World music: a new tag

I sniff at the trendy commercial usage of the term “world music”, but at least it’s a shorthand for all the musical cultures of the world. So I’ve now added a new tag in the sidebar for world music, collating various dilettante excursions into the musical cultures of India, Ireland, the Mediterranean, the Uyghurs, and so on. Doubtless more to come…

cascais-singer

Dona Rosa, Cascais 1993.

 

Dressing modestly

Fan
The splendid Jiayang Fan recently found her thoughtful TV interview on the flapdoodle over the 19th Party Congress and Uncle Xi subjected to an impertinent appraisal from an unreconstructed commentator on Chinese Twitter. As she comments,

My fav Chinese social media criticism: I can’t trust anything Jiayang Fan says or writes due to the ugliness of her necklace collection.

Fan Tweet

Perhaps the Twitter pundit might consider this entirely representative sample of the Chinese population more trustworthy:


Of course, this photo doesn’t tell the whole story, since also modestly “holding up half the sky” are a charming and tastefully attired Red Detachment of Women silently and obligingly serving tea—so that’s all right then.

While one hopes there was an element of tongue-in-cheek about the Chinese comment, it evokes the fatuous appraisals of female politicians’ accessorising favoured by the Daily Mail. Perhaps Ms Fan might try wearing a full burqa next time, to further obviate any criticism of the shade of her eye-liner.

komusoAnother option might be to adopt the old ruse of Japanese komusō 虛無僧 monks playing the shakuhachi end-blown flute—which they might also use as a weapon. I note that many komusō were spies for the Shogunate, and some were merely disguised as priests; and they were abolished in 1871 for “meddling in earthly affairs and not the emptiness of being”. Anyway, it beats me how wearing a basket on your head might be considered an effective disguise, but hey, maybe I should stick to Chinese culture.

A judgement such as the Twitter comment may seem to be based merely on grounds of taste, but it shades into still more fatuous opinions on decency. Since we’re not holding our breaths for wise guidance on dress-codes from the Chinese or USA leaderships, study sessions may be in order—based on the Everyday Sexism project, Hadley Freeman (note her fine article “Why not just ban women?” Hell, Tweety McTangerine could have worn a mankini for his inauguration—we couldn’t possibly think less of him) and perennial discussions on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s hour, and comedians like the great Bridget Christie. That’s just a random sample of UK media—not to mention a wealth of research and websites on the beleaguered status of women in China.

Like I’d know.

Stammering games

stammering stan
John Cleese’s feigned patience with Michael Palin’s imp-p-pediment in A fish called Wanda reminds me that it’s hard for people to know how to react to a stammerer.

Stammering is stressful for both sufferers and their audience, meriting understanding and ongoing research; but alleviating all-round embarrassment, humour can help defuse tension. The experts’ advice to friends is not to try and supply the word for the stammerer, but sometimes when people can’t resist, I may find they’ve suggested a more interesting word than the trite predictable one that I’m actually wrestling with. So I go with it, following their word up with a revised phrase that seems to work—until I meet my next block; when they supply another promising word, I keep going with a further logical sequence… Thus I become a kind of puppet, almost a psychiatrist, for my interlocutor’s free-floating word associations.

Here’s another fun party game to while away those longueurs while I’m stuck on a knotty c-c-consonant. I arrange in advance with my friends that they should choose a special subject—French baroque composers, feminist thinkers 1900–1960, Premier League football teams, take your pick.* This works best in a group, where everyone has their own subject. When I’m floundering on a difficult w-w-word, if they can think of one within their subject before I get my word out, then they win a p-p-point. Thus:

When I’m floundering on a difficult w-w-
West Ham!
if they can think of one within their subject before I get my word out, then they win a p-p-
Pankhurst!

Indeed, if you see potential in an initial consonant on which you don’t necessarily feel an impending block, you can even manufacture one—experimenting with deliberate stammering is one tool that therapists use to help stammerers experience control over their voice. Since we spend our whole lives desperately trying to avoid stammering, to allow ourselves to do so (and then modify it) can come as an amazing relief—though it’s not a panacea.

Like my fantasy Daoist ritual game, hours of fun for all the family.

 

*This is somewhat different from the old party game of “Name three 19th-century composers who didn’t die of syphilis.”

Deep in a dream

Chet
Delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, in my little sample of jazz biographies, I didn’t mention

  • James Gavin, Deep in a dream: the long night of Chet Baker, [1]

which goes well with Bruce Weber’s remarkable film Let’s get lost (for the making of which, do read Deep in a dream, pp.328–42):

Born in 1929, Chet somehow managed to live to the ripe old age of 58—this quote seems tailor-made for him:

If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself!

(Like Daoist ritual texts, this has been diversely attributed—to Eubie Blake, Mae West, Adolph Zukor, and so on.)

We don’t expect any artist to be a paragon of moral virtue—and in jazz, there were few angels. The “straight” WAM scene also had its bad boys—not least, trumpeters.

Before we get onto Chet’s iconic slow ballads, I like his early bebop playing:

And here he is with Charlie Parker in 1952:

I often wish someone would do a study of the styles of Chinese shawm players or Daoist guanzi masters like that of Paul Berliner on instrumentalists in Thinking in jazz. He cites John McNeil’s impressive genealogy (more taxonomy!) of jazz trumpeters (p.137):
Trumpet chart
But whereas most of the jazz greats (Billie, BirdMiles, Trane, Bill Evans, and so on), through their similar struggles with addiction, were constantly learning, honing their craft, Chet seems to have been gifted with his dreamy cool style very early, and then traded on his angelic image (largely for substances) for the rest of his surprisingly long life, settling for melancholy—without the constant explorations of the other great jazzers.

Donald Byrd, 1959.

Still, taken individually, ignoring the degradation of Chet’s life, his songs are captivating. Apart from his trumpet playing, Chet is one of few male jazz singers I can relate to (that’s my own weakness—the late great Amy Winehouse was devoted to Tony Bennett, for instance); maybe what distinguishes his singing is the way he dispenses with masculine bravado. But the critics are divided: while Chet’s followers revered him as a god, regarding his solos as “models of heartfelt expression, as graceful as a poem”, others were less enchanted, describing him as “a singing corpse”, “a withered goat”, “a hollow-cheeked, toothless, mumbling, all but brain-dead relic”, and “a drug-ravaged ghost” (Deep in a dream, p.5).

But let’s just forget the film, and the book, and wallow. These songs almost add up to a potted biography in themselves:

As with My favorite things, everyone has their favourite versions of My funny Valentine, but this one (live from Turin in 1959 [1] —at the height of Chet’s celebrity in Italy, and just as his substance-abuse was rocketing) is heart-rending:

Another lesson from jazzers in how to use vibrato. And let’s hear it for Lars Gullin on sax…

This next recording (evidently achieved through some editorial sleight-of-hand) contrasts with Bille Holiday’s You’re my thrill—which Chet also sang:

For a sequel, with a yet more informed playlist, see here.

 

[1] I also look forward to reading Jeroen de Valk, Chet Baker: his life and music.
[2] Short of undertaking a global survey, 1959 is widely known as the year of Kind of blue; and in China, for the escalation of famine—still not widely enough known.

 

One belt, one road

In the CCP’s latest claim to end poverty, the title of the enigmatically-named One Belt, One Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) policy may sound to some more like a critique of Maoism—perhaps a succinct postcard home from Shaanbei written by an Educated Youth sent down in the Cultural Revolution:

One belt [per family], one road [in the whole county].

And it wasn’t a Gucci belt, either.

Stories are common of families who only had one pair of trousers between them, to be worn by whoever had to go out. Like the traveller’s tale of fieldworkers finding villagers who hadn’t even heard of Chairman Mao, this sounds far-fetched. There’s a celebrated critique of such inflated poverty stories in At last the 1948 show  (“You try telling that to the young people of today—will they believe you?!”):

But in this case there’s plenty of evidence. Among many such accounts, the story of Wang Xiangrong (b.1952), “king of Shaanbei folk-song”, is interesting. He fought his way up from grinding poverty to become a major folk-song star, and his story has become part of the romantic official myth of Shaanbei.

You can see that in this documentary, but it’s still a good ethnography of his changing life, with some precious old footage, and relatively free of the usual hagiographic style of such programmes:

Of course, such superstars are merely the glossy tip of the iceberg, but I enjoyed hanging out with Wang Xiangrong in Yulin in 2001, finding him engaging and unpretentious. I did a little sketch of him in my Shaanbei book (pp.210–12) [1] —a rare excursion for me into the world of both folk singing and mediated urban performance (for the former, do read the works of the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck):

Wang Xiangrong was brought up in a poor desert village with a population of only a few dozen, 45 kilometres from Fugu county-town to the northeast of Yulin. He recalls, I fear not fancifully, that he had no clothes of his own till going to school at the age of 8. The youngest of four surviving children out of nine, he was 13 when his father died. In the Cultural Revolution he managed to graduate from senior secondary. From 1971 he worked as a schoolteacher; in 1975 he toured Inner Mongolia with a band performing Errentai. In 1977 he took part in the county band, in 1979 he was spotted by Yulin cultural cadres at a training session in Fugu county, winning a prize in a festival in 1980 and joining the Yulin Folk Arts Troupe by 1983. He has recorded for many films and TV programmes, and since 1988 has made several foreign tours, including a highly successful tour of Japan in 1999.

The kind of singing paraded by the troupe is mostly heavily mediated with kitsch orchestral accompaniment. Wang Xiangrong is perfectly aware that it is a manufactured style, attuned to the rosy official Communist image of Shaanbei. In between the extremes of that style and folk-singers performing in village life, even the few unaccompanied recordings of Wang and others show a certain refinement of rural style, such as a studied vibrato and the dramatic holding of high notes.

Wang makes something of a play of his “shaman songs” (shenguan diao), learnt when he was young from two shaman uncles; he is familiar with the “precious sword” (baojian) and the sheepskin drum struck with a stick. Similarly, he learnt rain songs by participation in rain ceremonies in his youth, for which a group of six villages regularly formed a “parish” (she) from 1957 to 1962, and even—still more secretively—through the Cultural Revolution.

I get to meet the jovial Wang Xiangrong, and with the help of a friendly cadre in the troupe who is a neighbour of the Qiao family, I am surreptitiously invited to the troupe’s evening concert, to be held in the great hall of the fancy hotel that I can’t afford to stay in.

It’s a private invitation concert for a high-ranking deputy of Li Peng, and I am not officially invited, but my new friends smuggle me in backstage to watch from the wings. If I attend formally in the audience, the bigwig will have to meet me, which would cause complications; he is happy to pretend I’m not there, and I’m happy not to get involved in courtesies. So, after all this time openly attending village rituals that some cadres might consider sensitively backward or superstitious, now that I finally find a concert showcasing the official image, I am forced to attend it in secret!

From the wings I watch the troupe go through their programme, announced suavely by a glamorous female MC in qipao costume speaking standard Mandarin, which I haven’t heard for ages, even from local cadres. Wang Xiangrong isn’t singing this evening, but there are two solo singers, accompanied by a full orchestra in the pit. Introduced by the MC, a plump female singer does two sets, changing from a red ballgown with a magnificent ruff to a pink ballgown – hardly outfits that reflect the dress of the Shaanbei countryside. With the aid of a mike, she milks the songs, using all the studied hand gestures of conservatory style, backed by the orchestra in national silk-and-bamboo style, with dizi flute solos and pipa lute tremolos to the fore. A male singer in elegant white silk costume also performs a set, his songs introduced by a mellifluous dizi solo. The singers’ facial expressions range from the smile of contentment to the longing gaze afar.

Illuminated by fancy lighting, male and female dancers wear a variety of glitzy costumes, wielding props such as fans, umbrellas, and handkerchiefs, stock props of national dance. For one dance the girls perform acrobatics while holding aloft lotus lanterns, kitted out in green trousers, skimpy tops with fishnet midriffs, and little red floral headpieces. From my forays to the villages I have always been mystified why Mizhi county is nationally famed for its beautiful women. Now I realize they have evidently all been poached for the Folk Arts Troupe; I am reminded of the palace girls of imperial times, slave-girls at the mercy of predatory officials.

Having failed to witness shamans practising in the countryside, it is ironic to see the troupe performing a so-called “shaman dance” for the Party bigwig, the male dancers wielding cute papier-maché tridents, accompanied by the orchestra in pompous martial vein. In another dance the men wield cymbals, lighting effects adding to the drama.

Anyway, you get the idea: such staged performances are a world away from those I had been witnessing in the countryside. I won’t go into detail, as you can see this kind of thing daily on Chinese TV; but the links with local culture are tenuous.

 Whereas rural music-making depends on family and community solidarity in ceremonial traditions stretching back to imperial times, I can detect no social base for the stage performances of the official troupe, and its kitsch versions of Shaanbei culture are utterly diluted; it is contextually, historically, and musically light. I can’t see whom this kind of thing satisfies; but of course one could say, as I would for the music of the chuishou shawm bands, that this too is ritual, not “merely” music; the official culture sanctioned by the state serves a need for “civilization”, for modern “national” values on a token base of traditional local culture, on behalf of a segment of the population. And I realize there is fieldwork potential here too: these performers have lives too, doubtless a lot less glamorous than their stage personas. But if this style is part of the overall picture, it’s a very small one; no-one in the countryside seems to be emulating it.

 A few days later Wang Xiangrong takes me for a song-session in a fancy Mongolian yurt restaurant in town. His best buddy Li Yu, the charming and portly boss of the Puhui liquor factory, arrives late, having already got a considerable head start in the evening’s drinking activities. Brought up in Yulin, Li recalls his time doing army service in the Cultural Revolution mainly for picking up a repertory of dirty songs, which were then all the rage—a lot of that generation will give you a similar alternative view of the period. Now doing a roaring trade with his liquor business, Li is a model capitalist, with rather good taste in music. In 2000 he organized a contest for drinking songs (jiuqu dasai) at his liquor factory, which was apparently a great success.

Li and Wang, veteran drinking artists, are the stars of the banter over supper; other guests (including a nice academic from Yan’an, two young and distinctly nervous women, and me) are in their thrall. Wang holds court with his songs while Li Yu keeps his glass topped up with fiery baijiu liquor. The colorfully-costumed waitress is expected to sing for guests, and doesn’t expect to be forced to drink, but with Wang Xiangrong she has bitten off more than she can chew: she is expertly, ritually, cajoled into joining in a toast after repeated verses. Wang is enjoying singing, but the fun is as much in the ritual badinage.

Wang is a real character, but I’m not in my element. One of those pathetic English men who has never sung a song on his own in his life, in 1999 I had managed, virtually at gunpoint, to sing Do, a deeand Rule Britannia at a banquet in a Shaanbei temple, which still haunts me—the sacrifices we make for our art! I got away without singing that evening in the restaurant—thankfully, Wang Xiangrong had my number. Indeed, apart from rural contexts for singing, such restaurant settings may be becoming a common context for singing among the urban petty-bourgeoisie.

Wang’s accounts of his poor childhood might seem suitable material for work-teams encouraging people to “speak bitterness” about the “old society” before Liberation—only they refer to the period long after the arrival of the Communists, as many work-teams discovered to their consternation. For Shanxi peasants’ discontent at their inability to clothe or feed themselves under the commune system, see here.

Talking of “liquor songs”, here’s a related passage from my Shaanbei book (pp.13–14):

Though the Communist myth of Shaanbei has ingeniously, or ingenuously, portrayed it as an archetypical paradise of industrious peasants, a rose-tinted homeland for both traditional and revolutionary folk-song, it is no simple task today to get a handle on the life of singing in society there. In view of the continuing vitality of social folk-song culture in Gansu and Qinghai provinces to the west, the lack of local folk-song festivals in Shaanbei (either now or before Communism) is curious. And if the romantic depiction in the film Yellow Earth of a shepherd declaiming a song from a mountainside was once true to life, it appears to be rare now. Also largely absent from social life today are “revolutionary songs”; even during the commune period, renditions were largely limited to (albeit frequent) political meetings. Change is hard to assess—if only one could eavesdrop on daily life in 1934, 1964, and 1994, for instance—but recollections of senior villagers suggest that singing is heard less often today than earlier in the twentieth century.

Since the 1990s, record shops, both locally and throughout China, have sold highly mediated CDs of “Shaanbei folk-songs”, including some revolutionary songs. Shaanbei folk-song now has a rich virtual life in many Chinese websites. Indeed, peasants seem to be aware of the label “Shaanbei folk-songs” when talking to outsiders, even if their own terms for the songs they sing in daily contexts are more nuanced. The gulf between such mediated, commodified versions, with their polished singing style and smoochy or disco accompaniment, and singing in social life, sung in a rougher voice and usually without accompaniment, is easily heard.

“Famous singers” highlighted by Chinese scholars often come from strong family and village traditions, but tend to tailor their style to the demands of the state troupes to which they graduated. However close such singers remained to the folk style, or however far they departed from it, their stage performances accompanied by new-style “folk ensembles” have remained the tip of the iceberg. All music is worthy of study, but it is a less mediated style that dominates singing in daily life in the poor countryside of Shaanbei.

Thus under the broad umbrella of “folk-song” are singers performing for drinking parties, the consecration of a new cave-dwelling, calendrical and life-cycle ceremonies, rain processions, and shamanistic exorcisms. Beggars doing the rounds of weddings and funerals now appear to be among the most common exponents of song (also featured on the DVD with my Shaanbei book).

Otherwise the nearest I got to hearing singing in context was when I visited a villager at his cave-dwelling during a lunchtime drinking session with a group of his male friends (DVD, C2). The singers were perhaps mediocre even without the prodigious amounts of baijiu liquor they were knocking back; with empty bottles strewn about the floor, one of the singers passed out on the kang brick-bed. Even if I could stomach the liquor, I realized how hard it would be for me to participate meaningfully in their world. Where opportunities to hear impromptu singing are few, asking singers to perform their repertory is sometimes a necessary expedient. I have attempted to get a few song sessions going, but have never overcome the artificiality of the occasion.

So much for “One Belt”—as to “One Road”, even in the 1990s when we went in search of village ritual groups, whenever someone gave us a lead to a village worth visiting our first question was always “Is the road OK?” (lu haozou ma 路好走吗?). We lost count of the times our jeep got stuck in mud or found the track impassable. This became known as “travelling the socialist road”. Indeed, it can still happen today, although the transport network has improved significantly since around 2000.

XYB despairs

The ever good-humoured Xue Yibing feigns despair, Xinzhou 1992.

For Chinese fieldworkers’ mixed feelings about rural China, see here.

 

[1] Whose footnotes give further leads—though Shaanbei bibliography, discography, and filmography all need constant updating.

Another fine slogan

Further to my post on ill-advised slogans for advertising campaigns—

in Anna Reid‘s Borderland: a journey through the history of Ukraine, I read that in the 1994 parliamentary elections, the neo-Nazi paramilitary group Ukrainian National Assembly campaigned under the slogan

Vote for us and you’ll never have to vote again

New Bach for fiddlers!

Mama’s got a brand new bag yeah
She’s gonna groove it the whole night long baby

I’ve noted instrumental versatility in Bach’s day, and my own delight in playing the cello suites on violin—when some of the solo violin suites and partitas are either over-familiar or lastingly and ridiculously unplayable, unless you’re Andrew Manze or Rachel Podger. Which I’m not.

While Bach didn’t specify the solo instrument for the Benedictus of the B minor mass, it’s more often played on flute than on violin. Anyway, I’m thrilled to find a new Bach solo piece to play on violin—the exquisite flute partita, whose original function (despite the usual splendid musicological sleuthing—good old watermarks, eh!) seems unclear (like I care). Its opening Allemande [note to self: blimey, “Allemande seems to subsume a range of styles?] seems rather similar to the final movement of the A minor violin sonata, which I’ve been playing with varying degrees of ineptitude for fifty years. Whereas some pieces have a lasting association with the ideals of our teenage years, novelty can also go a long way: never mind ridding ourselves of the patina of romantic performance practice, it’s hard enough divesting myself of my own personal history of playing Bach as a teenager.

So up to now, whenever I need a preludial solo in A minor (and let’s face it, who doesn’t, sometimes?), then I love playing the opening of the second cello suite—which comes out in A minor on the fiddle. I even played it for my father’s funeral, which was virtually the only thing I ever did for him [bit late—Ed.].

Such instrumental borrowings would have been routine in Bach’s time, but I haven’t heard any fiddlers trying it out. This version on archlute eschews the usual virtuosity of flautists for an introspection more typical of the Allemande:

Yes, that’s how I like it—emboldened by the Feuchtwang variations, I’m learning it on erhu, whose timbre is also suitably other-worldly.*

*Subject to usual Terms and Conditions. Management accepts no responsibility etc. Intonation, rhythm, string-crossings not included etc.