Krishnamurti

K 1972
Krishnamurti, 1972. Photo: Mary Zimbalist.

As you gather from my post on Gurdjieff, these days I take my gurus with a hefty pinch of salt. But if I were in the mood for such inspiration, Krishnamurti is exemplary, precisely because he reminds us not to depend on gurus like him.

Krishnamurti (1895–1986) was “discovered” by Charles Webster Leadbeater in 1909 on the grounds of the Theosophical Society in Madras, where his father was working. Leadbeater and Annie Besant, the other leader of the society, believed him to be a “vehicle” for an expected World Teacher, and he was raised under their tutelage. He went on to develop a strong bond with Annie Besant.

K 1911
Krishnamurti in England in 1911 with his brother Nitya and the Theosophists Annie Besant and George Arundale. Source: wiki.

In 1911 they founded the Order of the Star of the East to prepare for Krishnamurti’s appearance, and he was taken to England to further his education. After World War One he began giving lectures around the world. In 1922 he spent time with his brother in Ojai Valley, California, where he was less supervised. His brother died there in 1925, and his disillusion with the Theosophical Society grew, until in 1929 he dissolved the Order (part of his speech can be seen here).

I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organised; nor should any organisation be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. […] This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.

I suppose Krishnamurti could now have settled down to wait tables quietly at a diner in LA, but there is no contradiction in his inner compulsion to share “the teachings”. Still, despite his insight that people didn’t need to follow gurus, his legion of ardent followers continued to grow.

From 1930 through 1944, based in Ojai, he engaged in speaking tours around the world, and publishing companies dedicated to promoting his thoughts were established. In 1938 he met Aldous Huxley, with whom he had a lasting friendship. Other renowned followers included J.D. Salinger and Alan Watts. He engaged in public dialogues with scientists (notably the physicist David Bohm) and psychotherapists. His later years coincided with the whole counter-cultural interest in the liberation of the mind; in jazz, Yusuf Lateef introduced John Coltrane to Krishnamurti’s thinking. Since his death, with more pressing concerns over political freedoms, the vogue has subsided somewhat.

Krishnamurti founded five schools in India, one in California, and Brockwood Park School in England. There are four official foundations. Of hundreds of talks on the YouTube channel dedicated to him, this makes a good introduction:

Putting away everything said about religion:

Do not accept spiritual authority:

His thoughts don’t always seem to age well, such as his reply to “Is there no place in your teachings to fight injustice?”. The Daoist and Zen masters expressed this liberation more succinctly, and with more humour; so, indeed, did Monty Python in The life of Brian—to the clip at the end of this post, we might add:

But Krishnamurti’s wisdom continues to inspire.

The tanners of Zeytinburnu

Z cover

Following our visit to the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul [1] to seek the wisdom of a senior Bektashi couple, I’ve been admiring

It’s published in a bilingual edition, lavishly illustrated, with chapters on the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, holy springs and churches, lodges and mosques, the walls, health institutions, economy and demographics, and leisure.

Zeytinburnu map

I find the exemplary diachronic ethnography of the tanneries particularly impressive (cf. the cinematic climax of Jason Goodwin’s novel The Janissary tree), in the chapter on the Kazlıçeşme quarter (pp.100–153). I suppose I’m drawn to it partly by my interest in the changing social role, and technical expertise, of low-status craftsmen in China—including household Daoists, ritual artisans, coffin-bearers and grave-diggers.

In the 15th century, under Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, 360 tanneries were constructed in Kazlıçeşme. The great 17th-century ethnographer Evliya Çelebi described the scene:
(here and in other citations below I’ve revamped the somewhat unwieldy English translation, attempting—not necessarily reliably—to make it more reader-friendly, while inevitably sacrificing the nuance of the original)

In the Byzantine era, people coming from plague-afflicted regions could not enter Istanbul before staying at Yedikule [Kazlıçeşme] for seven days; this was called nazarta (quarantine). After the conquest, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror resettled all the tanners and slaughterhouses to this region.

[Kazlıçeşme] is a developed town by the seaside. It has one large and seven small mosques, one inn, one bath, seven fountains, and three lodges. It has three hundred tannery shops, fifty glue workshops, and seventy string workshops. But few of the inhabitants are married; it is a bazaar of bachelors. During wartime, the town can mobilise five thousand strong tanner bachelors who are tough as iron and very courageous.

People who are not used to the foul smell of this town couldn’t tolerate it even for one moment. But for the inhabitants that smell is like musk and ambergris; they don’t like it when people who put on musk approach them. They treat others with respect and honour. They have abundant property. Their spiritual master, the late Ahi Evran, asked a caliph who was passing by with his skirt filled, “What’s that in your skirt?” He replied: “It’s kuruş (piasters, coins).” But he was actually carrying dog faeces—he gave this answer out of shame. Ahi Evran even recited prayers saying, “May Allah bestow blessings on your goods and supplies”. Thanks to such auspicious prayers, the trade of the leather workers has been prosperous, and they are always generous in treating others. Moreover, a leather trader called Hadji Ali had worked with dog faeces for forty years, and the English infidels wanted to buy his supply for forty thousand kuruş but failed to do so. This is a famous story.

A vivid image known beyond the town is the relief of a goose under the arch of a fountain, carved in white marble by a master craftsman. It’s indescribable in words; when people see it they think it’s alive. Hence the name Kazlıçeşme, Goose Fountain.

Goose relief

Source: wiki.

In another account, Evliya Çelebi surveys the trade over the wider city:

Evliya 1

Evliya 2

In that last paragraph, note the reference to the furriers on parade with their own Janissary band!  Among other guild parades that Evliya Çelebi documents are those of sable merchants, falconers, leopard- and lion-keepers, barbers, and acrobats (see e.g. Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, eds, An Ottoman traveller, pp.24–30).

The book goes on:

People who had committed a serious crime sought refuge in one of the tanneries at Kazlıçeşme, working there so as to evade conviction and rid themselves of state prosecution. Since the tanneries faced difficulties in finding workers, they took the risk of providing patronage to criminals. Around the 1720s, this state of affairs passed to kadi registers, and the state took active measures against the brigands who had converged at Kazlıçeşme. The names of the enterprises and the workers operating in the area were recorded in an effort to stop the brigands linking up again.

123

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the founding of the Republic, the tanneries were modernised in the 1920s. The chapter gives a list of seventeen factories, as well as a further ninety-six workshops. Besides Muslim Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were prominent in the trade.

106

Some tanneries were still operating in the early 1990s. We read fascinating interviews with elderly workers. Saim Çetintaşoğlu (b.1932) gave a vivid account:

The gate of Kazli’s bath was next to the house where I was born. I used this bath a lot during my childhood, so I recall it very well. Its basins and even floors were covered with marble. At the place where the carpenter Nayır brothers make cupboards for leather tradesmen were the changing room and cooling room. In the boiler room, the water was boiled in a square boiler, using leather remnants and cobs instead of wood or charcoal. There was a heavy odour everywhere. The boiler that opens to the cross street was named Çıkmaz Sokak (blind alley) after this. In 1950s Münir Altıer rented the bath and turned it into a tannery. When he died, the bath passed to metal workers, who have been doing casting work ever since then, such as Kaplan Deri and Kemal Kurban.

Bath-keeper Srap Zehra, the bath employees, and Osman the Cook used to live in this building. Opposite, where the tanneries are located today, lived Artaki, who provided the tanners with egg white, egg yolk, and cattle’s blood for polishing purposes. Kazlıçeşme’s headman, the blacksmith Cezmi Öztemir, lived there too. In the building of Faik Cihanoğlu lived charcoal seller Mustafa and Murat Gökçiğdem, imam of the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa mosque. The two-storey wooden house on the opposite corner was inhabited by Süleyman Effendi, owner of the Safa bar-restaurant at Yedikule.

Sara nightclub occupied an important place in the lives of the Kazli tradesmen. In the evenings, tanners used to go drinking there. Bahçeli restaurant, run by Pehlivan İbrahim, which one reached by climbing down a staircase near the Castle Gate, was famous as a venue frequented by tanners for drinks. Quarrels caused by the drunkards were settled at the gate of the military police to the right of the Castle Gate. Women, drinks, and insults were indispensable passions of tanners. Those who couldn’t help having a drink during working hours in the daytime stopped by Arap Şevket’s Kazliici bar.

At the site of Celil Tanatar, at the entrance to Karakol Street, was the stable of “everyone’s uncle”, the “walking bank” Abdürrahim Gezer, who was the backer of everyone at Kazli. Gezer owned two horses, one black and one white, and a fine phaeton. Originally working in the pumping business, Uncle Gezer was a benevolent Kazli property owner, an exceptional personality who had grown up among Greek rowdies and enjoyed giving money to people in need. Fifty years ago, the carts went about their work and phaetons carried passengers, bringing women to the Kazli baths from Samatya and Bakırköy. Unlike today, the passage through Demirhane Avenue was easy.

Kazlıçeşme, 1986.

Proceeding along Demirhane Avenue, on the site of Bekir Uyguner we come to two-storey wooden terrace houses. I lived on this terrace together with my father. Next door was Kirkor’s repair-house, and next to that was the three-part casting and lathing maintenance house belonging to Kazli’s backer Rami Bey. And on the site of the present Derimko was a two-storey white wooden house belonging to Kumcu (Sand-seller) Mustafa. In the red-brick house on the site of Hayati’s tannery at the beginning of Yeni Tabakhane Street resided Mustafa Ulus, the oldest and the best known machinery manufacturer. Here the houses ended and the stout-leather factory belonging to Kamhis began at the site of Alber Beresi.

Demirhane Avenue used to end at the factory of Alekos Dulos, which extended as far as Genc Osman Avenue. Because the coast road wasn’t yet built, there was no entry to Kazli through Genc Osman. The passage was made via Yedikule Gate, and one approached Demirhane between cemeteries. To the right of Demirhane Avenue was a spinning mill run by the British; in its garden was a large pool, with water channels. There were about twenty workers’ houses in a field full of trees. From this field one could get to the Kazli train station, which was in the form of a shed. At the site of Ümit Soytürk lived Muhittin Aga.

Mustafa Ulus and Dokumacılar Inn was the vegetable garden of Hüseyin Aga and Ayşe Hanım, where delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and parsley were grown. When her husband died, Ayşe Hanım sold the place to the Çengiçs and bought a four-floor apartment block at Aksaray with the proceeds; the Çengiçs constructed an inn in the garden and rented out rooms to textile workers.

Near the mausoleum of Derya Ali Baba (who endowed all his property to the leather tradesmen and was probably the oldest leather tradesman in Kazlıçeşme) was the Guild Coffee-shop, which passed by inheritance from him down to us. One climbed up to it by two staircases, and people sat on berths around the walls. The administrative room of the association was entered via the coffee-shop, and its affairs were conducted at the back of the mausoleum. Beside the room, under black fig trees was the garden of the association. Later, a cookhouse was opened for the garden workers, run by the late Ahmet Ahmet İşbilen. During the tenure of Cezmi Öztemir the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down and a building was constructed in its place; the first floor was rented to Yapı Kredi Bank, while the upper floor was allocated to the association. In this way, the mausoleum area was invigorated.

Beyond the Guild Coffee-shop were restaurants, the Kazli Bakery, the porters’ coffee-shop, the cartwrights’ coffee-shop, and the restaurant of Cemil the Cook. Next to Mumhane [Wax-house] cul-de-sac were Greengrocer Hüsamettin’s father Hadji Mustafa’s restaurant, Zemci the Butcher, coffee-maker Acem Şaban, and a large recreation area at the back of Kazlıçeşme. Next to that was Acem Süreya’s coffee-shop, with bachelors’ rooms at Taş Han [Stone Inn] above. After becoming Süreya’s son-in-law, Policeman Memduh ran this coffee-shop for many years. Along with Taş Han it was turned into a tannery, with the open space behind the fountain enclosed by a wall. This ancient fountain, which hadn’t failed to supply water to everyone for five centuries, was cast into the middle of the street; still, it hasn’t been offended and continues to function today.

 Opposite Taş Han was a wooden police station, rebuilt before 1950 in stone and brick by the Association of Leather Manufacturers. After the police station were wooden sheds. The Fatih Hotel was constructed much later. Aya Paraskeva on the opposite side faced Müezzin Hasan Street—it wasn’t covered by the Arkadaş Coffee-shop then. No tanneries were yet built in Müezzin Hasan Street. At the entrance of Hadji Mehmet Street was the workplace of Salih Usta the Carpenter, with his house above. Among the habitués of Kazli who were born in this house were Metin and his brother Alaettin, who carried the goods of many Kazli factories to the marketplace. In Hadji Mehmet Pasha Street was a rented property of Mehmet Pasha; when my father and his associate purchased this place, about ten or fifteen families had been lodging there.

The front of the rented property was open, giving access down to the sea from the hill 20 or 30 meters in front of it. The present Salhane Street and Kotra Street had not yet been created in the 1950s. In front of and to the right of the property, beneath oar-level, the seawater was deep blue where people entered the sea. From there, sweet water, like sweetened fruit juice, came to the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha Mosque. whose fountains supplied drinking water with a gurgling sound.

There was a square on the intersection of Müezzin Hasan ve Mosque Şerif. At the site of the present Sezai and Sabahattin Gülsever brothers was a wooden house, and just on the opposite corner was the fishermen’s coffee-shop. On the hill behind the coffee-shop customs officials worked. People went down to the sea by the side of this hut. Boats were pulled onto the sandy beach. Near Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Mosque, at the position of the present Rıza Pedük Factory, was a boathouse where boats were repaired and rowing boats could be protected when the sea was turbulent. In the direction of the fountain square of Camii Şerif Street were the stone-made houses of Greeks who earned their livelihood by fishing. Fifty years ago, the shores of Kazli were not yet polluted [really?—SJ]; an abundance of sea bass, mackerel, lobster, and hermit crab was to be caught. Tasula’s children Koço and Lambo used to go fishing early in the morning, putting their catch into willow-branch baskets and bringing it before Patronlar Kahvesi Tevfik to put on sale. When fish became scarce at Kazli, the famous fisherman Karaçivi and his son Panayot came over to our stout leather factory.

Among the cartwrights of Kazlıçeşme there were famous figures such as the theatre actors Naşit Ziya and Dümbüllü Halil, as well as İsmail Efendi, who made his fortune as a coachman. So that his stout leather wouldn’t get damaged, Fettah Koşar had his items carried in a coach until his death—how can one forget Fettah’s cart, drawn by white horses?

Also with roots in Kazli, our colleagues the leather tradesmen İsmail Ilgaz and Selahattin Ilgaz were born in houses next to the Kara Mustafa Mosque. Towards the fountain at Mosque Şerif, there were Greek houses on the site of the inn of Nusret Canayakın, Zeki Özzengin and Bakkalbasi. Right at the end, on the intersection of Öcal Street, we come to coffee-shop keeper Tevfik’s place, where tradesmen used to gather after the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down. In a sense it became the marketplace (stock exchange) of the leather tradesmen, where raw hides and stout leather were bought and sold. Fettah Koşar used to open the market and dictate the prices of stout leather, and lesser tradesmen would wait for his sales before adjusting their own prices. After business was completed in the mornings, backgammon parties and card-playing contests were held in the afternoons.

At the site of the gas station, opposite Tevfik’s, was the coffee-shop of Acem Dervisih, with tables and chairs placed around, surrounded by half-walls, with people drinking tea and coffee. This was the main stopover for workers and masters. At the back of the coffee-shop, opposite the police station, where Ergun Çelikoğlu now lives, resided Hüseyin the Charcoal Seller. Next to him lived Artin Usta the Cook, while Lambo the Fisherman lived above. Next to them was Koco Usta, the carpenter who made the best cupboards in Kazlıçeşme. Right next door was the workshop of Hasan Usta, then the best lathing master at Kazlıçeşme. Hasan Usta always shaved his head with a razor, walking the streets bald-headed; he had weird ideas, but he was a good master. Bachelor workers used to inhabit the three-storey wooden house on the site of the present premises of Türkiye İs Bank.

At the site of the Eren Depot, reached by following Demirhane Avenue up from Kazli cemetery, was a vegetable garden with a wood. At the site of the present leather tradesman Nezir or Caglar’ın yerinde was the pickaxe- and spade-factory belonging to Hanris. What remains from this factory is a stone wall, stretching all the way along. Further on, in Semsiye Street, were summerhouses and houses overlooking the sea. Kazli’s backer Rahmi Bey and İsmail Efendi the Grocer used to live in this street. The area from here up to Gemalmaz Street, and the places opposite it where Derby Lastik, Kadir Safak ve Hayriş dye-houses are found, were just empty fields belonging to Kör Sıddık the Coachman. Kör Sıddık used to live at the house at the beginning of Gemalmaz Street. Ali Rıza Efendi the Butcher, father of yogurt-maker Halik Efendi, the father of Ergun Celikoğlu, is said to have resided further on. Our colleague Celikoğlu was also born at Kazlıçeşme—his mother still lives here.

The editors supplement this fascinating account with further notes on the locations and characters listed.

127

The oldest tanner the researchers found was Nurettin Keskiniz, whose rather more technical account describes the transformation of the business:

I was born in Yugoslavia in about 1900. Both my grandfather Musa Usta, whom I remember, and my father Ahmet Usta were tanners as well. My grandfather migrated from Leskovca to Kumanovo during [the 18]93 war and practiced tannery there. After the Balkan War they became emigrants for a second time and moved to Skopje. When I was 8 years old, while I was attending the district school, I was going to the tannery. During my holiday periods, I was doing tannery work. This means I’ve been going to the tannery for seventy-six years now; that’s how long I’ve been inhaling the smell. It’s a blessing for us. To some extent, my tanner guests and friends, who’ve been visiting over the last decade since I’ve had problems with my legs and feet, bring me that smell. All tanners carry it with them and exude it.

In 1935, when we immigrated here, Turkey was a poor country, where the rate of unemployment was very high. Production of vileda at Kazlıçeşme was too backward , and there were [only] five or six factories producing it. Because we had come from Yugoslavia as free immigrants, we had brought high-quality vileda and rubber heels with us. I had the chance of selling even these high-quality items. Mahmut Bey had not yet immigrated. Worried about the market conditions of the period, I wrote to him, “Do not disrupt your system. Things are not moving smoothly here. I will return as soon as possible.” He replied, “Assume that I have not read your letter. Drop your plans of returning here. Continue to work at all costs.” Mahmut Bey was a very experienced and far-sighted man who managed to serve as a member of parliament in Yugoslavia. He was older than me. After less than a year, he also migrated with his family to lend me a helping hand. This letter incident was instructive. A few years later, there was a coup in Yugoslavia and the Communist regime was established there.

When we arrived in Turkey, the first thing we did was to rent a shop at Kapalıçarşı, Perdahçılar Avenue. We tried to create capital by selling the goods we brought from Yugoslavia. One year later, we started to dye the tanned leather that we obtained from Anatolia, on the second floor of an inn in the Kapalıçarşı Örücüler (Weavers) Market. At one point we returned to tanning and the business went well. In the meantime, I had been going to Kazlıçeşme, the centre of the leather industry. There I talked with the tanners and did some shopping. I saw that in order to continue in the tannery business, it would be necessary to settle there.

We first rented and then bought the factory building in Çapraz Street from Rahmi Gezer, who was regarded as the mobile bank of Kazlıçeşme and who extended interest-free financial assistance to tanners. When I came to Kazlıçeşme in 1937, there was a small number of Turkish tanneries here: Rasim Gürel, Ahmet İşbilen, the Çengiç brothers, Saraç Hüseyin, Fettah Koşar, Mustafa Kantarlı, İhsan Sarı’s father. Except for the Çengiçs, all of them processed raw leather. They didn’t know about chromium tanning. But we had learned how to do it while in Yugoslavia. We had been producing chromium undercoating material and chromium Moroccan leather. In a sense, we may be regarded as one of the first appliers of chromium tanning in Turkey. Afterwards, the late Tahir Öztemir, father of Cezmi Öztemir, started to process chromium vileda together with Spitzer, one of the German masters. State Railways put out to tender a project for removing fabric-covered train seats and covering them with leather, which was more durable and clean. Luckily, we won the tender and were given the work of covering all the train seats with red and green chromium Moroccan leather.

We thus proved our talents in chromium tanning. In 1944, patent leather was in demand, but only Alecos Dulo’s firm had been processing it. Because we had been processing chromium leather, we transferred Panayot Sani, the master at Alecos Dulo, and began to process patent leather. For us, the most enjoyable years in tanning were the ones spent with the sale of patent leather. In order to buy one reel, the customers used to make a deposit and form queues to buy the goods. Panayot Sani came over and made things difficult for us. In the meantime, Hasan Yelmen began practicing tanning as a chemical engineer. Patent leather was prepared by boiling linseed oil. The first thing we asked Hasan Yelmen to teach us was how to bake patent leather, to rid us of the hegemony of Panayot Sani; after a short while, we succeeded and freed ourselves from him.

Over the following years, production of stout leather increased rapidly and the golden age began. Along with this increase, the number of tanners at Kazlıçeşme went up too. I don’t know who should come first, but I wish to commemorate my friends with this list, most of whom have passed away: [24 names]. These friends of mine used to deal with stout leather production. Among those who used to work in chromium tanning were: [19 names]. These characters sum up the Kazlıçeşme of the 1940s.

Forty years have passed, and we are now in the year 1984. The outlook of Kazlıçeşme has changed almost totally. Some old firms are now represented by their offspring. What I mean by the outlook changing is that there are now more newcomers than seniors. During this transfer, this outlook will be subject to change once more. If God permits us to live longer, I think no-one from the older generation will remain.

117Later we went into partnership with Hasan Yelmen and worked together for thirty years as Nurettin Keskiniz & Hasan Yelmen Co. When Hasan Yelmen stepped in, Panayot Sani, who had been making patent leather, moved back to his place. In those days, we could do chromium baking with the double-bath technique. But Hasan Yelmen managed to obtain better results by applying single-bath chromium baking. After he stepped in, we began to process chromium leather from sheep, designed for jackets. Thus it was we who first launched in Turkey the production of leather for jackets, which is in great demand today and which brings two hundred million USD of foreign earnings to Turkey. This is an important historical account. A Belarusian master tailor named Timochenko began to collect chromium sheepskin from us and sew leather jackets. When making chromium Moroccan leather for the railways, we had been highly skilled in the application of cellulose dye. The jacket material kept people warm, so it was in demand in the winter. Also, thanks to its cellulose finishing, it was water- and rain-proof. After learning how to sew leather jackets while working for Timochenko, Sabri Aykaç and Selahattin Tuncer left the Belarusian tailor. We supported them by providing them with jacket material on credit. Afterwards, Dona da Leon also began to sew leather jackets.

First, drivers and police officers began to wear leather jackets. The centre was established at Karaköy. In particular, the crews of the steamers that docked at the Galata quay were the first serious customers. Later, State Railways awarded the contract for purchasing leather jackets for its staff, and numerous workshops were opened at Karaköy and Mercan for the purpose. Shops were opened at Beyoğlu, where finer leather jackets were sold and this business spread among the people. Then women started wearing leather jackets, coats, and skirts, which constituted the third phase. In the fourth phase we exported leather jackets to foreign countries.

Undoubtedly the most important phase began with the entry of Derimod into leather fashion. Ümit Zaim is part of our family circle because he is the grandson of my partner Mahmut Bey, and the cousin of Hasan Yelmen. I can say that it was we who developed the leather-jacket business, and that Ümit Zaim took it to its peak. I trained many staff, both workmen and masters. Some of those we trained became bosses at Kazlıçeşme: Faik Altıer was one of our masters back in Skopje. After coming to Turkey, Rıza, Halil, Münür Altıer too worked for us. Zekeriya Tabakçı had worked for us in Skopje. Sadettin Toprak and Halil Öztürk were our patent-leather masters. Emin Sez made travels for us. Rıza Pedük worked in the emery-stone trade. I was happy to see all of them becoming bosses.

What a bustling subaltern society these vivid recollections evoke, hinting at the variety of trades centred around the tanning industry—factories, slaughterhouses, glue workshops; carpenters, cartwrights, blacksmiths, charcoal sellers; landlords, rowdies; cooks, fishermen, police posts, steamers, the railways; ambient venues like lodging houses, baths, mosques, coffee-houses, inns, vegetable gardens… 


[1] In recent years, Zeytinburnu has become home to increasing numbers of Uyghurs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang (see e.g. here, and here). Rachel Harris’s studies of the expressive culture of the Uyghurs have expanded to their life in exile there.

Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London

with a homage to Cantonese music and jazz in Soho

RM 2022 for blog

Ray Man at home, 2022.

The splendid Ray Man (文賢慶, b.1937) has been a pillar of the Chinese music scene in the UK since he arrived from Hong Kong in 1956. It’s been many years since we met up, but it was delightful to visit him again recently at his house in Chalk Farm, listening as he recalled the old days with his quirky sense of humour. His story illustrates profound social and musical changes in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China. [1]

Ray’s early life in Hong Kong
Ray was brought up in rural San Tin in the New Territories, just south of Shenzhen (then still a sleepy little town!). The Wen lineage was the dominant clan there. Ray’s early memories are of hiding from the Japanese troops after they invaded Hong Kong in 1941. His father was a seaman who went on to trade rice in Singapore; imprisoned by the Japanese, he was only released when his father-in-law (who had long emigrated to New York) paid a huge ransom. But he lost his business, and after the war it was some time before he could return home; he was now suffering from TB.

HK Fan He
“Work and play”, from the iconic albums of Fan He.

In San Tin living conditions were poor. After the surrender of the Japanese, Ray moved with his mother to Kowloon in 1946, helping her with a little homemade catering enterprise, delivering congee and snacks.

HK Cantonese opera 1950s
Hong Kong club, 1950s. Source.

At the age of 9, while reading a cartoon book in a stairwell, Ray was entranced by hearing a blind busker playing a plaintive melody on yewu [yehu] 椰胡 coconut fiddle. He began frequenting the bustling area around Temple street, [2] where a variety of entertainments could be heard, such as the naamyam ballads sung by teahouse bards. Ray had absorbed Cantonese opera from infancy, perching on his mother’s back at New Year in the village; his older brother was a great fan, so now Ray too went along to clubs to relish the drama. He borrowed a violin (evocatively transcribed as 梵鈴), by then a popular member of the Cantonese ensemble, and picked up yehu and gaohu fiddles, as well as various plucked lutes.

Ray finds his feet in the UK
Following the British Nationality Act of 1948, waves of immigrants arrived in the UK from the Pearl River Delta—mostly male, and single, working in Chinese restaurants (wiki: here and here).

Through his old seafaring connections, Ray’s father, in frail health, reached London in 1955. In late 1956 Ray himself borrowed the princely sum of £165 for his own passage to the UK, boarding a ship with only his violin, Chinese yewu, and banjo; after forty-five days at sea he was less than pleased to find himself having to disembark in Marseilles (cf. Nearly an Italian holiday). Eventually he made his way on to London, finding the new Chinese community in Soho, which, as restaurant work supplanted seafaring, had recently replaced their original base of Limehouse—potent material for the racist fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu (see e.g. here, and here).

Limehouse 1911
Limehouse, 1911.

Musicians from China had performed in 19th-century London, but I haven’t found early evidence of musical life among its small settled Chinese community. In Soho Ray soon observed the gambling habits of Chinatown and acquainted himself with the Chinese Workers’ Association. There he took out his violin to play a little piece of Cantonese music to the old folks sitting around. When they all stopped what they were doing, he too broke off, thinking “I play something wrong?”. Far from it: “Hey, why you stop? Keep going—never hear something like that before!”

Here’s a solo by the celebrated Hong Kong violinist Yin Zizhong 尹自重 (1903–85), from the heyday of Cantonese music:

1956 club for blog
The “London Co-operative Workers’ Association Music Group”, late 1956;
Ray (holding violin) is fourth from right.

Just a few days after arriving in London, Ray was recruited to an ersatz group to be shown on BBC TV, portraying a sanitised image of the London Chinese community—all spruced up in smart suits and ties, a far cry from the drudgery of their real lives. Ray was the youngest, and as he recalls with a chuckle, though apparently the only one in the photo not playing, he was the only real musician in the band—“they no play anything at all!”. When they told him the group was going to appear on television (which indeed was still in its infancy), he asked, “What’s that?!”

As Chinese and Indian restaurants began to provide jaded British palates with a welcome relief from their drab post-war diet, Ray took work where he could find it, mainly as waiter and cook around the north of England—Hull, Manchester, and York; he remembers Bradford as particularly poor.

Back in Hong Kong he had enjoyed the sound of the saxophone in the Cantonese opera ensemble. While working in the first Chinese restaurant in Belfast he paid £165 for his first sax, taking part in jazz bands. He was startled to have to fork out £920 for his second one, paying it off by HP instalments.

After learning to drive in Newcastle in 1957, in Soho Ray spent some time as a driving instructor: “That’s right, I was the first driving instructor—in history!”, he chortles; “All my students were gamblers and gangsters!”. But he managed to avoid being ensnared by the Triad mafia.

Meanwhile Ray’s father was still suffering from the effects of TB, and Ray spent a stressful time finding treatment for him on the impressive new NHS—which enabled him to live until 1998.

A fast learner, Ray was hard-working, easy-going, and popular. Quite soon he had aspirations to become his own boss. By now his mother was living with her father in New York; they encouraged Ray to come and join them there, and he was tempted—not least by the prospect of learning to play jazz on the sax. That would have been a different story altogether (“That would have been a different story”). Instead, his jazz idols came to Soho.

The 1960s: swinging London
By now the Soho jazz scene was beginning to take off. In 1959 Ronnie Scott opened his club in the basement of 39 Gerard street.

Ronnie Scott

Ronnie Scott’s, original venue. Source.

From 1962 Ronnie’s began hosting jazzmen from the USA, working round the ban on overseas musicians. Just up the road was Ray’s restaurant—which itself soon served as an after-hours nightclub for jazzers still on a high, needing to keep jamming after they staggered out of Ronnie’s at 3am. There Ray loved hearing great artists like his idol Ben Webster—here he is with Ronnie in A night in Tunisia (1965, as part of BBC2’s Jazz 625 series):

BTW, Ben Webster took the first solo in Billie Holiday‘s astounding 1957 TV appearance, the all-time most moving jazz video (click here—part of my extensive jazz series)!!!

Billie
Billie entranced by Ben Webster’s playing.

Ray was captivated by the new sound, so very different from the slick commercial pop music of the day. Himself a migrant from a poor rural background, he identified with the way that black people gave voice to their hard life, infused by the blues, “singing from the heart” (as later did Liu Sola, from her very different background). Later, during my time with the band, Ray was bemused and amused by the raised eyebrows of patrons when the splendid Black British percussionist Reggie took part.

Ronnie with KirksOriginal caption (source):
Mrs Edith Kirk smiles at Ronnie Scott as he holds a glass of wine and stands alongside
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, outside Ronnie Scotts’ [sic!] Jazz Club,
39 Gerrard Street, London circa 1963.

Recalling the blind street musicians of his youth in Hong Kong, another jazzer whom Ray much admired was the blind sax player Roland Kirk. Here he is at Ronnie’s in 1964:

Doubtless those early sessions also gave Ray his lasting taste for the “jazz cigarette”. At the same time, he is well aware that trying to make a living from making music is a fraught and insecure life. While unable to transcend mundane concerns (like Henry James!), he is devoted to the amateur ideal of Chinese music, aspiring to the simple life with a kind of detachment that now reminds me of my Daoist master Li Manshan.

One day at the club Ray received a visit from a cheery plainclothes sergeant from Holborn CID. “We’ve been watching you for the last six months, Ray. My partner’s crazy about your place. Enjoy it! Just slip us a hundred quid now and then, there’s a good fellow…”

Opening the shop
By 1967, as the jazz scene was catering to rather more salubrious patrons, Ronnie’s had moved to its present venue in Frith street. Ray lost a lot of money in 1969 with his older brother on an ambitious project to organise “the first professionally-organised, full-length Cantonese opera in London”, but they now managed to set up a takeaway together. In 1972 Ray took on a little restaurant at a prime location in Covent Garden just across from Chinatown, on the corner of Earlham street. He began by selling instruments from a corner of the restaurant, with a display in the window looking onto Shaftesbury avenue. Soon this promised to become a business on its own.

RM shop
Ray’s shop, 1982.

Another guest at Ronnie’s was the versatile jazzman Yusuf Lateef—here he is live in 1966:

Yusuf Lateef’s music often featured oriental instruments such as shawms, flutes, and bells (e.g. Eastern sounds, 1961), and later he used to augment his collection at Ray’s shop. It was he who introduced John Coltrane to Inayat Khan’s book on Sufi music which a mystically-inclined fellow violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me in 1978—just around the time I was playing in Ray’s band! 

Our paths converge
On Sunday afternoons Ray got a band together to rehearse for occasional appearances at Chinese community events. The musicians were then still largely second-generation immigrants or recent arrivals from Hong Kong, some just passing through.

While Ray was gradually accommodating a more “pan-Chinese” style, his own culture was rooted in Cantonese opera and instrumental pieces. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the youthful genre of “Cantonese music” had been remarkably innovative through the Republican period, incorporating jazz-tinged violin, guitar, sax, and zany xylophone (cf. Shanghai jazz). Click here for a playlist with nine LPs of the great Lü Wencheng 呂文成 with his band, issued between 1957 and 1967. There’s more to Cantonese music than meets the ear—here’s a fine traditional rendition of Shuangsheng hen 雙聲恨 (“Double voicing of bitterness”), based on the plangent yi-fan mode (with brief excursions into more cheerful scales), with a trio led by Yin Zizhong, c1930: [3]

In 1972, as the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were subsiding, I began studying ancient Chinese at Cambridge under Denis Twitchett, often visiting Laurence Picken there to learn about Tang music—at a time when Chinese music seemed to reside solely between the pages of history books, and the survival of any traditional cultures in mainland China was a matter of guesswork. In those days, blinkered by my classical training, I had little idea of either jazz or folk (cf. What is serious music?!). While my listening tastes in Asian music were for Indian raga, visiting Ray’s shop gave me my first inklings of how a living Chinese musical tradition might sound.

By now I had begun picking up the erhu fiddle. On my visits to Soho and Chinatown, besides finding books on Zen and Daoism at Watkins in Cecil court, I would browse in the recently-opened Guanghwa bookshop. Among the Chinese books there, alongside collections of model operas, revolutionary songs, and the occasional pamphlet on imperial culture (mostly fulminating against Confucius), I found a tutorial for the erhu and a couple of collected scores of modern solos. That was how I first acquainted myself with cipher notation—but I would learn more through emulating the nuance of Ray’s playing.

RM band c1979
With Ray Man’s band for Chinese New Year at Imperial College, early 1980s
(the music-stands revealing our novice status!).
Ray in the middle on plucked lute, me second left on erhu.

After graduating in 1976 I settled in London, working in orchestras under maestros like Boulez and Rozhdestvensky while continuing to help Laurence Picken on his Music from the Tang court project. It was through taking part in Ray’s Sunday sessions that I got used to playing the erhu in ensemble. All this was long before I first began visiting China in 1986, coming to realise the huge variety of regional cultures and joining in sessions at silk-and-bamboo clubs in Shanghai.

Ray’s shop was “like a bazaar”, as The Asia magazine described it. There he began offering tuition on a range of instruments. In 1975 he married Manyee, who had recently arrived from Hong Kong; they went on to have three children. Ray must have had a certain flair for business, but soon he could let Manyee take on the daily business of running the shop while he sat sage-like in the basement studio, surrounded by his instruments and the fug of herbal substances, his eyes always sparkling. A true aficionado, his English has remained engagingly impressionistic, as has his Mandarin. I guess I imagined him as a kind of musical Lee Chong.

Since the 1980s
The early Chinese communities around the UK had largely been Cantonese-speaking immigrants; even in the 1980s mainland Chinese voices were still rarely to be heard on the streets (for fictional treatments of Chinese lives in London, click here).

The insular dominance of the Cantonese community in the UK might have lasted longer had it not been for the death of Mao, the overthrow of the Gang of Four, and the ensuing dismantling of the commune system, which paved the way for the spectacular emergence of mainland China after decades of isolation, reverberating widely. Soon, as people arrived from all over China to study or do business, Mandarin was commonly heard on the streets of London. Gradually, as restaurant workers moved out to the suburbs, along with the wider transformation of Soho, the Cantonese focus of Ray’s band was diluted.

Back in the homeland too, amidst radical social change—both in postwar Hong Kong and in mainland China (following both the 1949 Communist takeover and the 1980s’ liberalisations)—“Cantonese music” lost much of its energy, becoming stultified in polished renditions on the concert platform. [4]

As “world music” became A Thing, Ray’s Soho shop continued broadening to stock a wide array of instruments from around the globe, and stars from the pop and film music scenes (George Harrison, Elton John, Björk, Noel Gallagher…) began visiting in search of exotic sounds.

RM Chalk Farm shopThe shop in Chalk Farm.

In 1999 the shop relocated to Chalk Farm, opposite Camden market, catering to the growing market in ethnic instruments; but in 2020 it was forced to close by the pandemic.

Whereas the Bhavan centre makes a well-supported focus for Indian expressive culture in west London, with fine visiting musicians teaching and performing a range of genres, London lacks a comparable venue for Chinese music. Numerous community associations have been formed; New Year brings out a parade of pan-Chinese lion and dragon dancing around Chinatown; Cheng Yu maintains a forum for the literati world of qin and pipa, and the “pan-Chinese” style that had evolved out of silk-and-bamboo. But Ray’s dream of a London Chinese music centre has remained unfulfilled. Similar initiatives in Chinese musicking have been held in the communities of Liverpool and Manchester, again broadening out from their original Cantonese base. If only south Fujian immigrants (a significant component of the later UK Chinese demographic) had a community maintaining the venerable amateur art of nanyin, for instance; but for such regional traditions we can only look to China itself.

From 1986, when I finally began exploring China, my fieldwork soon came to focus mainly on ritual life in poor northern villages, leading me to Gaoluo and the Li family Daoists. But it was Ray who first opened up that world to me, and I still feel grateful for my early exposure to Cantonese music with him—rather as he seems to have continued recreating the dream of his early musical inspirations in Hong Kong.

With many thanks to Ray and Manyee


[1] In addition to chatting with Ray and his wife Manyee, I’ve consulted various early press cuttings, notably an article in The Asia magazine (29th August 1982).

[2] For the transformation of Temple street in later decades, see e.g. this 2011 documentary.

[3] Chapter 15 of my 1995 book Folk music of China has a basic survey, along with various genres in Guangdong province; the Shuangsheng hen recording (transcribed on p.360) is #15 of the CD with the 1998 paperback edition, or #8 of disc 2 of my 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. Many thanks to Yuan Jingfang, who introduced me to a range of genres at the Central Conservatoire, Beijing, in 1987.

[4] See also The folk-conservatoire gulf. For the changing times of Hong Kong musicking, note the research of scholars such as Bell Yung (including Cantonese opera: performance as creative process, ch.4) and Yu Siu-wah 余少華. Opera played a prominent role for early Cantonese immigrant communities in north America (cf. sites linked under A Daoist temple in California); and click here for Cantonese music societies in Vancouver since the 1930s.

Spirit mediums in China: collected posts

Houshan medium

Spirit medium for the deity Houtu, Houshan temple fair 1993. My photo.

In a post on gender in Chinese religious life I suggested a bold, nay revolutionary, idea:

I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?!

In contrast to the more literate manifestations of religious practice in China that dominate sinology, spirit mediums also play an important role in local society (note the useful bibliographies of Philip Clart and Barend ter Haar). The gender ratio varies by region, but in many areas female mediums dominate, serving not only as healers but as protagonists in religious life; for women in particular, becoming a medium gives them a social status that is otherwise unavailable. Their tutelary deities may be either male or female.

me-mot

Me-mot mediums in Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

This is to draw your attention to a new “mediums” tag in the sidebar. The main posts include

  • Lives of female mediums, introducing studies on Guangxi (XIao Mei) and Wenzhou (Mayfair Yang)—as well as our own work around Hebei and north Shanxi, on which I reflect further in the second post of my series on
  • Women of Yanggao.

And I’ve introduced studies on activity in

as well as

  • the self-mortifying mediums of Amdo (here, and in note here).

Under Maoism, whereas public forms of religious life were vulnerable to political campaigns, the more clandestine activities of mediums were tenacious—indeed, the social and psychological crises of the era ensured that they continued to emerge (see e.g. the work of Ng and Chau above). Still, distribution is patchy; in this post I discussed the decline in Gaoluo village.

For the rituals of mediums in Korea, see here and here.

New tag: roundups

Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve just added a new tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. So here’s a roundup of such roundups—which I will even try and update! Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them!) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!

China:

and surveys of my series on

I essayed an inventory of Chinese jokes under

Further global surveys:

Other themes:

WAM, world music, ethnography:

Drôlerie:

A jazz medley

To help navigate through the jazz tag in the sidebar, here’s a roundup of some of my main posts so far.

From the Golden Age:

Moving on,

Further afield,

More songs:

And on a linguistic note:

A historic recording

1860

The oldest recording of the human voice is thought to be a phonautogram of the French folk-song Au clair de la lune, captured by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on 9th April 1860 (see here; not to be confused with the 1913 recording of Debussy’s piano piece).

Having introduced it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the mellifluous Charlotte Green‘s normally exemplary gravitas was sorely challenged as she heard her colleague Jim Naughtie describing it sotto voce as sounding “like a jar of bees”—one of the great moments on radio:

Corpsing is always wonderful.

Now please can we hear Ms Green’s demure delivery of the words “like a sex machine” while announcing the demise of James Brown?

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

Köçek in Kuzguncuk!

A fanfare in advance of the anniversary of Atatürk’s death on 10th November

Kocek 6

Just back home after an ecstatic week in Istanbul—first time I’ve needed my passport since visiting Li Manshan in 2018!

The neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus is a delightful community from which I can hardly drag myself away. Amidst constant inspiration, I’ve met more people there in the last week than in the previous five years… Having made a few brief trips to Istanbul Back in the Day to perform with London early music groups, I feel the European side of the city can wait—rather as I take eccentric pride in never having visited the Great Wall on all my stays in Beijing.

As elsewhere in Istanbul, vestiges of Armenian, Greek, and Jewish cultures are still evident in the architecture of Kuzguncuk.

Armenian church next to a mosque.

Synagogues.

synagogue 2

Inside the main synagogue.

 

The two Greek churches.

* * *

Kastamonu deli

Among Kuzguncuk dwellers are migrants from Kastamonu, due east of Istanbul in the region south of the Black Sea. Kastamonu is a leading centre of festive köçek dancing, and for the celebrations following Republic Day on 29th October a group came to perform along the lovely tree-lined main street of Kuzguncuk that leads up from the Bosphorus. The dancers’ main instrumental support is provided by davulzurna drum-and-shawm, ubiquitous accompaniment to festivities over a wide area. 

AM filmingIn the afternoon, first they performed at the entrance to the shops lining the street. As locals and visitors threw lira notes at the twirling feet of the two dancers, they gyrated gracefully down to pluck them up in their mouths. The group then made a base at the entrance of a side-street, performing a lengthier sequence beneath a large banner depicting Atatürk; the musicians, now seated, were supplemented by a kemençe bowed lute (cf. Indian and world fiddles, Musics of Crete), with gutsy, exuberant singing. Here are some clips from Augusta’s fine filming:

The band bursts into song as the dancers kneel to assemble the notes around the skirt:

They get back on their feet for the climax:

That evening they went on to perform for a lively street party up the hill.

* * *

Köçek troupes, 1720 (wiki):
left, musicians and dancers entertain the crowds;
right, at a fair for Sultan Ahmed’s celebration of his son’s circumcision.

 Köçek dancing (cf. this introduction) thrived from the 17th century, along with çengi. Notably since the late Ottoman era, courtly genres dispersed among the folk from the courts (a transmission trope also commonly attributed to late imperial China—see “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“; cf. The Janissary band). The androgynous young male dancers, * then recruited from non-Muslim subject peoples of the empire, began training early (for the Ottoman background, note the useful article by Şehvar Beşiroğlu, “Music, identity, gender: çengis, köçeks, çöçeks”), as well as his “The musical role of Turkish women in perspectives from the Mediterranean music scene“. Having long been part of meyhane tavern culture, groups have continued to perform for folk festivities such as weddings and circumcisions.

In folk traditions today, there may be a solo dancer, or a pair. Of course costumes (and concepts of gender) have changed over time, throughout the whole Levant. We saw two young adult dancers, both clean-shaven, their costumes and props each playing on male-female roles. One wore a long flaring skirt decorated with coins, jewels, and gold, as well as a kind of sporran at the waist, but a (“male”?) waistcoat; he/she sounded the zil finger-cymbals, as played by the female çengi dancers. Meanwhile the “male” dancer wore the skirt of the çengi, and necklaces, clacking the kaşık spoons (cf. çarpare castanets). 

I’ve adapted these leads from §4b here:

Specially-composed musical forms for çengi and köçek dances include tavşanca, çiftetelli, and ağırlama. A collection of songs in the same modal form with lively instrumental ritornellos is called takım. These include songs by named or anonymous composers and performers. Hammamizade Ismail Dede (himself a fine composer of köçekçe) called such forms musikinin orospuluğu (“musical whoring”). Köçekce are composed in popular modal systems like karcığar, gerdaniye, hicaz, hüzzam, gülizar, bayati araban, and saba. Those köçekçe in aksak limping metres are beautiful in both their musical style and poetic lyrics.

The köçek tradition of Kastamonu is renowned. Among many videos online, this general introduction includes a wedding party from 7.14:

Here’s a succinct personal account of change in the livelihood over the last two decades (with a rather confused appeal to “the government” that reminds me of China):

I can hardly begin to encapsulate the myriad delights of Kuzguncuk…

See also Greek Christmas in Kuzguncuk, and for more on modern Turkey, this roundup.

 

With boundless thanks to Kadir Filiz, Caroline Finkel, Augusta,
and Millie!


* Elsewhere too, cross-gender dancing is rather common, such as in Egypt and Afghanistan (see the distressing 2010 documentary The dancing boys of Afghanistan), not to mention Europe and east Asia.

A mélange of playlists

Still delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, by now I’ve compiled several playlists for diverse genres, mostly containing listening guides with Society and soundscape in mind:

Playlist

  • Chinese folk music (in the sidebar, scrolling down below the image gallery—with commentary here) including the Li family Daoists, the Gaoluo ritual association, searing shawm bands, and numinous recordings from the Zhihua temple (1953) and Xi’an (1961)
  • An eclectic Playlist of songs, with Billie Holiday, fado, Bach, Amy Winehouse, Purcell, Michel Legrand, Mahler, Nina Hagen, Ravel, Aretha Franklin, Barbara Hannigan, and more
  • Links to a varied selection of north Indian ragas, including “diatonic” (Yaman), “minor” (Kafi Zila), pentatonic (Malkauns), with augmented intervals (Bhairav), the beguiling Marwa (“A major over a C drone”)…

  • A series on the great Beatles albums, with the aid of Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack
  • Feminist songs, including You don’t own me and I will survive
  • see also Punk: a roundup

There must be well over a hundred posts there for you to relish—do click away on all the links!

Bowed zithers, 2: Alpine

As defined in ethnomusicology, zithers are diverse. In my recent post I outlined the various zither types under the Sachs-Hornbostel system: bar, tube, raft, board, trough, frame. Worldwide, plucked zithers are common (note the “Zither” entry in The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments), but bowed zithers seem quite rare. Half-tube board zithers, both plucked and bowed, are distinctive to East Asia.

Box zithers include hammered dulcimers like the santur and qanun. In medieval Europe the psaltery was plucked; players only took a bow to it in the 20th century.

langspil

Anna Þórhallsdóttir playing the langspil.  From wiki.

The Inuit tautirut is a zither whose bow is a strip of whalebone resined with spruce gum; the Icelandic fiðla and langspil have enjoyed a revival (see here).

* * *

Turning to a less exotic area of “world music”—and perhaps posing us a certain challenge in “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse“—the “Alpine” box zither became common around south Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the 19th century.

Its precursor was the scheitholt, dating back to the 14th century—which might lead us down the path of early north European zithers like the hummel and épinette de Vosges, as well as the Appalachian dulcimer (see this article on the excellent Essential Vermeer site, which I introduce here); and moving further east, the cimbalom family (including the tsymbaly of Hutsuls in Ukraine), as well as a wealth of Baltic psalteries!

Grove Zither Alpine

From The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, “Zither” entry.

The Alpine zither is sometimes bowed as well as plucked. Here’s an example:

I’m drawn to the Alpine bowed zither by a personal connection. Rudi Rieber (1934–2004), father of My Brilliant Friend Augusta, taught himself to play the Konzertzither in his youth. He was brought up in Winterlingen in the Swabian Alps south of Tübingen. There, as his daughter explains:

My watchmaker grandfather Wilhelm had a clock-and-silverware shop. One day around 1940 a gypsy woman purchased something there, for which in return she offered to barter her zither. My father Rudi, then 5 or 6 years old, watched her demonstrating how it was to be played, both plucked and with the bow. Later he also taught himself to play the violin, guitar, and mouth-organ.

Left, Rudi Rieber, 1994;
right, Rudi’s grandson Selim, 2000, at the age of 7,
shortly before he followed the path of jazz/rock/pop drumming

In 1994 Rudi recorded a series of songs for his 60th birthday, inviting his former classmates. His spoken introduction reflects a sense of responsibility towards a tradition under threat. Recalling his childhood after the NSDAP took control of the municipality in 1933, he commented:

We were fortunate to still be taught many of these beautiful songs, and we can be happy that this treasure has been given to us. We are grateful to our teacher H.C. Seeger, who understood how to enrich our entire life—in times when folk-song was under the threat of being misused and replaced. With this recording I am attempting to weave a thread of our tradition from half a century ago down to today.

All this was in tune with the Wandervogel youth movement from 1896. In protest against industrialisation, its ascetic devotees immersed themselves in the countryside, communing with nature; and Volkslied was at the heart of the movement. The Wandervogel groups were outlawed by the Nazis in 1933; so while it’s not immediately audible, we might almost regard the maintenance of this repertoire as a kind of underground preservation.

Augusta’s intrepid explorations of her father’s repertoire reveal how early and regional folk traditions became interlaced with the world of Mozart and Mahler.

The early-19th-century collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn had a pervasive influence on German identity, and on both folk and art cultures. Songs that Rudi played from this repertoire include Jetzt gang I ans Brünnele, a Swabian folk-song documented by the composer Friedrich Silcher (1789–1860):

and Im schönsten Wiesengrunde will ich begraben sein:

as well as Bald gras ich am Neckar, whose text Mahler set in the Rheinlegendchen song of his own Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Es, es, es, und es, es ist ein harter Schluss is a satirical apprentice’s song from the Wanderjahre repertoire (cf. Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen settings). The wiki entry on Es, es, es… details its reception history since the 19th century—this was one song that the Nazis did readily adopt,apparently apolitical, describing the grievances of the previous century”, its catchy melody suitable for marching.

Among other pieces that Rudi recorded, Wenn alle Brünnlein fließen is a 16th-century antecedent—again apparently Swabian—of Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Die Zauberflöte; Mozart also set Komm lieber Mai und mache.

With the rich overtones, and the use of the bow, the material takes on a shimmering, ethereal patina. Here, after a plucked prelude, like an Alpine alap, Rudi adds the bow for a Schuhplattler dance:

This is the kind of domestic musicking quaintly evoked here:

* * *

Intriguingly, the piano is classified as a zither (Not a Lot of People Know That…)! Further to John Cage’s innovative use of the instrument, Stephen Scott (1944–2021) was a pioneer of the bowed piano. Here’s his Entrada:

Ha! There’s one angle that the ever-inventive Augusta, a fine pianist trained in Paris, still has to explore…

I’ve focused here on bowed zithers—but all right then, I guess we have to play out with the theme from The third man (1949), iconic soundtrack to an iconic film, plucked by Anton Karas:

The opening melody makes another worthy addition to my list of Unpromising chromaticisms (“write a staggeringly popular tune using only the five semitones within the range of a major third, with two chords”):

Third Man

See also Zithers of Iran and Turkey.

Posted from Kuzguncuk, Istanbul—
with many thanks to Augusta!

The qin zither under Maoism, 1: Guan Pinghu

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

Guan Pinghu

Guan Pinghu, 1954.

I’m still seeking in vain to atone for my reservations about the dominance of the elite qin zither in Chinese music studies, where it’s “as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord”. The qin has always been the tip of the iceberg—its players were, and are, far outnumbered by folk-singers, shawm bands, and spirit mediums, for instance.

However, this doesn’t make the rarefied world of the qin any less notable. By contrast with the ocean of folk traditions, its whole long history is extensively documented. And between the ancient sages and the modern scene, a remarkable flowering of the qin took place over the fifteen years following the 1949 “Liberation” (for the period in wider society, see here)—another illustration of the resilience of traditional culture in the PRC.

So in this first post in a mini-series focusing on the Beijing scene, I look further into the life and work of the great Guan Pinghu 管平湖 (1897–1967). John Thompson’s page on his exhaustive site is based on the CD set Guan Pinghu guqin quji 管平湖古琴曲集, well annotated and handsomely illustrated—I have only the original 2-CD set (1995), but Thompson refers to the expanded 4-CD edition (2016). See also e.g. here.

Besides the rich material of Wang Di 王迪 on her master (see here), the great Wang Shixiang also wrote a fine tribute to Guan Pinghu. And my long-term fieldwork companion Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 is not just a diligent chronicler of folk genres, but has also written eloquently about the qin. His articles

  • “Xian’gen: Guan Pinghu yu Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo” 弦根: 管平湖与中国音乐研究所, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2016.3 (serialised online in three parts)
  • “Daihuo jiaotong yun ben bei: qinjia Wang Di xiansheng” 带火焦桐韵本悲——琴家王迪先生, Mingjia 名家 49 (2013),
  • as well as a forthcoming essay on Zha Fuxi,

are both detailed and stylish, reflecting on the changing times in the qin world and society at large. The stories of these great players overlap, as they will in my series.

* * *

In the aesthetic of the imperial literati, “qin, chess, calligraphy and painting” (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫) went hand in hand. Guan Pinghu followed in the footsteps of his father Guan Nianci 管念慈 (d.1909), a renowned painter who also played qin; he was in the retinue of the Guangxu emperor.

GPH paintings

Paintings by Guan Pinghu. Source.

Guan Pinghu rose to prominence among the stellar qin zither masters who gathered in Beijing before and after the 1949 “Liberation”.  From 1912 he took part in the Jiuyi qinshe 九嶷琴社 qin society founded by Yang Zongji 楊宗稷 (Yang Shibai 楊時百, 1865–1933). In 1938 he formed the Fengsheng qinshe 風聲琴社, and in 1947 the Beiping qinxueshe 北平琴學社, whose core members included Zhang Boju, Pu Xuezhai, Yang Boyuan, Wang Mengshu, Wang Shixiang, Guan Zhonghang, Zheng Minzhong, Yue Ying, and Wang Di.

Through the 1940s, apart from teaching qin at several institutes, Guan Pinghu spent time teaching painting at the Beiping jinghua meishu zhuanke xuexiao 北平京華美術專科學校, a forerunner of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He was among the artists consulted by a team from the academy in 1955–56 for their survey of ritual painting in Beijing.

Still, Guan Pinghu’s ethos was remote from the image of the “exploiting classes”. Oblivious of worldly cares (a theme on which Zhang Zhentao’s article is especially eloquent), he was quite at odds with the new values of both the Republican and Communist eras. His family life was inauspicious: he was apparently separated from his wife, and of his four children three died in the early 1950s, while the fourth was a wastrel. As Wang Di recalled, by the late 1940s he was living alone in a bare little apartment, scraping by on a modest income from selling his paintings and teaching his few disciples. Among these, his female pupils Wang Di, Shen You 沈幼, and Yue Ying 乐瑛—all from affluent families—took responsibility for looking after him, utterly consumed as he was by the world of qin.

After Liberation
In those early days the Music Research Institute (MRI) was part of the Central Conservatoire, then still based in Tianjin. In April 1951 Wang Di took Guan Pinghu on the train there to take part in a recording session of several qin masters on the initiative of Zha Fuxi and Yang Yinliu. Wang Di told them of his difficult circumstances; indeed, seeing his dishevelled clothing the concierge was reluctant to let him in, taking him for a beggar.

So when Guan Pinghu was recruited to the MRI the following year, he attained a much-needed security, receiving a handsome monthly salary of 177 yuan. He was given a little room that served as study and bedroom, allowing him to immerse himself in the qin along with a distinguished group of senior music scholars around Yang Yinliu, whose sense of mission he shared.

In 1953 Wang Di became his assistant. The following year they moved to Beijing with the MRI, first to a building known as the “ten rooms” (shijianfang 十间房) and then to Xinyuanli in Dongzhimenwai, which remained the MRI home until the 1990s.

GPH WD

Wang Di checking her transcription of Guan Pinghu’s
realisation of Guangling san.

We should pause to admire the remarkable energy of Yang Yinliu and his team in those early years: alongside his ongoing historical research, in addition to his 1950 return to his old home Wuxi, in north China he did seminal fieldwork on the “songs-for winds” band of Ziwei village in Hebei, the Zhihua temple in Beijing, ritual groups of Xi’an, and narrative singing, while continuing his research on Daoist ritual in Wuxi. In 1953 others at the MRI embarked on a project on folk-song in north Shanxi.

On the basis of the Beiping qinxueshe, the Beijing Guqin Research Association (Beijing guqin yanjiuhui 北京古琴研究会) was founded in 1954 (see Cheng Yu’s article); the Ministry of Culture took over a siheyuan courtyard dwelling in Xinghua hutong, near Houhai lake, to serve as the association’s tranquil base.

Guan Pinghu and Wang Shixiang shared a taste not only for antique furniture but for the rich street culture of birds and flowers in old Beijing; Wang writes eloquently of how Guan Pinghu spent money he could ill afford to rescue an injured grasshopper, likening its chirp to the lowest open string on his Tang-dynasty qin

While the soul of the qin still resided in the “refined gatherings” (yaji 雅集) of aficionados, the qin now also began to be heard on the concert platform. From October 1954 to January 1955 Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi, with erhu player Jiang Fengzhi and pipa player Li Tingsong, gave prestigious performances in ten major cities, before vast audiences.

Despite the unpromising conditions of the unfolding of collectivisation, socialist dogma was still not so rigid as to outlaw the former literati class. Yang Yinliu and his team were just as concerned to document elite culture. Meanwhile vocal genres remained active, such as narrative-singing and opera—still lively folk scenes apart from the new state troupes.

Dapu and transcription
While many qin players were quite content with quite a small repertoire handed down from master to pupil (cf. north Indian raga), such as Geese Landing on the Sandbank (Pingsha luoyan), some of the leading masters were keen on the process of dapu 打譜, seeking to recreate pieces from early scores that had long fallen out of common practice. Guan Pinghu was at the forefront of this movement, along with the Shanghai qin master Yao Bingyan (see Bell Yung, Celestial airs of antiquity, and here).

PSLY 1

Opening of Wang Di’s transcription of Pingsha luoyan as played by Guan Pinghu, Guqin quji vol.1 (1982).

The repertoires of qin players had always been transmitted within particular regional styles. Notation plays a very minor role in most Chinese genres—none at all in some. But for highly literate qin players, tablature is an essential part of the learning process. Throughout history, right until the 1950s, players relied on direct transmission from master to pupil, aided by the tablature, which made an ambivalent record: over-prescribed in terms of pitches and fingerings, it allowed for considerable latitude in rhythmic interpretation.

GLS qinpu

GLS WD scoreOpening of Guangling san: Shenqi mipu (1425) and Wang Di’s transcription.

But in the 1950s, along with the circulation of recordings, the process of “fixing” the performance with composite transcriptions in Western stave notation and the symbols of traditional tablature began leading to a certain standardisation. This applied even to the newly recreated dapu pieces, some of which now entered the repertoire. The 1956 fieldwork of Guan Pinghu’s MRI colleague Zha Fuxi both revealed the great regional variations in repertoire and set a standard for establishing a “national” canon. It is rather hard to think back to the 1950s, when qin players had a very different mental image of their repertoire.

qin hui 1956

Members of the Beijing Guqin Research Association
on a trip to the Yiheyuan, 1956.
Front row, from left: Wang Zhensheng, Yang Qianqi, Guan Zhonghang;
middle row, Yang Yinliu, Pu Xuezhai, Cao Anhe, Guan Pinghu;
back row: Luo Zhenyu, Zha Fuxi, Wang Mengshu.
From Yang Yinliu (jinian ji) 楊陰瀏 (紀念集) (1992).

From 1956
In the summer of 1956, while collectivisation was causing hardship and desperation in the countryside, Yang Yinliu led another field survey in Hunan (here and here). Meanwhile Zha Fuxi led a remarkable project to document qin players over the whole country (more to follow in a later post in the series!).

Urban society was still relatively unscathed. But the Anti-Rightist campaign (1957–59), along with the Great Leap Backward and the famine (from 1958), caused great suffering. While I’ve found few instances of Beijing qin players being rusticated during this period, Guan Pinghu’s close friend Wang Shixiang was branded a “rightist” in 1957, bearing the stigma for twenty-one years. And soon after starting his study of the qin at the Shanghai Conservatoire in 1958, Lin Youren was sent down to rural Anhui and Henan for periods to support the desperate peasants.

Wang Di was ever devoted to taking care of Guan Pinghu in both his artistic life and material needs. In 1957, when the MRI prompted her husband to take leave of sickness, Wang Di had moved out of the institute (then still in the “ten rooms”) with her family. At first they lived at the spacious old family home of Yue Ying in Huazhi hutong, near the base of the Beijing Guqin Research Association. Yue Ying (to whom I’ll devote a separate post) was another female disciple of Guan Pinghu, and she invited him to live there too, as the Great Leap Backward was unfolding. Though the cities were protected from the severe famine in the countryside, Beijing dwellers suffered from food shortages; well-connected Zha Fuxi had baskets of eggs delivered to Yue Ying.

Still, Guan Pinghu’s new prestige was confirmed by an invitation to perform at Zhongnanhai for Chairman Mao, Zhu De, and Chen Yi.

In the early 60s Wang Di’s family moved to the bustling trading and entertainment quarter of Dashalar just south of Tiananmen (on which, note Harriet Evans, Beijing from below). But the redevelopment of the celebrated Rongbaozhai studio forced reluctant inhabitants to move to the Hepingli district further north; since Wang Di’s Dashilan apartment was safe from the developers, she agreed with one such family to let them live there while she moved into their own new dwelling in Hepingli. There she took care of Guan Pinghu. They were like a family—her two daughters called him Grandpa Guan (Guan yeye 管爷爷).

GPH and students

Guan Pinghu with his students, 1957:
(left to right) front row Xu Jian, Guan Pinghu, Zheng Minzhong;
back row Wang Di, Shen You, Yuan Quanyou.

Here we might also appreciate the fictional treatment of family travails through these years in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The blue kite.

New campaigns
Traditional culture was able to revive during a brief lull in the early 60s, spurring further energy in fieldwork and publication. But then the Four Cleanups campaign from 1963 presaged the agonies of the Cultural Revolution.

Apart from all the struggle sessions, murders, and suicides when the Cultural Revolution erupted, Guan Pinghu was among many who met their deaths at the time as an indirect cause of the rampages of the Red Guards. Pu Xuezhai, who also embodied the elite values of qin and painting, disappeared mysteriously in 1966.

Even qin masters hitherto in good standing with the regime like Zha Fuxi and Wu Jinglue were assaulted. Guan Pinghu was terrified as he witnessed the public humiliation of his peers. Long partial to erguotou liquor, he now sought refuge in the bottle, lying disoriented on the bank of the old city moat. Afflicted by liver cirrhosis, his health declined severely.

When he died on the 28th March 1967 he can hardly have imagined an end to all the destructive campaigns. Yet by the 1980s folk and literati genres were thriving again, and Guan Pinghu became a legendary figure, his pupil Wang Di masterminding the CD set that was finally published in 1995.

Recordings
There’s a precious film clip here of Guan Pinghu playing Liushui in late 1956, with Wang Di looking on. In 1977, on the recommendation of Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung, his Liushui was to be immortalised by being sent into orbit with the US spaceship Voyager 2.

GPH CDs

The classic resource is the ROI CD set. Guan Pinghu is also well represented on YouTube. Here’s the most celebrated of the ancient pieces that he recreated from Ming-dynasty tablatures, Guangling san—whose subject (to refine the image of the qin as tranquil contemplation!) is the righteous assassination of an evil ruler (among much discussion, note silkqin, and another article by Wang Shixiang):

Thrice Drunk in Yueyang (Yueyang sanzui 岳陽三醉) is inspired by the classical theme of inebriation (now the subject of a separate post!):

For Guan Pinghu’s version of Pingsha luoyan, see here.

* * *

Unlikely as it may sound, the first fifteen years after Liberation were a Golden Age for musicological research. As to the qin, it’s not exactly that it enjoyed a renaissance: regional societies had thrived through the Republican era. But given the new ideology after Liberation, the intensity of research and gatherings under Maoism was remarkable.

We may now feel nostalgic for the old world of “qin, chess, calligraphy and painting”; but it was still embodied in the iconic masters who were active under Maoism. Like household Daoist Li Manshan (jinfei xibi 今非昔比, at the end of my portrait film, from 1.19.20), my nostalgia is not so much for distant imperial grandeur as for the 1950s.

And while countless lives, and precious old instruments, were destroyed in the 1960s, it’s remarkable how many managed to survive to lead the revival since the 1980s’ reforms (cf. The resilience of tradition).

Today, despite a broadening of the appeal of the qin deriving partly from the internet, the refined cultural backgrounds of former generations have largely been marginalised by the narrow conservatoire specialisation of younger students (see e.g. Bell Yung, cited here). Music is never just music.

The mandala of Sherlock Holmes

Holmes cover

On modern Tibetan society, Jamyang Norbu has long been a stimulating voice (note his splendid website). Here I’ve already admired his remarks on Tibetan opera, and his article The Lhasa ripper. His novel

  • The mandala of Sherlock Holmes: the missing years (alternative subtitle “the adventures of the great detective in India and Tibet), “edited by Jamyang Norbu” (1999)

is a Rattling Good Yarn, with a serious moral—like many of the best crime novels (Philip Kerr, Tony Hillerman, and so on), both gripping and educative.

Born in 1944 in Lhasa, Jamyang Norbu was sent to a Jesuit school in Darjeeling, where he relished Kipling and Conan Doyle. After an interlude with the Khampa guerrilla group “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” in Mustang to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet (see e.g. Jamyang Norbu’s own recollections, and Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows, Chapter 6), he became a leading light in the educational and cultural scene at Dharamsala. Combining the fruits of his early education and his experience as a Tibetan in exile, he wrote The mandala of Sherlock Holmes there (the Epilogue is dated 1989) before making his base in the USA.

Only in the Preface and the Epilogue does Jamyang Norbu write in his own voice, observing the political context in which we now read the tale.

Tibet may lie crushed beneath the dead weight of Chinese tyranny, but the truth about Tibet cannot be so easily buried; and even such a strange fragment of history as this may contribute to nailing at least a few lies of the tyrants.

Still, he indulges poetic fancy by evoking the discovery of Hurree’s notes, and Holmes’s living incarnation in a monastery.

Given the wealth of later tributes to Sherlock Holmes, the Preface opens with a wry flourish:

Too many of Dr John Watson’s unpublished manuscripts (usually discovered in “a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box” somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Company, at Charing Cross) have come to light in recent years, for a long-suffering reading public not to greet the discovery of yet another Sherlock Holmes story with suspicion, if not outright incredulity.

Holmes having faked his own death at the Reichenbach Falls in 1891, Conan Doyle had the sleuth explain in The adventure of the empty house (1903, set in 1894):

I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhasa and spending some days with the head Lama. You may have read of the remarkable exploration of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend.

The story is narrated by Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, a Bengali scholar/spy from Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim (based on the real-life character of Sarat Chandra Das), who takes Watson’s place as Holmes’ trusted friend and confidant. As Jamyang Norbu explained, “The Sherlock Holmes stories worked because of Dr Watson. You need someone who is sweetly endearing but also slightly dim.”

With erudite footnotes (mostly in the persona of Hurree, on both Holmesiana and Tibetan studies at the time), the novel is a most accomplished pastiche, replete with vignettes—like the use of fingerprinting for identifying criminals, introduced in Bengal in 1896, before it was adopted by Scotland Yard in 1901, or the history of the Thug cult and worship of the goddess Kali.

Holmes arrives in Bombay incognito—or so he hopes—with only a Gladstone bag and a violin case:

This was, of course, suspicious in itself. No self-respecting sahib who travelled to India was without at least three streamer trunks, not to mention other sundry items of baggage like hat boxes, gun cases, bedding rolls, and a despatch box. Also, no English sahib, at least if he was pukka, played the violin. Music was the preserve of Frenchmen, Eurasians, and missionaries (though in the latter-most case the harmonium was a more favoured instrument).

Amidst the “Great Game”, Holmes’s arrival has come to the attention of the British Secret Service in India, and Hurree latches on to him. They soon learn that his life is still in danger.

I commend your energy, Strickland. But I fear that such a direct course of action would prove futile. Colonel Sebastian Moran is a most cunning and dangerous adversary. At the moment the only net we have is too frail to hold such a formidable prey.”
“But, dash it all!” cried Strickland. “The man is an honourable soldier. […] You expect me to believe that an English gentleman, a former member of Her Majesty’s Indian Army, the best heavy-game shot in India, a man with a still unrivalled bag of tigers, is a dangerous criminal. Why, I was with him just two nights ago at the Old Shikari Club. We played a rubber of whist together.”

Holmes Tibet map

All along their arduous journey via Bombay, Delhi, and Simla on to Lhasa, pursued by Moriarty’s well-trained, dastardly henchmen, “Sigerson” solves baffling cases. Even in Simla, “a delightful and sophisticated town”, he is not inclined to relax; as Hurree observes,

I was really at my wits’ end trying to make him enjoy himself. […] Knowing his liking for music, I thought it would not be improper to suggest a visit to the Gaiety Theatre, where at the time a comic operetta by Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan was being performed. It was only much later that I learned that his musical interests leaned towards violin concerts, symphonies, and the grand opera.

Holmes frequents the Antiquarian Bookshop run by Mr Lurgan—another character from Kim—and enlists Hurree to teach him Tibetan. Another period note:

But I will not burden my readers with any further digression into the subtleties of the Thibetan * language, for such a subject can only be of interest to a specialist. Nevertheless, for those readers who would like to know more about the Thibetan language I can recommend Thibetan for the beginner (Re 1) published by the Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, and the Grammar of colloquial Thibetan (Rs 2.4 annas), by the same publisher.

Colonel Creighton fills them in on the situation in Lhasa:

“This is a secret report I received from K.21 just a week ago. His monastery is, as you know, close to the main caravan route from Kashgar to Lhassa, and is therefore a good place to pick up news from the Thibetan capital. Evidently things are not as they should be in Lhassa. There are rumours that two senior ministers have been removed in disgrace from the cabinet, and a much respected abbot of the Drepung monastery jailed like a common criminal. K.21 feels that the Manchu Amban is behind these events, and it is probably an attempt to undermine the position of the Grand Lama and strengthen Chinese influence in Thibet. It seems that these particular ministers and the abbot wanted the young Grand Lama to be enthroned before his constitutional age. They were opposed to the Regency, which has acquired the reputation of being influenced by the Chinese representative, the Amban.”

So in late spring, once the passes are no longer snowbound, they set off, joining the Leh-Lhasa caravan near Mount Kailash.

arrow missive

Sigerson’s passport into Tibet: da-yig arrow missive. **

Reaching the fortress of Tsaparang, Hurree tells Holmes the story of the Portuguese Jesuit community there, founded by Antonio de Andrade in 1624:

“Did the good father succeed in converting many of the natives?” asked Holmes, knocking the ash of his pipe against the side of a broken wall.
“Not very many, I would think. Thibetans are notorious in missionary circles for their obstinacy in clinging to their idols and superstitions.”
“They revel in their original sin, do they?” chuckled Mr Holmes. “Anyhow, there is a surfeit of religion in this country already. Why should the missionaries want to bring in another?”

Lhasa 1904

Lhasa, 1904. Source.

Eventually, with sherpas in tow (shades of The ascent of Rum Doodle?!), on 17th May 1892 they reach Lhasa. In another nice note Jamyang Norbu comments on Hurree’s text: “Only one white man, Thomas Manning, had ever set eyes on it before”:

Hurree is mistaken. John Grueber and Albert d’Orville visited Lhassa in 1661 and saw the Potala palace, although the construction was not fully completed until 1695.

For early Europeans in Tibet, see here.

Holmes Lhasa map

As observed by Tibetscapes in this Twitter thread, the novel critiques the exoticisation of Tibet, bringing to focus Tibetan voices and perspectives. Lhasa is described not as the reified Buddhist utopia of Western imagination, but as a thriving metropolis:

Merchants from Turkestan, Bhootan, Nepaul, China, and Mongolia displayed in their stalls a ruch array of goods: tea, silk, fur, brocades, turquoise, amber, coral, wines, and dried fruits and even humble needles, thread, soap, calico, spices, and trinkets from the distant bazaars of India. Lhassa is a surprisingly cosmopolitan town, with merchants and travellers from not only the countries I have just mentioned, but also Armenians, Cashmiris, and Muscovites.

Holmes and Hurree are ushered into

a well-appointed chamber, decorated in the Thibetan fashion with religious paintings (thangka) and ritual objects, and the floor covered with rich carpets and divans. We were served tea and Huntley & Palmer’s [sicapostrophe pedant] chocolate-cream biscuits.

Visiting the Norbulingka (“Jewel Park”) for an audience with the Dalai Lama’s Chief Secretary, they learn that Sigerson’s true identity has been revealed by the Grand Seer. As the Chief Secretary explains,

Thibet is small and peaceful country, and all that its inhabitants seek is to pass their lives in tranquillity and to practise the noble teachings of the Lord Buddha. But all around us are warlike nations, powerful and as resilient as titans. […] To the east is our greatest peril and curse, Black China—cunning, and hungry for land. Yet even in its greed it is patient and subtle. It knows that an outright military conquest of Thibet would only rouse the ire of the many Tartar tribes who are faithful to the Dalai Lama, and who are always a threat to China’s own security. Moreover, the Emperor of China is himself a Buddhist, as are all the Manchus, and he must, at least for the sake of propriety, maintain an appearance of friendly amicability with the Dalai Lama.
But what he cannot achieve directly, the Emperor attempts through intrigue…

So Holmes assumes the task of rescuing the young 13th Dalai Lama from the plots of the Chinese, in a climactic encounter with the arch-fiend himself. Finally the true numinous identity of Holmes himself is revealed. While Jamyang Norbu has long been a dispassionate critic of the Tibetan religious mindset, the dénouement indulges esoteric mysticism to the full, with the mandala of the Great Tantra of the Wheel of Time and mudra hand gestures playing a crucial role. Lhasa is free to celebrate the coronation of the young Dalai Lama.

Such intrigues can only remind the modern reader of the events leading up to the current Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959. His predecessor himself fled from the Chinese in 1910, returning from exile in 1913 (for more on the intrigues of the day, see e.g. this post by Woeser). In the Epilogue, Jamyang Norbu cites the 13th Dalai Lama’s last testament:

It may happen that here, in Tibet, religion and government will be attacked from without and within. Unless we can guard our country, it will happen that the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, the Father and the Son, and all the revered builders of the Faith, will disappear and become nameless. Monks and their monasteries will be destroyed. The rule of law will be weakened. The land and property of government officials will be seized. They themselves will be forced to serve their enemies or wander the country like beggars. All beings will be sunk in great hardship and overpowering fear; and the nights and days will drag on slowly in suffering.

Like Tintin in Tibet (1958–59, sic) and Twin Peaks, one hopes that such popular works will lead the casual reader to explore the troubled modern history of Tibet. Here’s a roundup of my posts on the topic.


A couple of notes of my own [dated 1st April 2021] in homage:

* The aspirated initial might seem to suggest that Tibet was “discovered” by the Irish, the “h” disappearing from orthography as other Westerners heard them evoking the country. Cf. Denis Twitchett’s theory that Li Bai was an Irishman called Patrick O’Leary (n. here).

** Could it be that emissaries called out “da-yig!” to announce their arrival, a custom that eventually found its way to Venice via the Silk Road, becoming the gondolier’s cry of O-i? [No it couldn’t. Stop it.—Ed.]

A garland of ragas

As my coverage of north Indian ragas grows, this may be a good moment for an overview. [1]

To guard against any timeless image, divorced from social change, it’s good to start with Daniel Neuman’s fine book:

In my post on Noor Inayat Khan I referred to her father Inayat Khan’s 1921 classic The mysticism and sound of music, along with his 1909 recordings.

I illustrate most of these posts with 17th-century ragamala (“garland of ragas”) paintings reproduced in The raga guide.

* * *

In my Beatles roundup I wrote:

As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

See also Analysing world music.

To immerse ourselves in the melodic soundscape, note The raga guide (Nimbus, 1999, with 4 CDs), and (among a wealth of online material) this site by Patrick Moutal, including audio and video archives for both vocal and instrumental renditions (cf. his 2012 book Hindustani Raga Sangita). Also worth consulting is my post Unpacking “improvisation”.

To help us focus on the infinite riches of raga, it’s illuminating to anchor ourselves in the sargam solfeggio that expresses the pitch relationships. [2] Here are the basic pitches of the heptatonic scale:

Sargam

In this series I use upper-case initials to denote higher degrees (e.g. Ma, sharp fa), lower-case for their lower degrees (ma, natural fa); Sa and Pa (do and so) are invariable.

Always relishing long alap preludes, I marvel at the constant variations of the master musicians, as they explore new connections between pitches and motifs—stages on their lifelong devotion to riaz practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”, as characterised by Neuman).

It’s worth trying to sing along, anchoring ourselves with the Sa-Pa tonic-dominant drone, and registering stressed and cadential pitches. As middle, low, and high registers are covered in turn, short motifs develop into longer ascending and descending phrases.

What’s great about the whole progression of an extended alap is that we are gradually coaxed into learning the melodic building blocks, so that by the time the faster, more ornate patterns begin unfolding we’re just about familiar with the scalar language. Recalling the Growing into music films, wouldn’t it be great if our kids could grow up learning to sing and create with this fluency in pitch relationships?! (Cf. flamenco palmas).

Armed with the introduction of The raga guide (pp.1–13), we can consult the basic ascending and descending patterns of particular ragas. In these posts I content myself with offering a few signposts, with very rough outlines based on prominent cadences, leaving you to zoom in on all the detail in between. For dhrupad, my star exhibit, the signposts include the mukhṛā “refrains” of rhythmic repeated notes in a firm pulse. But the microstructure and ornamental detail is always to be savoured, with gamak embellishments and mīnd glides—as well as techniques (explained by Richard Widdess) [3] such as āghāt, “the onset of a pitch, whether by direct attack, or by indirect approach”, and anuraṇana, “resonance”, its prolongation and/or inflection up or down:

The raga guide introduces 74 ragas—like the repertoire of Chinese qin players (see my comments on Chapter 6 of Neuman’s book), few individual musicians perform more than a couple of dozen ragas, and some concentrate intensively on a handful. So here’s my series so far:

Besides vocal renditions, these are illustrated with instrumental versions on the plucked lutes rudra vina, [4] sitar, and sarod, as well as the bowed sarangi; so in a further post,

  • Raga for winds, I feature further instances on bansuri flute and shehnai shawm, featuring some of the above ragas as well as rāgs Desh, Lalit, and Puriya.

Even this modest selection displays great scalar variety: some ragas are largely “diatonic” (Yaman, Maru Bihag, Kedar), some “minor” (Kafi Zila, Bhairavi, and the anhemitonic pentatonic Malkauns, with Chandrakauns a revision of Malkauns with a semitone from Ni to Sa); others showcase augmented intervals (Bhairav, Shri); and Marwa is a challenging yet beguiling “A major over a C drone”.

As a non-specialist, I can only scratch the surface of all this, and that’s kinda the point: if I can begin picking up these clues, then so can you. Anyway, these performances, all very different, make a great introduction to the infinite art of raga.

To draw you into the individual posts, in the playlist below I choose one rendition of each of the ragas I’ve discussed so far, highlighting alap, dhrupad (the Dagar lineage, and Uday Bhawalkar), and Nikhil Banerjee.

  • Kafi Zila:

  • Yaman:

  • Maru Bihag:

  • Bhairav:

  • Bhairavi:

  • Malkauns:

  • Shri:

  • Chandrakauns:

  • Kedar:

And on a meretricious yet entertaining note, a spoof (with a serious bonus of rāg Madhuvanti on rudra vina):

Two more posts derive from concerts I attended at the Bhavan Centre in west London:

I’ll add to this list as I explore further… In other fields, see A playlist of songs, and the Chinese selections in the playlist as you scroll down in the sidebar, with commentary here.

In the words of a Classic FM presenter,

It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.

With thanks to Richard Widdess, Morgan Davies, and Daniel Neuman.


[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy to the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, The Rough Guide to world music, and so on), useful references include Jairazbhoy’s chapters in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993) and Richard Widdess’s lucid introduction in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

[2] Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of sargam is a good way of listening to traditional Chinese melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organising sound (cf. What is serious music?!).

Some might date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, or even the invention of graphic notation

[3] As a taster for the definitive study Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004) by Ritwik Sanyal and Richard Widdess, the latter’s “Involving the performers in transcription and analysis: a collaborative approach to dhrupad” (Ethnomusicology 38.1, 1994) takes rāg Multani to illustrate the rich fruits of analysing alap, with detailed attention to the performer’s vocabulary (e.g. the instructive transcription on p.63).

[4] The timbre of the rudra vina rather reminds me of the Chinese qin zither, almost making me wonder if the lost art of improvisation therein might have sounded like this—all the more in view of the scalar variety of Chinese music before the Song dynasty… “But that’s not important right now“.

A playlist for Emma and Leylah

Emma Leylah

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP.

🥂🥂

The fairy-tale dénouement of the US Open women’s singles was an even more intense and moving contest than anyone dared imagine. Just exhilarated by this rare moment in sporting history, to celebrate youthful inspiration I’d like to offer a wacky little playlist in homage to both players—a paean to migration, riffing freely on their cultural backgrounds. Some of these connections may be approximate, but you get the idea.

Conveniently, my soundtrack for Emma Raducanu (“london|toronto|shenyang|bucharest“) (TEN MATCHES without dropping a set!!!) can also serve the valuable function of irritating Priti Patel and Piers Morgan…

BTL iconHer mum Zhai Dongmei 翟冬梅 comes from Shenyang in northeast China:

  • so here’s a powerful, majestic, gritty shawm band from nearby Liaoyang (#6 in the Music Player as you scroll way down in the sidebar of this blog, with commentary here)—two players striving in unison, occasionally pulling apart, with the drum evoking the sound of the tennis ball (the very opening perhaps satirising Nadal’s pre-serve routine)?! See also Ritual groups of Liaoning; and click here for Emma speaking excellent Chinese (Yeah I know…).

From her dad’s part of the world,

  • From the Canadian background of Emma’s parents, some Inuit throat-singing—another joyous ritualised game (whereas both Emma and Leylah are decorously silent on court, perhaps this evokes a speeded-up soundtrack of the vocalisations of certain other tennis players):

  • Moving on to, um, Bromley, how about David Bowie:

* * *

Just as inspiring—both on court and for a playlist!—is Emma’s opponent Leylah Fernandez.

For the Philippine heritage of her mum,

  • the elegant passion of nanguan (nanyin) ballads from the Hokkien diaspora of southeast China:

Leyla’s dad comes from Ecuador, suggesting a somewhat imprecise connection with

  • festive wind bands from the Bolivian Andes (see Music and the potato), grounded in seasonal rituals (Wimbledon and the other majors):

And for the family’s Canadian heritage,

  • in French-Celtic mode, the irresistible energy of La bottine souriante playing La tuque rouge:

  • along with Leonard Cohen:

Hallelujahs for both stellar players!

International Cultural Exchange indeed… Cf. They come over ‘ere…

See also A sporting medley: ritual and gender—not least Cocomania. For another celebratory playlist from early this year, see Dancing in the streets!!!. And do listen to my Playlist of songs

Anagram tales: a roundup, with wacky index

Here are links to our initial selection from the magnificent anagram tales by Nicolas Robertson. They group neatly in three trilogies—first, Mozart operas:

followed by

and

The visions emerging here make up a kind of Esperanto fiction—it’s most rewarding to follow the gnomic texts with the aid of the explanatory stories. Here’s a general introduction by Nick himself:

The anagram stories Stephen Jones has been resolutely issuing arose from a specific combination of circumstances. First, amongst professional classical music singers, the 80s and 90s were a high point for tours, residencies, and CD recordings, all of which furnished extended periods of having to sit patiently around—time used in various ways, crosswords, knitting, books and magazines; there were not yet smartphones or iPads, had they already existed it’s unlikely that these texts would ever have developed.

But in 1984 I had been introduced to the work of Georges Perec and the Oulipo, which added to my early enthusiasm for Mots d’heures: gousses, rames and an appreciation of word games of various sorts (though I never enjoyed or was much good at Scrabble, oddly: I think it was the element of competition which spoiled it). Such games had a much more serious aspect for me (as indeed, to a hugely greater extent, they did for Perec), through their function of creating “potential literature”—Oulipo is “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle”, freeing up through constraints. Having always been keen on writing, I nevertheless had found myself unable, every time I tried, to write imaginative fictional narrative; what began as a collaborative pastime (many anagrams, and certainly the best ones, were deduced by colleagues, once I’d proposed a source text or name) gradually morphed into a generator of unlikely yet rigorously underpinned stories.

As to the process, during recording sessions etc. I collected from volunteers and compiled my own anagrams, which I then joined up in whatever form of narrative appeared possible, permitting myself any old punctuation but always (the few exceptions are noted in the text) sticking rigorously to the sequence of repeated anagram matrices, with the same letters repeated each time, never overlapping nor transposing—no cheating for effect (however tempting). At first that was as far as I thought of going, but it soon appeared that there was another level of interpretation waiting to be exploited, the “potential literature”, and I spent some months, or even years (in the case of Lili Boulanger and Johann Sebastian Bach) extrapolating the story I felt the anagrams were perhaps telling.

In addition to the nine Steve has published, there are six more which survive—several were wholly or partly lost during the course of time and specifically in a fire in our house in Portugal which destroyed most of my papers (and books) in 2009: the survivals are in great part due to Steve himself, and Charles Pott, a notable contributor, who had kept copies, backed up by a handful I’d managed to consign to the internet (most of the stories also predate the days of web-based email).

These other pieces are:

  • Israel in Egypt (anagrams only, stitched together but without parallel text, 1989)

  • Die Entfuhrung (sic—no umlaut, nor the missing ‘e’ it would represent) / Aus dem Serail (introduction + anagrams only, 1991)
  • Salzburg (introduction + anagrams of Beethoven’s Leonore/Beethoven’s Fidelio + story, 1996—probably the most substantial piece of the whole run)

  • Alceste (raw anagram list + anagrams + story, 1999)

  • Merano (intro + raw anagram list + anagrams + story + epilogue, 2000)

  • Oslo (raw anagram list + anagrams + sort of story + epilogue/more story, 2000).

These last two were envisaged as being integral parts of my reactions to the celebrations at the time of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, and the many concerts in which I took part during that year. The last anagram piece I wrote of this sort (there’s since been an acrostic anagram sonnet for Fernando Pessoa) was indeed Johann Sebastian Bach, compiled between 2000 and 2021. There’s a hope that the complete set may eventually interest a publisher…

I still can’t write (and don’t believe I have written) fiction. I was just following where the letters led me.

Nicolas Robertson, August 2021.

* * *

[SJ:] With my penchant for zany indexing (see here, and here), I can’t resist compiling a selective general index of some of the more striking people, places, and themes that adorn the plots so far (just the anagrams, not the extrapolations!), and allowing characters to mingle freely after being trapped within the bonds of the individual stories that generated them. In the absence of page references, you can have fun working out which tales the entries belong to.

196.

index 1

 

197.
index 2 

198.

index 3

199.

index 4

Shawms around the world

ordam 1

From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, Music of the Ordam shrine festival.

Shawm bands, accompanied by percussion, are an essential—and seriously loud—feature in the soundscapes of life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies in many parts of the world, appearing often on this blog. So in lieu of an unwieldy tag, here’s a roundup of some of the main posts.

Shawms (with a wooden body and a flared bell, small unlipped double reed enclosed in the mouth, and a pirouette, overblowing at the octave) are more common than oboes (like Chinese guanzi and Armenian duduk), although the distinction is complex, also involving cylindrical or conical bores (zzzzz)—see here.

Names for shawms are often variants of zurna, but there’s a wealth of local terms. The musicians are low in social status.

For China, large shawms are particularly imposing in the north, as shown in my two books Ritual and music of north China. The starter post is

I analyse the complex melodies of the Hua family band in

See also

and, observing a certain scholarly reluctance to countenance such orally-transmitted cultures,

The Shaanbei bands feature in my post on the great

and, adding nearby Gansu, cf.

See also

and for trouble in Shandong,

Shawm bands are common in south China too, such as in Fujian and Hunan.

Some of these styles also appear on the Playlist in the sidebar (##5, 6, 11, and 15, with commentary here).

For Xinjiang, see

and for Tibet, as well as the monastic shawms and long trumpets (still only featured at the end of this post), the courtly gar features in

Elsewhere, most traditions have spread with Islam from the Middle East. See

Among a wealth of audio-video tracks on the playlist of

is a fine taksim on the Turkish zurna.

Additive shawm metres from Turkey and east Europe feature in

For Azerbaijan, see under

and for Morocco, under

In Europe, Spain features in

And for Italian shawms (not least the 1963–64 recordings from the USA!):

See also

And cf. the extensive trumpet tag.

The ethereal theremin

Theremin 1927

Theremin demonstrating his instrument, 1927.

By a remarkable coincidence (cf. Köchel), the theremin was invented by Léon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen, 1896–1993). Given that its timbre is surely that to which singers and instrumentalists aspire, it seems sad that its profile remains largely limited to the niches of film music and “lollipops”.

Termen was drawn to experiments in physics and electrons from his teens. After World War 1 and the civil war Abram Fedorovich Ioffe recruited him to the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd. In 1920 he invented the instrument that would become known in the USA as theremin. As a cellist, one of the early pieces he adapted was The swan (see below). In this 1954 clip he demonstrates the instrument:

Having married Katia Konstantinova in 1924, he spent time on tour in Europe before they moved to the USA in 1927. His concerts on the theremin soon became popular, and he set up a laboratory in New York, devising a range of inventions, including new electronic musical instruments. As he became the toast of New York society, he was conducting industrial espionage for the Soviet state.

Theremin and Clara

With Clara Rockmore.

Apparently irrespective of the Soviet Consulate’s demands that he should divorce his wife, Theremin proposed to emigré Lithuanian violinist Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg, 1911–98), who became renowned as a theremin virtuoso. Instead, when Clara married an attorney, Theremin married the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams in the mid-1930s, to some controversy; with racial tensions such a thorny issue, this might have made an interesting match. But in 1938, concerned over his financial problems and the imminent global conflict—and perhaps under pressure from his Soviet minders anxious that his spying activities might be exposed—Theremin returned abruptly to the USSR, whereafter Lavinia never saw him again.

With Stalin’s great purge under way, he was promptly imprisoned. He was sent to work at a sharashka research facility in the remote Kolyma gulag, devising eavesdropping devices. After his release in 1947 he remarried. Rehabilitated in 1956 following the death of Stalin, he continued serving the KGB until 1966, also working at the Moscow Conservatoire.

In 1962 Clara took her husband for a holiday visit to her homeland, and on their visit to Moscow they managed to arrange a clandestine meeting with Theremin at his flat in Moscow. But outside Russia no-one knew if he was still alive until 1967, when Harold Schonberg published an article in the NYT about visiting him at the Conservatoire. This exposure brought his work to the attention of the Director, who declared that “electricity is not good for music; electricity is to be used for electrocution“; his instruments were thrown out, and he was dismissed.

When Lavinia visited Clara in 1974, she was glad to learn that Theremin was still alive; as she started corresponding with him, he even proposed remarriage. He was able to travel abroad only from 1989, visiting the USA in 1991—where he met Clara again.

* * *

For more, Albert Glinsky, Theremin: ether music and espionage (2005) is a fascinating study, meticulously researched. And for an imaginative fictional treatment, this tangled web makes a fine theme for the novel by Sean Michaels, Us conductors (2014). Focusing on Theremin’s relationship with Clara, the story takes in the Russian Revolution, America’s Great Depression and the celebrities of the day, Stalin’s gulag, two world wars, the cold war, and perestroika. Indeed, following the 1993 documentary Theremin: an electronic Odyssey (trailer here), the subject seems to cry out (eerily) for a movie version…

For the American episode, Michaels musters an all-star cast, including Rachmaninoff, Toscanini, Joseph Schillinger, the Marx brothers, Glenn Miller, Nicolas Slonimsky, and George Gershwin. He captures the magic of Clara’s presence:

You crouched in black on the terpsitone’s platform, as if you were praying, centred in a spotlight. Carlos, the harpist, sat beside you. In the wings, I held my breath.

You stood, slowly, staring into the room’s rapt silence. You arched your back. You were a black-barked cherry tree. You were my one true love.

With Carlos you played Bach and Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. Each note was shown in a beam of light. I had built a loudspeaker, covered it in twill, raised on a simple mount above the stage. Your music pushed like breath against the cloth. It trembled and then sang. You danced, choosing every moment, guiding the melody with a rolled shoulder and the tilt of knee. At the clubs you had not danced like this.

* * *

Theremin was interested in a role for the instrument in dance music, developing performance locations that could automatically react to dancers’ movements with varied patterns of sound and light. And the instrument was to be a gift for film soundtracks.

Clara

Among several YouTube playlists, this one features 64 tracks by the great Clara Rockmore—opening magically with The swan:

Even by the other-worldly standards of the theremin, her rendition of Vocalise is Something Else:

And here’s Theremin’s last pupil, his grand-niece Lydia Kavina playing Clair de lune:

A current star of the theremin is Carolina Eyck. Her YouTube channel includes Moon river:

For Bach, see also under The Feuchtwang Variations (Grégoire Blancwebsite and YouTube channel), and Strings and voices (Gladys Hulot (aka hYrtis), website and YouTube channel; here she also plays Only you). Suitably, both players double on the musical saw—here Blanc plays them together:

Messiaen was much taken by the ondes martenot, but some of his works adapt well to the theremin too:

And the cello movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps works wonderfully with the winning combo of theremin and accordion:

Now I’m imagining the theremin in dhrupad or Tibetan opera

Eat the Buddha

Eat the Buddha cover

  • Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha: life, death, and resistance in a Tibetan town (2020).

While academic studies of modern Tibetan history and culture have blossomed since the 1980s (see roundup here), the dense language of scholarly publications is often compounded by their prohibitive prices. So there is ample room for an accessible, affordable volume like this to reach a wider audience beyond academia. *

Demick researched her book Nothing to envy: real lives in North Korea (2010) while she was serving as Bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times in Seoul. Based on seven years of conversations, mostly with defectors to the south, as well as nine trips to North Korea from 2001 to 2008 and secretly-filmed video footage, the book is a rare window onto a closed society whose traumas and secrets remain hard to reveal.

By 2007 Demick was covering the PRC, where journalists also face ever greater challenges. From her base in Beijing, she began investigating the lives of Tibetans in the Ngaba region of north Sichuan, which was to become “the undisputed world capital of self-immolation”.

Besides the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR), the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC live in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east (comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces), on which much recent scholarship has focused (see Recent posts on Tibet).

Ngawa map

Source: Conflicting memories.

Ngaba is a prefecture in northwestern Sichuan, adjoining Golog prefecture, quite remote from Lhasa to the west. Demick puts in context the whole history leading up to the Chinese invasion and since, with vivid personal stories illustrating the successive cataclysms.

Part One begins with locals’ first traumatic encounter with Communist troops in the 1930s—the book’s title, referring to votive offerings eaten by famished Red Army troops on the early stages of the Long March, is borrowed from Li Jianglin and Matthew Akester. Demick goes on to outline the early years of the Chinese invasion after 1950, when the king of the Mei kingdom pragmatically accommodated with the new Communist overlords.

Demick 3

This is the back-story to the devastating assaults from 1958, told through the eyes of Gonpo (b.1950), the last Mei princess. After being evicted from their palace, she was relocated to the provincial capital Chengdu along with her mother and sister; her father, the former king, joined them after a year, traumatised after being held in solitary confinement. But the young Gonpo took readily to being sinicised, and was sent on to a prestigious high school in Beijing.

Demick 54

In the summer of 1966 she returned to Chengdu for a holiday with her family, but as the Cultural Revolution broke out she was soon summoned back to Beijing. Having shown willing in previous campaigns (indeed, she supported Chairman Mao avidly), Gonpo was now vulnerable. In 1967 she learned that her parents had died in suspicious circumstances. As she became a target of struggle sessions, a contingent of Red Guards from Ngaba demanded that she should be taken home for further punishment, but instead she was exiled to remote Xinjiang, labouring on a military-run complex in Qinggil (Qinghe) county near the Soviet border. Most of the population sent there were Han Chinese—including her kindly future husband Xiao Tu. They took part in the farm’s propaganda troupe, singing songs in praise of the Party’s “liberation” of Tibet. As higher education began to function again, Gonpo tried in vain to gain admission to colleges in Beijing and Shanghai.

When the couple got permission to take a holiday in 1975, Gonpo took Xiao Tu back to her old home in Ngaba, now unrecognisable; but despite her anxieties, the locals fêted her as a former princess. When they returned to Qinggil they held a simple wedding ceremony. On the death of Chairman Mao later in 1976, their main concern was that Xiao Tu would be able to avoid trouble by maintaining the dodgy loudspeakers broadcasting the funeral. As Demick notes, by the time she was writing Qinggil was the site of a “re-education camp”, inaccessible to outsiders.

We read the story of Delek (b.1949), who came from Meruma village just east of the prefectural capital, where people remained loyal to their former royal patrons. Since his family had suffered grievously as the Chinese enforced their power, he might seem an unlikely recruit to the Red Guards. Yet to many Tibetans the Cultural Revolution presented a welcome opportunity to challenge authority, and by 1968 Delek joined a branch of the Red Guards in Ngaba loyal to the Red City faction in Chengdu, supposing that they could now right the wrongs of the hated commune system and restore religious freedom. But as rebellion spread, the PLA were sent in.

Although this uprising was ultimately a failure, for six months the Tibetans had raised their own livestock, worshipped freely in the monasteries, chanted prayers, and conducted rituals. The monks had worn their robes. It had given Tibetans a taste of freedom, the memory of which could not so easily be extinguished.

In Part Two Demick describes the “interregnum” from the end of the Cultural Revolution to 1989.

By the time of Mao’s death in 1976, Ngaba was a ghost town, sullen and silent. A quarter century of Communist rule had destroyed far more than it had created. What remained consisted mainly of squat mud hovels in dun tones barely distinguishable from the ground underfoot. […] Dust and mud choked the streets. Gutters on either side served as open sewers and toilets.

With the monasteries demolished, there was little to alleviate the drabness or delight the eye. The market nurtured by the king that had made Ngaba worth a detour for traders was long gone.

Demick evokes the resurgence of market enterprise through the story of Norbu (b.1952), who was to become a leading entrepreneur in Ngaba. As a child he had been reduced to begging for the family by the Chinese “democratic reforms”, and later turned to the black market. By 1974 he was making regular trips by bus to Chengdu to buy goods that he could sell back in Ngaba. As the commune system crumbled, the range of merchandise increased. In partnership with his Chinese wife he opened a tea shop and a supermarket.

With the monasteries still closed, some monks also turned to business, with their higher level of literacy. The monasteries re-opened gradually from 1980. Of the roughly 1,700 monks at Ngaba’s main monastery Kirti, only around 300 were still alive; some were traumatised after years in prison. As in Chinese regions, many of those helping to rebuild the temples were former activists who had taken part in destroying them.

New buildings began appearing in the county town—dominated by the institutions of the Chinese state. Tibetans were keen to buy motorbikes, and the trade in caterpillar fungus made a lucrative boost to their income. Ngaba traders travelled not only to the booming southeastern Chinese cities but to Lhasa and the border with Nepal.

The Han Chinese population of Ngaba was growing too; as the Tibetan plateau became a promising place to make money, the state encouraged migration with Develop the West campaigns. Tibetans were soon outnumbered by Chinese in Amdo, and were disadvantaged in many spheres.

Still, Tibetan education was reviving (cf. the lama Mugé Samtan, whose initiative began in Ngaba as early as 1980—see Nicole Willock’s chapter in Conflicting memories, pp.501–502). Tsegyam (b.1964) was a young teacher at the Ngaba Middle School, which opened in 1983. He had been given a Tibetan education by (former) Kirti monks, and became fluent in Chinese, spending a period studying in Chengdu. During the wider cultural revival in the PRC he wrote poetry and essays for literary magazines. At the Middle School he cautiously added Tibetan culture into the curriculum.

Tsegyam’s eyes were opened by reading a copy of the Dalai Lama’s memoir My land and my people, brought back by a friend from a trip to India. As awareness of the Tibetan government in exile grew, major protests took place in Lhasa in 1987. Though there was a strong military presence in Ngaba, Tsegyam echoed the mood by pasting up posters in support of Free Tibet and the Dalai Lama. By 1989, as protests throughout the PRC gathered and were crushed, he was under interrogation; sentenced to another year in prison in 1990, on his release he was unemployed and unemployable.

We catch up with Gonpo. In 1981 she and her husband were permitted to leave Xinjiang with their two children, settling in Xiao Tu’s old home Nanjing. One of countless people whose past backgrounds were now forgotten, Gonpo did well as a primary school teacher. While she kept a small portrait of the Dalai Lama at home, she could pass for a Chinese—by now she could barely recall Tibetan.

Still, she received a visit from a high-ranking Tibetan official on a tour of Nanjing, who had her promoted to posts in the Party; though mainly ceremonial, her new status conferred benefits such as a comfortable apartment.

In 1984 Gonpo managed to arrange belated funeral rites for her parents at Kirti monastery. In Beijing she gained an audience with the Panchen Lama, also recently rehabilitated (see e.g. under Labrang 1); he encouraged her to study Tibetan culture in India, and with his help she set off there with her daughter in 1988 during a thaw in Sino-Indian relations. She intended to return to Nanjing in due course, but the crisis of 1989 ensured that she would now find herself living in exile in Dharamsala.

Part Three takes the story on to 2013, as tensions grew again. As urban China basked in McDonalds and Walmart, rural Tibetans still lacked basic amenities.

In Meruma, Dongtuk was born to a disabled single mother who overcame poverty. In her house was a shrine to her uncle, a tulku reincarnate lama.

What little that children knew about recent history was gleaned from their families.

To the extent that they were taught anything about Tibet in the 20th century, it was about how the Communist Party had liberated Tibet from serfdom. Their parents tended not to talk about it. Maybe they didn’t know about it themselves. Or they feared these stories of collective trauma might arouse anti-Chinese sentiments that could get the children in trouble later down the road. The surviving elders who knew firsthand—and who often carried the scars on their bodies—disgorged their memories only sparingly. If they hadn’t been half-starved and beaten, if they hadn’t languished in prison doing gruelling work, then they had done things of which they were now ashamed. You were either tormented or a tormentor. Nobody had escaped unscathed.

Dongtuk gladly accepted when his mother suggested that he become a monk at Kirti monastery, which was now expanding grandly. In the company of village friends there, he flourished at the monastery school. But a new policy was stamping down on monastic activism; a new “patriotic education” campaign was launched at Kirti in 1998, radicalising many monks. The school was closed in 2002.

Pema (b. c1965) was a supporter of the monastery. After the death of her husband she ran a market stall to support her children, two of whom were monks. She regularly took part in circumambulations at Kirti (cf. Charlene Makley for Labrang, ch.3). She took in a young girl called Dechen, who took to a Chinese education, as well as her niece Lhundup Tso, who was of a more enquiring mind. Pema herself was inclined to be grateful for the limited freedoms they now enjoyed. But she was concerned about a vast new construction project; while she felt more pity than hostility towards the Chinese, she didn’t want any more of them in her town. Infrastructure projects escalated in the buildup to the Olympics—along with surveillance.

Demick 159

Brought up in a nomadic community, Tsepay (b.1977) was not inclined towards dissent. His good looks gained him admission to an official song-and-dance troupe at the glossy resort of Jiuzhaigou, and at first he enjoyed the work. But he came to resent the condescending clichés intrinsic to such displays, and his comments got him into trouble. Leaving the troupe, he began travelling the plateau with cellphone and camera to document the transformation of the landscape.

Despite Chinese censorship, families and monasteries still commonly kept portraits of the Dalai Lama, although people were ready to conceal them if there was a raid. Tsepay listened to recordings of teachings by the Dalai Lama, and became aware of the conflict over the identification of the new Panchen Lama. In 2006, as the Chinese rhetoric against the Dalai Lama became more strident, Tsepay spent a year in prison for distributing Dalai Lama recordings, radicalising him further.

These stories come together in Demick’s account of the 2008 uprising. Serious protests broke out in Lhasa on 10th March on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising that led to the flight of the Dalai Lama. In Ngaba the military police were on full alert, but protests erupted there too on the 16th. Dechen normally found the troops rather dashing, but now the tension was clear. In the middle of a prayer festival at Kirti the young monk Dongtuk saw an older colleague holding up a photo of the Dalai Lama and yelling “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama!”. As other monks joined in, they swept out into the streets, confronting the riot police, who responded with tear gas and live ammunition. On their mobiles people began to learn of protests elsewhere in the region, in Labrang, Dzorge, and Rebgong.

Tsepay, on probation, couldn’t resist going into town. There he found the blood-stained body of a young Tibetan woman—probably Pema’s young niece Lhundup Tso. Pema, a curious onlooker, was horrified to learn that she was among those shot dead. Enraged, Tsepay entered the battle. Wounded, he escaped via Chengdu to Shenzhen, where he was pursued by police from Ngaba, but managed to escape again.

Demick 183

With Kirti monastery now under virtual siege, checkpoints, bunkers, and CCTV were installed. Nearly 600 monks were arrested, over a fifth of the monastery’s population. But the campaign to remove all traces of the Dalai Lama only increased the Tibetans’ reverence for him. At last Dongtuk could interpret the sufferings of his elders in terms of the current oppression. He began listening to illegal Amdo songs such as Tashi Dhondup’s 1958–2008 (see also here).

With Pema distraught over the death of her niece, and normal social life suspended, Dechen became the family’s go-between. Her education at Tibetan middle school had become more conventional; in response to campaigns against expressions of Tibetan nationalism, the students waged subtle protests.

Self-immolation
Life began returning to “normal” by the end of 2008, but the 2009 Monlam New Year festival prompted yet another crisis as a young Kirti monk set himself on fire on the main street. Though he survived, 156 Tibetans have since immolated themselves, of whom nearly a third came from Ngaba and nearby.

Dongtuk’s life at Kirti monastery had become tedious. He was a keen basketball fan, and loved watching movies. His mother eventually submitted to his repeated requests for her to muster the funds to allow him to study in India, but his efforts to leave were unsuccessful.

On 16th March 2011 another Kirti monk, a friend of Dongtuk, set himself on fire—this time fatally. Looking for scapegoats, police arrested monks, and locals rallied to protest. The monastery was barricaded again. But over the next months further self-immolations followed.

Ngaba was now sealed off and equipped with all the technology of riot control—with fire extinguishers now added to the police arsenal. When Demick visited the town in 2013 it reminded her of trips to war zones like Baghdad, Sarajevo, and the Gaza Strip.

As the self-immolations brought renewed international publicity to the Tibetan cause, the Dalai Lama and Tibet advocacy groups were in an awkward position.

Dechen, no longer so amenable to the Chinese, was now alienated by her education at school; Pema now began the complex procedures to help her reach India, as it became ever harder for Tibetan to gain travel permits. With Pema travelling as her chaperone, after a four-month journey they eventually made their way to Dham and crossed into Nepal.

Dongtuk too renewed his efforts to leave. He evaded attention by staying on his father’s nomadic pastures, getting to know his half-brother Rinzen Dorjee. And then, via Lhasa, Dham and Kathmandu, Dongtuk too managed to reach Dharamsala. As he resumed his studies at the branch of Kirti monastery there (founded in 1990), he learned of another self-immolation in Meruma—that of Rinjen Dorjee.

In Part Four Demick visits Ngaba refugees in Dharamsala, learning details hard to divulge in the intimidated atmosphere of Ngaba, and updating the story since 2014. (It is indeed possible for scholars to glean insights through extended stays among Tibetans within the PRC, as did Charlene Makley around Labrang, but in presenting their work they tend to be beset by academic concerns. For fine reflections on the differences between conducting research in Lhasa and Dharamsala, see Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?“, cited in n.1 here).

The journey to India was always fraught with dangers. Following the initial exodus after 1959, another wave took place in the 1980s. We catch up with Gonpo, who had been in inadvertent exile in Dharamsala with her daughter since 1989. The Dalai Lama, whom she had met in 1956, received her warmly, giving her a post in the exile parliament. But as relations between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama deteriorated, Gonpo was unable to see her husband and her other daughter until 2005. As Demick observed after meeting her in 2014,

Not only does the rift between China and the Tibetans run straight through her family, it runs through her psyche. Gonpo loves China as well as Tibet. She still speaks better Chinese than Tibetan. More than most Han Chinese people I know, she absorbed the lessons of socialism. She eschewed conspicuous displays of wealth and was proud that she had shed her aristocratic roots and was, to use a Chinese Communist slogan, serving the people.

Goonpo was deeply disturbed by the self-immolations in her former home.

Demick x

Demick also met the former Red Guard Delek, who had also managed to reach Dharamsala in 1989, becoming a historian as he documented the tribulations of Ngaba, while serving as caretaker at a school for young refugees.

The young teacher Tsegyam had sneaked across the border into India in 1992, eventually becoming private secretary to the Dalai Lama. And after fleeing Ngaba in 2008, Tsepay was on the run for four years, spending over a year in hiding on Wutaishan before reaching Dharamsala.

Dechen was enthusiastic about her studies at the boarding school run by the exile government; educating herself further by reading Woeser keenly, she was hoping to become a journalist. She took Demick to meet Pema, who despite her relief at escaping the appalling repressions in Ngaba, didn’t feel quite at ease, missing the material comforts of her former home.

Indeed, for many exiles the homeland remains ambivalent; with conditions in India less than ideal, they may be tempted to return to their homeland, despite the inevitable scrutiny to which they will be subjected. From a peak of 118,000 in the mid-1990s, the Tibetan population in India declined to 94,000 in 2009. The Chinese had plugged leaks to the borders, and Tibetans often move on to Western countries.

Demick considers the role of the Dalai Lama and current worries over the succession (for recent news, see e.g. here). The bar has lowered from independence to survival; but if the preservation of Tibetan culture sounds like a modest goal, even this can clearly not be taken for granted.

In her final chapter Demick ponders the limits of freedom. Some Tibetans even thought the Chinese had heeded the lessons of the self-immolations; they had cancelled an unpopular water diversion project, and shelved plans to house Chinese workers; aid projects were coming into effect. Photos of the Dalai Lama reappeared at Kirti. But Chinese migration continues, and Tibetans are still disadvantaged.

It should go without saying: The Tibetans are not some exotic isolated tribe trying to preserve an ancient civilisation against the advance of modernity. They want infrastructure, they want technology, they want higher education. But they also want to keep their language and their freedom of religion. […]

Time and again I heard the same story. Almost everybody was better off financially than they’d been a decade ago, like everybody in China. But Tibetans were still poor—even by the standards of rural China. And they could see that the Chinese newcomers in town had a higher standard of living.

Younger Tibetans might not be deeply religious; they might readily take to a Chinese education as a career path, and be seduced by the trappings of modern material goods. And yet they too have come to resent deeply their chronic submission to the Chinese, connecting it to the scars inherited from their elders, and they continue to fight to maintain their identity.

* * *

Eat the Buddha is based on three trips to Ngaba, as well as interviews with Ngaba people elsewhere, most fruitfully in Dharamsala.

With a few exceptions […], the people in this book left Tibet not for political reasons but to further their education or personal growth.

For the most part, they were regular people who hoped to live normal, happy lives in China’s Tibet without having to make impossible choices between their faith, family, and their country.

As she did for Nothing to envy, Demick provides a useful research guide in a section of endnotes, themed by chapter. Besides her own visits to Ngaba, Chengdu, Lhasa, and Dharamsala, she cites sources such as the War on Tibet site of Li Jianglin and Matthew Akester, the work of scholars such as Tsering Shakya, Robert Barnett, and Melvyn Goldstein (we can now add Conflicting memories, including Bianca Horlemann’s chapter 11 on Golog), as well as human rights groups (cf. my roundup of posts on Tibet). Tsering Woeser has written on self-immolation in Tibet on fire (2016), and in this article. Many of these issues are covered on the excellent High Peaks Pure Earth website.

While the Chinese Party-State’s repression of the Tibetans is taking a rather different form to its barbarity in Xinjiang (see Uyghur tag), it’s important to keep the Tibetan case in the public eye. Over seventy years of Chinese indoctrination and brute force have been ineffective; a way out of the impasse remains elusive. Engagingly told through personal stories, Eat the Buddha makes a microcosm of the travails of Tibetans in their sorry encounter with the modern Chinese state, serving for the non-specialist (that’s me) as a digestible introduction to complex issues.


* For some effective popular works on other areas, see Charles King (here and here), Undreamed shores, Watching the English, and The souls of China.

Compton Mackenzie meets Henry James

In 1949 Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972) gave a sublimely elegiac talk on the BBC Home Service, recalling his last visit to the aged Henry James (1843–1916) at his flat off Cheyne Walk in the late summer of 1914. He had already published a written version in his “My meetings with Henry James” (Mark Twain quarterly 6.3, 1945). 

The BBC broadcast his talk again in the 1970s, and copies circulated among a little group of friends. Even then, there was a double nostalgia about listening to a 1949 reminiscence of a 1914 meeting. The encounter rather reminds me of my own Cambridge visits to Laurence Picken, as well as Sir Harold Bailey. It’s one of my most treasured recordings, and I’m mortified that the BBC hasn’t made it available online (go on, BBC!). Mackenzie’s delivery is at once hilarious and poignant, evoking James’s sense of frailly handing over the baton to a younger generation; to transcribe highlights on the page is a paltry stopgap. 

“And now, my dear boy, make yourself as comfortable, as, in this monstrous time of war, comfort either of body or mind is… is…”. He paused to grasp the adjective, floating for a moment out of his reach, and then, just as his fingers were closing upon it, or rather—I become Jamesian myself as the memory of the scene recurs —or rather, poising like a butterfly hunter, net in air, to swoop upon the perfect adjective and imprison it in the reticulation of his prose… at that moment, his housekeeper came into the room.

Henry James looked round for the epithet, now well on its way to escape, desperation in his mild and magnificent eyes. And then his housekeeper said, gently but most firmly,

“It’s about the marmalade, Mr James.”

“Marmalade…” he ejaculated.

“Marmalade—from the Army and Navy Stores,” she insisted. Henry James turned to me:

“Will you, my dear boy, try to entertain, or perhaps not so much entertain as engage yourself with a book, while I devote a minute or two of most unwilling attention, or rather, er… tortured concentration upon one of these hideous encounters with domestic necessity. A vast emporium, one of these appalling achievements of our modern craving for the huge, the immense… looms between myself and this delightful company of yours […]”

Mr James,” the housekeeper interposed, with hardly concealed impatience, “the man from the Army and Navy Stores is waiting, for the order.”

“One moment, Mrs Dash, I will not keep you a moment… Now, my dear boy—where is our dear H.G. Wells’s last book, full of that Wellsian quality, which sometimes flows, perhaps a little too…? Or you may rather beguile yourself for a moment while I surrender to the remorseless ritual which these domestic conveniences demand from us… Yes! Here is our dear Arnold Bennett’s last…” While Henry James was picking up book after book on the table, and bumbling around them like a great irresolute bee, his housekeeper was tapping the floor with her foot.

“Mr James, please,” she protested. The great novelist seated himself at his desk, pen poised above the notepaper, looked anxiously up to his housekeeper:

“How would you, er… how shall I address the apex of this pyramid, the, er, director of this magnificent display of co-operative energy?”

“Mr James, just write the order please, and the man will take it,” she almost pleaded.

“And what was the peculiar title of the condiment which we seek to import into this so humble corner of this vast London of ours, Mrs Dash?”

“Mr James! Oh… We were going to order six jars of that Oxford marmalade you liked.”

From the corner of my eye I watched the operation of writing that order, as Henry James’s pen advanced to paper and drew back, and advanced again, and again drew back and then hovered above the notepaper, making a traceless pattern upon the air in a kind of sarabande, to which the housekeeper’s foot tapped quite out of time. At last the pen descended upon the paper, and a large, angular script flowed across it. The six jars of marmalade were ordered, and with a sigh of exhaustion and relief, Henry James came back to his guest, apologising once more for the interruption, and full of solicitude for the way I’d been able to pass the time while the marmalade was being ordered. […]

marmalade

To this day the very word “marmalade” invariably sends us into fits of giggling. For the tribulations of composers beset by mundane concerns, as recreated by Monty Python, see here.

On a feminist note, Sarah Jane Gill, creator of said delicacy, has been largely deprived of deserved fame by her husband Frank Cooper—Typical!

Anyway, with James liberated at last from his “hideous encounter with domestic necessity”, he can devote his attention once again to his young visitor:

Just before I said farewell to Henry James on that October afternoon, I told him it was my intention to revise, and possibly rewrite altogether my novel Carnival in the light of my experience. He held up his hands in a wide gesture of dismay. […] “I once wasted ten, indeed twelve precious years in foolishly supposing that in the light of experience I could grope my way towards a more… towards that always elusive… in short, that I could add yet something to what, when it was written, I had given all that I could give at that time. Renounce this preposterous ambition of yours, my dear boy. You have been granted the boon which is all a novelist should beg for himself. You have been granted that boon with a generosity beyond that accorded to any of your young contemporaries. You fling the ball up against the wall, and it rebounds immediately into your hands— […] whereas I fling the ball against the wall, whence it rebounds not into my hands but onto the next wall, and from that wall to the next…” He followed, with apprehensive glance, the flight of that ghostly ball around the room… “Until it at last falls to the ground, and dribbles, very, very slowly, towards my feet; and I, all my old bones aching, stoop, and most laboriously, pick it up.”

 

With thanks to Leo Kanaris.

 

The Ratline

Wachter family

  • Philippe Sands, The Ratline: love, lies, and justice on the trail of a Nazi fugitive (2020)

is an extraordinary sequel to his book East West street and film A Nazi legacy. In those works we learned of the shameful careers of Hans Frank and Otto Wächter, Nazi governors in Poland/Ukraine who oversaw the murder of countless Jewish families, including that of Sands himself. A major theme in both book and film is Sands’s relationship with their sons; whereas Frank’s son Niklas vehemently denounces his father’s crimes, Wächter’s son Horst somehow clings onto an image of his father as a humane leader who was caught up in the evil. Horst

did not deny the horrors, of a holocaust, of millions of people murdered. It happened and it was wrong, period. “I know the system was criminal, that my father was part of it, but I don’t think of him as a criminal.”

Ratline cover

The Ratline focuses on Otto Wächter and the story of his attempted flight from justice after the war. It supplements Sands’s ten-part series on BBC Radio 4; both make a most captivating detective story, with plot twists at every chapter.

The book is in four parts: Love, Power, Flight, and Death. It sets forth from the papers of Otto Wächter’s wife Charlotte, handed down to their son Horst.

Otto took part in anti-Jewish activism as early as 1921, before his 20th birthday. As he moved up the Nazi ranks, he met Charlotte in 1929. She gave him a copy of Mein Kampf in 1931, just before she too joined the party; they married in 1932, going on to have six children.

In 1934 the family was separated for two years when Otto went into hiding after Engelbert Dolfuss was killed in a Nazi attempt to overthrow his government in Vienna. By 1936 he was working in Berlin alongside Heydrich, Himmler, and Eichmann. Following the 1938 Anschluss, he was promoted yet higher.

In Vienna, as Jews were persecuted ruthlessly, Charlotte held lavish dinner parties and took her growing family on idyllic holidays in the mountains. To read of her cultural tastes is unsettling (cf. Alex Ross, The rest is noise, Chapter 9): she attended the Ring cycle, Der Freischütz, and The marriage of Figaro at the Salzburg festival, as well as Bruckner 7 (“her favourite piece of music”); Falstaff, Don Carlos, and Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera; and she heard Furtwängler conducting Mozart and Beethoven.

Upon the Nazi occupation of Poland, Otto was made governor of the District of Kraków, overseeing ever more extreme measures against the Jewish population. In 1941 he created the Kraków ghetto; plans for the Final Solution were coming into action. Charlotte was proud of his “humane” work. The Vienna Phil came to Kraków; the city’s own orchestra performed Brahms’s 2nd piano concerto and Beethoven 7.

The following year Otto was made governor of the District of Galicia, based at Lemberg (Lviv), already ravaged by Soviet occupation. His house there had a big garden, a swimming pool and tennis court, and a large staff. On a visit, Hans Frank announced the implementation of the final Solution in Galicia, his odious speech received with “lively applause”:

Party comrade Wächter! I have to say, you did well. Lemberg is once again a true, proud, German city. I do not speak about the Jews who are still here, we will deal with them, of course. […]

Incidentally, I don’t seem to have any of that trash hanging around here today. What’s going on? They tell me that there were thousands and thousands of those flat-footed primitives in this city once upon a time—but there hasn’t been a single one to be seen since I arrived. Don’t tell me that you’ve been treating them badly?

Otto found time to attend Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

By 1943 Galicia was proclaimed Judenfrei. Otto took advantage of this “success” to create the Waffen-SS Galicia Division by drafting Ukrainians in the territory, as the war with the Soviet Union became increasingly ominous. Typically, Charlotte commented, “He knew how to govern, with Austrian charm and warmth”; she hoped the move would make him popular with Ukrainians.

Horst too consistently claims that others were responsible for the atrocities, maintaining this position even when Sands confronts him with irrefutable evidence; but at the same time their relationship remains cordial, and Horst keenly continues to supply him with more information. Sands eventually finds that Horst’s defence of his father is more about his devotion to the memory of his mother.

In 2014, following the Purcell Room event (shown in A Nazi legacy) at which Horst claimed his father was still venerated in Ukraine, Sands, Niklas Frank, and Horst travelled there to film some of the most disturbing scenes in the documentary, visiting an event west of Lviv in commemoration of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division. While relations among the trio have somehow remained civilised, this event prompted Niklas to regard Horst conclusively as a Nazi.

By summer 1944, as Russian troops advanced, Otto retreated to Berlin, from where he was soon transferred to a post in Italy, liaising between Hitler and Mussolini’s Republic of Salò. In a speech he disingenuously claimed that Germany

“wanted clean factories, decent housing for workers, mothers and children, improved living conditions created for the masses”, not conflict. It had been forced to draw its sword, “to defend against envious, rapacious neighbours”, in a war started by the “powers of the eternal subversion of capital and Judaism”.

But privately Otto and Charlotte recognised that defeat was imminent. He returned to Berlin in February 1945, still working in support of Ukrainian forces against Stalin. After Hitler’s suicide on 29th April, Charlotte took steps to have the children taken to safety, and faced the US occupation at home on Lake Zell in Austria; fearing the worst, she found the American troops remarkably friendly, and was able to summon the children back.

Meanwhile, hunted by the Americans, British, Poles, Jews, and Soviets, Otto went into hiding, heading south across the mountains towards Italy.

* * *

So far, the story overlaps with that of East West street. In Part Three Sands traces Otto’s years on the run. The publicity surrounding the release of A Nazi legacy prompted Horst to renew his efforts to defend the memory of his father. It was now that he began to show Sands the voluminous papers of his mother, which he agreed to house at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

This archive offered new leads on the mysterious post-war years leading up to Otto’s death in Rome in 1949, apparently the result of bathing in the polluted Tiber.

By late 1945 news was reaching Otto and Charlotte of the fate of other senior Nazis, “a litany of indictments, arrests, suicides, and disappearances”. Among many of Otto’s colleagues captured was Hans Frank, leading to his sentencing at the Nuremburg Trials and execution.

It turned out that after Otto disappeared, Charlotte was in constant contact with him as he evaded detection by moving around in the mountains of Austria. Throughout the period she was exchanging letters with Otto, and they furtively met up every few weeks in hill farms, or in a tiny mountain hut, Charlotte bringing along supplies for the fugitive, as well as providing him with fake identity papers. By 1947, with the spacious family homes confiscated, Charlotte managed to buy a house in Salzburg.

In the mountains Otto had a companion known as Buko, a junior SS man also on the run, who took care of him; remarkably, he was still alive in 2017, and he provided details on the period for Sands and Horst when they went to visit him at home in Germany.

In summer 1948 Otto at last resolved to head south alone towards the Vatican, staging point on the Ratline, an escape route for Nazis to flee to safety in South America. First, Charlotte took the risk of secretly bringing him home to Salzburg for Christmas with the children (see photo above). She had just had another abortion, her third since 1934. But as neighbours found out that Otto was there, he made his way south, reaching Bolzano by Easter 1949. Sands learned that the Polish authorities were already on his trail.

Among the works of art that the Wächters had stolen from the Kraków museum was a version of Bruegel’s The fight between Carnival and Lent. Short of funds, Otto subsidised his journey by selling such works. With a new identity card, he now took the train to Rome. The support network with which he eventually met up arranged for him to lodge at Vigna Pia, a monastic establishment south of the city whose murky clientele included many such fugitives. The previous occupant of Otto’s cell was an SS man who “designed gas vans used to murder Jews and persons with disabilities”, and who went on to serve as senior adviser to Pinochet.

Taking great care, Otto and Charlotte remained in frequent contact by letter. As she continued attending concerts in Salzburg, Otto explored escape routes. With Otto short of money again, Charlotte continued selling off looted art works. But he needed to find employment; incongruously, he now found work as an extra for a filmed version of La forza del destino. Tito Gobbi, who starred in the leading role, “could not have been aware that one of the extras was a man indicted for mass murder, for shootings and executions”. Another film followed.

But Otto and Charlotte were ever more anxious that he would be exposed. In July 1949 he visited a “kind old comrade” outside Rome, going for a swim and eating heartily. But he soon began to feel unwell, and after returning to Rome he consulted a German doctor. As his fever became more serious, he was admitted to the Ospedale di Santo Spirito, a Vatican-supported institution. By the time that Charlotte arrived on 15th July, she learned that he had died two days earlier.

* * *

But there’s still much more to unravel: in Part Four, the most remarkable part of the book, the plot thickens yet again, with staggering twists in every chapter.

On the 16th July Charlotte met Bishop Hudal, in whose arms her husband had died. Doubts were soon aired as to whether Otto was really dead, but records show that Charlotte had viewed his corpse in the mortuary, “black as wood, all burnt inside, like a Negro”. That day his body was taken to the cemetery for interment, the first of five burials over the following decades: at the family home in Salzburg, at another of Charlotte’s properties and then a cemetery nearby, and finally in a different plot at the same site along with Charlotte after her own death in 1985.

This story only emerged in 2016, after the documentary and the first book. From Charlotte’s papers and Otto’s diary, a web of shady contacts in Rome began to emerge. Sands begins his quest with Bishop Hudal, who gave refuge to Nazis during and after the war—including Erich Priebke, responsible for the Fosse Ardeatine massacre outside Rome; Josef Mengele; and the mass-murderer Franz Stangl, whose interviews with Gitta Sereny shortly before his death in 1971 provided further clues about the Bishop.

After Hudal’s death in 1963, his posthumous memoir revealed that Otto had told him that he had been poisoned “by a former German major working in Rome”, at the behest of the American secret service—a suggestion that hardly appears in Charlotte’s papers.

With Horst, Sands now began to delve into the clue, scrutinising Otto’s address book. By now the fear of Communism was replacing the old enemy of Nazism. An expert on the history of Italy at the time doubted that Otto could have been poisoned: most violence was aimed at settling scores with Italian fascists. Otto’s pursuers might at first have been keen to have him arrested, jailed, tried; but by 1949, as the Communist threat loomed, the Americans were more concerned to turn such Nazi criminals into agents against their own new opponents—as indeed were the Russians.

Sands makes use of the archives of the American Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), whose concerns moved from denazification to the recruiting of former Nazis in the face of the Communist threat. They were well aware of the Ratline (indeed, they may even have created it) and the Vatican connection.

Sands now consults his neighbour David Cornwall (John Le Carré!), with his own rich experience of espionage—he was even in Austria in 1949, hunting Nazis. He could see that Otto would have been attractive to the Americans as a “talent-spotter”; “the incidental fact that he was a monster would play no part. If they looked him over and liked the cut of his jib, I’d be surprised if they didn’t recruit him.” The Americans would follow this up with Persilschein, washing whiter than white, disguising the recruit’s background.

The ever more labyrinthine trail eventually leads to Karl Hass, a former SS major then working in Rome as a spy for the Americans. A former colleague of Otto, he had been caught by the CIC in November 1945, but escaped several times. By 1947 he had come to an arrangement with the CIC, approved by Thomas Lucid, commanding officer of the 430th detachment. Hass agreed to run a new network of agents, codenamed Project Los Angeles. Many names on the list were contacts of Otto’s in Rome, including Bishop Hudal: Otto had walked into a nest of secret agents.

So it transpires from the CIC Archives that the “kind old comrade” whom Otto went to meet in July 1949 was none other than Hass. Already concerned that Hass might be a double agent, the CIC later dropped him. Remaining in Italy, he even followed in Otto’s footsteps, landing parts in The house of intrigue and Visconti’s The damned; cast as an SS officer, he hardly had to act.

One of those whom the Ratline had helped escape to Argentina was Erich Priebke. In 1994 a US documentary team tracked him down there; while curtly admitting his involvement in the Ardeatine massacre, he adopted the “just following orders” gambit, just like Otto. But he was now extradited and put on trial in Rome—which led to Hass also being charged with crimes against humanity. They were both sentenced in 1998; Hass died in 2004.

By 2017 it was clear that Bishop Hudal helped Nazis escape to South America; that he helped Otto; and that he was a paid agent of the Americans.

By this time Horst was convinced that Otto had been poisoned—which allowed him to portray his father as a victim rather than a perpetrator. He went to Rome with Sands to seek further clues. They visited Vigna Pia, the hospital where Otto died, and the Ardeatine Caves. Next the group visited Lake Albano, scene of the fateful weekend when Otto visited Karl Hoss and fell ill. There they met an old priest who confided yet another revelation: Thomas Lucid, Hass’s CIC controller, had a son Viktor (b.1946) as a result of an affair with his secretary; and Viktor married Hass’s daughter Enrica in 1974. Sands travelled to Geneva to meet him, learning more (but never enough) about Hass. Brought up by a stepfather, only in 1960 did Viktor learn that Lucid was his biological father.

To fill in more details about Lucid, Sands then went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to talk with his other son Tom Junior, to whom his wife gave birth in 1947. He too received Sands genially (on the topic of fieldwork rapport, I may add that in the midst of such deeply traumatic material, the people whom Sands seeks out are won over by his sensitivity and integrity). Eventually Sands revealed to Tom Junior that he had a brother in Geneva—not quite news to him, but a secret that he had discreetly buried.

Meanwhile Horst was hoping to have his father’s remains exhumed, with a view to getting DNA tests done to show any traces of poison. Consulting various scientists, Sands learned that this would be a tall order; and from his detailed notes they tended towards the view that Otto was more likely infected after swimming in polluted waters.

Horst’s latest suspect for the murder of his father was the famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Documents in Wiesenthal’s archive provided more details on Otto’s time in Kraków and Lemberg, but nothing to hint that he might have been involved in his murder.

In 2018 Sands reported back to Horst, who gave his blessing to the forthcoming Ratline podcast—while still defending his father, even when Sands asked him about incriminating documents that Horst himself had worried over in 2007.

Ratline page

The podcast produced further memories from listeners. Sands returned once again to Horst’s home, showing him some more photos, including the Bochnia executions (above), without changing Horst’s mind. And he shared a new document showing that immediately after meeting Otto in May 1949, Bishop Hudal had divulged the news to his American minders, yet they had taken no steps to apprehend him; Otto’s fear of the Americans was misplaced. The document further claimed that Otto had offered his service to the Italians.

* * *

Even if the mystery of Otto Wächter’s death still remains unsolved despite all these intrepid investigations, Sands has showed the most extraordinary persistence in tracking down sources—to which Horst kept on leading him, even while insisting on his father’s innocence. The Ratline is an object lesson in how to unearth buried truths. It makes an utterly compelling story—further essential material on this hideous, complex period of the mid-20th century.

The reinvention of humanity: the Boas circle

Like the societies that it studies, anthropology is in constant flux.

On Franz Boas (1858–1942) and his circle, a most engaging book is

  • Charles KingThe reinvention of humanity: how a circle of renegade anthropologists remade race, sex, and gender (2020)—main title of 2019 US edition Gods of the upper air (“Discuss”). Reviewed e.g. herehereand here.

Immensely readable, it surveys how ways of making sense of the diverse cultures of the world have changed since the beginnings of formal anthropology.

Cover, showing Margaret Mead with Fa’amatu in American Samoa, c1926.

Reaching beyond the confines of drier academic treatments, it’s a real gift to write like this for a general audience. King really brings to life what might seem like abstruse theoretical debates.

Alongside Boas himself, he focuses on four female scholars: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston. [1] As Francis Gooding comments,

It’s not a coincidence that Boas and his collaborators, variously Jewish, Black, Indigenous, female and queer, were all outsiders of one kind or another to the mainstream of American society. That their ideas were found radical and strange is an indictment of their culture; that King’s book seems timely is an indictment of our own.

The work of the Boas circle set forth from fieldwork on “exotic” cultures to the lessons it might provide on issues in American society, as they challenged the entrenched notion of linear progress from “primitive” to advanced societies, and the narrow categories of race and gender.

More than anyone in his day, Boas understood that his own society’s deepest prejudices were grounded not in moral arguments but rather in allegedly scientific ones. Disenfranchised African Americans were intellectually inferior because the latest research said so. Women could not hold positions of influence because their weaknesses and peculiar dispositions were well proven. The feebleminded should be kept to themselves because the key to social betterment lay in reducing their number in the general population. Immigrants carried with them the afflictions of their benighted homelands, from disease to crime to social disorder.

Thus

the core message of the Boas circle was that, in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. […]
In time these shifts would inform how sociologists understand immigrant integration or exclusion; how public health officials think about endemic illnesses from diabetes to drug addiction; how police and criminologists seek out the root causes of crime; and how economists model the seemingly irrational actions of buyers and sellers.

Such insights, I confess, do look like progress to me. Still, even as they have gained widespread currency, King notes the resistance from the political right, where

some of these changes are said to constrict a community’s ability to determine its own social mores. A new form of state-sanctioned intolerance, protected in “safe spaces” and monitored by “language police” from schools to workplaces, insists that we should all agree on what constitutes marriage, a good joke, or a flourishing society. The narrative is one of overreach, of unreasonableness, of an overweening state’s infringing on individual speech, thought, and sincerely held values.

King also pays suitable attention to the personalities, their struggles, and complicated love lives of the group.

The members of the Boas circle fought and argued, wrote thousands of pages of letters, spent countless nights under mosquito nets and in rain-soaked lodges, and fell in and out of love with one another. For each of them, fame, if it ever arrived, was edged with infamy—their careers became bywords for licentiousness and crudity, or for the batty idea that Americans might not have created the greatest country that had ever existed. They were dismissed from jobs, monitored by the FBI, and hounded in the press, all for making the simple suggestion that the only scientific way to study human societies was to treat them all as part of one undivided humanity.

* * *

Franz Boas was born in 1858 in Minden, Westphalia—where my orchestral colleague Hildi was to find refuge after fleeing invasive regimes. After studying physics in Heidelberg and Kiel, Boas was drawn to Arctic adventure; in 1883, taking a servant, he embarked for Baffin Island.

The Inuit there had been known to European explorers since the 16th century; in 1577 four of them were captured and displayed as objects of curiosity in England before dying of disease and injuries sustained during their capture.

During Boas’s stay he was assisted by a local man:

Signa was no timeless native simply struggling for survival on an unchanging shore. He had a past, with wanderings and movement, a family lineage, and remembered moments of hardship and joy.

While studying Inuit lifestyles, Boas documented stories and transcribed songs, made maps and sketches. The blood from a raw seal liver is still visible on the paper of his notebooks. But the population soon began succumbing to diphtheria.

Here among the Inuit, a person with the title of “doctor” couldn’t cure an ailing child. A university graduate knew nothing of snow and wind. An explorer was dependent on the whims of a dog team. He had seen it himself—the disorientation that comes with staring at one’s own ignorance, as plain as a brown seal on white ice. Being smart was relative to one’s own circumstances and surroundings.

In late 1884 Boas made his way to New York and then to Washington DC, where he visited the “backwoods intellectual” John Wesley Powell, head of the new Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. Its researchers were currently engaged in major projects on Native American cultures; but with no position available for Boas there, he returned to Germany.

The scientific field that he had been circling since his voyage to Baffin Island was on the brink of an explosion, one that he was now well placed to miss.

The study of people was becoming known as ethnology, the word anthropology, at first referring mainly to the study of anatomy or natural history, only gradually came into vogue. The journal American anthropologist was founded in 1888. Whereas works like Frazer’s The golden bough (1890) were based on classical written texts, the new discipline sought “to go beyond what was written and ancient into what was observable and alive right now” (cf. Daoist ritual, where the driving force for most fieldwork has been the Ancient Wisdom of written texts, rather than change in modern social practice).

Powell’s mentor Lewis Henry Morgan specialised in the study of the former Iroquois Confederacy, his projects based on the widespread “spiritual renewal” of the day. But they still subscribed to the linear model from savagery to barbarism to civilisation. King gives an instance of this way of thinking:

Music, too, differed from one stage to the next. Savages might beat out a rhythm on a log or a stone, but barbarians sang a melodic line, while civilisation added counterpoint and harmony.

Hmm…

Boas was keen to get back to the USA, and in 1886 he returned to New York. King notes that almost 1.8 million German speakers settled in the States between 1850 and 1900; New York seemed as much German as American.

While seeking an academic position, Boas embarked on new fieldwork among the indigenous groups of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to New York, he found himself at odds with the Powell circle and the classification system then in vogue at the Smithsonian as well as for collections such as the British Museum, the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The organisation of the collections seemed to reflect the collector’s sense of what the object was for, as opposed to the worldview of the artisan who had originally made it. […]
The only people who could really say whether something that looked like a bow was a weapon, a child’s toy, or an instrument for making fire were the true experts—that is, those who actually used it, in a given place, at a given time. This bone rattle might make music. That one might drive away evil spirits. Yet another might distract a wailing child. It all depended on where you were in the world, not when you happened to be on some linear path of social evolution.

With his shaky English and his disputes with senior figures in the field, Boas took some time to establish himself. In 1889 the psychologist Granville Stanley Hall invited Boas to take up a post at Clarke University in Massachusetts, but the atmosphere there soon became unproductive. He continued spending his summers doing fieldwork in British Columbia. (Alongside personalities, King pays attention to institutions and funding bodies.)

Now an American citizen, Boas moved on to Chicago, where a World Fair was to be held in 1893. The Harvard archeologist Frederic Ward Putnam invited Boas to design a display.

The Midway Plaisance featured exhibits on the peculiar ways of the world’s peoples, from a Bedouin encampment to a Viennese café, most of them thin disguises for hawkers of merchandise and cheap entertainment. An entire building was devoted to the lives and progress of women, while others highlighted advances in agriculture, electrification, and the plastic arts. A new fastener called a zipper made its debut over the six months of the fair’s operation, as did a chewable gum called Juicy Fruit, a tall circular ride presented by a Mr Ferris, and…

Next to the ethnological area, with wigwams, totem poles, and so on, on display, was the Anthropological Building. Boas’s contribution, in eight rooms, was a display of anthropometry, a vogue to which he had subscribed; but the exhibits revealed his increasing reluctance to regard it as a useful method.

Measurements of North American mulattoes showed them to be roughly the same height as white people. […] The distribution of people by stature in the city of Paris varied widely, just as it did for a study of Civil War veterans (although it was found that those from western states were in general taller than the easterners). An attempt to show the heights of Italians ended up finding no obvious pattern from northern Italy to the south. […] The peoples of “Old Europe” were, perhaps surprisingly, shown to be even more physically mixed than the population of the avowedly immigrant United States.

Boas was coming to perceive that

What counted as social scientific data—the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes—was relative to the world view, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves. […] Theories were neither true nor false. They might better be described as successful or unsuccessful: they either fit the observable data or they didn’t. When observation bumped up against the walls of an existing theory, the theory was the thing that had to be changed. The first step was to get good data and then let the theory follow, which was the entire point of all those confusing tables and graphs in his Chicago anthropometry lab.

Meanwhile Chicago suffered a smallpox epidemic, followed by a round of influenza; the mayor was assassinated, and much of the exhibition was destroyed by fire. Still without a regular post, Boas returned to New York, where he began to work for the American Museum of Natural History, whose anthropology section was now directed by Putnam; there he continued his work on the American Northwest. In 1899 he oversaw the launch of a new series of American Anthropologist. At last in 1902 he gained a professorship at Columbia. By 1902 he had five children.

The issue of race now assumes centre stage. King introduces theories current at the time. Blumenbach (1775) had adopted a fivefold classification: Ethiopians (Africans), Americans (!), Mongolians (Asians), Malay (Pacific) and Caucasian (European), but by 1871 Darwin was questioning such basic schema.

As racial theories sought to justify the assertion of power by people of European descent (the term Aryan was in use from the mid-19th century), in the USA the Jim Crow system of segregation came into force. The theories of social scientists could have deep, often destructive, ramifications for people’s lives.

In 1899 William Z. Ripley divided European peoples into Teutonic, Alpine, and Mediterranean types, the first of which he claimed were at the forefront of the achievements of world civilisation. The term eugenics came into use.

Over the two decades spanning the turn of the century the foreign-born population had swollen:

Nearly a third more people were foreign-born in 1910 than in 1900. (It would take another century, into the 2010s, before immigration figures would ever approach similar levels. At the time Donald J. Trump announced his campaign for president by denouncing Mexican “rapists”, for example, the foreign-born figure was within a little more than a percentage point of the 1910 level.)

Madison Grant turned from zoology to human species, and “the preservation of his own race against an onslaught of immigration”; no longer could the USA remain an “asylum for the oppressed”. Hitler later expressed his approval of Grant’s work, considering the US to be showing the way toward a brighter, more scientific way of building a political community.

In 1907 the US Congress established a commission to study the rise in immigration; representatives, “decked out in straw boaters and linen suits”, visited the squalid detention camps of ports like Naples, Marseilles, and Hamburg. The following year they invited Boas to lead a team researching physical changes in the immigrants of the neighbourhoods of lower Manhattan. His 1911 report found them to be remarkably adaptable to their new surroundings; races were unstable.

There was no reason to believe that a person of one racial or national category was more of a drain on society, more prone to criminality, or more difficult to assimilate than any other. What people did, rather than who they were, ought to be the starting point for a legitimate science of society and, by extension, the basis for government policy on immigration.

Still, Boas’s findings were largely ignored in the Commission’s final report.

Also in 1911, he published his first book for a popular audience, The mind of primitive man, dismantling the whole concept of racial hierarchy. Disputing the idea that the successes of one’s own society today were due to some inherent superiority of “civilised” peoples over lesser-achieving “primitives”, he summarised:

Historical events appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilisation than their faculty, and it follows that achievements of races do not warrant us in assuming that one race is more highly gifted than the other. […]
Race was how Europeans explained to themselves their own sense of privilege and achievement. Insofar as races existed, at least as Europeans typically understood them, it was through an act of cultural conjuring, not biological destiny.

And he stressed the subjective responses of fieldworkers:

Tribal people were often said to be indolent, but what if they were only lazy when it came to things that they didn’t happen to care about? Why should we expect that every people everywhere should necessarily attend to the same things with equal zeal or approach the same projects with diligence and commitment? Primitive people were sometimes said to be quick to anger and to lash out wildly according to their emotions. To be civilised, after all, was to be coolheaded and rational. But didn’t it take coolheadedness and logical thought to follow a seal pod across a featureless ice floe, or to track a whale in an oared canoe to the point of its, and your own, exhaustion? “The proper way to compare the fickleness of the savage and that of the white,” he wrote, “is to compare their behaviour in undertakings which are equally important to each.”

His work pointed towards a “higher tolerance”. But despite the relatively prestigious position of German immigrants in US society, with the outbreak of World War One Boas found himself a member of a feared minority. Already a critic of expansionist American foreign policy, by 1917 he denounced US involvement in the war. After the war, disillusioned with rising nationalism, he continued to encounter professional problems. Immigration laws tightened.

Again in 1911, Alfred Kroeber had “discovered” Ishi, “the last of the Yahi” in California. Despite the media circus,

The Yahi were not in fact a lost tribe. Their reduced condition was the product of modern history, not a relic of some mist-shrouded past. […] They were not holdovers from prehistory but rather refugees from a brutal present.

* * *

So far the story of American anthropology has been dominated, like the society of the time, by entitled white men. But now the younger generation whom Boas nurtured at Columbia began to include some talented female scholars.

Ruth Benedict (1887–1948, right) studied first with Elsie Clews Parsons. She began studying with Boas in 1921. In 1924, embarking on fieldwork among the Zuni in New Mexico (already a well-established research topic), she learned of their cross-gender custom of “berdache”.

In New York, she met Margaret Mead (1901–78), who was to be her life-long soulmate, and encouraged her to come to Columbia to study with Boas.

The London-based Polish émigré Bronislaw Malinowski had already published his landmark study of the Trobriand Islanders in 1922, introducing the notion of “participant observation”, and Mead was now drawn to the study of Polynesian peoples.

As she grew ever closer to Benedict, she began an affair with Edward Sapir, whose own work focused on Native American linguistics. The complicated amorous entanglements of the circle, complementing their explorations into the diverse relationships of the peoples they studied, form one theme of King’s book.

In 1925 Mead set sail for American Samoa to do fieldwork. Undeterred by the razzmatazz that accompanied her arrival in Pago Pago, the US Navy’s main station in the South Pacific, she soon “went down to the countryside”, as the Chinese say. She was made an “honorary virgin”—a useful concept for fieldworkers.

A hurricane gave her an opportunity to engage with the locals in their immediate practical concerns. With her studies focusing on the lives of women and girls, she learned that adolescent angst was not necessarily the prerogative of American teenagers.

On the seven-week return voyage to the States in 1926, her own love life became even more complicated when she met the British-trained New Zealander Reo Fortune. Back in New York she became assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History.

Also in 1926, following Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty released his silent film Moana—again offering prurient glimpses of bare female breasts, by then largely a fantasy:

Mead’s book Coming of age in Samoa was published in 1928, to great acclaim—apart from a few men in the Boas circle like Alfred Kroeber, and later Derek Freeman.

In October, again parting reluctantly with Benedict, she married Fortune in Auckland, and they set off for Melanesia together. As Boas took issue with the growing esteem in the USA for eugenics, Mead’s work bore on ways in which a more flexible society might absorb its deviants to lead healthy lives. The result was her book Growing up in New Guinea (1930). She was already a celebrity.

Two other female pupils of Boas went on to work largely outside academia. The African American Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) had grown up in Florida in rather comfortable surroundings, but her mother’s early death plunged her into the harsh realities of segregation. Even later in Washington, the integrated university of Howard was an oasis: the racial divide was no less flagrant. She began to write stories, essays, and poetry, and in 1925 she set off for New York, where she gained a place as a mature student at Barnard and became a popular member of the “Harlem Renaissance”.

Still, she bridled at the genteel image expected of black people to gain favour in the eyes of the white cultural establishment.

Having enrolled in English, Hurston now studied with Gladys Reichard, who was working on Navajo culture; soon she gravitated to the Boas circle. In 1927 Boas arranged for her to do fieldwork back in Florida. There she was to collect folk tales around Eatonville—not far from Ocoee, where protests over voter suppression had led to a pogrom against the black population in 1920, first of a series (Tulsa, Rosewood, Little Rock).

Convict leasing had been abolished in 1923, but private chain gangs persisted: as late as 1960, a farmer commented, “We used to own our slaves—now we just rent them.”

Hurston’s brief fell under the rubric of folklore, a term that went back to the 1840s. Among such collections among African Americans, King adduces the Uncle Remus stories (1880)—“a white person gazing at an allegedly black world, uncomplicated, tricksterish, full of wily creativity”.

Back in New York, Hurston struggled to transform her notes into a coherent ethnographic narrative. She took odd jobs, and worked on a novel, Jonah’s gourd vine (1934). But in 1935 she enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia under Boas, and managed to publish Mules and men, described by King as

the first serious attempt to send the reader deep inside southern black towns and work camps. […] … not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.

Here’s a excerpt from Hurston’s 1928 film footage, with her voiceover:

Boas was now eminent yet frail. His wife Marie died in 1929.

Another talented student of his was Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971). On the Northern plains, the Omaha had been removed to reservations since the 1850s. They were early subjects for research; James Owen Dorsey’s Omaha sociology (1885) became a standard reference in anthropology.

Refreshingly, Dorsey also noted contradictory accounts, notably when some gem he had gleaned on ritual practice was then denied by the chieftain Two Crows, “nagging naysayer, an ethnographical balloon deflator”. Assessing thee value of conflicting sources is indeed a common issue that fieldworkers (not to mention textual historians) have to confront. Even what seemed to be a consensus of opinion could be thrown into doubt. Again, informants might have their own agendas; and “perhaps [Two Crows] simply misunderstood the question, or maybe you misunderstood his answer”. As King puts it,

What you needed was repeated and respectful conversations with the real human beings whose worlds you were straining, as best you could, to comprehend.

Ella Cara Deloria, also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ, grew up in Standing Rock. Her mother was of mainly European descent; her father’s heritage was the Lakota/Dakota subgroup of the Sioux. She spoke both English and Dakota, attending an Episcopalian boarding school. Having managed to gain admission to college in Oberlin, joining the provincial elite, in 1912 she entered Columbia’s Teaching College, whose mission was to shape “civilised aboriginals who would become credits to their race and help elevate their charges out of poverty and paganism”.

For Deloria,

the end of the western frontier was still a recent memory. Her father had been among those who had tried to mediate between reservation authorities and Sitting Bull.

She was two years old when agency police killed Sitting Bull on the very reservation where she grew up, followed by the Wounded Knee massacre.

Deloria was living at a time when American views of Indians were shaped not only by the recent experience of violent conquest but also by the refashioned memory of it: a world of dime novels, cigar-store statues, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

On graduation she taught first at her old home in Sioux Falls and then in Lawrence, Kansas. Having met Boas at Columbia, in 1927 they met again when he visited Lawrence, and he invited her back to New York, recognising her rare qualification to participate in various projects. In the summer of 1928, while Hurston was collecting in Florida, Deloria returned to the Plains. Her first project was to check the reliability of James Walker’s 1917 study of the Sun Dance. She was guided by Ruth Benedict as well as Boas. But her local knowledge was invaluable:

I cannot tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some other food each time I go to an informant. The moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders.

King goes on,

You had to know precisely how to make a gift, how to make the right kind, how to eat properly with people, how to call them by the correct kinship terms…

Deloria led an itinerant life; to eke out an income she led pageants of indigenous music and dance. In 1933 Boas again enlisted her in a project for the revived Handbook of American Indian languages. As Benedict recalled, “In all his work with American Indians Professor Boas never found another woman of her caliber”.

Deloria was a native speaker of Dakota and its dialects, with little education as a linguist apart from the informal sessions that Boas or Benedict might provide. But her instincts and on-the-spot grasp of field methods, Benedict said, probably amounted to more expertise than many doctoral students had at their disposal.

By the time that Margaret Mead paid a visit to the Omaha, she found their conditions disturbing: “It’s just nothing at all. A thing like this isn’t a culture, hardly even the remains of one.” But if she thought anything of interest had been killed off by poverty and white invasion, for Deloria

a better method was to give up trying to identify the dying embers of an older civilisation and instead get to know the living, right-now culture of the people you were actually surrounded by—women and men who weren’t stuck in history, but, like Deloria herself, were feeling their way through it. There was no need for nostalgia about the past if you could uncover the kaleidoscopic richness of the present. It was just that the present might take forms that you found surprising or frustrating, even disappointing.

I quite agree—although in cases like Grassy Narrows, Identifying cultural riches must surely give way to concerns over healthy drinking water and a reasonable life expectancy.

Deloria also resisted inert depiction by documenting linguistic change. But by 1938 she was again without work. Her Dakota grammar, published in 1941,

provided a glimpse of a deeper America, one obscured by its obsessions with racial fitness and linear cultural evolution. If you wanted to know what Sioux chiefs had said after the Battle of Little Bighorn or to understand the anguished wail of mothers when their sons’ bodies were brought home from Wounded Knee—if you wanted to discover, in other words, the inverse of American history as it was normally taught in schoolrooms and summer camps—Boas and Deloria were showing the way.

When Boas retired from teaching in 1936, Columbia, still prone to sexism, overlooked Benedict in favour of Ralph Linton. But the Boas circle were still involved in a wide range of projects.

Some differences of approach festered. Mead met Sapir’s attacks on her work in kind: in her experience, she wrote, jealousy was frequently found among old men with small endowments.

Pressed to derive a general conclusion from his decades of study, Boas came up with “People don’t use anything they haven’t got”.

In the USA, the related discipline of sociology was making headway, with studies such as Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929).

Mead and Fortune returned to New Guinea in 1931. Their trip turned out to be traumatic, with Gregory Bateson now entering into the equation. [2] Their studies of local cultures informed reflections on their own tangled relationships. As things came to a head in 1933, Mead returned to Benedict in New York. The latter’s Patterns of culture (1934) would become most influential; in the next year Mead followed it with Sex and temperament, linking up Boas’s ideas on race with her own on sex and gender, based on her work among the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli.

Yet the price of such methods

was a kind of intentional madness. If your sense of reality was shaped by a particular time and place, the only way to free yourself was to go out of your mind: to step outside the mental frameworks that you knew to be real, true, and obvious.

* * *

The publication of Mead’s Sex and temperament coincided with that of Hurston’s Mules and men. Yet

volumes on Samoans or New Guineans were hailed as commentaries on the universal features of human society. One about African Americans was a quaint bit of storytelling.

Hurston had done more collecting in the south with the young Alan Lomax, recording stories, work songs, spirituals, and blues for the Library of Congress (catalogue here). [3] Here’s an excerpt with Lomax recording Hurston herself:

Hurston now set off for Haiti, just recovering from US military occupation. First in Kingston she observed the Jamaicans’ ability to take on the airs of the English, noting that “passing” from one racial category to the next almost always took place towards the direction of social power.

Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realised. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.

After making expeditions inland, attending a boar hunt and a nine-night mortuary ritual, in autumn 1936 she moved on to Haiti, where the African influence was even clearer. Parallel with the work of Melville Herskovits on rural religious life there, she entered into the practices of voodoo, already covered in the patina of the sensationalist depictions of travellers.

One challenge to our categories of living and dead was Hurston’s meeting with the zombie Felicia Felix-Mentor, said to have died in 1907.

Put away, disregarded, institutionalised, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labour camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.

She now planned two books, “one for anthro, and one for the way I want to write it”. The latter, the novel Their eyes were watching God, was published on her return to New York in 1937, combining “a coming-of-age story, a meditation on the inner lives of women and the men they loved, a literary ethnography of the Gulf Coast”.

Though by now Hurston had no thoughts of an academic career, she still returned to the American South for more fieldwork. Tell my horse (aka Voodoo gods), her field report from Jamaica and Haiti was published in 1938.

From 1936 to 1938 Mead and Bateson lived in Bali, working on trance there—they eventually released a short film in 1952:

And then they returned to New Guinea. But war loomed.

* * *

The theories that Boas and his circle had developed so scrupulously were now in opposition to state-sanctioned dogma, which bore a remarkably close resemblance to Nazism. Boas had been expressing his anxieties about the rise of Nazism in Germany since 1933. But the tide of intolerance there was just as evident in the USA; racial segregation and eugenics were already well established there, inspiring Hitler. Despite the US sense of moral superiority, as King observes,

None of America’s enemies saw themselves as opponents of American values. Not even Adolf Hitler claimed to be against freedom, justice, or prosperity. Rather, they saw themselves as better, more advanced versions of what they believed America had been trying to achieve. Real freedom would mean the subjugation of the racially inferior. Real justice would mean allowing the fittest individuals and countries to take their rightful place on the world stage. Real progress would mean cleansing and separating, pushing forward the able and advanced while sweeping away the primitive and retrograde.

Franz Boas on the cover of Time, 1936.

Boas died in 1942. Here’s the 1986 documentary The shackles of tradition, again by Andre Singer:

With the outbreak of war, the team’s original fieldsites became inaccessible. As many social scientists were recruited to the war effort, Bateson and Mead joined an advisory group to President Roosevelt. Benedict later joined them in Washington. By June 1944 she was charged with assembling material on Japanese society, gathering a group of scholars. In the USA the Japanese were seen as utterly alien and subhuman; internment camps for Japanese Americans were harsh. But Benedict sought the kind of understanding that would provide enlightened guidance for the eventual occupation of Japan. The resulting book The chrysanthemum and the sword, published in 1946, was widely read.

While working to keep afloat the school at Standing Rock that her father had founded, Deloria continued with her studies and writing, much of it still unpublished at the time of her death in 1971. Hurston, shocked by the Detroit massacre of 1943, was deeply ambivalent about the US victory. She continued to write while working in a succession of odd jobs. Since her death in 1960 her work has belatedly been appreciated, with tributes by such figures as Alice Walker. Here’s a documentary:

Back in New York after the war, Mead and Benedict resumed their bond. Benedict was at last promoted to the rank of full professor, and elected president of the American Anthropological Association. She died in 1948. Mead, the most renowned heir to Boas, died in 1978; on her career, here’s Andre Singer’s 1986 documentary Coming of age:

* * *

King begins his conclusion by citing Allan Bloom, who in his attack on the trend for cultural relativism in The closing of the American mind (1987) found few women worthy of note: he grouped Mead and Benedict alongside Hannah Arendt, Yoko Ono, Erica Jong, and Marlene Dietrich—all “negative teaching examples”, as the Chinese say. As King observes, the Boas circle would have surprised to learn that their views had triumphed, their struggles against prejudice having been met with such resistance.

Conversely, Clifford Geertz, pillar of the later generation of anthropologists, praised the insistence

that the world does not divide into the pious and the superstitious; that there are sculptures in jungles and paintings in deserts; […] that the norms of reason were not fixed in Greece, the evolution of morality was not consummated in England. Most important, we were the first to insist that we see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and that they look back on ours through ones of their own.

If readers today take all this as self-evident, that’s because they too have been infected with the bug. But as is only too evident in our news today, resisting bigotry still remains a constant struggle.

Of course, anthropology, like the societies it studies, continues to change; the work of these scholars from the 1880s to the 1940s may have been refined since, but it remains seminal. King brings this story to life, combining a vivid feel for period detail with reflections on fieldwork methods and perceptive comments on ideological trends. He makes a fine advocate for the enlightened values of the Boas circle.


[1] Besides folklore and sociology, ethnomusicology is a strongly related discipline (under Society and soundscape, see e.g. Michelle Bigenho’s observations). Bruno Nettl surveyed the prominent contributions of women in Native American studies during the same period, including Alice C. Fletcher, Frances Densmore, Natalie Curtis, and Helen Roberts, on to Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner. But he goes on,

Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.

Like the Boas circle, ethnomusicologists extend their purvey to fieldwork “at home”

[2] Here I’d like to put in a word for Peter Crowe (1932–2004), such a lively, alternative presence at gatherings of the European Seminar for Ethnomusicology, who underwent his own transformation in Melanesia. See e.g. his “After the ethnomusicological salvage operation—what?” (1981) and his Musical traditions in the South Pacific (1984).

[3] This leads me to remind you of the work of Bruce Jackson among southern convicts, and his fine manual on fieldwork.

Red love

Red love cover

In my post on Lives under the GDR I mentioned

  • Maxim Leo, Red love (2009; English translation by Shaun Whiteside, 2013)
    (reviewed e.g. here),

but it richly deserves a separate post—coinciding with the new Deutschland 89 (catch up on the two previous series here).

There was no typical experience in the range of socialist societies and the variety of people within them. Intergenerational family stories make a popular device to address 20th-century change; memoirs of the GDR are also voluminous. As Maxim Leo (b.1970) talks with his parents and grandparents, unearthing their stories, he constantly puts himself in their shoes. Tensions within the GDR were (and are) embodied in family relationships; there were endless nuances in how people adapted to the pressures of the state, but I find this account particularly vivid and thoughtful.

With their different pre-GDR fortunes, Leo’s grandfathers Gerhard and Werner make this a rather exceptional family. Anne’s father Gerhard (b.1923), a hero of the French resistance, was a devoted follower of the Party. His memoirs, though largely orthodox, were censored. Reading his account of his interrogation at the hands of the SS, Maxim reflects:

I only understood how brave he had been when I was arrested myself. That was on the evening of 8 October 1989, a day after the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Along with my friend Christine I was arrested by two Stasi in Alexanderplatz. We were carrying flyers for the “New Forum”, and were put on a truck that brought us to a police barracks. There we had to spend the night standing in a cold garage. The next morning we were questioned separately. I was very frightened, because I really had no idea what was going to happen to us. The interrogator just had to raise his voice once and I told them everything I knew. Gerhard didn’t say anything, even though his life was in danger. I gave in, even though there wasn’t actually anything much to be afraid of.

After the war Gerhard found himself having to run a network of informants from former SS backgrounds, separating work and emotion. After he was sent to East Berlin on a secret Party mission in 1952, the distrustful leaders of the security apparatus “never forgot that the people they were now ruling were the very same people who had once driven them from Germany”. But Gerhard weathered purges within the Party, even though he was rather unguarded—on a mission to Budapest in August 1956 he met members of the Petőfi Circle (“Brave? Gullible? Or both?”).

Wolf’s estranged father Werner had a more questionable background. A former Wehrmacht corporal, his own memoirs are understandably cagey about this early period. Captured by US troops on 1st May 1945, he spent over two years as a POW before the belated reunion with his wife Sigrid in late 1947. Finding work as a teaching assistant, he now threw himself into the cause of the new GDR. After divorcing Sigrid in 1951 he remarried.

Perhaps Werner was a person who could have worked well in more or less any system, in any role. He would always have made the best of things. His life’s happiness would not have been threatened if Hitler had won the war, or if he’d happened to end up in the West. He would certainly have been a good stage painter if he hadn’t been a good headmaster. Just as he had been a good model-maker, a good soldier, a good prisoner. And now a good citizen of the GDR.

Maxim reflects:

I think that for both of my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again. The persecution, the war, the imprisonment, all the terrible things that Gerhard and Werner had been through could be buried under that huge pile of the past. From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream. The idea of building an anti-fascist state had a beneficial effect on both of them. Gerhard could devote himself to the illusion that GDR citizens were very different Germans from the ones that had driven his family out of the country. And Werner could act as if he had always believed in Socialism. All wounds, all mistakes were forgotten and forgiven if you were willing to become part of this new society.

New faith for old suffering: that was the idea behind the foundation of the GDR.

That is the explanation for the unbounded loyalty with which Gerhard and Werner were bound to that country until the bitter end. They could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lies they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time.

And their children? They were hurled into their fathers’ dreamlands, and had to dream along whether they wanted to or not. They didn’t know that founding ideal. And because they had nothing to overcome, nothing to hide, they found faith difficult too. They saw the poverty, the lies, the claustrophobia, the suspicion. And they heard their fathers’ phrases as they raved about the future. Much of the power and the euphoria had gone. And the grandchildren? They were glad when it was all over. They didn’t even have a guilty conscience at kicking the state. What did I get from the great dream? Small-minded prohibitions, petty principles, and jeans that looked like elongated Youth Front shirts. The energy of the state had been used up in three generations. The GDR remained the country of old men, of the founding fathers, and their logic no longer made sense to anybody.

Red love 73

Most moving are Maxim’s stories of his remarkable parents Anne and Wolf. They met in 1969, and Maxim was born the following year.

Red love 18.When I was ten, my father walked round with his hair alternately dyed green or blue, and a leather jacket he’d painted himself. […] My mother liked to wear a Soviet pilot’s cap and a coat that my father had sprayed with black ink. They both always looked as if they’d just stepped off the stage of some theatre or other, and were only paying a brief visit to real life.

Anne (Annette) Leo was born in the West in 1947, moving to East Berlin with her parents in 1952. Loyal to her father, she felt a responsibility to defend the new state; she too supported the building of the “Anti-Fascist protection rampart” in 1961 (“to keep the bad people out of the country”), and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave the GDR. In 1966 she joined the Party; but in her work as a journalist she was constantly beset by doubt, frustrated by the blocking of her modest proposals for greater honesty. Resentful of censorship, she found herself having to parrot lies about the crushing of the Prague Spring. Also in 1968 she disputes the Party line on the dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann.

Anne says she was always rather alone in her political attitudes. She wasn’t faithful enough for the faithful, too uncritical for the critical. She wanted to belong somewhere, but it didn’t work. […]

When Anne talks to me about these things today, she sometimes starts crying. Perhaps out of rage, because she was so naïve, but perhaps also out of disappointment that it didn’t work. That this state and this Party, which cost her so much energy, simply disappeared like that. I think my mother’s relationship with that state was like an unhappy teenage infatuation. She had fallen for the GDR as a young girl, and it took her a lifetime to break free of it again. It’s hard for me to understand all this, to see that my cool, intelligent mother is still grieving for that first great love even twenty years after the end of the GDR. How deeply embedded inside her it must still be, that hope, that unconditional desire to be there when it came to freeing the world from evil.

Wolf (b.1942) is an artist. He recalls the impoverished, ruined Berlin of his childhood as “one enormous adventure playground”. Unlike Anne, he never identified with the state; witnessing the crushing of the June 1953 protests,

He goes home and thinks that the GDR might be over soon. In a few days the uprising has been defeated, and everything goes on as if nothing had happened.

He becomes “ a rocker, a thug”:

That balance between conformity and resistance, between courage and betrayal, is hard to explain. Even those words are probably too big to describe the little movements that were generally at issue. It was a grey area of possibilities, in which you could go in one direction or another, in which there was no right way and no wrong one, but at best the feeling of having found a bearable compromise.

He enjoys a stint in “bourgeois” Leipzig in 1962, partying and dancing, but is soon conscripted. He begins to paint, producing “ludicrous propaganda pictures”.

Wolf says it’s all about the facade, that the state didn’t really demand genuine belief. You didn’t have to bend the knee or sell yourself, you just had to go along with the big spectacle of Socialism.

But Maxim goes on:

I wonder whether that was really the case. Whether you really noticed when you’d crossed your own boundaries, when the alien belief slowly and unnoticeably seeped into you. Or whether in the end the others determined the rules of the game. Perhaps all those free spaces and possibilities were just an illusion that distracted you from the fact that you were joining in. I too always had the feeling of actually being true to myself, while at the same time I knew what I had to do to avoid getting into trouble. This combination of cheeky thoughts and good behaviour, of little lies and a big truth, is quickly learnt and hard to shake off again. It’s a survival strategy, a protection mechanism for people who can’t make up their minds. […]

Today, I think that Wolf was probably more like a clever fish that dreams about the sea, and forgets that he’s still swimming in an aquarium.

He starts working as a freelance graphic designer. Less invested in Party orthodoxy than Anne, he’s disturbed by her defence of punishment for those who tried to escape, and they argue.

Much as Maxim loves his alternative parents, he found himself rebelling by trying to be “normal”. And real life inevitably intruded. As a child he found restricted areas exciting; he played “Escape to the West” with his schoolmates; for his essay on the topic “Why the State Border Must Be Protected” he got a poor mark for his reply “Because otherwise everybody would run away and there are fascists over there.”

It was somehow clear that there was one truth at school and another in real life. You just had to switch over. Like on television.

When he was 15 his parents were disturbed that he had to attend pre-military training camp. As Wolf complained to Maxim’s teacher that the school was forcing children to use guns, Anne told him, “You’ve just fucked up your son’s future”—to which Wolf responded that it was this bloody state that was fucking up people’s futures. Anne was only too aware of the problems, but still somehow believed they could be overcome. She didn’t want to pass her attachment to the GDR on to Maxim because it had caused her so much suffering; and he realises he had stopped caring about the GDR:

There was neither hatred nor love, neither hope nor disappointment. Just a kind of numb indifference.

Anne often had serious talks with him. She said that

There were various ways of living in this country. You could join in or you could resist. You could also join in a bit and resist a bit. Anne said she would always support me, whichever option I went for.

But Maxim also observes:

All of these are moments which, telling them now, assume a meaning that I don’t think they had for me at the time. The truth is that my life was mostly normal. […] That life was mostly played out at home, in the garden, by the sea, at friends’ houses, at the football pitch. It was about jumping from a climbing frame, catching a fish, smoking your first cigarette and snogging girls in the park. It was only later, when I found it hard to avoid the GDR, when it got too close to me, that I started seeing it with different eyes.

In 1976, Anne and Wolf received visits from a young man who gently tested their willingness to act as intermediaries for some “scouting” the Stasi were doing in the West—making a letterbox available, making phone calls from their flat. At first, inexplicably, they found themselves acquiescing; but later, declining further involvement, thankfully they were not penalised. Their attitude was still regarded as “critical, but not hostile”. In 1977 they hosted an innocuous but illegal discussion group without repercussions.

Anne’s new magazine job turned out to be even more frustrating than her former post. When she proposed an alternative candidate to those pre-ordained by the Party, not only was her suggestion defeated but all those who supported her, and the candidate himself, performed abject self-criticisms.

In 1978 Anne resigned, working for a doctorate at the Humboldt university, on the history of the Spanish trade-union movement. This gave her access to all kinds of banned works in the library—notably those by left-wing dissenters. As she reads, “she becomes increasingly convinced that the GDR is actually preventing Socialism, instead betraying and perverting it. For Anne this is at once a relief and a burden because she knows that she believes in the right cause, but unfortunately lives in the wrong country.” Amongst the banned literature she also discovers her own grandfather’s story as a Jewish Communist.

In March 1982 Anne has a Partieüberprüfungsgesprach, a “scrutinising session”, a kind of confession for loyal comrades. […] She has decided to accept expulsion from the Party if there’s no way of preventing it. Anne talks about the things she doesn’t agree with. The lies, the rigid thinking, the ideologythat ended up frozen at some point. […] But nothing happens. The comrades smile at her benignly, saying that everyone has their doubts and problems. […] It seems that things have changed somewhat. The Party has become softer. And it’s becoming clear that nobody is being thrown out of the Party any more. She would have to take that step herself. But Anne doesn’t think about that at all. She is relieved to be able to keep her opinion and still remain a comrade.

After finishing her thesis she takes a new job at a magazine, but soon resigns.

Meanwhile Wolf has been illustrating fairy tales in his studio while working on more challenging projects of his own. By the 1980s he is exhibiting his work, and though the Stasi are wary, he is commissioned to design stage sets for the high-profile Berlin 750th-anniversary celebrations.

It’s a delicate business, walking the tightrope between acceptance and refusal. “The principle of seduction was always there,” says Wolf. “The question constantly arose of how far you can go, how much conformity you can bear without it hurting.”

In 1986 Wolf buries himself in a fantasy of the South Seas. But after his outburst to the schoolteacher, Maxim was indeed refused permission to sit the Abitur, and has to exchange his pampered childhood for the grimy realities of factory work. He realises how little his parents’ world had to do with everything else that was happening in the country, how shielded he had been from reality. While in vocational school he manages to prepare for the Abitur in evening class.

And in July 1987 his grandfather Gerhard smooths the way for them to take a trip to France together. Nostalgic for his youth, Gerhard is transformed, human and relaxed. His exalted friends, like Gilles Perrault and Régis Debray, clearly think the GDR is a paradise. Maxim comments:

How can you sit in a villa like that and rave about the GDR? Or do you have to sit in a villa like this one to be able to? […] The men laugh and clink glasses, and I reflect that it’s a very pleasant business, being a revolutionary in the South of France.

Naturally the GDR seems even more drab to Maxim after the holiday. By 1988 practically everyone in his circle is thinking about “how to get out as quickly and elegantly as possible”. But he recalls:

It’s also the case that the East is getting really interesting again round about now. All of a sudden there are great bands I’ve never heard of, they only play music from the West in the clubs, and there are all kinds of wild parties.

Wolf too says that his game with the state, and with himself, actually got more and more interesting in the last years of the GDR: “there were no clear rules any more, boundaries were blurred […] No-one could tell what was still allowed and what was forbidden”. But the Stasi still had the capacity to intimidate people.

In her letter resigning from the Party, Anne wrote

I can no longer bear this attitude of denying reality that our leaders are assuming. The repression of reality has led to a paralysis of social life. A state of affairs like that is not just regrettable but also dangerous. Remaining in this completely ossified organisation, which has long ceased to give signs of life, strikes me as pointless.

As demonstrations grew before the fall of the Wall, Anne took an active political role, finding that the Party was losing its power over her; she felt strong and happy. But, like Wolf, she was still conditioned by her relationship with her father.

Maxim describes the excitement of the final days of the GDR, despite fears over a possible “Chinese solution”. On the last evening

Wolf suggests going to the Wall, but Anne is tired, and she doesn’t want to go to the West anyway. “What’s going to be on at the Wall anyway?”, she says, and Wolf allows himself to to persuaded to stay at home. At half past ten they go to bed. And when they wake up the next morning, the GDR has already almost disappeared.Maxim hardly touches on the story after unification. When he applied for a Western passport, he feels ”like a bushman being greeted by white men in civilisation”. Despite his own alienation from the old regime, Westerners soon got on his nerves: “I think I never felt so close to the GDR as I did after its downfall”.

Red love 237

Anne felt still more conflicted. She went on to become a noted historian, not only reflecting on the GDR but also rediscovering her Jewish heritage—writing about Ravensbrück, and making a film about two young Sinto brothers murdered at Auschwitz.

Wolf missed the friction he got from rubbing up against the state; his creativity drowned in worries. They eventually divorced—which, I admit, saddens me. Maxim, now with his own children, relishes his career as a journalist, so very different from that of his mother.

Maxim

Maxim.

* * *

In all this there are echoes of China—I think of the moving film The blue kite, and the whole inability of “old revolutionaries” to move on from their youthful idealism.

See also Life behind the Iron Curtain, and cf. the story of my orchestral colleague Hildi (here and here). On Twitter, @DDROnline has many useful links.

Words and women

Words and women cover

 The war on sexism has to be waged on so many fronts that it’s worth recalling that language is a crucial element. I’ve been re-reading

  • Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Words and women: language and the sexes (1976)

—a rather early exploration of an important topic, that remains a concise, well-argued introduction, even if progress has since been made in the areas discussed. Based on North American usage, it focuses on English, with instances from early etymology and other European languages, whose greater linguistic differentiation gives rise to different issues.

The opening chapter explores Names, and their consequences. Under patronymic systems, with women foregoing their surnames on marriage, they “belong” to another family. Lucy Stone was a pioneer in keeping her name in 1855, but this is one area where most women seem to have remained curiously faithful to patriarchal convention (for dissenting views, see also here; cf. wiki on “maiden” and married names across cultures). The authors also note changing trends in given names, and introduce the ongoing campaign for the title “Ms”.

Who is man? opens by highlighting the title and images of Jacob Bronowski’s acclaimed TV series The Ascent of man, which follows a long representational tradition. Its creators

could hardly have intended to convey the message that males alone participated in the evolution of mankind, yet through the use of imagery limited to males they effectively negated an inclusive, generic interpretation of their title subject.

A 1972 study found that “man” tended to evoke men (particularly adult white men)—an image that seems to persist despite the challenges of recent decades. Such language also conditioned traditional teaching about prehistoric society.

Dr Spock was an advocate of counteracting the linguistic presumption of maleness: the use of the male pronoun

is one of many examples of discrimination, each of which may seem of small consequence in itself but, when added up, help to keep women at an enormous disadvantange—in employment, in the courts, in the universities, and in conventional social life.

While the standard remained “he”, an opposite trend emerged in education:

By the mid-1960s, […] some of the angry young men in teaching were claiming that references to the teacher as “she” were responsible in part for their poor public image and, consequently, in part for their low salaries. […] To be vital, it appears, a teacher’s image must be male.

In the Declaration of Independence, the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”

did not apply to women any more than they did to men who were slaves or to those original inhabitants of the country referred to in the document as “the merciless Indian savages”.

The authors go on to clarify issues surrounding Sex and gender. In our common perception of animals too, “all creatures are assumed to be male until proven female”. Other European languages use “grammatical gender”, also affecting articles and adjectives. A fine quote from Mark Twain, from “The awful German language”:

In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print—I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

Gretchen—Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm—She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen—Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm—It has gone to the opera.

While most “agent nouns” (worker, farmer, doctor, clown) belong to the “common gender” category, some became more common in female versions (princess, lioness, sorceress, early imports from French). The evolution of “seamstress” is an interesting case. Some early feminists

prized the “female designations” because they felt women should be given credit, as women, for their accomplishments. More, however, objected.

Conversely, “spinster”

reverted to being an exclusively female designation—though with an additional pejorative meaning that has no male equivalent.

Miller and Swift summarise:

Throughout its history, as English made the gradual change from grammatical to natural gender, words denoting occupations and professions could be and from time to time were used for females and males without distinction. But because males are consciously or unconsciously considered the norm, new feminine designations were introduced and accepted whenever the need was felt to assert male prerogatives. As the language itself documents, once certain occupations ceased to be women’s work and became trades or vocations in which men predominated, the old feminine gender words were annexed by men and became appropriate male designations. Then new endings were assigned to women, quite possibly, in Fowler’s phrase, to keep a woman from “asserting her right” to a male’s name (or his job).

Some nouns like waitress and actress were still common, if waning, in the 1970s.

The distinction between actor and actress is not a distinction between male and female; it is the difference between the standard and a deviation.

Semantic polarisation examines the role of words in moulding cultural assumptions. The authors note the role of cultural anthropology in clarifying issues: across societies,

the extent to which roles are assigned on the basis of sex and the rigidity with which the sexes are categorised also varies greatly.

The authors unpack damaging dictionary definitions for words such as “manly” and “womanly”, whose 1960s’ portrayals—respectively positive (courage, strength, vigour) and negative (weak, fickle, superficial)—now look absurd. Such expectations were reinforced early in childhood.

Miller and Swift illustrate the “degeneration of meaning” with the words virago, shrew, and tomboy. And they cite Margaret Mead:

The potentialities which different societies label as either masculine or feminine are really potentialities of some members of each sex, and not sex-linked at all.

The language of religion is an important topic: even in modern north Europe, where religion is a lesser influence on society than in the USA, history bequeaths a heavy burden. Originating in patriarchal societies, the major Western religions inevitably contain abundant “semantic roadblocks to sexual equality”. God, father, son, king; spiritual men and sinful women; the virgin–whore dichotomy for women. Again, this whole edifice has come under increasing scrutiny (cf. Patricia Lockwood‘s fine definition of “tabernacle”!).

In The great male plot Miller and Swift ponder the backlash against feminism, with instances of male “humorists” going for cheap laughs in belittling sensible linguistic (and social) progress. As women’s access to education gradually increased, men were ever keener to act as guardians of the language. Fowler’s prescriptions again loom as a negative influence, railing against the now widely accepted formulation “as anybody can see for themselves”—no shocking “Women’s Lib” madness, but going back to Shakespeare. Others joined in denouncing descriptive grammarians’ apparent abandoning prescriptions for good and bad usage—“the King’s English and the fishwife’s”.

The male bias of English does not have to be fostered by a conspiracy.

The authors describe the growing use of “Ms” (the magazine Ms was first published in 1972)—becoming more popular not only as “a significant number of women began to object being labeled according to their (presumed) marital status” but also as an effective time and money saver with the growth of direct mail selling. And again it was fiercely contested by fatuous men. In an informed discussion, Ms Miller and Ms Swift trace the evolution of gendered titles further back in history. Meanwhile sexism “remained the only form of bigotry still treated as good clean fun by the American Press” (cf. the neanderthal “Rear Admiral” Foley).

In What is woman? The authors explore the different speech habits and vocabularies of women and men. They cite the research of Robin Lakoff:

Discouraged from expressing herself forcefully, a girl may acquire speech habits that communicate uncertainty, hesitancy, indecisiveness, and subordination.

Women were still penalised for unseemly language (note the LRB article on a 1923 trial, linked here). In speech as well as behaviour, men have licence to behave badly. Of course, language taboos have been challenged generally, as in the 1933 Ulysses case. But women were among the vanguard in breaking the barriers; Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, and Carson McCullers all used the word “fuck” quite early in their books. At the same time, the language used to degrade females has been scrutinised.

sexist postcard

WTF: Alcoa Aluminum ad, 1953. Sexist ads have now been rumbled.

In The spectre of unisex Miller and Swift further discuss the spread of the ending “-person”, and the uncomprehending resistance to it. Meanwhile “they/their” to replace “he/his” was gaining ground, and has continued to make further progress.

Setting forth from kinship terminology in different cultures as an instance of how language reflects and shapes perception, Language and liberation discusses the recent concepts of racism (1950s) and sexism (late 1960s). Publishers and other bodies were producing non-sexist guidelines by the 1970s; since then, too, children’s books have gone on to make wonderful progress in correcting harmful stereotypes (links e.g. here).

Eliminating sexism need not result in graceless language, as many people fear. Sensitive speakers, writers, and editors have been doing it consciously and well for years. Language that does not depend on abstraction is superior, for it is forced to be specific.

In the Postscript the authors list some guidelines, including succinct summaries for –ess and –ette endings (remember usherettes?), * forms of address, job titles, and so on.

* * *

The powerful arguments of Miller and Swift cover most of the issues that have since gradually entered the mainstream, even if they continue to be distorted and trivialised by dinosaur men and the PC-gone-mad brigade. For the state of play nearly three decades later, the useful guide

Jennifer Mather Saul, Feminism: issues and arguments (2003)

devotes chapter 6 to feminism and language change, an issue that has come to attain increasing public prominence. With precise logic that reminds me of the great Janet Radcliffe Richards (The sceptical feminist, 1980), she gives concise sections on gender-neutrality and gender-specificity, and considers arguments against language reform.

Replacing gender-neutral usages (notably “man”; such terms are not actually gender-neutral at all) avoids confusion, and positively affects the way we think. Her solutions are modest (not in a “feminine” way, I may add), and adjustments easily made. But gender-specific words like manageress and waitress are also flawed, again assuming a male norm. Saul updates the story of the usage of “Ms”.

Ms Saul goes on to confront, and confound, arguments against reform. Language is important, but at the same time it is only one aspect of the wider campaign. And she provides a succinct list of further readings.

* * *

Meanwhile lexicographers and style guides continue to modify their definitions, as language and society keeps changing.

Fuckety

While Miller and Swift discussed “bitch”, more recently words like “slut” have come under the spotlight (see e.g. Jessica Valenti’s comments, here and here). Feminists are recasting “profane” language, such as the c-word, even extending their labours creatively to embroidery. And I’ve already noted other dodgy terms like femme fatale, diva, and “gamine elfin waif“. As I write, I see that the “governess” is making a comeback among wealthy British families—FFS.

Other sites include wiki (also broaching French, German, Swedish), and this BBC Radio 4 page; cf. my Gender roundup. For suitable listening, try You don’t own me.


I’ve been beaten to this, but cf. the latest article in my fantasy series, “The Fall of the House of Usherettes: changes in the structuring of cinema attendance”.  

In praise of Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood

I entirely share the universal delight in the intoxicating language of Patricia Lockwood, with her passion for the mind-expanding power of words.

Within her genre-bending oeuvre, the publication of a new article by her is always the occasion for fireworks and champagne. Just when we thought we couldn’t take any more analyses of the genius of Elena Ferrante, Lockwood makes the perfect commentator; so now we can delight in her own delight at Lila and Lenù.

Besides her pieces for organs such as The New Yorker and The Paris review, her LRB articles are virtuosic, perceptive, and exuberant in their language—such as her thoughts on Lucia BerlinVladimir NabokovCarson McCullers, Marian Engel. Her review of John Updike (“Malfunctioning sex robot”) is a most thoughtful, informed critique, like a more wacky update of Henry Miller’s emasculation at the hands of Kate Millett:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.

See also Insane after Coronavirus?, and this piece on the US Elections, reminding us that her astute, enquiring mind takes wing way beyond mere lit crit. I sing the praises of her latest review here.

* * *

Her essay The communal mind is a prelude to No one is talking about this, her new novel about living in the internet. Amidst a multitude of blazing fanfares (e.g. this review), this comes from an interview with Hadley Freeman:

“White people, who had the political educations of potatoes, were suddenly feeling compelled to speak about injustice. This happened once every forty years on average, usually after a period when folk music became popular again. When folk music became popular again, it reminded people that they had ancestors, and then, after a considerable delay, that their ancestors had done bad things.”

Lockwood is all too aware that books about the internet have a bad reputation: “[They] had the strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.”

* * *

Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (2017; reviewinterview) celebrates and bewails her eccentric family, in a style distantly akin to the stories of David Sedaris. The title refers to her father, a rare married Catholic priest; she wrote the book while staying back at the family home with her husband Jason during a period of adversity. I guess it’s “confessional”.

Priestdaddy cover

While her parents make hapless victims of her trenchant pen, it’s far from mere slapstick; it’s an affectionate, benign portrayal, becoming increasingly reflective.

She was deprived of college by her father’s inability to resist buying a guitar made for Paul McCartney:

Later, I would take a detached literary pleasure in the notion that higher education had unwittingly been robbed from me by a Beatle.

She observes family life with detachment:

The drama of the scene ought to have been tense and throbbing, but it was undercut somewhat by my mother’s decorating, which ran heavily to bowls of gold balls. Still, we played our parts: every once in a while my father would bang down his fist while looking patriarchal, and my mother would turn to stare out the window while looking powerless, which contributed to the impression that we were participating in a Tennessee Williams play where “the internet” was being used as a code for “homosexuality”.

And

The Don Pablo’s in Cincinatti was a large converted factory, so it looked vaguely like a nightclub where people went to have wrong ideas about Mexico. In the corner, a fake cactus threw up its helpless arms, as if my father were holding it at gunpoint.

Her relationship with her husband Jason is most endearing. As he wonders if her father is trying to kill him, she responds:

“Did you give him any indication that you were a pacifist or an intellectual, or that you liked abstract art?”

Pets are a bone of contention too:

My father hates cats. He believes them to be Democrats. He considers them to be little mean hillary clintons covered all over with feminist legfur. Cats would have abortions, given half a chance.

When Jason takes a job at a local newpaper, she muses:

There was a sign announcing how many days had passed since the last workplace accident, which made me think of the unlucky employee who had to climb up on a ladder the next morning to flip the number back to zero with a maimed hand.

As Tricia tries to watch old movies on TV, her father switches over without ceremony to

something like Bag of Guts: How Much Blood is in a Human Body? or Boom! A Toot from the Bum of the Apocalypse or Ragged Claws: Hideous Mutant Poem from the Deep.

She guesses the plots of his favorite movies based on the sounds coming through the walls:

A remake of The Ten Commandments where the lead actor is just an AK-47 wearing Moses robes. He parts the Red Sea by shooting it.

Indiana Jones flips through his dad’s diary and finds a map of the clitoris. “IT’S MINE”, he yells, but will the Nazis get there first?

God is a cop with a monkey sidekick, but the monkey sidekick is mankind.

She takes singing lessons with her sister:

We often sang together at church because our voices sounded related, though mine was obviously the hunchbacked insane relative who lived up in the attic and only descended for meals.

Her second teacher

looked like she knew where Prague was, which at that moment in time I did not.

But the chapter segues to her suicide attempt as a cloistered teenager.

Some of the most baroque passages come when she explains Catholicism to her bemused husband, suggesting a Martian ethnographer (indeed, she likens her notebook to that of an anthropologist):

“What did these people teach you?” he asked me one night, mystified. “What exactly do Catholics believe?”

I’d been preparing my whole life for this question. “First of all, blood. BLOOD. Second of all, thorns. Third of all, put dirt on your forehead. Do it right now. Fourth of all, Martin Luther was a pig in a cloak. Fifth of all, Jesus is alive, but he’s also dead, and he’s also immortal, but he’s also made of clouds, and his face is a picture of infinite peace, but he always looks like one of those men in a headache commercial, because you’re causing him such suffering whenever you cuss. He is so gentle that sheep seem like demented murderers in his presence, but also rays of light shoot out of his face so hard they can kill people. In fact they do kill people, and one day they will kill you. He has a tattoo of a daisy chain on his lower back and he gets his hair permed every eight weeks. He’s wearing a flowing white dress, but only because people didn’t know about jeans back then. He’s holding up two fingers because his dad won’t let him have a gun. If he lived on earth, he would have a white truck, plastered with bumper stickers of Calvin peeing on a smaller Calvin who is not a Catholic.”

See also under The Annunciation in art and music.

While reluctant to “harp on” (my garish phrase, sic!) about feminism, Lockwood reflects on her relationship with the seminarians who come to stay:

What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.

YAY! Hallelujah! The “indomitable human spirit”, demurely Renting Asunder the Chains of Bondage—not just surviving but thriving!!!

People do sometimes accuse me of blasphemy, which is understandable, and which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It’s my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine.

So while she doesn’t give the church an easy ride, she describes her background of taking part ungrudgingly in its rituals. Merging emic and etic, she is altogether gentle in her lack of confrontation—as she observes in this review:

“But in a way, I am happy that I wrote it before all this [the US elections] went down because you can look at those things foreignly. There can be a sort of nostalgia looking back at it. Whereas now, it feels so urgent to excise all these conservative forms of thought as opposed to just seeing them as quirks—which they’re not just quirks, but they are that, especially when it’s your family.” She adds, “I always had the sense that running alongside this book was a book that was much angrier, or was expressed more as a sort of haranguing monologue against various things, but that’s not particularly natural to me as a writer.”

She describes the background and reactions to the publication of her poem Rape joke, and adds a note to her comments on motherhood:

The twinge you are feeling right now is the twinge of wondering whether I am really right-thinking, whether I am really on the right side when it comes to this subject. I put that twinge in because I sometimes feel it myself. But after all that, you must understand that I had to leave right-thinkingness behind.

She reflects on her family’s involvement in the “pro-life” movement (see also this, adapted from the book):

We patronised pro-life businesses, which in the Midwest, back then, was easy to do. It was possible to buy a pro-life pizza, despite the fact that a pizza is by its very definition made out of choices.

She perceives certain feminist credentials in her mother, who is ever alert to danger while not clearly subscribing to the notion of female suffrage. In a charming chapter rejoicing in the title “The Cum Queens of Hyatt Palace”, they bond over finding cum on a hotel bed. After a spirited exchange with the management (not of bodily fluids, I should add),

We join hands and set forth into the morning, united by that human glue which cannot be dissolved.

But amidst the hilarity her account addresses ever more serious topics—the church child-abuse scandal, pollution-induced disease, and her father’s roles in counselling the desperate and officiating for the bereaved.

Eventually he concedes to his errant daughter,

“I never thought it would be so much fun to have you home. It’s so nice when your kids grow up and you don’t have to kill them anymore.”

But while revelling in language she treasures its limitations:

The desire to describe voice, gesture, skin colour, is a desire to eat, take over, make into part of the pattern. I am happy every time I see a writer fail at this. I am happy every time to see real personhood resist our tricks. I am happy to see bodies insist that they are not shut up in this book, they are elsewhere. The tomb is empty, rejoice, he is not here.

Do bask in every enchanted word that Ms Lockwood writes! As a suitable soundtrack for such shots in the arm, I suggest You’re my thrill.

Comment te dire adieu

Hardy 2

Like I say a little prayer, Back to black, Carminho (among many gems on my Playlist of songs!!!), and festive Bach, it makes me unbearably happy to hear the exquisite chanteuse * Françoise Hardy singing Comment te dire adieu (1968)—the nuances of her expression capturing the ambivalent mood, both in close-up:

and lounging languidly on a chaise longue:

Serge Gainsbourg’s drôle lyrics are brilliant:

Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux
Avoir de réflexes malheureux
Il faut que tu m’ex——pliques un peu mieux
Comment te dire adieu

Mon coeur de silex vite prend feu
Ton coeur de Pyrex résiste au feu
Je suis bien perplexe, je ne veux
Me résoudre aux adieux

(Je sais bien qu’un ex——amour n’a pas de chance, ou si peu
Mais pour moi un ex——plication voudrait mieux)

Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux
Devant toi surex——poser mes yeux
Derrière un Kleenex je saurais mieux
Comment te dire adieu
Comment te dire adieu

(Tu as mis à l’index nos nuits blanches, nos matins gris-bleu
Mais pour moi une ex——plication vaudrait mieux)

Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux
Devant toi surex—poser mes yeux
Derrière un Kleenex je saurais mieux
Comment te dire adieu
Comment te dire adieu
Comment te dire adieu

She sounds soooo cool, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hurting going on here. Instead, she finds inner strength through a flurry of insouciant wordplay on “ex“—not least Pyrex (a niche hommage to kitchenware in French chanson) and Kleenex. Sex is just a sibilant away….

Nor does she let up in her gorgeous sprechstimme interludes (above a change to triple metre on strings), stressing ex——amour and ex­——plication (as in the sung ex——pliques and surex——poser) with an ecc——entric hiatus, negating the natural rhythm of speech—not so much a speech impediment as the kind of deliberate pause advocated by therapists to prepare the stammerer to approach the following syllable (especially plosives) with easy onset!

True, she would make the Paris phone directory sound irresistibly seductive (cf. the HP sauce label), but here her spoken sections further the dramatic effect, ex——punging, ex——orcising her ex——perience. They’re punctuated by a funky syncopated trumpet motif, courtesy of Caravelli, worthy of Hardy’s fellow-Parisian Messiaen—who three years previously had completed the Sept haïkaï

Then there’s the extra visual frisson of veux, malheureux, aux adieux, mieux. One even hopes to hear her pronouncing the x there (I wonder how this works: do native French speakers somehow hear it in their heads?).

À propos, like many men, Monsieur Pyrex, the passionless, fire-resistant subject of this nonchalent lament, clearly needs his head ex——amining.

The music is suitably minimalist, eschewing melodic or harmonic development—recalling more the theme tune of Soap than the ballads of Michel Legrand (see also Un homme et une femme).

Comment te dire adieu is actually a chic upbeat French recasting of the soupy ballad It hurts to say goodbye, which had recently been recorded by Margaret Whiting and then Vera Lynn—just the kind of ballad I’d love to have heard Dusty sing (cf. You don’t own me; see also How can I miss you when you won’t go away?).

Françoise Hardy subtly subverts both the melodrama and the “gamine elfin waif” trope (see also Feminine endings). Put this song on the British school syllabus and there’ll soon be a legion of fluent young Francophiles…

Her German version of the song works well too; while the lyrics are less detached, they make a bit of an effort to keep the “ex” theme going:

Nach zwei Cognacs ex bekamst du Mut
Deine Abschiedstexte waren gut [Das Lied von der Erde for generation X?]
Ratlos und perplex nur dachte ich
Was mach ich ohne dich

Stets war mein Komplex du bist zu schön
Charm hast du für sechs, ach was, für zehn **
Liebt denn so was exklusiv nur mich
Was mach ich ohne dich

(Ob du daran denkst
Wie einsam und verloren ich bin
Nein, du hast schon längst
Eine Andere im Sinn)

Gib mir keinen Extrakuss jetzt mehr
Der nur noch Reflexbewegung wäre
Ratlos und perplex nur frag ich mich
Was mach ich ohne dich
Was mach ich ohne dich

(All die Nächte mit dir
Voll von Glück bis zum Morgengrauen
Die und dich stahl mir
Eine andere Frau)

Diese Dame X, die dich mir nimmt
Fliegt auf deine Tricks wie ich, bestimmt
Dann als Dame ex sagt sie wie ich
Was mach ich ohne dich
Was mach ich ohne dich

 And she sings it in Italian, with yet another angle on the story:

Non voglio un pretesto per pietà
Sai che io detesto falsità
Sii un po’ più onesto quando vuoi
Finirla fra di noi

Non restar perplesso ad inventar
Scuse che del resto non van mai
Oltre ad un modesto rendez-vous
A cui non vieni più

(Io so bene che i castelli di carta
Con un soffio van giù
Non ne hai colpa tu)

Non voglio un pretesto per pietà
Sai che io detesto falsità
Dammi il fazzoletto quando vuoi
Finirla fra di noi
Finirla fra di noi

That first verse is good:

I don’t want an excuse for piety
Know that I detest falsity
Be a bit more honest when you want
To finish it between us.

One might think Spanish regional languages would offer potential for the exes too. Anyway, the nuances of mood in these various versions are intriguing. Possibly a multilingual EU directive to Brexit Britain? 

Françoise Hardy did a more melancholic version with her soul sister (twin?) Jane Birkin in 1976 (Comment lui dire adieu!):

Later Birkin gave an intense live arabesque rendition (1996/2002), with ex——emplary decorations on solo fiddle:

The 60s, eh?! Ex——traordinare! I am officially applying to be reincarnated as Serge Gainsbourg.

Hardy


* English pronunciation shontooz, as in A French letter, n.2.

** Cf. the classic

What comes between fear and sex?
Fünf.

The first snooker commentary

A sequel to Oh and that’s a bad miss, and various posts under Ronnie: a roundup

Snooker b&w

“What shall we do with all these balls?”

The 2021 Masters snooker tournament is now well under way, NOT reaching a crescendo on Sunday.

A most educative aspect of enjoying snooker on TV is the expert commentary by former players. But way back in the Mists of Time, pundits were considerably less well informed. And everyone was hampered by only being able to see the “game” in black-and-white—even live…

Here’s a transcript of the first ever broadcast:

I wonder what he’s going to do with that stick.
I think you’ll find the technical term is “baton”.
Gosh, he used it to hit one ball onto another one. Well that’s a bad start.
Oops, one of the balls has gone down a hole. Obviously another serious mistake.
Yes, unfortunate, that—looks like the ref’s going to punish him by making him take another go.

Hang on, they gave him a goal then, when that ball went down the hole (I think it might be red, but who can tell?). Rewarding failure, if you ask me—Typical!
Yes, but I notice they only score one goal for that. Someone should tell them not to bother.

[zzzzz]

Oh no, now another ball has gone down a hole!
It’s almost as if they’re doing it on purpose.
This time it looks like a black one—makes a change, I suppose. Screwing up once is understandable, but twice in a row, come on! These chaps are clearly amateurs.
Hey, the ref’s put it back on the table—cheating, surely. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? O tempora, o mores!

Have you noticed how they keep hitting the white ball first? Bit unimaginative if you ask me.
It’d be easier without the stick too—whatever it is they’re trying to do.
And they might have thought of the risks and just designed a table without holes in it. Basic design fault, what. I’ll give them a call, once someone gets round to inventing the telephone.
Or they could just play with bigger balls, so they don’t go down the holes.

I think he’s eyeing up a plant!!!
What on earth are you on about? Kindly leave botany out of this. People will think we don’t know what we’re doing.
Sorry, no idea what I meant by that. Mind you, now he’s got a nice angle on the blue to go into the pack, hitting the pink full ball.
You’re at it again.

Hang on—do you reckon the goal is to Attain Emptiness, after the fashion of Huineng and Walt Disney?

[…]
Pour me another gin.
I think I’m starting to get the hang of this.

Hmm, not many red balls left on the table. The ref should put them all back. At this rate they won’t have any more balls left to hit—the whole sorry travesty will just fizzle out. Let’s face it, this is never going to catch on. I’m going to take up accountancy.
Fancy a curry?

Ronnie

Ronnie graces the baize on Wednesday.

Cf. Script to an iconic head-butt. Seriously though folks, don’t miss Ronnie’s divine 147!!!

Discerning rules is pretty much what anthropologists and ethnomusicologists do. This vignette from Nigel Barley on his fieldwork among the Dowayo of Cameroon (cited here) is apposite:

They missed out the essential piece of information that made things comprehensible. No one told me that the village was where the Master of the Earth, the man who controlled the fertility of all plants, lived, and that consequently various parts of the ceremony would be different from elsewhere. This was fair enough; some things are too obvious to mention. If we were explaining to a Dowayo how to drive a car, we should tell him all sorts of things about gears and road signs before mentioning that one tried not to hit other cars.

Roundup for 2020!

Since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual roundup (cf. 2018, 2019) is an occasion to group together some major themes from the last year (see also the tags and categories in the sidebar). This is just a selection (with apologies to the posts I’ve missed—do seek them out!):

For China, note

A substantial addition to my series on the ritual associations of Gaoluo:

Also new to the extensive Local ritual menu:

and on folk culture around Tianjin:

See also

Book reviews, mostly on religion and politics:

as well as

On modern Tibetan cultures, I’ve added a whole series, listed here:

—complementing my series on Uyghur culture in crisis, also with new input:

besides

* * *

For fieldwork and cultures elsewhere around the world—bearing in mind the important perspectives of

This year’s new posts on Indian raga, including some divine dhrupad singing:

* * *

On the travails of the 20th century:

* * *

On jazz:

and WAM:

On TV, film, popular culture:

* * *

Thanksgivings for liberation from tyranny:

And another sign of hope:

More jocular items include

as well as additions to The English, home and abroad:

and new entries under the headlines tag:

Further roundups:

And much much more, As They Say. Having grouped them together like this, I hope readers will scramble them all up again like a jigsaw, rather than retreating into their own little boxes… And do click on all the links within these posts! Happy, Happier New Year!

Folk traditions of Poland

String band, Polish highlands 1931. Source here.

My recent post on the great siege of Przemyśl reminds me to explore Polish folk soundscapes, which were somewhat outside my remit in surveying folk musics around east Europe but also deserve to be savoured.

As Simon Broughton observes in his useful Songlines update, since he edited the second edition of The Rough Guide to world music in 1999, Polish folk music has seen a dynamic revival akin to the earlier Hungarian táncház movement. See also the third edition (2009).

Fieldwork project, early 1950s. Source here.

Fans of “world music” have long made an avid audience for the folk musics of Hungary and Romania. Poland’s extreme sufferings in the mid-20th century (see also Bloodlands) were followed by state socialism and its sanitised musical “fakelore” (brilliantly dissected by Kundera for Moravia). But local traditions were maintained there too—and indeed collected, both before the 1939 invasions [1] and in the early 1950s, although official support for such fieldwork was an ironic casualty of the 1956 political thaw. Note also chapters in Music traditions in totalitarian systems, 2009 (slow to load, but worth persisting!). Cf. fieldwork in Maoist China.

So here, as is my wont, I seek more hardcore rural traditions, the inspiration for higher-profile bands touring on the world music circuit like the Warsaw Village Band, Kroke, and, notably, Janusz Prusinowski’s group.

Do explore the riches of Andrzej Bieńkowski’s Muzyka Odnaleziona site (for perceptive interviews with him, click here and here), along with hundreds of wonderful videos on his YouTube playlists, featuring both instrumental bands and singers from regions including Lublin, Radom, and (in Łódź province) Rawa and Opoczno, as well as Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian traditions within current Polish borders (several of my posts also feature Ukraine and the work of William Noll, such as this).

Recording venues of the Muzyka Odnaleziona project.

We might start with Bieńkowski’s own selection of favourite clips:

Kapela string bands (often family-based) for festive dancing are led by fiddles—with sawing accompaniment, or sometimes a slapped bass resembling the gardon of Gyimes [Plain people of Ireland nod knowingly]. As one moves south, triple-time dances give way to duple metres. The Muzyka Odnaleziona material also does a nifty sideline in bagpipes.

Among the discography in Simon’s article is an impressive anthology of 27 CDs in the Muzyka Źródeł series from Polish radio (here, or here), featuring great musicians such as the fiddler Stanisław Klejnas (1905–88), from the tiny village of Raducz east of Łódź:

He’s also shown in this clip:

From the 1970s, a major inspiration for the renewed interest in Polish folk traditions was Kazimierz Metó (1922-–2008), from Glina south of Łódź. Here he is at home in 1987:

The brothers Jan and Piotr Gaca, based in Przystałowice Małe in the Radom district, are also renowned:

Particularly famed for its distinctive traditions is the Podhale region of the southern Górale highlands, near the border with Slovakia (and west of Przemyśl)—despite the popularity of the main town Zakopane as a tourist resort. In similar vein to Bartók, Kodály, and Janâček, the folk culture of this region inspired WAM composers from Mierczyński and Szymanowski to Górecki, as well as the anthropologist Malinowski. [2] 

This style is addictive as that of the string bands of Transylvania at the southern reaches of the Carpathians. Besides the sheer energy of the music, it’s intriguing to become acquainted with the syntax and signposts of the distinctive harmonic progressions; and above them, apparently quite independent, the decorations of the fiddle melodies. Such features are all the more stimulating for seeming rather close to the familiar conventions of WAM (and indeed pop music) while operating quite outside them.

The ever-discerning Nimbus label (e.g. their flamenco recordings) issued two intoxicating CDs in 1996. Recorded a couple of days apart in nearby villages, they evoke a festive conviviality, punctuated by gutsy vocals and dance calls:

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Gienek Wilczek’s Bukowina band —among whose many delights are the funky coda of Oh, Susanna that rounds off the ballad sequence of #5 on this playlist!:

and

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Trebunia family band:

Here’s a 1985 video of Tadeusz Szostak’s kapela—based, like the Trebunia band, in Poronin:

And here’s the playlist of the CD Poland: folk songs and dances (VDE-Gallo, 1993), compiled by Anna Czekanowska (author of many works, including Polish folk music, 1990):

As in China, it’s only by zooming in from region to county to village to family that we can marvel at the depth of local traditions. By analogy with my experience of the Hebei plain and north Shanxi, I can well imagine the wealth of material that detailed fieldwork can afford on the lives of Polish people through all the vicissitudes of modern history.

* * *

Further to Accordion crimes, and among a rich archive of recordings of migrant communities in the USA (such as Italian piffero and ciaramella players in 1963–64!), yet another great Folkways album features early recordings (1927–33) of Polish bands around Chicago and New York; as the liner notes suggest, over this period the rougher folk string-band style (e.g. #4, from the Tatras—where, as we’ve heard, it has persisted) was giving way to a more, um, polished idiom with wider commercial appeal:

Note also the “cheerfully infanticidal” #2. For a companion disc of Ukrainian immigrants, click here.

See also Sound and sovereignty in Ukraine; Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland, and Polish jazz, then and now.


[1] For the early history of documenting Polish folk music, see also Barbara Krader’s section in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993), pp.171–7.

[2] For the music of Podhale, note the works of Timothy Cooley, such as Making music in the Polish Tatras: tourists, ethnographers, and mountain musicians (2005), and this article; see also here, and for the renowned fiddler Bartek Obrochta (1850–1926), here. For a hint of the region’s travails during and after World War II, see here and here, as well as The Ratline.

Anna Mahler—Groucho, and sculpture

Anna Mahler. Source here.

This post leads from the ridiculous to the sublime, so don’t despair.

Courtesy of slippedisc.com, here’s a challenge to the imagination: on 2nd January 1952 the sculptor Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav and Alma, appeared as a contestant on the Hollywood radio quiz show You bet your life, with Groucho Marx as host. Not just OMG, but

O––––M––––G…

It epitomises the Chinese expression kuxiaobude 哭笑不得, which is somehow more expressive, more versatile, than “not knowing whether to laugh or cry”. Anna tries her luck over the first 11 minutes here:

Undeterred, whether desperate or legally bound (both Anna and Groucho were struggling at the time), she came back for more the very next day for the TV version; thankfully it doesn’t seem to appear online—though in a masochistic kind of way, that too would be hard to resist.

The life of Anna Mahler (1904–88; see also here and here) was just as eventful as that of her mother Alma. Anna’s older sister Maria died in 1907 aged 5; her father in 1911, aged 50; and her half-sister Manon Gropius (the “angel” to whom Berg dedicated his exquisite violin concerto) died at the age of 18 in 1935.

Anna’s first two marriages, to conductor Rupert Koller and composer Ernst Krenek, were short-lived. Having trained in painting, by 1930 she gravitated to sculpture.

After another divorce, she fled the Anschluss in 1938, living in Hampstead and marrying conductor Anatole Fistoulari; their daughter Marina was born in 1943. Following the war she made a home, without her husband, in California, before divorcing yet again in 1956. She returned to London after Alma died in 1964, going on to live in Spoleto from 1969 and taking a fifth husband. She died while visiting Marina in Hampstead in 1988; you can read Ernst Gombrich’s address at her funeral here.

Anna’s father had been fêted in New York, both as conductor and composer, from 1908 to his death in 1911—Groucho, then in his late teens and making his way in vaudeville, could even have attended his concerts. Still, by 1952 he could be forgiven for having but a sketchy awareness of the composer’s towering work—it was some years before the craze for his music that took off in the 60s, often associated with Bernstein and Barbirolli (besides Mahler tag, more links here).

Like Harpo, public persona aside, Groucho was thoughtful and cultured: normal conversation between him and Anna might have been urbane. It’s the superficial format that reduces the encounter.

On the show, although Groucho would already have had background on his guests, he does at least sound suitably impressed to learn of Anna’s parentage and Viennese background, trying out his “old-world charm”. While he doesn’t do his Margaret Dumont routine on her, his badinage almost rescues the occasion: it would have been even more cringeworthy with Yer Average vapid quiz-show host quipping his way through such ritual exchanges. Anna puts on a brave face, right up to Groucho’s final question “What kinda fruit do you use in a peach pie?”

* * *

Just around this time J.D. Salinger was elaborating the precocious, mystically-inclined child characters of the Glass family, whom he portrayed as making long-term appearances on the radio quiz show It’s a wise child from 1927 to 1943. And John Cage‘s 1959 appearances on the Italian TV show Lascia o radoppia (“Double or quit”) were based on his serious sideline as an erudite mycologist.

All this was long before politicians learned that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, submitting to ritual humiliation by trying in vain to Get Down with the Kids (think Anne Widdecombe, George Galloway—actually, no, don’t).

And it almost makes the various Monty Python spoofs (like this, with Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, and Mao struggling over questions on football and pop music) seem perfectly plausible.

But actually, why the hell not? The music of Anna’s own father is testimony to the synthesis of high and popular art (cf. Alan Bennett, in coda here; What is serious music?!; Dissolving boundaries; and Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual).
[Well, I gave that a trial spin, but I still listen to the show peering through my fingers from behind a sofa.]

* * *

Apart from her stone sculptures, Anna’s work included busts of Berg, Schoenberg, Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Walter, as well as Schoenberg’s death mask.

So as an antidote to You bet your life, we can recover with Anna’s exquisite 1954 film A stone figure, made over several months, in which she not only provides the instructive voiceover but also plays Bach for the soundtrack—somehow one feels a deep connection with her father (for his relation with Bach, see here):

“Talking of Michelangelo” (and Groucho knew T.S. Eliot! I rest my case), I remain fond of the apocryphal comment on how to create a sculpture of an elephant: “Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

Some favourite posts

Punctuating my major articles on local ritual in rural China, having just added the contrasting recent posts Rāg Yaman Kalyan and Replies from the Complaints Department to my burgeoning *MUST READ!* category, they belong in this more radical distillation of the list—I am particularly attached to

As to listening, apart from the Chinese playlist in the sidebar (commentary here), there are links to a wealth of amazing music here:

And apart from my film, I consider the greatest gift of this blog to be

Ma Yuan

That’s just a selection—I find myself wanting to add more, but do also refer to leads on the home page!

Replies from the Complaints Department

Delving intrepidly in the dusty archives of the London County Council and Greater London Council Complaints Department, I’ve unearthed some well-meaning replies.

1st April 1960

Your ref.: My old man’s a dustman

Dear Mr Donegan,
Your message, in its novel audio format, [1] has just found its way to my desk. I am not entirely clear if it is intended as a complaint or a tribute, but I shall endeavour herewith to address your main points.

I am grateful for your vivid account of your father’s work apparel. While I am unfamiliar with what you evocatively describe as “gor-blimey trousers”, his choice of headgear certainly seems quite suitable to his métier. And I trust he is satisfied with the accommodation provided by the council.

The vocation of refuse collection officer is indeed valuable. With our recent time-and-efficiency directive, the pressures of the job have alas been increasing; but despite the provocations that such upstanding members of society sometimes encounter, I must remind all parties concerned that violence is not a viable option, and may lead to prosecution.

If there is anything further I can assist you with, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours etc.

cc Department of Refuse Collection;
Conflict Resolution; Legal Claims.

Another letter, six years later to the very day, already hints, albeit reluctantly, at a rapidly changing society:

1st April 1966

Your ref.: I can’t get no satisfaction

Dear Mr Jagger (perhaps I may be so bold as to call you Michael?),
With reference to your recent cri de coeur, expressed via the medium of film (whatever next?), I am sorry to learn of your troubles in achieving fulfilment. As you so wisely observe, perseverance is the key, although I am reliably informed that excessive indulgence may lead to injury. Apparently something called “foreplay” is currently “all the rage”.

Here at the Council we are always glad to learn of our constituents branching out into such novel ways of expression as what I believe is known as the “popular beat combo”, and we trust that your dabblings will make a diverting hobby for you, despite their very limited potential for material gain. As you may soon learn, such energetic pastimes belong to one’s youth, and can never be pursued into later years.

And as to our encounters with those of the female persuasion, I quite understand that a somewhat irregular lifestyle may mitigate against finding a suitable spouse. However, we have to recognise that a settled domestic routine, involving such wholesome pursuits as gardening (taking care to wrap up warm!), may be a most “satisfactory” recourse in the absence of any more stimulating liaisons—which, as you and your esteemed colleague Mr Richards will doubtless concur, remain purely in the realms of fantasy. I am sure you will be able to “settle down” soon—and if not, then many distinguished personages over the years have enjoyed the benefits of celibacy.

Yours etc.

P.S. For any matters of a more delicate nature that may be concerning you, please allow me to remind you that the Council operates a confidential Walk-in (or perhaps in your case, Strut-in) service.

cc Department of Parks and Recreation;
Personal Injury Compensation; Pension Planning;
Centre for Reproductive Health Within the Bonds of Holy Matrimony.

LOL. For a missive from the Isle of Wight, see here; and for a helpful letter from the BBC, see n. here. See also Bo Dudley.


[1] Wiki ambitiously suggests that the melody is borrowed from Stravinsky’s Petrushka. “Citation needed” indeed…

Rāg Yaman Kalyan

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Kalyan ragamala

Kalyan, ragamala:
“He looks like Kandarpa [the god of love] himself. He has a voice like a cuckoo
and a complete knowledge of musicology. He has a stout figure and is not called a commoner. This is Kalyan, who is known as a king of the poets.”

Along with our explorations of performance genres around the world, it’s always inspiring to return to north Indian raga.

Equipped with Daniel Neuman’s classic exposition of the changing social and historical background, let’s immerse ourselves in some fine recordings of the highly popular rāg Yaman Kalyan, exploring its pitch relationships and melodic nuts and bolts (see also Unpacking “improvisation”). For a sequel, click here.

The raga guide (Nimbus, 1999) always makes a useful manual for the framework, structural features, and vocabulary of raga. To remind ourselves of the degrees of the heptatonic scale:

Then, armed with the introduction (pp.1–13), we can consult the basic ascending and descending patterns of particular ragas:

So Yaman uses what “we” [Right you are—the Plain People of Ireland] would call a lydian scale, featuring the sharp Ma (our faa long long way to run!). In Yaman Kalyan the natural (low) ma, sometimes also heard as a fleeting, unstressed decoration of Ga, is said to be a feature distinguishing it from Yaman—though since aficionados don’t seem too fussy about this, I won’t be either.

Dhrupad vocal versions make a fine starting-point, with their long, sublime alap, intimate and ecstatic. [1] Let’s focus on two performances by the great Uday Bhawalkar. It’s inspiring to see, as well as hear, this live performance from 2016, his expressive hand gestures complementing the contours of the melody:

Singing prescribed non-lexical syllables akin to mantra, he begins by exploring the building blocks of the rāg, expounding the relation of Ni to Sa, as well as sharp Ma and Re. From 3.49 he reaches exquisite sustained cadences on Ga, with some infinitely anticipated resolutions such as from Re up to Ga from 5.21—always placing it in the context of the scale, with the sharp Ma also entering the mix. From 8.23 he reaches hushed, ecstatic cadences on Pa—with one of many instances of “resonance” heard from 10.13.

Returning to the middle-register tonic Sa from 11.53, he builds up again to high Ni, eventually reaching top Sa at 16.19, always expanding our understanding of the pitch relationships.

As we hang on his every inflection, from 19.48, back around middle Sa he injects a firmer pulse, including mukhṛā refrains with rhythmic repeated notes. Continuing downwards, he generates longer phrases, often starting from Ga GaRe Sa…, in a long section with cadences on Ga, gravitating to Pa from 28.16; and then via Ni (from 31.48), up again to reverential cadences on top Sa from 33.44 (with another wonderful “resonance”!), setting off once more to explore the scalar gamut further.

From 37.47 he reinvigorates the pulse in the middle register; the time has come for more extended melodic phrases, always based in the structure of tonal hierarchies, with the pakhavaj drum entering around 41.04.

Dhrupad performances commonly end with an auspicious song; as Richard Widdess tells me, this one (from 57.25) evokes a bridal palanquin, based on a motif descending from Ni, in 10-beat sūltāl.

It’s also worth comparing this version by Uday Bhawalkar, just as wonderful:

This performance, using dynamic contrast, is again structured around long sustained cadences, as in the extended passage revolving around Ga from 7.12, leading to lengthy extended appoggiaturas from sharp Ma down to Ga from 9.00, eventually landing exquisitely on sotto voce cadences on Pa from 11.56. From 16.43 he extends the range further upwards, revolving around high Ni before reaching the high tonic Sa at 18.51.

By 21.45 he returns to the lower register, introducing a firm pulse setting forth from repetitions of Sa, reaching low Sa by 24.45. Returning to the middle octave, by 27.07 he is exploring around Ga again with the new metrical element, wonderful quaver passages from 28.23 building to cadences on Pa and (from 32.38) on up to Ni, eventually landing again on top Sa at 34.21.

From 36.41 he sets out once more in middle and lower registers, with quirky nomtom passages in faster quavers, building long phrases from 40.28 on a refrain centered on Ga, going on to cover the whole gamut; from 49.55 the discreet pakhavaj, in 16-beat tintal, subtly supports his increasingly ornate (but always melodious) flourishes. This main section ends with a brief slow free-tempo coda from 57.39, reaching a cadence on the tonic Sa.

He ends (from 58.54) by singing a dhamar song in praise of Krishna, for the Holi spring festival, in 14-beat dhamar tāl (5+2+3+4)—not easily identified for outsiders like me.

For more from Uday Bhawalkar, see here.

And still with dhrupad, here’s Ritwik Sanyal, supported by his son Ribhu, in 2014—the first 48’ unmetered, with pakhavaj accompanying the concluding song from 50.18:

Wary though I am of hippy orientalist romanticising, these renditions lead me back to the reflections on mystical sound by Inayat Khan (n. 1 in my post on his daughter Noor).

* * *

Morgan Davies (worthy custodian of my sarangi) guides me to an exhilarating metered version by the fine female singer Mogubai Kurdikar:

Turning to instrumental versions, back in dhrupad style, Morgan again led me to a profoundly meditative live performance on rudra vina by the great Zia Mohiuddin Dagar in 1990—his last year: [2]

On rudra vina the low passages (e.g. from 3.27) have a particular intensity; after introducing a regular pulse from 40′, he again explores the low register from 44.35.

Indeed, we can compare this rendition with his studio recording (also from 1990) on the classic Nimbus CDalap followed by metered jor and jhala from 40.35:

In the latter, just one instance of how his exposition of the scale is complemented by mastery of timbre: for over seven minutes from 24.00 he explores all around the sharp fourth Ma, contemplating it in wonder with a varied range of right-hand attacks and left-hand glides, at first tending to fall back to Ga and then revealing it as a step upwards to Pa (cf. the passage I mentioned from 9.00 to 11.56 of Uday Bhawalkar’s second recording).

We can also compare this live performance in 1982:

Among a multitude of sitar versions, I find myself most enthralled by Nikhil Banerjee. I’ve already featured his inspired performances of Kafi Zila (minor), Malkauns (anhemitonic pentatonic), and Marwa (a challenging yet bewitching “A major over a C drone”?!)—YAY! There’s my crash course in raga!!! And now, Bhairav and Bhairavi too…

So here he is playing Yaman Kalyan (joined from 31.24 by a tabla player who may not actually be Zakir Hussain):

Wonderfully melodic, to my ears Banerjee sounds even more expressively vocal than the vocalists. He favours quite extended phrases from early on, often framing sequences of regular quavers with initial and cadential phrases of three or more repeated notes: x x x —. And he soon introduces the jor metered section, with exquisite explorations of low and high registers. I relish the low passage from 13.36, with ecstatic long phrases from 15.45 and 19.46—a constant flow of invention. From around 15′, as the pulse becomes ever more regular, he already becomes rather virtuosic by around 24′, but he’s never merely technical: melodically and rhythmically he always remains creative. From 31.24, starting with a more restrained tempo, the tabla accompanies gats in 9-beat matta tāl (4+2+3 beats—cf. Taco taco taco burrito!) and then 16-beat tintāl, rhythmic drive now taking precedence over melody.

And here’s Nikhil Banerjee again, playing Yaman with Anindo Chatterjee—alap and jod again followed by gats in matta tāl (from 30.50) and tintāl:

By now, like me, you may want to listen to all his renditions of this and other ragas on YouTube. Alas, Banerjee died in 1986 at the age of only 54 (cf. the end of my post on Coltrane).

On sarangi, Nicolas Magriel’s fine website has many examples of Yaman. I find Sultan Khan, this time with Zakir Hussain for real, quite distinctive:

By contrast with Banerjee, at first he mainly stresses Ga, Re, and Ni, and even later the sharp fourth Ma is rather less prominent. His exposition is more florid than the dhrupad versions; an ecstatic high passage from 13.12 leads into the metered section with tabla from 16.22.

For a version on shehnai, see Raga for winds.

For the related rāg Maru Bihag, click here.

With many thanks to Richard Widdess and Morgan Davies


[1] Further to Neuman, for the social context of the dhrupad revival, see Richard Widdess, “Festivals of dhrupad in northern India: new contexts for an ancient art”, British journal of ethnomusicology 1994.3.

How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet

“There is singing everywhere in Tibet”

Discuss

gunsTibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959. AFP/Getty.

In my first post on Labrang, recalling the debate over how to represent Tibetan music in the New Grove dictionary, I mentioned a succinct, nay flimsy, article by

  • Mao Jizeng 毛繼增, “Xizang wuchu bushi ge: minzu yinyue caifang zhaji” 西藏無处不是歌——民族音乐採訪札記 [There is singing everywhere in Tibet: fieldnotes on national music], Renmin yinyue 1959.5, pp.8–11 (!).

—a strong candidate for the award of Most Ironic Title Ever. [1]

* * *

Mao Jizeng’s brief article resulted from a ten-month stay in Lhasa that he made from 1956 to early 1957. He was part of a team chosen to do a field survey in Tibet, led by the distinguished Tibetologist Li Youyi 李有义 (1912–2015); Mao Jizeng (b.1932) had just been assigned to the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing after graduating from Chengdu.

The team clearly set out from Beijing with the intention of covering a wide area of central Tibet (then just in the process of becoming the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, TAR). Unrest was already common in Amdo and Kham, and the political situation there would soon deteriorate severely in the TAR; but even in 1956, as Mao Jizeng recalled in a 2007 interview, Tibetan–Chinese relations were so tense that they had to remain in Lhasa, unable to get out into the countryside. One member of the team was so scared that he soon returned to Beijing; Mao Jizeng, being young, “didn’t know what fear was”—but he still got hold of a revolver for protection, which doesn’t suggest total faith in the warm welcome of Tibetans for their Chinese friends.

Anyway, for Mao Jizeng, “everywhere” in Tibet could only mean Lhasa. However, I learn here that Li Youyi did manage to travel farther afield with a separate team of Tibetan and Chinese fieldworkers (perhaps with military back-up?); and despite incurring political criticism in the summer of 1957, he continued doing field studies in TAR and Kham right until 1961, though not on music.

At the time, Chinese music scholars knew virtually nothing of Tibetan musical cultures—or even of Han-Chinese regional traditions of such as those of Fujian. That was the point of these 1950s’ field surveys, which would later blossom with the Anthology. But even as a musical ethnography of 1956 Lhasa, Mao Jizeng’s article is seriously flawed; it could only provide a few preliminary clues.

Those field surveys among the Han Chinese were given useful clues by the local Bureaus of Culture. But although Li Youyi was bringing an official team from Beijing, it’s not clear if there was any cultural work-unit to host them in Lhasa. Such cultural initiatives as there were in Tibetan areas at the time took place under the auspices of the military Arts-work Troupes—hardly a promising start. So Mao Jizeng may have been left to his own devices. Indeed, while in my early days of fieldwork I learned a lot from home-grown cultural workers, as time went by their successors were more interested in platitudinous banquets than in local culture, and it was preferable to bypass them in favour of grassroots sources. Still, Mao Jizeng would doubtless have been quite happy working within the state system.

The MRI had entrusted him with one of their three Japanese-imported recording machines, but batteries were an intractable problem. Billeted in the Communications Office, he could hardly engage meaningfully with Lhasa folk.

Now, I’m full of admiration for all the brave efforts of music fieldworkers in Maoist China to convey useful material on traditional culture despite political pressure—but this is not one of them. In a mere four pages Mao Jizeng managed to pen a tragicomic classic in the annals of the dutiful mouthing of propaganda, obediently parroting the whole gamut of Chinese music clichés. We might regard it under the Chinese rubric of “negative teaching material” (fanmian jiaocai 反面教材).

At the same time, I try not to judge his article too harshly: we should put ourselves in his shoes (cf. feature films like The blue kite, and indeed Neil MacGregor’s question “What would we have done?”).

Han Chinese scholars, not to mention peasants, were already quite familiar with the effects of escalating collectivisation upon their own society; there too, fewer people had the time or energy to sing or observe traditional ritual proprieties. But conditions in Lhasa must have alarmed the team that arrived there in 1956. Worthy as fieldwork projects were, they could only gloss over the social upheavals of the time.

At the head of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu, his distinguished reputation based on seniority and massive erudition, had earned a certain latitude for his studies of traditional music. While paying lip-service to the political ideology of the day—elevating the music of the working masses at the expense of the exploiting classes, and purporting to decry “feudal superstition”—he somehow managed to devote just as much attention to “literati” and “religious” culture as to more popular, secular genres.

After all, ethnomusicology was only in its infancy even in the West; and despite some fine fieldwork by Chinese folklorists before the 1949 revolution, the concepts of anthropology were still barely known—still less as it might apply to musicking. David McAllester’s pioneering 1954 monograph on the Navajo makes an interesting comparison, free of glib defences of the policies of his compatriots who had usurped their land.

Of course, in reading any scholarship, one always has to bear in mind the conditions of the time—particularly when we consult documents from Maoist China (as we must). They often provide revealing details, as I’ve noted for the history of collectivisation and famine in the Yanggao county gazetteer and sources for Hunan. We have to learn to “read between the lines” (cf. my Anthology review).

The main audience for such articles was urban, educated Han Chinese, who would know no better, and were willing or constrained to go along with the pretence. Their perspectives grate only with modern readers, certainly those outside China who are equipped with more information about conditions in the PRC under Maoism than was then available. [2]

The political background
Here, while consulting Robbie Barnett’s course on modern Tibet, we should turn to the masterly, balanced

  • Tsering Sakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of modern Tibet since 1947 (1999), chapters 5–7. [3]

In a nutshell, from 1956 the lives of Tibetans deteriorated through to the major 1959 rebellion and the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile; then by 1961 a brief respite led to still more appalling calamities after 1964.

Lhasa 1956

Source here.

For the first few years after the 1950 Chinese occupation, traditional life remained relatively intact. But the forming of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) in 1955 made Tibetans anxious that the noose was to be pulled more tightly. For central Tibet, Chairman Mao was adopting a more gradualist policy than with the Han Chinese, proceeding more cautiously with collectivisation. But in 1955 “democratic reforms”, land reform, and mutual aid groups began to be implemented in Kham and Amdo, and armed uprisings soon erupted there, prelude to the major rebellion of 1959. The Chinese responded by bombing monasteries.

Even as refugees were arriving in Lhasa from Kham and Amdo with tales of Chinese violence and assaults on religion, the city also saw an influx of Chinese labourers, troops, and cadres; anti-Chinese feeling grew. But both Tibetan and Chinese officials strove to isolate central Tibet from the unrest, and Khampa refugees found themselves unwelcome in Lhasa.

Still, opposition to Chinese rule grew in central Tibet. During the Monlam New Year’s rituals of 1956, wall posters appeared in Lhasa denouncing the Chinese and saying that they should return to China. By the end of March 1956—when Mao Jizeng must have been in Lhasa—the atmosphere there was tense.

In November, as the Western press were equating the revolts in Kham with the Budapest uprising, the Dalai Lama managed to visit India. Amidst complex diplomatic considerations (which Shakya explains with typical clarity), he eventually agreed to return to Lhasa in March 1957. There, despite the Chinese promise to postpone radical reform, he learned that the situation in Tibet had deteriorated further.

In mainland China, large-scale public rituals had already become virtually unfeasible. But in July 1957 a sumptuous Golden Throne ritual was held in Lhasa for the long life of the Dalai Lama—providing a focus for the pan-Tibetan resistance movement. And from summer 1958 to February 1959—even as monastic life was being purged in Amdo and Kham—the Dalai Lama “graduated” in Buddhist philosophy with his lengthy geshe examinations, in an opulent succession of ceremonies and processions apparently unmarred by Chinese presence:

The Khampa resistance continued, with little support from Lhasa. But events culminated at the Monlam rituals in March 1959. Amidst popular fears that the Dalai Lama (then 25) would be abducted by the Chinese, he fled to India—where he still remains in exile. Meanwhile further revolts occurred in Lhasa and further afield. Their suppression was the end of both active resistance within Tibet and the attempt to forge a co-existence between “Buddhist Tibet and Communist China”.

In 1962 the 10th Panchen Lama presented his “70,000 character petition” to Zhou Enlai. It was a major document exposing the devastation of Tibetan life wrought by Chinese rule—and the reason why he was then imprisoned for the next fifteen years. For more on Amdo and the Panchen Lamas, see here.

With whatever degree of preparation, ethnographers always walk into complex societies. Such was the maelstrom into which Mao Jizeng unwittingly plunged in search of happy Tibetan singing and dancing. While one can hardly expect to find it reflected in his work, it makes essential context for our studies.

MJZ title

The 1959 article
Whereas monastic Buddhism has long dominated Western research on Tibet, Mao Jizeng passed swiftly over the soundscape of the monasteries. Unrest was brewing, particularly in Kham (see e.g. here), but rituals were still held in the populous monasteries in and around Lhasa, with the revered Dalai Lama still in residence; indeed, even after his escape into exile amidst the 1959 rebellion, the monasteries were still busy in 1964, as we see in Gallery 1 of Woeser’s Forbidden memory. Despite the sensitive status of “religious music”, Yang Yinliu would have been keen to study this major aspect of the culture. But while Mao Jizeng mentions elsewhere that he attended a “large-scale” ritual at the Jokhang in 1957, the monasteries seem to have been largely outside his scope.

Dutifully praising the long history of fraternal bonds between Tibetans and Chinese, Mao Jizeng toes the Party line in his brief historical outlines of various genres. He inevitably alludes to the marriage alliance with Tang-dynasty Princess Wencheng, exhibit no.1 in China’s flimsy historical claim to sovereignty over Tibet, citing the lha-mo opera telling her story, Gyasa Balsa. But while lha-mo remained popular in Lhasa until 1959—and it’s always an enchanting spectacle—that’s his only brief reference to it; he doesn’t mention attending any performances or meeting any of the musicians. [4]

lha-mo

Lhamo opera at the Norbulingka. 1950s. Source: Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (ed.), The singing mask (2001).

And these happy smiling ethnic minorities, they just can’t stop singing and dancing, eh! [5] Mao Jizeng tells how he often witnessed street gatherings with young and old singing and dancing together. And he was told a story about a Tibetan work team conscripted to build a new Lhasa airport in 1954, getting together every evening after work to sing and dance till late at night. In order “to look after their health and make sure they got enough sleep” [Yeah, right], the Chinese foremen stepped in to forbid such parties, whereupon the labourers’ mood, and their work, deteriorated; their overlords had no choice but to give way. [6]

How one would like to hear the Tibetan side of the story. Indeed, Tsering Sakya (The dragon in the land of snows, p. 136) gives a vignette from the same period:

In an attempt to reduce their expenditure, the Chinese began to ask people working on road construction to take a reduction in their pay. The Tibetan workers were urged that they should give their labour free as a contribution to the “construction of the Motherland”. Barshi, a Tibetan government official, remembered that when the people refused to accept a cut in their wages, the Chinese started to lecture them, saying that in the new Tibet everything was owned by the people, and that the wealth of the state was inseparable from the wealth of the people.

One intriguing genre that Mao Jizeng might have found suitable to record was khrom-‘gyu-r’gzhas, satirical songs lampooning prominent officials in the Old Society; but alas he doesn’t mention them. I don’t dare surmise that such songs might have been adapted to satirise their new Chinese masters. [7]

Tsering Shakya cites a more blunt street song popular in Lhasa after the Dalai Lama’s return from India in 1957:

We would rather have the Dalai Lama than Mao Tse-tung
We would rather have the Kashag than the PCART
We would rather have Buddhism than Communism
We would rather have Ten sung Mag mu [the Tibetan army] than the PLA
We would rather use our own wooden bowls than Chinese mugs. 

Nangma–töshe
What Mao Jizeng did manage to study was the popular instrumental, song, and dance forms nangma and töshe, for festive entertainment—then still largely associated with elite patronage, and in decline but still not purged. Around the 1920s, in addition to the “art music” style of nangma, Lhasa musicians began adapting töshe (stod-gzhas) from dance-songs of western Tibet (“Western songs”, as Geoffrey Samuel calls them).

nangma 1956

Open-air performance of nangma, 1956.

Though Mao Jizeng might appear to have been largely engaging in “salvage” work, the photo above shows that he also witnessed some social activity. Among the performers of nangma-töshe were Tibetan Hui Muslims—including the senior master “Amaire” 阿麦惹 (Amir?), whom Mao describes as recalling the largest repertoire of nangma pieces. But he doesn’t mention meeting Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (1922–2007), who having taken part in the Nangma’i skyid sdug association, the most renowned of such groups, went on to write authoritatively on nangma-töshe from 1980. In an instructive 2004 interview (in Chinese) Zholkhang recalls senior musicians in the group—including the leader, celebrated blind performer Ajo Namgyel (1894–1942). [8]

Left: nangma, 1940s. Right: Ajo Namgyel. Source here.

Zholkhang provides some brief details for Amir. His grandfather had been a sedan-bearer in Tibet for a Chinese official from Sichuan, and Amir himself had a Chinese name, Ma Baoshan 馬寶山. A farrier by trade, he was an accomplished instrumentalist, and had served as organiser for the Nangma’i skyid sdug association.

But rather than instructing Mao Jizeng himself, Amir introduced him to the distinguished aristocrat and litterateur Horkhang Sonam Palbar 霍康·索朗边巴 (1919–95), a patron of nangma-töshe who was to be his main informant for the genre. As Mao describes in a tribute to Horkhang, for over three months he regularly visited him at his house near the Barkhor, studying with him in the mornings before taking lunch with his family. Even in the 1990s, some Chinese collectors still clung to the dubious habit of interviewing and recording folk musicians by summoning them to cultural offices (cf. my 1987 trip to Chengde), but that probably wasn’t practicable over an extended period.

And here (inspired by the likes of Mao Jizeng to bring “class consciousness” into the discussion!) I’m pretty sure we can read between the lines again; considerations of “face” must have come into play on both sides. Amir would have made an ideal informant on nangma-töshe; but he was a common “folk artist”, perhaps living in a humble dwelling in a poor quarter—unsuitable, even dangerous, for a Chinese scholar to frequent. Whether or not he considered himself unsuitable to represent Tibetan culture to a Chinese visitor, the annual round of festivities that had long kept the musicians busy must have shrunk after 1950, and their livelihood was doubtless suffering. Like others in that milieu, Amir may have been finding it hard to adapt to the new regime, perhaps worried about the consequences of regular contact with a Chinese scholar, or simply reluctant. For Mao Jizeng to have spent more time in the folk milieu would only have exposed him to inconvenient truths that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, document.

Conversely, Horkhang was prestigious, despite his aristocratic background. Elsewhere I learn that as a prominent official under the old Tibetan administration, he had studied English with the Tibet-based diplomat Hugh Richardson (for whose photos of the old society, see under Tibet album). Horkhang was captured by the PLA in 1950 during the battle of Chamdo (or as Mao Jizeng puts it, “the Liberation of Chamdo”). After the occupation he accommodated to Chinese rule, “turning over a new leaf” by necessity; like many former aristocrats whose status under the new regime was vulnerable, he was soon given high-sounding official titles in Lhasa, through which the Chinese sought to mask their own domination.

Horkhang’s house would have been comfortable; he still had servants. Moreover, he didn’t drink, whereas the nangma-töshe musicians had a taste for the chang beer that was supplied at parties where they performed. And it would be easier for Mao Jizeng to communicate with Horkhang than with a semi-literate folk musician. While Mao must have had help with interpreting, perhaps Horkhang had already picked up some Chinese in the course of his official duties; anyway, Mao claims that his own spoken Tibetan improved over the course of these sessions.

So in all, while Horkhang was a patron rather than a musician (cf. the mehfil aficionados of Indian raga, and narrative-singing in old Beijing), he seemed a more suitable informant for the Chinese guest. While we should indeed document the perspectives of patrons and aficionados, it should only be a supplement to working with musicians themselves. But the ideology of “becoming at one with the masses” only went so far. Given the obligatory stress on the music of the labouring classes, it may seem ironic that Mao Jizeng’s main topic was a genre patronised by the old aristocrats, and that he chose to study it with one of them rather than with a lowly “folk artist”. He justifies his studies by observing his mentor’s warm relations with the common folk. He doesn’t say, but perhaps Amir and other musicians also took part in some sessions at Horkhang’s house—in which case it would have made an ideal setting.

By contrast with the distinctive soundscapes of the monasteries and lha-mo opera, nangma’s heterophony of flute, plucked and bowed strings, and hammer dulcimer, however “authentic”, often sounds disconcertingly like Chinese silk-and-bamboo, as you can hear in this playlist— sadly not annotated, but apparently containing tracks both from exile and within the PRC:

Indeed, as with the dodar ceremonial ensemble of Amdo monasteries, the Chinese influence goes back to the 18th century. This doubtless enhanced its appeal for Mao Jizeng; and like silk-and-bamboo, it was to make nangmatöshe a suitable basis for the state song-and-dance troupes. Woeser gives short shrift to modern incarnations of nangma in her wonderful story Garpon-la’s offerings (n.9 below).

So Horkhang Sonam Palbar was Mao Jizeng’s main source for the two slim volumes that he also published in 1959,

  • Xizang gudian gewu: nangma 西藏古典歌舞——囊玛 [Tibetan classical song and dance: nangma]
  • Xizang minjian gewu: duixie 西藏民间歌舞——堆谢 [Tibetan folk song and dance: töshe].

Even the enlightened Music Research Institute was anxious about publishing Mao’s afterword acknowledging a Tibetan aristocrat.

According to Mao Jizeng’s 2007 tribute, Horkhang told him that he survived the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed. This fiction may result both from people’s general reluctance to remember trauma and from the limitations of their relationship—we learn a very different story from Woeser’s Forbidden memory.

Horkang 1966Horkhang Sonam Palbar (centre) paraded with his wife and father-in-law at a thamzing struggle-session, August 1966. Forbidden memory, fig.80.

As Woeser explains, the Red Guards dressed him in a fur coat and hat that they found in his home, to denote his official rank in the former Tibetan government and his “dream of restoring the feudal serf system”.

Woeser goes on to describe how among the “crimes” of which Horkhang was accused was his friendship with the famous writer and scholar Gendun Chöphel (1903–51). Horkhang had helped him through times of adversity, and before Gendun Chöphel died he entrusted many of his manuscripts to Horkhang; these were now confiscated and destroyed by the activists. Still, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Horkhang assembled what he could find of Gendun Chöphel’s work, eventually publishing a three-volume set of his writings that became an authoritative work.

“Palace music”
By contrast with the entertainment music of nangma-töshe, in his 1959 article Mao Jizeng also gives a brief introduction to gar, the ceremonial “palace music” of the Dalai Lama. Indeed, having worked on the genre “in some depth” in the winter of 1956–57, he compiled a third monograph on it, but realised it was too sensitive a topic for publication, and it was lost during the Cultural Revolution.

Gar seems to have been in decline even before the Chinese occupation, though details on its life through the 1940s and 50s are elusive. The little section in Mao Jizeng’s article is characteristically headed “The dark system is a stumbling block to the development of music”; his main purpose here is to decry the former feudal society’s cruel exploitation of the teenage boys who served as dancers—actually an interesting angle, however tendentious Mao’s approach.

MJZ CD 5

Mao Jizeng, liner notes for CD 5 of Xizang yinyue jishi (n.9 below).
Right, gar dancers, 1950s, provenance unclear.

The main instrumental ensemble for gar consisted of loud shawms and kettle-drums, of Ladakhi origin (cf. related bands in XinjiangIran, and India)—formerly, at least, with the halo of a mkhar-rnga bcu-pa frame of ten pitched gongs (cf. Chinese yunluo). [9] A brief scene (from 5.50) of this silent footage from 1945 shows the gong frame on procession with two shawms:

But a subsidiary chamber instrumentation, closer to that of nangma, included the rgyud-mang dulcimer—and as a gift from the MRI, Mao Jizeng presented the musicians with a Chinese yangqin, which must have made an unwieldy part of Mao Jizeng’s luggage on the arduous journey.

He doesn’t cite a source for this section, so it’s unclear who the musicians he consulted were; the Dalai Lama, whom they served, was still in Lhasa, and by 1956 the performers were still at liberty. But following the 1959 rebellion, when the Dalai Lama had to flee, they were deported en masse to the Gormo “reform through labour” camp at Golmud in Qinghai, over a thousand kilometres distant—part of a network of such camps in the vast, desolate region (cf. China: commemorating trauma). There they were to spend over twenty years; conscripted to work on constructing the new railway and highway, singing and dancing can hardly have been part of their regime.

Mao Jizeng ends his 1959 article with a brief section on “New developments since the Peaceful Liberation [sic] of Tibet”—the formation of professional troupes, and the creation of new folk-songs in praise of Chairman Mao; also, of course, themes worthy of study. Encapsulating the fatuity of Chinese propaganda, his final formulaic paragraph is just the kind of flapdoodle we have to wade through:

With the defeat of the former local Tibetan government and the reactionary upper-class elements, traitors to their country, the great mountain weighing down on the hearts of the Tibetan people was overturned, providing more profitable conditions for the development of their ethnic music. The way ahead for Tibetan music is limitlessly broad. It will shine radiantly forth in the ranks of the music of the Chinese nationalities.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies only a few years later, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”. Selflessly, I have read Mao Jizeng’s article so that you won’t have to.

Back in Beijing, and the reform era
Mao Jizeng may have largely ignored the fraught social conditions of the time, but one has to admire his persistence in remaining in Lhasa for ten months. Even by the 1990s, Chinese fieldworkers, and most foreign scholars, still tended to find brief “hit-and-run” missions more practicable, albeit over an extended period (cf. here).

Between 1956, when Mao Jizeng set off for Tibet, and the publication of his report in 1959, the political climate deteriorated severely in Beijing too. From 1957, music scholars were among countless intellectuals and cadres demoted or imprisoned during the Anti-Rightist campaign, not to be rehabilitated until the late 1970s; and the 1958 Great Leap Backward soon led to severe famine and destruction. Chinese people had to deal with their own devastating sufferings, without worrying about distant Tibet.

Even so, in 1960 Yang Yinliu managed to publish the Hunan survey that he had led, also in 1956; its 618 pages (as well as a separate study on the Confucian ritual!) make a stark contrast with the paltry material resulting from the hampered Tibetan expedition. * I wonder if his original fieldnotes have survived.

Disturbingly, the misleading clichés of Mao Jizeng’s article still continue to recur in more recent PRC scholarship. There, forty years since liberalisation, no frank reflections on the conditions of fieldwork among minority peoples in the 1950s seem to have been published—and amidst ever-tighter limits on academic freedom, such work is becoming even less likely.

Nonetheless, along with the widespread revival of tradition in the 1980s, more extensive study developed. For the major Anthology project Tibetan and Chinese cultural workers were no longer so cautious about documenting elite and religious genres. They now collected much material—with hefty volumes for TAR, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan on folk-song, opera, narrative-singing, instrumental music, and dance. For the historian, the monographs on opera and narrative-singing (xiqu zhi 戏曲志, quyi zhi 曲艺志) are particularly useful. As with Han Chinese traditions, much of this research focused on the cultures that had been impoverished under Maoism, rather than the process of impoverishment.

From early in the 1980s, in both Dharamsala and Lhasa, gar court music was recreated under the guidance of Pa-sangs Don-grub (1918–98), the last gar-dpon master to have served under a ruling Dalai Lama in Tibet (and like Horkhang, a pupil of Gendun Chöphel), as well as the former gar-pa dancer Rigdzin Dorje. In Dharamsala it began to serve the ceremonies of the Dalai Lama again, whereas in Lhasa it was performed only in concert.

gar-dpon

The gar-dpon, 1980s. Photo: Willie Robson.

Though we don’t know how many inmates of the Gormo camp survived, Pa-sangs Don-grub was at last able to return to Lhasa by 1982, literally scarred by two decades of hard labour. The precise timeline seems unclear, but in Woeser’s plausible interpretation, he only overcame his reluctance to accept the Chinese request for him to lead a revival of the genre when, in a brief rapprochement, he was given the opportunity to pay homage to his revered former master the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala through training performers at TIPA—and only on the Dalai Lama’s advice did he return to Lhasa to teach it there too.

The 1980s’ revival of gar. Photos: Willie Robson.

In July 1987, while I was still seeking folk ritual bands in China, the enterprising Willie Robson (with whom I later worked to bring a Buddhist group from Wutaishan to the UK) put together the Music from the Royal Courts festival at the South Bank for BBC Radio 3—a grand enterprise the like of which would hardly be possible to organise today. It included groups from Africa and India, Ottoman and Thai music, the Heike biwa epic from Japan, nanguan from Taiwan, Uyghur muqam, the Chinese qin zither—and, remarkably, a combined group from Lhasa, performing both gar and nangma-töshe.

Pasangs Don-grub

Pa-sangs Don-grub, early 1980s; from the Chinese version of Woeser’s story.

Moved by Pa-sangs Don-grub’s 1985 book in her father’s collection, Woeser encapsulates our task in reading PRC documents:

Even a short introduction in a book can reveal a lot of information. This was the case with Songs and dances for offerings, with its brief introduction to the 14th Dalai Lama’s eleven-member dance troupe. After a few pages, only bits of information about the troupe emerged, such as the number of members and their ages. There wasn’t a lot, but at the time it probably wasn’t safe to write much more. The introduction seemed to be quite ordinary, even mediocre. Nevertheless, much information was hidden between the lines. These nuances could only be understood by another Tibetan, who would discern from just a glance what was really being said, what happened when and where. Many Tibetan readers experienced the hardship and torment the troupe endured before they had at last survived the disasters in their lives. Anyone who hasn’t experienced similar torments will find it hard to read between the lines of the writing and know what the men went through. That’s why a narrator like me is needed, who is at some distance from the incidents but is sympathetic to their reality and able to retell the story.

Also in the 1980s, Mao Jizeng’s former mentor Horkhang Sonam Palbar, having endured his own tribulations in the Cultural Revolution, was once again showered with high-ranking official titles in the Chinese apparatus—in a common pattern, serving as “décor for the state and as mouthpieces for its policies”, as Woeser observes in Forbidden memory.

Meanwhile, from 1983 Mao Jizeng was finally able to visit regions of the TAR that were out of bounds to him in 1956; and after the convulsive events of the 60s and 70s, on his trips to Lhasa he was able to meet up again with Horkhang.

Horkang 1987Horkhang Sonam Palbar leading a study team to a village of the Lhoba minority people,
Mainling county, southeast TAR 1987 (cf. here, n.1).

Blissfully oblivious to all the evidence, Mao Jizeng still constantly parroted the cliché of the warm fraternal feelings between Han Chinese and Tibetans, and his own rapport with the latter, including Horkhang (for more subtle views on rapport, see the excellent Bruce Jackson; and here I develop Nigel Barley’s characterisation of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot” into “harmful idiot”).

In his 2003 tribute to Horkhang, Mao tells a story that inadvertently suggests a less rosy picture—revealing both Tibetan resentment and the insidious hierarchical power dynamics among Tibetans in their dealings with the Chinese:

In Lhasa in 1988—during yet another period of serious unrest, by the way—Mao Jizeng was having problems mustering the recalcitrant Shöl Tibetan Opera Troupe to perform Sukyi Nima for him to record. Rather shooting himself in the foot, he even lists some of their excuses: some actors hadn’t showed up, the troupe was out of money, they couldn’t find the drum… * It was only when the illustrious Horkhang stepped in to cajole them that they finally had to play ball.

And widespread unrest has continued in Tibetan areas. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods. For eleven Tibetan singers imprisoned since 2012, click here. [10]

* * *

As William Noll observes, the whole history of ethnomusicology abounds with scholars who come from a society that oppresses the culture in question; and around the world there are plenty of accounts of fieldwork projects that fell short of their ambition. The limitations of Mao Jizeng’s ten-month sojourn in the tense, turbulent Lhasa of 1956, and even his inability to reflect on the issues involved, may not be such an exceptional case.

As another kind of outsider, only able to read Chinese and English but not Tibetan sources, such are the slender clues that I can offer. Note also Tibet: conflicting memories and Forbidden memory.

So much for “There is singing everywhere in Tibet”. Meretricious (and a Happy New Monlam).


With thanks to Robbie Barnett

[1] Since the present or past tense is not necessarily specified in Chinese, one might almost be tempted to read it as “There was singing everywhere in Tibet [until we barged in and broke it all up]”—or perhaps as an optative, like “Britannia rule the waves”?!).

[2] By the way, “singing” is a very broad, um, church. Both singing and dancing on stage are only the tip of the iceberg; they lead us to folk festivities, notably calendrical and life-cycle rituals. Though “revolutionary songs” were an obligatory component of Chinese collecting throughout the PRC (if anyone remembers songs of resistance sung by the Tibetan rebels from 1956, people certainly weren’t going to sing them for Chinese fieldworkers—who anyway wouldn’t want, or dare, to listen), their main interest was the traditional soundscape (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”). Tibetan and Chinese pop music only came to play a major part in the Tibetan soundscape after the 1980s’ reforms.

Even today in a (Chinese) region like Shaanbei, famed for its folk-songs, it would be misleading to claim that singing is everywhere, harking back to the romantic image of Yellow earth. Sure, folk-songs are still heard quite often there, but often in rowdy restaurants rather than by shepherds on picturesque hillsides (cf. One belt, one road).

[3] For yet more detail, see Melvyn Goldstein’s multi-volume A history of modern Tibet—for this period, vol.3: The storm clouds descend, 1955–1957 and vol.4: In the eye of the storm, 1957–1959. There’s also extensive research unpacking the representation of ethnic minorities in the PRC, from Dru Gladney and Stevan Harrell and onwards. For the changing physical and mental landscape of Lhasa, note Robert Barnett’s sophisticated book Lhasa: streets with memory (2006).

[4] Naturally, Mao Jizeng rendered Tibetan terms in Chinese characters, just as Western visitors devised systems to render it in their alphabet. Later, as the variants of the Wylie system became standard for international publications, Chinese transcription was acknowledged to be inadequate—though it still works for the Chinese… I’ve tried to give Wylie versions of Mao Jizeng’s Chinese terms.

[5] For Tibetan folk-song, see §9 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s Western-language bibliography—including this detailed ethnography of a family in Amdo, yet another impressive publication from Kevin Stuart’s team; Sangye Dondhup’s list for sources in Chinese and Tibetan; and the folk-song volumes of the Anthology.

[6] The first such project is usually dated to 1956; even then, the airport didn’t become operational until 1965. Perhaps the 1954 labourers, too exhausted by singing and dancing, and too demoralised at being forbidden to do so, were unable to complete the job?

[7] See Melvyn Goldstein, “Lhasa street songs: political and social satire in traditional Tibet”, Tibet journal 7.1–2 (1982), based on material collected among exile communities. For Sitting Bull’s ingenious speech in Sioux for assembled white dignitaries, cursing them with impunity, see n.1 here.

[8] For nangmatöshe, see the bibliographies cited in n.5 above, as well as the Anthology for TAR. For the work of Geoffrey Samuel, apart from his chapter in Jamyang Norbu (ed.), Zlos-gar (1986), see “Songs of Lhasa”, Ethnomusicology 20.3 (1976)—including an Appendix referring to fifteen 78s recorded in Lhasa between 1943 and 1945 by the British Mission under Sir Basil Gould, which one would love to compare with later versions!

The writings of Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (Zhol-khang bSod-nams Dar-rgyas) feature in Sangye Dondhup’s list of Tibetan sources; he is included among the biographical entries for Tibetan musicians in the New Grove dictionary (handily assembled here; main article on Tibetan music here). For the role of female performers before 1959, see the fine article Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Women in the performing arts: portraits of six contemporary singers”, pp.204–207.

In search of Ajo Namgyel, I found the fascinating article by Jamyang Norbu “The Lhasa Ripper“, on the “dark underbelly” of pre-occupation Lhasa: crime, prostitution, beggars. For nangma bars since the 1990s, see e.g. Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004), and her “Modernity, power, and the reconstruction of dance in post-1950s Tibet”Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 3 (2007).

[9] A useful introduction to gar before the occupation, and then from exile, is Jamyang Norbu with Tashi Dhondup, “A preliminary study of gar, the court dance and music of Tibet”, in Zlos-gar. See also Mark Trewin, “On the history and origin of ‘gar’: the court ceremonial music of Tibet”, CHIME 8 (1995). As well as the entry for Pa-sangs Don-grub in the New Grove (with a list of his publications), do read Woeser‘s story “Garpon La’s offerings“, Manoa 24.2 (2012). Dates given for the gar-pa Rigdzin Dorje differ: 1915–83 apud Zlos-gar, 1927–84 according to Grove. The mkhar-rnga bcu-pa gong-frame is mentioned in the Zlos-gar chapter and the Grove section on gar.

Within TAR the fortunes of gar are documented in the Anthology; and Mao Jizeng’s six-CD anthology of Tibetan music in TAR, Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (Wind Records, 1994), recorded since the 1980s, features both nangma-töshe (CDs 3 and 5) and gar (CD 5, ##3–4), despite the nugatory liner notes; see Mireille Helffer’s review. In the absence of Mao Jizeng’s monograph, all I can find of his notes on gar is on pp.38–42 of this trite overview of Tibetan music.

[10] For another thoughtful article by Woeser, exploring the shifting sands of prohibited “reactionary songs” and the challenge of keeping track of subtle allusions, see here.


* In another age, he might have returned with gifts emblazoned “My mate went to Lhasa and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.

** Impertinently, this reminds me of both the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch and various instances of musos’ deviant behaviour (notably this, and even Revenge at the Prague opera).

A Beatles roundup

sessions

Under the Beatles tag in the sidebar are several posts on particular albums, based on the insightful comments of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online: see his guide to the whole series, as well as a useful overview by Ger Tillekens). I began writing what turned into a series in non-chronological order, so now I’ve tried to re-edit them more logically, with this as the introductory post.

From the age of ten—though with my sheltered, genteel, classical upbringing I was quite immune to a lot of pop music—I avidly spent my pocket-money on the early Beatles singles and EPs. In my book Plucking the winds I reflected on the stark contrast between the lives of my village friends under Maoism and my own tranquil upbringing:

Meanwhile Gaoluo villagers were starving. I began to learn the violin in a polite suburb south of London, under very different conditions from those in which Cai An had learned music. By 1963 I was doing quite well, and won a local contest, though I was less keen on Handel sonatas than on the new songs from the Beatles, whose photo I kept in my violin case. My awareness of issues in defining classical and popular musics was still very basic.

At some stage I acquired the LPs of Rubber soulThe white album, and Revolver—all of them brilliant. But I don’t recall becoming hooked on Sgt Pepper and Abbey road until after 1972 at Cambridge, when they were party regulars. I trust I didn’t attempt to dance.

* * *

Wilfrid Mellers’ tenure at York was formative for innovations in new composition and early music. And with his book Twilight of the gods: the Beatles in retrospect, published in 1973, quite soon after the Beatles had disbanded, he was among the pioneers of taking pop music seriously. It was work like this that opened the floodgates, to the consternation of old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon—as some, indeed, still do, although for them the Beatles  seemed more palatable candidates for admission to the elite club than many popular and folk genres.

Clearly, popular music is not dependent on such complex skills for its efficacity; but neither are folk or art musics. Many, even most, popular songs (e.g. Country: “three chords and the truth”), making use of a more limited technical palette, can make a deep effect individually, without the verbose sanction of the metropolitan elite and all our fancy analytical vocabulary. Pollack, in a dense passage on one section of John’s exquisite song Julia, reflects:

Yes, I know that there’s no way that John Lennon (or any other songwriter, for that matter) would compose the above thirteen measures with much, if any, of what I’ve analysed in mind. But still, I stand by my conviction that what I’ve analysed is part of what you react to in listening thoughtfully and sensitively to the music, whether you can articulate it or not. Part of the music’s charm is the extremely rapid pace and multiple layers on which all these details hit you; even if you can articulate it, it happens in real time, much faster than you could keep up with if you tried; kind of like sex in that way 😊

In Mellers’ Preface he qualifies his approach:

Music quotation, even in reference to literate “art” music, can never be adequate; in reference to Beatle music (and to most pop, jazz, folk, and non-Western music) it may be not only inadequate but also misleading; for written notation can represent neither the improvised elements nor the immediate distortions of pitch and flexibilities of rhythm which are the essence (not a decoration) of a music orally and aurally conceived. […]

To those who still found it “inherently risible” that pop music should be discussed in technical terms at all, his reply suggests an ethnomusicological grounding:

There is no valid way of talking about the experiential “effects” of music except by starting from an account of what actually happens in musical technique, the terminology of which has been evolved by professional musicians over some centuries. The fact that a Beatle—or a jazzman or a peasant singer or a perhaps highly sophisticated oriental musician [sic!]—has never heard of a dominant seventh or a mediant relationship or whatever, is neither here nor there; people who live and work in “oral” traditions have no need critically to rationalise about what they are doing. Of course it is possible to argue that all discussion and writing about music is a waste of time; I’ve occasionally come near to saying this myself. However, if this is true, it applies to all discussion of all music equally; analysis of Beethoven is no less irrelevant than analysis of Beatles.

This chimes in with Allan Marett’s point, inspired by Susan McClary, on Aboriginal dream songs—which indeed are among the exhibits in Mellers’ “Prologue and initiation”, whose opening section explores general themes in the Beatle world. Pursuing the mission to treat all musickings around the world on an equal footing, he ponders music as a way of life:

It is not an embellishment of living which one can take or leave; it does something, being music of necessity in somewhat the same sense as this phrase is applied to the musics of primitive peoples [sic].

After considering childhood games and ritual, Mellers moves on to the evolution of musicking in European cultures; the “mythological” significance of popular lyrics; the origins of pop melody, and vocal and instrumental style, in blues and folk; the role of harmony and metre; and the narcotic loss of identity in the communal act. He goes on to explore the Beatles’ development of their cosmopolitan Liverpool background, quoting John:

I heard Country and Western music in Liverpool before I heard rock and roll. The people there—the Irish in Ireland are the same—take their Country and Western music very seriously.

However fond you are of a particular colour, a lot of bands succeed through establishing and persisting in a particular monochromatic mood. The sound-world of the Beatles (and we should also bear in mind George Martin’s input as producer) is far more all-embracing than other pop music of the time: while maintaining a unique identity, their songs have extraordinary variety, refining elements from blues, Country, folk, rock, ballads, music-hall, children’s games, and psychedelia into their unique “Edenic dream”.

So some may still find it redundant to analyse such works that are so widely appreciated on an intuitive level, but For What It’s Worth, Mellers’ analysis reveals the great artistry of the Beatles. Actually, such are the riches of their creativity that his discussion could be far more extensive—covering their whole ouevre, Twilight of the gods only has space for eleven pages on Abbey road, for instance. Others, notably Pollack, have taken analysis further.

On wiki, both the entries on the albums and their individual songs are full of detail.

Great as the songs on the other albums are (and Revolver has been much praised), I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road most cohesive as orchestral song-cycles (for wonderful examples of which, see here), like unstaged operas—whether or not they were designed as such. So whereas I can select some individual songs in the earlier LPs, in discussing these final masterpieces I have to give them all equal weight in the total effect.

* * *

So here’s a roundup of my main posts:

In his page on Here, there, and everywhere Pollack makes a wonderful observation:

I save my favourite free association, this time, for last. Now, this song is characterised by the following gesture that opens each verse: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent in the tune, as in—”Here (pause) making each day of the year …”

He lists other songs by Paul that share this feature:

  • Listen (pause) do you want to know a secret
  • Eleanor Rigby (pause) picks up the rice
  • Day after day (pause) alone on a hill
  • Hey Jude (pause) don’t make it bad
  • Hold me tight (pause) tell me I’m the only one
  • Honey pie (pause) you are making me crazy
  • The long and winding road (pause) that leads to your door
  • Michelle (pause) ma belle
  • Oh darling (pause) please believe me
  • Try to see it my way (pause) do I have to keep on talking
  • Look (pause) what you’re doing
  • When I call you up (pause) your line’s engaged
  • Yesterday (pause) all my troubles seemed so far away.

The vocal melodies and harmonies of the Beatles, and their technological innovations, are so entrancing that one may underestimate their instrumental skills. So I may also mention pleasingly technical discussions of their guitar technique, such as this and this.

* * *

In his final chapter, “Elegy on a mythology”, Mellers reflects on the whole trajectory of Beatle music, pondering on the relationship between music and myth.

As pop musicians they are simultaneously magicians (dream-weavers), priests (ritual celebrants), entertainers (whiling away empty time), and artists (incarnating and reflecting the feelings—rather than thoughts—and perhaps the conscience of a generation). If this multiplicity of function is a source of much semantic confusion, both on the part of the Beatles themselves and of those who comment on them, it is also a source of their strength.

He observes

Only in a very partial sense can we dismiss the teenager’s orgiastic dancing as a tipsy escape from the hard realities of life. On the contrary, as compared with the romantic unreality of the previous generation’s ballroom dancing (which is in turn related to the fairy-tale myth of classical ballet), one might rather describe teenage dance as practical and functional in Collingwood’s sense: an inchoate attempt to rediscover the springs of being.

On revivalist movements he cites Mary Douglas, who notes that

it is not quite true that effervescence must either be routinised or fizzle out. It is possible for it to be sustained indefinitely as a normal form of worship.

Mellers goes on,

The magical-religious and the art-entertainment functions of Beatle music don’t cancel each other out; they do, however, in their interrelationship, contain an element of equivocation: which is part of the Beatles’ “representative” fascination.

He returns to Collingwood, citing his distinction between hedonistic amusement (entertainment) and utilitarian magic. And he disposes of red herring of the profit-motive. He stresses:

To deplore the illiteracy of the Beatles—or of any pop or jazz group—is nonsensical: for the essence of their achievement is that it is a return from literate and visual to aural and oral culture.

Mellers considers their creative process (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”); George Martin recognised himself as an intermediary, however important his contribution. And

if [the Beatles] guffaw at intellectuals (like me) who discover “hidden meanings” in their songs, they’ve given plenty of evidence that these meanings are not hidden at all but merely, like 80% of the meaning in all art, in part unconscious.

As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

Though my later path intersected but rarely with these albums, I take impertinent pride in belonging to a generation capable of producing such genius. Personal reception histories are a significant aspect of our cultural appreciation, but at whatever point in Life you engage with the Beatles, their work is astounding.

Like the audiences of Bach and Mahler, we didn’t know how lucky we were… But beyond any personal identification with the zeitgeist that the Beatles express, all this is significant not only because of the Beatles’ iconic place in modern Western culture, but in view of the whole incorporation of popular culture into our perspectives on musicking around the world

Given my whole argument about society and soundscape, I’m aware of the irony of my celebrating “great works” mostly created in the recording studio without an audience. So I’d like to stress again that stunning as all this artistry is, efficacity—generally—doesn’t depend on complexity, or on narrative development. Not only does the logical flow of Indian raga or Messiaen work within very different parameters, but more static sound-worlds are also valid—such as punk, Northern soul, Aboriginal songsNote also What is serious music?!

Native American cultures 2: the Navajo

Was advised to stay in the car.

—David McAllester, 22nd September 1950.

Squaw dance

The Squaw dance: undated early photo by Joseph Howard McGibbeny (1891–1970).

With Bruno Nettl’s wise reflections on Native American musical cultures in mind, among the many groups that he and others have studied, I’ve been trying to get a basic grasp of the ceremonies of the Navajo (Diné) [1]—most populous among the indigenous peoples in the southwestern USA (Hopi, Pueblo, Apache, Yuma, Pima, and so on).

Again, apart from the intrinsic merits of such research, the topic suggests fruitful perspectives for our studies of Chinese folk ritual and the sacred–secular continuum.

Here’s a basic map:

map SW

and a map of the Navajo territories:

map

From Titon (ed.), Worlds of music.

Modern Navajo history is just as troubled as that of other indigenous peoples—savage army repression from the 1840s leading to the Long Walk of 1864, followed by containment on reservations, assimilation in boarding schools, and the relocations and environmental degradation wrought by the mining industry since the 1960s. Yet their ceremonial life has remained lively. The Navajo language is still widely spoken (note this fine riposte); the wartime code talkers make an absorbing theme.

First I’ll give an outline of Navajo ceremonies, and then get to grips with a classic study of the Enemy Way, its soundscape and cultural values. Last But Not Least, for those of us unable to attend such rituals in person, I’ll offer a few audio and visual materials, which make an essential complement to silent, immobile text!

Ritual
While many general themes in ritual are widespread (see e.g. Catherine Bell and Frits Staal), societies around the world slice their ritual pies in different ways. Many rituals, or segments, are multi-purpose (on a jocular note, do enjoy Stewart Lee’s youthful illustration of ritual redundancy).

In China, beyond the ancient binary classification of Daoist rituals as zhai Fasts and jiao Offerings, later we find yin and yang rituals for the dead and the living (more broadly, red rituals for the living, white for the dead), or a tripartite taxonomy such as funerary, earth, and temple scriptures, and so on (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.15–20). Even a list of different types of jiao Offering is extensive. And scholars may adopt their own categories, such as exorcism, healing, pestilence rituals, rites of affliction, and rituals for domestic blessing.

Kinaalda

Kinaalda ceremony. Source here.

Navajo ceremonies may last for up to nine days and nights. Among several sites, the focus of healing rituals is the circular log hogan (by the mid-20th century, often a specially-constructed edifice rather than an everyday dwelling), inside which the medicine man (the Navajo term hatali “singer” isn’t gender-specific, though most are indeed male) deploys his jish bundle and depicts sand paintings [2] (see films below). Altars are also constructed outside the hogan.

Again the ritual taxonomy is complex. Among a wide range of Navajo ceremonies (Night Chant Way, Mountain Chant Way, and so on), some have become obsolete—their ritual activities have long been changing, albeit more subtly than other areas of their life such as material culture. But the Blessing Way (Hózhójí), the core ritual, is frequently held; it may be performed for expectant mothers shortly before birth, for young men leaving for the armed forces, and for kinaalda puberty rituals for girls (for which, see films below); moreover, parts of the Blessing Way feature within most other Navajo ceremonies. [3]

The Enemy Way
On the Enemy Way (Anaa’jí), a ceremony for countering the harmful effects of ghosts, I gladly turn to a monograph that Nettl cites often—an early classic of ethnomusicology:

(cf. later influential classics of ethnomusicology relating musicking to culture, such as Neuman, The life of music in north India, and accessible books like Lortat-Jacob, Sardinian chonicles, and indeed Proulx, Accordion crimes).

Navajo cover

McAllester’s study is based on fieldwork in the Rimrock area of Arizona over four and a half months from 1950 to 1951. Utilising an already substantial body of anthropological studies, in a mere 96 densely-packed pages—many of which are devoted to transcriptions and musical analysis—he manages to provide a wealth of information on the relation of sound to ritual culture and aesthetic values.

Apart from making formal recordings, McAllester lists the public Enemy Way ceremonies that he attended in September 1950—including one of my favourite fieldwork tips ever, which heads this post (cf. More fieldwork tips).

diary 1

diary 2As Nettl went on to observe, the very term for “music” is far from universal—an issue that McAllester addresses in his Introduction. Distinguishing existential and normative values, he notes:

There was no general word for “musical instrument” or even for “music”. A face-finding question such as “What kinds of musical instruments do you use?” (really intended to start the informant thinking and talking about music) had to be phrased, “Some people beat a drum when they sing; what other things are used like that?”. A “fact” in the Navajo [4] universe is that music is not a general categor