Guest post: Tag, licht—fumée

Mozart opera anagrams 3: The magic flute

Nicolas Robertson

Hot on the heels of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte came

Opera/Singspiel by Mozart and Schikaneder; soloists, English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner. Rehearsals and staged performances in Parma, and then several other European cities, 1995. (Archiv recording.)

TMF cover

157 thirteen-letter anagrams, at the latest count—I made it 158 in 1995, perhaps I included the title (The Magic Flute is of course an anagram of The Magic Flute—I would have said an isogram, or an autogram, or even a tautogram, but these words are all taken for something slightly different—so I’ll go for a pleonogram ), interlarded with 16 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—twenty-one letters, grouped as 1-2-3-4-3-2-1, and picked out in red; preceded by their parallel ‘story’ giving as close an account (sticking slavishly to the anagram text) as I could manage of what might be supposed to be going on, as follows:

It had been, lucky me, a wonderful meal: Prosciutto di Parma, with fresh green figs, rucola salad. Just at the finish, though, something seemed to go wrong: I asked for a coffee, and was met by a stony-faced silence, the ass—great, I thought. You do something so well, and then you wreck it by a small idiocy at the end. It was the same with the digestif I tried to order—thinking to please by asking for that Duchess of a liquor they make on the coast across from Capri—which received a frankly rude “What?” in reply. That was enough: I told the chap to clear off. I was still smoking inside, of course, and as happens, another diner observed my mood and tried to cheer me up with gastronomic small-talk. I thought him rather like a household ferret, but he asked a curious question “D’you think he ever worked for Cahiers du Cinéma?”—which set me thinking. Imagine this film scenario:

In a certain country, gastropods are brought as offerings (let’s say, Trojan snails): it appears there’s a war on, and the anti-haemorrhagic qualities of figs are in demand. The inhabitants subsist, amid gastric suffering, on the odd mollusc, superannuated Oriental fruit, even deep slices from their own calves. They feel their own facial bones poking through (it’s easy to show this, and it’ll have an impressive effect), and to pass the time race the only thing left which (presumably) is not edible, a local flightless bird. (This is also very picturesque, as a sort of parasite on this bird’s fruit-eating parts is the salamander, or baby newt Gila monster, a lizard without vocal chords which features in runic mysteries. I’m wondering if there’s something about this in The White Goddess, and if so, was Robert Graves making it up?) There’s a backdrop of the Three Kings by a star of the Venetian C15 school, that’s fine, if somewhat immediate in its brutal realism… A contrasting scene is set in the leafy self-catering avenues of southwest London, where a Jewish patriarch is walking his dog: a clubbable, diplomatic man and a talented animal. The link between these two extremes is a scurrilous publication of the sort you wouldn’t be seen extracting from your own letterbox, which deals in (again extreme) totemic obsessions involving girls, guilt, glamour, gore and galactic glory—

I’m just fantasising, without great success, about how the breaking of the sound barrier can take its place in this yarn, when my interlocutor disturbs me again, now changing his tack:
“Im thinking it’s the cook who should be cut in pieces… You do receive some money, you know, for Euro-movies.”
I reply that I’m glad to hear it, appropriately in German (which is also intended to deter him from further conversation, but in vain: …)
“What about capturing the start of the Open Championships? You could have a side from the opera, they love golf, then there’s people smoking, plenty of incidents – ” I interrupt this nonsense by inquiring if he’d like nutmeg, but he refuses violently and reckons rather that lilies are best to banish the odour of seafood. Almost too late, I realise that under cover of this table-talk he is surreptitiously removing my artificial limb…

* * *

It’s international conductor time, and someone has the gall to stop Riccardo Muti, to correct a (simple, diatonic enough) motif. A Japanese executive objects on the grounds of Muti’s grandeur, at which a German ripostes by asking with evident scorn whether you would entrust the peak of intellectual art to a twilit dreamer: to which the conclusive reply is that Muti turns canonic imitation into a thing of liquid beauty. The metronome meanwhile marches on. Sudden strife in the brass section: Jeffrey Tate, whose turn it is, is unhappy, but a suggestion that the players felt even more estranged from Zubin Mehta only brings a sharp rebuke, and instructions that if they don’t like the Méhul passage which seems weirdly presci ent of Beethoven’s Fifth, they don’t play it.

Do you think that’s right? While I’m contemplating it, the image of a little salamander snout pops beaming into my mind as I turn on the tap—a tap of which I remember now I swore I’d replace the washer… Why do I always feel so bad about such small failures? Why not come out and say, no, I’ve had enough of pan-Europeanism, I like my souvenir of Scotland. Furthermore, it’s official now that you can’t believe anything they say: there’s a song about Tarzan, that apart from being a bit short in the brain department he was actually a carnivorous predator—or, a mythological snake-haired fiend, or – a shenior shivil shervant of the shixtiesh * (a.k.a. a former editor of ‘The Times’)!

Phew. Quite enough of that. But then a whole pile of people turned up, whose names are self-explanatory (he says going on to explain them, as in ‘I hardly need say…’): a prairie millionaire, an Israeli ditto who’s made his killing in fish oil and is intent on founding a dynasty; the late Timothy Leach; a representative of an English recording company (the only one who’s not permitted to arrive by taxi, with resulting pedal angst, he’ll always remember this day), a Euro-censor, and not quite an honest one at that; two women of whom the second is—what? you? look, can I, hang on—and a born-again pop-star.

Naturally, there’s a call for light, to which the enigmatic reply seems to recall an exchange from The Magic Flute. Well: let there be light, then. This however doesn’t please a chess expert who amongst other signs of irritation lights up (sic) for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, impassively. You got out fast, but I felt as if embedded in glue and got stuck (though with my money) in a throng from which the only escape was to play my magic glockenspiel –

– and it worked! But even then, being under the weather, my maxillary workings told me I needed a tisane, if a tacky enough one could be found. The Boss asks if I want milk—with a tisane?? Bah, I round on him, wondering if he continues to have interests in American military dependencies, at which he tells me to – leave off. He implies I’m small, too, which irks, I’m just slightly built, but still I make to placate him with a present of an English renaissance instrument, embracing a Welsh friend to celebrate this outbreak of reconciliation. Hah! all the Boss can do is to tell me to pick up a nasty illness, the brute. Even now, I mollify him: introduce, with sycophantic adulation, a German girl. True to form, he insults her immediately, asking her an unlikely question about Belgian football—but Ute’s a match for him, with her knowledge of London equivalents. Naturally this rebounds against me , I’m accused of stealing the theorbo I bought for him, damn it, and am asked to procure a less challenging woman.

I can’t do this, you miserable German person, I’ve only one leg for a start. My luck, if that’s what it is, is in, this time, in that Helmut is distracted (you may have noticed this propensity) on to another tack: he sees there is an American veterans’ baseball game on TV. (This is one of his recurring obsessions.) I tease him by saying playfully that a certain distinguished British philosopher was also a US infantryman; but for once Helmut is not taken in, perhaps because his stomach has more urgent calls on his attention—now he wants ewe’s milk cheese. Really, will this never end? One solution, arguably, is to call in a heavyweight but lighthearted Belgian-Ceylonese-Breton wrestler (frightened of nothing except spiders, hence his nickname Muffet), whose but moderately loud voice announces the octave firebrand which breaks through the hefty trellis decorating this scene, and thus introduces –

(in an undertone, please,
                                             like a somnolent guard-dog)

– Lazy days in Cyprus, a honeymoon couple discovering Indo-Portuguese culture and dancing innocently into the bewitched apocalyptic sunset…

* * *

The river of forgetfulness runs through Cambridge, as you, old fruit, must know, having picked up enough tabs there. Stick to engraving, Dark Lady.

Alf is asking the President of Poland to bring a barrel for his French co-pilot, but Wałesa is at the back of the plane, and suggests Alf try instead, why not, a Fabergé jewel—as well as giving him his cue to start skydiving. Ah, crazy great West Country turnips, that sums up the enchantment of Cambridge days! But even an inhabitant of Paradise had to admire the way the Chinese could synthesize two quite distinct sports in one computer programme, at the same time recounting every last detail of an unedifying modern military campaign in the style of a spiritual. (The original ‘naming of the beasts’ in Eden had a more charmingly reticent, throaty quality).

Alec is no more, alas, but another philosopher can be found to fill the gap. Fichte was a man, which is important, but Hegel was a feline in disguise, which made him fit only to instruct clever asses, and play (very well, admittedly) on children’s slides, if one can tell after so many years have elapsed. I’d rather he’d have got the creator of M. Hulot’s Holiday to work on a remake of La Grande Bouffe

Why’s everything gone terribly quiet all of a sudden? Welch’ furchtbare Stille! **

– but the Melbourne newspapers called the project off, preferring some totally spurious local paparazzi farce called, I think, ‘Newt Dundee’, involving a Scottish idiot astounding everybody, chewing straws, and dancing his balls off in a cloud of smoke. Ah, Margaret, surely you knew that a crowd of South American football administrators (we call them the Ferret Fanciers, but don’t let on) are going back to the land? Yes, to the Portuguese horse-breeding centre Muge, where they serve fish soup every day and wear braided Hebridean headgear.

“Are you cigarette monitor? You know mucus build-up goes a horrible colour…”
It’s enough to make one, as an urban guerrilla, want to scratch below the surface of this sweet, playful Zauberflöte. Were you, Amadeus, really a demented music-loving aristocrat who commissioned your own works, thought it would be a laugh to dance with a keeper of the portal, jive with Mephistopheles himself…?

Would you compare this with Graham Greene’s Vienna? God forbid. Would you entrust the mission to an American who refuses to believe his emblematic eagle is bald, and forgets to look at t’ petrol gauge?—but I’d better be quiet. It’s just another flight.

BUT it’s different in summer, when you want to spread your wings and mount to the treetops, make a(n-H-) bomb from your in ( off)-sur (shore )-ance tragacanth/okra policy. Or, follow the example of Joseph Beuys, saved from perishing (in the) cold by being wrapped in felt and fat—we who live in more humid climes can hardly appreciate such extreme needs, but raise our glasses all the same.

For we all suffer from the cold. For, truism as it may be, we can be protected by a present of a nest-egg, a lucky jewel (this could also read, ‘thing of value’, it could be, thus, a musical instrument of rare quality, a flute for example), especially if given to you personally by a freedom-fighter. Where the highest church spire in the world reaches octagonally (Ulm = elm = Ely?) to the sky , a cross-section might tell you that in 1500 AD, this was but a caper, a chamois’ vortex; and that here too your man Sarastro casts his labyrinthine lettery spell.

* * *

Ham, fig, lettuce—I felt much gâté.
“Café?” Mute. Light, tight mule-face; cute.
“Malt.” If he get Malfi, gut.
“Leg it!” Fume. Chat:
“Ultimate chef! Glug…” Tame fitch!
“ ’E taught EEC film?” Lumache, gift, etc. Emulate fight: heal cut fig met. Get ache if tum lug clam, if teeth fug matt lichee, cut leg (ham), tief. Teeth, gum, facile gulf, thematic éclat, emu fight—cute glam if the emu fig chattel fetch mute Gila eft—Thule magic. Thule game, fictif? The mage-cult—Cima, fleet thug—felt gut. Micah, E. Cheam gîte luft—“Agile mut—fetch!” – fit chum, legate. “Geh, mutt!” Facile! Ult. fétiche mag (e.g. tu fetch mail), female chit tug echt guilt. Fame? Fame! Glitch—tué!! Tué, acme, flight! Mach 1 Flug et – et…
“Mutilate chef… Get aught, EC film.”
“Ach, gut.”
“Film tee, ‘Flute’ team, cig—hazardous game, golf.”
Want mace?”
“Filth. Muget fumigate the clam.”
“Leg thief!”

– CUT –

“Halt, Muti – GFECE…”
“Muti g’l’eat chef!”
“Ha ? Fuge mit Celt?”
“He melt fuga!”
Tic. Cue metal fight: Tate, chief, glum; cite Mehta gulf –
“Calm huge fit! Et tacet Méhul, if G-G-C thema futile.” Ethical? Eft mug light me faucet—facet hem guilt. Guilt? Face them! Glut EEC faith, me Leith mug.
Fact: ‘Tarzan’s gaga, mum’, flow ode—a wolf? Tarzan? Medusa?? MOGG!

– CUT –

Agh. Me, I left. Mitchel A. Gufet, Chaim T. Gefült (Gulf Cham tête) I, Tim Leach (feu), G.T. Futt (Gimel)—ache, feet, caul might time fate gulch—Emil Guthaft, EC cheat (“Get film ‘U’!”), Thea, Meg (tu!), Cliff—“Luce !”—“– tätig?” Hm. Fiat luce. The GM Michael Tuft, e.g., fumeth, lit Cage (he flegmatic). Tu fleet; I’m caught, gum feet, I latch fee (tight maul)—c… chime E FLAT –
“Gut, magic.” Flu, teeth felt each gum, it mulch ‘tea!’ if get matt glue.
Chief: “Tee? Milch? Gut fate.” Ich: “Left Guam?”
“Guam? Flee, titch.”
Ému, light: “Facet gift: Cheam lute.” Melt ice, hug Taf.
“Get Thai flu, mec.” Thug.
“Calif, meet Ute.”
“Camel! Fight Liège fut-match?”
“Get cité! Mac, lute-thief, get Mica.”
Heft, lug: lame. Cute fight, Helmut Git-face.
“Teufel! GI match.” (Helmut GI facet.)
“T.E. Hulme GI—fact.” Emit laugh, etc.
“Fie! Fetta, milch!” Gag, hit, elect Muffet, huge Tamil-cum-Celt, the gai Flem (if huge).
“Acht”—eight—“flame—cut huge lattice” ( mf—hemi-flat, e.g….)

– CUT –

Famagusta: “Emma, Goan rugs!”
Waltz, Magus of Armagedon.

* * *

Tu, fig, feel chit gamut. Etch glue, Fatima.
“Get Michel fût, Lech!”
“I’m aft—get, uh, multi-facet egg, Alf. ‘Chute time!”

Lethe magic fut a mad fatso mangl-wurzel, o! Sumo golf Wang art amazed Adam: ‘De Gulf War A to Z Song.’ (‘A to Zed’ Adam sang—low, gruff…)

“Tué! might Hume…?”
“Fact. Fichte male – ”
“ – Gut. Hegel?”
“Mufti cat.”
“Teach mule gift, lift chute game—time gulf? Teach Tati ‘Le Mug Chef’ film – ”


‘The Age’ cut film: Wagga zoom lens fraud, Tam O’Douglas (fart), amaze, gnaw, fume, a gonad orgasm waltz. Tut, Meg, Chile FA (Fitch™ League) face tilth. Muge, täglich fumet, Gaelic hem-tuft helmet.
“I/c fag, tu? Flegm hue…”
Città flea might cute flute game itch. O Mozart! a mad Walsegg? (fun—Armed Man walz, Faust go-go…)
“Faugh!” (etc.)
“Tuft eagle, Mitch? MITCH—T’ FUELAGE!”
Mute. “Ach, fliegt.”

Été macht flug if huge elm—(aitch) ’uge theft claim—mucilage theft?? – felt heat. Mug, i/c the fug climate, lift them.

Ague. Cliché, fat gem, tu Che amulet gift, Ulm eight-facet:

TMF pic 3

A fat Magus’ long word maze.

* I actually heard William Rees-Mogg say this of himself during his address at Peter Goldman’s memorial service—where I was singing—at St Martin in the Fields, in the 1980s.

** In the original 1995 MS of this introduction, lost in our 2009 fire, these words of Pamina’s were written in the hand of Christiane Oelze, who sang (and spoke) the role, and whom I asked to insert them—I can see them still, but technology doesn’t yet allow us to translate inner visions into outer reproductions.

Nicolas Robertson
Parma – Ferrara, May 1995 / Outurela, Portugal, May 2020

TMF urtext

From early draft, Parma 1995.

Guest post: Cite not Faust

Mozart opera anagrams 2: Così fan tutte

Nicolas Robertson

Even before Don Giovanni (here, with general introduction), this was Nick’s very first anagram foray to have a story attached, whose arcane fantasies already emerge fully-fledged—as with

tinto faucets, cute Asti font, scant Fitou…,

explained as

the taps and church vessels are running with red and white from the great houses, and lesser French appellations don’t get much of a look in…

* * *

Opera by Mozart; soloists, English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner, 1992—staged performances (stage direction by JEG) and Archiv recording.



The earliest case of an accompanying parallel text—an attempt at describing what I felt might be going on, while adhering literally to the anagram results—composed immediately after the anagrams (here a sequence of the same 12 letters, 100 times).

CFT urtext

From Er, text Urtext, Parma 1994.

TUTTI FONSECA: tinto faucets, cute Asti font, scant Fitou; et Tunis café tot.
Incest at Eton.
“Tusa? If C.T. Fancutt’s toe”—I infuse tact to feint Tusa cot—“isn’t out, ‘facet tu’.”
“Fine! Scott, a tuft at cosine?”
“Tofu! Sine.” Tact. If stout, enact a fit Scot, tune fustian octet, cite not Faust, taunt soft ice (if Tesco taunt fat Tucson tie—satin, tofu, etc.) coast net.
“Fuit ut canto?”
“Tief. Sit, foetus can’t. Tin cat-foetus.”
“Titan foetus…”
“Cist ocean”—Futt.
“Nice oast, Futt”—Titus Fen-Cato, i/c font. “Astute. Situate font—cut Ascot! Feint toucan, if test cat oft unites (cat oft unties?) teat’s function: eat, suc’, fit to Nic’s tofu teat…”
“Est, tunc fiat, o Tuscan foe!”
“Tief?”—to Tuscan Tito (US fan, etc.)
“Teutonic saft?”
“Ficta’s Teuton.”
“No ficta,” ’e tuts.
Tut! Sit on face.

* * *

I oft tan scout, I, Cnut, feast to toast fun, cite Sufi, Tao. Tent? C’è scant outfit. I, fast-toe Cnut, cut station effect: saint out (Saint ‘tuft’ Coe—cat’s often ‘uit’). Cue soft taint. Et toi, cast fun? Et tu, sicofant?? Canute’s fit to taunt foe’s tic, stint Coe tufa factions. Têtu, FNAC, tote situ (Sufi tote can’t fuse antic tot—fuse Titan cot? Tunic not safe). Ate soft… Cnut, I… I taste of… Cnut… nice, soft, taut…

* * *

“SNCF—têtu, toi? Astute faction, SNCF: Tati et/ou fat Teuton (sic). Caution: test ‘f’—suf’ocate! Tint Sufi tent-coat, nice…”
Fast ‘tu’ to Count East, fit, cute stain, oft fist not acute.
“Aft, tits! Ounce” (o fuc) “sent a tit faint. Suet cot, soutane-fit.” Ct.—COUNT—T. Fiesta, ictus often at coitus… “Fatten e’static futon!”

“Sofa, Nutt. Cite Cato.”
“Fuit. Sent soft Utica net …”
Fun Cato test! “It’s…”
“… Tout fiancé!”
“TU? Ott’s fiancé, of ice stunt? At?”
“Tate. Stoic fun.”


– FIN –

It’s monopoly time in Italy and Portugal, the taps and church vessels are running with red and white from the great houses, and lesser French appellations don’t get much of a look in. On the other hand, an espresso and a chaser in North Africa follows naturally; there’s vegan food, and an atmosphere which reminds one partaker of goings-on at an English public school. He recalls the typical, bright-schoolboy talk in which he took part, with its characteristic blend of inside jargon, Latin and modern languages, higher maths and frank vulgarity:
“Tusa?”—pretending charm to lull the well-known spark to sleep—“if Fancutt doesn’t pull his finger out, will you do it for him?”
“Of course. Scott, will you do my maths prep for me? It’s cosines.”
“Put your head in a bowl of quark. I can do without.”
More charm is needed. I’m a bit overweight, but pretend to be a tough caber-tosser , give an ‘A’ to the pompous house band, who’re making a fist at Mendelssohn, am careful not to show off my Goethe, and make fun of melting polar ice-caps—it seemed an ok thing to do, the supermarket heir in my dorm used to mock the kitsch dress-clothes of Arizona oil moguls who come visiting, as well as vegetarian protein and lots of other things too—and the huge nets they have to erect to stop the resulting icebergs.
“Did I sing it right?”
“A bit low. Sit down, you might as well, you’re not an embryo. Correction, yes you are, you’re a cheap feline embryo.”
“A giant embryo, at least…”
Another boy, Futt, puts in: “And you’ve got thousands of spots!”
“It’s a jolly nice oast-house your parents have got, Futt,” tactfully interposes a well-brought up boy who’s a server in chapel. “Really smart. If you get the church on your side, you don’t need to show off at the races! Pretend to be a South American bird, you’ll find pumas regularly give them milk—or is it takes it away? – ” (Fen-Cato’s going off the rails rather here) “ – you can get all the nourishment you need from the soya fountain in Nic’s health-food store – ”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s the way it is, so that’s the way it’s gotta be, enemy of the Roman people.”
“Was it really too low?”—this to the ‘Roman enemy’, who’s a great supporter of the United States and all that entails—“Like some German fruit juice?”
“The Germans invented the idea of putting in sharps at cadences.”
“I d-don’t like that ’abit,” stammers a junior. The stammer is pathetic, and he drops his aitches, so we sit on his face.

* * *

[A stream of consciousness from a sometime Prince of Denmark]

I regularly used to give my Balliol cleaner a hiding, I hold a party just to raise a glass to the holding of parties, I quote from the Rubaiyat, Zhuangzi. I don’t like camping, there’s not enough protection. I’m a good runner, and I don’t like stopping, and none of this sportsmanship like you get from Seb, so holy and with his Tintin haircut, but I can tell you his Dutch cat often clears off at night! I’m against currency fluctuations in the ERM—what, Frenchman? You make fun of me? And you, smarmy Latin brute?? A King of Denmark can mock his enemy’s nervous twitches, he can withdraw money from Seb’s divisive volcano altitude training.

French bookshops are headstrong, they run betting shops in them—not even a mystic gambling system can rekindle the primal child within us, or the hearth where Prometheus is born, and anyway modern artificial fibres are such a fire hazard…

I once had a lovely yielding… Yes, me… I can still taste it… yummee… Just right, yielding and resisting at the same time, the perfect [crême brulée].

Count East is speaking, Government transport minister:
“Take on French railways? Off your head, are you? They’re a canny bunch, French railways. They’re M. Hulot and/or Helmut Kohl in one (yep, that’s what they are). A word of warning: try ‘loud’ first, you’ll find you won’t be able even to semi-breathe down there! Why don’t you go back to dyeing Persian desert robes, that was harmless, at least.”
This is too much for me. In an instant I irredeemably offend his noble lordship by using the familiar form of address, he becomes apoplectic and bang, there’s a nice mess, sometimes I don’t know where my blows are landing.
“Get back, you fools! Pint-size here” (I wince at this description) “has knocked the old twit” (where’s the ‘w’ from? a childhood memory?) “out. Make him up a bed of veal marrow, clad him in a cardinal’s robes,”—I recognise the voice of Ct. (yes, another Count) T. Party, the one they say suffers a paroxysm as like as not at any suggestion of sex—“plump his mattress with kapok and let ’m sleep in seventh heaven…”

* * *

“Fall on your futon, Nutt. Or have you done your Latin prep?”
“I have. ‘Given this sweet Carthage entanglement…’ ”
I enjoy these Latin exercises. “Go on…”
“… I’m engaged to be married.”
“WHAT? You?? Engaged—to the daughter of the best wine-maker in Provence? Who does such fantastic ice-skating? Where’s the party?”
“The Tate Gallery Restaurant. Rotten luck, eh?”

Which begs the question, was Tosca setting him up? (Did she, in fact, bounce back?)

For if so, it is

The End.

Nicolas Robertson
Lisbon – Paris – Ferrara, 1992 (– Parma, 1994) / Outurela, Portugal, May 2020

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.


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.


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.

Guest post: Noon? Gad—vini!

Mozart opera anagrams 1: Don Giovanni

Nicolas Robertson

Nicolas Robertson, tenor in the Monteverdi choir, litterateur and pinball wizard, has long been based in Lisbon, where he was my guide in 2018. On our Mozart opera tours with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s, he and the choir put their leisure to creative use by composing anagrams of the titles, whereupon Nick combined and elevated them into a whole series of delightfully gnomic stories, complete with his own elaborate, arcane exegeses. Aficionados will detect an affinity with Oulipo and Mots d’heures, gousses, rames.

The series went on to extend beyond Mozart into other projects that the Monteverdi and other choirs were involved in—including Die Schoepfung (“Nice fudge shop”), Missa Solemnis (“Mimesis salons”), Lili Boulanger (“Nubile gorilla”), and Igor Stravinsky (“Gran visits York”, my all-time favourite anagram).

I’ve been cajoling Nick for ages to share these extraordinary creations with the world. After various setbacks, he continues to work on them. I hope this fantasia on Don Giovanni is just an aperitivo for publication of the whole series in a more illustrious organ.

Generously lubricated by lashings of vino and gin (as indeed were we), the motley cast alone is delightful, including Ivan, Godiva, Onan, Gavin D. Onion, Nin, Giono, Dino Vaginno, Donovan, and the splendid Idi von Goa. Just to give a flavour of the story and its interpretation: for the opening text

“Noon? Gad—vini!”
“No inn, Godiva.”
“Dog Inn, Avon?”
“Don, go in van.”
I nod, I go in van. DINGO ON VAN—

Nick provides this commentary:
Somewhere, between Australia and western England, Godiva wakes up, thirsty. It’s already time for wine, but there’s nowhere to find it—or so Don, the narrator, thinks. Godiva knows better, and Don knows better than to resist. No sooner inside the camper, however, than an unexpected peril appears: a large yellow wild dog is on the roof…
As the plot unfolds you’ll soon become immersed—enjoy!

Don Giovanni urtext

From Er, text Urtext, Parma 1994.

Opera by Mozart; soloists, English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner. Staged performances in various European cities, 1994, and Archiv recording.


A sequence of 69 (if you exclude the title, which is repeated as a variant later on in the text) 11-letter anagrams, followed by an ‘explanatory’ parallel text.

“Noon? Gad—vini!”
“No inn, Godiva.”
“Dog Inn, Avon?”
“Don, go in van.”
I nod, I go in van. DINGO ON VAN—
“Ivan? On dingo!”
“I… No, Ivan doing a don in Oving.”
“Dino, Gavin?” No. V. good: Ninian. Nin—diva, goon, Onan voiding vain god.
“Nino! Nino, Vi, go and —”
“No ??”—“Gin?”
(Avid.) “Non… avoid gin.”
“Gin and vino?”
“O… Gin and I’ ? Novo! Go on! Divina! N –”
(‘N’ in vain? Good. No avoiding ‘N’. Non-gain: void.)
“ – Non gin? AVOID!”

* * *

Dago vino inn: gonad in vino. “Ovid anno—gin?”
Non-Ovidian Gavin in ‘Dog’: “No.” (Gavin D. Onion.)
“N., avid ongoing divan onion, dining on ova?”
I go, “Viand?”
“Viand, oignon…”
“—Vian, Nin.”
“O God—”
“—and Giono! VIN!!”
Din. “Goa vino? n Goan von Indi’ ?” (Idi von Goa.)
“NN…” (Io and I go “VNN…”)
“Indian Gov. on aid: vin-nog—”
“No vin!” And I go on: “Iogi, V Dan—non. V. Indian—no go.

* * *

On, I : “Avon” (ding) (dong) “Avon!” I, in.
“Nova? In G?” I nod.
“ ‘Don’ in G— o, Ivan!”

* * *

Ogni novi. And oo, Ann diving, goadin’ Ivonn, in Govan; o dining, ovoid Ann, Govan ondini… Digno? Vain? No, no invading o’ Dinan, no Vigo, avion non (dig?).

* * *

Dino Vaginno, Inigo Vandon, Donna Vigion—Donna v. Inigo, Donovan (“Gini!‟), Ian ‘Dong’ Voin, Dion Ganinov, Gavin (no!), Odin,




Somewhere, between Australia and western England, Godiva wakes up, thirsty. It’s already time for wine, but there’s nowhere to find it—or so Don, the narrator, thinks. Godiva knows better, and Don knows better than to resist. No sooner inside the camper, however, than an unexpected peril appears: a large yellow wild dog is on the roof. Normally Ivan deals with tricky situations like this, but he’s away near Chichester pretending to be a university teacher. Dino and Gavin can’t, or won’t, be found, so the only resort is Ninian, a feckless but gifted character, of whom Don seems to be fond despite a clinical evaluation of his dubious qualities.

Ninian, even with Vi to help, needs persuading. His weak spot, deny it as he try, is a cocktail, and Don—not without a glancing reference to the literature of constraints and the title of a prospective translation of a novel by Georges Perec—plays on this faiblesse with results which might be considered extravagant, though Ninian prefers to mix his gin and Italian with wine rather than vermouth.

The pub is reached, but is not a great success: it seems somehow unEnglish, and there’s a foreign body in the wine. Carried away by his earlier success in winning round Ninian, and remembering that it was the twentieth centenary of an event in the life of the Roman poet Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses—and that the most sought-after juniper berries grow in northern Italy—Don proposes gin; but Gavin is in the pub too, and Gavin’s categorically no classicist, and Gavin vetoes gin. Refusing to be discouraged, Don changes the subject to food and asks Ninian, with a bit of chaff about being a couch potato, if he would like eggs for supper. Ninian, with his irritating penchant for dropping into French, declines but with a bit of prompting dreamily goes for filet mignon with shallot confit. Don however is a stickler, reminding Ninian that he’s just suggested the favourite dish of Boris Vian and Anaïs Nin—neither a writer, it turns out, of whom Ninian is much fond—not to mention that earthy lyrical novelist Jean Giono, which inescapably entails ordering wine; as Don duly and loudly, casting caution to the winds, does.

Alas, with a terrible clashing of glasses the landlord, an Afro-Indian tyrant, marches in bearing the only wine available, an unspeakable brew from a Portuguese ex-colony stuffed with additives provided gratis by the EC, which is greeted with strangulated cries from the assembled diners—none more so than Don and Io, a Greek girl who here makes her first and only appearance in the story and seems if anything more in tune with Don than was Godiva, whose fault it is that they all ended up in this shifty joint anyway… Whether because emboldened by this sympathy, or because his patience just snaps, Don, as he finally rules out any wine-drinking, signs off with a frankly xenophobic, not to say indiscriminate, tirade linking Buddhism, Judo/Karate and the entire sub-continent in intransigent opprobrium.

We join Ivan, it’s unclear if still in West Sussex, but adopting an unusual line in popular scholarship. Using the doorbell-and-bright-cry technique beloved of generations of cosmetic salespersons, he is peddling Italian operas. There’s a gimmick, of course: as a novelty, he’s transposing them into peoples’ favourite keys. At least one member of the public is thrilled to receive Don Giovanni a 4th higher—or, maybe, a 5th lower—and falls swooning into Ivan’s arms.

Everything’s got to be new, Ivan reflects with a weary cynicism, and he’s as fickle as the rest, for now we find him in Glasgow, appreciatively eying, as she cleaves the blue sky at the deep end, the rounded curves of Ann—which so filled with jealous pain the breast of Ivonn (whose parents had a good ear but rather shaky spelling). Curves brought on, it must be said, not only by natural curviness but by serious eating, especially at night which as we know is the worst time. But still, there are nymphs in them thar Glasgow hills…, thinks Ivan, reflecting also, “Am I worthy? Is this search for beauty just personal vanity? I could be worse, at least I don’t go on armed incursions to places where they cultivate mussels, and above all I don’t let the silver ball roll unchecked down the field and between the uselessly flicking flippers, if you understand my reference.‟ *

And who should understand the reference, if not the heterodox party gathered round a pinball machine in the south of France, consisting of an Italian wide-boy, an English architect and his American girlfriend, always at each other’s throat, a superannuated balladeer, who insists on ordering sickly, gassy soft drinks, and his aging roadie with such a nose as one suspects would shine in the dark, a Ukrainian ballet dancer, Gavin D. Onion—how did he get here? Perhaps we underrated him on the grounds of his lack of Latin (and disapproval of gin, quite apart from his still unexplained failure to rise to the challenge of the dingo—but I note that Dino, equally and signally absent at the hour of need, is here too, so one can assume they’re in cahoots)—and an imperious if flawed character with an eye-patch and broad-brimmed hat, who asks disquieting questions and likes to be known, three-quarters of the way through the session at least, as “the Wanderer‟ –

– and where are they, then? Why, the city of the anti-popes, Durrell’s Gnostic capital, a short drive from the Marquis de Sade’s country estate (or the Deller Consort’s, if you prefer), perhaps dropping in to the cool calm space of La Poésie dans un Jardin, to visit (as I did) the Perec exposition in the ’88 Festival; and I hope still congregating on pinball tables whenever they can, escaping the sun, seeking a Lazarus, ** dwelling always on the words of the Wanderer, that the only one who can break the chain of fire and bring freedom must be freer than the god, but he (or she) then has the power to remake the word, sorry, world.

* The reference: Angus Smith and I were told in a bar in Lyon in the late 80s by a French girl who’d done a ‘stage’ in Southampton that avion is the popular term for when the cue-ball goes hopelessly down and out the length of the centre of the pinball table, lost without even being able to be touched by the flippers—a smartingly shameful occurrence.

** Lazarus: when the ball, already past the last pair of flippers and on its way to oblivion, bounces miraculously—or, to the cool (yes, I’m thinking of you, Chris Purves), foreseeably—off the hind wall back into possible play.

Nicolas Robertson
Parma, May 1994 / Outurela, Portugal, May 2020

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.



* * *

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 that 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.


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


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. 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.

* * *

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”.


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 display 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.


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

** Cf. the classic

What comes between fear and sex?

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.


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 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:


* * *

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 Communism 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 (in Polish; for perceptive interviews with him in English, 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!:


  • 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.

See also 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.

Anna Mahler—Groucho, and sculpture

Anna Mahler. Source here.

This post leads from the ridiculous to the sublime, so don’t despair.

Courtesy of, 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


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

Left: Kalyan, ragamala (source: The raga guide).
Right: Uday Bhawalkar.

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.

In my Beatles roundup I observed:

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.

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.

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 (in tension with the often-stressed adjacent melodic pitches Ni and sharp Ma), and registering opening and cadential pitches of a phrase. 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 these 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 with this fluency in pitch relationships?! (Cf. flamenco palmas).

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.

Of course, structurally and melodically they have much in common, and it would be instructive to compare them in parallel; but here I’ll content myself with offering a few signposts separately, only reminding you to zoom in on all the detail in between. So my very rough outlines below are based on prominent cadences—including 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 Widdess) 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: [2]

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: [3]

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 the related rāg Maru Bihag, see here.

* * *

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. I’m finding the versions of Uday Balwalkar, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, and Nikhil Banerjee most inspiring models to begin learning from. Anyway, these performances, all very different, make a great introduction to the infinite art of raga.

In the words of a Classic FM announcer,

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

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.

[2] 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 rag 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).

[3] 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“.

How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet

“There is singing everywhere in Tibet”


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]


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. 

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.


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.


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


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’s 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. In his Preface Mellers 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, he 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.

Far more all-embracing than other pop music of the time, the Beatles (and we should also bear in mind George Martin’s input as producer) would refine elements from blues, Country, folk, rock, 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.

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 favorite free association, this time, for last. Now, this song is characterized 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.

He considers their creative process (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”); however important the contribution of George Martin, he recognised himself as an intermediary. And

if they 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 has 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’ central 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:


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!

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 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 category of activity but has to be divided into specific aspects of kinds of music. I learned, moreover, that beating a drum to accompany oneself in song was not a matter of esthetic choice but a rigid requirement for a particular ceremony, and a discussion of musical instruments was not an esthetic discussion for the Navajos but was, by definition, a discussion of ceremonial esoterica.

Similarly, the question “How do you feel when you hear a drum?” was intended to evoke an esthetic response. But the Navajo “fact” is that a drum accompaniment is rarely heard except with the public songs of the Enemy Way, and if you feel queer, especially dizzy, at the ceremonial, it is a clear indication that you, too, need to be a patient at this particular kind of “sing”. What I took to be a somewhat general esthetic question was, for the Navajos, a most specific ceremonial question and was interpreted by the average informant as an enquiry into his state of health.

At the beginning of my work I intended to limit my investigation to secular music, reserving any considerable study in the tremendous field of Navajo religious music for a later time. I soon discovered the Navajo “fact” that all music is religious and that the most nearly secular songs in melody, in textual content, and in the attitudes of the performers were derived from the Enemy Way chant mentioned above, a religious ceremony designed to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghosts of slain outsiders. The dancing which accompanies certain parts of this rite is widely known as the Navajo Squaw Dance, and it is the singing which accompanies this dance, together with certain other kinds of public songs of the Enemy Way, to which I refer.

It was possible, eventually, to construct a hierarchy of different kinds of music according to the degree of secular emphasis. In the value-orientations of the Navajos I could find no music that was believed to be purely secular, but the public Enemy Way songs and certain songs of the Blessing Way were secular as well as religious and could be used in secular contexts.

It was necessary, of course, to try to ascertain, for music, the Navajo definition of “religious”. Questioning revealed little or no native preoccupation with a differentiation between that which is religious and that which is secular. The Navajo has not compartmentalised his life in this respect. […]

When a traditional Navajo is asked how he likes a song, he does not consider the question “How does it sound?” but “What is it for?”. […]

The social aspect of Navajo singing is another important part of the desired. Here too, a change from traditional values is taking place, and a conflict between younger and older generations may be seen. The question, “What do we want?” is in a state of flux, and the question, “What ought we to want?” has come very much to the fore. Sex roles and age roles emerge as important factors in Navajo normative values as regards music. Here too, significant changes are taking place due to the encroachment of white American culture and new religious ideas.

Thus it may take one a while to grasp McAllester’s distinction between “sacred” and “secular” forms—an etic problem that he created for himself. He explains his focus on the public songs, but (as often) our binary concepts may obstruct understanding.

Uses and functions
As we saw above, ritual taxonomy is complex. The Enemy Way is remarkably versatile, its purposes diverse. While it has “martial” origins in alluding to the two great wars in Navajo mythology, its formal intention is

to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghost of an outsider; that of a white man or some other other non-Navajo such as a European, an Asiatic, or a member of some other Asian tribe.

And though McAllester claims that

most of the Enemy Ways performed in the last few years for young men have been directed against the ghosts of enemies slain in World War Two,

he goes on:

But numerous situations in everyday life may expose one to the attentions of an “enemy” ghost: being too near the scene of a fatal automobile accident was cited by one informant. Intimate contact with a non-Navajo who may have died subsequently is another possibility. Women as well as men may be pursued by these ghosts and require the performance of the Enemy Way.

Another instance is when girls coming into contact with white men’s clothes at school. And an Enemy Way may also be performed for someone returning home after a stay in hospital, where they will inevitably have been exposed to the spirits of non-Navajo who have died there. So the ceremony subsumes all kinds of healing.

The ways in which one can tell when the ceremony is needed range from the general, such as a vague feeling that it would be a good thing, to the highly specific, such as a dream that recalled an encounter with the body of a dead outsider. It is frequently used as a last resort when other ceremonies have failed.[…]

One sure symptom is a feeling of faintness or dizziness when one attends an Enemy Way which is being held for someone else.

This was a common occurrence, requiring a further Enemy Way ceremony.

McAllester also notes more mundane underlying motives, such as “the urge to keep up with the neighbours […] and the feeling among poorer families that wealthy families should provide more than the average number of these entertainments” (a rare suggestion of social stratification among the Navajo, generally downplayed); as in Chinese ritual, public reputation matters. Another important function is the “bringing out” of young girls who have reached marriageable age.

The ritual sequence
McAllester goes on to outline the ritual sequence over three days and nights (pp.8–14):

  • the decision: preparatory stages—including the construction of a hogan and cooking arbour, and seeking materials such as herbs, yarn for the rattle [stick], an enemy trophy (scalp or bone) and so on
  • duties of the stick receiver, possessed with some esoteric knowledge
  • ritual preparation of the drum, with singing
  • the journey to stick receiver’s camp, and facial decoration of the patient
  • first night of public singing and dancing, at the patient’s camp
  • gift singing before the stick receiver’s camp (early morning of the second day)
  • return of the patient’s party
  • the moving of the stick receiver’s camp
  • second night of public singing and dancing, at the new camp
  • the move to the patient’s camp soon after dawn, with a sham battle on arrival
  • the return gift singing, after breakfast
  • the Enemy Way rites, to treat the patient, whose face and body are decorated, led by the medicine man. The enemy ghost is slain by strewing ashes on the trophy.
  • third night of public singing, with circle dancing, and walking songs from the stick receiver’s camp to that of the patient, followed by sway songs
  • conclusion, at dawn, with more ceremonial songs and prayers.

Here McAllester notes (cf. the flawed Chinese funeral that I describe here):

When the ceremony had been concluded on the second and third nights of the Pine Valley Enemy Way, September 27 and 28, there were long announcements made by very drunk Navajos. The burden was similar to those of the other announcements mentioned but also included reproaches for the diminished energy of the singing group as the night wore on and for the drinking that had taken place. […] A group of Salcedanos […] said that they used to enjoy coming to the Squaw Dances for the social occasion, the refreshments, and the girls, and they used to feel that it helped to bring rain. Now, they said, they did not enjoy it and they did not feel that the occasion had been holy. They added that their governors (one of whom was present) did not get drunk, and they were sorry to see the Navajo leaders set such a bad example for their young men. The announcer translated this, and the Navajos seemed to take the reproach seriously.

The adverse effects of alcohol features in several of McAllester’s vignettes. In a section on the dangers of misuse, he observes exceptions to the generally muted quality of Navajo public gatherings (p.66),

when formally organized singing takes place, as at Yeibichai Dances, Squaw Dances, or when there has been a great deal of drinking. When fights begin to break out there may be some shouting, but even this is very different from drunken brawling in white-American culture. Much of the kicking and punching is done with silent intensity. The shouting is not prolonged or repetitive, but consists of a few short cries that seem to be forced out. Even in this extreme situation, there is very little sustained noise, nor do the onlooker shout censure or encouragement.

And on p.77 he comments:

Open expressions of hostility are a commonplace at Navajo gatherings if any considerable drinking has gone on.

McAllester suggests in particular that inhibitions may be released in the public singing of the Enemy Way, which provides an outlet for “self-expression, teasing, competition, and even aggression”.

As he explains at the outset,

Of all the arts, perhaps music has seemed the hardest to study as social behaviour. Aside from the accompanying poetry in the song texts, the actual substance of the music appears forbiddingly abstract. Melodic line and phrasing, metre, pitch, and scale have been reserved for highly trained musicologists, few of whom have been interested in cultural applications. The unfortunate result of this specialisation and the feeling that one must have “talent” to study music has been a general abdication from this field by social scientists, even to the extent that the most elementary questions about attitudes towards music have remained unasked.

While musicologists soon learned to incorporate culture into their sphere, the social scientists rarely reciprocated; we still find the same “abdication” among scholars of Daoist ritual, for instance. As McAllester wrote, even very modest attention to performance and performers will bear fruit. This applies both to social matters (How are you fed during the ritual? How do you get paid? Where do you find reed to make your oboe mouthpieces?) and to registering basic features of sound (Is this text sung slow or fast? Loud? In unison? What percussion instruments accompany?); even a little more detail is easily learned (Is the text sung with melisma? Is the melody pentatonic? Do you always sing it the same? Did your granddad sing it like that?).

For the musical aspect of his fieldwork, McAllester appends a questionnaire (pp.91–2)—which, as he explains, should be used sensitively (cf. Jackson, Schimmelpenninck):Qs 1Qs 2Transcriptions may look forbidding to the outsider, but audio samples of such songs might be a good test for scholars who disclaim musical expertise: they too should be able to make such simple and useful observations.

Having outlined the overall ceremony, he goes on to focus on the “secular” songs; but he opens this section by discussing songs more generally, listing them in more or less chronological sequence—and again it transpires that most of them (apart from the “secular” items marked with asterisks) are “sacred” (p.15):

  • Bear and snake songs (for protection against danger)
  • Songs used in preparation of the drum
  • Songs used in preparation of the rattle stick
  • The Coyote songs (sung by the medicine man to inaugurate each night of public singing)
  • The Sway songs*
  • The Dance songs* (trotting, skipping, signal for end of dancing)
  • The Gift songs* [the following four items are for the patient:]
  • Emetic songs
  • Unraveling songs
  • Medicine songs (for medicine in gourd, for application of pollen)
  • Blackening songs (referring to the enemy’s country, and to the Navajo country)
  • Circle dance songs* (as the evening of the third day approaches)
  • Walking songs (secret songs sung on the ceremonial walk to the patient’s hogan)
  • Songs to the patient
  • Concluding songs of the ceremonial (Blessing Way songs sung to the patient at dawn, Coyote songs)
  • Songs for depositing the rattle stick (including Twelve-word Blessing Way song),

as well as additional sequences for the longer version of the ceremony (songs of the Tail Dancers and the Black Dancers, songs at the meal of the no-cedar mush).

Ritual events around the world commonly display a sacred–secular continuum. While such an “etic” distinction appears questionable among the Navajo, we should pay just as much attention to the “highly formalized chant-like music of the sacred healing ceremonies”, containing “magical phrases and long, full repetitive lists of Holy People, sacred places, and parts of the body or of plants”—mostly performed solo by the medicine man, I gather, sometimes supported by a group of men. McAllester naturally recognised the importance of studying this art, but postponed it—though his work on the Navajo, later enhanced by his student Charlotte Frisbie, continued (see n.3 below). Anyway, here his focus on melody tends to detract somewhat from the more esoteric, even central, aspect of Navajo ritual (see also under “Changing values” below).

Again, this reminds me of issues in studying Chinese ritual. McAllester’s choice of the secular songs rather resembles that of most Chinese musicologists, who have focused too narrowly on the melodic instrumental component of Daoist and Buddhist ritual. By contrast, scholars of “classical” religion are drawn to the esoteric parts of the ritual (secret formulas, mudras, talismans, and so on), neglecting a more normative ethnography of everything that is going on during the event.

The secular songs
Anyway, it is these secular, public songs (collectively known as Squaw Dance) that McAllester analyses: the sway songs, dance songs, gift songs, and circle dance songs. They are more readily subjected to musical analysis, and “less freighted with the overtones of magic”.

For sonic material he practises the fieldworker’s typical combination of observing ritual performance and recording on request, noting the differences (“Once when I asked an informant why he was not singing ‘naturally’ (loud and high), he replied that he was afraid that my recording machine could not stand it”). He gives brief sketches of his main informants (pp.25–6).

The recording situation was almost always a stimulus to discussions of various aspects of music in Navajo life, and those in turn led to talk in many other fields, particularly that of religion.

So their comments on the songs that he discusses are interesting, such as:

Enemyway 27

I found this approach useful in working on Daoist hymns with Li Manshan too.

score 1

Sway songs (cf. comments above).


Circle dance songs sung to vocables—showing exceptional triple metre, with some irregular beats.

Along with his transcriptions of the songs, McAllester analyses each genre—adopting etic concepts while bearing in mind the Navajos’ own ethos, under the headings of

  • texts: meaningful, and vocables (the gift and circle dance songs are usually sung to vocables only)
  • vocal style: “nasal, high, with a wide vibrato and an ornamental use of the falsetto”
  • metre (and rhythm): mostly duple and in even rhythms, with occasional extra beats (largely attributable to the requirements of textual phrasing)—with some exceptions such as frequent triple metre in circle dance songs—e.g. §2 and 16 on the playlist below
  • tempo (quite fast!)
  • pitch
  • melodic line
  • phrasing
  • scales and tonality (mostly pentatonic, to which we should now add “anhemitonic”—as in China and much of the world…).

He concludes this section with a useful summary of musical features of all the public song genres (pp.55–9).

One basic feature of the group songs (not mentioned by McAllester) is that they are monophonic, and sung in unison. Of course, where (as often) his transcriptions are of recordings made with a solo singer on demand, rather than during a live ceremony, naturally the songs look monophonic; one needs to listen attentively to recordings of group singing to try and characterise what McAllester describes as its free, loose nature. Yet the recordings I’ve heard do indeed sound quite close to unison.

For a well-annotated audio survey of global singing styles, see Voices of the world. It might make a good exercise to listen to the dance songs among Paul Bowles’s recordings in Morocco, comparing all these musical parameters.

As fieldworkers know well, by contrast with the individual songs that they have to present on disc, rituals often string them together in lengthy song cycles (cf. Allan Marett’s analyses of Australian Aboriginal dream songs; see also Analysing world music).

Changing values
Part Two, “Values in the study of music as social behaviour”, opens with a discussion of the nature of taboo. Here McAllester has more to say on the sacred songs:

On my first day of recording Navajo songs, I learned that some may be sung by anybody and discussed freely, but that others may be sung only with circumspection, with the right preparation, at the right time, and by the right people. Indeed, some of the latter songs may not be heard except by those who have been properly protected by initiation.

For the dangers of doing fieldwork on Navajo magic, note the disturbing articles of Barre Toelken. [5] McAllester discovers a kind of “scale of danger”. Still, he reminds us:

It is hard to discuss with a Navajo what music is “holy” and what music is not. The first reaction of nearly all of my informants was that all of their songs were sacred. Nor did they respond with categories to such questions as “Are some songs more holy than others?” [cf. Nigel Barley!].

No such hierarchies seem to exist ready-made in the Navajo scheme of values. But when asked directly, nearly every Navajo feels that songs from the great ceremonial chants are more sacred than gambling songs such as those sung with the Gambling Game. The parts of the Night Chant and the Enemy Way Chant which are chanted by the ceremonial practitioner are recognised by everyone as being more sacred than the Yeibichai songs of the masked dancers in the former and the Squaw Dance songs performed in the latter.

He continues by compiling his own list of songs along the “scale of danger”:

  • Prayer ceremonials
  • Songs used in witchcraft, and deer hunting songs
  • Songs from non-Navajo ceremonials. I know that Peyote songs are considered highly dangerous and believe that this may be true for some of the other ceremonials performed by other Indian groups
  • The longer chants: Night Way, Shooting Way, etc. The Evil Way chants are considered more dangerous than the Holy Way chants
  • Chanted parts of the Enemy Way: the four starting songs, the walking songs, the blackening songs, etc., are all very secret
  • Moccasin Game, and perhaps Stick Dance songs, which must be used only in the right season of the year
  • Work songs such as weaving, spinning, and corn grinding songs. Much more needs to be known about these songs. They do not seem to be particularly taboo but they have, nevertheless, become extremely rare
  • Circle dance songs from the Enemy Way
  • Yeibichai songs from Night Way, should only be sung in the winter
  • Dawn songs and other songs from the latter part of the Blessing Way may be used in some social contexts, but still with religious overtones of bringing good luck
  • Sway songs, gift songs, and dance songs from the Enemy Way can be sung at any time.

McAllester continues with a section on the dangers of misuse and forms of protection: through initiation, through timing, and training for a particular singing event, by running hard, fasting, and purification by vomiting—one informant explained the declining quality of the songs of young men by their reluctance to make such preparations. Young men also found the old ceremonial chants “too hard” to learn; yet (again echoing China) while the diminution of expertise that McAllester noted has continued (e.g. this interview with a medicine man—with a comment on treating soldiers returning from Vietnam with PTSD), scholars commonly note that ceremonies are still thriving.

So while McAllester and others were interested in uncovering archaic layers, he was far from merely seeking “living fossils”; and while the Navajo were quite insistent on performing “correctly”, they frequently offered instructive comments on change.

The following section, “Religions from outside”, outlines the Peyote cult and the Galilean mission. The Navajos seem to have learned the Peyote cult, a new religion, from the Utes. They even remained faithful to the less nasal singing style of the latter. But like other outside influences, the cult was considered dangerous. McAllester notes a marked preponderance of women in the Galilean congregation—including the singers—by contrast with their more passive role in Navajo ceremonies.

Under Esthetic values, he reminds us that the Navajos consider music inseparable from function—though again he finds a shift in the values of some younger men. Two contrasting illustrations that he managed to elicit:

I like it better when it goes along level, then I know it’s a holy song. (Helen Chamiso)

Yes, they sing more fancy now. If you use only one tone it sounds kind of plain. (Nat Nez)

This generation gap applies both to choice of songs and to vocal technique.

McAllester ends this section with a brief extrapolation of musical esthetics: tonality, voice production, group singing, rhythm, tempo, and melodic line. He notes the tendency of some singers to cup a hand over their ear—just like Sardinian tenores.

Under “Other cultural values” he outlines features such as competition, self-expression, “Navajo quiet” (a promising theme), the prestige of musical knowledge (which, again, will be in flux); and he notes humour in the songs (punning, an unusual grammatical usage, ribaldry, and so on). In a brief section on the role of women in religion he notes their general exclusion—though here, as other scholars have gone on to observe, they surely play a greater part than the general taboo would suggest (cf. China).

He illustrates individualism, provincialism (the Navajos were “very curious to hear ‘foreign’ music”—of other Indian tribes, Mexican music, “white” music brought home by returning soldiers, and so on—though they were soon forgotten), and formalism; and he ends (with what I consider a *** passage à la Stella Gibbons) by discussing music as an aid to rapport in fieldwork:

There seems to be something more acceptable about a stranger who wants to learn songs than about one who wants to know how long babies are nursed. Among the Navajos, I was accused, jokingly, of wanting to become a ceremonial practitioner, the usual goal of learning songs. [cf. Wei Guoliang at Houshan (here, under “The local ritual network)!]

It seemed to work in my favour that I was there to learn, that I respected an aspect of Navajo life usually ignored or laughed at, and was willing to teach songs in return. […]

From a discussion of music one can move by easy stages into almost any area of cultural investigation. Almost any area of human behaviour is crossed at some point by music. With the Navajos, such seemingly remote subjects as attitudes towards property, propagation of livestock, and the nature of taboo came to the fore in connection with music; sometimes I found informants who were so reserved that it seemed as though no interview at all were going to take place, but who became interested and accessible when the topic was music.

Music has been made unnecessarily a specialist’s field in ethnology. A few songs from almost any culture can be learned by the ethnologist even if he is not a musician [sic]; even very imperfect renderings of native music can do much in establishing rapport.

The monograph ends with a succinct summary of existential and normative values.

* * *

Audio recordings
It’s a shame we can’t follow the songs that McAllester transcribed with specific sound examples, but the stylistic features he analyses can be perceived in many other early recordings.

Following on from the incomprehension of the Navajo themselves that there is something called “music” that can be extracted from ritual (or indeed life), audio compilations of short songs, valuable as they may be to us, may seem incongruous. As scholar-recordists would be the first to recognise, such songs aren’t mere reified sound objects: they can hardly suggest, let alone capture, the living experience of ritual. Yet at the same time it is useful to be able to focus on their sound with McAllester’s guides in mind. Film is not living ritual either, but is a major advance over audio recordings—let alone silent, dry texts (my constant refrain: see e.g. here, §6).

My examples below may seem to suggest nostalgia, but the transformation effected by modern life has long been an important theme: as with Chinese ritual, we should seek to document both early tradition and more visible contemporary manifestations.

A wealth of recordings has been released on disc, such as:

Recorded by Laura Boulton:

  • Navajo Songs, recorded in 1933 and 1940, annotated by Charlotte J. Frisbie and David McAllester (1992)
  • Indian music of the southwest (1957)

And Willard Rhodes issued ten LPs of the recordings that he had made from 1940 to 1952, such as

  • Music of the Sioux and the Navajo (1949)  (liner notes here)
  • Music of the American Indians of the southwest (1951)
  • Music of the American Indian: Sioux (1954) (liner notes here)

Here’s a good introductory playlist, with tracks from the 1992 Navajo Songs album with Laura Boulton’s early recordings, as well as excerpts from 1975 recordings by Charlotte Heth (more here, including liner notes) and from a Canyon Records album recorded 1952–1963 (for whose own notes, see here, on the useful drumhop site):

Here’s Music of the American Indians of the southwest (for notes, see drumhop again).:

Among the Navajo tracks is a highly distinctive falsetto night chant/Yeibichai dance:

On film
Again I’ll start with early footage. Valuable as it is, many scenes are clearly posed; voiceovers are often patronising and mendacious (“visitors are always welcome”; the paeans to residential schools; copious Injun cultural clichés); and dodgy musical soundtracks evoke Hollywood Westerns. For all these fatal flaws, and more, see e.g. Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and film (1999)—note also the BTL comments that appear when you click on “YouTube” for the pages below. Bearing all that in mind…

This quaintly-choreographed short film from 1939 includes a public dance and “wedding ceremony” (from 5.39):

In this 1945 film (from 32.24) a medicine man presides over a healing ritual, including the creation of a sand painting in the hogan, with ritual paraphernalia such as the rattle stick and trophy bundle (and for all the limitations of these films, they do feature the sacred chanting style that McAllester outlines, not heard on the audio recordings above):

Navajo night dances (1957), from the nine-day Mountain Chant Way:

Also from the 1950s (with a kinaalda ceremony from 11.31, including more sand painting—and yet another classic use of the incongruous Hollywoodesque soundtrack!):

A more recent introduction to kinaalda:

And an excerpt from Kinaalda: a Navajo rite of passage (Lena Carr, 2000):

Starting again, here’s Between two worlds (1958)—shamelessly whitewashing the impact of government intrusion:

But breaking the mold of happy smiling natives grateful to be admitted to the benefits of civilisation is the documentary Broken rainbow (Maria Florio and Victoria Mudd, 1985)—though not without its critics, it soberingly relates the plight of both Navajo and Hopi, subjected to forced relocation and environmental pollution (cf. Grassy Narrows):

Lastly, following successive historical epidemics visited on Native American peoples by white contact, the Navajo are suffering severely from Coronavirus (yet another danger from outside—see e.g. herehere, here, and here)—here’s a song from quarantine:

* * *

While taking modern change into account, the complex ritual sequences and symbolism of the Navajo remain deeply impressive. And I now see why ethnomusicologists recognise McAllester’s monograph as an important pioneer of the concern to integrate music and culture. As he observes, the public dance songs that are his subject here are only a small part of the overall ceremonial performance, but he makes a compelling case for including their soundscape in ethnographies of ritual.

Of course, change has continued to escalate since the 1950s, inviting both continuing fieldwork and further study of earlier periods. At last I understand why scholars find such rich inspiration in Native American cultures.

My third post in this series is on the Ghost Dance. See also the Leaphorn and Chee novels of Tony Hillerman.

[1] The anthropology of the Navajo began early, and continues to be a vast field. On Navajo history, see e.g. Peter Iverson and Monty Roessel, Diné: a history of the Navajos (2002); or for a simpler overview, wiki.
In an engaging recent introduction to all kinds of Native American musicking, the Navajo feature prominently in Chapter 2 of Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (see here, n.1); again, the wiki entry for Navajo music makes a succinct hors d’ouevre.

[2] Cf. Tibetan and Han-Chinese mandalas (e.g. Shanghai, Hunyuan); and for various ways of consecrating the sacred space, click here.

[3] On the Blessing Way, see e.g. Leland C. Wyman, Blessingway (1970); and note Charlotte Frisbie and David McAllester (eds), Navajo Blessingway singer: the autobiography of Frank Mitchell, 1881–1967 (1st edition 1978, updated paperback 2003), complemented by the story of his wife: Rose Mitchell, Tall woman: the life story of Rose Mitchell, a Navajo woman, c1874–1977 (2001)—both works voluminous, with many useful further references. Indeed, life stories make an illuminating approach—see Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, ch.13, and for China, e.g. Helen Rees (ed.), Lives in Chinese music (2009) and my work on the Li family Daoists.

For kinaalda, see e.g. Charlotte Frisbie, Kinaalda: a study of the Navaho girl’s puberty ceremony (1967/1993), and Joanne McCloskey, Living through the generations: continuity and change in Navajo women’s lives (2007). Female puberty ceremonies are widely performed by Native American groups: see e.g. Carol A. Markstrom, Empowerment of North American Indian girls: ritual expressions at puberty (2008). Here’s an Apache version:

For the major role of Navajo women during the pandemic, see here.

[4] McAllester uses the spelling “Navaho”; in direct quotes within this post I convert it to the form Navajo, which has since come to predominate—rather as I convert American to English spellings throughout my site.

[5] Notably “Life and death in the Navajo Coyote tales”, in Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (eds), Recovering the word: essays on Native American literature (1987), and “From entertainment to realization in Navajo fieldwork”, in Bruce Jackson and Edward D. Ives (eds), The world observed: reflections on the fieldwork process (1996).

Grassy Narrows: emerging from trauma

Grassy Narrows song

Among the instructive parallels that Jing Jun makes in his portrayal of trauma in a Gansu village under Maoism is the wretched fate of a First Nation community in Grassy Narrows, northwestern Ontario—as detailed harrowingly in

  • Anastasia M. Shkilnyk, A poison stronger than love: the destruction of an Ojibwa community (1985, with an introduction by Kai Erikson). [1]

Grassy Narrows cover

The ordeals of Grassy Narrows make an extreme instance of the chronic problems faced by indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere.

Anastasia Shkilnyk (1945–­2014) was herself born to a Ukrainian refugee family in a Displaced Persons Camp, going on to study at the University of Toronto. As she found during her initial stay at Grassy Narrows from 1976 to 1979, successive disasters had compounded the vulnerability of the community.

All the indications of material poverty were there—substandard housing, the absence of running water and sewage connections, poor health, mass unemployment, low income, and welfare dependency—but something more fundamental seemed amiss.


In Chapter 1 Shkilnyk presents a gruesome catalogue of the self-mutilating disintegration of the community since the 1960s: spree drinking, child neglect and abuse, gas-sniffing, violent death, suicide, incest, gang rape. As she reflects after arriving at Grassy Narrows:

It wasn’t just the poverty of the place, the isolation, or even the lack of a decent bed that depressed me. I had seen worse material deprivation when I was working in squatter settlements around Santiago, Chile. And I had been in worse physical surroundings while working in war-devastated Ismailia on the project for the reconstruction of the Suez Canal. What struck me about Grassy Narrows was the numbness in the human spirit. There was an indifference, a listlessness, a total passivity that I could neither understand nor seem to do anything about. I had never seen such hopelessness anywhere in the Third World.

In what she describes as a “failure to thrive”,

caught in a void between two cultures, the children in this community are learning neither the basic skills of the mainstream community nor the traditional skills of the Indian way of life. […] The young have now been disinherited from the accumulated knowledge of earlier generations; at the same time, they have been dispossessed of the physical and emotional nourishment prerequisite to cognitive development.

Until the 1960s the Ojibwa

had preserved an ethos that encompassed, among other things, a deep attachment to the land and the rhythms of nature, respect for the dignity of the person, and the independence and self-sufficiency of clan-based family groups. They lived, as they had for generations, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering, now supplemented by occasional wage labour. The ebb and flow of life was reflected in their seasonal migrations between the winter trapping grounds and the summer encampment on the old reserve. Because of their relative isolation and limited contact with white society, the people managed to maintain considerable stability and continuity with the ancient patterns of Ojibwa life.

Chapter 2 outlines their traditional lifestyle and culture on the old reserve before the 1960s, noting gradual change. The common pattern of change throughout indigenous (and other) communities, over a long period since white contact, has been further exacerbated here by more recent relocation and ecological disaster.

Most challenges that the Ojibwa faced over this period can be traced directly or indirectly to white contact. Early encounters were mainly with the trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1873 Ojibwa chiefs (including, for the Grassy Narrows band, chief Sah-katch-eway) signed the important Treaty 3 with Queen Victoria.

But as white settlement expanded with the railroads, First Nation bands were vulnerable to the growing exploitation of native lands by logging and mining. Missionaries continued their work, recruiting youngsters to “residential schools” where they were to be assimilated and “civilised”.

In 1919 the global influenza pandemic struck the Ojibwa [2]—with medicine men powerless, this early sign of fatal defencelessness made them feel cursed. Shkilnyk cites at length the recollections of Maggie Land (b.1916)—while aware of the former community’s bond with the natural world, she recognised that there was no going back.

On the old reserve, rituals provided a sense of identity for the people of Grassy Narrows, such as naming ceremonies, the puberty vision quest, and the shaking tent ceremony. [3] Medicine men played a major role in regulating social conduct—including their use of malevolent magic. Yet

of all the symbolic observances practised on the old reserve just twenty or thirty years ago, only the rituals of death have meaning and continued relevance to the conditions of life on the new reserve.

Photos: Hiro Miyamatsu, late 1970s.

White society encroached gradually; but even as government measures increased from 1945, contacts remained quite limited until the relocation in 1963. The whole Ojibwa way of life—hunting, trapping, fishing, guiding—had been based on family ties, which were now torn apart. Both family and community bonds were eroded. As in other First Nation bands (only with alarming rapidity), with traditional livelihoods becoming untenable, new forms of wage labour were sporadic and unfamiliar; and as self-jurisdiction was eclipsed, the community found itself subject to government intervention in the form of welfare, dependent on external sources of life support. The role of chief became purely political. [4] With the shift from production to consumption, it was only from the 1960s that heavy drinking and violence became a serious problem. In the words of a former chief, “Alcohol was the white man’s poison, and now it’s ours.”

Shkilnyk discusses the role of the nearest town of Kenora, 60 miles southwest of Grassy Narrows. She notes that most of its early inhabitants were recent immigrants who worked on railway construction crews: Norwegians, Finns, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Poles, Scots, Irish, English, and Chinese (cf. Accordion crimes).

After a road connecting Kenora and the reserve was built in the late 1950s, it was on the town’s bars that Grassy Narrows people would descend for destructive bouts of spree drinking. Here too they encountered racist aggression and the full force of the white man’s law.

The Indians exchanged the intangible benefit of independence for the tangible benefits they received from the federal government (housing, schools, jobs, welfare, medical treatment). As the Indians accepted the goods and services offered to them by the government, they progressively lost their claim to being an independent people. Ultimately, they lost the ability to make decisions for themselves, at least within the context of the goods and services they accepted.

All this also gave rise to prejudice against them—ignoring

the historical evidence that it is the very geographic, legal, and economic segregation of Indian people from the mainstream society, combined with the erosion of the traditional economic base of Indian culture, that has led to their present dependence on government bureaucracies.

Isolated protests against discrimination (a civil rights march in 1964, and a more aggressive confrontation in 1974 by the Ojibwey Warriors Society) hardly changed attitudes—indeed, the 1974 incident prompted a backlash.

In Chapter 7 Shkilnyk details the transformation of a society in which “there was a remarkable degree of integration between spheres of activity that we label social, political, religious, and economic”; where “the people built a life based on hard work, subsistence, self-sufficiency, and independence”. She shows the process of government policies of “community development” and modernization: compulsory school attendance, sedentarisation, the promise of wage labour, even as trapping, hunting, and gardening were swiftly becoming untenable. As tourism became popular, guiding and commercial fishing would only provide a temporary resource. She goes on to discuss the economics of dependency, increasing social inequality, the ethics provided by the new economic system, undermining traditional Indian values—and diet:

In a span on only one generation, the Grassy Narrows people changed from being active producers of most of their own food to passive consumers of store-bought groceries. Their eating habits changed from a protein-rich diet of game and fish to a nutritionally inferior diet of imported food staples heavy in starch and sugar.

Again, this problem resembles that of affluent societies, but the change here has been abrupt. Shkilnyk describes the transformation of the role of women, “the silent victims of modernisation”.

As an elder summarised:

When the people moved to the new reserve, they became better-off in some ways. They got better houses, more cash, they were nearer to a road, they got better care by doctors. Life on the old reserve was much harder. People worked hard to eat; they were skinnier. Today, life is much easier, but why are so many people dying from alcohol?

Life is more easy now. But before … you could depend on your own people, and now you have to depend on the white man. The white man has taken over in all the basic things. Now the government people tell you what to do. We had a lot more freedom in the old days. We gave up the freedom to use the land in exchange for getting things from the white man. I say that freedom was not a good thing to trade.

Shkilnyk ends the chapter by posing two questions:

First, who really benefits from the kind of development set in motion in Indian communities by the federal government? Second, has this development led to the stated policy goal, namely, “the full, free, and nondiscriminatory participation of Indian people in Canadian society”?

Her answers are not encouraging.

What government policy has accomplished is to push the Indian people further away from participation in the productive activities of the nation than they have ever been, to separate them from the means of production embodied essentially in land and in the resources of the land, and to turn them into men and women who have neither land nor capital nor even a secure palce among those Canadians who exchange only their labour for a subsistence wage. The increase in the material standard of living on Indian reserves, therefore, must be seen not as a result of free and equal participation in Canadian society but as compensation, paid by the society, for the continued exclusion of Indian people from the productive processes of the nation. The ultimate hallmark of this kind of development is not participation but marginality.

Chapter 8 explores government policy and decision-making in the context of evolution of national policy, focusing on the decision to relocate and the physical planning of the new community. Like commune members in Maoist China, some likened the new reserve to a concentration camp. Still, Indian communities across Canada disintegrated whether or not they were relocated.

For a people already cast adrift from their moorings, the 1970 discovery of mercury poisoning in the river system, with long-term effects, was “the last nail in the coffin”—not only destroying their health but depriving them of their few remaining sources of livelihood (including guiding). As the Reed Paper Company sought to protect itself from culpability, and as political interests came to the fore, making court justice look remote, the community became even more hostile towards the white authorities—an imprint that Shkilnyk suggests may be “every bit as cruel and demoralizing as the poison in the river”. The net effect

was to further undermine the conditions for self-sufficiency, to intensify dependence on government support, and ultimately to accelerate the breakdown in community life.

Psychologically too, the disaster made people feel that “the land had somehow turned against them and become poisonous. […] The world of nature, not only the world of men, could no longer be trusted.” Despite considerable media publicity, their struggle for justice only “reinforced the Indians’ feeling of helplessness, apathy, and alienation”.

The limited assistance that was forthcoming for remedial and short-term projects was always extended in the spirit of charity; neither government wished its actions to be interpreted as an acknowledgement of legal, moral, or social obligation to redress injustice or to compensate for inflicted adversity.

Shkilnyk updates the story: by 1985 compensation was finally being paid. Yet

money alone will not solve all the social problems. The hope is that the settlement will be a catalyst in rebuilding community morale and helping individuals rediscover their own strength in repairing the damage done by years of neglect. At least now there is a chance for renewal, a foundation for a new beginning, so long delayed.

In a Postcript, she reflects on the catastrophe and its background, and points out the valiant efforts the people have made since the 1970s to cope with their problems. Yet

Today, over half the Indian adult population of Canada is dependent on welfare for subsistence. Only 20% of Indian children complete secondary school, compared to 75% nationwide. Indian housing conditions are abysmal; fewer than 40% of Indian houses have running water, for example, compared to over 90% in the country as a whole. There are more Indian children in the care of foster homes today than at any time since the 1960s; since 1962, there has also been a fivefold increase in the number of Indian children taken for adoption. Among those Indians who survive infancy, many will die violently; about 33% of all Indian deaths in Canada are due to violence. Indians in the 15 to 44 age-group meet with violent death at a rate that is five times the national average. And suicide rates among Indian people have been climbing steadily over the 1970s. Suicides now account for 35% of all Indian deaths in the 15 to 20 age-group, and 21% of all deaths in the 21 to 34 age-group. Suicide rates among Canadian Indians are six times the national average and are significantly higher than among Indians in the United States.

Unpacking the well-meaning yet misguided official notions of development and progress, she sees the Grassy Narrows case as both a unique and a generalized tragedy.

In the face of both the continuity of impacts stemming from almost a hundred years of internal colonialism and the added pressures generated by the relocation and the mercury pollution, it is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that the people of Grassy Narrows have managed to survive at all. For not only has their entire way of life been rendered dysfunctional, but they have been consistently been led to believe that their culture is barbaric and that they are a primitive and inferior people.

Shkilnyk’s book is a clear and detailed exposition of a complex and traumatic subject. She was a social scientist deeply concerned for the people of Grassy Narrows; but are there any limits on what should be exposed to a wider public, when real people are trying to survive? She comments “However painful this portrait may be to a people seemingly disfigured and broken in spirit by historical circumstance, it is the price they have to pay to make us understand their case for social justice.”

Sure, to understand and remedy the problem, we have to know about it; yet conscientious as is Shkilnyk’s research, I suspect that not all will be convinced that they should still have to pay yet another price. So while her book was well received (e.g. here), other sources refrain from dwelling on all the alcohol-fuelled child abuse, of which this is an extreme instance of a common problem. Indeed, this review by David McRobert is more critical: he still finds it “a largely parasitic and partly anemic work in the tradition of liberal thought in Canada”.

In effect, what emerges from the painful passages in the book is a ringing endorsement of the ancient notion that the worst pain one can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing. Shkilnyk’s position throughout is truly tragic—she sees what is wrong with the community and knows how it could be better but [neither] she nor the others in government responsible for dealing with the problem seem to think that anything can be done about it. Apart from a few cryptic passages, she is unable to describe the alternative approaches that might have been  pursued by the government in resolution of the Grassy Narrows crisis. […]
In the end, one is left with the uneasy feeling that this book is too good to be true. Literally. Shkilnyk’s attempt to mass-market the pain of Grassy Narrows seems crass and one wonders what exactly the book can accomplish at this point. I hope it will be viewed as a historical treatise by the community members themselves. It is unfortunate that they have to have their personal tragedies revealed to the international community through publications of this kind in order to get the attention their horrible situation deserves.

The wider context, and the recent picture
Beyond the problems of First Nation communities (including the Inuit) and Native Americans in the USA, one thinks of ethnic minorities under modern nation-states elsewhere around the world, such as Aboriginal people in Australia and other nomadic populations (e.g. Kazakhs); the Jews and Roma; and traumas under Stalin (e.g. Figes, Applebaum), the Holocaust, and Mao (such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, and for the Han Chinese, China: commemorating trauma).

So, returning to Jing Jun, he did well to draw a parallel with Grassy Narrows in his study of a demoralised community under Maoism amidst ecological and social destruction. As he wrote:

Turning memories of suffering into a source of cultural revitalisation is an extremely difficult task. In a sensitive ethnography describing the removal of an Ojibwa community to a new, alien, and polluted reserve in Canada, Anastasia Shkilnyk reports that members of this community have a quite unified memory of what caused the destruction of their homeland. There is also a pervasive agreement that on the old reserve life was characterised by close family ties, communal support, moral principles, and traditional norms of social and sexual interactions. But such memories only serve to accentuate the agony of a deeply wounded culture, they provide scant defence against increasing rates of child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, gang rape, and murder. While this deplorable situation is related to the internal decay of the traditional social order that followed resettlement, it is exacerbated by external forces of racial hostility, bureaucratic indifference, job discrimination, cultural stereotypes, and a long history of defeats since the greater Ojibwa community’s initial encounter with Europeans. In contrast to the Jewish experience, what we see in the Ojibwa case is that collective memory and communal mourning do not suffice to turn pain into any positive energy; what remains is full-blown despair.

Of course, areas of “affluent” Western society are seriously dysfunctional too. Shkilnyk concludes by observing:

For one thing, we now know that there are communities that can become unraveled to such an extent that the people in them lose much of their sense of self-worth and well-being, sometimes even their will to survive, and begin to spin off in directions of their own and die, literally or figuratively. For another, we know that this can happen when people are subjected to fundamental change, at a rate far beyond their ability to cope, in every single aspect of their culture simultaneously. In this process of total intrusion, if they also lose the hold on their spiritual selves, their vision of the future, and their hope of regaining some measure of control over their circumstances, then life itself ceases to have meaning. In this sense, Grassy Narrows serves as a poignant example of how fragile a society can be, and how we as humans may respond to conditions of unprecedented stress by destroying ourselves.

It may well be that Grassy Narrows also represents a microcosm, greatly magnified and concentrated in time and space, of the destructive processes at work in our own society. Is it not possible that the pressures that crippled the people of Grassy Narrows are the same pressures that, much more slowly and covertly, are crippling us as well?

The struggles of society elsewhere, and of alienated youth, suggest general lessons about individual and collective trauma—the former (as Ericson comments) more readily mended than the latter. Still, in Western society the post-war rebuilding continued, largely oblivious to the sufferings of indigenous peoples like the Ojibwa. Shkilnyk’s story casts a disturbing light on the energy that we celebrate since the 1960s; and it all seems a world away from the civil rights movement, or indeed the violence and depression of the Cultural Revolution.

Recent attention to Grassy Narrows (e.g. here) focuses on mercury poisoning; but social issues continue—see e.g. this report from 2016.

Steve Fobister (1952–2018), the most respected chief in modern times, who campaigned tirelessly for his fractured community to be compensated, died of the long-term effects of mercury poisoning in 2018.

But it seems that the more recent picture may not be not altogether desolate; and if even partial recovery is possible, then that too deserves study and publicity. A more encouraging update is

  • Anna J. Willow, Strong hearts, native lands: the cultural and political landscape of Anishinaabe anti-clearcutting activism (2012).

While world music fans rightly celebrate the cultures of the Inuit, or the Australian Aborigines, or the Uyghurs, where can expressive culture possibly come into all this? We have to consider it within the context of the decimation of society.

Just one instance of the recent Ojibwa ritual tradition in north Wisconsin:

And as young people in Grassy Narrows try to make sense of their lives, it’s worth ending on a note of hope—here’s Home to me (2016):

The story now prompts me to explore Native American cultures further—starting here, moving on to the Navajo and the Ghost Dance. See also First Nations: trauma and soundscape.


[1] For introductions, see the Canadian Encyclopedia and wiki entries, both more discreet. The community’s own site focuses on continuing efforts to gain compensation for the ecological disaster. For a range of reports from CBC, see here; for a general introduction to the Ojibwa, here.

[2] For the vulnerability of First Nation bands during the present pandemic, see e.g. here.

[3] For some recordings of Ojibwa music, click on sidebar menu here; for Minnesota, see Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe singers: hymns, grief and a native culture in motion (2000). All this is part of the major field of studies on changing Native American musical cultures—from Frances Densmore, George Herzog, and Marius Barbeau to Bruno Nettl, Alan Merriam, David McAllester, and Charlotte Frisbie (To Name But A Few). See e.g. the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (along with Helen Myers’ overview in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.404–18), the Garland encyclopedia of world music, and various dedicated bibliographies. Note also the Inuit: some links here.

[4] Here one may find a certain resemblance to the intrusion of the modern state into rural China since the Republican era, as the traditional moral and political leadership of village affairs was replaced by appointees answerable to the wider secular government; for Hebei, see e.g. Prasenjit Duara, here.

Noor Inayat Khan

Every day of my life I think of her. When I go for a walk, when I feel pain, I think of how much more her pain was, I think of her in chains, I think of her being beaten. When I am cold I think of her, I think of her lying in her cell with hardly any clothes. She is with me every day.

—Inayat Vilayat Khan, 2003

Noor 1

To follow my posts on Les Parisiennes and the wartime SOE, a major character in Sarah Helm’s account of the latter is Noor Inayat Khan (1914–44). Both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by her tragic wartime fate; here I’d also like to explore her earlier life in Paris as heir to a tradition of Indian Sufi music, and as harpist and author.

Basu cover

I’ve been reading

  • Shrabani Basu, Spy princess: the life of Noor Inayat Khan (2006) (cf. her brief article here),

which builds on the work of Sarah Helm and Noor’s friend Jean Overton Fuller, author of the first biography in 1952 (see below).

Early life
Noor’s distinguished father Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927; see here, and wiki), descended from a noble Indian family, was a Sufi mystic and musician who came to the USA in 1910 and went on to found the International Sufi movement. Inayat Khan’s own grandfather Maula Bakhsh (1833–96) had sung at an eleven-day contest in Mysore in 1860. Like Bach and Coltrane, Inayat Khan practised music in the service of God. [1] Here’s a playlist, opening with a sequence of precious recordings from 1909 (for help getting to grips with their musical features, see listings here; for more on raga, see here):

In 1912 he performed with “The Royal Musicians of Hindustan” in Paris, where oriental culture was much in vogue (cf. Berlioz, and chinoiserie); they accompanied Mata Hari, and he met figures like Lucien Guitry, Sarah Bernhardt, Auguste Rodin, Isadora Duncan, and Claude Debussy. Meanwhile Paris audiences were also hearing the premiere of Ravel‘s Daphnis and Chloe; and the following year, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. They didn’t know how lucky they were…

Amina Begum; right, with her daughter Noor.

Inayat Khan had met the American Ora Ray Baker (1892–1949) while he was on a lecture tour in California, and they married in London in 1913; she now took the name Amina Begum. Soon after, The Royal Musicians of Hindustan were invited for a residency in Moscow; Noor was born near the Kremlin [2] on 1st January 1914.

But as the Russian revolution loomed, the family soon emigrated to London. Life was hard, but Inayat Khan would play the vina and sing for Noor daily, though he was busy founding Sufi orders around England. Noor’s brother Vilayat (see below) was born in 1916, followed by Hidayat and Khair-un-Nissa. The house in Gordon square where the family moved in 1917 was always full of visiting Sufis.

However, with Anglo-Indian tensions high, the British government was suspicious of Inayat Khan, and in 1920, when Noor was 6, the family made their home in Paris, where she spent much of her childhood in the modest yet idyllic family home of Fazal Manzil (“House of Blessing”). The children grew up in an Indian atmosphere; Noor learned to sing raga with her father whenever he was home from setting up Sufi orders abroad. At home the children mostly spoke English, only gradually becoming fluent in French too. At school they were clearly different from the local pupils: Noor, mature and serious, retained her name, while her younger sister preferred to be known as Claire.

But in 1926 Inayat Khan, already seriously ill, embarked on a pilgrimage to India, and the following year, when Noor was only 13, he died there. As her distraught mother retreated from the world, Noor took over responsibility for running the household.

Noor playing vina, and harp—from this useful introduction.

From 1931 she attended the École Normale de Musique in Paris for six years, under the supervision of Nadia Boulanger, studying harp with Henriette Renié, as well as piano and composition. Can anyone find her Prelude for harp and Elegy for harp and piano? I’d love to hear them. I wonder if she ever played the Ravel Introduction and Allegro, or the Debussy Trio—or indeed Caplet’s Masque of the Red Death, dedicated to Micheline Kahn, another harp teacher at the École.


Noor’s younger siblings were also WAM musicians: Vilayat played cello and piano, studying with Stravinsky, Hidayat the violin and piano, while Claire, also a pianist, studied with Nadia Boulanger like her sister.

jatakaFrom 1932 Noor also studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. She adopted a more European style of dress. In 1934 she visited Spain with Vilayat, meeting Pablo Casals; the following year they went to Italy, attending operas and concerts in Padua, Venice, and Milan—blissfully unaware of the people’s plight under Mussolini.

By now Noor was becoming known as an author of poetry and fiction for children, her magical style somewhat recalling that of L’enfant et les sortilèges. In 1939 she received an invitation to write Twenty Jakata tales, about the previous incarnations of the Buddha.

Upon the invasion of France in 1940 the family moved to London, with considerable difficulty. Despite their unworldly background, the family realized the necessity of combatting fascism; Vilayat joined the RAF and then the Royal Navy, working as a mine-sweeper, while Noor joined the WAAF, training as a nurse and then radio operator. She willingly reinvented herself: as her friend Jean Overton Fuller observed about her Sufi family background, “there was a lot to look up to, but a lot to get away from”.

For the past six years Noor had been in a relationship with a fellow-student at the École Normale de Musique, suffering from her family’s disapproval of his poor Turkish Jewish background. Only now that the war broke out did she separate with him. By 1943 she was engaged to a man in the War Office, who remains mysterious.

Meanwhile Noor and Vilayat were becoming sympathetic to the Indian Independence movement.

The SOE: occupied France
As Sarah Helm comments, Noor was brought up in an “intensely spiritual way”, seeming “otherworldly” to Vera Atkins and others at the SOE. While she went through the intensive training, her instructors had misgivings about her “lack of ruse”, but they were impressed by her composure, diligence, and strength. She was now known as Nora Baker, and within the SOE as Madeleine.

Vera Atkins took her to the plane in June 1943. She was the first female radio operator to be flown into occupied France; but all four agents who flew that night were doomed. The resistance group to which Nora was attached was soon exposed, and in Paris she soon found herself alone and in great danger. Both Helm and Basu go to great lengths to unravel the networks of spies and double agents.

Responsible for her plight, the SOE tried to recall her, but she refused. She was already captured by October 1943 after being betrayed. While held at Avenue Foch, and later, she made several attempts to escape. At first she was thought to have been killed at the Natzweiler camp, but eventually witnesses came forward to prove that she had been held in Pforzheim prison for ten months, her feet and hands shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the next morning—even as the tide of the war was turning. Only 26 of over 200 captured agents of the two French sections of the SOE survived.

Though the family had known of Noor’s death for some time, the news of her real fate only reached them in 1948. Her mother was especially devastated, dying soon after. Vilayat had brought her back to Paris; Noor’s harp was restored to the family home of Fazal Manzil.

Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the George Cross in 1949.

In 1952 her friend Jean Overton Fuller published a biography, Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine (the updated 2019 edition includes a retrospective by Vilayat Inayat Khan). Indeed, it was partly through her research that Vera Atkins began to lose control of the SOE narrative, as Sarah Helm explains. At first their relationship was affable; Vera approved of the book. But as Fuller began probing more deeply for her next book and revised her biography of Noor, she found that Vera had been editing her account.

In 1972 Hidayat premiered La monotonia in memory of his sister:

In 2012 a statue was unveiled to Noor in Gordon square—making her a neighbour of Gandhi in Tavistock square gardens. In 2014 she graced a Royal Mail stamp, and by 2020 a blue plaque was installed before her Bloomsbury home. She features in Cathy Newman’s 2018 book Bloody brilliant women.

Following early movies about Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo, Noor’s story (on the lines of “Exotic princess sacrifices her life for freedom”) now makes an irresistible subject for a film maker (see here); I await it with some trepidation.

Noor was particularly close to her remarkable brother Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916–2004; see here, and wiki), who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a leading Sufi mystic.


As reports continued to emerge after the war, he went to great lengths to uncover the truth about his sister’s end. Sarah Helm discussed this gradual process in detail in her second meeting with Vilayat at Fazal Manzil (A life in secrets, pp.417–24). Ever grieving for Noor, he recalls his earlier encounters with Vera Atkins: “I think she looked at me and saw the long beard and the clothes. I think she thought, ‘He used to be such a dashing naval officer and now look at him—a phoney guru.’ ” He found Vera cold-blooded.

In 1996, at the age of 80, Vilayat commemorated Noor by conducting Bach’s B minor mass at Dachau (film here; see also this portrait, from 45.07).

How I wonder what would have become of Noor if she had survived the war. She might have continued developing her fiction, poetry, music, and Sufism; her brother Hidayat was convinced that she would have joined the cause for Indian Independence; perhaps, like Vera Brittain, she would have become involved in the international peace movement; and she hoped to have “lots of children”.

* * *

However thoroughly the SOE agents were trained before their missions into occupied France, they soon found themselves caught up in a nightmare. While Noor’s fate seems all the more distressing since she was spiritual, talented, and turned out to be most courageous, that’s not quite the point. While media attention is naturally drawn to the fate of such a “spiritual princess”, we should value all life, commemorating all the countless other innocent, ordinary victims, unable to display heroism, who also met terrible fates. As Timothy Snyder reminds us, terrible as the camps were, only a minority of victims died there: men, women, and children, brutally executed en masse in the Bloodlands by the Einsatzgruppen or the NKVD, remain largely uncommemorated.

Still, the story of Noor Inayat Khan is unbearably moving.

[1] Indeed, Yusef Lateef introduced Coltrane to Inayat Khan’s book The mysticism and sound of music (first published in 1921). I knew nothing of Inayat Khan or his family when in 1978 a mystically-inclined fellow-violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me a copy of the book—during the transition from Boulez to Rozhdestvensky; now I found the connection most satisfying. Indeed, had Noor survived, in 1978 she would still have been younger than I am now.

[2] Not quite in the Kremlin, or even in a monastery near the Kremlin, as you may read online!

The spiritual path of John Coltrane

Coltrane 3

Having written about various jazz greats—Billie Holiday, Chet Baker (here and here), Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and so on (see also jazz tag)—my recent post on Charles Mingus reminded me to explore further the genius of

John Coltrane (1926–67)

Coltrane 2

Like many jazzers, he was dedicated to practice, studying technique and harmony, disciplined and constantly exploring. And while he too went through a heroin phase (managing to get clean in 1957), he seems pure, gentle, mature, without anger—unlike other greats such as Bird, Miles, and Mingus.

On film, Chasing Trane (John Scheinfeld, 2016) makes a good introduction—here’s a trailer:

as well as Ken Burns’s film Jazz (with the book). Also worth watching is the BBC documentary Saint John Coltrane (Alan Yentob, 2004). And among a wealth of biographies, I’ve been re-reading J.C. Thomas, Chasing the trane: the music and mystique of John Coltrane (1975). More importantly, I’ve been listening attentively.

Like so many others, Trane was inspired by Charlie Parker: hearing him for the first time in 1945, “it hit me right between the eyes”. Other major early influences were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young; and he had much in common with Sonny Rollins.

Coltrane 1

Trane with Dizzy.

Before going on to lead his own bands, Trane worked with Dizzy from 1949, and with Miles from 1955. That year he married Juanita Naima Grubbs, who was the inspiration for his intimate ballad Naima, that he often played—such as on Giant steps (1959):

Naima may have become reified for us, but by contrast, here’s an extended, wild version from Live at the Village Vanguard again! (1966—with his second wife Alice on piano):

Miles Davis’s autobiography—one of the great works in the genre—has many insights on his protégé (indeed, on the whole scene). From 1955 Miles brought out Trane’s creativity, but

after he moved to New York his habit got worse, and real quick, too. I didn’t have no moral thing about Trane and all of them shooting heroin, because I had gone through that, and I knew that it was a sickness that was hard to get rid of. So I didn’t give them no grief about doing it. What I did start to get on them about was coming late and nodding up on the bandstand; I told them I couldn’t tolerate that. […]

If it had been some other player I would have fired him again after the first couple of times. But I loved Trane, I really did, although we never did hang out too much like Philly Joe and I did. Trane was a beautiful person, a really sweet kind of guy, spiritual, all of that. So you really couldn’t help loving him and caring about him, too.

Getting sacked by Miles spurred Trane to get clean after four years of addiction. As he said in the notes to A love supreme:

During the year 1957 I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

From 1957 he also worked with Monk, another seminal influence.

Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way—sensually, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would show me the answers by playing them on the piano. He gave me complete freedom in my playing, and no-one ever did that before.

And McCoy Tyner noted:

I once saw John with Monk, and I think he learned an incredible amount of harmonic background from him. Monk opened him up to the point where he was able to compose complex tunes like Giant Steps. I learned a lot myself just by listening to Monk play. His concept of space alone was one of the most important things he taught Coltrane; when to lay out and let someone else fill up that space, or just leave the space open. I think John was already going in that direction, but working with Monk helped him reach his goal that much faster.

Trane was ever studious. Among the books of exercises that he consulted daily was the Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky—whose A lexicon of musical invective is a hilarious reminder of the constant shock of the new (see here, including a documentary on his life). Meanwhile, like many jazzers, Trane listened to Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky. And he constantly sought out saxes and mouthpieces that would better suit his sound ideal.

In 1958 Trane led his own band for Blue train, with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums—the bland opening chorus soon blown away:

Coltrane Miles Kind of Blue

After Miles took him back, he took part in the immortal Kind of blue (1959, virtually unrehearsed!!!)—along with Bill Evans (for the exquisite Ravelian Blue in green, see here), Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb on drums:

Meanwhile Trane was recording Giant steps (1959; see also here). On the album My favorite things (1960) they transform the title song “into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance” (for the live 1965 version, see here). And then came Live at the Village Vanguard (1962),

including Chasin’ the trane and Softly as in a morning sunrise (Paul Berliner analyses a version of the latter in his brilliant Thinking in jazz, pp.689–708).

Like Miles, Trane went on to explore in radical directions. But their paths were very different: while Miles was shrewd alongside his own thirst for innovation, Trane was hardly concerned about commercial potential. The last time they worked together was on a tour of England in March 1960—just as I was learning violin and Chinese villagers were starving… In 1961 Trane led his own quintet on a tour of Europe.

In 1963 he played Alabama in response to the KKK church bombing—reminiscent of an Indian alap:

This playlist has many other fabulous tracks:

Apart from the great horn and bass and piano players that Trane worked with, the drive of drummers—notably Philly Joe Jones, and later Elvin Jones—was crucially important to him.

After parting with Naima, in 1963 he married Alice McLeod, who played piano in his later bands, and herself went on to develop her own style of spiritual jazz. They had three sons together—including Ravi (named after Ravi Shankar), who himself became a fine sax player.

A love supreme
and the late albums
Trane had been drawn to Eastern mysticism (whatever that is) ever since working with tenor player Yusef Lateef in Dizzy’s band in 1949. It was Lateef who directed him to Krishnamurti, and Hazrat Inayat Khan‘s Sufi treatise on the mysticism of sound.

Gradually, by way of the Cool and his 1957 epiphany, he felt able to move away from the frantic vibe of bebop in search of a deeper spirituality.

The towering result of his epiphany was A love supreme (1964), with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums:

In Psalm, the whole of the final section (from 25.59) again reminds me of an alap.

That may well be as far as many people want to follow him. Rather like late Beethoven (just a reminder: I’m not supporting the admission of jazz to the elite club—such genres take their place alongside all human musicking!), as Trane’s quest became more mystical, his style became more extreme; with its squawks, honks and howls, it’s far from the fabled Oriental Tranquillity.

Like many others at the time, Trane was drawn to Indian philosophy and (through the influence of Yusuf Lateef) music (under the Indian tag, note this post); in 1961 he began corresponding with Ravi Shankar. As Shankar recalled after their first meeting in 1965:

Meeting John was a great surprise. Most jazz musicians I have met were not interested in anything outside of their own musical world, but here was a humble and self-effacing man with an interest in other people and their cultures like few I have ever met.

But much as he admired Trane, Shankar found his music perplexing, too full of turmoil.

As he worked with Pharaoh Sanders, Trane’s style began to resemble the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. While developing new melodic styles along with Eric Dolphy and Sun Ra’s saxman John Gilmore, he became more immersed in Sufism, the Kabbala, and the polyrhythms of African drumming, influenced by Nigerian percussionist Olatunji; from 1965 he added Rashied Ali to his line-up on drums. (Again, Miles is worth reading on free jazz, and everything…)

As the early miniaturist bebop style receded, Trane gravitated to longer and longer improvisations. Even in his earlier days with Miles, as the latter questioned the increasing length of his solos, when Trane responded, “I don’t know how to stop”, Miles came back with “Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth.” He wasn’t into Trane’s late style, finding it monotonous. Indeed, maybe it doesn’t always work: as Bill Russo commented,

Coltrane lacks the spirit of the idiom he attempts. He gets stuck, repeating figurations again and again, as if such repetition could somehow improve what little the first two or three times they occur. It doesn’t, obviously.

Anyway, Trane’s late work rewards attention. Here are some examples—Om (recorded 1965):

Ascension (1966) is exhilarating, even if I find the sheet of big-band sound more engaging than the solos that emerge from them:

Meditations (1966) (as a playlist):

On a gruelling tour of Japan in 1966, when he was already terminally ill, he played Peace on earth:

Expression (1967):

Trane’s early death may make such albums seem like a postscript, but tempting as it is to bask in the “classic” albums like Blue train, Kind of blue, and A love supreme, just imagine where he would have gone had he lived longer. If only I had been able to share all these creations with Natasha.

As ever, Miles has perceptive comments (p.384):

One of the reasons I like playing with a lot of young musicians today is because I find that a lot of old jazz musicians are lazy motherfuckers, resisting change and holding on to the old ways because they are too lazy to try something different. They listen to the critics, who tell them to stay where they are because that’s what they like. The critics are lazy, too. They don’t want to try to understand music that’s different. The old musicians stay where they are and become like museum pieces under glass, safe, easy to understand, playing that tired old shit again and again. Then they run around talking about electronic instruments and electronic musical voicing fucking up the music and the tradition. Well, I’m not like that and neither was Bird or Trane or Sonny Rollins or Duke or anybody who wanted to keep on creating. Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn’t about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge.

I needn’t burden you here with yet another lament about how limited our outlets for creativity are in WAM. But awed as I am by the creativity of jazzers generally, I’m all the more astounded by Coltrane—and the horn players, pianists, bass players, and drummers who worked with him. It takes me back to Berliner’s Thinking in jazz to try and understand in more depth what they’re all doing.

John Coltrane died at 40, yet another shooting star in the jazz world of the time, with its high rate of early deaths—such as Bird (34), Billie (44), Fats Navarro (26), Clifford Brown (25), Lee Morgan (33), Eric Dolphy (36). Chinese shawm players (comparable in some ways to jazzers: see also Deviating from behavioural norms) also often died early. Elsewhere, Mozart died at 36, Schubert at 31, and Mahler was only 50; Amy Winehouse only 27.

Script to an iconic head-butt


Since I mentioned Zidane’s iconic head-butt in the 2006 World Cup Final—one of the supreme sacrifices in the cause of performance art—further footage has come to light enabling us to reconstruct one side of the, um, conversations leading up to it [Yeah right—Ed.].

The angle of the grainy amateur video (filmed on one of those new-fangled contraptions that I believe are known as “smartphones”) only allows us to see Zidane’s own reactions to Materazzi’s foul-mouthed torrents of abuse. I hereby translate them, reconstructed with the help of a dedicated team of lip–readers:

Funny you should say that, Marco baby, but I Think You’ll Find that my mother is in fact somewhat conservative in the range of her social engagements. Please allow me to suggest that you must be mistaking her for someone else—might a trip to Specsaveurs be in order? I do also note that you seem to confuse my legs for the ball.


And as to my sister (and again, I’m not sure this is strictly relevant to the matter at hand)—well, Sir, I think you will concur with me that it ill behoves us to cast judgement on the explorations of young people as they negotiate the rules of social interaction of this complex world in which we find ourselves. Doubtless you are au fait with the ouevre of my esteemed compatriot Simone de Beauvoir—indeed, I believe your own country has some fine discussion groups on gender issues. Perhaps I might remind you that the behaviour of men might also be subject to such scrutiny—with their own all-too-human foibles, they cannot always be renowned as bastions of moral probity.

Anyway, With All Due Respect, I suppose we really should tear ourselves away for a while, however reluctantly, in order to display our athletic prowess in this Beautiful Game of ours for the benefit of the assembled multitudes. It’s been absolutely super chatting with you, little Marco—I must say how much I enjoy our little tête-a-têtes



See also The c-word. For an off-pitch bust-up, and a brilliant headline, click here; for Daoist football, and men moving the goalposts, here. For more on women’s football, see here.




Coronavirus: mourning Li Wenliang, and blind bards


WeChat: “In this world there are no heroes descended from heaven, there are only ordinary people who come forward”.

Among the many areas of life in China that are suffering under the lockdown prompted by the Coronavirus outbreak are collective events such as life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies among rural communities.

SGL guiwang

Ghost king, South Gaoluo.

The grand New Year’s rituals from the 12th to the 16th of the 1st moon that take place throughout villages in north China, such as those of Gaoluo village in Laishui county south of Beijing, have had to be cancelled—though their purpose is precisely to “destroy the hundred diseases” (dui baibing 丢百病).

It reminds me of a story that villagers told me about the New Year’s rituals in 1997 (Plucking the winds, pp.317–18: passages below modestly edited). After thefts of the association’s ritual paintings the previous year, the New Year’s rituals now made a focus for a cultural fight-back. In preparation they managed to retrieve some of the paintings handed over the Baoding museum during the Cultural Revolution, and had handsome new donors’ lists (also stolen) rewritten and repainted from my photos, ready to display in the lantern tent.

But just as everyone was preparing for an ostentatious New Year, the death of Premier Deng Xiaoping threatened to disrupt it. A typical bit of mental juggling was now required in order for the village rituals to continue undisturbed. Deng died on the 11th day of the 1st moon in 1997, with remarkable, if uncharacteristic, attention to the rural calendar. When his death was announced, just before the major rituals around the 15th, the “commune” (as they still call the district authorities) dutifully ordered that New Year’s celebrations should be cancelled, and the village brigade had to tell the ritual association not to perform. As one musician confided, “I turns it over in my head: when someone dies in the village, we play for them, so didn’t we oughta be able to play when Deng Xiaoping dies too? So I reckons, how about writing a motto ‘In mourning for Deng Xiaoping’, pasting it up outside the lantern tent, and playing as usual?” The village’s “southern” ritual association followed suit, and the New Year’s rituals went ahead.

I love this story: in order to make sure that Premier Deng’s death will not get in the way of their customary entertainment, they profess respect by pointing out the traditional use of ritual to venerate the dead. As with all the best scams, its sincerity is unassailable. Things had changed a lot in the two decades since Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. Then the ritual association had virtually ceased to exist, and villagers had obeyed central orders without question out of genuine, indeed almost “superstitious”, belief in the Great Helmsman. Since 1978 villagers doubtless had a lot to thank Deng for, but there were ironies. It was thanks to Deng’s liberalizations that the association had been able to revive, but it was threatened by new pressures; it was also thanks to him that people no longer placed blind faith in leadership, and were now disinclined to let his death take priority over their local culture.

Villagers regarded the 1997 New Year as the most lively in living memory, perhaps partly by necessity, to legitimize the association’s new leadership and fight back against the theft of the paintings.

In many regions “rites of affliction” have long been an important part of the repertoire of ritual specialists—serving a symbolic rather than medical function. In the current crisis, however, such large-scale gatherings are unthinkable.

1965 poster campaign combining public hygiene and eliminating superstition: “Incense ash cannot cure disease” and “Human diseases are not an offence of the gods and ghosts”—another reminder (see e.g. here, under “Expressive culture”) that even at such a revolutionary time, plenty of people still thought so.

Elaborate funeral rituals, for which among the many locals attending are kin returning from distant parts of the country, have also been put on hold. Still, in Yanggao county in Shanxi, far from both the source of the outbreak in Wuhan and major urban centres like Beijing, the Li family Daoists, individually, are still in demand to provide routine burial services, as I describe here.

On local government websites (e.g. those of Laishui and Yanggao counties) I haven’t yet found any explicit bans on collective ritual activities—only bland, formulaic warnings proclaiming the state’s resolute response to the crisis. But morbidly creative slogans everywhere hammer out the message:


No visits for New Year this year
Those who come to visit you are enemies
Don’t open the door for enemies.

For the response in Tibetan regions, see e.g. here; and for concerns over Xinjiang, here.

* * *

 Even if folk musical activities are suspended, there are signs that local performers are reflecting the outbreak, in what Confucius would have called “popular feelings” (minqing 民情). First, some background.

I’ve already written at some length about blind bards and shawm players. The blindmens’ propaganda troupe of Zuoquan county in the Taihang mountains of east-central Shanxi has a history dating back to 1938, under Japanese occupation. One of the most illuminating and harrowing books on rural life in north China is

  • Liu Hongqing 刘红庆, Xiangtian er ge: Taihang mangyirende gushi 向天而歌: 太行盲艺人的故事 [Singing to the heavens: stories of blind performers of the Taihang mountains] (2004, with VCD, and abundant photos by Wang Jingchun).

LHQ book

One of innumerable such groups throughout the countryside, the Zuoquan troupe has always adapted to the changing times, from the warfare of the 1940s through Maoism to the reform era. In the latter period they began to perform stories criticising corruption.

The book’s author Liu Hongqing (see e.g. this interview) is the older brother of blind performer Liu Hongquan, whose life features prominently. Though Hongqing escaped the rural life to become a journalist, he kept in regular contact with his family, providing vivid stories of the troupe’s itinerant lifestyle (cf. Li Qing’s stint in the Datong Arts-Work Troupe from 1958 to 1962) and writing with great empathy about the lives of poor peasants.

ZQ pic

Liu Hongqing also pays great attention to the wretched fate of women in a rural area that remained chronically poor under Maoism. Two twins in the troupe had an older sister, four of whose five children were born blind. After she died in 1963 the burden of caring for the whole family fell upon the oldest daughter Chen Xizi, then 15 sui. She too was ill-fated. Her first daughter died at the age of 11 sui after going dumb the previous year; her son, born in 1968, was blind, dumb, and disabled; a second daughter died at the age of 7 sui; and a third daughter was herself left with three daughters at the age of 32 sui after her husband died. But amazingly, Chen Xizi’s youngest son endured great tribulations to become a researcher at Shanghai Communications University—the family’s only hope in an ocean of misery. Chen Xizi’s older brother Xizhao, a fine shawm player who died at the age of 55 sui in 1998, “bought” four wives, all mentally disabled.

After the death of another blind performer in the troupe, his widow had moved in with his younger brother, a common expedient (xuqin 续亲) in poor communities where early deaths were common and widows vulnerable.

Such stories, all too common in rural China (note e.g. Guo Yuhua’s ethnography of a Shaanbei village), make an important corrective to rosy state propaganda, putting into perspective scholarly accounts of machinations within the central leadership; and the fierce, anguished singing and playing of groups like this are utterly remote from the bland, cheery ditties of official troupes.

The Zuoquan performers are instrumentalists too—Liu Hongquan is a fine shawm player (for thoughts on the way shawm-band music reflects suffering, see here). Like others in the troupe, he has taken several adopted sons, forming a network of well-wishers throughout the villages where they perform. Like blind performers in north Shanxi, they had their own secret language (p.69), based on the ancient qiezi 切字 phonetic system.


Tian Qing (left, in white) with the blind performers of Zuooquan.

The group was soon promoted by eminent cultural pundit Tian Qing (see e.g. here, and this video). Following his visit to Zuoquan they gave their first Beijing performance in 2003. From 2007 the popular TV presenter and director Yani took them to heart, engaging with their lives in a documentary filmed over ten years.

Since being enrolled under the aegis of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, while continuing their itinerant lifestyle performing for rural ceremonial, they have become media celebrities, promoted in regular TV appearances.

But even once absorbed into the state apparatus, such folk groups are not always mere mouthpieces for state propaganda. We may tend to think of folk-songs as commemorating events in the distant past—even when describing traumas such as famine, they tend to refer to early famines before the 1949 revolution. Itinerant performers like blind bards are occasionally enlisted to explain state policies among the folk, but they may also express resistance. With such topical songs hardly appearing in the collections of Chinese fieldworkers, it’s hard to judge how common they are. In Bards of Shaanbei (under “Old and new stories”) I explored the themes of AIDS, SARS, and Mo Yan’s fictional portrayal of a bard protesting at unjust local government requisitions, also linking to a protest song by Beijing blindman Zhou Yunpeng.

* * *

And so to Coronavirus and the debate over freedom of speech. The Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was among the first whistleblowers (among a multitude of tributes, see e.g. here and here). Before his death on 6th February at the age of 34 he was punished for “spreading false rumours”. Though the central Party later backtracked on criticising him (and by April he was officially deemed a martyr), the widespread tributes on Chinese social media mourning his death were largely an outpouring of popular resentment against the state’s irredeemably secretive policies in reaction to the outbreak—at a time when popular resistance to state power (notably in Xinjiang and Hong Kong) is otherwise muted. But online discussions continue to be censored.

A tribute to Li Wenliang, posted on WeChat on 8th February and only deleted by the 13th, featured a folk-song movingly performed by none other than Zuoquan blindman Liu Hongquan (contrast his rosy forecast here). Do listen to the song, since you can no longer hear it on WeChat:

The lyrics were written by Peking University economist Zhang Weiying, a native of Shaanbei who in 2019 composed, and sang, a Xintianyou folk-song in defence of dissident law professor Xu Zhangrun (see this article in a lengthy series by Geremie Barmé; for his translation of Xu’s essay on the virus, see here, and here; cf. this article in Chinese by Zhang Qianfan, another righteous scholar). Zhang Weiying’s lyrics for the new song commemorating Li Wenliang adopt the distinctive idiom of Shaanbei folk-song language, hard to render in translation:

At dead of night appeared a star
The whole world weeping in unison, Oh brother, for you

Snowflakes flurrying over three thousand leagues
Sleepless for the first time, Oh brother, and who’s it for?

Semi-translucent like lighting eggshell lanterns
First they sealed your lips, Oh brother, then they sealed the city

All over the world people’s feelings are bitter
When has it become to hard to tell the truth, Oh brother, about one’s feelings?

When you blew the whistle in the twelfth moon no-one listened
Amidst the bustle of the first moon, Oh brother, the sound of your song was silenced

Lighting lanterns at New Year to see you off
But throughout the land, Oh brother, it’s like observing the Feast of the Dead

Bright blue skies of Sovereign heaven
Now that the whole nation has awakened, Oh brother, you are already far away

Now that the whole nation was awakened, Oh brother, you are already far away.

LWL lyrics

The Party has also recruited performers to play a more orthodox role in promoting public health, such as this epic singer from Inner Mongolia:

(more here) and this song in the style of Huadengxi opera in Guizhou, filmed to promote awareness of the crisis.

For more songs from north China on the virus, see here; for temple ritual in Sichuan, here; and for continuing activity of household Daoists in Shanxi, here.

Amidst the widespread publicity on the global ramifications of the virus, it’s worth considering its effects on poor rural communities in China and their collective observances. Perhaps some of you have further instances of how folk culture is suffering, responding, resisting?


A beguiling online post from Duyi Han shows murals purporting to come from a Hubei church, paying homage to Coronavirus medical workers. On reflection it’s clearly a virtual creation, but it makes an impressive and ingenious artistic tribute:

church murals

One has to read carefully to interpret this sentence as implying that it’s a virtual project:

The project sees the walls and ceilings of a historic church in Hubei province transformed into a large mural depicting figures dressed in white decontamination suits.

It’s clarified in this interview, but if one took that literally, some doubts might soon spring to mind—I append mine below merely to show you how gullible I was initially, how little I know about logistics of life in Hubei over these weeks—and how careful we have to be about what we find online, “nowadays”:

  • Where is this chapel, and how many Chinese churches have such classical architectural features?
  • Did the congregation not demur at the loss of their original Christian images?
  • Who is the artist, and if working alone (?), however could the murals be completed so quickly?  Supposing Hubei churches have been closed since the outbreak, OK I guess the artist could get a key.
  • We have to imagine them somehow finding a vast amount of paint (assuming there’s a well-stocked shop that’s open over this period), and putting up scaffolding…
  • And how about all the stages of painting murals, and drying times in winter?

Still, it’s easy to take at face value. Incidentally, apart from the major Daoist temple complex of Wudangshan, I haven’t sought material on folk ritual life around Hubei (as ever, we might start with the “instrumental music” volumes of the Anthology for Hubei), though the scene is (or was, before the virus struck) doubtless more active than this report may suggest.


Bhutan: a tongue-twister, archery festivals, and teasing cheerleaders


Not a Lot of People Know This, but the popular tongue-twister*

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

is a modern American adaptation of an ancient ritual in Bhutan.

Really?—The Plain People of Ireland.
Begob! You had me there.

The woodchuck song (cf. More stammering songs) dates from 1902—here’s the popular version by Ragtime Roberts, recorded in 1904, just as Mahler was conducting the premiere of his 5th symphony:

I like this 1946 Glenn Miller version, with the follow-up “How many cats would a catnip nip…”:

To answer the question, apart from the song’s decidedly surly “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”, there have been some hilarious scientific attempts
(cf. Stewart Lee’s pedantic research on “the tip of the cesspit” under The c-word).

* * *

The word woodchuck, first recorded in 1674, is an English rendition of the Algonquin wejack or wuchak. And by way of the etymology of wang in whangdoodle (cf. schlong), I note, with the greatest respect, the many illustrious bearers of the name Wangchuk in Bhutan—which inspires me to

How much wang would a Wangchuck chuck if a Wangchuck could chuck wang?

In translation this may not quite match the elegance of the woodchuck version, with its euphonic “wood” and “would/could”—but I like to imagine that it works even better in the original Middle Bhutanese (just the kind of wacky topic that Sir Harold Bailey might have relished: “Indeed I’d say there’s hardly a line that could not have been understood by any Persian of the fourth century”)—perhaps

Wonga wang wunga Wangchuk chuka wangka Wangchuk wunga chuka wang?

wangsDare I surmise [Yes, I’m afraid you probably do—Ed.]** that wang-chucking festivals were once a major part of the ritual calendar in Bhutan, with ornately decorated wangs,*** assembled from monasteries throughout the region, to be hurled towards a distant target, or tôs-pöt? The arcane sentence might thus be the pious request of a courtly petitioner, curious despite the ineligibility of the royal family to participate in an event of which they were the main patrons.

Indeed, phallic symbols, representing Avalokiteśvara, are common in Bhutan and Tibet, as documented in this substantial (and for once, real) article. One of the names of Shiva is Wangchuk chenpo; and the phallus was a major part of the symbolic repertoire of atsara jesters.

* * *

Perhaps [sic] we may find the modern descendant of the Bhutanese wang-chucking ritual in its archery festivals (cf. Zen archery). OK then, so far this post has been Rather Silly, but now that I come to seek material on archery in Bhutan, I am full of genuine admiration.

Via the splendid community website, I find several videos of archery festivals (do consult the original posts, under bongop videos). Here’s a lovely short documentary from 2015, showing the ritual sequence, with vignettes from flag-bearer and storekeeper as well as the women of the chorus, and—for anyone who likes to think of Bhutan as “unspoilt”—a final comment on the decline of the “old rules” (cf. China, e.g. here):

Women play a major role as cheerleaders [sic], singing songs to tease the archers with their nicknames (cf. French taunting):

Whose forehead is bulging and swollen like a wine-serving spoon, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Lips sheltered in a black beard, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Here are some more instances (“Forehead is like wine sieve??”, “Dried ears!!!”, “Sneezing carpenter??”, “Pumpkin wine container”, “Polished stone head”):

And some more choral songs:

So while I’m encouraged by their own delight in jocular wordplay, ethnography makes a fine counterpart to my earlier frivolity.

Talking of Bhutanese films, this looks interesting.

Archery festivals are also common in Ladakh and Sikkim, and, with very different modern histories, in Tibet, Kham, and Amdo—as in this documentary, filmed in Lo khog village, Qinghai:

Returning to Bhutan, all this should encourage us to explore the riches of diverse soundscapes there, through sites such as this—not least monastic rituals, such as this 2-CD Lyrichord collection recorded by John Levy in 1971 (liner notes for download here):

The research for this project was
not made remotely possible by a generous grant from SPICE, the Society for the Promotion Prevention of International Cultural Exchange; and believe it or not, no ice-cubes were “educated” with Bombay Sapphire during the creation of this post.


* For an operatic tongue-twister, click here; and for a Chinese tongue-twister of mine, here.

** In such exegesis I may be inspired by Mots d’heure, gousses, rames; for other spurious excursions in cultural and linguistic history, see my series on the faqu (“French pieces”) under this roundup of posts on the Tang dynasty.

*** Cf. Dud ‘n’ Pete’s illumination of the lyrics “Mama’s got a brand new bag yeah, gonna groove it the whole night long baby“. More recently, Miranda Vukasovic has amassed an impressive collection of gaily-coloured phallic bottle-openers from Bali.



The c-word

also starring fatuous asterisks, bendy bananas, and the b-word (bi)


How is the poor reader expected to differentiate between b******* and b*******?

Talking of The end of the f***ing world, the prissy prurience of the tabloids’ use of asterisks is brilliantly demolished by David Marsh in this article from the fine Guardian series Mind your language, prompted by the John Terry trial—citing a reader:

 I never cease to be amazed by newspapers which shyly make him say “f***ing black c***”, leaving intact the one word which aroused Mr Ferdinand’s wrath,

and calling on the unlikely couple of Charlotte Brontë and Ken Loach. See also this LRB review of a book on a 1923 trial revolving around women’s use of “foul language”, class, and the uses and abuses of literacy—with a pre-echo of Paul Kratochvil’s splendid story in a quote from 1930: “soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning that ‘a noun is coming’ “.

Moreover, reclaiming “the c-word (cunt)” has been a concern of feminists—as discussed in this post (from another useful site), citing authors from Germaine Greer to Laurie Penny. See also this article from Rachel Braier; the wiki article is useful too. And do admire the work of the Profane Embroidery Group. More under Words and women.

In Stewart Lee‘s latest book March of the lemmings (2019—not aka The bumper book of  Stewart Lee jokes: jolly japes for all the family) he pursues the style of How I escaped my certain fate with typically expansive Teutonic footnotes to the script of his show Content provider [or should that be C***ent provider?]. In one of these, warming to several topics, he reflects on the efficacity of his “so-called comedy” with purposeful, insistent use of “the c-word (cunt)”—which I hereby feel obliged to emulate.

First we should hear him doing the live version that prompted this tirade, since it gains so much from his masterly inflection, timbre, timing, and delivery:

And it isn’t, to be fair, you know, and I think—look, we’re gonna leave the EU, that is happening, and I think people have gotta put their differences behind them now and try and make it work. And I—I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about people that voted to leave Europe anyway, because people voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, you know, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe. Cunts did as well, didn’t they? Stupid fucking cunts. Racists, and cunts, and people with legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe.*

So here’s the footnote:

* How does this joke, which drew tears and cheers, even though I say it myself, night after night for the best part of two years, work? (1) Firstly, shock. I rarely swear on stage, and compared to most edgelord stand-ups, my swears count is probably only one level up from the sort of acts who market themselves as “clean” to get gigs at hospices run by born-again Christians. So it is a funny shock to hear me abandon my usual vocabulary and say the c-word (cunt). The c-word (cunt) is probably a way-too-heavy word to use here, and the deployment of such a disproportionately heavy weapon is part of what makes choosing to do [it] so funny. (2) The structure of the bit has a relationship with the much-touted idea that liberal Remainers should look outside their bubble and seek to understand the fears and concerns that drove 17.4 million people to vote Leave (“People voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe…”), but then subverts the progression of thought by just calling them the c-word (cunts). To quote an old Lee and Herring routine, or possibly Viz’s Mr Logic, “Our expectations were subverted, from whence the humour arose”. (3) This second idea is then given what we in the trade call a “topper” by doubling back on the original premise and conceding that some Leave voters may also have “legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe”. There is then a second topper, in the form of a letter from a punter [“Dear Palace Theatre, Southend, please inform the “comedian”, and I use that word advisedly, Stewart Lee, who I had the misfortune of being taken along by friends to see last night, that I actually voted to leave Europe and I am neither a racist nor a cunt. Merely someone with genuine anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe. Yours, A. Cunt, Burnham-on-Crouch.”], which is a real letter (with the name changed) received during an early stage of the show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe try-outs, which just replays the joke again but in a funny voice and with more swearing, and with the town the complainer comes from changed to some local place every night—in this case, Burnham-on-Crouch.

By now the c-word (cunt) has long become a veritable mantra. The ever-expanding footnote goes on to do battle with Lee’s critics, with a plea for context:

The Tory Brexiteer and Sun columnist Tony Parson, in the February 2019 edition of GQ, the sort of style and status bible Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would read in between dismembering prostitutes in a penthouse apartment, wrote, on the subject of the c-word (cunt):

In the little corner of Essex where I grew up,”c***” was practically a punctuation mark among men and boys [see above—SJ]. It was in the foul air we breathed. But it grates now. It feels like the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women. And what I find bewildering is that it is not just thick ignorant oafs who use the c-word with such abandon. It is the woke. It is the enlightened. It is the professionally sensitive. It is the Guardian columnist, the BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left. “It wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe,” Stewart Lee recently quipped, “C***s did as well. Stupid fucking [sic!] c***s.” Does Lee’s use of the word sound rational or healthy? Does it provoke tears of mirth? Do you think it might persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong? Some of my best friends are Remainers, but such spittle-flecked fury when using the word “c***s” makes Brexit sound like the very least of Lee’s problems.

Obviously, like Julia Hartley-Brewer and other Conservative Twitter types who alighted on the Brexit bit, Parson removed the qualifying section that followed it, where I acknowledge the out-of-touch nature of the so-called liberal elite in London, which in turn buys me some leeway, and also makes the subsequent attack on the so-called non-liberal non-elite more of a surprise; and Parson, presumably knowing little of my work, doesn’t appreciate that the use of the c-word (cunt) reads to my audience here in a comical way precisely because using it is so out of character. It is not the swear word in and of itself that brought the house down nightly. It has to have context.

And of course, the word isn’t delivered with “relish”, and it isn’t “spittle-flecked” either. The c-word (cunt) is delivered here with a kind of despairing calm, as if the cuntishness of the Brexit c-words (cunts) was just a sad matter of fact. When I was directing Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer: the opera at the National Theatre in 2003 (as I am sure I have written before), we were given the benefit of the theatre’s voice coach for one session, who took the singers aside to teach them to enunciate all the libretto’s swear words and curses, to spit them out with relish. I waited for the session to subside, respectfully, and then had to unravel the work that had been done. The swear words weren’t necessarily to be sung in that spirit at all. For the most part, they represented the disenfranchised Americans working, in heightened emotional states, at the edges of the limited vocabulary that was available to them, and had to be used to convey not simply hate and venom, but also love, hope, despair and longing, the feelings expressed in Richard’s music. If I’d really wanted this particular c-word (cunt) to read with spittle-flecked relish, you’d have known about it. There’d have been spittle on the lens. I’m not averse to spitting on stage (on an imaginary Graham Norton, for example), so a lens would hold no terrors for me. To me, the c-word (cunt) here was mainly about how utter despair drove the beaten and frustrated Remainer character on stage (me) to the outer limits of his inarticulacy, painstakingly logical arguments against Brexit having broken down into mere swears.

And I didn’t “quip” the line either. One thing you will never see me doing is quipping. My work is too laborious and self-aware to ever include a comic device as light-hearted as a “quip”, and if I see one, I usually have it surgically removed from my script, or at least quarantined between ironic inverted commas (“Oh yeah, I can do jokes”). [Here’s a rare, and sadly very funny, example—SJ] And obviously, the bit was not in any way intended to “persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong”, so it is stupid to criticise it for failing to achieve something it never set out to do. That’s like saying that Fawlty towers, for example, was written to encourage hoteliers to control their tempers; or that the very funny playground joke that ends with the line “Lemon entry, my dear Watson” was written to encourage Sherlock Holmes to keep suitable anal-sex lubricants close to hand for his congress with Watson, rather than relying on whatever out-of-date fruit preserves he could find in his larder.

Maybe I came onto Parson’s radar of late because I talked about Brexit, which he and his employer the Sun support, or because I am now one of those “cultural figures” that informed commentators like him are supposed to know about (“God! Haven’t you heard of Stewart Lee, Tony? I can’t believe it!”), who get praised in the London Review of Books, and get called the greatest living stand-ups in The Times, irrespective of their perceived market penetration or popularity. For Parson I am a “woke… enlightened… professionally sensitive… BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left”, which is hardly news, as it’s essentially what I describe myself as on stage, having done lazy Parson’s work for him.

Nonetheless, it’s odd to be called out as evidence of “the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women” in a magazine whose website has a “Hottest Woman of the Week” feature. It’s such an odd phrase, “the rancid tip of a cesspit”, that I had to go online and google pictures of cesspits to make sure I had understood what one was.

In my newspaper columns, I deliberately try to mangle my metaphors, writing in character as a man with imposter syndrome who is out of his depth in a posh newspaper and is trying to overcompensate with complex language that is beyond him. But Parson’s incoherence, as brilliantly parodied each month in Viz, is effortless. A cesspit is, literally, a pit full of cess. It can’t have a tip as it is not a conical solid. The only way a cesspit could have a tip is if it were somehow upended and its contents swiftly hardened in some kind of large-scale commercial drying unit, and the remaining cylinder or cuboid (depending on the shape of the pit that had moulded the cess within it) then sharpened at one end, perhaps using an enormous pencil sharpener rotated by shire horses on some kind of mill harness, or by Parson himself, until it formed the rancid tip Parson described. The only way a cesspit could have a natural tip would be if the body of the cesspit itself were conical, which perhaps they were “in the little corner of Essex where Parson grew up.

In fact, there is an Essex folk-song, collected by the archivist Shirley Collins inthe ’50s from the old traveller singer Gonad Bushell, that goes:

I’m a Billericay gypsy, Billericay is my home,
My house it is a caravan, my cesspit is a cone,
And if I want to see the cess become a rancid tip,
I tip the cesspit upside down, then dry and sharpen it!
And the curlew is a-calling in the morning.
[This is worthy of Stella Gibbons—e.g. Cold Comfort Farm, or her brilliant Britten pastiche—SJ]

Parson may have a point about the c-word (cunt), though I don’t really think my Brexit bit is hugely relevant to his discussion, and seems to be cranked in as part of some kind of twisted vengeance. Out of academic curiosity, I wondered what the dictionary definition of the c-word (cunt) was, and to my surprise, when I turned to it, there was just a massive picture of Tony Parson’s face. And it had all arrows pointing towards it as well.

Imagine writing the sort of space-filling shit Parson does, day after day. At least my columns are supposed to be stupid.


Back at the routine, Lee moves on ineluctably to the Brexiteers’ fatuous topos of bendy bananas (demolished e.g. here; also a theme of his columns, such as here and here, the latter included in March of the lemmings):

People did vote to leave Europe for all different sorts of—they did, don’t snigger away down there—they voted for all, you know, not everyone that voted to leave Europe wanted to see Britain immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some people just wanted bendy bananas, didn’t they? “Oh no, I only wanted bendy bananas, and now there’s this chaotic inferno of hate.” “Oh well, never mind, at least the bananas are all bendy again, aren’t they?” Like they always fucking were.

In the second half of the show he adapts the Brexit material into an “I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about Americans who voted for Trump…” routine:

Not all Americans who voted for Trump wanted to see America immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some Americans just wanted to be allowed to wear their Ku Klux Klan outfits to church, didn’t they?

And still the footnotes to the script persist. Like How I escaped my certain fate, Lee’s comments are worth reading in full.

For more, see numerous posts under the Lee tag—and Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! For lying xenophobic misogynistic politicians, see also under Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, with his sinister henchman The Haunted Pencil (e.g. here and here), as well as the Tweety tag. Click here for two erudite literary jokes; and for what in Chinese, charmingly, is “the b-word (bi)”, see Forms of addressInterpreting pinyin, and Changing language.

The genius of Abbey road

Abbey road

Abbey road album cover: no title, band unnamed.

You can go for ages without paying attention to some of the most iconic works of music, while they lie dormant in the soul. Or, as a counterpart to my more obscure posts, we may just consider this the latest in my extensive series “Pieces that everyone knows are totally brilliant—that I now find are totally brilliant”. So it may be a case of “selling the Three-character scripture at the door of Confucius” (cf. here), but hey. You might begin with the introduction to my series on the great Beatles albums.

Abbey road (1969) was the Beatles’ final masterpiece, created (like Sgt Pepper) in the recording studio as they took refuge from the frenetic touring life. Given my constant stress on musicking as a social activity, I’m aware of the irony of paying tribute to such disembodied creations (see also n.1 below).

Just in case you’re on another planet, here it is as a playlist, with the songs individually—it’s far better just to put on the LP (or CD), listening to the two sides whole, with the original transitions—and silences—between tracks. [1] You can find the lyrics on sites such as this.

Both Sgt Pepper and Abbey road are full of extraordinary variety, nuance, and (even within single songs) contrast, with multiple layers and homages to the whole gamut of popular culture. Even the lighter, seemingly jocular songs contribute to the panorama. As I will comment in a general post on the Beatles, both albums make cogent sequences, resembling unstaged operas, or orchestral song-cycles, even if only Side 2 of Abbey road seems to have been so designed.

  • In the opening song Come together, “a portrait of a kind of hobo-outcast messiah”,

the screwed up vocal line […] attains a near-miraculous release in the refrain, when the reiterated minor third suddenly swings up a fifth, then down to the major third—harmonised, however, with the submediant triad.

  • The exquisite, soaring Something (George’s composition—Pollack’s analysis worth reading as always, suggesting parallels with Beethoven), punctuated by the intoxicating key shift of the hook, and a gorgeous guitar break;
  • Maxwell’s silver hammer, an unsettling black comedy;
  • Oh! darling, with Paul’s amazing gutsy vocals, the song’s “passionate intensity undimmed by its parodistic elements”. (On another autobiographical note, such was my classical snobbery in the 60s that the concurrent explosion of blues and soul was lost on me; so they could only tinge my consciousness through the benign filter of the Beatles, rather than through the hardcore medium of the Stones);
  • Octopus’s garden (Ringo!), “a child’s dream-song” (cf. Yellow submarine), though I don’t pick up on Mellers’ “hiding something blackly nasty in the woodshed“—far more applicable to the dark comic songs of Side 2;
  • In I want you (she’s so heavy), Mellers notes how the the zany vocal melisma modifies our response to the hammered dominant ninths that create the frenzy; and the refrain, “apparently in D minor but with dominant ninths of A (changing to German sixths on B flat), so that the A major triads are uncertain of their identity, wobbling between dominants of D and tonics of A”, becomes a long (over 3 minutes!) relentless 10-beat ostinato for the coda, “on the threshold of a scream”—ending the track, and Side 1, with an abrupt cut-off.

If these six songs of Side 1 themselves constitute a cohesive thread, the fragments assembled for Side 2 are still more of a continuous suite (see e.g. Pollack’s thorough discussion)—starting again on an innocent note after the preceding menace:

  • Here comes the sun (George again), its phrases linked by additive rhythms (3+3+3+3+2+2), leading into
  • Because, inspired by the Moonlight sonata, is entrancing, “runic” (again reminding me that I didn’t do nearly enough drugs—”just couldn’t seem to find the time”…). Beneath the spacy, soaring choral harmonies, suspended in the void, the keyboard arpeggios (the intro—George Martin on harpsichord!—seemingly continuing the 3+3+2 rhythm), are “like a lulling of the cradle or even a swaying of the amniotic waters”. To cite Mellers at length:

The eight-bar first strain rocks slowly in dotted rhythm through its minor triad (“Because the world is round it turns me on”), dropping rather than drooping on to the subdominant triad, and dreamily fading in a melisma. The effect of this sudominant is unexpectedly emotive, perhaps because the triadic harmony has been so static. The answering strain extends and deepens the feeling, since the melody is protracted into dotted minims, and instead of the subdominant we have a submediant chord of the ninth, the melismas wafting longer and more hazily. The resolution of this ninth chord on to the supertonic is delayed because we shift abruptly back to C sharp minor for the second stanza, which tells us that “because the wind is high it blows my mind“. When, after the second stanza, the dominant ninth does resolve on to a D major triad, it’s hardly a real modulation establishing a new, and remote, key. Its harmonic function is “Neapolitan” but the triad, on the exclamation “Ah“, immediately pivots back from D not to the dominant but to F sharp, C sharp’s subdominant. This initiates the middle section which, changing the subdominant minor to major, creates with inspired simplicity the newness and all-embracingness of love. This middle contains four bars only; after which the enveloping arpeggios return and the haunting melody sings da capo,  finally floating away in extended melismata, but without harmonic resolution. Indeed, although that flattened supertonic opens heavenly vistas, the song is virtually without harmonic progression, the only significant dominant–tonic cadence in the piece being the one that returns us to our source, and to the da capo of the melody. […] In the coda the upward leaping sixth—traditionally an interval of aspiration—is pentatonically suspended on the word “Because“; indeed the arpeggiated swaying is replaced intermittently by silence—in the use of which the Beatles betray something like genius.


Slightly skewed screenshot—not the result of the intake of medicinal substances, honest guv.

  • You never give me your money opens wistfully, but successively ramps up the mood, segueing into Out of college (its introductory boogie-woogie only fleeting), an exhilarating guitar modulation into One sweet dream (“tonally rootless, rhythmically exuberant”), before merging into the hazy nursery-rhyme paradise of One two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven—HOWEVER DID THEY DO ALL THIS?!;
  • Sun king, whose trippy feel develops out of Here comes the sun and Because;
  • Mean Mr Mustard, abruptly changing the mood—its brief refrain oscillating between E and C major, leading into a plagal cadence approached by way of the flattened seventh (more additive rhythms at the end!);
  • Polythene Pam (“a mythical Liverpool scrubber”, apud John) and
  • She came in through the bathroom windowboth songs “comically scary portraits, at once within the dream and part of the crazy-kinky scene that passes for today’s reality”, before the brilliant final sequence:
  • Golden slumbers, “an ironic title to an ironic song”, with “Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby“, with soothing strings, contrasting with the raucous refrain, leading into
  • Boy you’re gonna carry that weight—savage, grim, with a memory of You never give me your money, segeuing into
  • The End “abandons words for a furious hammering of percussion, which leads into a long instrumental section, all dominant sevenths in rumba rhythm, but rocking a tone lower than the starting point, getting nowhere [great consecutive guitar breaks from Paul, George, and John!]. Suddenly the hubbub stops; there’s a tinkling of A major triads on a tinny piano; and Paul’s voice returns to sing ‘in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’. The phrase descends scalewise, harmonised in parallel triads that fall from F major, to E minor, to D minor, to A minor, and so to C major.” And then, just when you think it’s all over,
  • Her Majesty (an unlisted “hidden track”), sung by Paul—a perfect little throwaway fragment, a nonchalant farewell to Beatledom.

Mellers observes that

The seraphic vision of Because was momentary, and the rest of the disc trips away from vision and from Pepper‘s awareness of human relationships into a magical mystery tour that, if it’s a dream, is a bad one, and no escape.

Still, the cumulative effect, with its multiple layers, is supremely life-enhancing.



[1] I trust you won’t be thrown off the scent by the many cover versions masquerading online (to me they sound awful, almost sacrilegious). That’s not to belittle cover versions generally—they’re part of music’s whole creative social afterlife—but they can make us appreciate the craft of the original all the more. By contrast, I want every single guitar break, every tiny vocal inflection, to be faithfully reproduced and worshipped come sta for eternity, preserved in aspic—gleefully aware that this contradicts just about everything I’ve ever written (e.g. under Unpacking “improvisation”). Indeed, the release of the original sessions (with alternative tracks and running orders), and the remixes, remind us that even a studio recording is a living organism, subject to variation: what I regard here as so sacrosanct is just one possible realisation. The songs were recorded individually, and only later arranged into the sequence that we now found so cohesive and definitive.


A 2019 retrospective

For my sake as much as yours, I’m rounding up some themes from the last year (cf. my post for 2018)—do click on the links, both below and in the posts themselves! There’s plenty more to explore under the monthly archives as you scroll down in the sidebar.

I continue to add vignettes on the Li family Daoists (always bearing in mind my film and book!):

and I augment my post Walking Shrill with

On my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo (summary here),

Bearing on both the Li family and Gaoluo is

And under the main menu, it’s always worth exploring the many fieldnotes under Local ritual, and the various pages under the Themes sub-menu.

Among many posts on the great Yang Yinliu are

For links to ritual life around south Jiangsu, see

and for the rich cultures of Fujian,

Note also

For more on China, see

The plight of the Uyghurs is a pressing concern (see also Uyghur tag):

Note also

Further afield, see

The category of “world music“, or rather musicking in societies around the world, continues to grow. For salient perspectives on musical cultures worldwide (notably the brilliant, accessible work of Bruno Nettl), see

For diverse regional genres, see e.g.

For the musics of Iran, see

Pursuing my shawm theme. see

Among several posts on Italian folk culture are

See also

Note also new posts on flamenco.

On English culture (roundup here):

and having given Alan Bennett time off for good behaviour, he stars in several recent posts, notably

Under the WAM category, posts include

and recent additions to the Mozart tag, like

Under the Messiaen tag, major new posts are

On a lighter note are two classics on rubber chicken:

In my Must-Listen Playlist of songs (complementing the sidebar playlist for local Chinese traditions, with commentary here), most spellbinding is

And I continue the theme of stammering:

Also well worth a read is

And don’t forget the *MUST READ* category—among which my personal choice remains

Society and soundscape

While I always gravitate towards the ethnographic nitty-gritty of local fieldwork, it seems time for a succinct roundup for some general posts on society and soundscape—a theme pervading this blog, for China (see below), sundry world music traditions, and WAM alike (see world music category, under “general“).

Most authoritative and accessible are the works of Bruno Nettl—essential reading:

Susan McClary is another influential author:

And Christopher Small gives important perspectives, placing WAM within the broader picture:

Later ethnographic perspectives on WAM include

And articles by Michelle Bigenho and Henry Stobart are most instructive:

In similar vein is

Classics on society and soundscape include

as well as the recent book

Also worth consulting is

And among many fine chapters in the stimulating 1997 volume Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology, I’d recommend those by Nicole Beaudry (on fieldwork among the Inuit) and William Noll (on fieldwork in the Ukrainian past). For a wise discussion of fieldwork in contested sites for Tibetan culture, see

  • Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile? Comparative observations on doing research among Tibetans in Lhasa and in Dharamsala”.

I was also reminded of the integrative brief of ethnomusicology by

* * *

All this informs my work on local ritual traditions in China. As I commented in my post on Bigenho,

Here’s the deal: if we come to your party, you have to come to ours too:

Just as “music scholars” have learned to consider all kinds of social elements as they study performance, so scholars of ritual too must include in their brief all kinds of issues arising from soundscape, rather than coyly farming it out to musicologists.

As Adam Yuet Chau observes, this is related to the whole scholarly bias towards discursive, scriptural analysis. Indeed, within China studies more generally, expressive culture, and musicking as a vital aspect of social activity, still seem to be considered marginal themes, with research dominated by silent written texts and immobile visual culture. It’s as if sinologists only consider music as a legitimate part of culture when it’s dead and mute, imprisoned in a museum or text. The ethnomusicological mindset should offer us valuable perspectives on Chinese studies.

Pachelbel’s capon

As in the old Chinese restaurant joke:
“Waiter, this chicken is rubbery.”
“Thankyou velly much sir.”


For those who delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, this viral video breathes new life into a perennial cliché of early music:

What makes it even more hilarious is the utter deadpan focus of the performer. Like listening to the baroque horn (allegedly), our appreciation is heightened by imagining how very difficult it must be to play.

Just goes to show that amidst the ongoing debate about original instruments (cf. Taruskin, and Butt), our modern ears constantly require creativity… I’m sure the Sachs–Hornbostel classification system is comprehensive enough to encompass the rubber chicken.

If you want a less wacky rendition,* then this is also very fine:

Here the splendid John Finnemore (“so-called comedian”) sympathizes with Pachelbel’s wretched fate:

And now, thanks to Nick Kapur and Craig Clunas, I find this Czech tribute, which might also entertain Alexei Sayle:

See also Bach, um, marches towards the world, and The Feuchtwang variations. And do follow this post up with Mahler 5.


* On a personal note: I played the straight version of the hapless canon on a US tour with Peter Holman in the 1990s, most memorably at the Schenectady Fuchs Festival (yeah, I know). Our visit was enriched by a locally-renowned waitress who unerringly took complex orders, entirely without taking written notes, from parties of up to twenty seated around long tressle tables. That was the tour where Paul O’Dette told me the hemiola story (right at the end of this post)…

Morocco: Paul Bowles

1950 with Jane

Paul Bowles with his wife Jane Auer, 1950. Photo: Cecil Beaton.

My post on the film Performance, in which I mentioned Paul Bowles (1910–99: wiki here, website here), reminded me to explore his work on the musics of Morocco.

Bowles’s involvement with Moroccan music features rather intermittently in his story. Instead, accounts of both his early years and his later life after settling in Tangier from 1947 read like a Who’s Who of the Great Names of American and European culture.

As in many cases, biography (I read Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, An invisible spectator, 1989) provides a more dispassionate survey than Bowles’ own autobiography Without stopping (1972). Written under a publisher’s deadline while his wife Jane’s health was in terminal decline, “because he was so filled with pain and torment he had to shut off his emotions lest it consume the book. The result is that it’s a very impersonal memoir.” (An invisible spectator, p.406).

His relationship with his parents was fraught. As to his father,

I vowed to devote my life to his destruction, even though it meant my own—an infantile conceit, but one which continued to preoccupy me for many years.

This was perhaps a major element in his later escape to Morocco. First he travelled widely around Europe and Latin America. Trained as a pianist, he became a promising composer under the aegis of Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions. A plan to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger never came to fruition. Later he took part in Virgil Thomson’s splendidly-titled group The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, Inc.

On early and later trips between the USA, Europe, and Morocco, Bowles regularly met (and collaborated with) a stellar array of artists—including Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, Krishnamurti, Manuel de Falla, Colin McPhee, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp, Gore Vidal, Talullah Bankhead, John Cage, Jean-Paul Sartre, Anaïs Nin, John Huston, Truman Capote, Cecil Beaton, and Francis Bacon. To name but a few… He married the author Jane Auer in 1938; the sources are rather discreet, but for them and most of their wider circle, heterosexual proclivities were clearly not notable (see e.g. here).

Bowles had embarked on his first voyage to Morocco, with Copland, in 1931:

The trip to Morocco would be a rest, a lark, a one-summer stand. The idea suited my overall desire, that of getting as far away as possible from New York. Beiing wholly ignorant of what I should find there, I did not care. I had been told that there would be a house somewhere, a piano somehow, and sun every day. That seemed to me enough.

Indeed, on his travels he would constantly endure the travails of finding a workable piano—a suitable and unique punishment for the WAM composer. He also wrote reviews for the New York Herald Tribune, and began to review jazz.

This opened the door to folk music as well, inasmuch as it was my contention that every category of recorded music (except strictly commercial popular) ought to be covered.

Incidentally, Bela Bartók had collected folk music in north Africa as early as 1913. Bowles’s later contribution to Bartók’s Concerto for orchestra (1943) may not be so well known:

On an early trip to Casablanca [Bowles] bought a phonograph and “what the French call Chleuh records. (So-called Chleuh music is a popular genre evolved from the folk music of the Souss and sung in Tachelhait.)

The composer Henry Cowell had been using some of these discs in his teaching. Bowles recalls:

He asked me to make a set of records for Bela Bartók, who was living in Pittsburgh. Later he told me Bartók was incorporating the Chleuh material in a piece. Sure enough, when I heard the Concerto for orchestra, there was the music, considerably transformed, but still recognizable to me, who was familiar with each note of every piece I had copied for him.

I’m glad Paul Schuyler finds the connections elusive too (Music of Morocco, booklet).

From a period when W.H. Auden was presiding over an illustrious ménage in New York, Bowles has a nice story about Salvador Dalí and Harpo Marx:


At that time Dalí did occasional illustrations for Harper’s bazaar; once they had been reproduced, George [Davis] would bring them home and have them framed. One of these pictures was a fine pencil sketch of Harpo Marx playing a harp strung with barbed wire, while in the desert background some giraffes burned spectacularly. George had left the picture on the windowsill and gone out, and a rainstorm had come up. When he returned to the house, he found his Dalí drenched and stained, just where he had left it, and the window still wide open. He rushed to Susie, the maid, and began to recriminate with her, pointing at the picture and repeating: “How could you, Susie? It’s ruined! Ruined!” Susie was used to this sort of thing, but she sympathized and shook her head. “Yes, Mr Davis, you right,” she said. “It sure is too bad, and it was such a beautiful picture of your mother, too.”

Bowles gave himself over only gradually to fiction and the Moroccan life. Moving to Tangier in 1947, he made his name with the 1949 novel The sheltering sky, later adapted in a 1990 film by Bernardo Bertolucci.

He acquired a taste for kif and majoun, receiving regular visits from Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, as well as Timothy Leary. During a long trip with Gysin in 1950 they first encountered the musicians of Jajouka at a moussem in Sidi Kacem; Bowles described his ongoing relationship with them in Days: a Tangier journal. Later he would feel nostalgic for these early years; Morocco became independent in 1956, but Jane fell ill in 1957, suffering a long and painful decline until her death in 1973.

Another vignette: on a visit to India (p.312),

I liked the hotel in Aurangabad, and so we settled there for a while. The English manageress was a Christian Scientist and gave me some copies of the Monitor. She also mentioned that a countryman of mine, a Mr Monahan, was due to arrive at the hotel within the next few days. Perhaps I knew him? I said I did not. “He’s very famous,” she insisted. “A famous violinist.” I told her that I had never heard of him, adding that since I had been out of America for several years, he might have become famous since my departure. “No, no. He’s been ever so famous* for years.”
[Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe Americans often use “ever so”, so this looks like an acute observation of his English host’s language.]

A few days later Mr Monahan did arrive and with Mrs Monahan took the suite next to mine. It was not long before he began to practice. Ahmed straightway pulled out his Moroccan lirah, or cane flute such as shepherds carry, and footled with it [sic]. The practicing stopped; there was muffled murmurs of surprise and incomprehension in the neighboring room. Each time the violin started up, Ahmed shrilled on the lirah. Presently Mr Monahan retired into a further room and shut the door, to continue his work unmolested. I hoped to avoid having to come face to face with him on the veranda. During siesta time that afternoon somewhere in the hotel a woman began to call: “Yehudi! Yehudi!” At this point I realized who Mr Monahan was. “Do you hear what that woman is calling her husband?” demanded Ahmed. “He ought to knock her down.” In Morocco when a mule or a donkey refuses to move, he gets the word “yehudi” shouted at him. I thought of this, and in order not to call forth some awful scene, I did not explain to Ahmed that Yehudi was actually the man’s name. Later in New York when I saw Menuhin again, I asked him if he remembered the flute in the hotel at Aurangabad, and he did.

This makes a pair with my Irish story about Heifetz.

The 1959 recording project
While Bowles’s own memoirs (pp.344–6) are rather laconic on the subject of his 1959 project, An invisible spectator (pp.349–51) provides some detail. [1] In fact he had already applied for a grant without success some twenty-five years earlier (!). But now,

Before leaving New York, Bowles learned that the Rockefeller Foundation had at last awarded him a grant. He went to the Foundation’s headquarters and was given a crash course in how to operate the professional-quality Ampex tape recorder that they were also providing him. By late May he was back in Tangier, eager to begin his recording. As Jane was holding steady, he decided to set out in July, thinking that it would only take him a short while to arrange permission with the authorities to do his recording. He soon became entangled in Moroccan governmental procedures, however, and finally decided to dispense with trying to obtain formal permission. Instead, he went to the American consulate, which drew up a document stating that the US government was behind the project. The affixed several seals, stamps, and signatures and attached Bowles’s photograph; Bowles decided that it looked sufficiently formal to enable him to begin the project.

In the interim, he had gathered two traveling companions: Christopher Wanklyn, who spoke good Maghrebi and owned a Volkswagen; and a Moroccan, Mohammed Larbi, who’d recently escorted a British expedition on a trans-Saharan journey. Together, over the next five months, on four separate trips, they would travel some 25,000 miles through some of Morocco’s most remote and rugged locales. Of the second trip, made from August 29 to September 22, 1959, Bowles kept a detailed account; he later published a selection of the travel notes as an article, “Ketama Taza”, reprinted in expanded form as “The Rif, to music”, in his book of travel essays, Their heads are green and their hands are blue.

The journey was not without difficulties. First, there was the physical hardship of abysmal hotels, tortuous roads, heat, and ultimately, for Bowles, illness. Second, there was the problem of making recordings. Although Bowles had originally expected governmental hostility, the local authorities were for the most part quite cordial and helpful. This, however, could not compensate for the fact that the Ampex ran only on 110-volt AC current and was not equipped with a battery pack [!!!]. As a result, recording could only be done where there was electricity, and of the correct voltage. Despite all the difficulties, however, Bowles managed to collect a huge variety of music, representative of nearly all of Morocco.

More photos here.

There would, in fact, have been even more music recorded, but in October 1959 the Moroccan government suddenly decided that since his project was “ill-timed” (whatever that meant), he would not be allowed to undertake it. Bowles recalled that “the American Embassy advised me to continue my work”. He proceeded, but by December the government had become aware of what he was doing. “They informed me summarily that no recordings could be made in Morocco save by special permission from the Ministry of Interior…. I had practically completed the project… however, from then on it was no longer possible to make any recordings which involved the cooperation of the government; this deprived the collection of certain tribal musics of southeastern Morocco.” Even with the lack of this latter music, Bowles had recorded more than 250 separate selections by the end of December.

Curiously enough, Bowles’s efforts have never been terribly appreciated in Morocco. According to him, the prevalent “official” Moroccan attitude these days is that traditional folk music is “degenerate”. Indeed, in the 1960s the government engaged in an all-out effort to encourage the composition of “patriotic” music, which would contain a political message—specifically, singing the praises of Morocco and Moroccan progress. The gradual “development” of many of the remote regions of the country and an increased migration from the country to the cities had a profound impact on traditional musical forms. Many of the forms that Bowles recorded are now near impossible to hear in Morocco; and those that are heard are often diluted or mixed with other forms.

As Schuyler comments, “change and hybridity, the very forces that keep music vital, were, in his view, signs of decay.” But Bowles’s fear for the future of such traditions was premature.

In the United States, despite the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Library of Congress, the tapes went promptly into an archive, where for more than a decade they gathered dust. Finally, in 1972, the Library of Congress did issue a superb, two-volume record set, containing a fine sampling of Bowles’s collection. Nonetheless, countless hours of recordings have never been released to the public and most likely never will be.

Still, Bowles and Wanklyn managed to make some additional recordings from 1960 to 1962, and in 1965 Smithsonian Folkways issued a disc under Wanklyn’s name alone (notes here).

Bowles’s notes, reproduced with the 1972 discs (here and here), are impressive, providing cultural and musical background to the tracks. Here’s a revealing vignette:

The Ait Ouaraine live in the mountains southeast of Fez and until recently were in great demand among the residents of that city as entertainers at weddings and other household festivals. Here only women performed, one of them using a bendir as accompaniment. Before setting up the recording session I had been told by the governmental katib that I would be hiring three people to perform. When three men and four women arrived, I began to look forward to difficulties at the moment of payment. The leader of the group, however, was scrupulous about honoring his agreement. “Three people,” he said when I came to pay him, and I remembered that women are not people; these four ha[d] been brought along as decorative assistants and did not expect to be paid.

And in 2016, long after the two Bowles LPs were issued in 1972, the Library of Congress published a handsome four-CD set Music of Morocco, with illuminating additional notes by Philip Schuyler, from both Bowles’ diaries and his own experience. Here’s an online playlist:

I wonder how they decided where to go, and whom to seek. Of course, there were (and are) musicians everywhere, but identifying worthwhile genres and performers requires considerable local knowledge. The government resistance, and stress on patriotism and development, reminds me of China—although some fine fieldwork projects were under way there at the time.


From Music of Morocco (2016).

Schuyler provides further material on the trips, such as:

The very first recording session, on August 1 in the seaside village of Ain Diab, seemed to bear out Bowles’s expectations. In Ain Diab, the team took advantage of a festival (musem, or in Paul’s Tangier dialect, ‘amara) in honor of the saint Sidi Abderrhamane. At these events, pilgrims come to worship and celebrate at the saint’s shrine, and merchants, restaurateurs, and entertainers all set up shop to accommodate them. With the cooperation of government officials overseeing the festival, Bowles was able to record six different genres of music representing seven different tribal groups or geographical regions in just two days. The musicians were mostly professionals and many of them, like the pilgrims, had come from a great distance, probably at government expense. It is difficult sometimes to tell exactly who these musicians were or where they resided, because Bowles was recording so quickly that he had little time to gather information.

Alas, these were audio recordings only, in formal conditions removed from social activity. Strangely (given Bowles’ own passion for language), he hardly documented the vocal texts. And as he wrote, “complex arrangements were often necessary for transporting musicians from their remote villages to places where the electric power supply was compatible with the recording equipment.” Still, the set makes a fine survey of diverse vocal and instrumental genres. With my taste for shawms (further Chinese examples on the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here), track 3.03 on the YouTube playlist above is enchanting.

Apart from the 1959 project, Bowles doesn’t seem to have written in much detail about his encounters with folk musicking or performers, in either the cities (his main base) or the countryside. In Fez he sometimes attended domestic mizane performances of Andaluz music; he visited religious festivals in the countryside, and he encountered the Sufi brotherhoods quite early (Without stoppingpp.150–151):

At that time more than half the population of Morocco belonged to one or another of the religious confraternities which enable their adepts to achieve transcendence of normal consciousness (a psychic necessity all over the African continent) and to do so in Islamic terms. For most educated Moroccans the existence of the cults is an abomination; with the emergence of nationalism they were suppressed more or less successfully for two decades or more. When once again they were sanctioned, care was taken to see that the observances took place hidden from the sight of non-Moslems. Visitors might ridicule the participants, it was said, or consider Moroccans a backward people if they witnessed such spectacles. I had suspected that I would stumble onto a scene which would show me the pulse of the place, if not the exposed, beating heart of its magic, but it was a tremendous surprise to find it first on the open street. Yet there they were, several thousand people near Bab Mahrouk, stamping, heaving, shuddering, gyrating, and chanting, all of them aware only of the overpowering need to achieve ecstasy. They stayed there all day and night; I could hear the drums from my room, and during the night they grew louder. The next morning the mob was at Bab Dekaken, just outside the hotel. Then I realized that it was a procession, moving at the rate of approximately a hundred feet an hour, with such extreme slowness that as one watched no visible progress was made. Along the edges of the phalanx there were women in trance; pink and white froth bubbled from their mouths; small shrieks accompanied their spastic motions. When someone lost consciousness entirely and fell, he was dragged inside the wall of onlookers. It took the procession two days to get from Bab Mahrouk to Bab Chorfa, a distance of perhaps a mile. I should never have believed an account of the phenomenon had I not been watching it. But which one or more of the brotherhoods the participants represented, whether they were Aissaoua or Jilala or Hamatcha or something else, there was no way of knowing, nor did I ask. Here for the first time I was made aware that a human being is not an entity and that his interpretation of exterior phenomena is meaningless unless it is shared by other members of his cultural group. A bromide, but one that had escaped until then.

Later he introduced Jane to the amara gathering of Aissoua [Aissawa] pilgrims the cult at Moulay Brahim (Without stopping, pp.285–6). But while he made some recordings of the brotherhoods, such curiosity never evolved into a desire to document them more thoroughly. Although as a long-term resident he was well qualified to conduct such research, he sought tranquil places to live in order to focus on writing; Morocco was a breeding-ground for his creative life, not quite an object of detailed ethnography.

* * *

In a separate project, Alan Lomax went on to record in Morocco in 1967 (see here, and here). By the 1970s it was among the field-sites of the intrepid Bernard Lortat-Jacob. The relevant chapter in his perceptive book

  • Musiques en fête: Maroc, Sardaigne, Roumanie (1994)

makes a good introduction to the kinds of issues that one seeks to address in field research. He documents the laamt village-wide societies that organize the ahouach festivals, the recourse to occupational musicians, and the various genres.


Ahouach. Source  here.

Bernard also released several CDs:

  • Musique berbère du Haut-Atlas, 1971
  • Maroc, musique berbère, un mariage dans le Haut-Atlas oriental, 1975
  • Berbères du Maroc, “Ahwach”, 1979.

Over the same period, Philip Schuyler (later involved in the issuing of the 4-CD Bowles recordings) was conducting research, such as

  • “Berber professional musicians in performance”, in Gerard Béhague (ed.) Performance practice: ethnomusicological perspectives (1984),

as well as also producing his own recordings.

For more on ahouach and ahidus festivals, I also like the slim tome

  • Miriam Roving Olsen, Chants et danses de l’Atlas (1997, with CD).

The Moroccan cultural authorities produced a 31-CD set in 2002, critically reviewed here, as well as a 66-CD set. There are further revelations in the 10-CD anthology, Chikhates and chioukhs of the Aïta (2017).

Still (my usual refrain), audio recordings are all very well, and they make an important adjunct to silent analysis on the page; but it seems sad to reduce the intense, exhilarating vibrancy of such social activities (not least dancing) to disembodied sound objects (cf. McClary‘s “denial of the body”)—like the “red-hot sociality” of Chinese temple fairs and funerals, they cry out to be documented on ethnographic film. I’ve spent ages searching online for even brief clips that aren’t too commodified—try this, from the moussem of Sidi Douad, Ouarzazate, in 2004:

But as I glimpsed while eavesdropping on a wedding in the Atlas mountains in 2000, neither academic analysis nor audio or video representations can substitute for actual participation in such events.

Wedding, Imlil 2000. My photos.

Meanwhile, along with tourism, Moroccan culture became an inevitable victim of heritagisation. There are some perceptive articles on the fate of Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh under the Intangible Cultural Heritage, such as

  • Thomas Schmitt, “Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech; changes to a social space and to a UNESCO masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity as a result of global influence”, Arab world geographer 8.4 (2005), and
  • Thomas Beardslee, “Whom does heritage empower, and whom does it silence? Intangible Cultural Heritage at the Jemaa el Fnaa, Marrakech”, International journal of heritage studies 22.2 (2016).

General surveys include “Morocco” in The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians. And the article on Morocco in The Rough Guide to world music (Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, pp.567–78) provides an accessible introduction, covering both traditional and popular genres, including ritual gnaoua (latterly adapted to become flavour-of-the-month on the World Music scene—cf. final remark here), chaabi, and the Moroccan version of raï. Songlines also has regular coverage.

* * *

It was Bowles’s own reputation that was responsible in no small measure for attracting the hippies who began to descend on Tangier in the early 1960s, hot on the heels of the first-wave Beats. But as Sawyer-Lauçanno relates (pp.355–6):

This influx created a certain amount of alarm in the expatriate community, most of whom were fairly affluent, well established, and prone to anxiety about their status in Morocco, particularly since independence. William Burroughs commented that the established residents “all felt that the beatniks were endangering their own position, casting aspersions on the foreign colony. And the old settlers were terrified, outraged: ‘The first thing you know they’ll get us all thrown out.’ ” This panic extended to Bowles and Jane, as well. According to Burroughs, “Jane and [her partner] Cherifa were trying to cast a spell on the beatniks. Jane would say, ‘I don’t want to really hurt any of them, just make them a little sick so they’ll go away.’ They were all hysterical that way, particularly the Bowleses. Both of them were always worried that they were going to be thrown out.”

group 1961

Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, Alan Ansen, Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg, Tangier 1961.

Paul, always immaculately turned out, was less than enamoured with the beatnik invasion. Ironically, it was to his parents that he sent this prurient description:

Every day one sees more beards and filthy blue jeans, and the girls look like escapees from lunatic asylums, with white lipstick and black smeared around their eyes, and matted hair hanging around their shoulders. The leaders of the “movement” have made their headquarters here and direct their activities from here. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Burroughs are all established in Tangier now, sending out their publications from here.

Sawyer-Lauçanno goes on:

Despite his disparaging remarks and anxiety about deportation, Bowles made a distinction between the literary beatniks and what Burroughs terms “the lesser beats”, the hangers-on, the beatniks in style only. Indeed, during the early part of the 1960s, Bowles spent a good deal of time in the company of the “movement’s leaders”.

Given the unorthodoxy of their own tastes, all this may seem A Bit Rich… Chacun à son trou, surely.

Still, in the shadow of wartime trauma, when many were simply relieved to be able to tend the begonias of their suburban gardens in peace, I’m always impressed by such early explorers as Bowles. Some, like Gary Snyder, went in search of the wisdom of the Mystic East, while others were drawn to the Middle East and north Africa. But their engagement with folk culture varied.

I rarely presume to venture into the Islamic world, but see also here, and notably the Uyghur tag. For hand-clapping, see here.


[1] See also e.g.,,, and


For anyone living on another planet (immersed in medieval Daoist ritual manuals, or whatever)…

As if the Women’s World Cup wasn’t enough, I’m only too happy to subscribe to the mass adulation for Cori Gauff at Wimbledon. Her two victories were just exhilarating.

Mature and focused at 15, she’s an inspiration. Her parents seem great too.

CG parents

She was charming in handling the usual fatuous questions at her 3rd-round press conference:

When you were match point down on Centre Court, were you thinking, what would Venus and Serena do?

Er, no! …

which ranks along with Bertrand Russell’s comment after his plane crash. And at the risk of sounding like the woman visiting the young Living Buddha, I love the way she tucks her chair into the desk at the end.


[Spoiler: typical Grauniad-reading liberal metropolitan elite quote coming up] At a time when the world seems doomed to suffer under mendacious cynical rich old white men, we all need role models like Coco—a list that might also include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg, Katelyn Ohashi, and indeed Oxana Thaili. It’s no coincidence that most of these inspiring figures are female.

Cori 2

I wish her well, and look forward to the day when AOC can welcome her to the White House!

Update: US Open
In the latest episode of the story, Coco’s home crowd has been exulting in her style, social media goes even wilder, and in defeat she is magnanimously persuaded by Naomi Osaka to share this moving post-match interview:

See also Enough already.

Another update: the principled response of Coco and Naomi to the murder of George Floyd.

Flamenco: a recap

flamenco tree

Attending another flamenco gig at Chiswick last weekend (a vain attempt to kick-start the “summer”) reminds me of the riches of the genre.

I wrote a series of posts with the aid of the remarkable documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante. As I observed, flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that.


flamenco: gender and politics

  • Flamenco, 3: the soul of cante jondo: based on the work of Timothy Mitchell, this post includes the most intensely moving solo sung genres (or “self-pity, posturing machismo, hypersensitive adolescent egos, and a defensive flight into narcissistic ethnicity”) like saetas, martinetes, and seguiriyas, with singers including Niña de los Peines, Agujetas, Terremoto, and Camarón.

For yet more wonderful programmes from the Rito series, see

For other regional styles around Spain, see Songs of Valencia and Festive soundscapes of the Rioja. For more, including Portuguese fado, see Iberia tag.

Great works missing the crucial element


The current Munch exhibition at the British Museum includes his 1892 sketch for what soon became The scream(my title: People taking pleasant stroll). This suggests further drôle potential—such as

  • Leonardo’s charming landscape Just got a text from Mona Lisa saying she’s held up in traffic
  • Vermeer’s early sketch Girl not wearing any earrings (“Oops, forget me turban too—What Am I Like?!”)

and of course The last-but-one supper, without the kangaroo:

And then there’s the ouevre of Alphonse Allais (see The world of Alphonse Allais, “translated” by Miles Kington), including a totally white canvas called Anaemic young girls going to their first Communion through a blizzard, and a red composition entitled Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes by the Red Sea (the latter an early version of the popular Explosion in a tomato factory at sunset). Such experiments were yet more radical than that of Monet’s Rouen cathedral in the morning fog (see also “F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted“).

Further suggestions welcome.

For Chinese poetry, I think of the popular Tang genre “On visiting a hermit and not finding him in“. And on the musical front, there’s a popular series called Music Minus One, providing recordings of the accompaniments to famous pieces of chamber music, jazz, and so on without the solo part, to help soloists practise. Some Wag once gave me a blank CD entitled Music Minus One: the Bach partitas for solo violin.

I still await a response to my requests for versions of Das Lied von der Erde without the mandolin, L’enfant et les sortilèges without the cheese grater, and the finale of Éclairs sur l’au-delà … without the triangle.

On a rather different tack, note the mini-museum for gerbils under quarantine. See also The global art market, and Yak re-enactments.


* For some musical screams, see my posts on Sibelius 7 and notably the horrifying sequence in Mahler 10.

Billie Holiday

So far I’ve struggled to resist devoting this site entirely to Billie Holiday, just rationing myself to her captivating 1957 TV Fine and mellow and a few tracks in other posts. Of course she is one of the stars of my Playlist of songs (indeed, everyone’s). *

But to follow Barbara Hannigan singing a Berg-tinged Embraceable you, I just had to go back to Billie singing it—both 1944 and 1957 versions here:

Among my all-time top songs of hers, You’re my thrill is strangely neglected, as she herself lamented. Again, apart from the extraordinary nuances of her voice, intoxicating and intoxicated (surely this is her ode to heroin), note the chromatic melody and disoncerting leaps (I’ve extolled the magic of the major 7th, and now I feel a paean to the minor 7th coming on) and the brilliant noir orchestration—smoochy strings, wind arabesques, languid swaggering brass interlude:

You’re my thrill
You do something to me
You send chills right through me
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

You’re my thrill
How my pulse increases
I just go to pieces
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

Nothing seems to matter
Here’s my heart on a silver platter

Where’s my will?
Why this strange desire
That keeps mounting higher?
When I look at you
I can’t keep still
You’re my thrill…

It was also natural that Chet Baker, not to be outdone in the shooting-up department, should perform the song:

Generally Chet’s singing has an intensity that matches that of Billie, but for this song I’d always choose her (not that we have to choose). In Chet in Italy I’ve also included two versions of These foolish things sung by her.

In Lover man the orchestration again complements Billie’s vocals:

Meanwhile in 1944, far from the turmoil of Europe (just as ethnologist Germain Tillion was composing Le verfügbar aux enfers for her fellow Ravensbrück inmates), a young Miles Davis was combing the New York streets for Charlie Parker, as he describes in one of the great passages of jazz writing.

Billie’s Don’t explain is amazing too. The lyrics, meekly tolerating infidelity, may now seem as dubious as Stand by your man (and dodgy lyrics are by no means the prerogative of popular music), but as always Billie somehow transforms the song:

And whereas she looks radiant in the 1957 TV broadcast, here’s her harrowing live performance of Don’t explain the following year, with more pain than joy:

To learn more about how all this works, apart from the innumerable books on Billie, I keep learning from Berliner’s Thinking in jazz.


* I learn to my chagrin that I’m not the first to discover either Billie or Aretha—but perhaps I can claim credit for the first recording of Dona Rosa.

A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao

Věna Hrdličková, Zdeněk Hrdlička,
and narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing

with qi baishi

Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička with Qi Baishi, Beijing 1952.

This article is based on material kindly provided by Lucie Olivová (former student of Věna Hrdličková) and the couple’s grandson Zdeněk.

My brief mention of narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing leads me to a remarkable Czech couple, and thence to the Prague sinologists, prompting me to consider the work of Chinese and Czechoslovak scholars—and their tribulations.

The Prague sinologistsPrusek
The Prague school of sinology became widely admired for its achievements in the realms of modern and traditional Chinese literature, linguistics, history, and philosophy. It was led by the great Jaroslav Průšek (1906–80), who became head of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University.

Do read Marián Gálik’s useful introduction to their work up to the demise of state socialism. [1] It both attests to their remarkable energy and gives glimpses of careers and lives (both Czech and Chinese) frustrated by political currents—among countless instances, we might compare the vicissitudes of the great Ming scholar Wang Shixiang.

Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička
For Věna Hrdličková (1925–2016) and her husband Zdeněk Hrdlička (1919–99), useful introductions are

  • Lucie Olivová, “Chinese and Japanese storytelling: selected topical bibliography of the works of Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička”, CHINOPERL papers 25 (2004), pp.87–97 [2]
  • Vibeke Børdahl, “In memory of Věna Hrdličková, 1925–2016”, CHINOPERL papers 35.1 (2016), pp.83–8 (here).

Among their own articles are

  • Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Old Chinese ballads to the accompaniment of the big drum,”Archiv orientální 25.1 (1957), pp. 83–145
  • Věna and Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Lianhua lao and its traditions”, in Vibeke Børdahl (ed.), The eternal storyteller: oral literature in modern China (1999), pp.71–7.

I am also most grateful to the Hrdlickas’ grandson Zdeněk for sharing further material—including a draft translation (awaiting publication) of an eloquent series of interviews in Czech with Věna by Ivana Bakešová (Czech Chinese Society, Prague, 2016). Below, apart from direct citations (indented), I have collated and adapted text from all these sources.

Early years
Under the Nazi occupation, universities were closed and most Czech books were forbidden. Věna came from a schoolmaster’s family, whose classroom was a hut with an earthen floor. Teachers now had to say Heil Hitler! as they entered the classroom—though, as Věna recalled, they did it carelessly, just waving their hand at most.

Managing to avoid being sent to work in Germany, at high school Věna studied English, when most schools were teaching French and German. Meanwhile she attended dance school—where she met her future husband Zdeněk. His father, a widowed railwayman, was also a bandmaster.

The couple became interested in China—Věna inspired by early poetry, Zdeněk with a view to contemporary prospects. They discovered that they could study Chinese with Průšek at the Oriental Institute. In 1945 Zdeněk, together with other colleagues, founded the journal Nový Orient [New Orient]—still being published.

In 1946, at Průšek’s recommendation, they received scholarships from the Ministry of Education to study in the USA. They travelled by train to Paris, where a sailors’ strike compelled them to spend a month, and then took the ship to New York. Since term hadn’t yet begun, they used the interlude to get married. They spent two years studying in the USA (Věna at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Zdeněk at Harvard), attending lectures and seminars by John Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and others. Following the war, Harvard was now favouring modern spoken Chinese above classical studies.

In 1948 they returned to Europe by ship from Québec. Back in Czechoslovakia the Communists, under Soviet domination, were tightening their grip. As I remind myself, Prague was still recovering from the trauma of long Nazi occupation, the devastation caused in the 1945 uprising and Soviet “liberation”, and the ensuing expulsions of (and vengeance upon) the German population. [3]

As Czech universities reopened, the couple enrolled in Sinology and Religious Studies at Charles University; Věna also studied Japanese. Zdeněk graduated in 1949 with a thesis on the Daoist concept of immortality; the next year Věna graduated with her thesis on the author Ki no Tsurayuki in Heian Japan.

1950s’ China
Meanwhile in 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded. That year a Chinese Peace Delegation visited Czechoslovakia, led by Guo Moruo, soon to be president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Zdeněk was chosen to attend. From 1950 he was employed at the Oriental Department of the Ministry of Information and Culture, and that winter the couple joined the first Czechoslovak cultural delegation to the PRC, led by Průšek.

They took the Trans-Siberian train, stopping off in Moscow for a couple of days. There Věna recalled the perils of crossing chaotic roads with crazy drivers, and admired the palatial metro system. And then they took the train through Siberia. In the dining carriage, as Švejk connoisseurs they shared their enthusiasm with an elderly gentleman. After spending the night in a little hotel at the border in Manzhouli, they changed to a Chinese train. Průšek, cracking sunflower seeds, was full of expectation. They arrived in Beijing in beautiful sunny weather, the sky clear above the glistening rooftops of the Forbidden City near the embassy. Their affable hosts had new winter coats made for them.

Still, returning to Beijing after an absence of around ten years, Průšek was disappointed, exclaiming “This is not the China I knew.” And while Prague in the late 1940s, recovering from war, must have been devastated, Věna’s strongest initial impression of Beijing was the poverty. When they arrived in the winter cold, she stood through the night at her window in the Beijing Hotel watching rickshaws trudging through the snow. She was also shocked by the lines of blind people walking the streets. She admired the Chinese for the speed with which they were able to fall asleep, no matter where they were. But as she became acquainted with the society, she appreciated the urge of the Chinese to improve their conditions.

In 1951 Zdeněk was appointed the first Czechoslovak cultural attaché to the PRC. Wanting to live among the Chinese rather than in an expat bubble, they rented a modest siheyuan courtyard house, living beside poor neigbours in Zhong Shicao hutong alley just west of the Zhihua temple—just as Yang Yinliu and his colleagues were discovering the Beijing temple traditions there.

Lao Zui lowres

With Lao Zui. Photo: courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.

Their cook Lao Zui served as a general fixer for them, finding them books and arranging for a lianhualao troupe to perform at their house. Their first son, also called Zdeněk, was born in Beijing in 1952; their teacher (a Manchu) gave him the Chinese name Huasheng 华生 “born in China”, soon adapted by their nanny to Huashengmi (Peanut). Their second son Stanislav was born in 1957.

During a period of remarkably good relations between the two countries, the couple got to know leading cultural figures—including academician Guo Moruo, painters Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, Slavic scholar Ge Baoquan 戈宝权 (1913–2000), authors Mao Dun, Ding Ling, and Lao She, Indeed, Lao She had also been studying in the USA, but had made the fateful decision to return to the New China out of patriotic idealism.

As secretary the Hrdličkas were happy to find Yang Leyun 杨乐云 (1919-2009). Among her later translations into Chinese were the works of Bohumil Hrabal—another Czech author hardly suited to state socialism.

By contrast with most pampered Western academics, the couple had in common with Chinese scholars a legacy of occupation and a tacit awareness of the constraints of the new society.

During their mission they negotiated an official gift of Chinese books to the Oriental Institute, which became the core of the Lu Xun Library in Prague, and the purchase of Chinese antiquities for the National Gallery.

Meanwhile in 1953 a Czechoslovak team was filming a documentary about the construction of the Sichuan–Tibet highway—including rare glimpses of a landscape of daily Tibetan life and traditional ritual that was soon to be erased. Premiered in 1955, the film won awards at the film festivals in Venice and Karlovy Vary. It was screened in Czechoslovak cinemas in 1956, but it was later banned by the Communist authorities, right until its recent rediscovery and showing in Prague.

After the 1949 “Liberation” these early years of the PRC were a relatively optimistic period, before collectivization and campaigns intensified. By contrast with residents from the Western bloc, [4] not renowned for their devotion to Chinese expressive culture, the Hrdlička couple were exceptionally interested in the performing arts, immersing themselves in the narrative-singing scene.

Narrative-singing in early 1950s’ Beijing
Sinology has traditionally been concerned mainly with silent written texts, and remains so in many branches of the field. As Věna later recalled, they were now drawn to oral performance culture because with some 80% of the population illiterate, it was largely thus that they transmitted their history and culture. They were also aware that oral traditions would be threatened by the modern media.

In China there was little ethnographic discussion of the changing conditions of narrative-singing between the 1940s and the Cultural Revolution, but the couple provide some glimpses. Following in the footsteps of Průšek in the 1930s, they often visited the Tianqiao quarter. In an article published in 1968 Věna evoked their explorations:

The T’ien-ch’iao, Peking’s Heavenly Bridge, was one of the most colourful places of this kind, where not only storytellers but also other entertainers regularly competed for attention. Despite its exalted name, it was an unpretentious marketplace with simple earthen arenas, small crude huts and humble teahouses, but it offered much enjoyment for modest sums. We spent there many unforgettable hours enthralled by the mastery of puppeteers, the deftness of magicians, the incredible skill of acrobats, and of course the art of the storytellers. They often commented on our presence with improvised verses, which, though not complimentary, were witty and never really offensive. Eventually, when we became more familiar with fairly frequent attendance, they treated us in the same way as they did the Chinese in their audiences.
We used to invite itinerant storytellers and ballad-singers to our residence in Peking. Though their dress made it obvious that they were poor, their professional pride gave them great dignity. After singing, they were served tea. They then would bow and leave quietly. Some of them in time became our friends, divulging the secrets of their art and helping us to collect handwritten and printed texts of various forms of shuo-shu.

In their article on lianhua lao they recalled:

In the early 1950s we had occasion to watch a group performing caichang lianhua lao in the Tianqiao market, while we were studying shuochang in the field. Thus we made their acquaintance and they consented to give us a performance in our home, in a typical hutong [lane], Zhongshi caor in the eastern part of the capital. These performers from the marketplace presented their act in the courtyard, surrounded by a wall. In addition to the principal of the troupe, Wang Pingtan, there were two women singers, a comic actor, and a musician [on sanxian]; they were typical folk performers, and obviously of low social standing. They had not yet been brought under the aegis of any of the professional organizations then being set up to reform the narrative arts by purging their repertoire of elements of feudalism, as the phrase was, and replacing this with texts that could serve political ends, and help in the struggle against illiteracy, corruption, or for equality of the sexes.

Of course, despite the formation of such troupes, only a few performers were ever recruited to this cause, and only sporadically—as we can see in my notes from Shaanbei. In the cities (such as Yulin), change would have been caused as much by the evolving control of public space as by political elements.


Teahouse in Tianqiao, 1987. My photos.

After I began working in China from 1986, I only dabbled in the narrative-singing scene in Beijing. Whereas many amateur clubs remained active after reviving, the Tianqiao scene enjoyed but a brief revival in the 80s before the area was irretrievably glamourized. Though narrative-singing moved to more salubrious fake-antique venues, some charming amateur clubs have persisted.

Prague and Japan
Their time in China was interrupted when Zdeněk was recalled to Prague in 1954, where he now taught Asian history at Charles University. When they returned to Prague, Věna completed her doctoral thesis on storytelling, based on her fieldwork in China. She defended it in 1959.

The 1956 revolts in Hungary and Poland had ramifications in China—where the short-lived Hundred Flowers movement soon led to the Anti-Rightist campaign, condemning many to tragic fates. Meanwhile Hungarian and Chinese musicologists met in Beijing.

When the Czechoslovak diplomatic mission in Tokyo reopened belatedly in 1957, Zdeněk was appointed chargé d’affaires there (1957–61), later serving as Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador (1964–69). They decided to live in a Japanese-style house.

They were on good terms with the Soviet ambassador Nikolai Fedorenko (1912–2000), “an elegant, handsome man” with a wealth of international experience, who served as Soviet representative at the UN from 1963 to 1968. Over at the American embassy were their former teachers John Fairbank and Serge Elisséeff.

They could only take the boys to Tokyo under the condition that they would attend Russian school, but when circumstances became a bit more relaxed they transferred them to Japanese school, where they were taught in Japanese in the mornings and in English in the afternoons; the children were happy there, and apart from speaking Czech at home and learning Russian they became fluent in Japanese and English. Their grandchildren too followed in the family footsteps.

Despite the intensive workload in these posts, the couple continued to pursue their cultural interests enthusiastically. Věna continued to explore folk story-telling. Each tea-house had a banner saying which story-teller was going to perform that day. They were pleasantly surprised to find small story-telling theatres in the Ueno quarter, including one for rakugo 落語. They were enchanted by Japanese folk ceramics, travelling throughout Japan to collect them, and later presenting them in exhibitions and writings. They studied the tea ceremony, cuisine, gardens and bonsai.

I note superfluously that during their interlude in Prague they do not seem to have met the young Alexei Sayle, later himself to become a folk storyteller…

The Prague Spring and “normalization”
Amidst diverse global revolutions, the couple was spared the Cultural Revolution in China. Their old acquaintance the great author Lao She, himself an aficionado of narrative-singing, was hounded to death in 1966.

But in August 1968 the Prague Spring was brutally crushed when the Warsaw Pact armies occupied Czechoslovakia. The family were on holiday in Prague. It was night-time, and still jet-lagged, they didn’t hear the airplanes with their transports of tanks—they were only woken by the sound of someone shouting: “The Russians have invaded!” Věna thought it was nonsense until she switched on the radio. Zdeněk immediately set off for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where a lot of employees had already gathered, moving to safety some documents that might be of potential interest to the invaders.

He was ordered to return immediately to Japan. Not knowing what was awaiting them, or even if they would ever be able to return, they only took bare necessities in their rucksacks. A friend drove them to the Austrian border, and they flew Swiss Air to Tokyo. At the airport they were met by embassy employees and Japanese reporters; Zdeněk made it clear that the country had been brutally invaded. The newspapers published photographs of him and Dubček. The Czechoslovak flag was flown at half-staff on the embassy building.

As Věna recalled, the Japanese were supportive, but diplomats behaved according to their political affiliations; among the east Europeans, only the Romanians could offer any support. At first, embassy employees unequivocally condemned the occupation, but then gradually things became blurred. As it became clear how the situation was going to evolve, some started distancing themselves.

The couple’s postings to China and Japan evoke the career of Robert van Gulik, who served in China before the Communist takeover, going on to successive postings in Japan. Of course, they moved in different circles: the only contacts between diplomats of the Western and Soviet allies occurred at formal receptions. Still, in Tokyo the couple did indeed meet van Gulik. His third posting there from 1965 had to be interrupted in June 1967 so he could return to the Netherlands for medical treatment, where he died in September. But after the Prague coup the following year van Gulik’s son Pieter sent Zdeněk this letter of sympathy:

Gulik letter lowres

Courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.

Meanwhile, with murky realpolitik, the Chinese leadership also denounced the Soviet-led intervention—ironically, given their support for the quelling of the 1956 Budapest uprising (not to mention later events in Beijing).

Jan Palach’s self-immolation in 1969 predated the common resort of Tibetans protesting occupation.

The couple remained in Tokyo for around a year, but they took recall as a matter of course; they knew what awaited them, and never considered emigration. As soon as they arrived back in Prague, Zdeněk was sacked from the ministry. He briefly became research fellow at the Oriental Institute, but during the so-called “period of normalization” [5] that followed the repression he lost his new post—he wasn’t even admitted to the Oriental Institute library.

While his was a high-profile demotion, he was not alone: as Gálik shows, several other Czech sinologists, including the great Průšek, were expelled from the Academy of Sciences, and the Party, over these years. No-one was immune, neither academics nor ordinary workers.

The Hrdličkas had to go to some lengths to secure the children’s progress in education, with help from their neighbour Jiří Marek (1914–94), author of the script for the 1968 TV series Sinful people of the city of Prague. Věna was pressured into taking early retirement, and Zdeněk too received a small allowance. They took their fate stoically.

Wine-Press Manor
In 1976 Zdeněk and Věna retreated into idyllic rural seclusion—emulating principled ancient Chinese literati like the poet Tao Yuanming (never an option, alas, for their counterparts in Maoist China). In the tiny village of Brzánky on the river Elbe the couple cultivated their Wine-Press Manor (Na Lisu); visitors delighted in the magical atmosphere there, discussing poetry and the arts in the garden over wine with their hosts.

Their bucolic retreat, though dilapidated, had a large plot of land. Without electricity, they had no fridge, but they did have a cold cellar. They grew garlic, kept bees, harvested fruit, and made their own wine—which though ordinaire, they relished because of the work and joy that went into it. In a way it was a beautiful life, giving them time to read and study. Věna later reflected wryly that by depriving them of employment the regime improved their health.

They liked to have guests, such as the renowned art historian František Dvořák with his wife Nataša, and their friends like the artists Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977) and Kamil Lhoták (1812-1990). Denied passports, the couple weren’t allowed to travel abroad; but over the years their foreign friends managed to visit them at the cottage. They maintained contacts with Russian friends who had denounced the occupation. In April 1989 their old friend Ge Baoquan visited them there:

with GBQ lowres

Photo courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.

Through the oppressive years of Soviet occupation, Věna managed to keep her post of lecturer at the Department of Asian and African studies of Charles University—still, she was only belatedly awarded the full dozent professorial qualification in 1990. In the Department she mainly taught Chinese literature, training a number of students—including Lucie Olivová. Věna’s textbooks The history of Chinese classical literature, vol.1 (1980), and An introduction to sinology (with Jaromír Vochala, 1985) are still valued.

Most of the studies that Věna and Zdeněk wrote jointly during the 1970s and 80s could only be published under her name. A couple of journals were bold enough to publish his papers, but Nový Orient, the popular journal for Asia—which Zdeněk had created—remained closed to him.

Meanwhile, of course, many of their friends, both at home and in China, were punished in many ways from the mid-50s until the early 80s. Both peoples had suffered under wartime occupation and had to adapt to one-party rule; both had seen brief liberalizations ruthlessly crushed.

A certain rehabilitation came when Zdeněk, with other enthusiasts, was able to found the first ever Bonsai club in Prague, which later became the Prague Bonsai Society. They published a quarterly newsletter from 1981; from 1990 it became a journal in successive incarnations. As well as organizing activities, exhibitions, and lectures, here it was possible for Zdeněk to publish. The couple designed several Chinese and Japanese gardens in Czechoslovakia, receiving a gold medal for the design of a Japanese garden at the Flora Olomouc Exhibition in 1983.

Since 1989

Vena 2004

Věna in China, 2004.

After the Velvet revolution of 1989, new freedoms opened a sudden range of possibilities. The couple once again traveled to the USA, Japan, and China.

In the new Czech Republic, they participated in the re-establishment of the Czech-Chinese Society and the Czech-Japanese Society. They organized projects such as an exhibition of paintings by Qi Baishi at the National Gallery at Prague, and the publications of miscellanies, including the often-reprinted Èajová zastavení [Tea stations] (Prague, 1997). Věna published literary translations of contemporary Chinese novels, and Chinese and Japanese folk tales, which appeared in splendid Czech and foreign editions. She translated over a hundred films, mainly from Japanese, for Czech TV and other distributors. She was much decorated.

So at last they were able to publish under their own names. After working together at the tranquil cottage, the couple published the popular book Emperor Shenzong’s China (Čína císaře Šen-cunga) and books about Japanese and Chinese gardens.

Zdeněk’s sudden death in March 1999 came as a painful shock to all his friends and acquaintances; however, Věna continued her activities and research with commitment and perseverance.

Chinese studies of narrative-singing
After 1949, although the Hrdlička couple explored the narrative-singing scene on their own initiative rather than in collaboration with Chinese scholars, the latter too were busy studying and promoting the diverse genres along the middle of the vocal spectrum from folk-song to opera.

Of course, the big cities were only the tip of the iceberg. Later studies tended to focus on the Jiangnan region, but genres still common around Beijing and Tianjin include Jingyun dagu 京韻大鼓, Meihua dagu 梅花大鼓, and Xihe dagu 西河大鼓. Yang Yinliu himself began studying the danxian 单弦 melodies of Beijing as early as 1950, soon after arriving there.
Shuochang yinyue

For a nationwide inventory, see

  • Shuochang yinyue 说唱音乐 (ed. Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo, 1961).

While its 589 pages consist almost entirely of transcriptions, it includes a useful bibliography. Many festivals were also held through the 1950s.


National festival of narrative-singing, August 1958.

1954Above: danxian performer Rong Jianchen (front, 4th from left) with disciples, 1954.
Below: Founding of drum-singing guild, Tianqiao, 1940s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.