The Pontic lyra

The musical culture of the Pontic Greeks, maintained in the diaspora since the 1923 population expulsions, and heard in a wealth of early and later recordings

Stephen Jones: a blog

Pontos 1950sMatzouka, Trebzon, 1950s (source).

After the Cretan lyra (and its cousin on Karpathos!), as well as various types of kemence bowed lute (some of which feature in my post on Indian and world fiddles), the music of the Pontic lyra is also most beguiling.

Pontus mapSource.

Along with the Greek populations along the Aegean coast, centred on the port of Smyrna, the Greeks of the Black Sea also had thriving traditions, which suffered just as grievously from the devastating conflicts that led to the population expulsions of 1923. [1]

Trebizond 2
From Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger.

Instruments make a partial entry-point into regional cultures. For the wider musical setting, as ever, the Pontic lyraaccompanies the singing and dancing of social musicking (parakathi or muhabeti), [1] with additive metres prominent. So far I’ve had more luck finding audio recordings than video footage in folk context…

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Bhairav to Bhairavi at Bhavan!

Bhavan

Hot on the percussive heels of Israel Galván’s flamenco reinvention of The Rite of Spring, I paid another visit to the splendid Bhavan Centre in west London, where resident vocal guru Chandrima Misra led her students in the first of two evenings displaying their progress learning a variety of north Indian ragas—the latest in a series of courses over many years.

Bhavan ragaChandrima Misra directing students, Founders’ Day, March 2022.

Between the opening and closing numbers (with nearly a hundred students seated on stage) we heard a variety of solos and for two, three or more singers—mostly women—in the popular khyal style, discreetly supported by Chandrima Misra on harmonium, with Rajkumar Misra on tabla, whose own students also took turns. Students paid eloquent tributes to the diligence and inspiration of their unassuming guru.

Framed by rāgs Bhairav and Bhairavi (introduced here as part of my extensive series on north Indian raga), the programme illustrated a variety of ragas roughly in their proper sequence prescribed over the course of the day, such as Bhimpalasi, Multani, Puriya, and Bihag. Many used chromatic scales with augmented intervals—none more complex than Lalit (introduced here).

As I observed on a previous trip to the Bhavan, it’s always intriguing to hear how young students learn the building blocks of a raga, memorising increasingly lengthy bandish compositions before going on to develop their own voice. The event had a celebratory family charm that rather conjured up an image of the Tring Amateur Dramatic Society; and it suggested the core of the mehfil aficionados who attend concerts of the great visiting artists—a strong amateur basis for the appreciation of raga in the UK.

* * *

In this concert footage, Chandrima Misra sings rāg Multani (flat 3rd ga, sharp 4th Ma, with re and dha—both flat—only sounded in descent), again with Rajkumar Misra on tabla, and Prabhat Rao on harmonium:

She herself trained with Munawar Ali Khan (1930–89), master of the Patiala Gharana tradition; here he sings rāg Yaman, always entrancing:

Munawar Ali Khan was the son of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1902–68)—who, as wiki notes, while agreeing that the beauty of classical music lies in leisurely improvisation, favoured shorter expositions of lighter ragas, reluctant to impose long alaps on his audience. In this brief excerpt he sings Bhairavi in thumri style:

And here he is heard in a selection of clips:

Chandrima Misra’s other main teacher was Vidushi Sanjukta Ghosh—in this radio concert from c1983/84 she sings rāg Lalit:

For more London concerts of raga, see Raga at the Proms and Indian singing at the BM. And do explore the wealth of music under A garland of ragas—notably the intense alap of dhrupad singing and the sitar playing of Nikhil Banerjee!

A flamenco Rite

Galvan

I’ve long been hooked on the gritty art of flamenco (series rounded up here), and The Rite of Spring is utterly compelling in both orchestral and ballet versions, always a rich source of inspiration for new interpretations. It makes perfect sense for them to come together, and the other day I was delighted to attend a solo dance performance of La Consagración de la primavera by the ever-innovative Israel Galván at Sadlers Wells.

It’s hard to unhear the sonorities of the orchestral score, but the pared-down arrangement for two pianos (played by Daria van den Bercken and Gerard Bouwhuis) worked well, and Galván was mesmerising, embodying Stravinsky’s vision with his chthonic percussive energy.

Here are excerpts from a performance last year:

The dance complemented the agonised ethos of flamenco—modifying its ”self-pity, posturing machismo” (Timothy Mitchell) and the “culture of victimage” (William Washabaugh) (see Flamenco, 2). Blurbs for Israel Galván typically remark on how he “challenges gender norms”. While stressing the angular syncopations of Stravinsky, he added his own rhythmic counterpoints. His whole body became a sound-box, with relentless stomps and shimmies (his legs sometimes concealed beneath a huge billowing skirt) and expressive arms. Much as he deserved a nice sit-down, you might not think that the hectic Danse sacrale that concludes the piece would be quite the moment, but he spent most of it on a chair—legs, feet, and arms frantically busy as ever.

The Rite of Spring usually makes a climactic finale, but here it was the centrepiece of a continuous event, amidst two contrasting musical works, Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti—also making suitable vehicles for Galván’s style. The programme brought out the highly percussive nature of the piano, even if I couldn’t help imagining a version on bandoneon and xylophone.

“Making a mistake” in Foreign

Blue kite stillFrom Blue kite (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993).

With “mistakes” (closely followed by denials—notably Brexit) having become routine under this evil Tory regime, I’m reminded that I’ve always been fond of the Italian sbaglio (verb sbagliare), with the appealingly economical negative prefix s- creating an expressive diphthong. Admittedly in this case a positive version baglio/bagliare is elusive, but it reminds me of other words equivalent to English dis-, such as

  • svantaggio disadvantage
  • sfiducia mistrust
  • scontento discontent
  • sfigato loser
  • scaricare unburden
  • sfiorire wither
  • staccato detached
  • sforzando “with excessive force”—Beethoven’s speciality.

Like I’d know… A suitable aperitivo here is the negroni sbagliato (cf. the Lumumba and cubalibre).

Returning to “mistakes”: in British politics, “misjudgements” that have appalling social and economic consequences can now be casually brushed aside with a patrician air of disdain. In China,  however (as throughout the socialist bloc), “making a mistake” (fan cuowu 犯错误), a catch-all for political, sexual, and indeed clerical misdemeanours, is now used humorously—despite (or because of) its Maoist heritage, with the disastrous personal and familial consequences that could ensue from innocent infringements against the fluctuating political orthodoxy of the day, or entirely innocuous casual remarks—cf. Goulash deviationism, China: commemorating trauma, and movies such as Blue kite and Living. In documents from the Maoist era the term is a sparse hint of such faux pas, as under The Houshan Daoists, requiring us to read between the lines (see my review of the Anthology of the folk music of the Chinese peoples).

Patricia Lockwood excels again

The LRB has enriched my life, but nothing in its pages is so invigorating as Patricia Lockwood’s articles (click here for her own literary ouevre and a selection of her reviews; see also here).

Much as I learn from the LRB, some of its reviewers tend to submerge the book supposedly being considered beneath their own superior expertise, reading like “it should have been ME who wrote about this topic”. Ms Lockwood’s style is highly personal, but she manages to keep the poetry of her own fantastical world in the service of deep insights into the milieu of her subject, while drawing us into the whole craft of fiction writing. In a recent review of two story collections by George Saunders her comments illuminate, rather than obscure, the author’s message.

She reflects on the sense of failure conveyed by Saunders’ characters:

It must be, in order that he can overcome. At some point, the source of poignancy stopped being the characters, and started being the desire of the stories to rise above themselves. They wanted a little more than they had, than they could ever have. They could feel their strength, if they were just given a chance, they could be more than Daryls, Dereks, Kyles…

Commenting on his religious background, she stops herself:

Trying to trap me into writing a big Catholic thing, eh? Well, I won’t, except to say that we probably have a few of the same voices in our heads.

Saunders 3

Reading Lincoln in the Bardo, she observes:

Short fiction is a cruel form. It is life in miniature: not enough time. Some of its best practitioners have been cruel, or doctors in an age when we took legs off with hacksaws. It is hard to keep giving readers that edge they can brace against, catch their breath, say OK, all right, you know it and I know it. It is hard, after experiencing their love, to stop yourself from showing up to rescue your readers too soon.

On Saunders’ experience as a teacher:

If you’re a normal person, the first time you set foot in a classroom you will hear a voice that says: “It is wrong to take their money”. Other claims rise up to drown out this voice—what holier thing than the study of literature; talent cannot be taught, but the fundamentals can; they are paying for a circle of protected time—and all of them are true, but the voice is loud, louder than literature, and grows louder when you see a student so full of desire for her own life that she can barely breathe, and you taking money for it. What will she do? Is there a world for her? Are you part of the cheat, have you been promoted to middle management?

As to his insights on Russian fiction:

Why is Saunders so much more interesting about Turgenev’s “The singers” than about Gogol’s “The nose”, when Gogol would seem his more natural forebear? Most memorably, A swim in a pond in the rain has a great section on Tolstoy’s “Master and man”, the story he is always writing in one form or another: one man dies to save the other, in falling snow.

Finally,

There is something insoluble here. He is telling us that you cannot trust the Pulse—this is the fact that must be continually learned. Your feeling (you are, after all, doing this to feel the feeling) has nothing to do with whether it is good, just as your desire to be good cannot be worked out in fiction. But in those moments it does come to you what a guy is for, and you are covered in glory; it comes to you what it is to be a cloud of consciousness, with lives moving through you and that weird holy look on your face. The body lies far below you, in parts, the Worm Interlude—real site of your genius—passes into another phase, one you seem to remember from before you were born. “Where were you, before you came here?”

Heaven, Jeremy offers.

I want her to teach me everything. In exchange I can offer to share my experience of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi—but I’m not waiting for the phone to ring (that heavy black Bakelite contraption on the table in the hall).

Turkish jazz in London

Anatolian fusion

In the London Jazz Festival, to follow the radiant gig by Andrea Motis I sallied forth to swinging Exmouth Market to sample a mini-festival of Turkish jazz curated by Turquazz in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Nardis jazz club in Istanbul. A “pop-up venue” * in the same pleasant hall that last year hosted Veronica Doubleday’s entrancing concert to launch the new edition of Three women of Herat, among a series of gigs was Female voices of Turkey, as well as an intriguing talk on Thomas the “Black Russian” and Maksim tavern.

I relished the Anatolian fusion ensemble, led by Ozan Baysal on bağlama plucked lute. Rather as the only word that makes any sense in the “Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe” is “Daoist”, I wasn’t hung up on the Anatolian connection or the fusion, but the ensemble was exhilarating.

My ears having become attuned to the bağlama by its use to accompany the nefes hymns of Alevi ritual (click here, and here), I admired the creativity of Ozan Baysal (YouTube; and e.g. this intro), playing with Tolga Zafer Özdemir on keys and synth, Bora Bekiroğlu on electric bass, and Burak Ersöz on drums, all currently based in London.

Ozal gig

While Ozan remains steeped in the traditional style, * the double-necked bağlama opens up new possibilities for him in a rock-based vibe, as he explores the şelpe style with a variety of left- and right-hand techniques. Being keen on free-tempo preludes, I appreciated his fine taksim intros, unfolding into long numbers in exhilarating dialogue with Tolga Zafer’s funky keys and synth. The band clearly loves playing together, and I’m All Agog (a complete gog, or perhaps ğöğ—cf. kösk) to hear more from them.

* * *

* In more traditional mode, here’s Ozan Baysal at SOAS earlier this year with the different lineup of Anatolian Groove, including the Kurdish/Alevi singer Suna Alan, and Melisa Yıldırım on kamancha fiddle (website, YouTube):

For my belated education in Turkish culture, see under West/Central Asia: a roundup. And click here for a roundup of posts on jazz, including not just the Golden Age but also Ethiopia, Poland, and Japan.


* The tabloid Leitmotif “pop-up brothel” has recently segued seamlessly into “pop-up Prime Minister”

A short story

Note
I found this handwritten manuscript, apparently the author’s only fictional creation, while sorting through my old family papers. * Except by osmosis, I was never privy to the lasting personal trauma it evokes. For me, that itself adds another layer of sadness; I never overcame my teenage alienation from the older generation, unable and perhaps unwilling to identify with their own human conflicts—and indeed it was many years before I became aware that such introspection was even possible. But aside from all that, I greatly admire the literary merit of the story, which speaks to an experience that extends beyond the
Brief encounter generation.

 

She took the box of chocolates from him and glanced wearily at the contents—why bother to choose, she thought. I’m sure to get it wrong. Turkish delight… orange cream… perhaps ginger or brazil nut. What’s the betting I’ll end up with coffee or nougat—and anyway I don’t really know which one I want, or even if I want one at all. She pushed the box away, and her mind wandered back over the years, taking her from the comfortably furnished room, neat, warm, quiet, with its view onto a carefully tended suburban garden, to the shabby cottage where two little girls waited for their daddy to bring the Saturday treat he always collected for them when he went for his evening sports edition. The pools win had never come, but for her the memory of choosing which sweet to take from the penny packet he triumphantly produced was interwoven with the excited checking of football results.

When did I start to make the wrong choice, she wondered. The choice was my own, people didn’t influence me, did they? Did they? Was it not outside conditions, a sequence of events converging on me, forcing me into a narrowing passage where only one choice became possible, and finally became no choice at all? The war influenced so many people in so many ways, but for me the influence was gentle, tucked away as I was in the country, too young to have to leave home, my father in a reserved occupation, far from the bombs that caused such havoc. Oh no, I can’t blame the war. She thought of her dominant mother, who was outwardly kind, so absorbed in her little family, and whose whole life was lived for them, but who nevertheless expected complete obedience, unquestioning acceptance of her way of life. Was it her rule, her permanent ordering of every detail that had made it so difficult for her daughter to accept the responsibility for her own choice in even the smallest matters?

sisters 1935
Two sisters, 1935.

At school the range of subjects had been limited by shortage of staff and accommodation caused by the need to share with evacuated schools, so by the time she had realised where her interests were it was too late to change, and the professional training she would have liked had been suspended for the duration of hostilities. She had fallen back on her mother’s choice of career, accepted her ambition for her, but chosen for herself the college in London—in spite of the doodlebugs.

She thought suddenly of the relief of being able to go home to the country from college, and then, for no reason at all, of the young farmer’s son who had been her constant companion. They had been friends, real friends, with an easy give and take, a flow of laughter and understanding, and a joy in the beauty of the countryside around them. His parents’ farmhouse had been welcoming, with a cool, clean atmosphere after the strenuous activities of haymaking in summer, and a friendly glow in winter after attending to the animals. His mother was a homemaker by instinct, not in the self-conscious manner of the modern housewife, and her husband made everyone welcome without looking over his shoulder to see if he was creating the right impression. His family had farmed there for generations; this was where he belonged, and he had no need to consider such things as creating the right image. Theirs was a happy life, and yet when Dan had asked her if she would consider giving up the prospects of the job she was training for and marry him, she had not even thought of it as a choice. She wanted to live in a town with all the excitement of constant entertainment, clever, smart friends and all that the best in the world of culture and arts could offer. Foolish girl that she had been, she had thought then that the big cities held everything the world could give. Foolish, self-pitying old woman that I am now, she thought, at least I know that the heart finds its own happiness regardless of material matters.

I did live in a beautiful city when I set out on my career, and I was so lucky with my work and my colleagues. The creative side of the work satisfied me, and the promise of being useful to others as well as enjoying the necessary routine. Why did I give it up, why did I leave the house where I was living as one of the family, but free to go my own way, why did I abandon my hopes of making my own life as I had planned? My choice again, she thought, to leave so much for so little. I was not swept off my feet by the handsome hero of the story books, I had no illusions about him; I expected no treats or surprises. Oh yes, I was flattered by his attentions, the promise of his devotion, and I made my own decision.

“Another chocolate, dear?” “No thankyou”. He didn’t even notice that she hadn’t taken one before—perhaps he no longer cared any more than she did. Was he too, perhaps, thinking back over the choices in his all to predictable life? The limited finance of the early years when he had chosen to buy a house that would be in the “right” area for one in his position, the child he had never wanted although they had decided together that the time had come when they could afford to start a family. Now that had been a wrong choice. Before that, she had been young enough to make a new life of her own without him, without a child to consider, and still able to make use of her training and experience. Did he remember that as a turning point too, one which had kept him in his dull job, paying the bills, gardening, decorating, listening to her nagging, the child’s grizzling—and for what? She remembered the years of shared misery, the endless arguments, the countless times when she had chosen to stay on, but in reality she had not had the guts to stand up to the recriminations of both families, to his concern about what people would think, how it would affect his career.

Perhaps just once she had rejected the choice to return to living in the country. Had it really been a choice? During one of her husband’s business trips she had taken her son back to the countryside of her youth, and seen again through his eyes the beauty of her native county. A picnic on the farm where she had so often ridden home with the harvest was a must, and it seemed natural that Dan would still be there, natural that she should show the boy the ducks, take him to the milling shed, lift him onto the back of the old horse, now out to grass, who had pulled so many hay carts. They had slipped so easily into their old friendly ways, and he had taken her hand gently, sensing her unhappiness, and said, “I’m still here if you want me, my lovely”.

Her husband was dozing now, and she looked across at him, tired, grey, lined, but still with the determination that was his hallmark. They were alone now; their son had done well, with his degree which had led to a successful career. But they rarely saw him, and when he did visit he was always in a hurry. She looked round the room and thought of the house they were in now. She had intended to leave when her son left, go her own way, at last be free to live her own life, independent of parents, husband, child, forget the bad times and make the most of what was left. But he had had a trick up his sleeve. Did he tempt her with that offer of a fresh start, the move to a new house? Did he really want to please her, make her happy, share with her the fruits of his dreary years? She looked at the room now, gleaming in the lamplight, carefully chosen by him, put together with patience, every detail meticulously stage-managed, taken out of her hands, and ending up like the magazine impression of an “Ideal Home”. The kitchen should be the heart of the home, like the farmhouse kitchen of long ago, but how easily hers had become not the heart but the powerhouse, full of all the latest and smartest equipment, an impressive showpiece.

Now she no longer had any real choice in anything that mattered, no choice whatsoever. Here in this lovely house, which could have been a bribe, in the suburbia to which she had never truly belonged, which had rendered her incapable of belonging to the countryside where her roots lay. “It hasn’t all been bad,” she thought, “there have been happy times, and I have much to be thankful for.” She looked at the helpless figure in the wheelchair, caught his glance as he awoke searching for her presence; shared with him the resignation to the crippling illness which two years ago had trapped him but would not give him a swift or easy release. No choice, she thought as she smiled at him and reached for a chocolate.

MM, 23rd March 1980.


* For more family vignettes, see A modest literary pedigree, Wisdom of the elders, and From the archives.

When the iron bird flies

*Another instalment in my education on the history of modern Tibet*

Iron bird cover

The independent scholar Jianglin Li—evidently no longer based in China—has a useful website War on Tibet, working with Matthew Akester. I’ve been reading her book

  • When the iron bird flies: China’s secret war in Tibet
    (Chinese original, Taiwan 2012; English translation by Stacy Mosher of the revised version, 2022, 550 pages).

After her 2010 book Tibet in agony: Lhasa 1959 (English version 2016), When the iron bird flies describes the brutal military conflict in Tibetan regions from 1956 to 1962, which has long remained a closely guarded secret. It supplements chapters in Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999) (see his review of Li’s book) and vols 3 and 4 of Melvyn Goldstein’s magnum opus A history of modern Tibet (2013, 2019), as well as recent volumes like Conflicting memories.

The main focus of When the iron bird flies is the regions of Kham and Amdo (for some sources on the latter, click here), whose chiefdoms had always been resistant to external political power. Li’s account is based both on Tibetan accounts and classified Chinese documents within the PRC, as well as interviews with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.

map
Traditional Tibet, comprised of the three provinces of Kham, Ü-Tsang, and Amdo,
in current Chinese administrative divisions. Source: Marvin Cao.

For several years after occupying minority regions the Communists moved slowly; but the trigger for the convulsions of the late 1950s was “democratic reform”—their euphemism for coercive land reform and expropriations. It was launched over several stages in different provinces: in Yunnan in 1955, Sichuan in 1956, Gansu and Qinghai in 1958, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1959. Revolts broke out widely as the reforms were being imposed. Li introduces the system that soon became routine: work teams, struggle sessions, the fixing of class statuses, taxation, confiscation of grain and guns, assaults on monasteries. Even Tibetan activists groomed to the Communist cause were shocked to see the disastrous effects of reform when they returned to their localities.

The “first shot in the Khampa armed rebellion” came at Sertar county in Garzê. In response the Sichuan Party bosses only escalated the situation.

By the end of March 1956, eighteen of Garzê Prefecture’s twenty counties and forty-five of its seventy-seven townships had experienced full-scale or localised insurrections involving a total of 16,000 people and more than 8,000 firearms. During this time, fourteen land reform work teams came under attack, and ten county seats were besieged or encircled. More than 200 land reform cadres were killed, and the PLA suffered more than 300 casualties.

Reform was not invariably met by resistance:

In Middle Village and Lower Village in Ngawa’s Trokyab county, land reform was completed in about three months without conflict. But when the work team proceeded under order to Upper Village to launch land reform, it came under attack, and almost all of the thirty land reform work team members were killed.

But heavy taxation and grain confiscations led to food shortages.

Resistance by the Hor Drango (Shouling) monastery in Drango county was suppressed in March 1956. After Communist troops “annihilated more than 700 people,” “the Shouling temple’s eighty-member council sent representatives to the county’s Work Committee to deliver a written assurance that they would not resist taxation again”. This indicates that taxation was the direct reason for the Drango monks’ resistance.

As both Chinese and Tibetan sources show, with many of the most influential monks and laypeople having been recruited to official positions in the CCP system, resistance came mainly from the lower middle classes, including farmers, herders, monks, and traders. Li studies the class composition of areas, with tralpa (who leased land and cultivated their own crops) and gepa (who cultivated land or worked as servants for landowners, headmen, or monasteries):

The vast majority of peasants in these regions cultivated their own fields. Tralpa were not necessarily poor, and families with surplus labourers could engage in trade or hire themselves out. As a result, when the Tibetan regions were divided into class categories, the landlords, rich peasants, and middle peasants were mainly tralpa, whom the CCP classified as “serfs.”

As in Han Chinese regions, class classification was arbitrary and variable by locality. With land that had previously been communally owned now becoming state property,

a district designating 10 to 20% of its people as “landlords and rich peasants” meant that a relatively large portion of the middle stratum had their assets confiscated; this caused many of them to join in uprisings. [….]

 Every stage of the land reform process in Kham, from its preparations to its implementation, demonstrated the arrogance and high-handedness of the CCP regime, as well as the ignorance and brutality of its cadres.

Numerous problems in the “redistribution” of resources were intractable. Resistance to land reform was inevitable. In response the Party requested military reinforcements while mobilising Tibetans into the army—who, hastily trained, suffered the heaviest casualties. The first battle, over nine days in March 1956, was in Lithang in southwest Garzê (cf. this post).

Lithang 1957.1

Lithang 1957.2

In a series of battles, both sides suffered heavy casualties. Determined to crush all resistance, on 29th March the air force dispatched two Tupolev Tu-4 aircrafts (a gift from Stalin to Mao) to strafe and bomb the monastery. Next day the PLA made their final assault.

This battle being the PLA’s first major military operation in the Tibetan region, its shock wave was felt by both the Chinese and the Tibetans. Tibetans were shocked by the “iron bird,” a powerful modern weapon they had never before seen or heard of, while the Chinese commanders were surprised by the willpower of the Tibetan resistance. In the following years, Tibetan willpower and Chinese modern weaponry would clash over and over again.

Lithang1957.3

Southwest of Lithang, the people of Chatreng were also fiercely independent. Again, the early years of Chinese occupation were relatively mild, but in mid-February 1956,

Chatreng’s two main monasteries received a document from the work team. As Tibetans recall it, the document included seven points:

1) Lamas and monks have to be eliminated; 2) monasteries and their contents have to be eliminated; 3) worship and ritual are prohibited; 4) the wealthy and eminent members of the community have to be eliminated; 5) all land will be appropriated by the state; 6) all property will be appropriated by the state; 7) everyone has to obey the Liberation Army and serve them. If you do not agree to this, we will bomb you from the air and send troops on the ground and wipe you out. […]

The Tibetan leaders of Chatreng secretly held a meeting to discuss the document and then sent a messenger to deliver a strongly worded reply:

You officers, district heads, and soldiers are here in our land without the slightest justification, and have no business imposing these seven points, which are completely unacceptable. You had better leave immediately, otherwise we have also made our war preparations, and there is no doubt that we will fight.

From 20th March county government bases were besieged by the local Tibetans. When the surrounded Chinese finally managed to send word to Zhou Enlai, reinforcements were dispatched. On 2nd April bombers were again deployed, destroying large areas of Sampeling monastery and killing over two hundred monks and laypeople. Three monasteries in the region were bombed over nearly a month. Chatreng was destroyed.

Among the land reform work teams were many Tibetan activists trained by the Chinese. In Nyarong (yet another region long resistant to external power), 185 out of 257 members were Tibetan. The rebellion there began in February 1956, as land reform teams came under attack, with insurrections breaking out in 78% of rural townships. Again, PLA reinforcements were sent. Coercive reforms continued throughout the year.

In Ngawa prefecture, Sichuan province (focus of Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha), uprisings broke out from March 1956, again prompting Chinese military intervention. As elsewhere, “goodwill troupes” occasionally sought (vainly and cynically) to mollify a furious population even while persisting in reforms.

The following chapters turn to what became the TAR, where reforms were delayed, with a useful survey of the early years under occupation. But by 1956 news of the violence in Kham was causing great alarm in Lhasa among the Tibetan leadership and public. Li describes the intense diplomatic intrigue in 1956–57 surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to India, involving Zhou Enlai, Nehru, and the USA—as Zhou emptily promised the Dalai Lama that there would be no reforms for six years. The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa on 1st April to find the situation increasingly tense. Meanwhile the CIA-trained Chushi Gangdruk (“Four Rivers and Six Ranges”) volunteer army prepared to resist Chinese occupation.

The “socialist transformation” continued, with forced collectivization around Golok Prefecture in 1958, as the Great Leap Backward (my apt term) caused untold suffering right across China. By August,

resistance among the Qinghai Tibetans had spread to five autonomous prefectures, 24 counties, 240 tribes, and 307 monasteries, involving more than 90,000 people. The Chinese government sent in five army divisions and 30 regiments of various kinds, plus 25 companies of armed police and local militia, for a total armed force of more than 50,000, including air force, artillery, infantry, cavalry, armoured troops, and others. […]

In Chikdril County, 1,050 people, nearly 10% of its total population, were arrested within three years. More than half of these captives died in prison over the next five years, and some were in jail until the early 1980s. Of the hundreds of herdsmen arrested from the Khangsar clan, only about twenty of them ever made it home again.

At least 9,262 people were arrested in Golok Prefecture, the vast majority of them males in the prime of life; in some places the proportion of young men to young women was one to ten.

As the military campaign shifted north from Sichuan and Yunnan to Qinghai and Gansu, Li documents the horrific “Yellow River massacre” at what later became Khosin Township (Yulgen county) on 1st June 1958—as ever, carefully assessing the conflicting sources.

After a Chinese convoy was ambushed in Yulshul, rebellions broke out at monasteries, with bombers again deployed. Over a third of the population of Yulshul died in these years. Many survivors were imprisoned in labour reform camps, where they died or suffered for long years. With food shortages worsening, in May 1958 the PLA murdered monks at the Drakar Drelzong monastery in Tsikorthang, Tsolho Prefecture; in September there was a bloodbath at Drongthil Gulch. A second wave of assaults took place from June to September 1959.

As the Chinese military administration was convulsed by Rectification and Anti-rightist campaigns, Tibetan resistance to reform was widespread—though what Chinese sources portray as rebellion (thus creating a pretext for massacres) was sometimes a mere exodus of herders fleeing collectivization. Refugees were described as “bandits” if they were killed, or “liberated masses” if they were captured. Resistance continued in 1959, met by massive troop deployments, with further major battles.

In 1958 a major arrest and denunciation rally took place at Kumbum monastery in Rusar county, Qinghai. The monastery then has 1,615 monks—remarkable in itself, we might suppose. Tibetan Buddhist life had been relatively unscathed through the early years of occupation; but now the CCP initiated a secret “religious reform movement”, in which Buddhist activity was specifically targeted, notably the monasteries. A document from the period noted the scale of the issue:

more than 5,000 monasteries of various sizes, and 450,000 religious personnel, among which there are more than 3,000 lamaist temples and 250,000 lamas in Tibet; 20,000 lamas in Mongolia and Xinjiang; and a total of 2,000–3,000 lama temples and more than 170,000 lamas in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and other provinces.

Apart from ideology, the monasteries possessed substantial assets, in land and precious material artefacts—Li gives regional instances of the assets confiscated, metal statues and religious implements. Labrang monastery (in Gansu), with its 4,000 monks, was surrounded in April 1958; after “reform” began in June, over 1,600 people there were arrested, imprisoned, or executed. Many monasteries were now destroyed. In Qinghai province,

223 monasteries in the pastoral areas have been disbanded, 51.98% of the total, and 17,685 religious personnel have returned to secular life, composing 36.56% of the total. Among these, 97.5% of the monasteries in Huangnan prefecture have been disbanded, and 55.1% of religious personnel have returned to secular life; adding in those arrested or sent to group training brings it to around 95% of the total. In Hainan prefecture, 91.8% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and 87.9% of religious personnel have returned to secular life. In Haibei and Haixi prefectures, more than 80% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and more than 70% of the religious personnel have returned to secular life. The emergence of these new scenarios shows that religion is on the brink of total collapse.

The Anti-rightist campaign gave another pretext to denounce religious figures. As a Qinghai document declared:

After a large number of religious monasteries have been destroyed and a large number of religious personnel have returned to secular life, all localities must rapidly launch religious systemic reform work in the monasteries that have been purposely retained. […] The monasteries that remain must be controlled by progressive elements and must be completely controlled under the party’s leadership.

Another Party document explained:

In order to look after the religious beliefs of the masses, block rumours and provocations by counterrevolutionaries inside and outside of China, and facilitate the centralised management of lamas who have not returned to secular life, preserving some temples is essential. As to the appropriate number to retain, this should be according to the influence of the temple and the views of the masses. Rank the temples; in principle it is undesirable to retain too few. […] In terms of retaining temples, it is advantageous at present to retain more rather than less.

By the beginning of 1959, the vast majority of monasteries in Amdo and Kham had been closed down, occupied, or destroyed. I note that whereas in post-reform China the Cultural Revolution makes a scapegoat for a far more protracted range of abuses, in the vast heartland of the Han Chinese, the Communists began destroying temples from the early 1950s—in some areas as soon as they took power, even before the national “Liberation”. I’m also reminded that food shortages there predated the 1959–61 famine by several years, following collectivization. Yet Tibetan religious faith was not extinguished: it went underground.

Sera
Struggle meeting against monk officials in Sera monastery.

Lhasa
Struggle meeting against a Tibetan government official in Lhasa.

Lhasa was “the last hope”, where activists and ordinary people from Kham sought refuge in ever larger numbers. Li surveys the fateful events leading to the Dalai Lama’s escape to India—described in greater detail elsewhere, including her own earlier book. But as resistance continued, fierce battles took place in Lhoka, Namtso, and Mitikha. 1960 saw further campaigns. She looks in more detail at the covert activities of the CIA Tibet Task Force. The extended resistance in Chamdo from 1959 to 1962 was yet again ruthlessly suppressed with annihilation campaigns and aerial bombing.

Finally Li attempts to collate the conflicting statistics over the whole region—deaths in conflict, arrests, Chinese troop numbers, confiscated assets, and so on. Just the figures suggesting population decrease are staggering.

From 1956 to 1962, the iron horse galloped wildly across the plateau. Wherever its iron heels trod, the flames of war were ignited, monasteries collapsed, scriptures were burned, people were killed, and leaders fled into exile. The political system, economy, military, culture, and society of the Tibetan people were completely destroyed.

And again she reminds us of the tragic personal experiences buried beneath such statistics.

In an Afterword, Li considers the “rehabilitation” of the early 1980s, further evidence of the grievous losses of the secret war. She notes the Panchen Lama’s 1962 petition; and she hints at the further wave of destruction that was to follow with the Cultural Revolution, observing the ironic fates of some of the worst central and regional Chinese masterminds of the holocaust, purged and humiliated.

* * *

So much for the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”—the succession of atrocities reminds one of the genocide of Native America, or the wartime devastation of the Bloodlands. While we should take into account the grievous wounds inflicted by Maoism in the Han Chinese heartland through the period, this doesn’t diminish the horror of the Tibetan case.

After the individual memoirs that I reviewed recently (here and here), the broader canvas and more dispassionate tone of this volume are no less affecting; Tibetan and Chinese documents are interwoven with personal stories, some recounted by ageing exiles in India. Whereas in the 1950s the Chinese presence in Tibet was novel and tenuous, by the 1970s, following the violence of the Cultural Revolution there, it became a fait accompli, with the suppression of public memory seeking to bury the story of the appalling brutality of the late 1950s. But the imprint of the period clearly remains deep in people’s hearts, making a backdrop to the sporadic unrest that continues to erupt around Amdo, Kham, and the TAR.

For those studying expressive culture, all this makes an important reminder that the much-vaunted “singing and dancing of minority peoples” could hardly be maintained during such a traumatic period of social disruption. Yet, remarkably, after the downfall of Maoism in the 1980s, people pieced together the fragments of cultural life with alacrity, while adapting to new social changes (see e.g. Some folk ritual performers).

Andrea Motis in London!!!

Motis gig

Andrea Motis is one of the most gifted young musicians nurtured under the aegis of Joan Chamorro’s Sant Andreu Jazz Band project in Barcelona (click here, and here). How very wonderful to hear her live last weekend, performing at the London Jazz Festival on vocals and trumpet at Pizza Express Holborn—an intimate venue conducive to attentive listening—in trio with the splendid Josep Traver on guitar (a Sant Andreu veteran) and the Sicilian bass-player Giuseppe Campisi.

Her alternation of vocals and trumpet recalls Chet Baker, but whereas Chet constantly reproduced a mood that he had discovered in his youth, Andrea is constantly developing—creating her own magic of the voice, ever deeper in her personal dream.With her growing superstar status, she’s not becoming a diva: her manner remains unassuming.

Here’s an upbeat number (the colour palette not doing justice to the Mediterranean warmth of her Almodóvar-esque dress!):

Between imaginative reworkings of standards like My favorite things and Someone to watch over me, a highlight of her Latin-tinged set was her entrancing transformation of Majorcan/Catalan band Antònia Font’s song Alegria, with its “gentle shower of stardust”—here she is performing it in 2020, with Josep Traver and Joan Chamorro:

Going back to her London debut in 2014 (also at Pizza Express), here’s her creative cover of Amy’s You know I’m no good:

More on Andrea’s website, and her YouTube topic! Note her recent quintet album Loopholes, borrowing from electric jazz, funk, and neo-soul—here’s Heat, live: *

Click here for her 2010 version of the gorgeous Dream a little dream of me. See also under A jazz medley, including New British jazz and Two women vocalists, as well as a Turkish gig in the London Jazz Festival.

 


* BTL comment (HUH—Discuss):

If Andrea had stayed with her four-piece jazz backup band of Juan and Josep etc., and done original versions of jazz standards, she could have been the European version of Diana Krall and found huge success. With that small jazz band, she was getting hundreds of thousands of views and hundreds of comments on YouTube. With her new band led by her husband and the experimental style, she is fading from view. I find this unfortunate.

Cf. the LA traffic cop’s unwitting put-down of Eric Leinsdorf

Beethoven retorts:

Ich wäre nicht, wo ich heute bin, hätte ich nur gemütliche Lieder geschrieben!

Coltrane too could have stuck to playing cute little ballads…

A grand slam

Bridge

Just for a change from Daoists, Mahler, and Turkish culture, here’s a delightful bridge challenge!

As you see in my note to Perfection is NOT the word for it, my skills on the baize are rudimentary, having been only modestly maintained on orchestral tours on the back of a bus, suitably lubricated by alcohol. By now I’m even more out of practice than usual, but among a wealth of such problems I find this one particularly charming. Like the abstract beauty of dhrupad, it’s an infinite world.

I can’t see the solution online, but after the opening spade lead from West (almost inevitable, one would think, though it’s the only lead that makes the grand slam possible!) all thirteen tricks must be won in dummy—to which end, declarer must first discard the ❤️A and K on the two opening spade tricks, and then discard all the top diamonds on dummy’s four heart tricks!

Wonderful, eh—pour me another gin…

A Tibetan childhood

*Part of my education in the history of modern Tibet*

Nulo cover

Since I reviewed Shawo Tsering’s “auto-narrative”, I’ve been reading

  • Naktsang Nulo, My Tibetan childhood: when ice shattered stone (English translation 2014, by Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo).

Nulo Tibetan cover Another account of the catastrophe that befell the Tibetan region of Amdo, it contains harrowing material of a kind only hinted at by Shawo Tsering (cf. When the iron bird flies).

Remarkably, the original, in Amdo Tibetan (title translated as “Joys and sorrows of the Naktsang boy“), was published in China “for internal distribution” in 2007, near the end of a relatively relaxed period in the region. It was soon pirated widely; versions were published in standard Tibetan by Tibetan exiles in India in 2008 and, in Chinese, in Taiwan three years later—by which time it had apparently been banned in the PRC.

As Robbie Barnett observes in his substantial and typically wise introduction,

As the first uncensored recollection published within Tibet of events erased by a half century of enforced forgetfulness, it epitomised the process of collective remembering that appears to have transformed and energised Tibetan cultural life at this time, fuelling a reemergent and potent sense of nationhood.

Outsiders had little access to the voices of ordinary Tibetans (especially those from the eastern regions) until the 1990s, when accounts of Amdo history since the 1950 Chinese occupation began to surface, led by Charlene Makley, Li Jianglin with Matthew Akester, and later by scholars such as Benno Weiner. Robbie also refers to other Tibetan accounts from the period when Naktsang Nulo’s memoir was published.

Amdo map
Northeastern Tibet, showing places and territories mentioned in the text,
with routes taken by the author to Lhasa, fleeing the Chinese army, and on march to prison.

It’s always important to bear in mind the usages of the word “Tibet”—as ever, Robbie gives a cogent account:

Today, in the era of nation-states, single terms for the whole area are much more in vogue, and the northeastern part of the Tibetan plateau is now referred to by Tibetans most frequently as Amdo, while the name Kham is used for the eastern and southeastern areas. Amdo and much of Kham were not consistently ruled by Lhasa after about 1700, although in brief periods up until the 1930s the Tibetan army was able to regain control of one or other border zone in Kham. In this period most of the numerous localities, chiefdoms, and so on within Amdo and Kham fell under the administration of the western Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan. But Chinese rule in these Tibetan areas was largely nominal until sometime in the late 1950s, as Naktsang demonstrates in his book.

As he explains, exiles and their supporters now commonly use the word “Tibet” to refer to the entire Tibetan snow-land as a political unit, one that was ruled in the past by a single administration. Ironically, by the late 1950s, “facing the experience of invasion, many eastern Tibetans reverted to a probably half-forgotten or perhaps half-invented memory of political unity”.

There are thus at least three Tibets—one recognised by China as the administrative area ruled by the Dalai Lamas until 1950 and limited to the western and central parts of the plateau, another referring to the common cultural and historic heritage found throughout the plateau, and a third implying a single political entity covering all the Tibetan areas. […]

Whether intended or not, the moral logic of his memoir implies a sense of common purpose among Tibetans, irrespective of their location on the plateau, fuelled by their similar experience of Chinese policies in the 1950s.

Robbie reminds us of the seminal importance of Amdo in Tibetan religion, economy, and literature (see e.g. chapters in Conflicting memories).

Born in 1949 in Chugama village in Machu county, Ganlho Prefecture, just east of the Golok region in south Gansu, Naktsang Nulo spent most of his childhood in nearby Chumarleb county, in Yushu (Jyekundo) prefecture of Qinghai province. The memoir describes his early life until he entered school in 1959. For most of his later career he was based in Chumarleb, serving until his retirement in 1993 as an official in the Chinese government, with successive positions as schoolteacher, police officer, judge, prison official, and county leader.

Robbie identifies the significance of the book—in particular the impact of the PLA’s arrival in the area, “the first time that Tibetans there had experienced administration by outsiders at the grassroots level”.

It reinserts long-erased memories into the knowledge bank of younger generations in his community, who until now have had severely limited access to information about their past. And it gives an account, in all senses, of the costs of China’s initial state-building project in Tibetan areas a half century ago: with little comment or condemnation, it records the price paid in lives and lifestyles by the author’s family and community for their incorporation into modern China. It also serves for outsiders as a vivid reminder that events, even those involving widespread atrocities and occurring at pivotal moments in a nation’s history, can be removed from the record in the aftermath of nation-building, lost in the waves of deliberate erasure, ideological preference, and state-driven selectivity that take place at such times.

He contrasts exile Tibetan and Chinese historiography:

The Tibetan version involved much eliding of their complex relations with China in the past, as well as of stark inequities in their social system, while the Chinese narrative involved overlooking Tibet’s history of separate governance, its largely autochthonous cultural and social evolution, and earlier forms of obvious national spirit and belief. These forms of forgetfulness were not equivalent: the Tibetan exiles promoted their version through propaganda and persuasion, often with endorsement from the work of foreign scholars, while the Chinese version of history was implemented more or less coercively. […]

Naktsang Nulo’s memoir provided an account of history that undermined to some extent the versions told by both sides. It did this not by making any statements about Tibet’s political status in the past but by telling that story with some degree of nuance and complexity.

And he elaborates:

My Tibetan Childhood thus represents a moment of coalition between two generations. The older Tibetans, schooled in the necessary arts of silence by their witnessing of numerous state-inflicted deaths and punishments in earlier years, looked across Naktsang’s narrative toward the younger generation, already energised by a growing awareness of a distinctive cultural and religious heritage that seemed to them endangered. The story that it told seemed to say, though not in so many words, that there was a substantive historical basis for the sense of loss and deprivation, and for the feeling that a future had been denied, implicit in the dissatisfactions expressed among Tibetans in the Amdo area, as in Lhasa too, after the turn of the millennium. Before Naktsang’s book appeared, the only knowledge that could have given substantial basis for such ideas would probably have been largely limited to private conversations, smuggled exile propaganda, and ambiguous pop songs about unity, long-lost friends, and separation from one’s homeland. With its patient, detailed, uneditorialised accounting of historical atrocities, seemingly inflicted without reason or explanation by an outside force fifty years earlier, Naktsang’s book provided an intellectual foundation for thoughts and emotions already circulating within his community, a story of the past that made sense of those emotions. […]

In many senses, it is a naive story, the chronicle of a world seen through a child’s eyes. But to readers within Tibet, it was a revelation. It told of epochal events that had rarely if ever been described before in print, and it used a style and approach that ignored the conventions and requirements of history writing in China, let alone in its Tibetan regions.

Thus his child’s perspective is “free of the rituals and requirements of socialist writing practices”. Presented as a story about a boy’s wish to return to his home, the book seems to downplay political messages.

The words “China,” “the Party,” “Communism,” and “policy” are not found in the text. Even the place-names Gansu and Qinghai do not appear, although the action takes place within those provinces; it is as if they have no meaning or significance for the author. There is no reference to class, local lords are not described as feudal, the Tibetan administration in Lhasa is not referred to as a “local government,” exploitation and abuse are criticised in moral terms but not politically, and the concepts of oppression and liberation are not invoked. […]

The teacher in charge of the “Joyful Home” tells the author, “Thanks to our leader, Mao Zedong, we have enough to eat and drink,” just before the famine starts, and again, after the famine has concluded, when the same teacher announces to those who have survived, “Thanks to Chairman Mao Zedong, we will have rice soup to drink, starting tomorrow”. There is no hint as to whether these profoundly grotesque statements should be considered ironic, innocent, forced, or tragic, or even if they should be judged at all. Political terminology has been removed from the text along with judgment, separating it from the body of public writing about history in China. This is thus a book in which what is not said about the past is as important as what is declared.

For more, note Xénia de Heering, “Re-remembering the day ‘times turned around’: the arrival of ‘Chinese soldiers’ at Chukhama in 1958”, Chapter 10 of Barnett, Weiner, and Robin (eds), Conflicting memories: Tibetan history under Mao retold (2020).

* * *

As Robbie notes,

There was clearly little if any presence of Chinese or Hui forces in the author’s area before 1958, even though the PLA had taken over Qinghai nine years earlier, and in most ways people in the nomad areas still ruled themselves.

Naktsang’s early life in his nomad community was permeated by encounters with Buddhist monasteries and lamas. As the family made a 1,500-mile pilgrimage over six months to and from Lhasa, Naktsang gives

an unusually frank impression of life in Lhasa and central Tibet, where the Golok pilgrims are shocked by scenes of utter destitution and by forms of corporal punishment that even they, no strangers to punitive violence, appear to consider extraordinarily brutal.

But on their return, just as he was becoming a monk at the Chugama monastery, his father was arrested by the vindictive head of discipline there and subjected to 1,500 lashes “for what seems to have been a breach of etiquette”.

Until around 1956 the PLA troops were still considered “relatively benign”; when Naktsang was taken to see the Panchen Lama on another pilgrimage to Labrang monastery, it was a PLA soldier who helped him receive a blessing (this was the very Panchen Lama who in 1962 denounced the desperate circumstances of Tibetans in his native Amdo).

But by 1958 tensions were escalating rapidly, and the story becomes ever more harrowing. Back in Chuguma again, a local army was formed to protect the community from the PLA. As Naktsang’s father told him:

Everyone in our chiefdom went to the army as the chiefs ordered. Men over 15 and under 60 have been sent to Sogpo. Our army has already driven out the Chinese land surveyors and killed at least 100 soldiers. But a few days ago all the lamas and chiefs in Tsu were arrested secretly by the Chinese. All the monasteries in the Achong Lhade chiefdom have been destroyed. I heard that about 500 Chinese troops are marching to attack us, and they’ll probably be here tomorrow.”

Recalling his experiences at Labrang, young Naktsang can’t envisage the threat:

I had seen the Liberation Army many times before, when we were staying at Labrang monastery. They had given us beans and candy, and smiled at us as they marched past. Because of that, I had no fear of walking near the soldiers. When the troops arrived at the line of monks, all of them were given darkhas. They applauded in return and handed the darkhas back to the tulkus and lamas.

But as the PLA occupied Chugama, arresting the principal lamas and tulkus, people realised how grave the situation was. As resistance was crushed, in detailed chapters Naktsang tells how the locals were intimidated into destroying their own precious monastery. He now embarked with his father in a group of twelve monks and laymen, including several teenagers (Naktsang was only 10), on another pilgrimage to Lhasa—this time in search of refuge from the Chinese invaders. On their perilous journey they learned of further Chinese atrocities, and were fearful that Lhasa might be in the midst of similar destruction. Along the way they fought off PLA troops; but Naktsang’s father died after being wounded, and the others were forced to surrender.

The final section, “Torture and imprisonment, starvation and survival”, tells of the consequences of that failed flight over the following year, as Naktsang and those around him were integrated into the dominance of the Chinese state.

Nulo Chumarleb

In captivity he was taken under the wing of the kindly lamas Ganden Wula and Sera Lama (“Ganden Wula is respected by the Chinese. He’ll be able to chant rituals—they’ll let him.”). They were taken back to Chumarleb in a group of about 300 prisoners, roped together in lines of six. On the way, in reprisal, Chinese troops cajoled the local crowd into beating the two lamas to death along with four of their followers.

When they arrived at Chumarleb they were thrown into a hole in the prison yard—one of nine such holes, each containing about four hundred prisoners. Five or six died every day. As famine further intensified their desperation (for the appalling devastation in the PRC, see this roundup), after 18 hellish days Naktsang and his older brother were released, staying briefly in the nearby town before starting school, consisting of large tents housing around a thousand children—most of whose parents had been arrested.

The school still apparently functioned quite normally over Chinese [sic] New Year, but three months later food supplies dwindled severely; as they resorted to eating leather and sheepskin, people began to die. Those from erstwhile wealthy families succumbed more quickly; poor children like Naktsang, more capable of fending for themselves, had to dispose of the corpses. Within three months, only fifty-three children remained from over a thousand, and only ten old people from six hundred.

Nulo 1959
This is the book’s only image from the period described in the memoir;
other illustrations show archive photos of Amdo and Lhasa from before the Chinese occupation.

As the famine eased, Naktsang found some of his recently-released fellow prisoners, who took him to herd sheep and calves at the grazing commune where they had been released. On 30th December 1959 he became a student at Chumarleb County School. He ends the book innocuously and astutely:

Now we have grown up and are able to practice our religion and dedicate prayers to him. We are also certain that we will have the chance to return to our native land, and all our relatives will greet us.

Nulo and brother 2012
Naktsang Nulo (right) with his older brother Japé, 2012. Photo: Xénia de Heering.

* * *

In his introduction Robbie Barnett updates the story:

In 2013, five years after his book was published, [Naktsang] wrote a column that spoke out for the first time about the wave of immolations that had swept across Tibet. It was unprecedented in its explicitness. […] We can now see him not as an autobiographer who dared to speak about the past or an intellectual who speaks truth to power but as a strategic communicator and conciliator, an ex-official who pioneered unique pathways by which to negotiate the contours and crevices of the state system in the quest to widen public debate and understanding on topics never previously allowed. Where he had used the convention of childish innocence to enable the act of public recollection, he now uses concession to others’ values to plead for moderation in policy. A project that began as a handing down of the past to coming generations has become a quiet search for ways to nurture a thinking Tibetan public, rich with knowledge of its history as well as of its responsibilities and limitations.

Mahler 9 live!!!

*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*

Mahler 9 concert

Mahler 9 is always deeply moving in concert (I’ve just revised my original post). Last weekend I went to hear the Concertgebouw orchestra playing it under Daniel Harding at the Barbican (reviewed here).

I’ve eventually got used to the Barbican: having negotiated the surrounding concrete jungle, the layout of the hall (at least from the stalls) has a personal feel. And rather than being subjected to the crass materialism of an expensive programme booklet with its glossy ads, we can consult notes online. Better still, just listen

The Concertgebouw has a venerable tradition of performing Mahler; they gave the Dutch premiere of the 9th with Mengelberg in 1918, and it was a core part of their repertoire with Haitink. The relationship continues under Daniel Harding.

Mahler’s most monumental symphonies often stand alone, but some conductors such as S-Simon and Salonen (see under The art of conducting) like to precede them with a suitably challenging overture. So the concert opened with the UK premiere of Rick van Velhuizen’s mais le corps taché d’ombres for harp and strings.

In Mahler 9 the orchestra sounded just fabulous, a perfectly blended ensemble. Though, remarkably, there were a few empty seats (I mean, I love Strictly, but really…), after a long, reverent silence the performance inevitably got a standing ovation. Never miss an opportunity to hear the symphony!

Mahler 9 end

Lest you suppose I’m carried away by Western Art Music (as indeed I am), it’s still worth consulting What is serious music?!.

More gems from Cambridge sinology

CHC

Apart from feeling mildly guilty at defecting from Tang history, another spinoff of my current decluttering is rediscovering random notes from my time editing and indexing volumes of The Cambridge History of China. I’ve already listed some jocular citations from Han and Tang history, so here’s a sequel with gems that I may not have sneaked into the indexes.

Vol.1:

derivative ideas 693
gibberish 692–3
no-ado 693
nudism 833
Other, A.N., as consort of Wu-ti 174
pedantry, academic 758
reality: Hsün Yue criticises 806
supreme nothing, spiritual nothing 839

Vol. 3:

An Lushan the Man
beauty, no harem
cleavage
climax, early
horse-dung
Liang, Later dynasty; Liang, Even Later dynasty
nincompoop, feckless
nonentity, pliant
obsequiousness
riff-raff
wife, monopoly tax

* * *

Maspero

Meanwhile, here are some out-takes from my index to the 1981 English translation of Henri Maspero’s Taoism and Chinese religion:

Divine Man
euhemerism, naïve
Eating Filthy Things
forgetting the body
hairdressers
Heavenly Kitchen
heavy breathing
ho-ho
hot breath
knitting, spontaneous
latrines
massage
orgies
Purple Dame
pustules
sitting down and losing consciousness
Transcendent Pig
vermin, buried in

* * *

I also discovered some more drôle pronouncements on Tang music—we can probably hazard a guess at their author:

“Secular, amnesic, notational dyslexia in the reading of post-13th century flute notations of Tōgaku pieces”

—apparently “people forgetting how to play old scores”:

Perhaps this was a piece in which interest was quickly lost, a piece picked up as an item of temporary fashionable interest, but for which no interest remained after the Chinese court itself had lost interest following the An Lushan rebellion.

Giggle we may, but this was just the kind of analytical detail on the Tang repertoire that I found so fruitful—in the days before my epiphany among the peasants of dusty north China villages.

Nature makes regular guest appearances:

The process occurs, however, no matter what the fermented vegetable substrata may be; and the title is not to be regarded necessarily as referring to wine from fermented grape-juice.

And

There can be no gainsaying the powerful atropaeic significance of the wild duck in East Asian folk belief.

On my penchant for wacky indexes, see The joys of indexing; Lexicon of musical invective; and my draft index to Nicolas Robertson’s outstanding series of anagram tales. For my early spoofs on Tang poetry (“precocious signs of the pointless inanity that was to distinguish my later writings”), click here. And do read Denis Twitchett’s informed spoof on An Lushan, and the faqu series (under A Tang mélange).

Some recent *MUST READ* posts

Cetegories

The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.

Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:

  • The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
  • Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
  • Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….

  • Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
  • Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!

  • The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
  • Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
  • Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London: social and musical change in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China—with homages to the Cantonese music scene and the early days of Ronnie Scott’s in Gerard street.

I’ve grouped these posts in the form 3+2+3, in the hope of encouraging you to revisit my post on aksak additive metres!

Tickety-boo

India
Source.

While emojis like 👍 and ❤️ have partly relieved us of the necessity to create new verbal expressions for approval, one may feel a certain nostalgia for bygone expressions like spiffing, ripping, top-notch, hunky-dory, and tickety-boo.

While the quaintness of such jovial expressions harks back to a broader class-base than the world of Jeeves and Wooster, I suppose they are now usually heard on the lips of a rather educated latter-day generation, with varying degrees of post-modern irony—including both rabid bendy-banana nostalgists and the “Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati”

The origin of tickety-boo is unclear. Though there doesn’t seem to be a written example before 1939, it appears to go back at least to the early 1920s—probably RAF slang, perhaps a combination of “that’s the ticket” (early 18th century) and “peek-a-boo” (or at least “boo”).

But there’s also a suggestive derivation from Hindi ṭhīk hai, bābūit’s all right, sir. * This would make it one of a whole host of words adapted from Indian languages, popularised by way of the British empire (cf. Hidden heritage).

This elliptical first draft for a film script conjures up a picturesque gathering, setting the scene before introducing the host and his guests, their sporting pastimes followed by a sumptuous buffet:

Dinghy and catamaran on atoll; loot thug in choky. Cushy veranda of jungle bungalow (lacquered teak, calico palanquin, juggernaut; chintz cot, patchouli): Blighty mogul (mandarin) in pukka cashmere pyjamas.
[The guests arrive:]
Lilac cummerbunds (doolally!), khaki dungarees, pashmina (shawl), bangles with bandanas. Jodhpurs for polo and cheetah gymkhana.
Tiffin (kedgeree with chutney) and tank of punch; candy and cheroot—tickety-boo!

Cf. the Venetian language, Some unlikely Turkish vocabulary, and The kiosk in Turkey and Europe. And do relish Nicolas Robertson’s remarkable anagram tales! The linguistic reversals of Armstrong and Miller are also very drôle—see Textual scholarship, OMG.


* An alternative derivation from French, offered in the wiktionary entry, is also attractive: ce que t’es beau (“how beautiful you are”). Cf. “toodeloo”, said to be a corruption of tout a l’heure—even more quaint is toodle-pip.

Bach in an empty forest

Forest 1

Like Bach’s Air, or the Adagietto from Mahler 5, ,Jesu, joy of man’s desiring is another of those pieces to which we may have become somewhat inured by media  recyclings—but here it’s magically transformed on a mile-long hand-carved xylophone in an empty Japanese forest:

The video, made in the unlikely service of a 2011 advertisement for the “Touch Wood” phone of a telecom company (see e.g. here), enjoys an occasional vogue on social media, but I’ve only just clocked it.

The installation, directed by Morihiro Harano, was created by a team led by carpenter Mitsuo Tsuda and sound engineer Kenjiro Matsuo in the Daisetsu Mori-no garden, Hokkaido.

Forest 5

What makes it even more exquisite is the rubato caused by little imperfections in the design. I’d also like to hear more of the tremolo effect (from 1.04), another feat of engineering.

Forest 4

Perhaps this will lead you to the wonders of Takemitsu, the aesthetic of ma 間 “empty space”, and Noh drama (see under Some posts on Japanese culture).

* * *

Nat GallLarge queues formed for the National Gallery concerts. Source.

For senior British generations, the piano arrangement by Myra Hess remains deeply meaningful, epitomising Londoners’ spirit in maintaining morale during World War Two, with the remarkable daily weekday lunchtime concerts which she organised at the National Gallery throughout the whole war (instructive material here).

The series featured many of the leading musicians of the day, such as the Griller quartet and Dennis Brain, in a variety of repertoire that included Bach’s great keyboard works and the Brandenburg concertos; the complete chamber works of Beethoven and Brahms; Hess played the twenty-one Mozart piano concertos, and Beethoven sonatas.

That much of this “great music” was German in origin says much about the ethos of the concerts and their organiser—who came herself from Jewish stock.

As Kenneth Clark, Director of the Gallery, recalled:

What sort of people were these who felt more hungry for music than for their lunches? All sorts. Young and old, smart and shabby, Tommies in uniform with their tin hats strapped on, old ladies with ear trumpets, musical students, civil servants, office boys, busy public men, all sorts had come.

Hess’s renditions of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring may seem a minor aspect of the repertoire, but as we listen it’s worth imagining the effect it must have had on Londoners, anxiously awaiting letters from loved ones at the front while bombs were reducing their city to rubble:

So Hess’s performances of the piece have become part of modern British mythology; but as tastes changed the style was largely submerged beneath pop music (see Desert Island Discs).

While for the wartime British Jesu, joy of man’s desiring made a microcosm of civilised values and the valiant resistance to fascism, in postwar Japan it took time for Takemitsu to overcome his alienation from musical traditions there, associating them (not incorrectly) with militaristic nationalism. Such a sub-text may be intriguing, but it’s hardly legible in the forest xylophone…

* * *

Jesu joy

Bach made various settings of the 1661 Lutheran chorale Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne, such as in the Matthew Passion. The pastoral triplets familiar today are from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, part of his magnificent first cycle of cantatas upon becoming Kantor at Leipzig in 1723; stanzas of the chorale conclude both parts of the cantata.

Just as Western Art Music was losing prestige, in post-war western Europe the niche of the early music movement brought a new aesthetic to Bach (see e.g. Taruskin, Butt, and Gardiner)—here’s the final movement directed by Ton Koopman:

Closing stanza of Part 1:

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe,
o wie feste halt ich ihn,
daß er mir mein Herze labe,
wenn ich krank und traurig bin.
Jesum hab ich, der mich liebet
Und sich mir zu eigen gibet;
Ach drum laß ich Jesum nicht,
Wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht.

Happy am I, to have my Jesus,
oh how firmly I hold on to him
so that he may refresh my heart
when I am sick and sorrowful.
I have Jesus, who loves me
and gives himself to me.
Ah therefore I shall not abandon Jesus
even if my heart breaks.

Closing stanza of Part 2:

Jesus bleibet meine Freude,
Meines Herzens Trost und Saft,
Jesus wehret allem Leide,
Er ist meines Lebens Kraft,
Meiner Augen Lust und Sonne,
Meiner Seele Schatz und Wonne;
Darum laß ich Jesum nicht
Aus dem Herzen und Gesicht.

Jesus remains my joy,
my heart’s consolation and sap,
Jesus protects me from all suffering,
he is the strength of my life,
the delight and sun of my eyes,
the treasure and bliss of my soul;
therefore I do not abandon Jesus
from my heart and face.

The whole cantata is glorious. Here’s John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the Michaeliskirche, Lüneburg, nearing the end of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000:

The exhilarating trumpet of the opening chorale, the aria for counter-tenor (Michael Chance!) with oboe d’amore, the soprano aria with violin, the recitative with oboes da caccia leading into the bass aria with trumpet… Yet again I reflect that Bach’s musicians and congregation at Leipzig can hardly have realised how blessed they were—even if they had to sit through a sermon between the two parts of the cantata (see under Bach—and Daoist ritual; cf. Passion at the Proms). For some other wondrous Bach cantatas, see under A Bach retrospective—also including Bach and the oboe.

So we’ve just heard some moments in the life of a melody as aesthetics have changed—1661, 1723, 1926, 1940, 2011 (cf. Reception history).