Famine: Ukraine and China

LHJ 456 Kings detail

North Shanxi, Ten Kings ritual painting, detail: see here.

*Companion to two posts on the fates of blind bards in Ukraine and China*

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are an essential backdrop to the lives and cultures of people we meet doing fieldwork in China, including expressive culture and ritual. They loom large in the life stories of peasants whom I’ve got to know—like the villagers of Gaoluo in Hebei, and the inhabitants of Yanggao county in Shanxi (see below). And I haven’t even visited the worst-affected regions, like Henan, Anhui, or Gansu.

Yet this is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

I began by writing about expressive culture under state socialism in Ukraine and China, and I’ve given links to some basic readings on the Chinese famineGlobally, one might also adduce 1840s’ Ireland, Bengal 1943, North Korea, and chronic famines in Africa. A classic study is

  • Amartya Sen, Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation (1981).

However, one estimate suggests that 80% of 20th-century famine victims died in the Soviet Union and China.

Ukraine: the 1933 Holodomor
Here I discuss the Holodomor; in a post to follow I’ll take the story on to World War Two.

I found it useful to read these works in conjunction:

  • Robert Conquest, The harvest of sorrow (1986)
  • Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
  • Anne Applebaum, Red famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine (2017): reviewed by Sheila Fitzpatrick here, and, more critically, by Sophie Pinkham here.

One might begin with Applebaum’s summary of research in her Chapter 15 “The Holodomor in history and memory”, as well as Chapter 14 “The Cover-up” and her Epilogue. Snyder’s Chapter 1, “The Soviet famines”, makes a useful summary. While Conquest’s book, written before the collapse of the USSR, was a fine early study (for a review, with a fractious exchange, see here), Applebaum writes with the benefit of three decades of further research, using impressive Ukrainian sources and oral history projects since the 1980s (the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and many websites, including an interview database led by William Noll); and she offers insights on the changing political scene since the 1990s. Her maps are very good too (and note this site).

Conquest’s book was published soon after the 1985 documentary Harvest of despair (following the film proper, from 54′, are further interviews):

Note also Sergei Bukovsky, The living (aka Spell your name, or Live, 2006):

* * *

In the aftermath of World War One (see e.g. Why the First World War failed to end) and the Russian revolution, as the population was bludgeoned into submitting to the kolkhoz collective farms, the term kulak was soon devalued to denote anyone questioning Party policy—“enemies of the people”, as an odious phrase currently in vogue goes. Vasily Grossman cited a woman activist (Harvest of sorrow, p.129):

What I said to myself at the time was “they are not human beings, they are kulaks” … Who thought up this word “kulak” anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.”

Conquest (p.118) cites an activist in 1930:

He has a sick wife, five children and not a crumb of bread in the house. And that’s what we call a kulak! The kids are in rags and tatters. They all look like ghosts. I saw the pot on the oven—a few potatoes in water. That was their supper tonight.

This reminds me how fellow villagers of kindly Daoist Li Qing (see also my film, and book) ribbed him for his status as a “rich peasant” (see here, under “The sojourn of Educated Youth”).

Over a long period there was constant unrest, with mass executions and deportations. Defiance (which indeed soon offered the only hope of survival) took the form not only of lethargy; violent resistance was common—not least from women. Rebellions had broken out as early as 1919 (Harvest of sorrow ch.3, Red famine ch.2). A widespread famine ensued in 1921. But it wasn’t kept secret, and international aid was welcomed (notably from the American Relief Administration)—whereas by 1933 the scale of the disaster was concealed, and no foreign aid was accepted.

While periodic retrenchments, and “indigenization” policies, were brief, an uneasy stalemate prevailed in the 1920s. Conquest opens The harvest of sorrow thus:

At the beginning of 1927, the Soviet peasant, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or of other nationality, had good reason to look forward to a tolerable future. The land was his; and he was reasonably free to dispose of his crop. The fearful period of grain-seizure, of peasant rising suppressed in blood, of devastating famine, were over, and the Bolshevik government seemed to have adopted a reasonable settlement of the countryside’s interests.

Even by 1929 (Red famine p.113–14),

as Dolot remembered it, the presence of the Soviet state in his village had been minimal. “We were completely free in our movements. We took pleasure trips and travelled freely looking for jobs. We went to the big cities and neighboring towns to attend weddings, church bazaars, and funerals. No one asked us for documents or questioned us about our destinations.” […] The Soviet Union was in change, but not every aspect of life was controlled by the state, and peasants lived much as they had in the past.

Politics had remained loose and decentralized. The choice of Ukrainian or Russian schooling was made in the locale itself; villages were still self-governing, and the various groups tried to accommodate one another. In a passage reminiscent of China (see e.g. here, under “Old and new stories”), for Christmas Day in Pylypivka,

the boys made a star [traditional for carollers] and thought about how to design it. After some debate, a decision was made: on one side of the star, an icon of the Mother of God would be featured, while on the other, a five-pointed [Soviet] star.
In addition, they learned not only old carols, but also new ones. They made a plan: when they were approaching a communist’s house, they would display the five-pointed star and sing the new carols, but when they approached the house of a religious man, they would display the icon of the Mother of God, and would sing [old carols].

But such flexibility was short-lived. Pressure escalated from 1927; as urban activists met stubborn resistance from peasants, they soon found that brutal coercion was the only way of fulfilling their brief. The new wave of collectivization soon led to famine. Despite the introduction of “internal passports”, starving peasants continued their migration to urban industrial centres. The gulag system (on which, among the vast literature, Applebaum also has a definitive study) expanded massively.

Major rebellions erupting in 1930 caused Stalin to tone down the rhetoric briefly (though the title of the anthem of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, “Ukraine has not yet died”, sung by armed rebels in 1930, doesn’t seem entirely encouraging.)

At the height of the famine, as later in China, cannibalism and insanity became common. Meanwhile there were purges at all levels of the Party too.

Conquest gives a prophetic quote, further foretelling the current total surveillance in Xinjiang:

What gave the regime its advantage both in 1930–31 and even more in 1932–33 was that it was now organized and centralized as it had not been in 1921. Herzen, back in the 1860s, had said that what he most feared was a “Genghis Khan with the telegraph”.

Religion and culture
The church (in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church—currently engaged in a divorce from the Moscow Patriarchate) was both a target of and a focus for resistance—as later in China. Church bells were melted down, icons smashed. The rituals of traditional peasant life—and thus musical traditions—were disrupted.

Alongside the major branches of the church, the repression and survival of the diverse sectarian groups is a rich theme, including Protestants, Evangelicals, and the Molokans—see also Margarita Mazo, “Change as confirmation of continuity as experienced by Russian Molokans”, in Retuning culture: musical changes in central and Eastern Europe (1996).

As to expressive culture, the itinerant kobzari blind minstrels soon disappeared. Meanwhile,

The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by the central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture [sic] to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. Then they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt. (Bloodlands, p.47)

With all this background it becomes easier to understand why the blind minstrels were dying out, along with the culture of which they were part—although I wonder why they were not erased so efficiently in China under Maoism.

One member of a local concert band recalled playing for funerals of activists murdered by irate peasants:

For us it was a happy event because every time somebody was killed, they would take us to the village, give us some food and then we would play at the funeral. And we were looking forward every time to the next funeral, because that meant food for us. (Red famine, p.150)

Again, I heard similar stories in China, such as north Shanxi:

When Li Yuanmao’s father died of hunger in 1960, no-one even had the strength to dig a grave for him. In a village in nearby Tianzhen county, even the village cadres volunteered to carry the coffin just so they could get a paltry mantou steamed bread roll to eat (Daoist priests, p.119).

In Ukraine by 1933, apart from the banning of traditional funeral rites,

Nobody had the strength anymore to dig a grave, hold a ceremony, or play music. “There were no funerals,” recalled Kateryna Marchenko. “There were no priests, requiems, tears. There was no strength to cry.”

Meanwhile, cultural institutions, writers, and academics—historians, ethnographers, museum curators—were also under assault.

Talking of documenting folk-song (see here, and here), Snyder cites a children’s song (Bloodlands, p.36):

Father Stalin, look at this
Collective farming is just bliss
The hut’s in ruins, the barn’s all sagged
All the horses broken nags
And on the hut a hammer and sickle
And in the hut death and famine
No cows left, no pigs at all
Just your picture on the wall
Daddy and mommy are in the kolkhoz
The poor child cries as alone he goes
There’s no bread and there’s no fat
The party’s ended all of that
Seek not the gentle nor the mild
A father’s eaten his own child
The party man he beats and stamps
And sends us to Siberian camps.

And a collective farm song from the 1930s (Red famine p.113, cf. p.145):

Green corn waves new shoots
Though planted not long ago
Our brigadier sports new boots
While we barefoot go.

I wonder if Chinese people were singing similar songs around 1960. Still, there neither religious nor cultural life was such a blank slate under Maoism as one might suppose.

The cover-up and aftermath
Somehow, through a series of grudging concessions, the death toll fell by 1934. But with resistance broken, collectivization accelerated.

And no less telling is the story of the cover-up, suggesting further Chinese parallels. The findings of the Soviet census of 1937 were suppressed, and the responsible demographers executed. During the Great Terror of 1937–8,

Mass graves of famine victims were covered up and hidden, and it became dangerous even to know where they were located. In 1938 all the staff of Lukianivske cemetery in Kyiv were arrested, tried, and shot as counter-revolutionary insurgents, probably to prevent them from revealing what they knew.


There were plenty of outside witnesses too, such as Vasily Grossman, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Andrew Cairns, Rhea Clyman—and Gareth Jones, to whom I devote a separate post. The photos of Alexander Wienerberger also provided firm evidence. The influential Walter Duranty knew well, but chose to deny. On the left, pundits like the Webbs averted their gaze in the interests of the greater cause. And diplomatic silence reigned, already aware of the impending need for an alliance with the Soviets against Hitler. Conquest describes the apologists—a large and influential body of Western thought—as “the lobby of the blind and blindfold”. With bitter irony, it was only the Nazis who were prepared to publicize the 1933 famine.


Emerging evidence gave pause to left-leaning scholars like Eric Hobsbawm. But the whole topic still remains highly charged ideologically, as shown by some agitated reviews from both left and right. But exposing the iniquities of state socialism shouldn’t be reduced to a blunt implement monopolized by those on the right to bludgeon the left.

Here’s a trailer for Hunger for truth: the Rhea Clyman story:

And Grossman (cited in Harvest of sorrow, 286) observed:

And the children! Have you ever seen the newspaper photographs of the children in the German camps? They were just like that: their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each bone of their arms and legs protruding from beneath the skin, how bones joined, and the entire skeleton was stretched over with skin that was like yellow gauze. And the children’s faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old. And by spring they no longer had faces at all. Instead, they had birdlike heads with beaks, or frog heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open. Not human faces.

He compares this directly with the Jewish children in the gas chambers and comments, “these were Soviet children and those putting them to death were Soviet people.”

The Holodomor and Great Terror were soon followed by yet more devastating atrocities in World War Two. The population had been decimated and brutalized long before the Nazis invaded. In desperation, many hoped for an invasion to rid them of tyranny.

Ukraine was further devastated by the famine that struck the USSR in 1947—this time alleviated by foreign aid. Applebaum also places the complex interpretations of the famine within the context of Ukraine’s troubled recent history.

Other minorities
The populations of Ukraine (also including Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans) were certainly the worst casualties of the famine: Stalin was waging war not just on recalcitrant peasant individualism but on Ukrainian nationalism. But other minorities also suffered—like the Kazakhs (Harvest of sorrow, ch.9) and Kyrghyz, who, when not being deported, were desperately migrating to and from Xinjiang as conditions changed. Bashkirs, Buryats, Khalkas, Chuvash, and Kalmyks were also hard hit (and the efforts of ethnographers to study the cultures of such peoples were frustrated by censorship and imprisonment). Conquest’s ch.14 on Kuban, Don, and Volga—Cossacks of Ukrainian origin, German minorities, and the North Caucasus—leads to further disturbing stories.

Famine in China
Again, the so-called “three years of difficulty” from 1959 to 1961 were not an isolated tragedy: food shortages in the wake of coercive collectivization were long-term. For many in the countryside, it was a case not of three years of famine but of thirty years of hunger. So I’m impatient with any diachronic ethnography of the lives of rural Chinese dwellers that fails to recognize hunger and malnutrition. I’ve cited some basic sources for the Chinese famine here.

LPS 27

Ghost king, Li Peisen collection.

In Yanggao county, home of the Li family Daoists, I recall the satirical couplet posted during the Cultural Revolution, deploring the lack of clothing and food. But even official sources offer clues. While many county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s may be cautious, that for Yanggao contains impressively candid material (pp.66–72, 26–31; see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.118–22).

While appearing to recognize the impact of natural disasters, the gazetteer hints at the deeper political problems, with sections on the “Communist wind”, the “wind of exaggeration”, the Great Leap Backward, and the short-lived communal canteens. Indeed, it offers alternative insights on the whole Maoist era—such as its account of the model commune of Greater Quanshan, where in the summer of 1958, amidst a flurry of visits by bigwigs, the brutal exactions of a militarized railroad project goaded five hundred peasants to flee (Daoist priests, pp.122–3). Inner Mongolia, a traditional refuge in times of adversity, was a common destination until travel restrictions were enforced. Yanggao dwellers were still hungry for some years after Li Manshan married in 1971 (see here, under “Yao Xiulian”).

So that’s the background behind my internet session with Li Manshan, when I showed him the surprisingly candid Chinese wiki article on the Holodomor.

Comparisons, figures
In China the whole process of collectivization, and the famine, make the most appalling instance of wilfully ignoring the lessons of history; both Chinese and Soviet regimes were in denial.

Several scholars have attempted comparisons with the Soviet famines. Ian Johnson has written an important article “Who killed more: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?“, which I’ll discuss in my next post. Note also

  • Felix Wemheuer, Famine politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (2014)

and review essays by Lucien Bianco (also a major author on peasant uprisings under Maoism):

  • “From the great Chinese famine to the Communist famines”, China perspectives 2013.3, here
  • “Comparing the Soviet and Chinese famines: their perpetrators, actors, and victims”, East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 3.2 (2016), here, with many further refs.

It’s ironic that the official story in China, still often parroted there today, was that food shortages were caused by China’s need to repay the Soviet debt (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.14). And it puts in a chilling perspective my fine lunch at the “1958” restaurant on the People’s University campus in Beijing earlier this year.

In Ukraine and China there was a similar time-lull between famine and renewed terror: in Ukraine from 1933 to 1937, in China from 1960 to 1964. Ukraine suffered a severe post-war famine in 1947, but hunger in China was longer lasting.

Before the famines, rural poverty seems to have been significantly worse in China than in Russia. And (allowing for impressionistic statistics) even in 1926, the literacy rate in Russia was c56%; in China it was still only c20% by 1950. As to life expectancy at birth, for China in 1950, I find a single figure of 35–40 years—lower than that for Ukraine before 1932, for which Applebaum cites: urban men 40–46, urban women 47–52; rural men 42–44 years, rural women 45–48.

By contrast, Ukrainian men born in 1932, in either the city or the countryside, had an average life expectancy of about 30. Women born in that year could expect to live on average to 40. For those born in 1933, the numbers are even starker. Females born in Ukraine in that year lived, on average, to be eight years old. Males born in 1933 could expect to live to the age of five. (Red famine, p.285)

Applebaum cites around 3.9 million excess deaths, plus 0.6 million lost births—around 13% of the Ukrainian population of 31 million. She goes on to delve into regional variations, concluding that

The regions “normally” most affected by drought and famine were less affected in 1932–3 because the famine of those years was not “normal”. It was a political famine, created for the express purpose of weakening peasant resistance, and thus national identity. And in this, it succeeded.

In China from 1959 to 1962 there may have been over 40 million excess deaths (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.37—Wemhauer and Bianco provide important further nuance); even by percentage of population, that gives a very rough estimate of around 16%, still greater than that for Ukraine. In many villages in both Ukraine and China virtually the whole population was wiped out.

Besides, deaths don’t tell the whole story; even for survivors, lives are ruined by malnutrition, desperation, and trauma.

In China, though extreme violence was also endemic, there was less mass murder, and less pervasive use of the secret police. Other patterns were distressingly similar: resistance to collectivization, raids on non-existent hoards, war on markets, travel restrictions—and denial, then and now. Thaws, retrenchments, strategic retreats were all brief. Warnings were sent all the way up the hierarchy; those given to Mao by Peng Dehuai and the Panchen Lama echo those given by senior Party leaders like Hryhorii Petrovskyi and Martemyan Ryutin to Stalin in 1932. All spoke out in vain, and at great personal cost.

While Ukraine was a specific target of Stalin, under Maoist China Tibetan areas were gravely affected, but Han Chinese suffered just as badly (though note Wemhauer).

While studies such as those of Applebaum and Dikötter inevitably use a broad brush to paint the wider tragedy, the kind of detail afforded by ethnographies of a particular community, like those of ThaxtonFriedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, or Guo Yuhua, is also valuable.

Worldwide, with humane values and truthful reporting under renewed assault, and incitements to hatred ever more common, these histories matter. And for China, I expect such social and political discussions to form an intrinsic part of our studies of expressive culture and ritual, all the more since the topic is still suppressed in public memory. Even as we document the ritual manuals of household ritual specialists, or the melodies of shawm bands, it seems like a basic human duty to record their life stories. All this suffering is deep in the hearts and bones of those who survived.


Folk music of Jamaica


I’m grateful to Vanley Burke’s recent Desert island discs for opening my ears to this fantastic archive compilation from 1956 in the ever-stimulating Smithsonian Folkways series:

Always showing their African origins, the tracks of the kumina magico-religious cult, as well as the Revival Zion and Pukkumina Christian cults, are particularly fascinating—further explored on an earlier album, Jamaican cult music (1954).

There’s plenty of material here to help us consider diverse ways of using the voice—and percussion—to communicate with mortals and gods. And as ever, the soundscape should lead us to explore the changing society.


Blind minstrels of Ukraine

Kobzar 1915

Having just been reading about turbulent changing times along the eastern borders of Europe (see also Bloodlands), and to follow my post on blind bards of Shaanbei, here’s more on the maintenance (or destruction) of culture through the state socialist era in Ukraine.

William Noll has a most thoughtful article unpacking ways of doing fieldwork on the past, and the multiple voices of ethnography:

  • “Selecting partners: questions of personal choice and problems of history in fieldwork and its interpretation”, in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley (eds.), Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology, pp.163–88.

To provide perspectives for my work on China, this ranks alongside some of my other canons—such as Nettl, Small, McClary, Lortat-Jacob, and Bigenho.

Noll observes the issues involved in the common case where ethnographers of one cultural heritage conduct fieldwork among a people of  different cultural heritage, but both groups live within the political boundaries of one state—such as Swedes and other Scandinavians among Sami; Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans among Native Americans; Russian fieldworkers in Ukrainian villages; Ukrainian fieldworkers in Russian or Belarussian villages; Hungarians among Slovaks and Romanians; and so on. Another salient, and distressingly topical, instance is Chinese studying Uyghur culture.

Moreover, educated urban ethnographers are culturally quite different from the peasant populations they study.

Eastern Europe was at the vanguard of early folklore studies, producing an enormous ethnographic literature (one inevitably thinks of Bartók‘s fieldwork throughout eastern Europe, Turkey, and north Africa). Impressively, in Ukraine the itinerant male blind minstrels* accompanying themselves on kobza or bandura plucked lute (kobzari) or lira hurdy-gurdy (lirnyki) were an early object of study. Here you can even hear remasterered cylinder recordings of their duma songs, made between 1904 and 1912. This photo comes from a convention in 1902:


As Noll observes, the instruments, repertory, and performance practices of the large-scale sanitized staged bandura ensembles that, from the 1920s, were presented as “traditional” had virtually nothing in common with village music practice—as I keep noting for China, of course (e.g. here, and here).

lirnyki 1939

At the same time, along with other ways of musicking, the minstrels—along with their patrons, and the whole social system that nourished them (life-cycle and calendrical rituals, and so on)—were under attack; no-one was untouched by coerced collectivization and the Holodomor (see e.g. here and here; cf. the Chinese famine of 1959–61).


Holodomor, 1933. Photo: Alexander Wienerberger.

Some of the songs of the kobzari had anti-Soviet overtones, but that was the least of their problems. One author described them as “whiners” and  “smelly riff-raff”. Most of them

were gone from village life by the 1950s, probably eliminated through radical and deliberate repression by state authorities (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) and through a gradual change in village culture over a period of several decades.

Apart from its effect on social life, this also contributed to the erasing of historical memory. Indeed, the kobzari seem to have been destroyed much more effectively in Ukraine than were the bards under Maoist China, where local cadres showed a certain concern for the welfare of blindmen—which, I should say, is not to excuse their sufferings. In Stalin’s Ukraine, Noll asserts, the imposed network of community centres (“houses of culture”) was largely successful in changing and controlling new norms of expressive culture—again, I’d suggest, by contrast with China. But more brutal techniques were used too:

The methods of proscribing the music of the blind minstrels most often included threats of arrest. Some minstrels were beaten, others apparently arrested or imprisoned. Some starved to death in the purposely engineered famine of 1932–1933, their blindness probably contributing to their losses. Others may have been shot, and many laid down their instruments out of fear or confusion and ceased to perform. Still others survived, and stopped performing only in the 1950s when the state began to provide subsidies for the blind and the handicapped as well as pensions for the elderly in villages.

Robert Conquest’s The harvest of sorrow led me to a reference in Shostakovitch’s Testimony, and to this article, telling how in 1930 or 1933 several hundred kobzari were summoned to a Congress of Folk Singers in Kharkiv—only to be taken to the forest at dead of night and shot. Fortunately I haven’t heard of such stories about the official festivals in 1950s’ China.

Noll gives a nuanced account of cultural realities and cultural authorities over time. This isn’t simply about “salvage“, but must encompass an understanding of what we’re doing when we undertake such work, reflecting mutiple perspectives. While (as in China) research continued through the period, with its particular prescriptive demands, ethnography itself became dangerous. Some scholars were themselves persecuted—like Kateryna Hrushevs’ka, who lost her job in the early 1930s, was sentenced to prison in 1937, and died in a labour camp in 1943; not just the performers but a generation of fieldworkers were virtually wiped out.

Even the brave ethnographers of the period found themselves censoring their own research, in terms of both the people they studied and the subjects of the songs they collected—choosing secular over ritual performance. In China, “reading between the lines“, fieldwork on ritual music under Maoism now looks impressive given such constraints; and upon the liberalizations of the 1980s collectors reversed their approach, with one local fieldworker commenting (Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”):

When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!

But even recently, my observation that “religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue” has itself been deemed too sensitive in China! Agendas continue to change, as with the reified, secularized mission of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

Noll goes on:

I am extremely skeptical of an ethnomusicology or an anthropology of aesthetics that uncritically treats the Stalinist period as if it were unrelated to the present, and these institutions as if they were just another mechanism for state support of expressive culture. Virtually all discussions on cultural authority are in general agreement that the ethnographer needs to place critical value at some point on that which is researched. This ought to include that which is brutally repressed. A respect for the inhabitants of the past is no less appropriate than for the living.

He has a fine project online here. In English, see also

  • Natalie Kononenko, Ukrainian minstrels: why the blind should sing (1998),

and her site here, as well as this site. Note also the Polyphony project, with groupings under region, context, and themes (for an informed review, see Songlines #142). For a beginner’s guide to folk and popular genres in Ukraine, including some CDs of archive recordings and leads to the emigré community in the USA (cf. Accordion crimes), see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia and Pacific, pp.426–34. And then we might move on the Balkan bards…

Moving forward in time, I like the look of

  • Adriana N. Helbig, Hip hop Ukraine: music, race, and African migration (2014).


* In English, scholars tend to use “minstrels” for Ukraine, whereas I went for “bard” in my writings on Shaanbei. “You say potato…“—a suitable vegetable, or légume juste, for both venues.

Europe: cultures and politics

While the main theme of my blog is the maintenance of local Chinese ritual cultures (before, during, and since Maoism), it’s worth providing a little roundup of recent posts on European cultures and politics—most of which have ramifications for, and links to, China.


And in the sidebar, do use the tags, categories, and search box!


Sardinian chronicles

Bernard Irgoli 1995

Bernard Lortat-Jacob entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.

I’ve already mentioned some of the more accessible bibles of ethnomusicology, like the works of Bruno Nettl, Susan McClary, Ruth Finnegan, Christopher Small, Paul Berliner, and Cieran Carson. Another justly popular one is the slim tome by

How I envy Bernard his fields of study—apart from Sardinia, also Morocco, Romania, Albania…! As with flamenco (first of three posts here), he explores the riches of regional folk cultures around the Mediterranean, integrating changing musical and social practices into everyday life—which is precisely what fieldwork should be about (see also fieldwork tag).

His publications are enough to make anyone want to become an ethnographer. He also blazed a trail in making audio and visual anthropology an indispensable part of our oeuvre.

* * *

So far I’ve only mentioned the riches of the regional folk cultures of Italy in the context of de Martino’s early work on taranta. The concept of “Italy” is rather recent anyway, and there’s still a huge amount to explore in its regional traditions. So taxonomy falls short again: to subsume the folk culture of Sardinia under Italy is no more suitable than discussing Tibetan or Uyghur cultures under China (ha). And it’s another illustration how very blinkered is our search for sun and sea (cf. fado, football, and Fátima).

Sardinian chronicles is popular not only by virtue of its brevity and its engaging style, akin to travel writing, but from its rich ethnographic observation and its musical, social, and indeed psychological detail, with a series of encounters with individual musicians and their families—musicking as part of social interaction within changing local communities.

Like the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck for China, Bernard is gifted with a natural rapport. And as he unpacks his own involvement, his delights and tribulations form part of the picture. Sardinian chronicles has become a model for later texts—certainly mine (not least my latest film and book).

Despite the luxury tourist enclaves of latter years, the poverty of Sardinia is striking, far from the glamorous life of Tuscany or north Italy. Vendettas remains chronic among Sardinian shepherds—like the feuds of rival clans in south Fujian, and child chimney-sweeps, among the traditional heritages that UNESCO won’t be supporting…

Complementing his book, this beautiful 1989 film by Bernard (with Georges Luneau) makes a fine introduction to various kinds of musicking in Sardinian life:

Here one truly feels the “red-hot sociality” attributed to Chinese temple fairs.

Canto a tenores
This style of a cappella vocal quartet (see e.g. from 16.40 in the film above) is one of the most entrancing vocal sounds anywhere in the world, let alone in Europe. Its sound ideal makes a fascinating contrast with that of the Swedish psalm—more for Lomax’s Cantometrics to explore. Though recently, inevitably, sucked into the heritage razzmatazz (nowhere is safe!) and a regular guest on the world-music circuit, commodification can’t hijack its presence in local society.

On Lunissanti Holy Week in Castelsardo in northwest Sardinia (cf. calendrical rituals, or Athos), Bernard Lortat-Jacob has another gorgeous book

  • Canti di passione (1996; French edition 1998),

with photos by Bachisio Masia—a brilliant innovation of a scholarly work on folk liturgy which doubles as a coffee-table book!

Like Berliner’s Lives in jazz, it is just as detailed in musical as in social analysis—and as with Indian music, or indeed Madonna, a basic grasp of musical features can only enhance a more physical and intuitive response. Apart from the wonderful scenes in Bernard’s film (from 28.26), some video from 1992:

and 2011:

Here the magical canto a cuncordu vocal style evokes that of the secular tenores.

The launeddas (Sachs–Hornbostel #422.3!!!) is another microcosm, with its locally renowned players and makers. With three pipes (one drone, two melodic), it’s a very distant cousin of the Chinese sheng mouth-organ. Again, Bernard’s film has some insightful scenes (from 46.14).

An early pioneer of launeddas studies was Andreas Bentzon (1936–71):

The minimalists would love the constant imperceptible transformations in these riffs!


Prominent among the masters with whom Bentzon studied were Efisio Melis and Antonio Lara (yet more rivals who made a tactical truce!). Their recordings from 1930 and 1961 are featured on a fine CD.

I haven’t yet caught the launeddas in situ, but I was delighted to hear the great Luigi Lai at the City of London festival in 1998, to which I had invited the equally distinguished qin master Lin Youren. Here he is with Totore Chessa in 2011:

The manic melodic quality of the style is the basis for that of the organetto—one accordion type that Annie Proulx doesn’t quite cover (and to lower the tone, Captain Pugwash perhaps sowed the seed for my generation in Britain). A brief appreciation (of the organetto, not Captain Pugwash, as Nina Stibbe would explain) features below.

* * *

By contrast, to show the limitations of casual visits by an outsider like me, here are some vignettes from a holiday I spent there with my partner from Mantua in the summer of 1998, when Bernard affably introduced us to his adopted village of Irgoli—his chapter about which in Sardinian chronicles is itself a kind of love song, with beautiful insights on guitar song (another major genre) in the bar.

Writing up my notes mainly on the beach, the contrast with my fieldwork in China was extreme—I was deep in my studies of Gaoluo and the Hebei ritual associations at the time.

And despite the ethnographic riches of, um, Chiswick, it’s ironic that I should be writing all this stuck here, sweltering (insert suitable headline here)—I should be there! I guess it’s called work­–life balance.

Our hosts Totore Vacca and Doloretta are friendly—warm and natural. There are lots of musos around. We get by with speaking Italian, though of course they all speak Sardinian together.

On our first evening we go along to a festa for children’s singing, meeting the breezy, nay manic, organetto star Totore Chessa (see e.g. here and here; also featured in Bernard’s film above, and on the Sardinian chronicles CD). Totore uses his big fisarmonica (rather than his organetto) to accompany our hosts’ daughter Francesca. To conclude, the local priest makes a speech that reminds me of a Chinese cadre: family, pride, culture, blah blah.

One evening Totore drives us, manically, to the festa of Santa Margherita Bultei. The gig on a stage in the piazza is furnished with loud amplification. Several groups of dancers perform, one of which Salvatore accompanies, with singers and guitar. The other dance groups have their own organetto accompanists; and there are three groups of tenores, including the fine group from Orgosolo. An old codger goes round liberally dispensing local wine. This sure beats the Nether Wallop church fête.

The costumes seem rather fabricated to me, but it doesn’t affect the authenticity of the performances. The parameters of the music seem simple, narrow, but it’s still hard to grasp.

After the festa ends at 2.15am, the local organetto player Mario Bande invites Totore back to his place for a drink—which turns into an all-nighter. We’re tired enough after the long festa, unprepared for this further private party, but given that Totore is our lift, we tag along with some of the dancers. Their animated talk is incomprehensible, even to my Italian partner; yet if we had managed to understand more, it would have been a wonderful insight into local musical values. Story of my life…

The two of them are subtly sounding each other out. Mario’s uncle and grandfather were great players, and the latter collected many folk pieces, some of which Salvatore is said to have ripped off.

First Mario brings out various instruments for Totore to try out and appraise, then they have a protracted argument about the uniqueness of local dance styles. Totore, defending himself against the taint of plagiarism, makes the point that there can be no evidence that such pieces originated in this one village alone.

They’re not just arguing passionately about aesthetics (the local dancers are also vocal in support of the Bultei faction), with all the loving exploration of craftsmanship of instrument-making that Annie Proulx describes, but they also have a deep and insatiable need to keep playing and dancing. As soon as anyone even tries out a phrase, the dancers can’t help gyrating—a contagious kind of dancing mania. Everyone (except us!) gets involved. Eventually the party winds down, with diplomatic decorum apparently maintained, though we’re not privy to the nuances of their probings.

Totore is pure, other-wordly, childlike, living only for the organetto. He talks just the way he plays, in quickfire bursts and abrupt cadences, always upbeat, hectic, alert to the spark of the moment. People know he’s different.

Here he is with Luigi Lai in 2011:

Back to my notes, covered in wine and suntan lotion:

Totore drives just like he plays too. Still chattering away, he navigates the mountain roads at breakneck speed as the sun rises. He clearly know the roads as well as he knows his keyboard—like Daoist Li Bin as he chases round doing funerals in Yanggao. We get back to Irgoli by 7am. Only later that day do we learn that a shepherd had been shot dead at the edge of the village at 5am—another victim of local vendettas.

Another evening we take our hosts for a pizza in Orosei. They’re keen to go to a screening of Titanic. We make excuses—another of those moral dilemmas of the fieldworker. Solidarity (“Becoming at One with the People”) suggests that we try and share their world, but hey, we’re on holiday… Instead we find Totore Chessa propping up the bar. He drops in next day to invite us to another festa, but we’ve agreed to go to a gara poetica poetry joust in Orosei—which is no longer quite like this:

(As often I tend to cite older clips because they hint at change—more recent footage is easily found!)

On a visit to the museum at Nuoro we get a glimpse of how very much life has changed in Sardinia. Then Bernard and Maria arrive; after a trip to the beach we go to the wedding of their friends, where the tenores di Bitti and a group from Castelsardo are singing. As in China, this is how to experience folk music, rather than in sanitized stage renditions. Sure, it’s all a continuum

tenores 1998

And of course this is yet another instance of the diversity of all the cultures of Europe (like those of China, or Africa) from which Some Brits now seek to isolate themselves…

Flamenco, 1: palmas—soleares, bulerías

*Revised, with some sections moved to Part 3! Part 2 is here.*


Tony and Two-Jags explore the intricacies of flamenco palmas.

Coinciding with the thrilling Portugal–Spain match the other day was a flamenco gig in Chiswick with the splendid Ramon Ruiz.

Unlike the football, it’s not a competition, but much as I love fado (and you just have to listen to the Carminho song there; see also here), I’ve long been enchanted by flamenco. One benefit of the life of a touring WAM muso: how blessed to have had the chance to wind down from performing Bach Passions in Andalucia in time for late-night sessions in flamenco bars.


The rustic Andalucian charm of Ramon’s courtyard. Photo: Ramon Ruiz.

Recently my passion has been reinvigorated by occasional palmas sessions with Ramon. Flamenco is yet another illustration of the wonders of all the diverse regional cultures throughout Europe. And despite the efforts of those who would float off into an imperial ocean idyll of tweed and Morris dancing, London is still a wonderful microcosm of world music! You can find everything…

YouTube opens up a rich world of flamenco, not least the fantastic documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco. Here’s a briefer introduction to flamenco as part of social life:

This is just a preliminary reccy—more to follow.

* * *

Flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that. Like tango or rebetika, its life is “among the folk”, as the Chinese would say: at lineage gatherings, at informal fiestas and local peña clubs; and it’s rooted in the exorcizing of suffering. Rather than the commodified tablau shows, one lives in hope of sitting in on a juerga among aficionados (cf. the touring musos’ game). [1]

* * *

Like Lorca [name-dropper—Ed.], my taste draws me to the intensity of cante jondo “deep singing”, with genres like seguiriyas and martinetes. But my Spanish is rudimentary, I don’t play guitar, and No Way am I going to dance (like, ever)—so a great way of learning is to get a basic grasp of the wonderful palmas hand-clapping that accompanies singing, guitar, and dancing. Not to mention foot stamping, and the cajón box.

Come to that, palmas is a great way for British kids to become musically competent, growing into music—as Ramon finds in his school workshops.

Like the human voice, our hands, our bodies, are the most elemental musical instruments. Hand-clapping, relegated in northern societies to children’s games, is a captivating art in some Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. And it’s belatedly come into its own with so-called minimalism—Steve Reich’s Clapping music,

and Anna Meredith’s exhilarating Hands free.

* * *

Complementing my explorations of YouTube clips, I’m finding some practical sites useful, like this and this; also instructive are Ian Biddle’s chapter on cante and the Appendix “Cante, definition and classification” of Paul Hecht’s The wind cried.

As usual, we need an overview of the genres: this tree suggests the riches of all the various palos styles.

And then, within all these palos are the compas rhythmic patterns—embodied by specific (hands-on!) palmas. Not to mention all the local styles of towns throughout Andalucia—Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Morón de la Frontera, Granada…

For a sophisticated model of metrical analysis, see here.

Palmas seems like a relatively easy way of getting a basic grip on flamenco. But focusing narrowly on the rhythms, it still takes me a lot of time to absorb the important clues from the guitar and voice that are equally basic.

Ramon suggests I begin with soleares (linguistic note: associated with soledad, like saudade in fado!) and bulériasthe latter faster, difficult but much prized.

Here’s a soleares from Perrate de Utrera:

And bulerias by the de Utrera sisters, with Diego del Gastor:

I start by internalising the basic 12-beat cycle while swimming, taking breaths before the accents:

       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

or rather (beginning on 12)

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So it’s a recurring hemiola* pattern; that should be simple enough, but at first, for pedantic hidebound WAMmies like me it feels as if it begins on the “wrong” beat. (¿¡Surely this is as wacky as the Spanish upside-down question and exclamation marks?!). One soon learns to bounce off the 12, but I find it harder to internalize the varying patterns in the second half of the cycle.

Anyway, you can already hear just how complex the rhythmic variations are. As always, if you’re hampered by a classical education like wat I is (innit), or if you don’t happen to come from a long lineage of Andalucian blacksmiths, then you have to unlearn any ingrained assumptions from WAM and just immerse yourself in the whole style through the experience of the body.

I think of Indian tala; or even the way that household Daoists in Yanggao pick up, largely by ear, their ritual percussion items—seemingly simple but endlessly varied, with large cymbals and drum interacting. Indeed, the way that the clappers often leave the main beat empty reminds me somewhat of Li Manshan “calling the beat” with a busy drum pattern just before the down-beat on the small cymbals.

It’s no good just going oom-pa-pa like a waltz—in one video, Ramon spots some old ladies at the back doing just that! And then there’s the nuance of fuertes hard and sordas soft dynamics, and all the contra-tiempo cross-accents between multiple clappers.

As Ramon explains, it’s a series of questions and answers. I’ll have a better handle on this once I’ve learned to latch onto the guitar, with its chord change on 3, and the extra cadential flourish ending on 10—though the beginner may find few landmarks in between those points. The YouTube option of slowing down playback can come in handy.

Here’s yet another fine programme in the Rito series, with a series of bulérias (featuring, after Camaron, Cristobalina Suarez with young sleeping child from 23.20—see also my Part 2):

This is seriously complex funky stuff. No sooner have you learned a basic pattern than you find how variable it is—like sonata form. Given its considerable theorization (as if that mattered), that theory is orally transmitted, and the brilliant exponents are often semi-literate. But while insisting that flamenco should absolutely be admissible to the ranks of “serious music” (whatever that means), the only important point is that it’s extraordinarily life-enhancing.

* * *

I also love it when all extraneous elements are stripped away: when everyone just claps their complex patterns in counterpoint with the dancer’s feet. Or the cantes a palo seco, when the singer dispenses entirely with guitar and even palmas, just howling in solitary pain… I’ll pursue these songs in my third post.

Talking of the Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series, with all its precious archive footage, the programmes on the Utrera sisters illustrate the compilers’ fine ethnography of lineages, changing society and music, the amateur–professional continuum, and all the subtle distinctions that folk musicians always make:

All this wealth of musicking on our doorstep! I’ll keep studying and updating this post. The next post in this series outlines gender, politics, wine, and deviance!

As an aperitivo for the third post we just have to have a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:


*BTW, lutenist Paul O’Dette told me this story on a long tour of the USA:
Summer school in Utah on baroque music. A professor from England solemnly writes “HEMIOLA” on the board and begins to explain the occasional use of three groups of two within a triple metre. One of the local students guffaws,
“HEY! We don’t have no hee-my-olas in Utaww!”


[1] Among a wealth of sources, in English one might start with the flamenco chapter of The Rough Guide to world music; William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics and popular culture; ethnographies like  D.E. Pohren, A way of life and Paul Hecht, The wind cried; and for cante jondo, see e.g. Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song.

Taming the Uyghur “heritage”

I’ve ranted in many posts about the iniquities of “heritage“, particularly (though not only) for China. As if the commodification, reification, and secularization of local Han Chinese cultures isn’t bad enough, it’s still worse for minority traditions such as those of the Tibetans and Uyghurs, for whom the political agenda to sinicize and tame is even clearer.

On the cultural aspect of the repression of the Uyghurs (muqam, meshrep and so on), I’ve just added a link to an excellent detailed recent report on the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang, both under my main theoretical discussion Edible, Intangible, dodgy and in my film review Ashiq: the last troubadour.