Norman Wisdom big in Albania

 

Albania

Oops, sorry—this statue in Tirana is to Mother Teresa. Same difference… For a less flattering portayal by Christopher Hitchens, see Dragging the icon to the trash.

In this thrilling new fantasy world of unfettered (unfetta-ed) opportunity that Brexit promises for “Great” “Britain”, perhaps we can now look forward to a lucrative trade deal with Albania, inspired by Norman Wisdom (and note the cameo from Tony Hawks):

For more, see here. A wacky instance of International Cultural Exchange, eh.

For other cute vignettes from Albania, see here and here. On a more serious note, do explore the wonders of Albanian folk music. For the earlier conjunction of Alexei Sayle with culture behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

Dream songs

 

In my post on Noh drama, I noted that Allan Marett’s Eliza made a kind of bridge to his fieldwork on Aboriginal culture in Australia.

In the fine tradition of subaltern studies, Allan Marett, in partnership with Linda Barwick, has long been studying wangga, a musical and ceremonial genre of Aboriginal people of the Daly Region of northwest Australia. Along with many articles, he has written

  • Songs, dreamings, and ghosts: the wangga of north Australia (2005, with CD online here)

and co-authored

  • Allan Marett, Linda Barwick, and Lysbeth Ford, For the sake of a song: wangga songmen and their repertories (2013), with associated website here (NB audio here).

Dream songs make one of the most fascinating instances of the process of musical creation, and the relation between “inspiration and perspiration”. They also make a fine exhibit for us to broaden our concept of “serious music”.

Here I’ll consider Songs, dreaming, and ghosts. It’s the result of nearly twenty years of fieldwork, its detailed analyses enhanced by participant observation. In the Preface Allan explores the ambivalence of non-Aboriginal society towards Aboriginal culture, asking why its visual arts are so much more valued than its music:

Part of the answer must surely lie in the fact that both paintings and popular songs are easily commodified, while traditional songs are not. They do not lend themselves to reframing within a European modernist tradition in the way that paintings do. Moreover, traditional songs work in ways that are unfamiliar to most audiences and are sung in languages that nobody outside their home communities understands. They tend to be intensely local, focused on places that are frequently unknown to any but those who have rights to the country. They rest on cosmologies and ways of being that are radically different from those shared by the majority of the Australian community.

The articulation of the relationship between the living and the dead occurs both in the process of song composition and in ceremony. The whole culture is deeply embedded in the concept of country (for a very different kind of Country, see here).

As Allan observes,

The many social changes—settlement, migration, marginalization—that attended European intrusion on Aboriginal domains in the Daly region are reflected in, and mediated by, wangga.

The focus of the book on the positive roles of cultural transmission emerged from Allan’s dialogue with his mentors, whose primary wish was to share the beauty and resilience of their art, rather than dwelling on the post-colonial traumas that permeate all their lives, shared by indigenous peoples worldwide (for the destruction of a First Nation community in Canada, see here)—poverty, low life expectancy, discrimination, high rates of incarceration, land rights, and so on (see e.g. here). For endangered songs and endangered languages, see here, and for the role of technology in preservation, here.

Allan outlines the history of research since the 1950s (A.P. Elkin, Trevor Jones, Alice Moyle, Catherine Ellis, and so on). He reflects on how to integrate social and musical analysis—a model for which I recommend Berliner, Thinking in jazz. We may think of WAM as complex, but the complexities of both the culture and soundscape of aboriginal life are of a different order. He reflects wisely on the role that notation may serve for us:

Although analysis is not particularly fashionable within ethnomusicology today, I am strongly of the view that it provides our best methodological tool for isolating significant (and signifying) moments of performance. I am not so naive as to assume that Western notation can ever accurately represent the totality of the sound world of wangga—or indeed any complex sound world—but I believe that transcription can, if sensitively handled, be used to direct the listener to salient features of the music, much as maps direct travelers to salient features of the landscape. Just as maps are socially constructed documents with their own sets of conventions, and just as they can never represent every aspect of the landscape without simply replicating the landscape in its entirety, so too are transcriptions socially constructed documents that can never totally encode the sound world to which they relate. But insofar as they help us navigate through an unfamiliar music, they can be extremely helpful.

The reason that I use Western notation—despite its obvious shortcomings—is because it is the most widely understood way of graphically representing musical sound. Many of the recordings on which my transcriptions are based are presented in the accompanying CD, and I invite readers to judge the efficacy of the transcriptions, and their associated analyses, with regard to the extent to which they open up the music and render it intelligible.

Indeed, reading such densely-argued analysis makes it all the more important to follow Allan’s careful transcriptions in conjunction with the 28 short audio tracks on the associated website. Such analysis of arcane repertoires is admirable—all the more so in view of the dearth of indigenous musical terminology. Profound concepts are often expressed in misleadingly simple expressions (cf. “doing things” in north China).

Chapter One introduces repertories, histories, and orders of being—opening with the legend of Old Man Tulh, represented in painting and in song.

Wangga songs are performed by one or two (or occasionally more) songmen, who accompany themselves on wooden clapsticks and are accompanied in turn by another performer playing the didjeridu, a long trumpet fashioned from a tree branch thathas been hollowed out by termites. Wangga songs typically comprise a number of bursts of singing, which I term “vocal sections”, which are accompanied by didjeridu, and, in some cases, clapsticks. Vocal sections are separated from one another by a number of “instrumental sections”, which are performed using clapsticks and didjeridu, with occasional spoken, sung, or hummed interjections by the songman. In many case, it is in the instrumental sections that dance comes to the fore.

The wangga repertory may be divided into two broad musical types. In the first, which I call “unmeasured”, the singer alternates didjeridu-accompanied vocal sections without clapstick accompaniment with instrumental sections performed by both clapsticks and didjeridu. In the second, “measured” type, the singer accompanies himself with clapsticks throughout the whole song, and the delivery of the text in the vocal sections is contstrained by the metrical framework established by the sticks and the rhythmic ostinato of the didjeridu.

Allan introduces the two main centres for the composition and performance of wangga, Wadeye and Belyuen—both migrant communities.

Today it is the Walakhanda wangga repertory that is dominant at Wadeye. The reasons for this go back to a set of extraordinary decisions made by Wadeye elders almost fifty years ago. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a conscious decision was made to create three new repertories of song—the Walakhanda wangga, lirrga, and dhanba—as the basis of of a new tripartite system of ceremonial reciprocity. […]

The immediate impetus for the establishment of this system was the rapid expansion of the Port Keats mission that occurred during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The expanded community included groups who had long histories of conflict with one another and therefore required a new mechanism to maintain social harmony. The tripartite system established at that time continues to function to the present day and is pointed to as a source of ongoing stability within the community.

In Belyuen, by contrast, the community was further removed from the country in which their totemic Dreamings reside, giving rise to a different set of cultural references.

Chapter Two, “Dreaming songs: sustaining tradition”, opens with the Barunga songman Alan Maralung’s account of how he was given songs in dream, and goes on to explore what exactly it is that the ancestors give to songmen. The author finds that the process of composition continues to evolve.

I once witnessed Maralung rehearsing a new song that he had just received. He sang fragments of melody and text sotto voce and quietly beat out short rhythmic patterns, adjusting the various elements until he was happy with them. Later that day he was able to perform the song for a recording; this perhaps suggests that he required less composition time than Mullumbuk. One should bear in mind, however, that Maralung’s songs involve a much greater degree of improvisation than Mullumbuk’s. They constantly evolve and never attain the degree of stability sought by Mullumbuk, or indeed by Lambudju. When songs are not regularly performed in ceremony, as is the case with Maralung’s repertory, they never become “set”, and their form invariably remains unstable from performance to performance. Nevertheless, both forms—those set by performance in ceremony, and those that continue to evolve from performance to performance—equally represent the collaborative work of humans and ancestors.

Basic elements are the cooperation and tensions between lineages, and between different language groups, influencing important aspects of performance.

table

As ever, this is not some anonymous, timeless tradition: individual performers make major contributions. As in other genres (including WAM), wangga repertories change significantly over time. Allan notes repertory loss:

Many songs fall quickly from the repertory with the death of their composers, while some survive for several generations. New songs quickly emerge as new songmen take over.

For various parameters for musical change, see Bruno Nettl.

Left: Behaving suspiciously towards strangers [lessons available for Brexiteers].
Right: Circumcision ceremony, Wadeye 1992.

Chapter Three explores ceremony, notably mortuary and circumcision rituals—again, constantly subject to revision. Always paying attention to the underlying importance of myth, Allan focuses on two burnim-rag mortuary ceremonies, in 1988 and 1995; and he makes detailed comparisons between a 1988 circumcision ceremony and accounts from 1935 to 1945. He broadens the topic to include lirrga and dhanba genres, and ceremonial reciprocity.

As performed today, the circumcision ceremonies at Wadeye represent a revival of the rites discontinued in the mid-1940s under influence from the Catholic mission at Wadeye, then Port Keats. The exact date of the revival is difficult to ascertain, though it seems reasonable to assume that it coincides with the creation of new repertories of wangga, lirrga, and dhanba in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

New ritual complexes have been introduced to replace those that are no longer regarded as efficacious. Notwithstanding the function of ritual to enhance social cohesion, given the precarious nature of tradition, I’d be interested to see an account like that of Geertz for a “failed funeral”, which I emulated for China.

Chapter Three ends with an account of funerals, performed within a Christian framework, and “quasi-ceremonial” civic events such as graduation ceremonies and festivals.

Chapter Four addresses the nuts and bolts of song and dance in performance. Referring to Susan McClary, he comments:

The need to focus not only on how performers play against conventions to generate meaning, but also on the meanings embedded in the conventions themselves, is as important for the study of wangga as it is for McClary’s study of the blues or Beethoven’s A minor quartet.

Indeed, pace Taruskin, this is another clear case of “serious music”!

Allan analyses melody, mode, melisma, metre, voice quality (cf. Voices of the world); the role of the rhythmically patterned drone on didjeridu, and the clapsticks, often signifying the footsteps or the gait of an ancestor; and the dance.

He begins by analysing a 1968 performance of a measured wangga song by Tommy Barrtjap at Belyuen (above, with audio track here), discussing in turn how metre and tempo are established in the instrumental introduction, the structuring of vocal and melodic sections, the structuring of text and its rhythmic realisation in song, instrumental interludes and codas, and stabilizing form.

He then unpacks an unmeasured wangga from a 1988 burnim-rag ceremony at Wadeye, and its relationship with dance.

Always uncovering both communal and personal elements in transmission, Chapters Five to Eight explore major repertoires of wangga with detailed analyses. Chapter Five concerns the Walakandha wangga, established in the early 1960s as part of the reorganization of ritual life at Wadeye. Chapter Six discusses the more variable (and now rare) Ma-yawa wangga, Chapters Seven and Eight the wangga of Tommy Barrtjap and Bobby Lambudju Lane at Belyuen.

In Chapter Nine Allan revisits the musical conventions of the Daly region, drawing general conclusions on the diversity of text structures, rhythmic treatment, multivalency, melody and mode, rhythmic mode and dance.

Chapter Ten looks beyond the Daly region to the performance of wangga and lirrga in the Barunga/Beswick and Kimberley regions. Again using material from as far back as the 1940s, Allan explores the wider network of ceremonial reciprocity between Wadeye and other communities, always identifying creativity.

Again, it is most important to follow Allan’s detailed analyses together with the audio tracks on the book’s website. Of course, listening like this we can only admire them as isolated sound objects, detached from the context of ceremony and dance. Short of attending ceremonies ourselves, film should be a major medium to engage with this culture—indeed, I can imagine Allan making a wonderful portrait film on the topic. Meanwhile, we can get a flavour of ceremonial performance here, with Button Jones singing wangga and lirrga from the Kimberley (as in Chapter Ten):

And lirrga from Wadeye:

Allan also admires the dancing in this exceptional video of performers from Wadeye at a 1973 Eucharistic Congress at Melbourne, with specially-composed Christian lirrga:

* * *

Beyond the nuts and bolts of soundscape, Songs, dreamings, and ghosts constantly stresses cosmological significance, and the creativity of individual composers.

Meeting up with Allan again in London recently, I reflect that after our paths converged at Cambridge while studying Tang court music with Laurence Picken, they then diverged with our respective fieldsites, and then converged again with fieldwork on living folk ritual among disadvantaged people (my own topics in China including spirit mediums and blind shawm players)—all paths of which Laurence, in his wisdom, approved.

See also under Native American musical cultures (here and here).

 

 

More Country

Sources of country musicThomas Hart Benton, The sources of Country music (1975).

Three chords and the truth—Harlan Howard

Do you know what the southern definition of a true music lover is?
It’s a man who, if he hears a woman singing in the shower, puts his ear to the keyhole—cited in Dawidoff, In the country of country.

Complementing his classic series on jazz, the new PBS series by Ken Burns on the simpler but equally meaningful language of Country music reminds us that far from being a quaint byway, it represents the soul of modern US culture. The eight two-hour episodes have been re-edited and pared down into nine 50-minute programmes for BBC4. [1] Now that I’ve watched the latter, I’m keen to see the full version. Here I can only outline a few of the themes and personalities.

If you know about Country, then you won’t be reading this, and indeed you may bring more critical perspectives to bear on Burns’s portrayal; but for the rest of us, it deserves taking seriously. Here’s a trailer:

As with any genre (Aboriginal dream songs, Iranian chamber music, French baroque, and so on), you just have to immerse yourself in the style and the culture (for a more detailed project on flamenco, see the amazing series Rito y geografia del cante).

With Peter Coyote’s distinctive voiceover, the series judiciously blends interviews and performances with lingering photos, encompassing the personal and political, artistic and commercial, poverty and pain, ecstasy and drudge, church and honky-tonks, domestic stability and outlaw excess, survival and solace. Looking beyond the hillbilly costumes and cowboy hats to the heartache, amidst all the drink, drugs, divorces, early deaths, and the ravages of the touring life, Burns accessibly draws us to the lyrics and music, always identifying themes in the history of cultural transmission, and the very nature of tradition.

Gradually over the series, the early log cabins, railroads, coal mines, textile mills, timber yards, and sharecroppers give way to mansions and Cadillacs. And as one review comments, you can almost trace the history in the performers’ faces: the lean lines of the early stars such as Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, giving way to the gnarled faces of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and then the soft, untroubled faces of the ’80s and ’90s stars. But to see it as “a simple journey from the sublime to the ridiculous” risks succumbing to the bourgeois nostalgia for poverty.

Despite the later countrypolitan sounds, audiences constantly returned to the roots authenticity of old-time, bluegrass, hillbilly. Female performers play an exceptional role, such as The Carters, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, and Emmylou Harris.

oldies

The Rub (beginnings to 1933) makes a captivating opening, with wonderful archive photos evocatively deployed. Folk music is always eclectic. Spreading through barn dances and travelling medicine shows, the history of Country is intertwined with gospel and spirituals, slavery and the blues, as well as folk traditions of Appalachia and European migrants, notably the British Isles. Though Country has been described as “the white man’s soul music”, the series acknowledges its debt to African-American culture. In addition to the new technologies of phonographs and radio, it soon became a highly commercial proposition, with patronage from institutions like the National Life and Accident Insurance Company and its WSM station, which gave rise to the long-running Grand Ole Opry. Among early performers, the 1927 discovery of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers was a seminal moment.

In Hard Times (1933–1945) (“The sad songs are the best”), the industry continues to grow through the Great Depression and World War Two, with major migrations. The Texas Swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys was based on strings rather than horns—a classic case of the eclectic melting-pot of immigrant styles (Cajun, Hispanic, and so on) (cf. Accordion crimes). Nashville becomes the heart of the scene with the rise of the Grand Ole Opry. Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe are admired, and the Carter family become ever more popular. The steel guitar plays a growing role. Social dancing is still a major element.

Why don’t Baptists make love standing up?
Because people would think they’re dancing.

Country helped people cope with loss. Hard times was adopted from Stephen Foster’s 1854 parlor song:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears
Oh hard times come again no more

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

While we seek mirth and beauty and music bright and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door
Though their voices are silent, their pleding looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more

Hank and Holly

Hank Williams and his granddaughter Holly.

The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945–1953) evokes the postwar period, focusing on the great, short-lived Hank Williams, with fine vignettes from his granddaughter Holly, and Marty Stuart reminding us of the importance of black musicians in the tradition. Also featured are the stellar bluegrass lineup of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs; and the Carter sisters with their mother Maybelle.

Carters

In I Can’t Stop Loving You (1953–1963), the confluence of blues and hillbilly music at Sun Records in Memphis gives birth to rockabilly, the precursor of rock and roll; at the forefront are Johnny Cash (with comments from his daughter Rosanne) and Elvis Presley. Not “Walking the Line”, Johnny Cash gets together with June Carter. Among the rapt inmates for his 1959 concert at San Quentin was Merle Haggard. Like Russians listening to Vladimir Vysotsky, when they heard him they couldn’t believe that Cash hadn’t done time in prison.

Meanwhile in Nashville the country twang was replaced by a smoother sound, with Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn among its stars. Before Patsy Cline’s tragic death in 1963, there’s a nice story about how they reached the perfect tempo for her recording of Willie Nelson’s song Crazy, whose exceptional melodic and harmonic invention quite transcends the cheesy accompaniment:

In The Sons and Daughters of America (1964–1968), the Grand Ole Opry story continues, even as social conflict intensifies. Johnny Cash embodies the spirit of the age, his self-destruction mirroring his artistic triumphs. From the new East coast folk revival scene he took on board the current of social protest; his admiration for Bob Dylan was mutual. His 1968 Folsom Prison concert was a triumph. Merle Haggard (“San Quentin graduate”, another engaging commentator throughout the series; he died in 2016, R.I.P) emerges from his misspent youth as a great singer.

Amidst the civil rights movement (note also Detroit 67), Charley Pride overcomes racial prejudice with his fine voice. The unfiltered songs of Loretta Lynn chime with the new wave of Women’s Liberation. Dolly Parton, fourth of twelve children from a rural cabin without electricity or running water (the kind of CV that was still de reigueur for that generation of singers), demands to be taken seriously—despite joining a select group of strong women reluctant to acknowledge the boons of feminism.

Tammy and Loretta

Tammy Wynette with Loretta Lynn.

The story continues in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (1968–1972). As the Vietnam War intensifies, the industry and its audience react to divisive social upheavals. George Jones and Tammy Wynette get together. Despite Tammy’s submissive Stand by your man, she didn’t—by contrast with the tough-talking songs of Loretta Lynn, who did; as Jennie Seely comments “I always kinda thought they wrote each other’s songs.”

Among a growing number of Country recruits from outside the archetypal deprived rural background was Kris Kristofferson. Several singer-songwriters pay tribute to his exceptional lyrics, such as Casey’s last ride:

Casey joins the hollow sound of silent people walking down
The stairway to the subway in the shadows down below;
Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors
Of silent desperation, never speakin’ to a soul.

The poison air he’s breathin’ has the dirty smell of dying
‘Cause it’s never seen the sunshine and it’s never felt the rain.
But Casey minds the arrows and ignores the fatal echoes
Of the clickin’ of the turnstiles and the rattle of his chains.

 Oh! she said, Casey it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!
Here she said, just a kiss to make a body smile!
See she said, I’ve put on new stockings just to please you!
Lord! she said, Casey can you only stay a while?

As he explains, his song Bobby McGee (Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train, And I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans…) was inspired by La strada. Johnny Cash was hugely popular, and increasingly countercultural. And the Californian hippies of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recruited senior Country legends like Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, and Roy Acuff for an album that bridged the gap between generations.

In Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973–1983) (a sentiment that recalls Taruskin) opens by asking a question central to ethnomusicology, how much change a genre can embrace while retaining its identity; and reminds us how resistant Country had always been to arbitrary borders. As the smooth countrypolitan sound reaches new audiences, singers like Dolly Parton achieve crossover success, finding time for the classic epithet

It cost a lot of money to look this cheap.

And Emmylou Harris, with her background in the East Coast folk scene, tells how she found herself by becoming a convert to Country. At the same time, despite pressures from the Nashville bosses, Waylon Jennings managed to persist with a rougher style. And we hear the compelling story of Hank Williams Jr as he emerges from the long shadow of his godlike father to forge his own path (exemplified in his brilliant song Family tradition!)—with further endearing comments from his daughter Holly.

Marty and L Flatt

Lester Flatt with Marty Stuart.

In Music will get through (1973–1983) the less mediated, marginalized bluegrass style enjoys a roots revival: “It was so old that it was new”. It had never gone away, it just hadn’t hit the headlines. Marty Stuart, who provides thoughtful comments throughout the series, comes into his own as a fine performer, touring from young with Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe, and later with Johnny Cash. I’m struck by how much performers themselves revere the whole tradition:

Walking into the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope. It was like that old scene in The Wizard of Oz where the world went from black-and-white to color.

Nelson and Haggard

Merle Haggard with Willie Nelson.

The veteran Maybelle Carter finds a new audience; George Jones and Tammy Wynette, now divorced, come back for a reunion album. Willie Nelson (“Willie’s not from round here—I mean, Earth”) thrived in the freewheeling, genre-bending scene of the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas. With Waylon Jennings he launched the Outlaw movement, later going on to work with Merle Haggard.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Rosanne Cash becomes a fine singer-songwriter. Emmylou Harris bridged folk, rock, and Country, influencing a new generation of artists, including young Ricky Skaggs, with all his bluegrass credentials.

As doors continue to open, the final programme, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (1984–1996) features artists like Reba McEntire, Naomi Juggs and her daughter Wynnona; k.d. lang (“a punk reincarnation of Patsy Cline”), Kathy Mattea, Rhiannon Gid, and megastar Garth Brooks.

Cashes

Johnny Cash with Rosanne.

But the pull of the more traditional elements still remains strong. Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart stay faithful to the bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe, taking Country back to the front porch. Johnny Cash reinvents himself, bowing out on a high note, with Rosanne offering more insights. The series concludes with a wonderful montage on the whole tradition.

And the story continues…

My purpose here, apart from drawing your attention to a fine piece of film-making, is not so much to provide a superfluous summary as to remind myself, in the spirit of ethnomusicology, that all the musickings of all the cultures around the world deserve to be treated on an equal footing, and that they offer a revealing window on societies in change.

 

[1] Currently online, alas only briefly, so catch it while you can; otherwise, the DVDs are eminently worth buying. The book, like that complementing Burns’s series on jazz, also looks tempting. Among many reviews far better informed than I can offer, see e.g. here and here. Among the extensive literature (note Malone and Neal, Country Music, U.S.A.), I’ve enjoyed re-reading Nicholas Dawidoff, In the country of country: a journey to the roots of American music (1997).

 

A flamenco Christmas

Xmas 1

As a relief from the seasonal bombardment of tinsel, schmaltz, and sprouts, you can’t beat a flamenco Christmas in Andalucia.

I featured the Navidad flamenco programme from the brilliant documentary series Rito y geografia del canto in my article on gender, politics, wine, and deviance, but a separate post seems timely—and like this recent addition to my series on flamenco, it bears on the wonders of inter-generational family upbringing.

Filmed with all the characteristic intimacy of the series, the episode features shots of customary life (“not suitable for vegetarians”) and the making of the zambomba friction drum that accompanies villancicos carols; as well as a fantastic Christmas bulerías session featuring the Soto family in Jerez, with the children taking their turns to sing:

For saeta devotional songs at Easter, see Calendrical rituals, and under Cante jondo.

Chicago blues

blues

In The blaze of obscurity Clive James (R.I.P.) compounds his paltry efforts to represent Japanese culture on film with a candid and fatuous account of filming a blues session for his Postcard from Chicago:

But Chicago’s expatriated European art would have been an unduly quiet story if it had not been offset by something noisier, and our candidate for that was the blues. Unfortunately, much as I loved jazz, I had only a limited tolerance for the kind of blues number in which the singer sings the same not very inspired line twice (or even worse, three times) before capping it with a third (or even worse, fourth) not very inspired line, followed by a peremptory wail from from that least disarming of all jazz instruments, the amplified harmonica. I spent a long, harrowing night in a blues club where I had to look fascinated by the cacophonous remains of a famous blues shouter called something like Slow Dirt Buncombe (I remember his real name but his lawyer might still be alive) while he gave a string of examples of how a song with less than a minute of material could be stretched to thirty minutes if you made the same line and stanza sound different by mangling them in a different way each time. Yelled at cataclysmic amplification, “Well mah woman she done leff me” was a recurring motif. “No bloody wonder” was the obvious continuation, but he never sang that. Thanks to the unnecessary volume—the sure sign of inadequate music—I was never completely clear what he was singing, but I could rely on a maximum air of drama when he pulled back from the microphone, slanted his polished ebony head to shield it from the blaze of the heavenly splendour he had created, and suddenly leaned forward again to give a long blast on his hellishly resonant harmonica. The desirable and necessary ideal of racial equality should, in my view, allow us to say that there is the occasional blues artist whose parade of desolation amounts to an acute pain in the neck. Slow Dirt Buncombe was one of these. Unfortunately Nobby, the deaf sound-man who was once again on the case, caught every line of Slow Dirt’s act with perfect fidelity, and some of the results got as far as the final cut, accompanied by cutaways of my enchanted, lying face.

Maybe he was just unlucky—although one wonders why the BBC scouts wouldn’t be able to find a good band. And sure, it’s a typically funny account. But rather than making an effort to identify what it is that makes blues so effective and using his own gift for words to encapsulate it, he chose here to disguise his incomprehension beneath glib cliché.

Fortunately, there’s a wealth of fine documentaries about Chicago blues, like this:

Not to mention more general histories, such as:

Or Blues America (here and here). And of course there’s a vast treasury of live performances online.

So to exorcise Clive James’s experience, here’s the great Junior Wells with Buddy Guy in 1970:

 * * *

Still, despite Clive James’s cultural blind spots, I am eternally grateful for his priceless evocation of Barbara Cartland’s face:

Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.

Oh Noh!

FG

To follow my post on Noh drama, on a lighter, nay meretricious (and a Happy New Year) note—in lieu of my fantasy article “There’s no business like Noh business: stagecraft in Japanese drama”:

While Clive James (R.I.P.) was generally admirable as well as entertaining, in chapter 12 of The blaze of obscurity he candidly describes his inability to represent traditional Japanese culture on popular TV. Coming to the topic via the unpromising genre of game shows, he concludes a passage describing the rationale behind the filming of his own discomfort (not merely physical) at a session with a samisen-playing geisha by proclaiming:

To let myself in for ridicule might mitigate any impression that I was setting out to ridicule the culture, which in fact I revered, even for its way of becoming even more incomprehensible as you focused your attention on it.

But he gave up far too easily. That comment follows a paragraph that includes a reference to Noh:

A Japanese classical sword-smith takes a long time to make a sword, you need a degree in metallurgy to appreciate what he does, and the finished product looks exactly like a stage prop from an amateur production of The Mikado. In a Noh play an actor takes half an hour to cross the stage. The special walk he is using takes a lifetime’s training, but he looks exactly like an old man with arthritis setting out to buy a newspaper. You can fall asleep while he is making his entrance and when you wake up again he is still making his entrance.

Sure, there’s no denying that Noh is short on hectic car chases and steamy love scenes. This passage is distinguished by its lazy cultural chauvinism:

In Kyoto, at the Geisha training school, the top lady was one of the greatest living players of the shami-sen, the single-stringed guitar [HEY] that has come down through the ages without acquiring any extra strings to compromise its purity by providing it with, say, the capacity to produce a chord. It goes plunk. It goes plink.

So much for ethnomusicology, and his proclaimed reverence for Japanese culture. At least he or his team of researchers might have counted the strings, FFS. At least the Serbian gusle really does only have one string, though the review featured here is no more enamoured with it.

To return to my orchestral tours, while I really shouldn’t emulate the way that James plays for laughs the culture that he professes to revere, Noh goes quite well with jet-lag—you can indeed nod off, or pop out to do a bit of shopping, and by the time you get back to the action the waki will still only have shimmied halfway across the stage. But enchantment soon takes over.

Further irreverent ideas might include a feature-length Family guy—Oh Noh!, with Brian and Stewie as an original waki–shite duo; not an entirely silly idea, as redemption (e.g. here) and time travel are common themes of the series.

And along with reading Miles Davis’s autobiography in the voice of the Queen (“Man, that cat was badder than ten bad motherfuckers”), how about a party game reciting my script for the wacky (wakiphrases from Teach yourself Japanese (a MUST READ!) in Noh style?

But enough of such levity—do follow up the wonders of Noh via my previous post, and with this post on tradition and change!

For a sequel in which Clive James extends his incomprehension to Chicago blues, see here.

Some jazz fiddling

Having given a little introduction to some styles of world fiddling (see also fiddles tag), I must confess that I often find jazz violin underwhelming. Country fiddling is amazing, but whereas sax and trumpet are made for jazz, the violin seems to struggle to adapt to the bebop revolution.

Much as I love Nigel Kennedy, I prefer his electronic excursions, where he seems less bound by classical” conventions. His own taste for jazz goes back to his teacher Menuhin’s collaborations with Stephane Grappelli.

But I am totally in awe of Chris Garrick—and I’m pleased to see that Maxim Vengerov is too:

I want to learn to play like Chris Garrick!

Just a taster—but do explore the variety of his soundworld:

Besides pioneers like Joe Venuti and Eddie South, Stuff Smith had a distinctive style:

They were followed by classically-trained fiddlers like Jean-Luc Ponty and Regina Carter.

Further from mainstream post-bebop, east Europe and Turkey, along with their more traditional string bands, also make fruitful breeding-grounds for new styles. The Paganini lookalike Nedim Nalbantoğlu is great—here he is playing acoustic with oud:

And this session at his Paris café:

Here’s Félix Lajkó:

He’s not always as frenetic as this:

Still more of a melting-pot for folk styles is Tcha Limberger:

And pioneers of fiddling in Polish jazz were Zbigniew Seifert and Michel Urbaniak.

How I envy such creativity…

Backing vocals

In his ever-stimulating BBC Radio 3 series The listening service, Tom Service explores Why backing vocals matter.

His illuminating examples open with Aretha’s irresistible I say a little prayer (a gem in my own Playlist of songs), going on to admire the artistry in the interplay of solo and chorus through Gilbert and Sullivan, Verdi,  The Beach Boys, Monteverdi, Purcell, and Stravinsky.

While his juxtaposition of WAM and popular music is always instructive, as usual I’d love to expand the topic to embrace musicking around the world, equipped with the canons of ethnomusicology: Noh drama, Daoist ritual such as the Invitation), Moroccan ahouach, and so on.

The Pardon, 1991

 

 

Growing into flamenco

After recent excursions into other genres of musicking around the world (Iran, Uyghur, Hélène Grimaud, Noh, Polish jazz, and so on), it’s always wonderful to come back to the Rito y geografia del cante series on flamenco—what a great achievement it was!

I gave a roundup of my posts on flamenco here. We might also incorporate it into our consideration of improvisation. Many of the programmes in the Rito series focus on bulerías. I’ve already explored this genre in some detail, but the programme Fiesta gitana deserves a separate post.

It features several lengthy sequences in the setting of a bodega: the Utrera sisters (regularly featured in the series), with Miguel Funi, accompanied by Pedro Bacán; the Perrata family, with some fabulous dancing, accompanied by Pedro Peña; Manolo Jero, Juan Morao, Juana la del Pipa, and Tío Borrico; and El Chozas. And for rhythms, don’t miss the sequence (from 21.05) at a cooperage in Jerez (cf. martinetes)!

But most exhilarating is the street scene near the opening (from 1.26) with young flamencos in Seville. How wonderful to grow up in such an environment, surrounded by (and receptive to) the domestic culture of one’s family elders, a world of pain and joy—singing, clapping, dancing, and guitar all one seamless whole. Another genre to consider along with those in Growing into music!

Indeed, the series devoted a whole programme to young flamencos. Niños Cantaores features enchanting vignettes: (from 5.45) Antonio de la Marena singing seguiriyas accompanied by guitarist Moraito, (from 9.36) comments from Carmen Montoya introducing bulerías and rumbas featuring her daughter Carmellila, (from 19.37) Manuel Morao introducing his son Manuel Moreno Pantoja, and (from 26.09) Luisa Peña Soto’s daughter La Macanita, with comments from Camarón (himself part of some great family scenes towards the end of this post):

With the filming matching the majesty of the subject, the point is not stardom but the whole environment of domestic and street culture.

See also A flamenco Christmas.

A new volume on Chinese religion

Cover

  • Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (ed.), Jibian rujiao: jinshi Zhongguode zongjiao rentong 激辩儒教:近世中国的宗教认同 [Provocations to Confucianism: identifying religion in modern China] (2019).

In a recent volume in a series on “New Historiography”, the ever-industrious Cao Xinyu assembles substantial articles by international scholars on a variety of topics on Chinese religion, illuminating broad, long-term trends with detailed studies. In the tradition of Chinese scholarship, it’s based on “salvage” studies of the late imperial and Republican eras, and on texts rather than performance.

Rain ritual《 映旭斋增订北宋三遂平妖全传》 第十七回插图

Cao Xinyu sets the tone with a substantial introduction, setting forth from a Song-dynasty rain ritual to explore the Catholic encounter with Chinese religion through the Qing rites controversy.

The chapters are grouped under four main headings. Philip Clart and Cao Xinyu explore grassroots Confucianism in Taiwan and mainland China. Articles by Vincent Goossaert, Masaru Yamada 山田贤, and Wang Jianchuan discuss spirit-writing and charitable associations, and Zhang Chaoran contributes a substantial essay on Daoist ritual in history. For Shanxi, Yao Chunmin writes on changing village boundaries, and Henrietta Harrison on Catholic and local healing practices. Further afield, Takeuchi Fusaji 武内房司 discusses folk religion among communities of Chinese origin in South Vietnam. Finally Prasenjit Duara outlines the histories of religion and secularism in Europe, China, and Japan.

For recent English-language volumes on Chinese religion, note the surveys of Adam Yuet Chau and Ian Johnson, as well as the classic study of C.K. Yang.

Polish jazz, then and now

 

Further to my post on improvisation, it’s been a while since I heard live jazz, so I went along to the splendid POSK Jazz Cafe in Hammersmith for a gig in the London Jazz Festival with the creative young sax player Krzysztof Urbanski (based in London since 2010) leading his Quintet, driven by the dynamic, sensitive drummer Asaf Sirkis, a regular on the world music scene.

I love the intimate atmosphere of live jazz—chamber music with the relationship between performers and audience so much more tangible than in modern WAM. And I reflect not only on the complexity of the jazz language and the interplay of the instruments, but the way that audiences somehow identify with it, the timbre of the sax in particular making the perfect medium. How I envy jazzers their creativity.

Here’s a playlist with some of Urbanski’s earlier work:

And a couple of weeks later at the same venue I heard the great Zbigniew Namysłowski (b.1939), veteran of the jazz scene in Poland since the era of state socialism. I’ll return to him shortly, but first some background.

Polish jazz is an absorbing theme (on the useful Culture.pl website, see introductions here and here). As the latter post observes, perhaps what makes it significant is its reflection of the country’s own quest for freedom and democracy—a feature that Poland shares, of course, with alternative cultures elsewhere in the Soviet bloc (e.g. the GDR; cf. Musical cultures of east Europe, and note the Iron Curtain tag).

In the “catacomb” period after the utter devastation of war, a leading early band was Melomani (who “hung out at the Łódź YMCA, one of the centres for independent thinkers in the late 1940s”—I just love sentences like that):

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, jazz emerged more boldly, marked by the Sopot jazz festival, which was held even after the unrest of 1956. Dave Brubeck performed in Poland in 1958. The trumpeter Tomasz Stańko was active from 1962, sometimes working with pianist Krzysztof Komeda (who provided film scores for Polanski and others). Amidst continuing political unrest, Miles Davis performed in Warsaw in 1983. The collapse of communism gave rise to the transgressive Yass style of bands like Miłość.

Jazz fiddle doesn’t always do much for me (Nigel Kennedy was based in Poland for some years, teaming up with local jazzers), but Zbigniew Seifert (1946–79) sounds great:

Another funky fiddler is Michel Urbaniak—here he is with his band live in Oslo in 1972:

On a different tack, also intriguing are Andrzej Jagodziński’s jazz reworkings of Chopin.

Meanwhile Zbigniew Namysłowski had been exploring modern jazz since 1960, and began touring internationally. Here’s his 1964 album Lola, recorded in London:

and he appears along with Tomasz Stańko in the Komeda quintet’s 1965 album Astigmatic:

For aficionados of chinoiserie, in the gig he also featured Jasmin Lady.

In this interview Namysłowski reflects on his career and the influence of Polish folk. Here’s his amazing 1973 album Winobranie (instructively reviewed here), featuring additive metres and even an original take on Indian music:

And in this recent video he takes a back seat to the highland string band Kapela Góralska (another entry in our list of world fiddles, cf. Musical cultures of east Europe; for more on Polish folk, see here and here, as well as Songlines):

So it was great to hear Namysłowski at POSK, still in fine form at 80, along with his son Jacek on trombone. And Polish jazz continues to thrive.

* * *

Polish jazz, long roaming free beyond the confines of the Łódź YMCA, is also enjoying a certain international vogue with Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Cold War (2018):

Just in case you thought the Chinese invented everything, I like this story from Jozef Tischner’s A Goral history of philosophy [History of philosophy according to Polish highlanders, 1997]:

People from all over the world were coming to Biały Dunajec, a town in the Tatry mountains, to learn about the Polish Highlander’s music… Even the Blacks from Africa came one day to learn of the new music. A famous Polish Highlander philosopher Władek Trybunia-Tutka taught them how to use fiddles and play basses. Unfortunately, on their way home to Africa they encountered a storm and all of their instruments were washed overboard. Arriving home with just their bows and no fiddles or basses, they used the bows to strike any kind of objects, creating the rhythms from which jazz was born.

Despite London’s chronic lack of a dedicated venue for world music, just in my Neck of the Woods I can sally forth to POSK, the Bhavan, and occasional flamenco in Chiswick.

For the Polish immigrant experience in the USA, see under Accordion crimes; for delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, here.

Crime fiction: China and Germany

Crime novels can make a revealing window onto society, evoking flavours of historical periods to reach audiences who don’t necessarily read academic non-fiction and memoirs. Both compelling and educative are thrillers based on the modern histories of countries like China and Germany that have endured extreme traumas—connecting ordinary crime with political crime.

QXL

Following Robert van Gulik‘s evocative Judge Dee series (set in the Tang), the Inspector Chen crime thrillers of Qiu Xiaolong, set around Shanghai, offer an insightful perspective on the corruption of modern China, with Inspector Chen (like Judge Dee, a poet) struggling to steer a path between morality and the imperatives of the Party (for discussions, see e.g. here).

These books often refer back to the injustices of Maoism, but I can’t seem to find much set in the period—surely there’s potential here, along the lines of Su Tong’s Petulia’s rouge tin.

O
Even more niche is James Church‘s Inspector 0 series, set in the opaque society of North Korea. For Japan, while I admit to finding Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four rather trying, I note merely that PRC publishers may have difficulty in rendering the title…

* * *

Kerr

Nearer home, the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr are compelling (see perceptive reviews in the New Yorker here and here). Starting with his Berlin noir trilogy, many sequels cover both World War Two and the Cold War, complete with leads to real historical events (among the cast are Eichmann, Goebbels, and Heydrich), and lashings of historically authentic sexism.

In the post-war era Bernie’s sleuthing takes him further afield to locations such as Havana; the plot of Greeks bearing gifts (2018), set in 1950s’ Greece, highlights the wartime deportation of the Jews of Salonika.

For direct personal experience of the degradation of moral values and negotiating impossible quandaries, Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin is most impressive. In similar vein there are plenty more books to explore (see e.g. here, and here).

Stasi

Moving on to the Cold War, in addition to John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books, moral dilemmas are again prominent in the Stasi series of David Young, featuring GDR Volkspolizei detective Karin Müller—so far including Stasi child, Stasi wolfA darker state, and Stasi 77 (for the GDR, see here and here).

Just as Inspector Chen finds himself set against the Party, Karin Müller has to struggle with the Stasi. And like the Bernie Gunther series, these novels set forth from little-known historical events, inviting us to explore the murky history of the period—such as the 1945 massacres of prisoners from the Mittelbau-Dora camp at Gardelegen and Estadt, the Jugendwerkhöfe, GDR experiments to “prevent” homosexuality, and the Stasi’s links to the Red Army Faction.

 

 

 

Mahler 5 as you’ve never heard it

Mahler 5

Given that I adore Mahler 5, this is a strange way to introduce it. But having already delighted in Pachelbel’s capon, another gem from Two Set Violin‘s rubber chicken playlist is this unlikely rendition of the symphony’s opening trumpet solo—and it’s even funnier if you share my veneration for the work:

Just as well John Wilbraham didn’t know about this—he might have found the temptation too hard to resist.

On that trumpet solo, here’s an interesting post, that supplements Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective (no turn unstoned) with early reviews of the symphony like

Ugly symphony is well played . . . Mahler of Vienna writes bad music.

A long and tedious work.

I do not believe that this symphony is the kind of music that will live … It is a symphony which, it is devoutly hoped, will never again be heard in Chicago.

Of originality, he has not the slightest trace. His themes are trivial, sometimes vulgar, always uninteresting and lacking utterly beauty of melodic curve.

Hmm. Given that I entirely share the modern veneration for Mahler (this is the latest addition to my Mahler tag), and for the 5th symphony in particular, I don’t seem to be making much of a case for it. Just as relishing Always look on the bright side of life needn’t spoil our appreciation of the Bach Passions, please don’t let all this put you off the Real Thing— here’s Bernstein with the Vienna Phil yet again:

And the great Klaus Tennstedt in a recording from 1980:

And Claudio Abbado in 2004:

For S-S-Simon conducting the 2nd movement, click here; and for a creative use of the Adagietto, here.

A flawed funeral

qushui

Fetching Water procession, 2011.

Much of the voluminous work on Daoist ritual focuses on recreating the glories of ancient China. While fieldwork since the 1980s has greatly enriched our understanding, the complexities of modern life rarely intrude even in descriptions of rituals observed; the search for “living fossils” dominates research, implying a timeless social cohesion of local communities.

My diachronic ethnography of the Li family Daoists in Yanggao county of north Shanxi is partly inspired by the classic studies of Geertz; and for China, Ken Dean paid attention to the tensions involved in the 1980s’ revival of ritual practice in Fujian. This post is based on Chapter 19 of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, and in my film you can observe the rituals described here.

* * *

Since my visits from 2003 the “old rules” (lao guiju 老规矩) of ritual practice have been declining rapidly. Nowadays Li Manshan’s band works for patrons, kin, and audiences who have less discrimination, and in some respects the band’s response to this lack of appreciation is to perform less scrupulously. The Daoists are deeply gloomy about the future. They love the exhilarating percussion finale of Transferring Offerings (my film, from 1.11.07) as much as I do, but “within ten years it won’t be heard any more.” They know such repertoire is precious but are helpless to protect it; they make the comment without anguish or sentimentality. Whereas Li Qing’s generation used to wear their thick black costumes underneath their red costumes even in the summer heat, now they merely wear the red costumes over their daily apparel. And for Fetching Water, Call Me Old-Fashioned, but a plastic Sprite bottle just doesn’t do the job.

Yet they still demand basic standards of themselves, maintaining many of the old rules against all the odds. They play on procession all the way out from the scripture hall to the altar, and all the way back. While singing at the altar they may sometimes seem lax (the occasional joke, even answering a mobile), but their basic solemnity shows their perceived need to maintain their reputation. Recently they tend to sing some of the hymns rather too fast in the Invitation (the Song in Praise of the Dipper, and the Mantra to the Three Generations at the gate on the return), but they still perform most of the hymns extremely slowly (notably those for Opening and Delivering the Scriptures), when surely they could go just a tad faster; nor do they abbreviate them. While singing a cappella they keep the large cymbals folded on their chests, maintaining great solemnity. There is still room for further decline.

Like his father Li Qing before him, Li Manshan worried about the stresses of being band boss and choosing suitable personnel—like band leaders in jazz, indeed. But he is far from hands-on; I would like to see this as an embodiment of Daoist wuwei “non-action.” He notes occasional blips in ensemble playing, but he rarely reprimands. The dep Guicheng tends to mime a silent beat between the slow beats on the gong, which is “not good to look at,” but Li Manshan only mildly mentions this to him when he realizes I have noticed it. Back in the scripture hall, by contrast with the way the Daoists fool around now, Li Qing and his colleagues used to “hold a meeting” about how the previous ritual had gone, always maintaining standards. Li Qing would certainly want to retain the “old rules” now, but given the hosts’ apathy he too would be helpless to do so. Even in the 1980s he presided over a radical revision of the temple fair sequence, and his 1991 Pardon was very different from the manual (see Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.246–9). The decline has taken place gradually in waves over the last century or so.

When performed at all, some of the fashi public rituals have recently been radically simplified, such as Opening the Quarters, Communicating the Lanterns, and Judgment and Alms. Early one morning before a burial, Golden Noble gave me a perceptive summary of the current situation. The cycle goes from ritual (yishi) to form (xingshi) until the latter itself becomes a type of ritual; thus the ritual becomes a token, then the token becomes ossified. Let’s now discuss some instances of decline that I observed in 2011.

Ritual multi-tasking
The Li family has long prided itself on being able to split into several bands for rituals on the same day. But now the same band can even chase round more than one venue on the same day, cramming in a couple of ritual segments alternately. This is possible thanks to both improved modes of transport and the hosts’ lesser demands. Even on his own, Li Manshan can now zoom from smashing a bowl in one village to decorating a coffin in another.

One morning in 2011 while doing a burial at Houying they fitted in a half-day appearance at the new temple outside Lower Liangyuan. Li Manshan, Li Bin, and Wu Mei left at 7.30am to Open Scriptures there, hooking up with three other Daoists; then they hurried back to Houying for the burial procession before returning to Lower Liangyuan again, playing a long shengguan suite seated round a table outside. Later in a smoke-filled room to the side of the temple complex I found a large group of people, mainly women, clustering round a spirit medium who was curing illnesses. I now realized this must be the main reason why the temple was being rebuilt.

Fast food, Daoist style
In May 2011 I was roped in to take part in another perfunctory ritual.

The band is doing a funeral in Golden Noble’s village of Houying. After a fine Invitation ritual and a jovial supper, before the evening Transferring Offerings, they have agreed to cram in another quick Transferring Offerings at Wujiahe village, half an hour’s drive away along winding little roads. So we all cram cordially into Yang Ying’s car—Golden Noble stays behind to attend to the kin, so I dep for him on gongs.

This other funeral is a very minor affair, with paltry altar decorations, and no-one minds when we rush through the offerings at hectic pace—indeed, they expect us to do so. For the three sections we just sing brief excerpts from hymns, far from the long sequences prescribed. This is exceptional, actually, and the Daoists only agreed to do it because the host begged them.

I already hinted at a certain recent simplification of Transferring Offerings. As we pile back into the car back to Houying for our main course, I joke that this is like a ritual version of fast food, a drive-in take-out. Just further north, hosts are already more “careless”—there they no longer even request the Invitation. Even in our area, some patrons now request shorter hymns for Transferring Offerings; Li Bin recalls a funeral recently where the host didn’t want the ritual at all, considering it “too much hassle” (Pah!). Still, on our return to Houying they do a beautiful full sequence, with three long plaintive hymns.

A flawed funeral
During my stay in October 2011 I am looking forward to a three-day funeral in a nearby village; such funerals are no longer common, so I should be able to attend several rare rituals. When the day comes I am in high spirits; it is a beautiful sunny autumn morning, and it is a picturesque little village with a population of only two or three hundred.

Over the next couple of days my hopes are progressively deflated. First I discover that the Daoists now commonly simplify the three-day sequence. But in this village, as they realize the depth of their hosts’ ritual ignorance, they are even more casual. I begin to realize that a crucial factor in the maintenance of ritual is whether or not “the host is cooperative” (dongjia peihe 东家配合). The Daoists are used to having to guide the host family, but here they sense reluctance.

coffin

The deceased woman was 93 sui. Her third son had died seven years ago, aged 52 sui; his coffin was removed from the grave for the purpose of burying them jointly, and it now stands at the roadside under an awning. Li Manshan did the initial determining the date, decorating the new coffin on the third day, and Li Bin decorated the soul hall two days before the funeral. So they may have sensed a certain ignorance in the host family long before they turned up to do the rituals—but work is work.

The scripture hall—as usual at the other end of the village to allow for a suitably lengthy procession—is the house of an affable but poor 50-sui-old bachelor. It is still hot, and his house is full of flies. I gaze admiringly at the wall paintings around the kang brick-bed of our host; their dilapidated charm reminds me of Ming dynasty murals, and I am taken aback to learn that they were painted when the house was built in 1978!

Xingyuan 2011 female kin

Female kin kowtow before the coffin, 2011.

After the first two morning visits to Deliver the Scriptures, Wu Mei nips into town on his motorbike to collect his new bank card while the others return to Pansi for the burial procession there (more multi-tasking). I give this a miss, chatting with our host as he busies himself sorting the corn harvest piled up in his courtyard. The Daoists return from the Pansi burial at 11.25am, so there is only time for three of the usual four Delivering the Scriptures this morning. The Opening the Quarters ritual, once prescribed at this stage of a three-day funeral, is no longer performed in Yanggao.

Lunch is followed by a siesta. With Li Manshan still busy writing ritual documents on the kang, there is only space for three of us to rest there; two more Daoists recline in Yang Ying’s car, while Wang Ding nods off perched precariously on a narrow trunk. Then a couple of Li Manshan’s mates from Houguantun turn up to chat with him.

At 3pm the Daoists set off on procession to the soul hall for the afternoon Opening Scriptures. This turns into another Failed Experiment, and this time it’s all my fault. At my request they sing Eternal Homage (see here, under 3rd moon 4th), a very slow hymn that I have never recorded. Only afterwards does it transpire that it is commonly accompanied by shengguan; this is the first time they have tried the a cappella version for over twenty years. On the gong Wang Ding, then still inexperienced, keeps going too fast, and it’s a mess. Back at the scripture hall they rehearse it diligently. At least this shows that the a cappella version can still be performed.

Then the Fetching Water ritual (my film, from 41.06). First to the soul hall to collect the kin, then to the rather distant “river,” and back to the soul hall, ending with a fine sequence of popular errentai melodies and clowning. Again, for this sequence the family is either unaware of the tradition of throwing extra money onto the table or too stingy, and I fail to persuade the Daoists to let me give them some.

After supper we admire the bright stars and rest a while in the scripture hall, watching TV, while Li Manshan writes yet more paper documents for tomorrow’s Hoisting the Pennant. When our bachelor host returns I ask him, “You been watching the opera?” He replies wistfully, “Yeah—watching the women.”

At 8.30pm to the soul hall for the long-awaited Communicating the Lanterns—so-called. Instead of the prescribed ritual, the Daoists merely light ten candles in a row on the altar table, sing the long a cappella hymn Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts, then play a quick shengguan sequence, and it’s all over! But the family is oblivious. The Daoists don’t give me any heads-up for this, nor—gratifyingly?!—does it occur to them to perform the proper ritual specially for my benefit. I now begin to realize they are disgruntled because the kin are not “accommodating” and have no understanding of the “rules.” But irrespective of relations with the host, this simplified version of Communicating the Lanterns has become standard in recent years.

So we finish early, before 10pm. The Daoists all live nearby, so we decide against enduring the modest hospitality of our bachelor host; the others zoom off on their motor-bikes while Li Bin drives Li Manshan and me back home to Upper Liangyuan.

Next morning Yuan Xuedong is depping for his cousin Yuan Gaoshan, and Yang Ying for Li Bin, who has gone off to lead another band for a funeral at Lower Liangyuan. In the scripture hall Li Manshan makes the little triangular paper flag to go at the top of the central pole for Hoisting the Pennant (my film, from 44.22), and prepares the goodies, wrapping them up carefully in the beautiful long pennant. After the first two sessions Delivering the Scriptures the Daoists prepare the arena, hanging up the paper squares, sticking the red “god place” inscriptions onto the poles, and raising the flag and pennant high on the central pole. The ritual itself they perform in full, with all the hymns at each of the poles, the kin following them around the arena and kowtowing and burning paper on cue. But for the final chase Golden Noble doesn’t bother to don the five-buddhas hat or wield the precious sword. They are going through the motions. Still, this was the first Hoisting the Pennant here for at least thirteen years. While filming I got hit twice by firecrackers, with magnificent symmetry first on my left shoulder and then not long afterwards on my right. No damage done—occupational hazard.

The Daoists then lead the kin back to the soul hall, where they sing a short a cappella version of the brief pseudo-Sanskrit coda that concludes hymns like Diverse and Nameless. Next, on a brief kitchen visit to Invite Offerings they sing the six-line hymn Songjing gongde. Returning to the scripture hall they do a brief “scriptures for well-being” session for our poor host, playing The Five Offerings on shengguan while he kneels and burns paper before the image of the City God of This Earth. Then back to the soul hall again for a perfunctory Presenting the Offerings ritual. Both Inviting and Presenting Offerings were formerly more lengthy, particularly for temple fairs. After lunch the others take a siesta, but Li Manshan has to keep writing away.

For the first Delivering the Scriptures of the afternoon they sing a cappella the long Mantra of the Skeleton. They give me permission to sit out the second Delivering the Scriptures—and sure enough, on their return they tease me that they sang Fanhun xiang, which I’ve never recorded!

Between (and occasionally even during) rituals the Daoists check their mobiles. To wonder if their Ming-dynasty forebears would have behaved like this is as pointless as the debate whether Mozart would have written jingles for TV ads; the kind of conditions that produce mobile phones are related to those that prompt people to check them during rituals.

Towards dusk they do the Invitation at the edge of the village. Li Qing’s prescription for a three-day funeral places the Invitation on the first day and Redeeming the Treasuries on the second day; but since they no longer do the Pardon or Crossing the Bridges on the second day, there is time to do the Invitation and Redeeming the Treasuries in sequence then.

After returning to the soul hall we immediately set off to the public arena for Judgment and Alms. Again, this ritual is now rarely performed, so this should be a rare chance for me. The paper squares hung up around the arena for Hoisting the Pennant are taken down and burned, then the red god inscriptions on the poles, and finally the central pole is pushed over. But again the ritual is a far cry from what it should be. As Wu Mei later confides, “It was a modernized Judgment and Alms!”

Then immediately back to the soul hall to fetch the treasuries for the Redeeming the Treasuries procession. After supper we enjoy the skit outside the gate, laughing along with the village audience, tearing ourselves away to take our places around the altar table for the first installment of Transferring Offerings. As soon as Wu Mei plays the plaintive preludial two notes of Diverse and Nameless, the tone is set for a deeply mournful long slow hymn; at once we are all deep in the groove, our concentration total. But the ritual is rather perfunctory, and Yang Ying drives us back to Upper Liangyuan by 11pm. Tired as we are, Li Manshan is keen to give me a session on how the Judgment and Alms should really go, our chat itself serving as a kind of exorcism.

burial

On the final day, in bright sunshine, we return to the village for the burial. A list of gifts is pasted up at the gate, on red paper: gifts range from 800 down to 100 yuan, with most donors giving 200. Popular opinion is that these amounts are too mean. The preparations for the burial take ages, the kin faffing around endlessly, while Li Manshan mutters expletives under his breath. The burial procession is uneventful. The son’s coffin is to be reburied next to that of his mother. Li Manshan returns to the soul hall to stick up talismans in a brief exorcism. A protracted lunch—a wearisome day altogether. By now Li Manshan and Li Bin are really annoyed with the family. First Li Manshan has to haggle with them over the bill (never normally an issue), then Li Bin, whose gig at Lower Liangyuan ended at 3am last night, arrives to lend his support. While I wait discreetly in Li Bin’s car, a toothless ancient geezer talks at me non-stop and incomprehensibly for twenty minutes. Since I gather he was talking about the funeral, this might have been interesting, but I can only deduce the gist—that it was a crap funeral, and the family was stingy.

Then an impressively ugly peasant woman in a flimsy minidress walks by, grazing two donkeys. I seem to have stumbled onto a Fellini filmset. She takes pity on my verbal bombardment from the ancient codger, and after he wanders off she chats with me for a while in mercifully standard Chinese. She comes from Sichuan, and was sold to a man in this village twenty years ago; she recalls that it took her a couple of years to adapt to Yanggao dialect.

While Li Bin haggles with the family, quarrels and recriminations break out within the family, people red-faced from booze wandering around shouting at each other. It’s just like Christmas in England. After Li Bin drives us back home to Upper Liangyuan, Li Manshan and I recover, consulting the manuals again, clearing up a few more of my incessant queries, joking.

Cohesion and dislocation
In a modest contribution to the fine tradition of learning from failed rituals, let’s reflect on these notes.

The idea of a failed ritual tacitly accepts that the aim of the proceedings is to confirm and celebrate community solidarity—and indeed that there is such a thing. That Geertz and others don’t always find this may reflect on a supposed loss of such harmony under complex post-colonial (or whatever) social tensions; perhaps by contrast with an imagined earlier ideal age, a notion that we may obviously challenge too.

Funerals in China do indeed seem to me to represent something valuable, for both kin and community. But the family is subject to scrutiny; the event is an opportunity to confirm status within the family and community, but also a moment when underlying animosities may be entrenched. And this applies to other rituals too, like the vast territorial processions of southeast China. The conditions of the 20th century have doubtless created many dislocations in thinking; and we should recognize conflicts in imperial China, between classes and lineages, different aspirations, and so on—the very area that Lagerwey (China: a religious state, pp.153–170) seems to characterize as a kind of rural paradise is one where feuds between lineages, and between villages, have long been brutal.

Shi Shengbao 2018

Shi Shengbao with Li Manshan, Yangguantun 2018. Photo: Li Bin.

With his long experience of serving the villages in the area, Li Manshan has a network of guanxi contacts among senior men familiar with ritual proprieties—for instance, he is always happy to work in Pansi and Yangguantun, where the people are friendly and knowledgeable. At a fine funeral in Yangguantun in 2016, the gujiang shawm band was playing “greater opera” on their truck outside the gate, but stopped when we approached, as the “old rules” demand. The fine director Shi Shengbao, then a youthful 69 sui, took the job up in 1981 because he liked it. The family, and our scripture hall hosts, are cultured and respectful. Still, when you look closely, the village is still poor, with decrepit derelict boarded-up old houses. These villages are dying.

The main reason why the funeral described above was so unsatisfactory was because the Li band hadn’t performed there before, and none of the kin—or indeed the village’s ritual director or the plentiful men in their 50s to 70s—seemed to know the most basic “rules,” so Li Manshan had to explain even fundamental proprieties like kowtowing.

While the Daoists were disturbed by the whole ritual ignorance of the village, they and their rituals were not a crucial element in the failure of the event. It was through their irritation that I became aware of the conflicts within the village and the funeral family, which were going to come to a head anyway. The Daoists have routinely been simplifying the three-day sequence even for more discriminating clients; the titles of many ritual segments endure, but their content is diluted and homogenized.

Daoists still have to be invited, almost routinely; but by now they are used to not being appreciated. Since the 1990s no-one pays much attention when they arrive at the soul hall; only the kin reluctantly abandon their places watching the pop music outside the gate to go and kneel before the soul hall. It shows that a subtle degree of respect for the “rules,” from some quarter, is still expected. Sure, it is a small village, so they don’t get to put on so many funerals, but still, if they had so little clue about the proper procedures, and balked at the expense, then why did they bother requesting a three-day funeral in the first place—why not just book the Daoists for a minimal sequence? Li Manshan’s group is perfectly accustomed to doing this, and one might suppose that their irritation derived mainly from the final squabble over money. But the Daoists were already feeling disgruntled soon after arriving, long before the bill had to be settled.

The decision to hold a funeral over three days rather than two involves far more than merely the minor expense of asking the Daoists to perform a few more rituals. The pop band and the shawm band, as well as the cooks, have to be hired; the returning kin have to take extra time off their work in distant towns.

In sum, a lot depends on whether the host is “cooperative” or not. On tour in Germany in 2013 we observe that our hosts are all very cooperative—whereas we joke that Milan, scene of our most desultory European gig, should twin up with the village described above. Of course, what they expect of their hosts for domestic and foreign contexts are totally different. Abroad, the host merely has to find a good venue and provide decent hospitability; back home, the host family is expected to work closely with the Daoists in accordance with complex ritual organization.

In the Coda of my book, “Things ain’t what they used to be”, I round up the theme of ritual decline.

Note the recent diaries of Li Manshan and Li Bin. Funerals feature throughout my posts under Local ritual; see also e.g. Funerals in Hebei.