In search of temples—and another Daoist lineage

* This is the latest in a series of vignettes (starting here) from my recent stay with
the wonderful Li Manshan 
(for similar excursion, see here and here*

Jinzhuang LWM

“Nothing to see here—move along please.”

The still-extant main gateway, main hall, and music tower date from the Ming and Qing, occupying 800 square metres. The main hall is three rooms wide, two rooms deep, with single eaves and a “hard-mountain” vaulted roof 单檐硬山顶. Most of the murals have been covered over in mud, and some are exposed to the elements.

That’s the enticing account in the 1993 Yanggao county gazetteer article on the Dragon King temple (Longwang miao) of Jinjiazhuang village, west of Li Manshan’s home in Upper Liangyuan. [1] Even if the temple was now in poor repair, I was keen to see it. Besides, I’ve always meant to make a pilgrimage to this village, where Li Manshan’s ancestor Li Fu began learning Daoist ritual in the 18th century (my book, pp.71–3).

Over the years, whenever I ask Li Manshan about the temple, he merely shrugs—nothing left there, he says (and he should know). Still, now that he’s getting ever deeper into local history, I finally show him the passage in the gazetteer, and he quite sees why I’m curious, deciding that we should make a trip over to Jinjiazhuang the next day.

On my last morning with Li Manshan he is already up and busy when I awake at 6. After breakfast he fields yet another call asking him for a burial date (my book, pp.186–9), and then he asks his nice cab-driving neighbour to take us over to Jinjiazhuang in his posh new car, bought last year. Unusually, our driver can even talk standard Chinese—though when he and Li Manshan talk among themselves it might as well be Swahili.

Heading northwest, we reach Jinjiazhuang soon after passing under an elevated section of the new high-speed train line. First we check out the Temple to the Perfect Warrior (Zhenwu miao)—small but perfectly formed, in a typical elevated position (cf. Hannibal Taubes’s photo from nearby Yuxian) in what is now the midst of the village. [2]

Jinzhuang ZWM

A friendly woman fetches the keys for us to take a look inside. The interior has recently-made statues and murals, and seems to be “in use”—though of course, such temples are too small to hold temple fairs.

(left) central altar: The Perfect Warrior flanked by attendants;
(right) mural on the east wall, with the Great Lords of the Three Primes.

This affords me scant consolation for finding not the slightest trace of the famous Dragon King Temple; nor, indeed, of the Temple to the Perfect Warrior in Upper Liangyuan (cf. Li Manshan’s map of his village, and our film, from 8.18).

SLY ZWM site

Another reason why Hannibal Taubes is jolly clever: derelict site of the Temple to the Perfect Warrior in Upper Liangyuan. My photo, 2018.

Then to the site of the celebrated Dragon King Temple, which now turns out to be a drab concrete plaza (see photo at top of page). Even more distressingly, the temple was still standing until twenty years ago; so at least the county gazetteer wasn’t making it up. We meet an old guy who recalls it, and had seen an old stele, long vanished—but he’s illiterate, so he had no idea what it said.

What I don’t get is this. OK, the temple had probably been becoming more and more decrepit for many decades, but if it merited an entry in the 1993 county gazetteer (which not even the Lower Liangyuan temple did, for instance), then why would they demolish it in 1998? By then the county authorities should even have been nominating it for preservation; but even if not, you might think the villagers themselves would see its value (whether for their own culture or—if they had a modicum of canny foresight—as a tourist attraction). But I recall how in Upper Liangyuan no-one cared much about our discovery of the two old steles there (my book, pp.46–9): as young people leave, these villages have long lacked a sense of community, and there is little concern for old buildings.

Another Daoist lineage
While we’re chatting with locals at the magnificent Ming temple—or rather, drab concrete plaza—the village yinyang Zhang Nan (b.1956) shows up, and invites us over to his clean and spacious house for a chat. He’s great; of course Li Manshan has known him for ages, and as usual gets along well with him; our driver is good company too. On our way home they comment that Zhang has a slight stammer; I was so busy stammering myself that I didn’t even notice.

Zhang Nan and LMS

Zhang Nan with Li Manshan.

The Zhang lineage moved here from Hongtong in the early Ming, like the Lis (my book, pp.70–71) and so many others all over north China. Zhang Nan knows of seven generations of yinyang before him (as ever, note the alternation of single and double given names):

  • 1st generation: Lianzhu 連珠
  • 2nd generation: Kui 奎
  • 3rd generation: Wenbing 文炳
  • 4th generation: Bi 弼
  • 5th generation: Deheng 德恆
  • 6th generation: Mei 美
  • 7th generation: Jincheng 進成
  • 8th generation: Nan 楠

Right down to his grandfather his forebears were all performing Daoists, but his father only did kanrizi divination, as does Zhang Nan himself. With more time we might have elicited further names from earlier generations—brothers, cousins, and other disciples.

Assuming that Li Fu (first of nine generations in our Li family of Upper Liangyuan) would have learned ritual from a Daoist family that already had a tradition of at least a few generations, then “first-generation” Zhang Lianzhu must have had still earlier Daoist forebears. So this would make the Zhangs of Jinjiazhuang the longest Daoist lineage that we know of in Yanggao. And where did they learn?!

Though short of revelatory, our excursion to Jinjiazhuang made a good way to spend my last day with Li Manshan—not entirely a wild goose chase.

 

[1] The gazetteer entry appears not under Temples (miaoyu 庙宇) but under the “Ancient architecture” (gu jianzhu 古建筑) section of Cultural artefacts (wenwu 文物, pp.475–6)—a section that includes the Temple to Elder Hu at Xujiayuan but, strangely, not its sister temple at Lower Liangyuan (on which more soon).
[2] Cf. Willem A. Grootaers, “The hagiography of the Chinese god Chen-wu (The transmission of rural traditions in Chahar)”, Folklore studies 11.2 (1952), pp.139-181, and perceptive updates from Hannibal.

 

Cunk pulls it off again

YAY!!! Much as I love China, you can’t beat coming home to a new BBC TV series of Philomena Cunk (now immortalized with her own tag on this blog!)—this time reflecting, topically, on the history of Britain, in a noble tradition stretching way back to the mists of time with 1066 and all that.

All the trademarks of her inimitable style (scripted largely by Charlie Brooker) are here, not least her fatuous interviews with bemused experts.

Episode 1 takes us through Britain’s early history:

Dinosaurs came in many flavours, just like kettle chips.

On the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset (“the second crudest hill in British history, after Benny”):

Before Snapchat, hills were the best way to distribute dick pics to a wide audience.

I’m very keen on “middle-evil” (cf. “femininism“), and intend to adopt it. Admiring the Bayeux Tapestry, she observes:

It’s just like being there—but in wool.

I’ll need several viewings, as by the time I’ve scraped myself off the floor in tears of helpless mirth I’ve missed yet another bon mot.

Episode 2 does for the Tudors [is that it?—Ed.]:

Hampton Court Palace—a building so impressive, it has to be accompanied by harpsichord music.

Drake—the first person to circumcise the globe.

As a Puritan, Cromwell outlawed popular entertainment—effectively turning the entire country into BBC4.

Holding further earnest interviews with the likes of Alice Roberts, Ashley Jackson, and Shini Somara, all suitably shell-shocked:

How did Sir Walter Raleigh invent the potato?

she moves boldly on to Horrorshow Nelson (unable to clap, possibly a prototype for Rod Hull and Emu) and Napoleon Cumberbatch.

The third episode, helpfully called The third episode, takes us on a heady journey right up the 19th century,

a time when British creativity was at its peak, bringing us everything from great works of art to great works of train.

Again hapless experts find themselves fielding probing questions like

If Shelley’s one of the greatest poets in English literature, how come nobody gives a shit about him today?

Who was the man from Nantucket that By Ron wrote about in his poem?

She moves deftly on to the novels of Jane Austen,

filled with words it’s almost impossible to care about.

And the “Industrial Revalation”:

Workers did long, thankless hours with no breaks and low pay, in a squalid and threatening environment—conditions unthinkable today to anyone who isn’t a junior doctor.

Putting her experience in researching “femininism” to good use, she ends with a paean to the suffragettes:

Women were thought of as simple creatures who could give birth and raise families, but couldn’t be trusted with something as complicated as drawing an X with a pencil. Today it’s unthinkable that a woman wouldn’t able to vote—unless she was really hungover or… in her slippers and it was raining…. Emmerdale Pankhurst thought women could be more than just wives and mothers, so she deliberately only had five children, leaving her loads of time for politics.
One suffragette, Emily Davison, threw herself under a horse to get the vote. But the vote wasn’t under a horse—it was in a little wooden booth in a primary school, though to be fair, women wouldn’t have known that.

Episode 4 is a penetrating analysis of the turbulent 20th century, beginning with King Edward—

who despite his name, wasn’t a potato, but a man.

Interviewing the game Howard Goodall about Land of ‘ope and glory, she asks

If you sang it in, like, Portuguese, would it still feel British, or would that just fucking ruin it?

Along with the sitcom Brush strokes, which makes several lengthy and baffling cameos throughout the series, Ashley Jackson is one of the star interview victims, fielding questions like

Why did they call World War 1 “World War 1”? It’s quite pessimistic numbering, isn’t it? Or did they just know it was the start of a franchise?

and

Why did neither side think about mud wrestling?

Cunk addresses the early days of BBC television:

The show got a record audience of 400—the sort of viewing figures BBC4 still dreams of.

Boris Johnson doesn’t come out of it lightly either.

Ms Cunk covers the NHS:

Once the NHS arrived, if you were poor and you got sick, you weren’t on your own any more—you were in a crowded waiting room full of other sick people.

Robert Peston gets sucked into discussing whether the NHS might give out free crisps, observing patiently:

I don’t think many people would argue that you can’t have a decent life without free crisps.

Episode 5, The arse end of history, is the icing on the cake, taking us right up the present—

a time when the archive footage goes colour at long fucking last, and some things you might actually have heard of, happened.

The only form of expression women were allowed was wearing pointy glasses.

Were miniskirts actually shorter, or did it just appear that way, cos people’s legs were getting longer?

With his love of yachts, classical music, and church organs, Edward Heath seemed to be a real man of the people.

Howard Goodall comes in for some more probing questions:

What was the difference between punk rock and … just being angry—but without a guitar?

* * *

The series is essential viewing. Having been led astray by Chinese culture from an impressionable age, I’m deeply grateful to Ms Cunk for her authoritative survey of British history. Surely the BBC must soon commission a series in which Chinese history is mercilessly subjected to Cunkification, and so-called sinologists meet their inevitable fate.

God images old and new, 2

In this, the second of a yin-yang pair of articles that might be entitled

Uncle Xand the Ten Kings of the Underworld,

I find myself seeking to qualify the current coverage in the foreign media. The casual reader might be forgiven for supposing Chinese people to be languishing under a bombardment of Uncle Xi propaganda, just as we are abroad at the hands of China-watchers—in very different ways.

I don’t doubt that in some spheres this latest catechism is indeed intrusive. But the impression I get is that Chinese (peasants, workers, artists, students, academics…) have far more important things to do than study Xi Jinping Thought. I found public images of him rare—and if some households do display his poster, then there’s a sound pragmatic reason.

XJP posters

Shanghai, 2018: images that I barely saw in nearly a month in Shanxi and Beijing. Photo: ABC.

Invisible propaganda: business as usual
Of course no-one ever mentions him. On the few occasions that I broach the subject, it goes down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party. Following Nigel Barley (“like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club”), I ask Li Manshan innocently, “Have you been studying Xi Jinping Thought?!” Without exactly rolling his eyes (unlike this reporter), he looks at me like I’m crazy—not for the first or last time.

In the poor rural county through which I’ve just been travelling, posters [1] were distributed to every household—with the offer (akin to a bribe) of sacks of flour, meat, and so on. In one village I know, around 80% have taken the bait. Poor-peasant families will likely play ball (like a rural Protestant woman we met, and a “left-over” family in a dying village).

A household Daoist, and a shawm player—both struggling to make ends meet—have also put their poster up. Another Daoist, my age, put his up gladly, but he’s not that well-off—and anyway he still reveres Chairman Mao, which his colleagues agree is weird. As we chat between ritual visits to the soul hall, I can’t even be bothered to ask him, “If Chairman Mao was so great, how come he let 45 million starve to death? How come you couldn’t even get a proper meal until the 1980s? How come he wouldn’t let you guys do rituals?”

But most of my village friends don’t need the supplement, so have refrained from putting up their posters. Thus I saw very few of them, either in the countryside or in the capital. [2] (Having just received a rather indecent gas bill, I wonder if I can ask for a poster from the county Propaganda Department to hang up in my house in Chiswick—if they can put bonus points on my Nectar card…)

Only now does it occur to me that there should be a strong correlation between households displaying the posters and those too poor to invite the whole ritual band to perform a complete sequence of funerary rituals, who instead request a solo Daoist merely to “smash the bowl” for them.

So my feeling is that for villagers, this is just yet the latest in a long line of gods who may or may not address their practical problems. Campaigns are water off a duck’s back for them:

The mountains are high, the emperor is distant
Shan gao, huangdi yuan 山高皇帝远

There may be various reasons for choosing whether or not to hang a poster up. Villagers might feel that their room needs a splash of colour; or else it might not go with their colour scheme. No, aesthetic considerations are unlikely: some households may be genuinely enthusiastic, while most will swallow their scruples in order to get a supplement. At least, we can’t assess popular support for Uncle Xi merely by counting the number of posters displayed.

Nor did I see any painted wall slogans [3] to him as we walked and drove through the villages, or as we drove through townships and the county-town. Does the local government know something we don’t? Do I need a repeat visit to the optician?

Come to think of it, is it some extraordinary quirk of my routes through Beijing, or is there a remarkable absence of his images in public places there too? Has anyone covered this?

CCP poster

A common sign. Strangely missing is the request: “With the exception of patriotism, if anyone spots an outbreak of any of the above diseases, please report them to us and we will take appropriate action.” My photo.

So—unless one were so desperate as to switch on the CCTV news—my whole trip was notable for his absence. Far Be It From Me to claim that he’s not an evil autocrat bent on crushing all dissent and Destroying Civilization As We Know It, but the tone of these online scare stories reminds me of the Daily Mail. It seems I have to come to China to escape from him (or should I say Him).

* * *

Sure, we’re all “blind people groping at the elephant”. We have to study everyone, including elites, and some scholars and journos have to focus on one man at the top of the structure. Not only do decisions made from on high affect the lives of ordinary people, but there are very compelling reasons why we should pay attention to the insidious encroachment of autocracy and the escalating erosion of rights. Everywhere.

Still, my single biggest culture-shock at returning home to the foreign media was to be suddenly reminded of their obsession with Uncle Xi. Those who follow such authoritative China-watchers might easily deduce that his worship is an all-consuming duty—but such a conclusion bears little relationship to the daily lives of Chinese people.

So foreign coverage may be diametrically at odds with Chinese propaganda, but they’re both barking up the same tree. Meanwhile the Labouring Masses either take action or Keep Calm and Carry On, ignoring all the flapdoodle; and other scholars, Chinese and foreign, get on with writing about the lives of real people, exposing grass-roots problems.

 

*** Update: brilliant headline from Girish Sihane:

Xi sells seashells by the seashore as Modi’s foreign policy lies in tatters

If only they had met in the Seychelles…

 

[1] I inadvertently find myself referring to them as shenxiang 神像, god images—which always gets a giggle.
[2]
By contrast, see e.g. here: “the only image I saw more frequently—in elementary-school classrooms, in airports and shopping malls, on billboards on highways and in rice paddies—was the face of President Xi Jinping. Each image was identical: the country’s supreme leader, with raven-black hair and a face fastidiously airbrushed to erase any hint of human blemish, smiling calmly against a sky-blue background: an unimpeachable deity in an officially atheist state.” See also this photo essay.
[3] For worthier feminist slogans, see here, and here.

God images old and new, 1

*Click here for main page!*
(under Images: Li family in main menu)

ZQ mural

1 A village artisan
This is the first of two articles that together might be called

Uncle Xi and the Ten Kings of the Underworld.

In both rural and urban China, paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld (Shiwang xiang, or Shidian Yanjun) were commonly displayed for funerals, and in some places they still are. In this article I introduce Artisan the Sixth, who painted a set of Ten Kings for the great Daoist Li Peisen; and I go in search of his kang murals.

LHJ 456 Kings detail

Accordion crimes

Proulx
“Germans invented the accordion,” Beutle explained to Messermacher. “A thousand things they invented, but accordions most of all. Because Germans think, Germans have brains. There was this feller, a musician, a German violinist, he ends up playing in the court orchestra in Russia, not Catherine the Great but around that time, he plays the violin. But because he’s a German, Jesus Christ, he notices things, he notices when he hangs up his bow on a nail back in his room she also makes a nice little tone. From this he invents the nail violin, very beautiful tones, I have heard it. A circle of wood with nails sticking out, you run the bow on the nails and ooo aaa ooo aaa, a beautiful tune. One day this feller gets a strange thing from China, somebody gives it to him because interested in things he is—naturally, he is a German—and he sees a round bowl with some bamboo pipes sticking out, and on the bowl a mouthpiece. He blows on it. It’s a fine sound. This thing the Jesus Christ Chinese put reeds inside the pipes, same as in the accordion, little reeds stuck on one end with wax, the other end can vibrate like this.” He trembled his hand at Messermacher. “The German violin player learns the playing of this instrument, die liebliche Chinesenorgel, and from this he passes to other Germans the idea of the accordion—the free reed. That’s how it begins. Later comes the bellows.” (91–2)

By now readers of my blog will know how vital the sheng mouth-organ is to the ensemble accompanying north Chinese Daoist ritual—and I suppose it was the sheng that obscurely reminded to read Annie Proulx’s miraculous 1996 novel Accordion crimes.

The book has long been popular with ethnomusicologists (e.g. this review), despite being a novel—or rather, near the fiction end of the spectrum from non-fiction to fiction; or near the readable end of the academic—engaging spectrum (cf. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s Sardinian chronicles, another engaging classic). Like ethnomusicologists, Proulx focuses on change and social function. In her Acknowledgements she lists an impressive array of sources, experts on their regional genres—it’s amazing that all her detailed research took only two years.

On an epic scale, in the tradition of the Great American Novel, Accordion crimes has all the rich detail of ethnographic thick description. Indeed, it’s timely that I should get round to reading it now, since it discusses the tribulations of poor, ill-fated immigrants. The human cast includes immigrant Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish (cf. the equally poetic Carson), Mexicans, French, and Norwegians—all against a backdrop of xenophobia, misanthropy, brutality. Their sad, tough, gory, gruesome tales are connected by the history of an old two-row button accordion for over a century, with other roles played by

  • a club style accordion
  • a little one-row button accordion
  • a chromatic accordion
  • a piano accordion
  • a bandoneon
  • a concertina
  • a Chemnitzer.

As I observed about that other ethno classic Lives in jazz, the book gives a perfect combo of music and social detail. Hooked on taxonomy, Proulx can never resist long lists; likely to be tedious in academic hands, hers never fail to enthrall. While poetic, her language is never pompous.

The novel opens with compelling detail from 19th-century Sicily:

It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed malocchio, eager to reflect the bitter glance at the glancer.

He had cut the grille with a jeweler’s saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had made all the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kid-skin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sewed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. (17)

As the old accordion-maker arrives in New Orleans in search of fame and fortune,

In and out went Caramele through the scores of dives, tonks and jooks and barrelhouse joints that lined these streets, the accordion maker lurching after him through the musical din of drums and ringing banjos, shouters, pianos clinking away, squealing fiddles and trumpets and other brass snorting and wailing from every interior, and sometimes a string quartet sawing crazily. On the streets children watched and fought for discarded stogie butts, black street musicians and white played for coins, singing improvised songs of insult at those who failed to toss a whirling coin. (42–3)

In “Spider, Bite Me”, Abelardo recalls to his son Baby,

“The accordion was so natural, a little friend. Easy and small to carry, easy to play, and loud, and can play bass rhythm and melody. Just the accordion and nothing else and you’ve got a dance. It’s the best instrument for dancing in the world, the best for the human voice.”
[…] On the weekends [Baby] played for dances with Chris, mostly rancheras and polkas; they sang in the classic two-part harmony, primera y segunda. […] The dances were exhausting, the strain of playing and the lights, the sweat and heat and thirst, the noise like pouring rain.
[…] Though so many turned to the big-band sound and the strange hybrid fusion of jazz, rumba and swing, would rather listen to “Marijuana Boogie,” the Los Angeles Latin sound, than “La Barca del Oro”, there was an audience that liked their music, found value in it. These new ones, many of them veterans back from the Korean War, some of them university students, embraced conjunto, and this music was not for dancing but for listening. It had a meaning beyond itself. (173–4)

The changing tastes lead to a heated argument between Baby and his put-upon sister Félida (191–8):

She passed her arms through the huge straps. […] She stared at the ceiling, said, “por Chencho, Tomás, por Papá Abelardo,” then sang the heart-wrenching “Se fue mi amor,” which Carmen y Laura had recorded in the last year of the war.

Her bellows control technique was extraordinary, with dramatic swells and choking, sforzati explosive effects. She scratched and rubbed and struck the keys, ran the back of her nails across the folds of the bellows. The accordion gave the perfect illusion that a bajo sexto and a bass as well as a highly original percussion player supported the accordion, and from it came the melting harmony of the missing sister’s voice to twine and burn with the sweet, smoldering fire of Félida’s sad voice.

“Hitchhiking in a wheelchair” (199–276) is fascinating too, as Dolor makes a pilgrimage to Canada in search of old-time French music:

The music was stunningly brilliant, joyous with life and vigor. The dancers sprang over the floor and now and then they would draw back and give room to a step dancer whose rigid back, erect head and straight-hanging arms accentuated the clattering, tapping, rapping, knocking, flinging feet whose steps stuttered in and out of the music. He wished Wilf could hear the fiddler, the sound like a flock of birds, a flight of arrows striking all around him, from a growling, clenched-teeth mutter on the G and D strings to harmonic shrieks and stair-tumbling runs—Jean something, a taxi-driver from Montréal.

This leads to “Don’t Let a Dead Man Shake You by the Hand” (277–349) , where Proulx expounds on Cajun and zydeco in Louisiana; and “Hit Hard and Gone Down” on the Polish folk scene (351–426):

The Chez family from Pinsk lived across the street; later they changed their name to Chess, the two boys grew up to work in businesses, a junkyard, bars and nightclubs, finally making phonograph records featuring black singers moaning the blues, and by 1960 the good Polish neighborhood had turned black on all sides. (354)

“There’d always be somebody’s polka band—two violins, you know, the bass fiddle and the clarinet, no accordion at all, they’d just play all afternoon and we’d dance. No music pages, they play from their heads, they were geniuses. You know, the dancers used to sing out a line of a song, or not even sing it, just shout it like, and the musicians they had to catch it, know it and play it back in the same key. Oh, they were so good. Well, your grandfather, he sees after a while there is some money starting to come to the polka band players and there was all kinds of places that wanted polka bands—Polish Homes, the Polish Club, not the culture evening but the Saturday night dance, little dance halls all over the place, the union halls, bars and Polka Dot restaurant, the Polish League of War Veterans, a lot of restaurants, Polonia Hall—oh, there was plenty of polka dancing, and a lot of fun, and weddings, weddings, weddings, everybody was getting married and you gotta have polkas.” (371)

Hieronim’s wake was something, the last of its kind in the neighborhood, in the old, old Polish style, and nobody would have known how to do it except Old Man Bulas from the Polish Club… He was the leader of the singing and knew the hymns, scores of them all written down in his śpiewnik, a thick, handsome book wrapped in black cloth. (383)

This is soon followed by a memorable wedding:

He told his wife that it was necessary to balance the solemn death rites of Hieronim with as much of the old wesele style as possible… (385)

But again, tastes are changing (404–14). As promoter Mrs Grab warns Joey:

“We don’t want nothing weird or extreme, you know? There’s rules now, the association’s made rules. […] Only one song in Polish. Most people don’t understand it, but one song gives a nice ethnic flavor. That’s what we want to stress, ethnic flavor. Let me tell you something, Joey. Ethnic music is not that old-time stuff anymore. These days everybody is ethnic, might as well make money on it. […] They don’t want that mournful folk music sound no more or those complicated couple dances going into cricles and weaving around and slapping their asses and crossing into the next lane. No more of that Kozaky na Stepie, Cossacks on the Steppe, stuff. Everything gets mixed up unless you got a Ph.D. in Polish clogging. It’s no fun.”

[…] The spare applause had hardly died down when a big guy jumped up, his thin long hair pasted to his sweating forehead, and began to shout at them.
“This is not Polish polka, not Polish music. I am a Pole from Poland and in Poland they would laugh at you as I do now—Ha! Ha!—for saying this garbage you play is Polish.”

Now the bandoneon and tango make an appearance, as Joey meets a migrant from Buenos Aires, who muses:

“Piazzolla, with his little zips like the plastic zipper of a cheap jacket, his plotted silences, the squealing like rubbing two balloons together. That is a serious, unsmiling, hard music; the faces of the dancers frown furiously; and his tempo, the beat is like climbing cement stairs in a skyscraper with fire behind the doors. And there is that quality of a paper comb that sets the sutures of the skull trembling. Those passionate swellings are musical hives…” (416–18, cf. Alexei Sayle, no less).

“The Colors of Horses”, with Basque and Irish musics as well as Appaloosa horses playing a major role, is another too, er, deaf ‘orse. More fantastical lists:

…descendants of the ice-age horses painted on the cave walls of France, of the fabled horses of Ferghana, between the Syrdarya and the Amudarya rivers on the steppes of Central Asia in Uzbekistan, of Rakush, the spotted horse of the warrior hero Rustam, celebrated in Persian miniatures and in Firdousi’s epic poem the Shah Namah, of the Chinese Celestial Horses from the Extreme West, the Blood-Sweating horses, of the galloping mounts of the Mongol Horde and Attila the Hun, of the Andalusian horses of Spain shipped to Mexico for the conquistadors’ savage forays, of a shipload of spotted horses from the Trieste Lippizan herd landed on Vera Cruz around 1620, of the horses abandoned by the terrified Spaniards after the Pueblo revolt of sixty years later and traded north by an agricultural people more interested in sheep, to the Shoshone, Cayuse, Nez, Percé, Blackfeet, Blood, Arikara, Sioux, Cree, Crow, of the North American steppes known as the Great Plains, had been bred down to dog meat. (443–5)

The evocation of Irish song (483–5) is worthy of Ciaran Carson. Now we return to the original, battered old green accordion:

The silent reed suffered from a grain of rust jammed between the reed tongue and its vent, and this he eased out with a silk thread from his fly-tying box. The steel reeds were coated with islands of rust and he scraped at them with the blade of his knife but was afraid of lodging more fragments under the reed tongues. He cleaned the reeds with his toothbrush, blowing out the dust until he was dizzy.

He could see it needed everything—new bellows, new reed, new springs, reed plates reset, grille replaced, and more. But it had a wonderful voice, sonorous, plangent, shouting in grief to the mountain slope. (486)

The final section, “Back Home with Reattached Arms”, is moving too, with Norwegian immigrants making an appearance:

His own parents had been obsessed with the prescriptions of a book, The Emigrant’s Guide to Preserving Norwegian Culture, written by a homesick settler in Texas, a book that dwelt on the merits of the Norwegian language, twice-daily prayers, Norwegian hymns, clothes, food, and, after the fortune was made, return to the “elskede Nord” country. Daily they had sung “En Udvandrers Sang,” “O Norges Son” and others. His mother wished to live in a Norwegian community where land was owned in common by all. But Gunnar shouted for independence and his own land, purchased a mighty, star-spangled flag… (496)

 ***

That discussion of the sheng, with which I opened, reminds me of the Li family Daoist band’s concerts in German churches in 2013, the two mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out (my book, p.339).

For a general introduction to the accordion, see here. For yet another wacky illustration of the joys of organology, see the aerophones classified under Sachs-Hornbostel 412.232 here.

Passages like this draw the reader towards archive recordings:

Abelardo had hundreds of records, his own recordings of the 1930s, a few with Decca, then with Stella, then with Bell, then Stella again. “In those days I sang in Spanish; those men with the record company said to me, ‘we can’t tell what you’re singing, so don’t sing anything dirty.’ So of course I sang all the filthy ones.”
[…] He had old recordings of Lydia Mendoza, of the great accordion players, the records of Bruno Villareal, half blind, a little tin cup wired to the side of his accordion, playing in 1928, “the first recording with the accordion as the star”, Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martínez, Los Hermanos San Miguel, dozens of Santiago Jiménez discs.
[…] He would make them listen to all those old labels: Okeh, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca, Ideal, Falcon, Azteca, especially the Ideals made in the garage of Armando Marroquín up in Alice. (148–9)

Of course, like all those books about Daoist ritual, it misses a lot by being silent—it cries out for a good playlist. More stimulating than this one is a Songlines list, but one is drawn back to the great 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. We can find further clues among articles in The Rough Guide to world music.

And let’s all explore youtube—here’s a Polish tango from 1931:

But if we have to use words to evoke music, this is just the way to convey its messy exhilaration and flawed humanity.

New track on playlist!

Nanterre encore

外来的和尚不一定会念经

I described here how honoured I was to dep with the master singers of the Li family Daoists on our French tour last May. So I’ve just added our encore in Paris to the playlist (#3), with commentary here.

My Chinese caption for this (a variation on 外来的和尚会念经) means:

The monk from outside isn’t necessarily good at reciting the scriptures