotely possible real one; and from that nervous expectancy to this subtly mysterious little song about the nature of identity. […] It begins in a dorian F, rocking fourths being followed by a pentatonic upward lift, balanced by a descending flat seventh; the end of the first strain creates the mind’s free wandering, as it floats pentatonically upwards, always just off the beat.

  • She’s leaving home—in triple metre, like Norwegian wood. Pollack finds it close to mimicry, but surely it’s one of the Beatles’ most moving ballads. Mellers:

The girl and her situation, though typical enough, were culled (Paul tell us) from the Daily mirror, and the verses evoke the mystery of the commonplace, having the true economy of poetry. How much is conveyed by the reference to the “note that she hoped would say more”; how sadly funny it is that she leaves home for the purpose of “meeting a man from the motor trade”, probably a shady rather than conventional character, but either way one from whose life-style the glamour will soon wear thin. Even the parents’ lamentation (“With never a thought for ourselves … we gave her everything money could buy”), though guyed with falsetto obbligato, is without trace of bitterness.

He observes the irregular, subtle musical structure:

The vocal tune is a corny waltz mainly in stepwise movement, but with a yearning life from the second to the tonic in the higher octave, followed by a descent by way of the flattened seventh. […] The arching cello solo is as beautiful as it is comic; and the irregular structure enacts the story, conveying not merely the fact of the girl’s departure but all the muddled hope, apprehension, and fear in the girl’s heart, the fuddled incomprehension of the parents. There’s failure all round, in both generations; yet the failure doesn’t deny the tune’s heart-felt lyricism, nor lessen the comedy of the falsetto obbligato. That the song makes us laugh and cry simultaneously is testimony of its truth to experience.

This little tragi-comedy of personal relationships is banished with a return to the public world of the circus in

  • Being for the benefit of Mr Kite! Pollack:

The song’s function in the cycle is more important than its intrinsic interest; it recalls our starting point, after the songs have explored the ramifications of loneliness and togetherness; and by ironic contrast it prepares the way for George Harrison’s number

  • Within you without you (Pollack here). “Bringing in the religious implications of the search for identity”, following tracks on Revolver, the Indian sitar again features prominently, its orientalism (Mellers) “re-created in terms of the Beatles’ newborn innocence”. This was one of the main pop creations that were now turning on a generation to Indian music.

In a mixolydian scale with major third and flat seventh, it’s said to be loosely based on rag Khamaj (The raga guide, pp.100–101, CD 3 #6)—although the only point of such a claim is to lead one towards the complexities of raga in its native form. The refrain and middle section also feature additive metres.

Pollack makes an interesting comment on the eerie laughter at the end of the song:

I’m aware of at least two schools of thought:

    • The xenophobic audience (remember there’s an underlying element in the “Pepper concept” that at least indirectly connotes a Victorian/Edwardian outlook of supercilious imperialism) is letting off a little tension of this confrontation with pagan elements.
    • The bedazzled composer, in an endearingly sincere nanosecond of acknowledgement of the apparent existential absurdity of the son-of-a-Liverpudlian bus driver espousing such other-wordly beliefs and sentiments, is letting off a bit of his own self-deprecating steam in reaction to the level of true courage expended by him in order to come out of the uneasily-anti-materialist closet.

But, don’t you think it’s a combination of the two?

Mellers:

From these metaphysical reaches within the mind we’re jerked back by a leery laugh; a deliberate exercise in “trivialisation” which may be self-defensive, though its not self-destructive.

Making yet another contrast, the next song, Paul’s

  • When I’m sixty-four, as Mellers continues,

cannot be adequately described as parody, though we’re back in a suburban terraced house, and in the raggy, twentyish music-hall style of George Formby, with oompahing tuba bass and noodling clarinet obbligato. This reinvokes Dad’s world and era with comic yet touchingly poetic wit. […] Of course the oldies’ little cottage has to be in the Isle of Wight, and of course their grandchildren must be called Vera, Chuck, and Dave. Yet these oldies are at the same time identified with the Beatles.

Talking of unpromising chromaticisms,

64

Meanwhile, Pollack seems rather less convinced. Having been a tad disconcerted by With a little help from my friends early on, I’m well cool with the style by now. Returning again to the present,

  • Lovely Rita (meter maid) makes an earthly balance for Lucy in the sky, as Mellers notes, not pretending that she is more than “an alleviation of loneliness and distress”. As Pollack notes, it’s been quite some time since we heard anything resembling rock. The song ends with what Mellers calls an “indefinite threat”, something of which persists through
  • Good morning Good morning (Pollack: “truly, truly, one of the great songs”), with more additive metres—its euphoria containing a spooky, hallucinatory undertone (Mellers), thus leading into
  • Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)—which has “now lost its show-biz glamour, or recognises it as illusory”. Pollack discusses it on his page on
  • A day in the life (here), an epilogue transporting us back into the “real” world, both funny and creepy, as Mellers observes; its news items, whatever their source, do indeed constitute “a Day in the Life—anyone’s life, here and now,” with the contrast between the simplicity and frailty of the little tune and the horror and confusion of the events dispassionately referred to. And then a long electronic crescendo ushers in a more urgent middle section, turning hallucinatory. The final da capo is less innocent,

threatened with ferocious percussion, and leading into another and wilder electronic trip that seems to be also an atomic explosion, obliterating both public revelry and private love.

Mellers even considers this song “the Beatles’ deepest exploration of their familiar illusion–reality theme”.

Perhaps it’s an unconscious tribute to the Beatles’ innocent honesty and tough resilience that, after the explosion, the commotion settles into an infinitely protracted if weirdly spaced (with obtrusive thirds) chord of E major: the key which, in the 18th century and after, was traditionally associated—though the Beatles cannot have known this—with heaven!

Which leads us (OK, me) to Bruckner 7 and the north Chinese ritual wind ensemble…

I can’t tell how people listen to an album like this—in a variety of ways, I suppose, like all music: one can zoom in or out on all kinds of music. But however consciously or not one listens, such analysis explains Sgt Pepper’s deep meaning and lasting appeal for audiences.

* * *

For the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper in 2017, Howard Goodall paid homage to the genius of the Beatles—and George Martin—in his fine BBC2 programme Sgt Pepper’s musical revolution (not currently available, but sometimes reshown). It’s popular musicology, accessible yet demanding, in the very best tradition of the BBC.

Goodall gives us illuminating harmonic and melodic analysis, as with his discussion of Lucy in the sky with diamonds. He highlights the empathy, the different perspectives, of She’s leaving home—an insight into the real lives of 60s’ people, by contrast with the glamour of the image; the zeitgeist subsumed the contrasting moods of Ken Loach’s Cathy come home and Jonathan Miller’s Alice in wonderland—both from 1966. Goodall shows the Beatles’ innovative use of technology, as in A day in the life, whose story synthesizes fragments of reportage—and its amazing last chord.

Maestro Goodall also makes a game interviewee in Cunk on Britain.

For Yesterday (from the same period), see here; and note my tribute to Abbey road.

Michelle Obama

Meanwhile (see my previous post), the passionate engagement, dignity, and basic human decency of Michelle Obama are desperately needed in these disturbing times.

We may indeed have reservations about her husband’s legacy, and his current conformity to the distressing rule of enrichment (a trail blazed more predictably by our own former “socialist” leader), but if only we had appreciated him more at the time—all the more so, given the dangerous pompous immoral self-serving infantile sulky posturings of his successor.

Even as an orator, while her hubby is no slouch himself, Michelle is in another league. Her passion was movingly evinced in her speeches to schoolgirls on her visits to Britain since 2009:

Now I realize all this is a clichéd bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder Guardian reader’s take, and I quite get the surly defensiveness of the fusty conservative stuck in the 1950s, before their birthright was threatened by uppity women and foreigners, when (or so they thought) the unwashed classes still knew their place. For a fine article on the antithesis to inspirational women like Michelle, see here—and note several BTL comments that throw out the baby with the bathwater by “refusing to be told what to think”.

Anyone unmoved by Michelle’s speeches has a heart of stone. Her inspiration is already bearing fruit here. Still,

Peccable musical sensibilities

I guess we should be grateful—nothing focuses the mind like having a vindictive sulky misogynistic illiterate baby as Philistine-in-chief in the White House. Some of his advisers were concerned that withdrawing from the climate agreement “might damage his credibility”. Where have they been?

Sure, we have worse things to worry about than his highly peccable aesthetic sensibilities, but they evidently developed early. In “his” 1987 book The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote:

In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye—I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.

I’d love to know more about this music teacher—just how little is it possible to know about music? Can it be that the young boy’s ire was caused by the inexplicable absence from the syllabus of the late Beethoven string quartets, which as we all know would later form his core listening?

But unseriously though folks, this is a fine spoof. I particularly love

bachs-goldberg-variations-1457709453

stravinskys-rite-of-spring-1457709448

barbers-adagio-for-strings-1457709451.jpg

Such is Trumpolini’s classical erudition that he should appreciate this fugue by “W.T.F. Bach” (lesser-known brother of P.D.Q.)—a must for your local choir:

Like Dudley Moore’s psalm, what makes this so brilliant is the incongruity between the juxtaposition of text and the solemn musical pastiche of baroque grandeur.

And if you think translating medieval Daoist texts is difficult, spare a thought for interpreters, trying to make sense of Tweety’s mangling of the English language. At least culona inchiavabile can be transformed into something even more evocative.

Back in Blighty, I see Bumbling Boris (aka Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Disaster Weightloss Haircut Bullshit Wall-Spaffer Johnson) has escaped again, leaping back into the fray by welcoming a kindred spirit to Britain with more blithe inanities—but he’s got The Latin, so that’s all right then. Imagine Conservative Central Office:

“How did he get out? I thought we packed him off to Bongo-Bongo Land.”

Dialect: Yangpu and Lunpu

Yangpu

County gazetteers are often a useful source for local dialect. Source: Yanggao xianzhi 阳高县志 (1993).

On behalf of “cultured” outsiders (see this joke), the Li family Daoists sometimes make an effort to speak the Yanggao version of putonghua Standard Chinese, whose acronym is Yangpu. It doesn’t bear much more resemblance to the standard language than my own crap Chinese—which by the same process I call Lunpu, short for Lundun putonghua (London Standard Chinese). When meeting Confucius Institutes, I boldly seek to upgrade this to Lunyu, “The Confucian Analects”. Hey ho.

For the secret language of blind shawm players around Yanggao, see here.

Real and Zidane

Zidane 2017

After my words of praise for Arsenal and Wenger, the victory of Real Madrid and the gorgeous Zidane in the Champion’s League was even more inspiring.

Sure, we should always remember the artistry of Barcelona and Messi (the latter all the more since he “looks like he works part-time on Saturdays in a video rental shop”).

And Zidane’s headbutt in the final of the 2006 World Cup remains iconic. After all, players like him must be so used to being wound up on the pitch, yet not rising to the bait. With just minutes to go before he could be fêted, canonized, his rash act seems like an even higher form of art, a worthy sacrifice—never mind mundane celebrity, he just had to do it, like in a bullfight. For a fantasy script to the, um, discussions leading up to it, see here.

Daoists of Shuozhou, Shanxi

I’ve just added a substantial “page” (here) on the Shuozhou Daoists.

If you recall, it was my film and book on the household Daoists of the Li family in Yanggao who were my original inspiration for this whole blog. Just in case anyone supposes that they are an isolated case, I keep meaning to write a lengthy, detailed article about Daoist ritual activity elsewhere in north Shanxi—but for now, here’s a little introduction to the Shuozhou scene, to whet your appetite (or not). While provisional, it will serve mainly to hint at the riches of Daoist lineages, ritual life, and manuals in this region.

Wang band

Introduction: Complete Perfection and Orthodox Unity.
1 Shuozhou: 1.1 The Zhou lineage of Gengzhuang; 1.2 The Wang lineage of Muzhai; 1.3 Wang Huarong; 1.4 The Zhang lineage of Shentou.
2 The Pinglu region: 2.1 The Li lineage of Front Anjialing; 2.2 The Yang lineage of Hancun.
3 Yingxian: the Qinglongshan Daoists.
4 Rituals and ritual segments: 4.1 A village funeral; 4.2 Another funerary Hoisting the Pennant; 4.3 Other funerary rituals; 4.4 Rituals for the living.
5 Ritual soundscape.
6 Ritual manuals.
7 Preliminary hypotheses.

Homage to Nina Hagen

 

Nina

I unfairly tucked away the mind-blowing Naturträne in a post setting forth from Viv Albertine and the Slits, but Nina Hagen richly deserves her own homage.

Rather like the leader of the free world shoving the prime minister of Montenegro aside in Brussels:

(The only logical explanation is that he somehow mistook the occasion for a beauty queen molestation contest with a prize of unlimited ketchup-drenched steaks),

Nina elbows the competition out of the way. In her case the competition includes Maria Callas, Kate Bush, Sid Vicious, and Lady Gaga. As one YouTube BTL comment observes, she could be Klaus Nomi’s sister.

Pre-punk, while still in the GDR, her early song Du hast den farbfilm Vergessen (1974) is nuanced:

With all due respect to free healthcare, she is one of the great things to come out of the GDR—which she did, of course, inevitably. Even if the GDR “didn’t always have enough bananas” (my book, p.147), at least Honecker could pat himself on the back for inadvertently nurturing a superstar.

Whether or not you subscribe to Nina’s Weltanschauung, her vocal technique is, um, breathtaking. Here’s a live version of Naturträne:

Some more BTL comments:

This is what comes out when you stuff highly talented kids with best education and at one point they start to think for themselves.

Please, when I die I want to be reincarnated as her mic.

She gives Sid Vicious a run for his money in My way (this also from 1978):

And listen how she subverts Somewhere over the rainbow:

Good to see the Leipzig Big Band accompanying her instead of Bach for a change. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for her version of Erbarme Dich, though. OK, she belongs to a particular moment in time—but expressive culture always does, like Bach.