Some Venetian greetings

On the Li family Daoists’ 2012 sojourn in Venice in 2012 we were guests of the Fondazione Cini, staying virtually alone on the tranquil little island of Isola San Giorgio, just across from bustling San Marco.

Chatting with our Cini hosts, the fragrant Chiara and Sabrina, they told me that when Venetians come across each other by chance they like to exclaim

Fatalità!” (pronounced “Fataità!”)—“Fate!”

A quaint English equivalent might be “Fancy bumping into you!”

Venice 2012

Fatalità! Venetian dwellers with the Li band, or “Selling the Daode jing at the door of Confucius”  在孔子门前卖道德经

I gather “Fatalità!” is more commonly an interjection, as when telling a story (“And what should happen but…”) or (in reacting) “Fancy that!”. It can also be a humorous way of accepting fate, almost like the English “Typical!” or “That’s life!”.

Without regard to expense or the feelings of the public, the erudite Rod Conway Morris, himself a long-term chronicler of Venetian mores, has obligingly ferreted out a little discussion by Sandro Mattiazzi (Veneziani: Figli del Leone Alata, 2002), with pleasantly arcane examples of a quarrel between gondoliers and a dispute during the war with the Turks, both defused by the timely exclamation.

Fatalità is chance [caso], the fortuitous event that is yet the result of a necessity great or small, and is typical of the Venetian mentality. […] Don’t despair if you can’t find the way to your hotel, or if you’ve left your bag on top of some well. Chance, which has aided the Venetians for almost two thousand years, will surely come to your aid.  Fatalità means that by randomly following another tourist you will arrive at your lost hotel, where perhaps you will find your bag on the porter’s desk. [my translation]

“Fate!” recalls fado, or (as I explained to Li Manshan) the Chinese ming 命… Those terms aren’t part of any such greeting, though in classical Chinese chen 臣 equates with the hackneyed “Ciao!”—itself borrowed from Venetian, and cognate with slave and Slav. Or the English “your humble servant”, mercifully abbreviated from “I trust I shall have the honour to remain your humble servant”, which is of course the correct form of address for foreigners to employ when staggering out of an East End pub at closing time.

Following an arcane exchange in The Times (“Have these people got no Holmes to go to?”—Myles. Mind you, I can’t talk) wherein it is established that Gautier’s Tra la, tra la, la-la-laire is not in fact a reference to the call of the inevitable ubiquitous gondolier, Rod observed in a letter (whose date of 1st April 2016 he assures me is merely coincidental):

The traditional gondolier’s cry (especially when rounding blind corners in canals) is “O-i!” This is also sometimes used by the inhabitants of the city as a jocular greeting.

I respectfully submit, m’Lud, that had they gone on to use the honorific form of address, the greeting might have become “O-i vo-i!”, evoking Venice’s Jewish heritage (I’ll spare you my fantasy reconstruction of the temporal and spatial vowel-shift). And given the city’s Turkish connection, I’m also still hoping Rod will further unearth the greeting “Ey-up!” (which, in turn, became the correct form of address when entering a kebab shop in Barnsley). The joys of multiculturalism…

Inspired by Rod’s stimulating review, if you read in the gazette of the imbroglio over the arsenal of contraband artichokes; and if you’ve ever been quarantined after zany scampi and pistachio marzipan in the ghetto, or worn sequined pantaloons to a regatta—actually, even if you haven’t, which (let’s face it) is more likely—then you should tip your imaginary hat to the Venetian language.

Time for another gin.

Daoists and Confucians

In France, spellbound yet again by the Daoists’ performances under the august aegis of the Confucius Institute, who better to cite than the Grand Maître himself:

子在齊闻韶,三月不知肉味,曰:不图為樂之至于斯也。
—《論語·述而》

After Confucius heard the Shao music in the kingdom of Qi, he didn’t notice the taste of meat for three months. He said, “I had no idea that music-making could reach such heights!”
— Analects 7.14.

My comment, precisely 2,534 years later:

鐘注:小子在巴闻道亦是也!
Jones notes: Lil Ol’ Me feels the same on hearing the Way in Paris! [1]

I feel blessed to have found this subject—fieldwork, inspiration, ritual, laughter. And now to take a rocking sextet on tour, all at ease with each other, great mates.

 

[1] 巴: short for Paris 巴黎, not 巴蜀 Sichuan. Or Bali, for that matter.

The whole long dragon 一条龙

To bring this little French tour to fruition has involved a lot of work. A long chain of people has made it possible, from the Cini people in Venice (2012) and Thomas Roetting in Leipzig (2013) to Adeline Herrou and Hélène Bloch at Nanterre, the brilliant Yan Lu of the Nanterre Confucius Institute, Kersten Zhang our able fixer in Beijing, the Clermont-Ferrand CI team, Nicolas Prevot, the Centre Mandapa, and Li Bin in Yanggao.

Indeed, the roots of our tours, and my whole project on the Li family, go right back to Chen Kexiu’s early research and the 1990 trip to Beijing led by Li Qing.

Again, with the Li band we riff on “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China”:

(me:) Without Chen Kexiu there would be no Steve-and-the-Li-band
(Li Bin:) Without Steve  there would be no Li band tours
(me:) Without the Li band there would be no Steve

As I observed (my book, p.339):

The audiences go wild, their faces rapt; I love the feeling of turning on audiences to this music that has enchanted me for so many years. Our hosts always latch onto how very special this tour is.

Yan Lu prepared one of the most detailed schedules I’ve ever had in four decades of orchestral touring. And I love it when we’ve done all possible preparation, and then just naturally come together in haste, improvising to make the little details work, carried along on a wave of enthusiasm.

The Daoists fit into it all and always put on an amazing show night after night, so that we and everyone, dazzled by their brilliance, see that it’s all been worthwhile.

Still, all this is merely an occasional interlude for them: their daily “rice-bowl” remains performing rituals for their local community in the Yanggao countryside.

The Li band in France: notes

It’s worth rounding off these vignettes of the Li family on tour with some of my daily notes, as a little contribution to the ethnography of one, um, caravanserai on the global bazaar—and also as a further illustration that Daoists are Real People, not mere Faceless Paragons of Ancient Wisdom.

18th May
After a long journey from Yanggao via Beijing, the Daoists reach our hotel at 7.30am. Alas, despite my blandishments at the desk, they have to wait all morning for their rooms to become available, but I catch up with them as they rest on sofas in the foyer, letting Li Manshan sleep in my little room.

I take Li Bin, Golden Noble, Erqing, and Wang Ding round the corner to Rue de Rome, helping spendthrift Li Bin buy a preliminary round of gifts for his guanxi network back home: he asks me to help him choose four bottles of olive oil and ten bottles of vin rouge. Confessing my ignorance, I try to muster a little bon goût. He wants to splash out on more posh bottles, but I choose vin pretty ordinaire, trying vainly to control his reckless spending.

A friend of Erqing has even asked him to buy him a particular vintage of Château Lafite. I tell him to forget it. Still, imagine—twenty years ago the average annual income for a Yanggao peasant was still only around £100.

We do splash out on an adapter, though. This has become a touring ritual, since they never bring the ones we have bought on previous trips. They keep it very busy with recharging their mobiles and i-pods.

At midday we go round the corner to Rue Budapest for Sichuan noodles. They drink Erguotou liquor. We chuckle over our hosts’ quirky arrangement over expenses: 20 kuai each per meal for them, a mere 15 kuai for me. This causes much mirth: do I get less because I’m too fat?! After lunch, after a meeting with Teacher Wang, now abbreviated to “hold meeting” (kaihui), their rooms are available—three doubles (sociable types that they are, they wouldn’t even want singles).

It’s so great to be on tour with a brilliant sextet who have been doing rituals together for thirty years, and who are now in the rhythm of touring abroad too. Li Manshan is a wise laissez-faire (wuwei?!) leader, Li Bin an able fixer, Golden Noble and Wu Mei best mates, and Erqing and Wang Ding are cool too. We slot into our secret language, always laughing, dusting off old stories, devising new takes.

At 6pm our hosts Adeline Herrou and Yan Lu, with her assistant Alessandra, come to our hotel to guide us to the conference banquet. Arriving a bit late in a downpour, we are fortunately siphoned off to another quieter restaurant nearby so we can get to know our hosts in peace. Yan Lu is géniale, petite, full of joi de vivre. We give her our favourite ritual couplet written by Li Manshan, and local dried apricots from Yanggao. It’s been a long first day (and their travel from Yanggao itself took nearly 24 hours before that), but after taking the metro home, Li Manshan and I have our usual sweet chat outside the hotel.

19th May
We have a good breakfast; they eat plenty of everything, with lashings of coffee. I no longer have to help—they’re even experts with the egg-boiling contraption.

I end up in Golden Noble and Wu Mei’s room, where we have a nice chat. I mention the Wang family Daoists of Shuozhou just southwest of Yanggao. Wu Mei knows Wang Junxi’s guanzi-playing and likes it, having seen his videos online; he has appeared in a secular show with them, but there was nothing much for them to talk about!

Now that my film and book are out, we can relax without my constant pedantic questions. But I’m always in fieldwork mode—I just can’t help taking notes. Li Manshan tells me more about the Temple of the God Palace in the southeast of his village—site of the original settlement Dazhaizhai 大寨寨.

53 GN and WM amused cropped

Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Golden Noble and Wu Mei amused by my notebook, 2011.

The Daoists busy themselves preparing for our first gig at the Nanterre conference: while Li Bin packs all the stuff to take, Golden Noble checks their sheng mouth-organs, Wu Mei works on his reeds. Their rooms are scattered with the debris of touring: shavers, battery chargers, mobiles, i-pods, cymbals, a solder (to tune their sheng), fags, pot noodles just in case, gifts of dried apricots…

We take the train to Nanterre, and after a canteen lunch the splendid Hélène Bloch takes us on a reccy of our pre-concert route to and through La ferme du bonheur circus on campus—it’s just like being back in Yanggao, as it really is a farm, with sheep, a peacock, and lovely laidback warm people. I dream of running away to join the circus; there’s a new release of La strada just out. The peacock displays for Li Manshan but not for me, a typical show of xenophilia (chongyang meiwai)!

edf

La ferme du bonheur. Photo: Hélène Bloch.

After my film screening, the Daoists are waiting outside to lead the audience through the campus to the farm, where we all take a tea-break, and then to the concert hall.

The hall is small, but the gig is amazing, as always. Our encore of the Mantra to the Three Generations, with me joining in, goes well.

As Ian Johnson observes in his book The souls of China (pp.37–40), the progression of the Li band to minor international celebrity has been a gradual process, from Chen Kexiu’s research to the 1990 Beijing festival, through to our foreign tours (cf. my book, ch.18).

For what it’s worth, such northern ritual styles do perhaps lend themselves better to the concert format than many southern Daoist groups, the entrancing wind ensemble supplementing the vocal liturgy and percussion.

We take the train back to our hotel, then go for supper. Li Manshan has given me two bottles of lethal Fenjiu white spirit from Shanxi, which we (all except him—he’s not a drinker) polish off with our meal. I’m TP again. I stagger back to my room to take stock, then around midnight Li Manshan knocks on my door for another “meeting” outside. First we gravitate to my bathroom for me to explain how the taps work, and he tells me his story about a Chinese guy who brought back the hotel soap as a present, and his mate says “Uurgh, this foreign white chocolate tastes disgusting!”.

We adjourn outside for more jokes, and fond reminiscences of Li Qing. As always, our most intimate moments are late at night, tranquil, alone together. These tours just get better and better. Yan Lu and all our hosts love this, and so do we.

My two rules for when the time has come to leave China:
1) when I begin to enjoy drinking baijiu white spirit;
2) when I begin to like Chinese pop.

In the old days such tours were inevitably accompanied by a gaggle of superfluous apparatchiks on a freebie trip abroad. Now the Daoists have their own private passports, and I look after them on my own.

It’s also amazing how much Chinese food abroad has improved over the last couple of decades. “Long gone are the days when” we have to endure sweet-and-sour pork—though even that has a certain nostalgia for me. With a busy schedule, and several good Chinese restaurants on our doorstep, I feel no great need to educate the Daoists in the richesses of French cuisine.

20th May Saturday
By 5am I’m chatting with Li Manshan again outside the hotel over a fag. After a quick breakfast we all take the new line 14 to Gare de Lyon. Streetwise Erqing is useful on the metro, noticing our route, watching out for signs—I no longer need to marshall them so closely, but the spectre of losing a national treasure in New York in 2009 still haunts me.

SanskritWe’re in plenty of time for the 8.59 to Clermont-Ferrand—whose Chinese name Kelaimeng Feilang, preceded by Aofoni (Auvergne) reminds me of one of the Li band’s pseudo-Sanskrit codas, such as the one at the end of the hymn Diverse and Nameless!

I go off with Li Bin to buy lunch for the band to eat on the train.

The lunch-pack of Notre Dame

(How could I resist? Just in case you’re not familiar with this one, it’s the answer to “What’s wrapped in cellophane and goes DONG?”)

Wu Mei and Li Manshan soon nod off, the latter tapping out drum rhythms even in his sleep. Later as I try to photo him chatting with Golden Noble, he tries to mess up my photo with his smelly sock.

They get excited seeing a field. To me it’s just a field. Wisely, they’ve long given up asking me technical questions about European agriculture. Golden Noble and Wu Mei have a beautiful chat—relaxed, thoughtful.

Our train is late, but hey. Valérie Bey-Smith and Wu Yunfeng, our keen Confucian hosts, meet us on the platform. Clermont-Ferrand feels pleasantly remote and eccentric—a bit like one of those Hunan mountain towns (where I’ve never been, BTW). We make hasty preparations for the gig in the conservatoire. After intros from the Confucius Institute and the Chinese consul in Lyon, my talk goes fine, with Valérie translating for me. I’m getting better at this. The gig is great—the audience goes wild.

The concerts only last an hour, but the Daoists are soaked in sweat. Still, it’s no big deal compared to their long rituals in Yanggao. The two sheng players, little trumpeted, have to work especially hard. In the trick sequence, even the way Erqing stays still for Wu Mei to slot the bell of his curved trumpet onto the pipe and then at once starts twirling it, playing all the while, is virtuosic. Wu Mei sometimes gets in a bit of trouble balancing the cymbal on his head, or the false eyes (walnut shells) coming loose, which all adds to the excitement—I observe to him that such little hitches should be a deliberate part of his routine, so as to show the audience how difficult it is, and keep them on edge.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Nanterre. Photo: Nathalie Béchet.

CF congratulations

Congratulations from the Chinese Consulate General in Lyon.

I get the usual erroneous compliments from the Chinese about me “discovering” them, and about the Chinese not knowing their own culture. OK, urban educated Chinese may not (I’m no great authority on Morris dancing either), but there has long been a wealth of research from native scholars, which is ongoing; and The Plain People of Yanggao have always been perfectly clear about their local Daoist culture.

CF group

After a nice meal with our hosts and innocent young students, they take us for a little tour of town, but we’re all completely knackered, and soon retire to our quaint hotel—next to the Hotel Ravel, I note.

Valérie, like our other hosts, is understandably ému (not Emu, or Rod Hull).

21st May Sunday
Up again by 5, I take a little stroll near our hotel with the band, admiring the market, and the murals on the wall next door.

murals CF.jpg

In a nearby square we find five little posts, correctly arranged for a bonsai Hoisting the Pennant ritual (my film, from 44.21) on a future fantasy visit of Li Manshan’s 5-year-old grandson and his schoolmates.

CF posts

Doing daily travel with a gig is tough—but like my former orchestral life, it incites camaraderie. Our previous tours have been less frantic, but this one is pleasantly condensed.

Jpeg

The touring life. Photo: Wu Yunfeng.

Valérie and Teacher Wu take us to the station, with thoughtful gifts of Gitanes (!) and food for the train. We were also happy to receive Clermont-Ferrand Confucius Institute umbrellas.

Jpeg

Valérie sees us off on the train.

The train ride is fun again. It’s much faster today, so we arrive early at midday, and take the metro to find the Centre Mandapa, a splendid venue for world music since 1978, led by the splendid Milena Salvini.

With Mandapa technician Milou we try out my film for a most successful screening; my intro goes well, and at the end Li Manshan and I take a bow. The Daoists love watching our film too.

It’s a lovely little area, so we have plenty of time to relax. They find the amazing antique emporium over the road. A succession of beggars ask us for fags, which they give gladly. Intriguingly, the Centre Mandapa is also right opposite the 1913 church of the Antoinist cult:

Deviation

The state stance on “heterodox cults”? Photo: Stephen Jones.

We set up the stage during a tea-break for the audience, then the Daoists do yet another amazing gig. Though it’s a small room, my fears that the concert will be deafening turn out to be unjustified—it’s a great acoustic. I join them again for the encore.

It’s always good to see friends at our concerts. Several Shanxi people introduce themselves, excited to find the band performing in France; and today fine scholars like Jacques Pimpaneau, Robin Ruizendaal, François Picard, and Nicolas Prevot come along too.

One cultural difference: after a gig, sure we all want to get away, but the Daoists only drink with food, not before or after (usually), whereas we WAM musos make a beeline for the pub as soon as we have taken our final bow.

Our secret language (“black talk” heihua) is as arcane as ever, with all our inside jokes. Recalling a filthy joke that Guicheng told at a hotel party in Leipzig, I only have to say “Can you sew this up for me?” for Li Bin to burst out laughing (I can’t possibly tell you that one). We giggle again at Tian Qing’s “Eat a young monk” joke.

22nd May
We have a free day at last before the Daoists’ evening flight home. Last night Old Lord Li had a bath, slept till 1am, watched TV, slept again, and got a call from a family in Pansi village to determine the date for a funeral, so he was up before 4. Meeting up at 5 yet again, I take him to the bar down the road, where Tweety McTangerine comes on TV—Li Manshan hasn’t even heard of him, how enviable! Back to my room together to read Yan Lu’s draft article on the Nanterre events.

Li Manshan calls the Pansi family again at 6am. It’s a village that he likes best, and they most trust him. Then we have a good breakfast.

We stroll down together past the Opéra to the amazing Chinese department of Galeries Lafayette, brilliantly rendered as Laofoye (“Old Buddha Elder”). Li Bin and Erqing buy loads of perfume (“Hey guys, how many lovers have you got?!”)

Laofoye

Later Li Manshan and I buy toys for his young grandson: a trumpet and maracas, to go with the, um, Ming-dynasty instruments I bought him before.

We store our luggage and go for lunch, washed down by Leffe. Old Lord Li is drumming on his chopsticks again. Delightful mood over lunch, as always—everyone chipping in with stories, jokes, reflections. Over delicious Yuxiang qiezi, I ask Li Manshan if he has an aubergine tree. Often the subject turns to their hymns, as well as the Zouma suite and funky Yellow Dragon percussion piece, and the whole calibration of the trick sequence—how to improve them, tempi, and so on.

They rest on sofas at the hotel, and I film Li Manshan telling another sh-sh-sh-shikuaiqian joke.

Notre Dame

Later we take line 14 to Châtelet, and wander round the little islands. I choose different flavours of Bertillon ice-cream on Île de la Cité for them. After a little guided tour of Notre Dame, we return home for a quick supper of  noodles and beer before Adeline and Yan Lu arrive, Lu thoughtfully giving them posh French chocolates. I have to go off to catch the last train back to London, but their taxi for the airport arrives early, so I can wave them off after all, but it’s a hasty parting.

If it’s a quick hop back home to London for me, their journey was not so simple:

22nd: 23.20 flight from CDG to Beijing,
23rd: landing at 15.20, 21.40 train from Beijing station,
24th: arriving in Yanggao at 03.44! But both Li Manshan and Li Bin had to rush off almost immediately to attend to village clients.

I’ve been out of love with Paris for a while; the romantic image is hard to square with its gritty realities (rather like China, perhaps?). But this trip with the Li band naturally made me fall in love with it again. In this supposedly homogenised age—as with other cities like Leipzig, VeniceSeville, or Lisbon—we must delight in Parisian culture too!

After Daoist music in France, try Andean music in Japan

As I write these notes up, Haitink conducting Mahler 9 comes on Radio 3, live from the Barbican; and then next evening, another live broadcast of Turangalîla! Perfect. I hear echoes of the Li family rituals in both: all the contrasts of monumental tutti and intimate chamber styles that we find in a Daoist ritual. But that’s just me… If only Messaien were still around to hear the Li family in Paris!

Posted at 5am to commemorate daily sessions with Old Lord Li.

Vignettes 3: Golden Noble

IMG_2253_2

Golden Noble at the soul hall, with conch and flag.

Another indispensable member of Li Manshan’s band is Golden Noble (Jingui, formal name Zhang Shiyu, b.1968).

He is son of Li Qing’s younger sister—so though he is twenty-two years Li Manshan’s junior, they are considered the same generation. Born and raised in Houying village just southwest, he began to learn ritual with Li Qing at the age of twenty-one sui in 1988 after graduating from senior secondary, biking over daily to Upper Liangyuan to study with Li Qing. He has become an outstanding ritual specialist, with a fine voice—his intimate solo recitation of the Invitation verses is so beautiful that Li Manshan always lets him do it. What concert audiences might not realize is that when not required for the vocals, he’s also a fine sheng player. I have come to value him very much.

Li Qing taught both Golden Noble and Li Bin to determine the date, and they decorate coffins too. Wu Mei, being unrelated, wasn’t taught all that solo business.

With his lively interest in ritual, Golden Noble recorded rare vocal items sung by senior Daoist Kang Ren not long before his death in 2010, and he has kept some precious additional notations of Li Qing that he copied.

LMS JG on train

With Li Manshan on the train.

In France he was good-natured as ever. On tour our concert version of the Invitation ritual is highly condensed; for village rituals, of the twenty verses of “Vowing with hearts at one we Invite” he generally chooses around five, and in concert only three. After the rather long first concert I joked with him that he had sung all twenty! I also noted that he sometimes only went up to top do, whereas usually he descends from a high mi—he’s not even aware of this, which shows how focused he is on delivering the text.

CF Invitation

Golden Noble leads the Invitation, Clermont-Ferrand.

Depping with master singers

Just home from Paris after an unforgettable time with the Li family Daoists. It already seems like a dream.

Nanterre encore

Our encore, Centre Mandapa. Photo: Nicolas Prevot.

As an encore [English term—Ed. When in France say bis!] I joined in with the Li band, singing the Mantra to the Three Generations a cappella (audio playlist track 3, cf. 2001 version, track 2: commentary here).

For anyone fortunate enough to do fieldwork on Daoist ritual, I thought this might remind us of the benefits (indeed the very possibility) of participant observation; but it was also an opportunity for me to keep my hand in after a year apart from the Daoists. Having remoulded the proverb “Mr Li wearing Mr Zhang’s hat”, I enjoy refuting another popular one, “The monk from outside knows how to recite the scriptures” (wailaide heshang hui nianjing 外来的和尚会念经).

Long schooled by accompanying Mark Padmore and the Monteverdi Choir on my violin, I now have to set aside my instinct to invest words with meaning, instead trying to latch onto the lugubrious timbre of the voices of Li Manshan and Golden Noble, and Wu Mei’s guanzi. Li Manshan’s bushy eyebrows are a useful image here.

During rituals, when we sing a cappella hymns we stand in two rows of three, facing each other across the altar table. So usually I’m either playing small cymbals over the other side from Wu Mei, or playing gong at the other end. But this time I found myself standing right next to him and Golden Noble for the encore, with Li Bin (also brilliant) on my right, all of them subtly supporting me. I realised Wu Mei is not only one of the greatest wind players in the world and a brilliant player of the bo cymbals, but (like Li Manshan and Golden Noble) a fantastic singer too. Not just his nasal timbre and the projection of his voice, but the taste of his choices—where to inject extra volume and fervour, rise up high, or put in a tiny variation. Listening carefully to each other as always, dovetailing, with subtle “rules” about where to take a breath and where to sustain. There’s much more to their singing than meets the ear—the texts of the a cappella hymns are rendered with great intensity and concentration.

Over fags outside the hotel we had worked out an edited version of the Mantra, segueing smoothly from the end of the 1st verse directly into the coda of the 3rd verse. With a very subtle accelerando, its exuberant repeated final couplet begins from a high do the first time, soaring to an exuberant high mi on the repeat:

Vowing this evening to attend the ritual assembly,
Leading the deceased spirits to ascend upwards towards the Southern Palace!

We noted a nice pun, glossing “ritual assembly” (fahui) as “French concert” (Faguo yinyuehui)—the extra characters to be recited silently (monian), like a secret formula. Li Manshan congratulates me again on my silent recitation—”The only thing you’ve learned properly, Steve!”

In rituals back home they don’t always give their all, but on tour, wanting to put on a good show, they are magnificent. Standing in with the Li band—whether at a Paris concert or at a Yanggao funeral—is one of the great musical experiences of my life, “and I’ve had a few in my time I can tell you” (take your pick—Christmas Oratorio in Weimar, B Minor Mass in the Barbican after a tour of Japan, and so on…).

After all my tedious academic questions, being right in the middle of the action with these master Daoists (not “musicians”!) is overwhelming for me. Li Manshan, Golden Noble, and Wu Mei are right on my case. There are no passengers—Erqing and Wang Ding (Li Manshan’s pupil, a welcome new recruit to our touring band) are great too. Focusing on the vocal ensemble, surrounded by Li Manshan’s sparse and subtle drum patterns, the regular crotchet beat of the gong, and quavers on the bell, I also have to remember where to beat out the occasional syncopated cadences on the small cymbals with Li Manshan’s drum accents.

It reminds me of my occasional depping with them in Yanggao for funeral segments (my book, pp.325–6) when they’re one short—waiting on the substitutes’ bench. It also has a disturbing echo of my orchestral experience—that’s another depressingly familiar phone-call from orchestral fixers,

“Can you come and do a Messiah next Tuesday in Barnsley? I’ve tried everyone, we’re absolutely desperate!”

Thanks a lot…

Our chats turned to the singing of the revered older generation of Li Qing and his colleagues. Li Zengguang was admired as a vocal liturgist; Li Qing’s own voice declined somewhat with age. Some had fine voices but less mastery of the texts; other masters who knew all the texts perfectly were somewhat variable in intonation and vocal ability. Apart from their astounding instrumental ensemble, I doubt if there’s ever been a more brilliant vocal group than the present band under Li Manshan, working together almost daily for thirty years.

The Li family Daoists in France

Paris gig poster

First concert yesterday on our mini-tour of France, our fifth foreign trip since 2005. Not least, we haven’t seen each other for a year, so it’s great for us to catch up.

After a procession leading the audience through the circus ground on campus at Nanterre, the gig was unforgettable—profound and exhilarating. The audience went wild, and I’m proud for them. They’re right up there with Bird and Dizzy’s band; or with a senior string quartet who have been working together for decades, playing the Heilige Dankgesang on long tours, constantly delving deeper into the inner meaning.

Living the reclusive life that I do, this sudden lurch into serving as their minder, roadie, and stage manager is an invigorating shock to the system. They appreciate all my work—but since I always depend on them when I’m in Yanggao, it’s great for me to able to repay them a bit by looking after them for a change.

In my book (p.335) I wrote about our foreign tours:

Once we’re on the road, looking after the Daoists is an infinitely rewarding full-time job for me. Between sorting out daily logistics with our hosts, shepherding the Daoists round airports, stations, hotels, and restaurants, explaining how things work (showers, coffee machines, and so on), interpreting, helping them buy souvenirs, and keeping everyone in good spirits, I manage to find time to ask further questions about their life stories and rituals. Apart from working as their roadie, I enjoy being stage manager too. Li Manshan observes that they all want to do good concerts for my sake, so I won’t “lose face”; but they take pride in the gigs for themselves, irrespective of my pedantic concert professionalism. Elsewhere I note their high standards back home despite the careless attitudes of their village patrons, and here too they really care about adapting to the demands of a concert. We constantly discuss how to refine their stage presentation, and they get more polished at taking their final bows.

If course one of the insights in spending time in the ”natural habitat” of their home environment is to reveal their humanity. But touring, outside the narrow field laboratory, further helps me relate them to the hubbub of the global bazaar.

They’ve brought me a couple of bottles of Fenjiu “white spirit” from Shanxi, so after our gig we all polished them off over a convivial meal. At midnight Li Manshan knocked on my door and we ended up sharing loads more stories, “having a meeting with Teacher Wang”, and fondly recalling Li Qing, reflecting on this whole amazing story since my first visit in 1991.

Back in Paris tomorrow for our last gig at the Centre Mandapa (see Upcoming Events in sidebar)—for anyone at all nearby, not to be missed!!!