Sun dance rituals

Cheyenne 1909

Cheyenne Sun dance, c1909.  Source: wiki.

Supplementing my series on Native American cultures (notably Navajo rituals and the Ghost dance), Sun dance rituals are still performed by many groups of Plains Indians of north America such as the Cree, Salteaux, Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, and Blackfoot. [1]

The Sun dance is a complex series of rituals for the healing of the community, with drumming and singing, held annually over many days and nights in late spring or early summer—and preparations are said to take up much of the year in between. Ritual practice varies between tribal groups, and over time.

A medicine lodge is constructed of pole rafters radiating from a sacred central pole. The arena is surrounded by a camp of kin and friends singing and praying in support of the performers. For young male dancers among some groups it is an ordeal, an extreme physical and spiritual sacrifice which they have vowed to endure both for their own merit and to ensure tribal well-being. Having fasted for many days in the open, as they dance around a central pole they perform self-mortification, the skin of their chests or back pierced with skewers tied to the central pole (for self-mortification rituals elsewhere, see Dervishes of Kurdistan, including Amdo Tibetans and Hokkien Chinese, and the Rufai sect in the Balkans). But this is far from standard today, and it doesn’t feature in some early accounts.

Shoshone 1925

Shoshone Indians perform Sun dance at Fort Hall, 1925. Source: wiki.

Along with the whole suppression of indigenous peoples, the ritual was prohibited from 1883, but the ban was enforced only patchily. Detailed early studies include

The ban was lifted in Canada in 1951, in the USA in 1978. In 1993 a Lakota summit issued a declaration:

Whereas sacrilegious “sundances” for non-Indians are being conducted by charlatans and cult leaders who promote abominable and obscene imitations of our sacred Lakota sundance rites; […] We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing, and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

Non-indigenous people were banned from attending the ritual in 2003.

Part of a trilogy on on the lives of Kanai Nation Blood Indians of the Blackfoot confederacy in Western Alberta, the short film Circle of the Sun (1960) shows little of the ritual, but rather the changing tastes of young people no longer bound to the reservation (oil-rigging, rodeo):

* * *

Sa 1898

Zitkala-Sa, 1898 with violin. Wiki.

The Dakota activist Zitkala-Sa (1876–1938) chronicled her struggles with cultural identity; her training in WAM led to The Sun Dance opera (1913), with William F. Hanson. Here’s a documentary:

[1] Among many online resources, see e.g.
and the detailed account

Rom, Dom, Lom


Do watch the fine documentary Buçuk [“The Half”] (Elmas Arus and Haluk Arus, 2010) on vimeo, an all-too-brief portrayal of the lives of three minority groups in Turkey: Rom around the Aegean, Thrace, and the Black Sea; Lom in the Armenian regions of Sivas, Erzincan, and Erzurum; and Dom in southeast Anatolia. *

Rom map

Elmas Arus is deeply involved in the campaign for Roma equality, with her campaign Zero Discrimination. Perhaps unavoidably, some of the filming looks exotic, contrasting with the articulate comments of locals and scholars on poverty, social issues, and discrimination. It deserves to be revamped with a more comprehensible version of the subtitles.

Among scenes are the work of a hereditary family of circumcisers and dentists; Lom basket weaving; blacksmiths; waste recycling; training dancing bears.


The soundtrack is effective throughout. From 6.57 an exhilarating sequence of musicking among the Dom people segues from Gaziantep to Mardin—reminding me yet again of how much we lose in “refined” society” by shackling music acquisition to the classroom (cf. the Growing into music project, and flamenco).

From 22.15 another musical sequence shows a Rom municipal wind band in Bergama north of Izmir; the only instance I know of folk violin played with a mute; and a female wedding group (cf. Afghanistan). Music makes a crucial income:

If we did not have this job, we would have died of hunger—no farm, no land, no income.

Urban demolition, as in the Sulukele quarter of Istanbul, is ironically followed by Erdoğan expressing support for the Roma in 2010. The film goes on to sketch weddings; the transition from nomadic to settled lives; the hıdırellez festival and the annual pilgrimage to Hacıbektaş. All the themes deserve more lengthy treatment.

In her excellent book Bury me standing, Isabel Fonseca only touches on Turkey in her chapter on the Bulgarian Roma, but it makes a fine introduction to the wider context around east central Europe.

This is the latest in my series on culture in Turkey.

* See e.g. here. Relevant wiki articles include

Gurdjieff and the Truth Seekers

Gurdjieff 1

As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.

Anyway, I thought I should catch up with George Gurdjieff (c1877–1949; besides various Foundations, see e.g. the websites of the Gurdjieff Heritage Society and the Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation).

Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.

By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.

Gurdjieff cover

Meetings with remarkable men is the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).

I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.

And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.

Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.

While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.

Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.

Gurdjieff 2

To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.

He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.

This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.

Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.


This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:

and Meditation:

Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.

If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.

It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.

* * *

Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.

Landscapes of music in Istanbul

Landscapes cover

The triangulation of music, politics, and geography is explored in

  • Alex G. Papadopoulos and Aslı Duru (eds), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017; online here).

Inevitably, the book can only offer a few illustrations of a diverse soundscape. As is common in ethnomusicology, the authors focus on the subaltern, marginal end of the spectrum, rather than highly audible soundscapes such as mainstream pop music, or the ezan call to prayer (cf. China, or Ukraine). Revolving around mahalle neighbourhoods, the chapters focus on the modern era, noting links with the Ottoman heritage.

Alex Papadopoulos wrote his introductory chapter “Music, urban contestation, and the politics of place in Istanbul” under the shadow of the Trump inauguration, suggesting pertinent analogies with “musics that build inclusion or express opposition to (even rage against) exclusion”. He cites Adam Gopnik on the “abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents”—traditions “that have implicated stories about race, class, war, and ethnicity”. Papadopoulos adduces Martin Stokes’ s work on arabesk, “an entire anti-culture” that “flaunts the failure of a process of reform whose icons and symbols dominate every aspect of Turkish life”.

All four of the genres considered express regional and trans-boundary mobilities, exposing exclusion and suggesting the potential for inclusion. Papadopoulos observes:

Landscapes can be modified or erased, as a palimpsest. Urban spaces and populations can be made to bend to the will of an adamant state and of hyper-animated capital. Musics can be deterritorialized from places of meaning and memory, and either silenced or channeled to electronic media that modulate their cultural (and political) character.

Papadopoulos continues with “Rembetika as embodiment of Istanbul’s margins: musical landscapes in and of transition”. He cites the classic ethnography of Ilias Petropoulos (watch the film An underground world here). The whole ethos of the genre, indeed way of life, was transgressive (see Songs of Asia Minor; cf. Deviating from behavioural norms).

Rembetika music riffed on, lamented, mocked, attacked, and sung about the limitations and exclusions, injustices and cruel punishments (including incarceration), and anomie that mainstream society imposed upon the socially marginalised.

rembetika 52

If rembetika survived the efforts of the state to remodel the physical contours of the city, as a way of life it declined sharply in Istanbul after the population expulsions of 1922–23, the riots of 1955, and the further expulsion of Greeks in 1964, whereafter it was “rehomed” to the Hellenic mainland.

Both state cultures defined themselves in opposition to the multiethnic, multi-vernacular, cosmopolitan, imperial, and regional cultural forms of the Ottoman world, and went to considerable length to contain, if not expunge, vestiges of Ottoman culture. A musical heritage that was a reflection of empire—not unlike the musical cultures of the âşıks and the Zeybeks—clearly, rembetika heightened the anxieties of Greek and Turkish nationalisms, which aimed at purity of cultural idiom.

He observes that rembetika (like many genres, one would add) loses its transgressive edge once transplanted from its underground neighbourhood hangouts into the safe settings of commercial clubs, concert halls and CDs. Since the 1960s it has become a classical, popular musical genre rather than a subversive one. New forms of music such as hip-hop have emerged to serve as commentary on, and resistance to, exclusion, and as community connective tissue and a link between marginalized communities and the world. This leads to Kevin Yildirim, “ ‘Poorness is ghettoness’: urban renewal and hip-hop acculturation in Sulukule, Istanbul”.

Resistance to the condominial agency of the state and finance capital in the gentrification of the low-rent neighbourhood is internationalized through the dissemination of hip-hop performances on social media.

Before Sulukule was destroyed by an urban renewal project in 2009, it was an established Romani neighbourhood in the central Istanbul district of Fatih. Its entertainment houses (eğlence evleri) were the main source of income for the community, but they were closed down in the early 1990s on the grounds that they were hotbeds of drugs and prostitution.

Now officially called Karagümrük, the neighbourhood is still known as Sulukule. As one analysis comments, the neo-Ottoman style of the new project is “in the direction of reviving a mythical ‘Ottoman past’ and an Islamic ethos”, and that it was decided upon so that Sulukule would “acquire new, impeccable morals based on Islam and the tourism sector”.

But the destruction kickstarted young people’s interest in hip-hop. Here’s Wonderland by Tahribad-ı İsyan, deploring the destruction (lyrics here):

But Yildirim looks/listens beyond video to “the aesthetics of everyday life in Sulukule as displayed through speech, within personal style, and in spaces”.

He notes that rappers in Istanbul must confront the irony of expressing their localized and rebellious identity through a globalized music genre. Here’s Istanbul by Nefret (lyrics here):

The Sulukule hip-hop scene is not homogenous in ethnic, gender, or social terms. Over the course of my visits to the Atelier [a youth centre that operated from 2010 to 2015] I interacted with male and female attendees who self-identified as Romani, Kurdish, Turkish, and Armenian; Sulukule residents and outsiders; those whose homes were destroyed in the renewal process, and those whose weren’t.

In conclusion Yildirim observes:

Instead of indicating a wholehearted rejection of capital accumulation in Istanbul, the rebellious urban identity of young Sulukule rappers and dancers may well signal their cautious entrance into the formal circuits of urban production.

While I’m clearly very far from home with Istanbul hip-hop, I’m uneasy too with the theoretical vocabulary that, however well-meaning, seems to assert another kind of ownership over it. Like the rappers, scholars seek to carve a niche for themselves in their own market.

Thomas Korovinis, “The Âşıks: poet-minstrels of empire, enduring voice of the margins” introduces the mostly illiterate âşık bards who accompanied their sung poetry on plucked lute (cf. Uyghur ashiq, or Ukrainian kobzar). Gravitating from folk contexts to urban Âşık cafés, some became court poets to the wealthy. Their heyday was in the late 18th century; by the 20th century they were diffused among urban folk contexts. Vestiges were still evident in the 1990s at the saz yeri (saz hangouts).

Here’s the blind Alevi bard Âşık Veysel in 1969 (YouTube topic here):

The tradition, “deterritorialized from its historic identity of itinerancy, is reterritorialized in globalization as a malleable cultural commodity”.

Aşik culture can still be found in such diverse locations as the neighbourhood sidewalk, Istanbul clubs, the tourist circuit, rural Anatolia, and in electronic media. […]

Shuttling between marginality and victimization (on the one hand) and public adoration and attention from intellectuals (on the other), in late modernity, at least some âşıks were eventually drawn into and normalized by the commodification of their music.

This leads suitably into Ulaş Özdemir, “Rethinking the institutionalization of Alevism: itinerant zakirs in the cemevis of Istanbul”, based on his 2016 book. Both in Istanbul and the Anatolian countryside, the zakirs are a crucial ingredient of cem rituals among Alevi groups (which I introduced here). In Istanbul some “itinerant zakirs” make the rounds of various groups. As Papadopoulos notes,

inclusion is manifest in patterns of zakir intra-urban mobility, which bolsters new associations, musical partnerships, and richly emotional ties with dedes and cemevis. Paradoxically, perhaps, these same mobilities (a novel kind of itinerancy) also signal a rupture with how things used to be done, deepening rifts (and exclusion) between different visions of local-practised and institutional Alevism.

As attempts were made to legitimise Alevism by standardising its institutions, popular young zakirs like Dertli Divani emerged:

The itinerant zakirs, resistant to fixed residency, tended to counter this trend. As one explained:

I asked dede: “My dede, I always come and go but I feel like a civil servant here. I come here to fulfil my duty every Thursday. I want to visit other cemevis. I want to be touched (inspired) by a dede’s breath, a zakir’s voice; I want to learn things.” They did not like the idea much. Both the cemevi administration and the dede said “That is not going to happen.” But my desire was firm and at that point I said “I am leaving.” I started wandering: to the Garip Dede Lodge, the Yenibosna Cemevi, and so on.

The young zakirs were loyal not to a particular cemevi but to the search for the divine aşk [love] of inspirational dedes. Another zakir commented:

An âşık never has a place. For the âşık, the mountain and the plain are both the same, just a place. That is how I have always thought. I go wherever I am invited, without making any distinction among people.

This and the preceding chapter suffer rather from leaden translation.

Papadopoulos provides an Afterword, Gezi Park and Taksim Square as musical landscapes of exclusion and inclusion”, on the Gezi Part protests of 2013, in which music became “one of the public’s instruments of political expression and resistance”.

Whether it is termed urban planning, urban change, urban renewal, or gentrification, the transformation of urban land, especially when it is carried out without the participation and consent of the publics that occupy and have a sense of right to it, is vastly politically fraught. And when a given parcel of land is considered valuable, either because the land-use it incorporates is scarce (hence representing high instrumental value), or because it is infused with symbolism, then the stakes are high, as is the likelihood of its contestation.

Looking back at the history of the remoulding of Gezi Park since the 1940s,

Social media played a major role. One iconic song was Kardeş Türküler, Sound of pots and pans:

You are saying this and that
We are fed up
Your one-man decisions, your commands
We are fed up We are so bored
What kind of a wrath this is
What is this anger?
Take it easy
When they couldn’t sell their shadows they sold the forests
They closed down, demolished the cinemas and squares
Everywhere it is shopping mall
I don’t like to pass from your bridges
What happened to our city?
It is full of buildings with hormones.

The loss of access to Gezi Park that symbolises an open, liberal, cosmopolitan, and global Istanbul, is a harbinger of future political defeats for both liberal and radical communities. For the generation of marginalised Istanbul residents, such as those in Sulukule, displaced from their homes by gentrification, the liberal imaginings of a global city are unattainable, if not irrelevant, to their everyday existence. In their case, only radical means can offer lasting solutions, even if by radical action they reach out to hip-hop, or irreverent songs created on the fly once the tear gas dissipates.

In conclusion, Papadopoulos observes:

Music performed in public (on the street or on the sidewalk, at an unkempt urban lot or in a great square symbolic of the country’s political birth); music performed in the semi-public domain of a community hall, cultural foundation or place of worship; music played in the intimate surrounds of a coffee house or a tavern, or just outside it in the quiet alley in the “wings of the city”; music that is performed, live, or is sounded out of cassettes, CDs, or the Internet and social media; is co-constructive of the lived spaces and landscapes in which it is sounded.

Ukraine: liturgy

Ukraine church 2

With Ukraine under grave threat, to complement my posts on modern history there and its popular and folk soundscapes, this seems a suitable time to reacquaint myself with my local Ukrainian church, just up the road in Acton.

The original Baptist church there, founded in 1895, was reconsecrated in 1978 as an Ukrainian Orthodox Church—properly called The Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalic Church, Cathedral of the Holy Transfiguration of Our Saviour. * The services are regularly streamed on Facebook—here’s the one I attended:

The building, unassuming from the outside, is lovely. The little choir, upstairs in the west gallery, punctuates the chanting of the priest.

Ukraine church 1

For the Catholic rite, I ventured to the West End, attending Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of the Holy Family in Exile in Duke street (website; Facebook, with a wealth of videos).

Duke street panorama

Source: church website.

It’s a larger building, converted for use as the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral since 1967. Upstairs in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped gallery, the choir of seven women and six men played a substantial role. 

My photos.

For such congregations ritual can serve to enhance solidarity, and at times of crisis, with their relatives and friends under assault back home, to provide consolation.

Ukrainians began settling in the UK in small numbers before World War One, the community increasing after World War Two. Other Ukrainian churches are also active around the UK, and elsewhere in the diaspora—such as the USA and Australia, where many services are shown on YouTube.

* * *

Refugees worship

Ritual marks division as well as unity. The long, complex history of both Orthodox and Catholic churches in Ukraine is inextricable from politics (see here, and wiki). The Orthodox church, having attempted for many centuries to assert its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, has sought autocephaly since 1992, ratified since 2018. From St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv, here are highlights of the first Liturgy of His Beatitude Epiphanius, Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine:

And now services have had to be held in bomb shelters, as Greek Catholic priests do here:

The many monasteries of Mount Athos, from which women are excluded,  are major sites for Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian Orthodox liturgies. Here’s part of the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy at the monastery of Xenophontos in 2019—the first celebration of the Epiphanius on Athos:

Since Athos has never added the more recent harmonic tradition of mixed-voice choirs, its monophonic male-voice choral groups sound all the more ancient.

* Wisely, they haven’t attempted to erect a signpost.

Ukraine: traditional soundscapes


Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk demonstrates the trombita.

The great strength of Maria Sonevytsky’s excellent Wild music is the way she binds urban popular genres closely with the constantly changing social and political life of Ukraine. While she shows how avtentyka and etnomuzyka performers remould “traditional” rural cultures, the latter are not her main topic; and indeed (typically?), such local musicking, submerged under glossy media representations, may seem to have become vestigial.

Still, as a rank outsider (as with my impertinent forays into many areas of world music, largely untrammelled by any knowledge of the subject) I’m prompted to explore online sites to seek some sonic soundmarks, and to suggest the kind of fieldwork practised by Sonevytsky’s mentors.

Given that most folk musicking is based in life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I’m sorry that few of the tracks below provide much social context—online clips often tend towards the fakeloric. But a home video like this, from a 2004 village wedding in Kolomyja county, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, has a good honest feeling (and talking of avtentyka, even the weather is authentic):

For singing (largely “salvage” initiatives), note the videos on the Tree website, and the Polyphony project (website; YouTube channel). Sonevytsky herself collaborated in the Chornobyl songs project (2011), based on the long-term fieldwork of Yevhen Yefremov.

Here’s a solo kolomyjky song accompanied by fiddle at the summer solstice festival, also from Ivano-Frankivsk:

Some iconic instruments of the Hutsul people of the highlands in west Ukraine:

  • the long trembita horns (played over the wider Carpathian region) that gained fleeting celebrity with Ruslana’s winning Eurovision song in 2004 (see Wild music): here’s an introduction by the great Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk:

Here three trembitas accompany a funeral in 2009:

For funerals, see e.g. here.

This audio track also has good archive photos:

I’m still on the lookout for material on the surma shawm—clues welcome.

  • the tsymbaly hammered dulcimer is shown in the wedding above—in this 1992 clip it plays with fiddle and bass:

(cf. zithers of Iran and Turkey, Korea and China, Alpine).

  • the sopilka (among several types of wooden end-blown flute) is heard in a brief clip from the battlefront recently:

  • mol’far shamans with their drymba jews harp—demonstrated by Mikhail Nechay in 1991:

and here he is in 2009, interviewed by Maria Sonevytsky:

  • the duda / volynka bagpipe, again demonstrated by Mykhailo Tafiychuk:

(I’ve given some leads to bagpipes elsewhere under Vermeer, south Italy, the Rioja, and so on.)

  • Three short scenes with the Tafiychuk family:

and at a festival performance:

Click here for a discography of the Tafiychuks.

  • For early recordings of immigrant communities in New York and New Jersey (cf. the companion disc at the end of Folk traditions of Poland), here’s Ukrainian village music: historic recordings 1928-1933 (playlist):

And here’s a 1951 Folkways LP:

  • For the Crimean Tatars, here’s the first of three compilations on the emblematic qaytarma 7/8 dance (“traditional”, followed by “modern” and “retro” lists):

* * *

While folk musical activity changes constantly along with society (cf. Society and soundscape, and Musics lost and found), all this may remind us that it survives not merely in the commodified representations of urbanites; and that in Ukraine, to paraphrase its national anthem, rural culture is not dead yet.

For more readings on the history of modern Ukraine, click here. See also Ukraine: liturgy.
Cf. Folk traditions of Poland (indeed, Stanisław Mierczyński did fieldwork among the Hutsuls from 1934 to 1938); and Musical cultures of east Europe.

Returning to the Polyphony project for Ukraine, I suspect many people of my generation love this clip because it’s just the kind of chat we have with our own friends:

Self-mortification rituals in the Balkans

Bektashi 1891 for blog
Albert Aublet, Ceremony of Rufai Dervishes (1891) (Houston David B. Chalmers Collection).

 At a tangent from Bektashis and Alevis (here and here) is the Rufai (Rifa’i) Sufi order, now most common in the Balkans.

Again thanks to Kadir Filiz, I note two remarkable early film sequences showing a Rufai lodge in Skopje performing the burhan ritual (“proof” of faith) with self-mortification (cf. Kurds, Amdo Tibetans, and Hokkien Chinese)—demonstrating both the shaykh’s charismatic powers and the worshippers’ transcendence of the mundane world. This silent footage shows a healing ritual at a lodge in 1930:

And this 1951 film—now with sound—was shown in 1955, with useful commentary:

That second footage shows the same group, in a much reduced lodge. By 1930 Skopje had just become part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia; after German occupation in World War Two, by the time of the 1951 footage it was part of Tito’s socialist state—offering food for thought on the maintenance of traditional ritual practice under such regimes, just as I find for Maoist China.

Kosovo BektashiRufai Sufis, Prizren, Kosovo.

Here’s a more recent clip of a Rufai (not Bektashi!) ritual in Kosovo, for Nevruz:

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 2: Anatolia


Cler sema
Alevi cem ritual, Tohal.

Further to my post on Bektashi and Alevi practice in Istanbul, Alevi ritual groups are widespread throughout rural Anatolia. As an instance, I’ve continued to admire Jérôme Cler‘s fieldwork there.

In 2003 he documented Alevi cem rituals in hill villages of Tohal in the region of Tokat, eastern Anatolia. Here’s a more extended sequence of the second video in his post:

Cler’s research in the hill villages of the southwest also extends to some fine documentation of the annual cem ritual (birlik) in the Alevi village of Tekke Köyü, sacred site of Abdal Musa, who was among the founding saints of the Bektashi, a disciple of the 13th-century sage Haji Bektash Veli.

When the diligent observer Evliya Çelebi visited the village in the 17th century, the inhabitants served the three hundred celibate mücerret dervishes of the lodge there, feeding visiting pilgrims with cauldrons stoked throughout the year.

Cler birlik

Despite later reverses, Abdal Musa still attracts pilgrims today, and the confraternity still performs regular cem rituals, led by güvende ritual specialists and bards. Cler gives a detailed presentation in this article, and on his site (with short video examples). The segments of the ritual sequence run as follows:

  • Opening:

initial hymn to the Twelve Imams
babalar semah (semah of the baba)

  • sofra (meal):

dem nefesi
oturak nefesleri (seated songs that Cler likens to Byzantine kathisma)
Kerbelâ song

  • End of the sofra and departure of the assembly:

semah of Forty;
two or four “additional” semah (these semah cannot be danced if the cem is to be finished early, as is often the case when spring approaches and brings the first agricultural work);
gözcü semah (semah of the gözcü!);
(new agape meal), hand washing and taking leave of services.

Here’s Cler’s CD Turquie: cérémonie de djem bektashi, la tradition d’Abdal Musa (Ocora, 2012) as a playlist:

For more bibliography, see my first post.

The call to prayer


Imam declaiming from prayer niche in mosque following the call to prayer, Kuzguncuk 2022.

In Turkey, whereas the rituals of Sufi groups like Bektashis and Alevis take place largely beyond the earshot of outsiders, the call to prayer (ezan; Arabic adhan), declaimed five times daily by the muezzin, is the most public soundscape of mainstream Islam.

As I write from Istanbul, it punctuates my day; even on a fleeting visit, one might soon begin to take it for granted—but whatever the varied responses of those who have heard it from birth, its impassioned free-tempo melisma accompanies the hubbub surrounding the mundane lives of people who might otherwise be impervious to the complexities of traditional makam.

To make an impertinent analogy, it’s rather as if the entire population of Europe went about their daily business constantly hearing Mark Padmore as Evangelist sing the heart-rending recitative that leads into Erbarme dich in the Matthew Passion, growing up to internalise it as the bedrock of their aural experience.

Many of the great singers of the Arab and Persian worlds came from a background of performing sacred chant, like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian in Iran; musically, “sacred” and “profane” styles are related. A general Arabic term for sacred chant is inshād (cf. China: nian “reciting”, rather than secular “singing” chang), imbued with ḥiss “a voice charged with an acute potential for relating the spiritual needs of the community to God”. [1]

Again, of course I can only get a glimpse of this vast topic, but for Turkey, the Ottoman and Republican history of the ezan is introduced here. The Republican government’s attempt to make Turkish the compulsory language of the ezan lasted only from 1930 to 1948. Here’s a 1932 recording of Sadettin Kaynak in Turkish:

Meanwhile amplification became standard, with a loudspeaker mounted on the minaret—which suggests to me that muezzin no longer need to be so fit…

This sequence features ezan from Istanbul, Bursa, and Konya:

Note also the CD by David Parsons, The music of Islam vol. 10: Qur’an recitation, Istanbul, Turkey (1997), part of an extensive series.

Meeting a wise imam
In small villages the imam also assumes the role of muezzin; in larger communities they are usually separate duties. However, at the mosque just opposite the Kuzguncuk ferry (next to Armenian and Greek churches and a synagogue!) Aydin Hoca serves as both imam and muezzin; we learned much from our meetings with him.

Aydin Hoca cropped

Aydin Hoca is an exceptionally wise and tolerant man. Born in Manisa near Izmir, he studied “Islamic mystical music” (tasavvuf müzigi) at the ilahi (“spiritual”) department of the Imam Hatip High School—he has kept in contact with Manisa, joining in events there. He furthered his studies of ilahi by enrolling at the Open University in Eskisehir. 

In 1990, aged 25, Aydin Hoca settled in Istanbul, becoming muezzin that same year at the Kuzguncuk mosque, while taking vocal and musical training with the renowned Amir Ateş at the Üsküdar Music Society, and furthering his education in Turkish classical and sacred music with Mehmet Kemiksiz. He values the inspiration these teachers gave him, as well as his overall education in morality and humanitarian ethics under Hafiz Fahri, based in Bursa.

In 1996—the year his first son was born—Aydin Hoca became imam at the mosque. He continued to receive training in solo and choral singing under respected teachers. Though offered positions as imam in more prominent mosques in the city, he prefers to remain with his Kuzguncuk parishioners.

He cites the popular expression Aşk olmayinca meşk olmaz “without love there can be no dedication” (meşk “devotion to practice”, often used in the context of music, perhaps resembling the riaz of north Indian raga). As in any walk of life, a voice can only be trained through diligence and application; oral transmission from master to disciple (usta-cirak) is crucial, as he learned through his training and now finds in nurturing his own students.

As to the Turkish branch of the vast makam family, he outlined the sequence for the five daily ezan, such as Saba for the dawn call, and a somewhat variable list for subsequent calls that includes Rast, Uşşâk, and Segah (see e.g. under this overview of “religious music” in Ottoman and early Republican Istanbul, and here).

As Aydin Hoca explained, while the maqams are important, they are only an opening. Inside the mosque, for the fourfold rekat (standing, bowing, and prostrations) the imam recites in four different maqams: Isfahan, Rast, Hüseyni, and Evic. In between the four sections, in order to “lighten” the maqams and give the congregation space to reflect, ilahi hymns are chanted.

Reminding us aptly of the wider theme of liturgical chant, the imam also notes the expression of dhikr in ayin communal gatherings at lodges such as Karagümrük Cerrahi tekke of the Halveti-Jerrahi order (many instances on YouTube under Jerrahi zikr e.g. this); here the worshippers accompany their group singing with frame-drums (bendir, def) and sometimes ney flute. He mentions the qaṣīda (e.g. here, and here), a three-part form with opening, a more expansive central section, and a calming conclusion; again, between sections they may add ilahi in various soulful moods.

Aydin Hoca stresses feeling. He often listens to early ezan recordings, “to reconfigure and order my mind.” Whereas some Muslim listeners lament “bad” or “ugly” voices, he has a more benign view, since all voices are given by Allah. But as he says, there are uneducated voices.

The muezzin are careful about the volume of the ezan: the mic should be neither too close nor too distant, not too loud or piercing; the sound must be natural. The broadcast of the Kuzguncuk ezan is linked to the central transmission of Kadıköy district. Aydin Bey decides when he wants to recite live; he often does so to keep his voice in practice. On Fridays he always chants live.

As to the ezan in the media, “everyone may recite the ezan, but first he has to be heard and recognised by the muezzin/imam.” The vocal style isn’t alien to daily life; it’s commonly adapted by pop singers. Aydin Bey considers Arabesk star İbrahim Tatlıses an important voice:

Further questions are addressed in the documentary Muezzin (Sebastian Brameshuber, 2009), based around a kind of Pop Idol competition for ezan—here’s a trailer:

Here’s an early rural fantasy from the iconic trans singer Bülent Ersoy, answering the plea of an ailing villager:

The call to prayer may be performed alternately by two muezzin (çifte ezan, double ezan), not only from different mosques (quite rare in Istanbul, though it may be heard at Sultanahmet and Üsküdar), but even from the same mosque. Here’s an instance of the latter from Izmir:

Here’s another video (which a BTL comment suggests comes from Ankara rather than Istanbul), with father and son declaiming:

And here’s a popular TV contest with çifte ezan:

* * *

The message of the text and the act of dhikr are primary; as in other sacred traditions, zooming in on the use of pitches in the various scales, and on melismatic decoration, may be largely the preserve of the muezzin—even if such details are at the heart of the ezan‘s efficacity. Its varied delivery deserves to be appreciated; clearly many of the faithful do so, rather than allowing it to become part of the aural wallpaper.

A with Kadir's mum

Augusta with community leader Saliha, visiting from İskenderun in the far south.

Curious about what the ezan means to different types of İstanbullus, I suggested a little project to Augusta. With her precious gift of rapport (cf. Bruce Jackson, Antoinet Schimmelpenninck), she relishes interacting with people in all walks of life, chatting easily with labourers, simit vendors, taxi drivers, intellectuals; pious Muslims, as well as Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Kurdish İstanbullus; men and women, old and young… Ours was a tiny sample, but I was impressed by their firm opinions on the topic; no-one merely takes the ezan for granted.

Barber Murat, and simit vendor Irfan.

Taxi driver Serkan, around 50, from Kayseri: “The ezan is imperative, denoting order. Of course I love it, as do all Muslims!” Still, “not everyone has a good voice! Not everyone can recite the ezan, I can tell you! But they recite with the voice Allah gave them. Whether it is beautiful or not does not matter. It is our call.” He feels a difference between the different makam, but is not aware of them. His wife prays five times a day, and he has started to join her a few times a week.

Another taxi driver, around 60, commented, “There is no voice so honourable as the ezan. It is the wisdom and blessing of Allah, bringing confidence.” For him the ezan “opens the heart, changes one’s outlook on the world, bringing people to their senses, to find peace”. For a simit vendor from Kastamonu it denotes honour, respect, reverence. As a 28-year-old cleaner commented, the ezan is a reminder that we have a conscience, an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, to remember any wrong-doings, and to be thankful, opening a door so that abundance and blessings may enter the home.

A Kuzguncuk barber (49) speaks with pride of his local imam Aydin Hoca reciting the ezan for the ceremony after his own birth and those of his children and grandchildren.

All mentioned the dawn ezan, finding it soothing, welcoming, a blessing, setting intention at the opening to the day. And any music that is playing must be stopped during the ezan; it is even “sinful” to play music on the radio or TV then.

Despite Aydin Hoca’s enlightened view, themes that emerged include a distaste for “ugly” reciting, and for the “cacophony” that results when nearby muezzin fail to listen to each other; the poor quality of some loudspeakers; and the “centralised” broadcasts, which are at least dependable.

* * *

Among other regions, note the SOAS “Sounding Islam in China” project, notably here (as in Germany or the UK, contrasting with societies where Islam is the dominant culture). For Gregorian and other traditions, see Chant and beyond, as well as A cappella singing. For free-tempo preludes, click here—notably the alap of dhrupad, star exhibit in my series on north Indian raga.

[1] For more, see e.g. Scott Marcus, “The Muslim call to prayer” in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.6). A good introduction to various styles of vocal liturgy just further south in Aleppo is the CD

  • Syrie: muezzins d’Alep, chants religieux de l’Islam (Ocora, 1992), with notes by Christian Poché. It opens with a solo adhan sung by Sabri Moudallal (1918–2006) (listen here; playlists devoted to Sabri Moudallal, largely featuring concert groups, including the Ensemble Al Kindi, are here and here).
    Indeed, the CD features further devotional songs led by the qāriʾ Reader of the Qur’an. Following the solo free-tempo qaṣīda is the choral muwashshah hymn, accompanied by frame-drums (listen here). The disc also includes instances of salawāt prayer and du’a’ invocation.

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

Alevi cem 17
for Alevi cem ritual, Istanbul 2022.

In modern Turkey, a major component of the diverse Ottoman religious heritage is the ritual life of groups subsumed under the broad umbrella of Sufi dervish ritual—whose histories and evolution the dualistic language of Sunni and Shi’a is quite inadequate to encompass. [1]

Misleading taxonomies are common in world religions. With my experience of China, I think of  Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection Daoism (e.g. for Hunyuan); at folk level, even the terms “Buddhist” and “Daoist” may be problematic, such as in Hunan. And I’ll remark on further features that the Sufi groups seem to share with folk ritual practices in China.

A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups. [2] While I’m in Istanbul, haughtily eschewing the sanitised stage shows of “Whirling Dervishes”, commodified for tourists, I’m keen to attend a ritual. The devotional religious groups engage in activities with a certain discretion, so—quite properly—they don’t readily offer access to impertinent outsiders. But while they have also gone into partial lockdown since the pandemic, cem rituals are still being held.

I’m merely trying to get a very basic handle on this topic; perhaps my superficial foray below will suffice merely to show how immense it all is—so readers who actually know about it can look away now

* * *

In both their doctrines and ritual practices Bektashis and Alevis, now commonly associated, have indeed long had much in common. Both, for instance, worship Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), the Twelve Imams, and the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli, and both emphasise the Four Gates and Forty Stations. They make an annual pilgrimage in August to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli at Hacıbektaş in central Anatolia.

To simplify historical nuances of doctrine and terminology that elude me, Alevism is a general belief system with ascriptive identity, whereas Bektashi is an order in which one can enrol. Some scholars have distinguished rural Alevis and a more educated elite of urban Bektashis.

As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,

The devotional practices of mosque-goers and dervish could be accommodated side by side in one building, and many mosques today associated with Sunni Islamic observance once had a wider function, as a refuge for dervishes as well as congregational prayer-hall.

In Ottoman times Bektashis were closely linked to the Janissaries; they went into decline after the latter were suppressed in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 (Osman’s dream, pp.437–8):

Prominent members of the order were executed, and Bektashi properties in Istanbul were destroyed, or confiscated and sold, or converted to other uses. […]

The practice of affiliation to more than one dervish order was so common, and the attempt to eradicate Bektashism at this time so vehement, that sheiks of other orders were also rounded up and sent into internal exile. Largely because of their infiltration into and acceptance by other orders, however, especially the officially-favoured Nakşibendi order—on whom their properties were bestowed—the Bektashi were able to survive clandestinely, and by mid-century they were again finding favour within elite circles.

Following World War One, despite the Bektashis’ supportive role in the War of Independence, Atatürk outlawed such Sufi groups in 1925; since then (by contrast with the recent commodification of the “Whirling Dervishes”) their ritual activities take place discreetly, since some Muslims still consider them heretical. The main base for the Bektashi sect is now in the Balkans and Thrace, notably Albania.

Although some Alevis claim to be Bektashi, the eliding of the two is quite recent. As our encyclopedic Kuzguncuk neighbour Kadir Filiz observes, the problematic term “Alevi–Bektashi” was coined by Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (1890–1966) in his work on Sufism; he also applied the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox” to Islam, recently deflated by scholars like Riza Yildirim (who encapsulates his detailed historical and field studies here and here; also in English, see e.g. here). By the late Ottoman era, as the militant, rebellious kızılbaş “red-heads” [3] were perceived negatively, popular parlance began replacing the term with “Alevi”; but under the new Republic, Alevism came to be associated with radical leftist views.

Lodges and houses of gathering
The situation became further politicised from the 1950s, when Alevis from rural areas of Anatolia began migrating in large numbers to major cities like Istanbul. There they used long-dormant Bektashi tekke lodges as cemevi (“houses of gathering”) [4] and formed local associations, named after their native region; since the 1980s the cemevi have been rented officially, and younger generations have come to refer to them as Alevi–Bektashi lodges. As both context and ritual practice have been modified, this has also been a period of an “Alevi renaissance”, reaffirming identity against the dominant culture of Sunni Islam.

The urban cemevi now have an ambiguous status. In modern Istanbul they often serve partly as social centres, but many rituals are also held in private homes; one dede leader told us that well over fifty cemevi are active there. [5]

State suspicion of the Alevis has been heightened by the presence of a significant Kurdish component among them, making them yet more vulnerable to attack—with serious incidents since the 1960s and 70s, such as massacres at Maraş (1978), Çorum (1980), and Sivas (1993), amidst tacit government connivance. While Alevis make up a substantial part of the Turkish population, at home they may be shunned by their neighbours, and at school children still have to keep quiet about their heritage.

Ritual practice
Along with migration, ritual change has become a major research topic (see Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, Chapter 7; for China, see e.g. Guo Yuhua, and north Shanxi).

Alevi studies are thriving too. Alongside the insights of Riza Yildirim (see above), I note works such as

See also e.g.

Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic. [6] Meeting practitioners in Istanbul, I’m also reminded of how much material (including audio and video recordings) is shared online by such groups, who maintain regular contacts with their fellow-believers around Anatolia and Thrace.

As with the Islamic practice of the Sunni majority, Sufi cem (djem) communal rituals are performed with the general purpose of dhikr (remembrance, reminder). While in most Sufi orders women are rarely allowed to participate in rituals, in Bektashi–Alevi practice men and women worship together.

Sites such as this outline the annual cycle of Alevi cem rituals; they may also be held for initiation, commemoration, vows for good health, for joining the army, and so on. Langer summarises the sequence of an individual Alevi ritual thus: after a preliminary “discussion” (sohbetmore commonly muhabbet) by the presiding dede, and symbolic court case (görgü), the main service (ibadet) consists of a sequence of prayers (both solo and choral) to the Twelve Imams, hymns to the Twelve Duties, prayers of repentance, and invocations, concluding with an ecstatic sema dance. Sipos and Csáki (pp.53–66) give a detailed account of a full sequence of Bektashi ritual segments, which I summarise:

  • animal sacrifice and preparations
  • arrival, settlings, furnishings, lighting of the candles
  • “secret” section, including reconciliation of grievances (cf. the Uyghur mäshräp?)
  • sequence of nefes hymns
  • tripling (üçleme), with toasts
  • supper
  • pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
  • further sequence of nefes
  • semah whirling
  • closing prayers and blessings.

The ritual leader (dede/baba) presides, flanked by a bard (zakir or aşık), who leads the vocal liturgy accompanying himself on a bağlama long-necked plucked lute.

In orthodox Sunni ritual, even melodic instrumental music is considered unsuitable—just as in Chinese temple Buddhism and Daoism (cf. A cappella singing). Indeed, in China one’s search for “religious music” can easily be misled by such a narrow association (see Unpacking “Daoist music”, and The notation of ritual sound). As long as ethnographers pay attention to soundscape (still, alas, quite a tall order), our main theme should be ritual in society (note Michelle Bigenho‘s thoughtful comments).

Sipos and Csáki mention the collection work of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), reminding me yet again of China:

In the Turkish folk music stock of the TRT, numbering over 4,500 items, there are sporadic tasavvufı halk müziği or “folk religious” tunes, usually under the generic label of “folk song”. [footnote: The TRT repertoire contains the variants approved by a committee of the tunes officially permitted for publication. The committee often makes changes on the tunes before printing, first of all modifying the words not deemed appropriate.]

In China I have expressed grave reservations about UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (see this roundup; note also Rachel Harris’s critique of their programme for Uyghur culture, in particular the mäshräp). For Turkey UNESCO has adopted the “Alevi–Bektashi sema ritual. This film could do with more documentation:

But their outline sums up the issue:

In Turkey, each and every inhabitant of the State is held to be Turkish and Sunni. If Alevis are not Sunni, how then can they be Turks? Since such a notion is inconceivable to many Turks, there is only one possible answer: since Alevis are Turks, they are also Sunnis. If this were not the case, they would become a danger for the Turkish nation and State. Consequently, research on Alevi religious rituals is potentially problematic both for the stability and security of the State and for the Turkish national psyche. To sum up, a large-scale education programme is needed to build bridges of communication between those belonging or not belonging to the Islamic world—Alevis, the Turkish Sunni majority, and the authorities, who usually perceive social reality through Sunni lenses. Future educational projects and campaigns should not concentrate solely on Alevi culture and religious rituals, but rather on folk culture and rituals in Turkey seen as a part of contemporary Turkish culture.

A Bektashi cemevi in Zeytinburnu
Despite my profound ignorance, local practitioners are most welcoming. On the European side of the Bosphorus, in Zeytinburnu “outside the walls” (now also a fragile home for many Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China) we visited a senior Bektashi couple at their apartment, where they hold regular cem gatherings.

Bektashi altar room

Bektashi Bahtiyar baba (on ritual sheepskin) and ana bash.

Bektashi baba and his wife (known as ana bash “leader of the female section”) were both born in Edirne in eastern Thrace, he in 1953, she in 1952; they mainly spoke Turkish. Their ancestors were all devotees. His parents had come to Edirne from Bulgaria in 1950; his father was also a Bektashi baba. Their families moved to Istanbul in the late 1950s.

BB on baglama Sipos and Csaki

Bektashi baba accompanying a cem. From Sipos and Csáki 2009.

He referred us to his solo recordings of hymns with bağlama plucked lute, featured in many YouTube playlists under Bektaş Bahtiyar, e.g. here.

An Alevi ritual in suburban Istanbul
In the distant southern suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we attended a weekly ritual at a well-appointed Alevi cemevi, consulting the wise Erzade Özgür dede (b.1983) and his wife Songül ana, who also possesses estimable ritual knowledge.

Before the pandemic struck, over a hundred devotees would take part in the cem; currently around twenty gather—male and female, old and young, all wearing their ordinary clothes, including the dede, who sits on the sheepskin with a mic, flanked by the zakir. He delivers a long opening muhabbet in his normal voice—instructive, personal, relaxed but serious—with occasional contributions from the congregation. The main participants at the meydan ritual arena tie red or green sashes at the waist, with two young men taking a staff; the gatekeeper holds a staff too.

After the muhabbet of over an hour, the zakir strikes up on bağlama, also amplified. His instrumental taksim leads into a nefes hymn; then another speech, and another song, as an 80-year-old Kurdish elder lights a three-candle electric candelabra. The congregation is now getting involved, with cries of “Allah Allah!”, then call-and-response.

The assistants remove their socks before blessing the carpet and unfolding it. Water is poured into a bowl while chanting, going round the congregation to ritually cleanse their hands and faces. Three women bow with a brush; more call-and-response; longer group chanting. All prostrate as the volume rises; kneeling, the worshippers all beat their thighs to a little suite of nefes with bağlama. The mood is ever more ecstatic.

Alevi sema 7

Another speech as all prostrate again, another bağlama song, then sema around the carpet with two men and two women, barefoot. They stand on the edge of the carpet to bow to the dede, who invites others to dance, with two more men joining in. With the three main dancers, slow and fast nefes alternate, accelerating wildly. The dancers bow again.

Then the women silently brush the carpet while bowing. The simple lokma food offerings are blessed. After another brief discussion, the candles are extinguished, the carpet replaced.

All this helped me appreciate the different roles of the twelve hizmet duties or services (cf. guanshi in north China, assistant to the huitou leader), such as çerağcı supervisor of the candles, süpürgeci sweeper, and selman provider of water for ritual washing.

Alevi cem group pic

Erzade dede A couple of days later, taking the Metro to the southern terminus, we were invited to supper at the couple’s apartment, along with a bright young disciple—another instructive and delightful evening. Erzade dede’s family brought him to Istanbul when he was 3. He was chosen by his grandfather at the age of 13—his father wasn’t a dede—and he sometimes commuted to Ankara for further instruction. After military service, and the death of his mentors, by his late 20s he was already taking over ritual duties. Having learned in his youth to sing nefes while playing the bağlama, now (like many urban dede) he leads the ritual alongside a separate zakir. He is a respected community leader.

An Alevi–Bektashi lodge in Kadıköy
On Sunday afternoon the following week we went to the Göztepe district of Kadıköy to visit an extensive and imposing Alevi–Bektashi dergâh lodge, rebuilt openly since the late 1980s. A throng of devotees were gathered, visiting the tombs in the grounds and seeking blessings from the dede for their young children and sick relatives, offering lokma. Accompanying himself on bağlama, a zakir sung a wonderful nefes hymn for us in praise of Abdal Musa (see sequel to this post), disciple of the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli. I look forward to returning for a regular ritual at their fine cemevi.

See also Alevi ritual in rural Anatolia.

* * *

Alevi ritual in the diaspora
The whole history of Bektashis and Alevis—before, during, and since the Ottoman era—is one of migration over a large area. Scholars such as Robert Langer explore the transfer to the wider diaspora in recent decades. The documentary Heavenly journeys (Marcel Klapp, 2015) illustrates Alevi ritual life in Germany, with comments from older and younger generations:

Note also Tözün Issa (ed.), Alevis in Europe: voices of migration, culture, and identity (2017), reviewed here. And for Alevis in Toronto, see Ayhan Erol, “Identity, migration and transnationalism: expressive cultural practices of the Toronto Alevi community (2012). [7]


Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta,
with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!

[1] For the transnational picture, see e.g. The Routledge handbook on Sufism (2021); for a basic outline of Sufi orders in Turkey, see e.g. here, and for Ottoman Constantinople, here (a useful site). Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.

[2] I adopt the common form Bektashi rather than the orthography Bektaşi. For the Ottoman social-political context of Bektashi orders, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s dream; brief mentions that may pique one’s interest include Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.187–90; Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts, pp.81–2.

[3] For a casual connection, cf. “red-head” Daoists in Taiwan, e.g. Kristofer Schipper, “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”.

[4] Again, cf. folk hui assemblies/associations/sects in China—by contrast with officially-registered “venues for religious activity”, where only a tiny amount of overall ritual life takes place.

[5] This article includes a list of 64 cemevi in Istanbul (cf. historical photos of the tekke, and this introduction; for architectural features, and more vocabulary, click here). On politics, see e.g. Tahire Erman & Emrah Göker, “Alevi politics in contemporary Turkey” (2000), and sources cited in this post under “Ritual practice”. For the wider religious background since the founding of the Republic, see here. As I write, yet another round of the Alevi Federation’s dispute over the exorbitant utility bills suffered by the cemevi is under way, hinging on its attempts to gain status for them as places of worship.

[6] For briefer introductions to Bektashi ritual and music, see e.g. here; wiki has articles on the Bektashi order, Alevism (here and here), Alevi history, and sema / sama.
For Thrace, in Janos Sipos and Eva Csáki, The psalms and folk songs of a mystical Turkish order: the music of Bektashis in Thrace (2009; 669 pages, consisting largely of transcriptions and lyrics with translations), note “The religious ceremony” and “The music of the Bektashis in Thrace” (pp.38–77). Jérôme Cler’s introduction to the topic for Anatolia is enriched by videos and further links; see sequel to this post. My taste for ritual sequences is amply displayed in the many posts on local ritual in China.

[7] For Mevlevi practice in Germany, see Osman Öksüzoğlu, “Music and ritual in Trebbus Mevlevi tekke (lodge) in Germany” (2019). Among a profusion of Sufi groups around Turkey and elsewhere, the Mevlevi order (founded by Rumi, with its centre at Konya) enjoys a high profile, notably for its association with the “Whirling Dervishes”.

Epiphany in Istanbul

In church 1

Sanctification of Water ritual, Agios Giorgios, Kuzguncuk.

To follow Bach’s Epiphany:

Having blithely ignored Christmas in London, I arrived in Istanbul again just in time for Armenian and Greek Orthodox Christmas on 6th January.

The Armenian faithful in Istanbul have somehow managed to maintain their liturgical traditions despite over a century of persecution. We went up the hill in Kuzguncuk to attend a Mass for Christmas Eve in a sparsely-attended minor church.

It’s also Epiphany (Theophania) for the Greek Orthodox Church, observed with the agiasmos Sanctification of Water ritual, when the Bishop throws a wooden cross into the Bosphorus to be retrieved by swimmers—a ritual performed at several sites around Istanbul (for background on the religious life of Istanbul Greeks, see e.g. here). But the core ritual is the lengthy service that precedes it, which we attended at the lovely little Agios Georgios church in Kuzguncuk—next to the synagogue, on the other side of the road down from the main Greek church Agios Panteleimonas.

In Istanbul today Greeks are far fewer than Armenians, but this was an impressive service, with a quartet of liturgists punctuating the recitation of the priests, with jangling thurifer.

Left, the head priest blesses worshippers with light;
right, preparing to sprinkle blessed water on the congregation with a sprig of herbs.

In church 2

On right, dove awaiting release to the heavens (and an ICONIC choice of jacket).

on road

We all followed them across the road through the ferry station to the shore, where two pious swimmers retrieved the wooden cross from the waters; meanwhile a dove (representing the Holy Spirit) had waited patiently during the service before being released to the heavens (cf. Messiaen).

Left, at Fener (source); right, at Kuzguncuk,
with swimmer presenting cross that he has retrieved from the Bosphorus.

Our Greek friends note the symbolism of fish, Ichthys, and Jesus as fisher of people, as well as abundance. China makes the same connection between yu 魚 fish and yu 餘 abundance; and most large-scale rituals (both for temple fairs and funerals) there include segments for Fetching or Inviting Water (qushui, qingshui, and so on; see e.g. our film, from 41.06).

Last year Covid rules prevented the Sanctification of Water being held in Greece, but it was observed by the Greek community in Istanbul.

The topic might lead us to consider ayazma holy springs, healing, and the wider context of Holy Water in Eastern Christianity and other faiths. And spare a thought for the beleaguered Catholic minorities in China, including Gaoluo.

With thanks to Kuzguncuk friends!

Not such a white Christmas: Balthasar


Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Talking of colour, in north Europe we no longer get so much snow, but our Christmas really is very white—celebrated by nativities with white people in fancy dress, based on stories by the genteel British names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Welcome as is the growing presence in our schools of children from the Middle East, who could imagine that is just where all this took place?

And even once we recognise this, the tableau still isn’t monocultural—as illustrated by the story of the Three Magi. As wiki observes,

The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” (μάγοιmágoi) visits him in a house (οἰκίανoikian), not a stable, with only “his mother” mentioned as present.

In early sources the term magus refers to Persian sorcerers/astrologers; the three were first named as Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior in a Greek manuscript from 500CE.

Jonathan Jones describes their changing representations in art. Although the Venerable Bede described Balthasar as black in the 8th century, very few images depicted him thus before 1400; but in the Renaissance, representations proliferated along with growing awareness of other races then being subjugated, serving to illustrate Christianity’s powers of conversion.

Dürer, The Adoration of the Magi, 1504.

Another article refers to the research of Paul Kaplan, Cord Whitaker, and Kristen Collins with Bryan Keene. As Geraldine Heng noted:

The topos of blackness becomes in Europe a reflexive gesture denoting the exotic and the foreign. […] By this time, courts, kings, and nobles played with blackness for purposes of spectacle in performances of masques, pageantry, processions, and balls.

This leads to a discussion of the use of blackface in Epiphany and Three Kings’ Day parades (cf. the Bacup Morris dancers).

Of course, we can’t expect historical authenticity from religion. Acculturation is subject to constant change. Religious art too reflects changing perceptions and agendas.

Cf. the widespread image of the Black Madonna. See also Esther Chadwick’s review of the collection Black in Rembrandt’s time, focusing on the Afro-Atlantic community in Amsterdam.

Turning to 1730s’ Leipzig, among the constant wonders of Bach’s Christmas oratorio, The Journey of the Magi (Part Five) opens with an exhilarating chorus in which the fiddles get as close to bluegrass noodling as you can in early music—as if the Magis’ stellar Satnav had whimsically chosen a route to Bethlehem via Appalachia:

Part Six goes on to portray The Adoration of the Magi.

Messiaen‘s depictions of the story are also wondrous. On a lighter note, my post on The Three Wise Men of Daoist ritual studies includes a cameo from Monty Python (“We were led by a star!” “Led by a bottle, more like!”).For the unpromising chromaticisms of I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, click here.

Turkey: what everyone needs to know

Belatedly keen to explore Turkish culture, I learned a lot from

  • Andrew Finkel, Turkey: what everyone needs to know (2012).

For all its populist Q&A format, it’s full of useful insights, constantly unpacking simplistic preconceptions while presenting a range of viewpoints both within Turkey and abroad, based on the author’s long experience as a journalist based in Istanbul.

Turkey AF

The chapters open with Historical background, summarising the legacy of the Ottoman empire—ethnic conflicts in the aftermath of World War One, the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne leading to the foundation of modern Turkey with Atatürk’s Republic. Andy ponders the mixed record of Turkey’s measures to preserve the culture of the past: typically, alongside apparently impressive legislation, archeology clashes with ideology and the pecuniary demands of tourism and development, as the Ottoman heritage is Disneyfied.

The next chapter on Economy describes “a complex economy in its own right, but one well situated to become a conduit of goods and services between Europe and the resource-rich nations of the Middle East and the former Soviet Union”. He notes the profound inequalities between regions, with the eastern provinces accounting for less than 10% of the country’s economy; the flaws of state development projects, notably hydroelectric; the steady decline of agriculture; and the culture of complicity. As often, all this reminds me of China. Andy evokes the contrast between Istanbul and Ankara, with the former’s loss of political power doing nothing to damage its status as Turkey’s cultural and commercial capital.

Turkey in the world observes Turkey’s pivotal strategic position in global politics. Many in the West understand that

the choices facing Turkey are not Manichean, a clash of civilisations between East and West, but rather are based on a nuanced calculation of where the country’s best interests lie.

Andy outlines Turkey’s response to the end of the Cold War, 9/11 followed by the invasions of Iraq, and the Arab Spring; relations with the USA, Israel, and the EU; the war in Syria, human rights, and Cyprus.

Politics… and the military covers democracy, coups, more on human rights, nationalism, religious interests, the uneasy alliance between state and government, nepotism, the slow pace of reform, and (a topic on which he has particular authority) limits on press freedom.

The Introduction has already explained how the very concept of “Turkish” and “Turk” arose from the ashes of the Ottoman empire; and how the racial and linguistic term “Turkic” (Turcoman) is used in English for tribal peoples from Central Asia (some of whom migrated to what is now Turkey!)—a distinction not made in Turkish. Society and religion opens with a discussion of the role of Islam in public life, as the secular state wrestles to reconcile its avowed secular identity with Muslim values. Checks on Turkey becoming a fundamentalist state include a de facto diversity and tolerance among the people—although this is hardly put to the test, since Turkish-born non-Muslims now comprise only 1% of the population.

For all its claims to be a melting pot of civilisations and a mosaic of different cultures, Turkey has been continuously blindsided by the problem of accommodating its own ethnic diversity.

In religion, with non-Muslim minorities having dwindled severely since 1900, the promotion of “faith tourism” is highly selective, with monuments to Anatolia’s multi-confessional past merely vestigial. While the building of mosques proliferates, within Islam there are disparate groups, such as the Alevis, whose practice distances them from the mainstream.

The situation of the Kurds is the subject of a rather extensive discussion.

Ethnic solidarity with fellow Kurds across borders is often overshadowed by the concerns and politics of the countries in which Kurds actually find themselves.

In Turkey they are based in the southeast and east of the country, but Istanbul is “almost certainly the largest Kurdish city in the world”. While discussing the Turkish state’s campaign against the PKK (boosted by wider anti-terrorist sympathies after 9/11), the book observes that

Kurdish nationalism […] does at times appear to be a distorted reflection of the Turkish nationalism it opposes.

Not only is the whole region underdeveloped, but cross-border tensions are heightened by the movements of refugees.

In 1989 Eastern and Central Europe rejected Soviet-style totalitarianism and embraced a democratic ideal. Yet Turkey, which might have been expected to reap a dividend from the end of the Cold War, became more authoritarian. It became embroiled in a costly fight to suppress Kurdish insurrection and has in some measure been corrupted by it.

With the prospect of Greater Kurdistan ever remote, the Kurds’ search for greater political and cultural rights continues.

women skip

Photo: Selahattin Giz.

This is followed by a section on gender (see also here). On one hand, Atatürk is praised for having emancipated women, and legal reforms have continued, described by one campaigning NGO as succeeding in

safeguarding women’s rights, and bodily and sexual autonomy. […] All legal references to vague patriarchal constructs such as chastity, morality, shame, public customs, or decency have been eliminated and definitions of such crimes against women brought in line with global human rights norms. […] The new code […] brings progressive definitions and higher sentences for sexual crimes, criminalises marital rape; brings measures to prevent sentence reductions granted to perpetrators of honour killings, eliminates previously existing discrimination against non-virgin and unmarried women, criminalises sexual harrassment at the workplace and considers sexual assaults by security forces to be aggravated offences.

Yet, as elsewhere, “feminists are not as grateful to their male liberators as the official history would have them feel”. The shops and restaurants of central Istanbul cannot represent the general picture. Secularists have failed to tackle obstinate patriarchal attitudes. As to the sensitive question of headscarves,

many believe it is a right and obligation for pious women to cover their heads. Others see it as a deliberate affront and a symptom of creeping fundamentalism.

Some issues are explored in Kutluğ Ataman’s Women who wear wigs (2001), “part of a warning about recklessly attributing motives and categories”. This is followed by a section on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and LGBT people in Turkey.

Finally, the vexed arguments surrounding the Armenian genocide are cogently summarised—a topic to which I devote a separate post.

All these questions have ramifications far beyond the borders of Turkey. The Conclusion offers some signs of hope, such as the public demonstrations (below) following the 2007 assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Dink demo

Lastly, Andy provides a succinct list of further reading. Amidst the shifting picture, he’s well aware that constant updates are to be desired; but with its digestible style and thoughtful perspectives, the book makes a valuable overview.

For more on Turkey, see under Köcek in Kuzguncuk!, notably Midnight at the Pera Palace.

A Daoist temple in California

*Guest post by Hannibal Taubes*

(for whose remarkable website on temple murals in north China,
see my introductions here, and here).

chico funeral procession copy

Funeral procession, Chico. Source.

A short research report, almost entirely built on others’ research

Recently I agreed to do some pro-bono translation work for the History Museum in Chico, a small city of about 100,000 people in the northern part of the Central Valley of California. I had time to stop by the museum in person in August 2021, while driving from Boston to San Francisco and back to pick up my stuff from storage, and was very courteously put-up and dined-out by the emeritus archaeologist in charge there, one Keith Johnson, and his family. I should note right at the start here that I know nothing about this topic, and that essentially all of the information here is shamelessly pulled either from Keith Johnson’s book Golden altars, or from the fantastic and too-little-known Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (CINARC) website, which should be the real first stop for anyone interested in Chinese culture in 19th and early-20th century North America. Another great online introduction is this series of articles from the National Park Service, which gives a brief but lively account of Chinese settlement in 19th- and early 20th-century California, as well as its physical remains.

Some of the main Chinese temples in California discussed on the CINARC website.

Alta California acceded to the United States in 1848, in the wake of the Mexican-American War. Gold was discovered in the mountains there in the same year, prompting the first gold rush, and bringing the first Chinese immigrants (mostly from the Pearl River Delta) to the ports of California, especially San Francisco. By 1855, the Chinese community in San Francisco had Daoist temples, an opera house, two newspapers, and several civic associations. While the early communities prospered in many professions, they were shut out from various industries by discriminatory legislation and mob violence; many of the stereotypical images of “Asian” professions in frontier America (railway workers, launderers, shopkeepers) resulted from their systematic and often violent exclusion from other fields of work. Nevertheless, the Chinese immigrants successfully established businesses and Chinatowns all across the American West from the 1850s onward.

The “Palace of Serried Sages” (Liesheng gong 列聖宮) at Chico was founded in 1884 by immigrants from south China, attracted by the mining, logging, and mercantile opportunities afforded by the Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Later, many found work as launderers, grocers, cooks, and domestic servants. The community was financially and commercially sophisticated—the Chico History Museum possesses a detailed 1917 account-book for what seems to be a Chinese banking and money-lending operation, recording loans, withdrawals, interest, and annuities.

interior of the Chico temple showing altar copy

Interior of the Chico temple showing altar, 1910. Source.

The photographs held in the collections of the California State University at Chico give a vivid sense of what the Chico Chinese community looked like in its heyday, as well as other similar communities in the area, especially the neighboring towns of Oroville and Marysville. We see big, cheerful-looking families, wearing a mix of Chinese- and Western-style clothes. At least one of these families from the 1950s is multiracial, a Chinese man who married an Anglo-American woman. Often the men and boys would sit for formal portraits, staring solemnly into the camera in their starchiest traditional clothes. Another striking photo captures a young girl in a gorgeously embroidered traditional dress and hat, perhaps out for some kind of holiday. Family shots of white households often show Chinese cooks or domestic servants (in the language of the day, “house-boys”), with or without named identification. By the early 20th century, class photos make it clear that ethnic Chinese children attended integrated local schools, alongside their mainly white classmates. More photos capture the scene in the multiple Chinatowns in Chico, Oroville, and Marysville—we see tumbledown launderers’ houses by the river; dense urban districts and bustling town shops; and big houses of brick and rough-hewn wood, as were common in these California frontier settlements at the time.

the altar as it stands in the Chico museum today copy

The altar as it stands in the Chico museum today.

Judging from the dates inscribed on the altar paraphernalia, the Chico temple seems to have been active between the 1880s and the 1910s. This tracks the history of popular Daoism in America generally. As Bennet Bronson notes, popular Daoist temples flourished in Chinese immigrant communities across North America from at least the 1850s onward, with many of the earliest surviving temples on the continent located precisely in the Central Valley region. However, the religion seems to have suffered a sudden and poorly-explained collapse in the 1920s, with many shrines closing or becoming inactive. In the case of Chico, part of the reason may have been an FBI-assisted police raid on a Chinese-run opium-distribution network in 1924 (as a result, the museum today possesses some beautiful carved and inlaid Chinese opium pipes). By the 1930s the Chico Chinatown had almost entirely vanished, and in 1939, three elderly Chinese residents gifted the surviving altar- and temple-goods to a white-American friend, from whose hands these items eventually came to the museum. The temple building was torn down in 1946.

the bright gate copy

The Bright Gate.

From the plaques and inscriptions within the temple, we get a detailed sense of the trans-Pacific and trans-Californian networks that sustained this community. Many of the temple items were manufactured in China. One such item was the massive and intricately carved Bright Gate (caimen 彩門), a gilded frieze depicting opera figures that originally hung above the temple door. According to the inscription, the Bright Gate was built on the Street of Meeting Immortals (Huixian jie 會仙街) in Guangzhou. In other cases, we have the names of the manufacturers. One of the multiple square arches that made up the altar reads:

香港                Hong Kong
城隍街            Street of the City God
百步梯            Hundred-Step Stairs
俊昌造            Made by Jun Chang

In some cases, precisely the vast distances involved in these networks appear as proof of the gods’ all-encompassing power, extending even to the barbaric shores of the New World. One set of matching couplets (duilian 對聯) around the altar reads:

帝佑宏深連華夷    神恩浩蕩流海國
The Emperor’s protection is grand and deep, linking both Chinese and Barbarian;
The god’s benevolence is vast and broad, flowing even to the nations beyond the seas.

Most of these goods were gifted to the temple by various fraternal organizations (tong/tang 堂), which could be based either in China, in San Francisco (the nearest large city and sea-port, with a large and well-established Chinese population), or elsewhere on the Western seaboard of the USA. Another inscription on the Hong-Kong produced altarpiece explains how it arrived in Chico:

沐恩余風采堂眾弟子敬     光緒十八年孟春吉旦立
A gratefully received gift of the assembled disciples of the Yee Fung Toy association,
erected on an auspicious day of the first moon of spring in the 18th year of the Guangxu reign [1892].

The majority of inscriptions in the collection are of this sort, recording the charitable or pious gifts to the temple and community, usually by major fraternal associations. While often terse, they do give a sense of how active Chinese civic organizations were in supporting the new settlement in Chico. In a few cases the objects are gifts from individuals, usually described as “disciples” (dizi 弟子) of the god. One inscription from 1908 on a pewter censor describes it as given by “the disciple Zhou Lianzi and the pious woman Yue Hao” 弟子周連子信女月好敬送, indicating that the community of believers included women wealthy and independent enough to be noted as donors.

The purpose of all these donations was to demonstrate one’s own wealth and piety, but also to adorn the communal space with beautiful objects and sophisticated calligraphy. Beyond the gorgeously carved altarpieces and Bright Gate, there are also several elegant plaques and matching couplets, inscribed with elevated mottos. In some cases the calligrapher is identified. One is a decorously anonymous Grass-hall Layman (caotang jushi 草堂居士), whom I have not been able to trace. Another set of couplets, described as having been “repaired” (chongxiu 重修) in Guangzhou in 1891, provides the following lofty sentiments in a cultured hand:

志在春秋伸大義    氣充天地庇帬生
Our intent is for the Springs and Autumns, extending great righteousness;
Its qi fills heaven and earth, and protects all living things.

Calligraphy respectfully written by Dong Qigeng, after burning incense and performing ablutions.

Dong Qigeng was a locally well-known exam-graduate, painter, and calligrapher active in 19th century Guangdong, whose works are still popular today in Chinese auction-houses. His fame had even spread abroad—his calligraphy is also found in the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association meeting hall (Zhonghua Huiguan 中華會館) in Victoria, British Columbia. All in all, these pieces effectively display the wealth, piety, international reach, and cultural sophistication of the Chico community.

Most of the dates given in these inscriptions are in traditional Chinese format—either an imperial regnal title (“such-and-such year of the reign of the Guangxu emperor”), or in sexagenary format according to the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches (tiangan dizhi 天干地支) system, or both. That is, at least as far as formal inscriptions in their temple were concerned, this community counted the years according to the accession of the Manchu emperors in far-off Beijing. One brief inscription on a pewter censor, however, gives insight into another sort of politics:

洪順堂敬送     天運六年吉日
A gift from the Hongshun Association,
on an auspicious day of the 6th year of Heavenly Motion (Tianyun).

The Hongshun Association is one name for the Heaven-and-Earth Assembly (Tiandihui 天地會), an anti-state secret society with branches in many Chinese communities, especially in San Francisco. “Heavenly Motion” is an anti-state calendrical term dating back to at least the 17th century. Its use implies that the Hongshun Association viewed the ruling Manchu imperial house and its regnal titles as illegitimate, and it was thus a statement of revolutionary intent.

When I originally saw the “6th year,” I naturally wondered what “year one” was. A note on the ever-fascinating CINARC website puts the puzzle-pieces together. Another inscription from Victoria, British Columbia, reads “Heavenly Motion 3, or the ding-wei year” 天運三丁未年. The ding-wei year corresponds to 1907. As the CINARC editors note, the famous revolutionary Sun Yat-sen gave a speech in San Francisco in 1904 endorsing the use of Heavenly Motion dates as an anti-state signifier. Thus it seems that at least one revolutionary group on the West coast of North America began to date their calendars from that year. The “6th year of Heavenly Motion” on the pewter vessel in Chico should be from 1910, only one year before China’s last imperial dynasty did in fact collapse in the face of a nationalist rebellion.

As for the rituals that took place inside the Chico temple, our only information is from old photographs and the ritual objects themselves. Like all Chinese temples anywhere in the world, the Chico temple contained incense pots, in which one could place lighted sticks of incense before bowing or “striking the head” (kowtow or ketou 磕頭) at the altar. (Hence the common term for Chinese temples in 19th- and early-20th- century English sources, “joss [incense] houses.”) The altar itself contains spirit-plaques (shenpai 神牌) dedicated to Lord Guan (Guangong 關公), Avalokiteśvara-Guanyin (觀音), the historical doctor Hua Tuo 華陀, the astrological god Great Year (Taisui 太歲), and a god of wealth called “The Astral God of Wealth and Silks” (Caibo xingjun 財帛星君). Another item is a wooden stamp with the words, “The fountainhead of wealth pours broadly in” (Caiyuan guangjin 財源廣進), presumably used for endorsing paper or cloth articles brought to the temple for luck. I haven’t come across anything recording an actual ordained Daoist priest resident in Chico, but it seems probable that one or more laymen had enough basic ritual knowledge to see to their own community’s spiritual needs.

Chico funeral procession with banners copy

Chico funeral procession with banners. Source.

One thing the Chico temple definitely was involved in was organising communal parades, whether for the lunar New Year, or for funerals. These parades were intended to be loud, splendid, and very public displays of the entire community’s joy or grief, and thus they were frequently objects of comment and photography by non-Chinese observers. The California State University at Chico library holds dozens of usefully-digitized photographs of these parades from the 19th century onward, in both Chico and the neighboring towns. Photos show perhaps over a hundred people marching down the main streets of town, often in sumptuous robes or ceremonial military uniforms with the character “Brave” (Yong 勇) embroidered on the front, bearing giant banners, parasols, and ceremonial weapons. Several of these wooden weapons remain among the temple-goods in the museum today. In some of the photos, the procession is led by an immense American flag, perhaps to display patriotism in their new home, or to avoid abuse by their white neighbors on these most visible of communal occasions, or both. Other photos show dragon-dances, setting off firecrackers, carrying temple palanquins with religious images, and so on.

Chico funeral procession with American flag copy

Chico funeral procession with American flag. Source.

Related to these public funeral processions, a major concern of many Chinese communities in North America was the ritually proper burial, and reburial, of the dead. One photograph shows the Chico Chinese graveyard as it stood in the 1950s. The museum has on display two Chinese gravestones, both with elegantly simple inscriptions giving the name, place of origin, and date of death of the interred:

會邑                            Hui Town (Huizhou)
古井磨耳村                Old Well Millstone Village
趙贊美墳磨                The grave of Zhao Zanmei
光緒拾六年                In the 16th year of the Guangxu reign
眾于四月卄一日        He passed away on 21st day of the first moon [June 8th, 1890].

the grave brick copyAnother interesting object in the museum is a small red brick, with the following terse inscription:

白洪[ ]井村  Bai and Hong [one character missing] Well Village
馬贊喜公墳  The grave of master Ma Zanxi
Passed away in the 4th moon of the 31st year of the Guangxu reign [~ May 1905].

Such Chinese “grave-bricks” are known from across North America, as far north as Alaska. Many Chinese immigrants, concerned about dying abroad without descendants or proper burial rituals, wanted their remains to be shipped back to their native villages. An elaborate trans-Pacific network sprang up to facilitate this. These small bricks would be buried with the body, providing an accurate name and address in the event of disinterment.

The arrival of special teams from China to disinter corpses was an object of morbid interest in the American press at the time. In his capacity as a reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain described one attempt by the California legislature to discourage Chinese immigration by banning such ritual disinterments, calling the proposed legislation “an ingenious refinement of Christian cruelty.” Another newspaper article (again, quoted on the CINARC site) describes the arrival of such a team in Chico in 1893:

The Chinese population of the town of Chico, Cal., has for the past two weeks been under a strain of excitement concerning the exhumation and removal of all the bodies buried in the Chinese cemetery of that place. This has been a gruesome spectacle. A company of native resurrectionists dug into the graves, took up the coffins, removed their contents and deliberately set to work getting rid of the more or less decomposed flesh, scraping the bones, drying them, then gathering them in bunches, carefully tied, wrapped, then labeled with the respective cognomens of the several deceased and the residence of the particular families in China … (San Francisco Call 1893-11-14, p.19)

The prurient tone of this newspaper article suggests some of the darker aspects of the Chico Chinese community’s story. For all that the Chinese community lived and prospered in Chico for over fifty years, they remained isolated amidst a society that could treat them with open and sometimes violent racism. The Chico temple was founded only two years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The following decade saw a wave of brutal massacres, expulsions, arson attacks, and acts of mob violence against Chinese in the United States and particularly in California. By the end of the decade, many counties in the area had expelled their entire Chinese populations, often with multiple fatalities. In Chico, a fire destroyed much of the Chinatown in 1887; the firehose that might have put it out was found severed in four places. The California State University at Chico holds and has digitized the minute-book for the “Chico Anti-Chinese League,” which goes on for over a hundred pages between the years 1894 and 1896, in mercifully illegible handwriting.

Unfortunately, this story of discrimination and communal destruction is not yet over—witness the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the USA. Nor is California’s fascinating heritage of popular Daoist temples safe from harm in 2021—according to Chico archaeologist Keith Johnson, at least two historic Chinese temples in California have been destroyed by accidental fires in the last decade, and more are now in danger from the massive climate-change induced wildfires that now regularly sweep across the state, consuming towns and cities.

In early 2019, I hosted a Chinese friend in San Francisco, a Beijing-based film-maker with whom I’d worked together to document at-risk temples and historic mural sites in impoverished parts of rural Hebei province. As we walked along the waterfront in Berkeley, looking across the great blue Bay to the cloud-wrapped towers of downtown SF, winds off the Pacific were driving long trains of waves through the Golden Gate to crash on the shores of America. I told him that I was as much, and as little, a foreigner here as he. Chinese people have been in California for as long as Anglo-Americans, and Russians and Spanish and Mexicans were here before that, and before them, the Maidu, Ohlone, Miwok, Yokuts, and more peoples too many to name. When some part of this place’s history vanishes, the loss belongs to all of us.

Dang: Gujarat and Korea

Stewart Lee’s recent playlist for Songlines is just as wacky as one would expect. Although I have to mark him down a bit for going down the hackneyed route of Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder, he roams the clouds from Shirley Collins and Laura Cannell to Ethiopian jazz. Like Moriarty pursuing Holmes to Tibet, just when I thought I was catching up on jazz behind the Iron Curtain, he’s outwitted me again—Dang!

[And I like to think that “Stew” himself might interject:]

Funnily enough, Dang is a region of Gujarat famed for its dance. These dancers are accompanied by rousing shawms:

which are also heard here:

Pawari dance

And beat this for a wind instrument—the pawari (cf. pāva and satārā):

Here’s a Dang pas-de-deux:

And in ensemble:

All this is remote from the ethereal world of north Indian raga.

* * *

The music of Dang is not to be confused with Dangak, which is the Korean equivalent of Japanese Tōgaku [Oh, right you are—the Plain People of Ireland]. Both genres are obscurely derived from the music of the Chinese Tang court, and both are largely marginally preserved today through museumification—far from the lively Gujarati folk scene. BTW, the population of Gujarat is larger than that of (South) Korea!

Thankfully (did I say that?), only two pieces survive, Nagyangch’un (Chinese: Luoyang chun 洛陽春, a title not in the Tang Chinese repertoire, FWIW):

and Pohŏja, which is the Chinese Buxu 步虛, Pacing the Void:

The hyangak repertoire is native to Korea; here’s Sujecheon:

and P’yojŏngmanbangjigok:

These genres in turn are not to be confused with a-ak, the Korean version of the Confucian yayue 雅樂:

Turning to ritual in living society, mudang shamans are active, as in this ritual filmed in Seoul:

And we might even consider the tang-ki 童乩 self-mortifying spirit mediums among the Hokkien in southeast China (Ken Dean) and Taiwan (David Jordan). For links to posts on Chinese mediums, see here.

* * *

Anyway, all that was meant just as a little preliminary aside—sorry, got carried away (What am I like?! LOL). Throwing pursuers off the scent, what I’m trying to get round to is Stewart Lee’s choice of Ethiopian jazz. But to cite the Plain People of Ireland again, here’s me bus, so I guess that’ll have to wait for another time [Later: here’s the post]… Dang.

With thanks to Simon Mills

Bernard Lortat-Jacob at 80

BLJ playlist

Bernard Lortat-Jacob is one of the great ethnomusicologists. I’ve already admired his work on Sardinia, and featured his recordings from Morocco, Romania, Albania, and Valencia. To celebrate his 80th birthday (cf. my sonic tribute for Stephan Feuchtwang), we have a splendid new volume:

  • Petits pays, grandes musiques: le parcours d’un ethnomusicologue en Méditerranée (2020; 512 pages).

BLJ Petit pays cover

Among BLJ’s main fieldsites, the focus here is on the Mediterranean, notably Sardinia—his early work on Morocco only features en passant. His remit also extends to India, Java, Iran, the Hebrides, Brazil, jazz, and Western Art Music. Most valuably, the text is cued to 63 wonderful audio and video tracks on this online playlist, so that we can instructively listen and watch as we read (or even before Rushing Out to buy the book). Meanwhile BLJ also considers changing ways of musicking (the French musiquer is good), and changing trends over his long career in ethnomusicology. One feels his rapport as participant observer; while applying thick description (cf. Geertz) to both social and musical aspects, his style is deeply engaged, full of character.

Bernard, Irgoli 1995

BLJ entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.

* * *

The Introduction by Giovanni Giuriati gives background on early influences on BLJ’s studies and the significance of his ouevre; while sharing many approaches with Anglo-American ethnomusicology, he has also been at the centre of a distinctively European tradition (cf. posts under Society and soundscape).

The main text is a parcours in three parts, each with nine chapters—an anthology of mostly previously-published articles, illuminatingly arranged by themes.

BLJ 462

Part One, “Improvisation: permanence et transformations”, unpacks the creative process (cf. Nettl).

BLJ 32

After an introductory chapter, BLJ offers three vignettes on Sardinia, featuring the launeddas (in memory of Aurelio Porcu); dances with organetto; and songs with guitar. Alongside detailed musical analyses, he always pays attention to social context (festas, bars, and so on).

“Bartók’s kaleidoscope” is a thoughtful tribute, dating from 1994. Focusing on Béla Bartók’s early recordings and transcriptions of the folk music of Romania (cf. my Musical cultures of east Europe), it’s further informed by BLJ’s own fieldwork there from 1991 to 1996 with Jacques Bouët and Speranţa Rădulescu (see A tue-tête: chant et violon au pays de l’Oach, Roumanie, 2002, with DVD, including amazing clips like #23).


Chapter 6 is a more general discussion of models and typology, in which BLJ spreads his net to Iran, India, and Scotland—as well as Morocco, illustrated by the Aissawa cult of Meknes (#15), and Turkey, with a fine taksim on the zurna (#18b).

He then continues exploring Romanian village traditions with chapters on the oral traditions of the Ouach (Oaș) and Baia Mare regions. He discusses the misleading dichotomy between fieldwork and the laboratory.

BLJ 124

In an intriguing experiment, the team asked local musicians to play their own transformations on short extracts played to them from a Brahms Hungarian dance, The four seasons, and West Side story (##24–27). While I appreciate the idea, here I’m rather less excited by the insights it yields.

BLJ 155

A numinous image, also used for the cover of Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz
just the kind of fusion of ethnographic and musical detail that BLJ practises.

Part One ends with a virtuosic entr’acte, “The jazz ear”, suggesting grander themes through two suggestive analytical vignettes. Seeking to assess contrasting evaluations of Chet Baker’s vocal intonation, BLJ gives a micro-analysis of his “deviant” pitches at the opening of I fall in love too easily (cf. Deep in a dream, and Chet in Italy). And the “cultural ear” is apparent too in his discussion of the harmonic implications in Charlie Parker’s different melodic renditions of Billy’s bounce. While this kind of analysis stops short of explaining why audiences are so moved by both jazzmen, it suggests fruitful paths.

This jazz vignette leads BLJ to suggest three approaches:

  • the imperial (“not to say imperialist”) position, whereby ethnomusicologists, with their universal science, declare themselves the omniscient authority, taking credit for the aptitude of others (Others) without asking too many questions;
  • the discouraging opposite view, as expressed famously by Bruno Nettl‘s teacher in Iran: “You will never understand this music”;
  • a middle way, which BLJ favours: that it is precisely the problematic accessibility of the music of others that is at the heart of our task.

BLJ 179

Part Two, “Chanter ensemble, être ensemble” (and the word ensemble is more evocative in French!) returns to Sardinia, considering vocal polyphony there (“Les mystères des voix sardes”). Five chapters explore aspects of the Castelsardo confraternities, with their annual cycle of rituals culminating in the Passion rituals of Holy Week, illustrated with magnificent video clips like #35 and #39 (more under Sardinian chronicles). Exquisite as is BLJ’s Chants de Passion (1998), he reflects that

les mots du livre sont beaucoup moins riche que les paroles qui leur ont donné naissance. […] L’écriture est toujours maladroite lorsqu’il s’agit de rendre compte des intonations et de la richesse de l’oral…

Musical notation too is an imperfect tool.

tenores 1998

BLJ in deep harmony with tenore quartet at wedding, 1998. Photo: SJ.

In the fourth chapter of this section BLJ expands his consideration of vocal polyphony in Sardinia to the more widely-known secular genre of the tenore quartet, including the distinctive group from Fonni, who open his 1991 CD Polyphonies de Sardaigne (#36b).

Chapters 5 and 6 offer more perspectives on the Castelsardo liturgy, reflecting on the aesthetic judgements of the participants, and on memory, individual style, conditions and constraints (the ritual cycle, sense of place), grammatical rules, preparation. With such factors in mind, BLJ analyses a 1993 Stabat mater (#41).

Chapter 7 considers such orally-transmitted group singing in the less formal (male) social interaction of the cantina. Describing the singer as “creator of empathy”, he notes that while such societies commonly refer to nos anciens, the word “tradition” doesn’t belong to such societies, but is an invention of the “professors”—an issue to bear in mind in China.

BLJ 297

This discussion makes a bridge to the last two chapters of Part Two. Chapter 8 is a version of BLJ’s 2013 article “Multipart drinking (and singing): a case study in southern Albania”. After apéritifs in Ancient Greece and the Andes, he describes the Tosk ensemble seated around a table (also a focus of Chinese musicking), singing in free tempo as they make toasts with raki (e.g. #45), revealing the correlation between social and musical rules and their spatial and temporal dimensions.

La performance a pour but de render contigus, de façon construite et progressive, le proche et le lointain, le present et l’absent et—pourrait-on dire plus largement—les mondes physique et métaphysique.

He notes the presence of virtual as well as real participants:

Il s’agit d’etres mythiques: héros convoqués par les textes des chants dont on célèbre l’importance, faits d’armes divers (en general contre les Turcs), fiancées perdues ou inaccessibles dont on ne sait pas meme si elles existèrent un jour. Mais aussi présences-absences: le chant est la trace d’un souvenir, d’une situation précédente, de l’objet de ses pensées, et qui se voit adoubé d’attentions expressifs particulières. De sorte qu’être ensemble revient à s’inscrire dans un présent, mais consiste tout autant dans l’évocation et le rappel des absents.

As to the polyphony of the Lab people further southwest in Albania, Chapter 9 discusses the mournful song Ianina, led by Nazif Çelaj (#48; full version on BLJ’s 1988 CD Albanie: polyphonies vocales et instrumentales). It was premiered at a 1983 folk festival in Gjirokastër, and despite being promptly elevated by the regime to national status, audiences agreed that it was both original and moving. This seems to have been a rather rare occasion in folk tradition to witness a song regarded as a “new creation”; while BLJ describes the innovative aspects of the vocal arrangement (always embedded in tradition), I’d like to know more about just how the song came into being.

One particularity of the song is its evocation of the funeral laments of women:

Il est comme un esquisse ou un rappel des lamentations funèbres dont les femmes ont en principal l’exclusivité. Il emprunte ainsi, sans le dire, au vaj (cri, plainte ou lamentation féminine). Il y a là un travestissement qui ne peut passer inaperçu. En fait, un double travestissement, car ce chant d’hommes emprunte aux femmes et il ne raconte pas seulement une histoire: il la met en scène en y insérant—en live—le chagrin occasionné par le mort du héros.

He concludes:

Chant de douleur de l’ancien régime, il renvoie au temps de la domination des Turcs. Mais aussi et sourtout au régime qui l’avait vu naître, comme si, à son tour, il ne pouvait plus s’extirper de ce passé encore brûlant. Cependant, il n’est pas nécessaire que son référent soit precis, car en tant que plainte masquée Ianina chante la douleur. Or, celle-ci ne manque pas des scénarios anciens ou nouveaux pour fair irruption: elle renvoie à ce qui fut autrefois, mais aussi à ce qui est aujourd’hui (l’instabilité morale, l’injustice social et l’émigration notamment). Et sans doute a-t-elle même l’étrange pouvoir d’inclure les douleurs à venir. Elle et à la fois précise et indécise. En cela réside sa fonction paradoxale autant que son charactère opératoire.

In Part Three, “La musique en effet”, we return again to Sardinia. Chapter 1 reflects on BLJ’s “home base” of Irgoli, opening with villagers’ apparent indifference to the intrusion of American rock music blasting from the TV in the bar. He contrasts the whole social soundscape with the silence surrounding vendetta. The tenore style of Irgoli has hardly been affected by the fashionable adoption of other such groups onto the “world music” bandwagon. And meanwhile the canto a chitarra, the improvised “jousts” of the gara poetica, and dancing in the piazza continued to thrive there.

Further pondering how music reflects the social structures in which it is inscribed (an idée fixe of ethnomusicologists), in Chapter 2 BLJ revisits the launeddas and the liturgy of Castelsardo.

BLJ 353

In Chapter 3, “Le cheval, le chant, la poésie”, he reflects on the limitations of comparison, even between the various festive cultures of Sardinia. Chapter 4 explores the connection between flowers and liturgical song. The following three chapters discuss Lévi-Strauss, the “science” of music, and affect—ending with an astute commentary on the speaking voices of women in Castelsardo.

In Chapter 8, BLJ’s return to Orgosolo in 2011 after thirty years prompts reflections on memory and the individual “proprietors” of repertoire among his various fieldsites. This in turn leads to a discussion of female mourners in Albania (#61), and the return of a celebrated Albanian singer to his desolate natal home, shown in BLJ’s film with Hélène Delaporte, Chant d’un pays perdu (2006) (extracts e.g. #62b and 62d).

For both performers and audiences, a complex, imprecise nostalgia may be involved in a synchronic event (as well as in later reception history, I might add). He ends with a note on music, memory, and possession—the latter here denoting the power of absent or lost beings in the performative expressions of the living.

This leads suitably to the final chapter of Part Three, on Georgia on my mind as sung by the “alchemist” Ray Charles. Applying the same methods he has developed for folk traditions, BLJ analyses the musical features that create the multivalent portrait of an elusive protagonist, with its “tempo-malaise”.

“Georgia”—l’être évoqué—existe a travers son énonciation chantée, des qualités d’intonation spécifiques, un timbre ô combien particulier, des transitoires d’attaque et de fin, etc., constituant non pas l’accessoire du chant mais son essence.

Noting the human voice as marker of social discrimination, he explores the “black voice”, anchored in the memory of douleur, and “le nègre blanc”; the pentatonic basis of the song, both gospel and rural (another pays perdu); and the arrangement by Ralph Burns. Nor does he neglect to pay homage to the 1941 recording of Georgia by Billie Holiday (and one might cite her Don’t explain as a succinct assessment both to support and criticise his method?!).

In his thoughtful Postface/Volte-face, BLJ reflects on the major themes that have emerged, describing the ethnomusicologist as both droguiste and acrobate-gymnaste. While noting the reduced local diversity of rural traditions since his first fieldtrips in the 1960s (a theme, indeed, that one might trace back to the origins of anthropology), he has remained alert to change, constantly refining his “models”.

All this makes one keen to explore the final bibliography, discography, and filmography—and do also consult the ear-opening CD set Les voix du monde, in which BLJ played a significant role. What—no index?!

This stimulating tour de force is both a survey of Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s lifetime immersion in musicking and another reminder of the wealth of Mediterranean traditions on our doorsteps, along with their relevance to a global understanding of local cultures.

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.

The Bach passions

For Good Friday, as a reminder to listen to the Bach Passions, two, um, trailers—

Here’s the chorale Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück that follows the anguished O Schmerz! to end Part One of the John Passion:

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet
Der doch auf ein’ ernsten Blick
Bitterlichen weinet.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!

And also from the John Passion, the aria Zerfließe, mein Herze:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren        Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren!                                         to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:        Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot!                                                     your Jesus is dead!

I trust that will lead you to these complete versions, from the Proms:

And then, just as profoundly:

Essential background:

As we embark on the long haul of the Passions, sinking into the opening choruses is a uniquely spine-tingling experience for performers and audiences alike.

John MS

The Annunciation in art and music

Fra Angelico 2

Fra Angelico, fresco for the Convent of San Marco, Florence, early 1440s.

I wonder how many of us pause to notice that today, the 25th March, is the Feast of the Annunciation. At least in north Europe, popular awareness of the cycle of feast days in the Christian calendar has been much diluted (that’s an observation rather than a lament). So here are some representations of the event in art and music.

The Annunciation is one of the most popular themes in Christian art, notably frescos and paintings. Wiki introduces variations over time and region:

The composition of depictions is very consistent, with Gabriel, normally standing on the left, facing the Virgin, who is generally seated or kneeling, at least in later depictions. Typically, Gabriel is shown in near-profile, while the Virgin faces more to the front. She is usually shown indoors, or in a porch of some kind, in which case Gabriel may be outside the building entirely, in the Renaissance often in a garden, which refers to the hortus conclusus, sometimes an explicit setting for Annunciations. The building is sometimes clearly the Virgin’s home, but is also often intended to represent the Jerusalem Temple, as some legendary accounts placed the scene there.

The Virgin may be shown reading, as medieval legend represented her as a considerable scholar, or engaged in a domestic task, often reflecting another legend that she was one of a number of virgins asked to weave a new Veil of the Temple.

Late medieval commentators distinguished several phases of the Virgin’s reaction to the appearance of Gabriel and the news, from initial alarm at the sudden vision, followed by reluctance to fulfill the role, to a final acceptance. These are reflected in art by the Virgin’s posture and expression.

In Late Medieval and Early Renaissance, the impregnation of the Virgin by God may be indicated by rays falling on her, typically through a window, as light passing through a window was a frequent metaphor in devotional writing for her virginal conception of Jesus. Sometimes a small figure of God the Father or the Holy Spirit as a dove is seen in the air, as the source of the rays.

Less common examples feature other biblical figures in the scene. Gabriel, especially in northern Europe, is often shown wearing the vestments of a deacon on a grand feast day, with a cope fastened at the centre with a large morse (brooch).

Especially in Early Netherlandish painting, images may contain very complex programmes of visual references, with a number of domestic objects having significance in reinforcing the theology of the event.

Among Byzantine representations:


Armenia: Toros Taronetsi, 1323.


Russia, 14th century.


Annunciation to Zechariah, from an Ethiopian Bible, c1700.

For Italy,Duccio

Duccio, 1311.


Simone Martini, 1333.


Leonardo da Vinci, c1472–5.

Here’s a 1637 woodcut by Giulio Aleni—from Jinjiang, Fujian:

Annunciation China 1637


Much later in England, the theme was revived by the Pre-Raphaelites:

Rossetti 1850

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850.

Waterhouse 1914

John William Waterhouse, 1914.

* * *

In A question of attribution Alan Bennett introduced his drôle and perceptive views on the lost symbolism of art, fancifully attributing his comments on Annunciation paintings to the Queen (see On visual culture).

Fra Angelico 1

Fra Angelico, altarpiece for Santo Domenico in Fiesole, c1426.

And recalling her Catholic upbringing in Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood reflects on her youthful quest for enlightenment:

While we were growing up there was another painting in our house: Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. It was one of those paintings that seem to continue outside their own borders and reach into real life; this, I thought, must be what “good art” must mean. Two hands stretched out of the sun and shot a streaming gilt tassel into Mary, who bent over the place where she was struck. The angel, with feathers like a fractal quail, delivered his message directly into her eyes. Mary’s face was an unripe peach, not ready, not ready; a little book slid off her right thigh like a pat of butter. Stars in the ceiling pierced down. Far to the left, those two green grinches of sin, Adam and Eve, began their grumbling nude walk offstage.

When I left home, I hardly ever saw pictures of the Annunciation anymore. I was not expecting this somehow—I thought I would still encounter the messenger angel everywhere. It was the messenger angel who captured my attention, and not the angel with the flaming sword and not the dark-headed angel of death and certainly not the angel with the regrettable name of Phanuel. By instinct I understood that the most interesting one is the information angel, who carries the newspaper that is meant for you over the doorstep and into your life.

And how does the good news arrive? It does not arrive in your ears, exactly; it arrives in your face as a great gush of light. It is carried to you, not like a rose but like the symbol of a rose, straight into your understanding. There is no sound. It happens in your bedroom, or in your cave in the middle of the desert, with a lion’s head spreading on your lap, or on top of the pillar where you’ve sat for a hot century. It happens in your study, wherever that happens to be.

* * *

Lest we forget musical inspirations, the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated in Byzantine and Gregorian chant cultures—as in Eritrea:

By the baroque era, German composers commonly provided cantatas to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation—notably Bach (much detail here, with links to discussions of individual works).


Talheim altarpiece, 1518.

His two surviving cantatas for the Annunciation on 25th March coincided with Palm Sunday. He composed Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182) for Weimar in 1714, depicting the entry into Jerusalem:

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern: left, the hymn, Nikolai 1599; right, violin part.

and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 1!!!) for Leipzig in 1725:

For more Bach cantatas, see under A Bach retrospective.

* * *

In German, rather than Verkündigung, the Annunciation is commonly known as Englischgruss—which one realises means “Angelic greeting” (cf. the finale of Mahler 4), rather than a stiff handshake and lugubrious “How do you do”.

So here’s Brahms‘s a cappella setting Der englische gruß, simple and affecting:

Brahms text

The Lhasa ripper


Continuing to educate myself about Tibet (roundup of posts here), I always admire the writings of Jamyang Norbu. I’ve cited the useful volume Zlos-gar that he edited, as well as his vivid comments on lhamo opera. His website contains a wealth of information—including the text of a lecture he gave on Women in Tibet.

This may seem a strange way to stress the maturity of Tibetan culture before the Chinese occupation, but his article The Lhasa ripper is a fascinating vignette on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa society before the Chinese occupation, in the tradition of subaltern studies. Setting forth from the story of a serial killer murdering sex workers in late 1920s’ Lhasa, he goes on to cover begging and crime.

By this time the modern police force, recently formed, had met resistance from the monasteries and conservative faction. It was only reinstated in 1948.

Colonel Bailey, the British Political Officer in Sikkim, visited Lhasa in July 1924. In his report he mentions: “Laden La has organized a very creditable police for Lhasa city. The men are smart and dressed in thick khaki serge in winter, and blue with yellow piping in summer. They are stationed in different parts of the city [in police boxes—JN]. The fact of their presence has reduced crime in the city considerably and the inhabitants appreciate this.” The police force also had a bagpipe band (Tib: pegpa), which Bailey took credit for introducing.

It was mainly by chance that the “Lhasa ripper” case was solved in the mid-1930s. Jamyang Norbu relates variant accounts of the arrest of a minor monk official, a Nepalese national, after he was overheard.

In Part Two he broadens the theme:

I have long been interested in what might be called the “dark underbelly” of old Lhasa society: the professional gamblers, criminals, burglars, pickpockets, forgers, bandits, beggars, scavengers, and even the ladies of easy virtue, though some may object to their inclusion in this class. Granted, this particular dark underbelly wasn’t so “dark” or extensive as that of London or New York, and certainly not as exotic as that of old Peking or Shanghai, I suppose, but it was interesting in its own way because of its medieval flavor, and, as with all things Tibetan, its inevitable though nonetheless odd connection to religious life.

He introduces the kuma petty criminals, with their various specialities, such as thep-tre street urchins targeting peasants and pilgrims in Lhasa.

When the Communist Chinese occupation force took over Lhasa, I was told that many of the thep-tre shifted their attention to Chinese troops, relieving them of their watches, wallets, and fountain pens, and in the case of the officers, even pistols.

And outside Lhasa, the jhagpa armed bandits:

the chivalry of some of these bandits could be decidedly ambivalent ­– happily looting monasteries on the one hand while making lavish gifts to their own lamas.

And he has more on the celebrated “label” ladies of Lhasa documented by Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, including this catchy audio track of Chushur Yeshe Drolma playing a töshe melody on the dranyan plucked lute:

In 1985 Jamyang Norbu staged a musical tableau in Dharamsala, depicting

a street scene in the Holy City where ordinary city folk, aristocrats, lamas and so forth go about their business, while in the background a line of ten dranyen musicians play and sing songs related to the unfolding scenes. I had also included a (pantomime) donkey carrying firewood, Drekar beggars, and two actresses playing the role of the famous singers of old Lhasa, Shimi Lemba (Cat label) and Porok Lemba (Crow Label).

I was taken to task for this production by a Dharamshala mob and later the exile-parliament, and charged with insulting the Dalai Lama on his birthday by showing donkeys and prostitutes. I attempted to argue, quite unsuccessfully, that these two famous ladies were not prostitutes but respectable entertainers belonging to the Nangma musical guild (nangmae kyidug) of Lhasa, who even performed at cabinet banquets (kashag thogtro) in the old days.


Next he evokes the professional and spiritual beggars. The Ragyabpa guild of professional beggars/scavengers/undertakers was a kind of halfway house for freed criminals;

It was said that the Ragyabpa would curse you if you didn’t pay [the mandatory tariff on entering Lhasa] and a Ragyabpa’s curse was considered malignant. This was essentially a kind of cultural extortion, resembling the practice of the transgender Hijra community in India that still derives its income from similar begging/extortion performance rituals.

Other professional beggars in Lhasa were the fiddlers (tse-tse tangyen), beggars with performing monkeys (trangbo-tre-tse), and wandering acrobatic dance troupes (khampa repawho were not only skilled tumblers, drummers and dancers but claimed a spiritual connection to Milarepa. And he has more on the drekar and lama mani.

In a section on the chang beer taverns and a note on chang brewing, he notes:

Tibet was admittedly a politically backward and industrially undeveloped society, but the account of Lhasa beggars drinking beer that was at least clean and wholesome made me think of Gustave Doré’s engravings of the squalor and despair of working class London, and Hogarth’s famous print of Gin Lane (in the notorious slum parish of St. Giles) where the working poor destroyed themselves and their children by drinking manufactured spirits (frequently mixed with turpentine), foisted on them by a government whose primary concern was raising revenue from alcohol sale. I wrote about something much the same happening in Lhasa from the early 1980s onwards, “a ubiquitous alcoholism fuelled by the sale of cheap Chinese rot-gut, baijiu and sanjiu … pushing Tibetans into immediate unemployment and ultimate extinction.”


For more on alcoholism since the reforms, see here, following this article on the period from 1959 to 1978.

On pre-occupation Tibet Jamyang Norbu goes on to cite Hugh Richardson, Britain’s last representative in Lhasa and leading Tibet scholar of the day:

From fourteen years’ acquaintance with it I maintain that it was not deliberately cruel or oppressive. It did not need force to maintain itself … It had evolved a closely knit society with a balanced economy and higher standard of living with far less distance between rich and poor than obtained, say in India [and also say in China—JN]. There was a regular surplus of grain, and large reserve stocks. No one suffered the degrading conditions of life of which we read in the industrial revolution here or in Ireland.

* * *

While such a study debunks the obstinate view of an isolated, exotic, spiritual Tibet (cf. Tibetan clichés), for me it offers further evidence that it was a real, mature society, warts and all—far from the simplistic Chinese polarity of exploiters and victims. One might suppose the current regime would regard this as welcome evidence of the iniquities of the “old society”—but it also opens a can of worms on the realities of life both before and since the Chinese occupation.

Note also Jamyang Norbu’s The mandala of Sherlock Holmes.

Expressive cultures of the Himalayas

Musique et epopee

To complement my introduction to Tibet: the Golden Age, another volume, focusing on ritual and expressive cultures in the Himalayas and Tibet,

  • Katia Buffetrille and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (eds), Musique et épopée en Haute-Asie: mélanges offerts à Mireille Helffer à l’occasion de son 90e anniversaire (2017; 427 pages),

makes a fine occasion to survey the inspiration of Mireille Helffer’s pioneering studies.


The book opens with a tribute from her long-term colleague Bernard Lortat-Jacob (another doyen of French ethnomusicology, whose own ouevre is the subject of a new volume) and a detailed overview by the editors themselves, followed by a bibliography and discography of Helffer’s work on pp.25–33 (for her audio recordings, see also under

Though C.K. Yang’s distinction between “institutional” and “diffused” religious practice has been refined, I still find it useful for Tibetan as well as Chinese cultures. While the Tibetan monastic soundscape became a major focus of Helffer’s work (see e.g. her section in the New Grove article on Tibetan music), she always paid attention to folk practice too—a focus continued by scholars in recent years. The chapters further show the relevance of her studies for iconography, historiography, and organology.

Helffer 72

Through the 1960s and 70s, when Chinese-occupied Tibetan regions were inaccessible to outsiders, the base for Helffer’s fieldwork was among the Himalayan peoples in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Ladakh. Since the 1980s her research has inspired younger scholars to address the embattled Tibetan heartland of the TAR, Amdo, and Kham (cf. Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?” and other articles in n.1 here). Here I’ll just mention some chapters that particularly arouse my interest.

Helffer 100

The essays are grouped in three main sections. The first, “Conteurs et épopée”, includes a survey by Gisèle Krauskopff of the early days of ethnology on Nepal, as Helffer’s concern for sung oral literature developed through her fieldwork on the gäine minstrel castes—who are also discussed in the following chapter by Jean Galodé. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine explores a related tradition through an interview with a damāi minstrel. In the first of several contributions addressing the Gesar epic, Roberte Hamayon sets forth from Helffer’s work on the genre to compare its form in Buryatia.

Helffer 222

The second section, “Danse, musique et théâtre”, opens with reflections by Geoffrey Samuel on Tibetan ritual and cham ritual dance, focusing on its use inside the temple. Always keen that we should have an impression of such rituals as performed, rather than mere silent immobile text, I’m glad to learn of the films Tibet: le message des Tibétains by Arnaud Desjardins from the mid-1960s (set mostly in Dharmasala), including this on Tantrism:

Turning to Kham (in the PRC), Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy reports on her 2014–15 fieldwork on Gesar dance in the Dzogchen monastery—one of three ritual dances created under the Fifth Dzogchen (1872–1935).

Helffer 209

Gesar is also the subject of “From Tibet to Bhutan” by Françoise Pommaret and Samten Yeshi. Françoise Robin contributes a translation, with commentary, of “Dream of an itinerant musician”, a novella by Pema Tseden (b.1969), based in Amdo.

The third section, “Études népalaises et tibétaines”, opens with Véronique Boullier reflecting on issues in studying the life of apparently “closed” Hindu temples in India, setting forth from Helffer’s 1995 article “Quand le terrain est un monastère bouddhique tibétain”. Following chapters discuss themes in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism.

The volume ends with an engaging conversation between Samten G. Karmay and Katia Buffetrille (English version here), with astute reflections from Karmay on the culture clash he experienced since making an academic career in the West from 1960—covering topics such as Karmay’s childhood in Amdo, Tibetology in France, Gesar, Bön, and documenting a ritual on his return visit to his natal village in 1985.

Helffer 425

Ample references complement Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s bibliography for the Tibetan performing arts.

Throughout these chapters the influence of Mireille Helffer is clear. Yet again I am struck by the great vitality of Tibetan studies, and the mutual benefit of perspectives from both outside and within the PRC.

See also Recent posts on Tibet.

Amazing Grace


In my post Detroit 67, among several clips of the great Aretha Franklin I featured her extraordinary live sessions in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA. The double album Amazing Grace was released that year to huge acclaim, but the documentary had to wait right until 2018 to see the light of day. For anyone who hasn’t yet managed to do so, you can still find it on BBC i-Player (here)—otherwise, one can always buy it… [1]

BBC2 followed the film up with the documentary Respect.

Recorded over two evening sessions, the film Amazing Grace is all the more effective for showing its workings, complete with its calculated planning, technical hitches, and even piano-tuning. Yet despite the constraints of live recording, these were clearly inspired celebrations—just like many musical gatherings around the world (see What is Serious music?!, under “Serious world music”).

Between numbers, Aretha’s focus sometimes makes her look pensive, almost frail—but as she sings she becomes a spirit medium, a vessel for the Holy Spirit, possessed with all the joy and pain of Gospel.

Aretha and Rev

With the MC Reverend James Cleveland adroitly mediating sacred and secular, Aretha is backed by the Southern California Community Choir, who are also spurred on by the balletic Reverend Alexander Hamilton. Among very few white faces in the ecstatic congregation are Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.

On both evenings the tone is set by a devotional opening song (Wholy Holy and Mary don’t weep), followed by rousing up-tempo numbers like What a friend we have in Jesus, How I got over, All go back, I’m climbing higher mountains, as well as the ensemble interactions of Precious memories (“Sacred secrets will unfold”) and Precious Lord, take my hand/You’ve got a friend in Jesus.

The way Aretha opens in slow free-tempo is always moving—her final song (from 1.12.01), I have heard of a land on the far away strand, ‘Tis the beautiful home of the soul where we shall never grow old, is a whole seven-minute alap in itself—just as inspired as Indian dhrupad.

Most miraculous of all is the title track Amazing Grace (from 37.04; for the audio version, see under Detroit 67)—a long, slow meditation (without clearly defined beat or melody!) that leaves the congregation, the choir, Rev. Cleveland, and Aretha herself in tears.

And here‘s a version on Japanese hichiriki… Do also listen to my eclectic playlist of songs

[1] Among many reviews:

Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa.

One of my main themes for Maoist China is the persistence of religious activity. In my posts on folk traditions of Poland and east Europe I mentioned the 2009 volume Music traditions in totalitarian systems (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain).

Complementing studies of the largely “secular” Polish folk genres, an interesting chapter there is

  • Jacek Jackowski, “Folk religious songs sung during the Peregrination of Virgin Mary’s Icon: an example of traditional Polish peasant piety in Communist times”.

Despite secular, atheist Communist policy, the Catholic church remained central to Polish identity, and a focus of resistance.

Among many pilgrimages in Poland, the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa northwest of Kraków inspires a national network of religious devotion, with its holy icon of the Virgin Mary, the Black Madonna (most famous of many such images around Europe and around the world).

The pilgrimage was sometimes interrupted by political movements from the late 18th century, and notably during the wars of the 20th century.

Source here.

As in Communist regimes more widely, a partial thaw followed the death of Stalin in 1956, though persecutions of the clergy continued. From 1957 major round of Peregrinations to the Icon got under way in many dioceses and parishes, which were held until 1966—just as in China local folk rituals that had managed to persist during the first fifteen years of Maoist rule were also silenced by the Cultural Revolution. After the Icon was “arrested” that year, empty frames were taken on pilgrimage, “the best example of authentic folk piety”.

Meanwhile in Jasna Góra small copies of the Icon were consecrated and offered to all parishes in Poland for veneration. With the approval and guidance of the institutional Church, domestic services (“Small Peregrinations”) before the Icon also became highly popular. Even after the clampdown, all these manifestations of popular piety persisted, emerging more openly by the 1980s.

A 1983 Peregrination.

As with any study worth its salt, Jackowski pays attention to the soundscape, going on to give details of religious song, under three broad headings:

  • Church songs, from official songbooks, with official approbatur
  • Religious songs from the songbooks especially issued on the occasion of the Peregrination
  • Local religious and devotional folk creations—a rich repertoire.

Pilgrimage songs were led by przewodnik/prowadnik “guides”, often elderly women.

With religious devotion and pilgrimage significant elements in the popular resistance to the Communist regime, such songs were also sung during strikes and protests.

Meanwhile the Catholics of China were enduring their own tribulations.

Festive soundscapes of the Rioja

Further to my flamenco series, and Songs of Valencia, continuing to explore the regional cultures of Spain, I return to the fine CD

  • La gaita: dance and festive music of La Rioja (Pan, 2000),
    with instructive liner notes by Ad Linkels.

It comprises vocal hymns and dance music from the fiestas of villages in La Rioja (the northern province of Logroño) for their local patron saints.

Short of being there, or watching video footage, as an aural portrait these recordings are highly atmospheric—with most tracks captured live during feast days, and most inclusive in showcasing the variety of the ambient soundscape. They hardly offer the illusion of listening as disembodied sound.

So the CD title refers to the whole festive soundscape, with its gaita dances (often using sticks, stilts and ribbons—cf. Morris) accompanied by small shawms (dulzaina, gaita) and tamboril drums. But the latter are only one element in the texture of the soundscape, which also features campanillas ritual songs of confraternities, punctuated by church bells and hand-bells; festive jota songs; castanets, and the chirping of caged birds.

Here it is as a playlist:

The CD includes extended sequences from three village fiestas: ##1–8 from Cervera del Rio Alhama (for Santa Ana and San Gil); ##13–17 from Anguiano (for Santa Magdelena), with twirling, perilous zancos stilt-dancing; and ##18–23 from San Vicente de la Sonsierra.

Here’s a video of the Anguiano stilt dancers:

San Vicente de la Sonsierra is also among many villages which hold self-mortifying processions:

And here shawms accompany giants at the nearby festival of Estella:

(many more clips under “Gaiteros de Estella”).

The region is also among many parts of Spain notable for a variety of bagpipes. For links to posts on shawms around the world (China, Tibet, south Asia, the Middle East, north Africa, Europe), click here.

Songs of Valencia

Several of my posts derive from the perks of orchestral touring (e.g. Calendrical rituals, Enza Pagliara). For Spain, I’ve focused on the vibrant flamenco scene of Andalucia (roundup here)—but like Italy, regional cultures all around the country are remarkably diverse (see also Festive soundscapes of the Rioja).

In Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, the cant d’estil are short festive songs sung on the street and on procession. My baroque gigs there have coincided with a couple of processions to the cathedral, but I’ve never managed to hear cant d’estil live. What I did pick up, though, was

  • Antologia del cant Valencià d’estil 1915–1996,volumes XXV–XXVI (!) of Fonoteca de materials of traditional Valencian music,

a 2-CD set with 192-page booklet by Jordi Reig in both Valencian [related to Catalan] and Spanish, containing 59 pieces by 46 singers; the erudite notes (with photos, transcriptions, analysis, and English summary) consider (quite limited) musical change over the 80-year period.

And cant d’estil is the subject of yet another fine CD by Bernard Lortat-Jacob, assisted by Vicent Torrent, compiler of the Antologia:

  • Espagne, València, cant d’estil, joutes chantées (Ocora, 2005), with recordings from 2003—here’s the playlist:

Of the two main genres, valencianes are accompanied by guitarró, with wind bands providing formulaic punctuation; albas are framed by dolçaina small shawm and tabal snare-drum. The songs themselves are more florid and free in tempo than the rigid, banal instrumental sections—the two seem in deliberate conflict; even the fandango strummings of the guitarró serve merely to offset the rhythmic freedom of the singing.

Within a framework that seems based on “art music”, there is considerable latitude in both texts and melody. The creation of songs, with llisteros and versadors whispering in the singer’s ear to prompt themes, may remind us of the gara poetica “poetic jousts” in Sardinia. Both men and women sing in the same range, the former in a “forced” high register.

The brief lyrics are not just traditional, but also cover charmingly topical themes:

I ask the crowd here assembled
To give a thought
To whether the powers that be
Will ever find a solution
To the parking problem.

Others seek to do little more than introduce the band (cf. Sgt Pepper):

Today the wind section
Are all here
Toni on the powerful trombone
Tico on the trumpet
And Casar on the clarinet.

Among many YouTube clips, this sequence, from 9.14, after the opening speeches, shows the prompters:

And alba:

And pursuing my drum-and-shawm theme around the world, having featured a Catalan group here, here’s the Valencia tabal and dolçaina combo that frames alba songs (featured on the Antologia, and #13 of Bernard’s CD):

Shawm and drum score, featuring additive metre.

Among posts on other Mediterranean cultures, see e.g. Musics of Crete.

Music and the potato

The potato is central to the structuring of musical expression.

—Henry Stobart 
(To be fair, he wasn’t claiming this as a universal of human musicking.
Cf. The life of Brian sermon: ““Blessed are the cheesemakers”
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally.
It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”)


Being highly partial to a good potato, I’m well up for an article on its relation with music.

  • Henry Stobart, “Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers: music and potatoes in highland Bolivia”, British journal of ethnomusicology 1994.3,

makes a tasty hors d’ouevre for his 2006 book Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes; note also his Introduction to The new (ethno)musicologies (2008)—a volume that includes many thoughtful chapters, such as those of Michelle Bigenho. and Nicole Beaudry. For me, Stobart’s discussion of a rural Andean hamlet marks a rare excursion to south America.

Music is not the universal language that many people have often claimed it to be. This does not prevent us from deriving great pleasure and inspiration from the musics of other cultures, but the structural principles, aesthetics, and perceptual bases of our appreciation are likely to be radically different from those of the performers themselves.

In another instance of the exclusive, culturally-based meanings of the term “music”, the Spanish word musica is used to refer to either urban brass bands or sometimes sikura panpipe ensembles. As conversations veer off into agriculture, he learns that performance revolves around cycles of agricultural production.

Flutes and guitars, or panpipes, are played for rainy and dry seasons in turn. The wooden pinkillu flutes, considered “alive”, with their “eyes”, are strongly associated with the potato, whereas the panpipes of the dry season, lacking fingerholes, are unable to regenerate. The flutes are “enclosed” by women in the qhata circle dance, and released at Carnival preceding the dry season.

As Stobart notes, “the lives of humans and potatoes overlap and are sometimes compared with one another”. Instruments are considered to “weep”. The pinkillu is also associated with the sirinus, demonic and enchanting beings, who are said to provide players with new melodies between the feasts of San Sebastian and Carnival. The flutes are then hidden away until the following November—which according to a recent survey in The Strad was also voted one of the “best possible things you can do with a viola“, among other popular items covering the entire annual cycle.

For my hosts the potato is no mundane staple, but is an enchanting and magical being whose life is seen in many ways to parallel and enable their own. Potatoes must be loved and cared for, just like human children. This sentiment is expressed through music, song, poetry, and dance which in turn are some of the ultimate expressions of human feeling. For the people of this highland hamlet, it would seem that the potato must count among the most important organising principles of musical performance. Or rather, might it be more accurate to say that music is one of the primary expressions of the potato?

As one often finds, this cyclical relation between agriculture and performance is being impoverished by migration and changing patterns of labour. But this account makes a welcome antidote to all those (alas, perennial) panpipe bands that clog high streets worldwide, bless their alpaca socks.

* * *

To introduce a meretricious interlude on Li Manshan, I can offer the classic headline

Oh my gourd! (cf. these other silly article titles).

LMS potatoes

For more, see The history and social influence of the potato. Though “Daoist ritual and the potato” is a yet-unploughed field, for some reason I always think of Li Manshan when I’m peeling potatoes at home in Chiswick—which I do remarkably often, if impressionistically. While potatoes (shanyao 山药 or yangyu 洋芋 rather than standard tudou 土豆) feature rather sparingly in the local cuisine, which (as generally in north China) is based on noodles, he has a cool underground store in his courtyard, occasionally using a wicker basket to dredge up some potatoes for his wife to incorporate into various succulent recipes. For Li Manshan’s relationship with the earth, see my film, from 6.20.

See also You say potato, You say tomato, and Alan Partridge‘s confident, tasteless comments on the Irish famine.

* * *

“Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers” belongs to Stobart’s early career. In a fine recent update,

  • “Potato music revisited and the rise of a worldly music studies: perspectives from the UK”, in Gerd Grupe (ed.), Recent trends and new directions in ethnomusicology: a European perspective on ethnomusicology in the 21st century (2019),

he puts it in a wider context, reflecting wisely on the changing scene in UK musicology, as WAM scholars have fought a rearguard action against the growing trend for studies of folk and popular music, jazz, and film music.

On his early article, he notes that if he had written it a decade later,

it would probably have included explicit references to (post)colonialism, modernity, class, race, politics, violence, gender issues, migration, or new technologies; themes, among many others, that I would go on to explore in subsequent work.

But that’s not the main issue he needs to address here. Like other ethnomusicologists, Stobart is eminently sympathetic to the study and practice of WAM. Conversely, as Bruno Nettl already observed over half a century ago, the WAMmies are anxious about the perceived threat to their status (a regular theme of my blog, e.g. under Musicking, and What is serious music?!), fearing that “the ethnos are taking over”. So Stobart’s chapter is mainly a careful, equanimous response to belated, misleadingly simplistic critiques by J.P.E. Harper-Scott and Ian Pace.

Is Harper-Scott suggesting that by glancing beyond, what he calls, a “Eurocentric focus on Beethoven” and asking bigger questions, students’ minds might somehow become contaminated?
Alternatively, is he worried about the legitimacy of what he studies and teaches, where we might interpret his attack as an attempt to shore up this music’s value though negative assessment of others?
The ‘noble savage’-style “essential authenticity” Harper-Scott reads into the article is largely a product of his own imagination.


According to Harper-Scott, I should be berated for failing to condemn these Bolivian potato farmers for their misogyny and pro-natalist attitudes from a universal moral position. Quite how he manages to read the text , and interpret the symbolism of this dance, as evidence of these people’s misogyny is hard to fathom. […]

Of course, a global economic order which enables certain populations to live in poverty is immensely troubling. As Harper-Scott would know if he read my 2006 book, I am painfully aware that the musical expressions I have documented in this rural community have been maintained in large part because of the precariousness of people’s lives. However, it is hard not to be annoyed by the dismissive way in which Harper-Scott seems to propose that, rather than listening to these people and trying to understand their values and way of life, I heroically barge in with scientific knowledge to miraculously bring them out of poverty.

That’s just a taster—do seek out the whole article, as well as reading Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes!

While Bach did reflect exotic imports with his Coffee Cantata, a Potato Cantata has not come to light. Indeed, potatoes were not grown as a field crop in Germany until the 1770s; considering the malnutrition from which Bach’s ancestors suffered, John Eliot Gardiner (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.23–4) laments that “they had no access to the common spud”.

Native American cultures: a roundup

Recent posts on Native American cultures—relevant to ritual and China—include

This led me to Tony Hillerman’s fictional treatments of the Navajo:

My interest was initially prompted by the tragic story of

See also

On a lighter yet trenchant note, see

Leaphorn and Chee

Navajos are nicer.

Hillerman novels

My post on Navajo ceremonial cultures leads me to the vivid Leaphorn and Chee detective novels of Tony Hillerman. [1]

I find them just as compelling as the thrillers of Raymond Chandler or Michael Connelly; and authors of crime fiction often write effectively about cultures to which they are outsiders (cf. here), such as David Young on the Stasi, James Church for North Korea, Michael Dibdin for Italy—or indeed Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries for Tang China.

Moreover, for those of us unfamiliar with Native American cultures, the Leaphorn and Chee novels make an evocative complement to weighty academic ethnographies. Hillerman acknowledges his debt to the works of scholars such as Wyman and Haile. As he manages to embed little lessons in Navajo mythology, he conveys an impression of the connectedness of landscape, climate, daily life, and ceremonies among different strata of Navajo society. Indeed, such a picture is potentially just as valuable as a dry academic account.

Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are both officers in the Navajo Tribal Police, and though both are ambivalent about Navajo culture, they have access to clues that white people can’t perceive.

The cast includes not only Navajo people acculturated to various degrees, but also state institutions, white agencies—and anthropologists. Hillerman notes differences between the world-view of the Navajo and those of other nearby groups like Hopi and Zuni.

The plots feature witchcraft prominently, yet it typically transpires to be a misleading element in crimes motivated by more mundane causes— involving, as Scheper observes, some intrusion from the white world. While Hillerman stresses that murder is alien to Navajo culture, recent statistics, at least, suggest a more serious problem.

The series features a variety of ceremonies, healing rituals diagnosed in order to solve various problems—motivations that prompt Leaphorn and Chee to ponder how they may bear on the crimes they’re investigating. Thus the hataali “medicine man”, deploying his jish bundle, chanting and depicting cosmic sand paintings, makes regular appearances. Jim Chee himself is studying to become a hataali.

Of course Native American culture makes easy prey for hippy romanticising, but Hillerman doesn’t subject the Navajo “going in beauty” to such a fate. The novels remind me of the routine, practical nature of ceremony for communities with diverse values through changing times, as my work on the Li family Daoists suggests.

Hillerman describes the practical tasks in preparing for a ceremony, such as choosing the site, spreading the word, finding the proper singer, arranging the food. In all, these novels are a model for viewing ritual in social context.

* * *

Blessing Way

Hillerman first introduced Joe Leaphorn in The Blessing Way (1970).

The complex plot features an Enemy Way, with Sandoval presiding—an the elderly hataali who, like Leaphorn, seeks (as Reilly puts it) “to find an identity that preserves the integrity of tradition while permitting individuals to accommodate to new conditions of their life”

From Navajo, Diné, Indians of New Mexico, Arizona (1945) (see here).

However fictional, a passage like this is full of the detail of good ethnographic observation:

Sandoval squatted beside the sand painting and told Charlie Tsosie to put his knees on the knees of the Corn Beetle. He showed him how to lean forward with one hand on each hand of the figure. When Tsosie was just right, Sandoval began singing the part about how the corn beetles called out to tell the Changing Women that her Hero Twins, the Monster Slayer and the Water Child, were coming home again safely. His voice rose in pitch to the “lo-lo-loo” cry of the beetle, and then fell as he chanted the part about the Hero Twins visiting the sun, and slaughtering the monster Ye-i. It was stifling in the hogan and Tsosie’s bare back was glistening with sweat. Even his loin cloth was discoloured with it. That was good. The enemy was coming out. And now Sandovaal was ready for the next part. He sprkinkled a pinch of corn pollen on Tsosie’s shoulders and had him stand up and step off the sand painting—carefully so that the pattern wouldn’t be disturbed.

Sandoval felt good about the painting. He hadn’t done an Enemy Way since just after the foreign war when the young men had come back from the Marines. He was afraid he might have forgotten how to do it. But it had worked out just right. The arroyo sand he had poured out on the Hogan floor for the base was a little darker than he liked but he had known it was going to work out all right when he poured out the coloured sand to make the Encircling Guardian. He had made it in a square as his father had taught him, with the east side open to keep from trapping in any of the Holy People. The Guardian’s head was at the north end, with his two arms inward, and his feet were at the south end. His body was four alternating lines of red and yellow sand, and at the opening Sandoval had drawn the elaborate figure of Thunder, wearing the three crooked arrows in his headdress and carrying the crooked arrows under his wings.

“Put Thunder there when you sing for a witching,” his father had told him. His lightning kills the witches.”

Sandoval repaired the Corn Beetle deftly, sifting coloured sand through his fingers to reform the lines where Tsosie’s hands and knees had pressed. He added a tiny sprinkle of black sand to the single feather in the headdress of Black Fly.

The next passage again reminds me strongly of Li Manshan:

Sandoval stood up then and looked into the pot where he had brewed the medicine. The water was still steaming and the juniper leaves he had mixed into it had turned the solution milky. It looked about right but Sandoval thought it would have been better if he had had a waterproof basket so it could have been done the old way. The People are losing too many of the old ways, Sandoval thought, and he thought it again when he had to tell Tsosie how to sit on the feet of Big Fly, and even had to remind him to face the east. When Sandoval was a boy learning the ways from his father, his father had not had to tell people how to sit. They knew.

Sandoval sang then the chant of the Big Fly, and how he had come to The People to tell them that Black God and the warriors were returning victorious from their war against the Taos Pueblo and how the two girls had been sent by the people to carry food to the war band. This was the last chant before the vomiting and Sandoval was glad of that. It was the second day of the Enemy Way. His voice was hoarse and he was tired and there was still much to be done, much ritual to be completed before this man was free of the witch trouble.

As the ceremony progresses,

Sandoval yawned and stretched and looked out across the brush flats where the visitors were camping. Probably four or five hundred, he thought, and there would be more arriving today, mostly women bringing their girls to look for husbands at the Girl Dance tonight, and young men looking for girls, and gambling, and drinking, and trouble. Sandoval had meant to think about the ceremonial, to think just good thoughts and keep in harmony with the event. But he couldn’t help thinking how times were changing. Mostly they came in their pickups and cars now. There was dozens of them parked out there and just a few wagons. And that was part of it. The white man’s machines made it easy to travel about and people came just to visit and fool around. In the old days there wouldn’t have been any drinking and gambling at a ceremonial like this.

Leaphorn arrives, attempting to glean clues while the ceremony continues. Meanwhile anthropologist Bernard McKee, once his fellow student at Arizona State, is doing fieldwork, but soon finds himself in deep danger. With its tense cinematic dénouement, The Blessing Way makes a most compelling introduction to the series.

Listening woman (1978) again hinges on sand paintings, and the prescription of suitable ceremonies for affliction.

Listening Woman rubbed her knuckles against her eyes, and shook her head, and called for Anna. She knew what the diagnosis would have to be. Hosteen Tso would need a Mountain Way chant and a Black Rain chant. There had been a witch in the painted cave, and Tso had been there, and had been infected with some sort of ghosts sickness. That meant he should find a singer who knew how to do the Mountain Way and one to sing the Black Rain.

Later Leaphorn enquires about another sing:

“They did the Wind Way,” McGinnis said. “Had to get a singer from all the way over at Many Farms. Expensive as hell.”

“Any others?” Leaphorn asked. The Wind Way was the wrong ritual. The sand painting made for it would include the Corn Beetle, but none of the other Holy People mentioned by Hosteen Tso.

“Bad spring for sings,” McGinnis said. “Everyone’s either getting healthy, or they’re too damn poor to pay for them.”


Kinaalda ceremony. Source here.

Deftly incorporating the historical trauma of the Long Walk, as well as the 1973 Wounded Knee incident and recent terrorism, the book also features a kinaalda female puberty ceremony.

People were coming out of the medicine hogan, some of them watching his approaching vehicle, but most standing in a milling cluster around the doorway. Then, from the cluster, a girl abruptly emerged—running.

She ran, pursued by the wind and a half-dozen younger children, across an expanse of sagebrush. She set the easy pace of those who know that they have a great distance to go. She wore the long skirt, the long-sleeved blouse, and the heavy silver jewelry of a traditional Navajo woman—but she ran with the easy grace of a child who has not yet forgotten how to race her shadow.

Leaphorn stopped the carryall and watched, remembering his own initiation out of childhood, until the racers disappeared down the slope. For the Endischee girl, this would be the third race of the day, and the third day of such racing. Changin Woman taught that the longer a girl runs at the Kinaalda, the longer she lives a healthy life. By the third day, muscles would be sore and the return would be early. Leaphorn shifted back into gear. While the girl was gone, the family would re-enter the hogan to sing the Racing Songs, the same prayers the Holy People had chanted at the menstruation ceremony when White Shell Girl became Changing Woman. Then there would be a pause, while the women baked the great ceremonial cake to be eaten tonight. The pause would give Leaphorn a chance to approach and cross-examine Listening Woman.

The young Jim Chee, also a college graduate, enters the story with People of darkness (1980). Even while applying to the FBI, he is himself training to become a hataali medicine man, like his maternal uncle. The plot also features drilling for oil, witchcraft, the Native American Church, and the Peyote Way. As Chee is drawn to the white teacher Mary Landon, he observes intriguing cultural differences in their world-views. At the end, having survived successive ordeals, he realizes that he himself needs an Enemy Way ceremony.

In Ghostway (1984), as Officer Chee agonises over his future with Mary Landon, he grapples with a complex case involving the chindi ghost apparently occupying a dead man’s hogan, torn between Navajo and white cultures. He hesitates to ender the haunted hogan:

To the Jim Chee who was an alumnus of the University of New Mexico, a subscriber to Esquire and Newsweek, an officer of the Navajo Tribal Police, lover of Mary Landon, holder of a Farmington Public Library card, student of anthropology and sociology, “with distinction” graduate of the FBI Academy, holder of Social Security card 441-28-7272, it was a logical step to take.

Following a lead to the urban sprawl of LA, we see it through his eyes, alien, impersonal, and sinister. The climax comes back home with a healing ceremony for a teenage girl caught up in the violence. Consulting the senior hataali Frank Sam Nakai, Chee finds a public list of Navajo medicine men still practising, and becomes aware how tenuous the tradition has become.

So many of them listed as knowing only the Blessing Way, or the Enemy Way, or the Yeibichi, the Night Chant, or the more common and popular curing rituals. […] His uncle had told him that the Holy People had taught the Dinee at least sixty such rituals, and that many of them were lost in those grim years when the People had been herded into captivity at Fort Sumner. And he could see by this that more were being lost. He looked down the list to see how many singers knew the Stalking Way, which he had been trying to learn. He saw only the name of his uncle and one other man.

Eventually he finds where the five-day Ghostway is being held.

Hosteen Littleben would twice cover the earthen floor of the hogan with the ceremonial’s dry paintings, illustrating episodes in the mythic adventures by which the Holy People resolved the problem caused by death’s disruptive residue. Margaret Sosi would sit surrounded by this abstract imagery, and by this ragtag remnant of the Turkey Clan, and be returned to beauty and hozro, cleansed of the ghost. […]

The door of the hogan opened, and Littleben emerged, trailed by Margaret Sosi. He held a small clay pot in his right hand and a pair of prayer sticks, elebarately painted and feathered, in the other. He held the feathered pahos high, theirshafts crossed in an X. “Now our daughter will drink this brew,” he chanted.

The novel ends with Chee making a resolution:

He would get in touch with Frank Sam Nakai and ask his uncle to arrange for Hosteen Littleben to sing a Ghostway cure for him. And then, he thought, he would talk to Littleben. Feel him out about what he would charge Chee to teach him the ritual. It would be a good thing for a younger man to know it.

Leaphorn and Chee first coincide in Skinwalkers (1986). With Chee being targeted, they work separately on unraveling the mystery. Their views don’t always coincide:

“I have been telling everyone that Yellowhorse is a fake,” Chee said stiffly. “I have told people every chance I get that the doctor pretends to be a crystal gazer just to get them into his clinic.”

“I hope you’re not doing that on company time,” Leaphorn said. “Not while you’re on duty.”

“I probably have,” Chee said. “Why not?”

“Because it violates regulations,” Leaphorn said, his expression no longer even mildly amused.


“I think you can see how,” Leaphorn had said. “We don’t have any way to license our shamans, no more than the federal government can license preachers. If Yellowhorse says he’s a medicine man, or a hand trembler, or a road chief of the Native American Church, or the Pope, it is no business of the Navajo Tribal Police. No rule against it. No law.”

“I’m a Navajo,” Chee said. “I see somebody cynically using our religion… somebody who doesn’t believe in our religion using it in that cynical way…”

“What harm is he doing?” Leaphorn asked. “The way I understand it, he recommends they go to a yataalii if they need a ceremonial sing. And he points them at the hospital only if they have a white man’s problem. Diabetes, for example.”

Chee had made no response to that. If Leaphorn couldn’t see the problem, the sacrilege involved, then Leaphorn was blind. But that wasn’t the problem. Leaphorn was as cynical as Yellowhorse.

Meanwhile Chee keeps honing his art as a hataali.

Chee was a perfectionist. His prayer sticks were painted exactly right, waxed, polished, with exactly the right feathers attached as they should be attached. The bag that held his pollen was soft doe-skin; labeled plastic prescription bottles held the fragments of mica, abalone shell, and the other “hard jewels” his profession required. And his Four Mountains bundle—four tiny bags contained in a doe-skin sack—included exactly the proper herbs and minerals, which Chee had collected from the four sacred mountains exactly as the yei had instructed.

In an introductory note, Hillerman concedes that

My good friend Ernie Bulow correctly remind me that more traditional shamans would disapprove both of the way Jim Chee was invited to do the Blessing Way mentioned in the book (such arrangements should be made face-to-face and not by letter) and of Chee practising a sandpainting on the ground under the sky. Such sacred and powerful ritual should be done only in the hogan.

With their different styles, the two officers again work in tandem in Coyote waits (1990). Chee even gets to perform a Blessing Way for Leaphorn:

Leaphorn found himself wondering if he had been Chee’s first client. After a tough case, in the awful malaise that had followed Emma’s death, he’d hired Chee to do a Blessing Way for him. An impulsive decision—unusual for him. He’d done it partly to give the young man a chance to try his hand as a shaman and partly as a gesture toward Emma’s people. The Yazzies were Bitter Water clansmen and traditionalists. The ceremony would be sort of an unspoken apology for the hurt he must have caused them. […]

Chee had been nervous, showing Leaphorn where to sit with his back against the west wall of the hogan, spreading a small rug in front of him. Then Chee had extracted from his deerskin jish the little leather sack that was his Four Mountain bundle, two pairs of “talking prayersticks”, a snuff can containing flint arrow points, and a half dozen pouches of pollen. He had solemnly formed the shape of footprints on the earth and marked on them with the pollen the symbols of the sunrays on which Leaphorn would walk.

Despite his skepticism, Leaphorn finds that “it had not cured him, but it had started the healing”.

Again the plot involves early Navajo history and white academics, with their various motivations. Hillerman constantly explores conflicts between Navajo and white world-views—all while constructing a tense, compelling crime-thriller.

These novels cry out for film/TV versions—here’s a 2003 film of Coyote waits:

* * *

Now, I’m aware of the irony of a white guy praising the work of another white guy writing about Native Americans, but Hillerman shows great empathy for the Navajo world-view. Indeed, ethnographers too are commonly outsiders to the culture they study.

A quick search doesn’t reveal any scathing criticisms from the Navajo—who anyway aren’t a homogeneous, isolated group. Still, David Lund Warmind raises critical points about Hillerman’s “skewed gaze”—“Navajos are nicer”?!

[1] See wiki, and John M. Reilly, Tony Hillerman: a critical companion (1996). On ceremonial in the series, see George L. Scheper, “Navajo ceremonial in the novels of Tony Hillerman”.

French organ improvisation!

Olivier Messiaen and Oliver Latry


Sometimes what you really need is to put on at full blast a rousing number like Back to black, some pizzicaBach with trumpets and drums—or some French organ improvisation

Thanks to Bruno Nettl, my post Unpacking “improvisation” covers a lot of ground. Apart from the Usual Suspects (jazz, Indian raga), improvisation was commonly practised by composer-performers in early WAM (revived by Robert Levin in his incarnation as Mozart!); and Nettl goes on to explore the whole creative continuum from preparation to performance, considering Persian “classical” music, Native American songs, and so on.

Notre Dame

My post Playing with history features Messiaen‘s Messe de la Pentacôte—the written, reified result of his lifelong practice of improvising at the organ of the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris. There you can hear it played by Oliver Latry on the organ of Notre Dame[1]

Indeed, Latry continues the tradition there, as you can hear in many YouTube items. Of course this isn’t just disembodied, “autonomous” music: the videos often remind us that it’s an integral means of serving ritual, at some remove from the secular context of the concert hall. Such a majestic way of “rousing the sacred hall“! Here (under “The reform era”) I also mention the all-encompassing sound of the related sheng mouth-organs in church during the Li family Daoists’ tour of Germany.

While the hectic, dense, monumental fortissimos leave a deep impression, the art requires contrast, with sparse, reflective passages—as in this wonderful improvisation by Oliver Latry in 2011:

Also from 2011, during Sunday Mass—reminding us of the religious context:

and this is VAST:

The B-A-C-H motif is a popular inspiration (see also Improvising on Bach):

Here Latry improvises on the Marseillaise for a Mass to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attacks of 13th November 2015:

Another finely-constructed piece for Sunday Mass in 2007:

Indeed, it transpires that they’re all at it, these denizens of the organ loft—as you can see from this substantial website. A niche coterie indeed…

Messiaen’s musical language as performer-composer remains unique. My posts on Messiaen mainly feature the great orchestral works (Turangalîla, Des canyons aux étoiles, Éclairs sur l’au-delà …, and so on), but his grounding/transcendence in the organ makes an essential background. Amongst his numerous organ works, here’s the early Dieu parmi nous, finale of La nativité du Seigneur (1935)—a perennial favourite:

Let’s end with a precious film of Messiaen himself in 1985, aged 76, improvising gloriously on three scenes from Puer natus est at the Saint-Trinité organ—after over half a century there:

Messiaen introduces his meditations in turn:

  • Les bergers dans les champs voient apparaître une troupe d’Anges qui chantent Gloria in excelsis Deo
  • Et les Mages avaient vu l’Etoile du Christ en Orient et se sont mis en route vers Nazareth [or rather, Bethlehem!]
  • Et les Mages offrirent un présent à Marie et à l’Enfant Jésus de l’or comme un Roi, de l’Encens comme un Dieu, et de la myrrhe comme un homme mortel.

[1] The Notre Dame organ was spared from the 2019 fire. Click here for an engaging survey of Notre Dame’s whole cultural significance. For the Li family Daoists before the cathedral, see these engaging notes on our 2017 French tour.

Labrang 2: the violence of liberation

This review follows on from my posts on Tibet in the Cultural Revolution (here and here), and on issues arising from the 2002 UK tour of monks from the Labrang monastery.

Since the 1990s the polarized viewpoints of scholars within the PRC and in exile have been impressively refined. Just to reiterate, diverse topics in Tibetan culture are now receiving attention not only for central Tibet (“Tibetan Autonomous Region”, TAR) but also further afield in Amdo and Kham (for other works on Amdo, see Labrang 1).

Makley cover

By contrast with the timeless, transcendental image of Tibetan culture based on monastic ritual that beguiles some scholars, the complex, changing tensions around Labrang are brilliantly unpacked in

  • Charlene Makley, The violence of liberation: gender and Tibetan Buddhist revival in post-Mao China (2007); reviewed far more knowledgeably by Mona Schrempf and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy.

Highlighting the role of gender, Makley’s sophisticated ethnography considers history before, during, and since Maoism to survey Buddhism at various levels;  the wider community; Chinese and foreign tourism; and generational attitudes.

The book’s evocative title is borrowed—and extended—from Mona Schrempf, who used it to refer to the distinctive Tibetan tantric subjugation of the earth and its associated enemy agencies. In the Introduction, Makley asks:

How did gendered inequalities structure the revitalization of the famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Labrang Tashi Khyil during post-Mao reforms? What were the exigencies of great gendered changes for Tibetans who lived under the nightmare shadow of state terror even as they encountered utopian dreams of pleasurable consumption in a new market economy? And what were the implications of my analytic interest in gender difference as a contingent and translocal social process in a community that was vigorously invested in rebuilding stable and coherent local worlds after the collective trauma of socialist transformation?

By the time that she arrived at Labrang in the mid-1990s, she found that

a decade of state-supervised tourism in the region had actually solidified a certain distance between locals and foreign visitors, in that assumptions each held about the other’s nature and interests had become anchored in stereotypes, often-cited rumours, and certain patterned interactions.

As she notes, the packaging of “ethnic culture” in the PRC under Mao and since has been much studied, and “state officials, local Tibetans, and foreigners all participated in this new commodity voyeurism in the valley”. Whereas Tibetans made up the great majority of the population in the surrounding areas, in the town itself they were outnumbered by Han and Hui residents. Labrang was

a rapidly urbanizing locale where the premises for power, value, and morality were shifting, and many residents thus deeply felt that boundaries among persons, places, and agencies were dangerously blurring.

Makley justifies her focus on gender as a key element in these multiple relationships, elaborating Goffmann’s “participation frameworks”.

Since the monastery was reopened in 1980, lamas and their monk and lay male students had been deeply invested in reframing Buddhism first and foremost as prestigious, rationalized knowledge production.

At Labrang she makes a discovery that can be observed in many cultures:

As I set out to talk with Tibetans of every stripe about local history, and their opinions about gender and ritual practices, I learned that there were no general Tibetan terms in everyday use for “religion” and “ritual” that would cover all the practices constituting the lay-monastic relationship. Tibetans across the community instead referred to a vast repertoire of efficacious practices with particular terms depending on the task to be accomplished, the target of the practice, and whether or not it conferred benefits to future lifetimes. But in the face of state regulation that divided institutionalised and Party-supervised “religion” from dangerously irrational “superstition”, what most structured this complex ritual life in Labrang was locals’ heightened insistence on a gendered social ontology that attributed highest efficacy to the rational knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist scholar-adepts initiated in the monastic system.

The attitude of a lay male Tibetan friend to her studies might also apply to the difference in approach between Western scholars of religion and anthropologists working in many cultures:

To him, my efforts to learn about ritual practices from the perspective of Tibetans at various levels of the community, and especially my interest in talking to laywomen and nuns, threatened to muddle seriously the crucial distinction between folk knowledge and authentic Buddhist knowledge. Despite his own position as a lay teacher under secular state auspices, Dargye was appalled that I was working outside the monastic contexts of initiation and oral instruction on a canon of Buddhist texts under a lama qualified to confer them, especially since Labrang was one of the few places left where one could find such a lama. In his view, any knowledge I produced through social science methods was trivial at best and mistaken at worst, and rendered suspect the quality of my scholarship.

Makley notes, and refines, the scholarly interest in “borderlands” (cf. Bloodlands, and Between East and West).

Chapter 1, “Fatherlands: mapping masculinities”, opens with the striking figure of Gompo, illustrating how new masculinities cut across regions and between lay and monastic contexts. Among many young nomad men in the town who “browsed the shops looking for necessities to take back up to the grasslands, attended public events at the monastery, or haggled prices with Hui merchants over sheep or wool they were selling”, seeking a good time by night in the bars and dance halls, Gompo modelled his image on that of fashionable Tibetan pop singers. While mentored by an old monk in the monastery, with his cosmopolitan ambitions he had spent over two years as a dancer in the “Folk Cultural Village” in distant Shenzhen—an uncomfortable experience for him.

As Makley observes, for both Tibetans and Chinese there were good reasons to reify a past that had been sealed off by the violence and destruction of the Maoist era. Exploring the competing masculine authorities of trulku reincarnate lamas and the post-reform Chinese state, she notes that historically

the most successful Tibetan trulkus were those who learned to mediate competing interests while carving out privileges and relative autonomy for their monasteries and estates.

She stresses the false dichotomy between “ritual” and “rational” contexts. Rather than a simple return to “tradition”, for Tibetan men the revival since the 1980s was “an often painful process of negotiating the essential hybridity of their positions as subordinated ethnic Others on the national margins”. As during the Maoist era, albeit now with less flagrant violence, the domestication of Tibetan men was a major aspect of the Chinese state’s “civilising project”.

Makley highlights the overarching “mandalisation” of Labrang society, viewing the grand New Year’s public rituals as the high point of exchanges between the high lamas and the wider community.

cham 1949She unpacks the multiple meanings of the cham dance ritual, “the culminating component of the greater mandalising event that was the annual Great Prayer Festival at the lunar New Year”. Following the destabilizing of the frontier zone in the wake of the decline of the Qing rule and the splintering of rule in China, in 1949 the monastery held the last cham before the Chinese occupation.

The tantric participation frameworks of such events were always amenable to misrecognition or appropriation by participants and competing agents for their own ends. […]

In effect, the Great Prayer Festival was a culminating “tournament of value” in which the circulation of the highest Buddhist values (trulku blessings, merit) provided frameworks and networks for the circulation of other values—everyone was invested, but not necessarily along preferred lines.

The conflict between sacred and secular gain was not a new feature of the reform era:

As early as 1865, the concerned ministers of the seven-year-old fourth Jamyang Shepa felt compelled to issue an edict […] warning all the monk officials and trulkus competing with one another in lucrative loan and long-distance-trade businesses not to be greedy, exploit others, or embezzle communal funds for personal profit.

After the Maoist decades, Labrang was the only Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the prefecture with any buildings left standing. The Great Prayer Festival there was revived in 1979. Around four hundred monks were soon allowed to return, their ranks rising to over a thousand by the mid-1990s, most of them under the age of 35. By 1985, eighty-nine monasteries had re-opened throughout the prefecture, with over five thousand monks, far exceeding state quotas.

In Chapter 2, “Father state”, Makley goes on to observe the cham ritual in 1996—by which time it had long become not just a focus for faithful locals but also a glossy attraction for Chinese tourists and state officials.

Always alert to gender issues, in her conversations with locals she considers the “heavy and often hidden” burden of the past, as forgetting became a pervasive policy of the Chinese state—not just for Tibet (see e.g. here and here). As a corrective to Chinese state propaganda, she notes that Westerners have commonly assumed the role of collecting testimonies from Tibetans about Chinese state repression; yet Tibetans themselves don’t necessarily share faith in such moralising historiography.

Under Maoism, as the ratio of Tibetans to Han and Hui settlers, and of adult Tibetan men to women, declined, among the life stories that Makley elicits are accounts of the training of female Tibetan cadres. People (notably cadres) came under pressure to replace Tibetan clothing with modern uniforms, and to wear their hair short, sacrificing their traditional headdresses. Women’s liberation under Maoism mainly involved the state exploitation of their labour. Village temples were recalled as centres for state terror during the 1950s, and resistance to the Chinese state then as virtuous. As in China, the famine resulting from collectivisation was another major aspect of their sufferings at the time.

But Makley’s discussions at Labrang also bear on the conflicts of class politics within Tibetan society as much as between Tibetans and Chinese.

I came to realise that the unspeakable among Tibetans was not just the result of state repression; it was also a marker of locals’ grapplings with the nature of their own and other Tibetans’ agency (and responsibility for) the unprecedented shape and scope of violence beginning in 1958.

We can observe a similar conflict in the memories of ordinary people in Han Chinese regions—and in many trouble zones of the world where the simple categories of oppressors and oppressed were blurred.

Makley highlights the role of the local People’s Militias,

an alternative participation framework for local young men especially, who sought social mobility to bypass their male elders.

Indeed, they played a major role in suppressing the rebellion. Moreover, as Woeser also notes, “those who had served the state well then continued to live well in the present”. One village woman, married to a man who had joined the Party in 1953 and helped suppress the 1958 rebellion, wavered between vilifying the “bad” Tibetan cadres under Maoism for their conscious actions and asserting that they weren’t really responsible. As with activists in Han China, stories about the karmic retribution of their early deaths circulated widely.

Alternative historiography among Tibetans was an ongoing and deeply gendered interpretative battle—with themselves as well as with the state.

Chapter 3, “Mother home: circumambulation, femininities, and the ambiguous mobility of women”, opens with the fanatical popular reception for the 10th Panchen Lama upon his return to Labrang in 1980.

Discussing the dilemmas posed by modernity and mobility since the reform era, Makley explores the gendered spatial politics of shifting divisions of ritual labour, and different “participation frameworks”. Here she joins the faithful (mostly women) who seek merit by circumambulating the perimeter of the monastery grounds—the “most broadly quotidian and public” ritual work at Labrang. It has apparently remained true that such important ritual activities often went unnoticed by foreign travellers (as Robert Ekvall noted in 1964); and indeed by scholars of religion, who tend to focus on discursive, logocentric expressions (cf. Adam Yuet Chau‘s comments).

The most determined of practitioners, the ones who walked so rapidly that they passed everyone else many times, were those who had ritual obligations or jawa given them by a lama, most often a trulku with a particularly close relationship to their households, whom they had approached for help with a particular problem, usually physical ailments, but also household difficulties.

The new state policies of development and consumption were seen to reflect the interests of the state. Highways in the region were primarily built to facilitate the continuing exploitation and control of the frontier, not to expedite local travel; by the early 1990s, 80% of villages were not accessible by car, and half the townships did not have paved roads. Moreover,

Dengist modernisation policies has disastrous effects on state-sponsored secular education in rural Tibetan regions, because the return to a “quality” approach to education (versus a “quantity” approach that emphasised providing basic education to the masses) channeled basic resources away from rural and primary levels toward urban and higher-education schools.


the concentration of resources on Labrang monastery supported what many locals came to see as the only good, prestigious, useful education in the region for those sons who could be spared.

But just as crucial was what Makley calls the “contesting entrepreneurships” of Tibetan masculinity.

The dream here would seem to be, in the absence of state support for secular education, to harness the taming power of Tibetan monasteries in order to recruit and sedentarise young Tibetan monks as a loyal (patrifilial) and aspiring labour force for national capitalist advance.

Yet now, by contrast with the Maoist era, young Tibetan men

could experience their communal private consumption and daily movements as appropriately (heroically) “Tibetan”, in that they allowed for a powerful sense of resistance to or transcendence of state discipline.

Meanwhile “images of Tibetan feminine cyclicity pervaded the writings, art, videos, and music of foreigners, Han, and Tibetan alike”, stressing their role as mothers and nurturers. And as in China and other societies, Tibetans still subscribed to a timeless notion distinguishing women occupying domestic spaces “inside” the household from men “outside” it, with their prestigious ritual and political affairs.

Since the 1980s, there were two competing centres at opposite ends of the valley—at one end, the rapidly revitalizing monastery, which had the highest concentration of lama-scholars in the Amdo region and was attracting hundreds of young monastics and lay worshippers from afar, and at the other, the headquarters of the Party and government of Xiahe county, whose buildings by the 1990s were rivalled in size only by the large new tourist hotels that had been erected between them and the monastery.

Makley notes the tensions in the juxtaposition of celibate monasticism and the lay communities on which it depends, with life in the town increasingly “chaotic”.

In a trend that further intensified the processes of increasing population densities, sedentarisation, and ethnic heterogeneity in the frontier zone since the founding of the monastery, Labrang by the 1990s had become a vital node in a regional movement to urbanity, a gathering place for young aspiring Tibetan men and women. Such rapid demographic shifts associated with state violence in locals’ living memory contributed to the strong sense many Lhade residents had that their valley was under siege by unprecedented numbers of non-Tibetan outsiders. […]

Like young men, young Tibetan women were increasingly drawn to the expanded horizons promised by Deng’s call to modernizing progress and agentive consumption, yet their aspirations could confront them with particularly painful dilemmas.

These themes are pursued in Chapter 4, “Consuming women: consumption, sexual politics, and the dangers of mixing”. Labrang now offered “unique opportunities for secular and monastic education, wage work, and contacts with cosmopolitan Others”, becoming “a gathering place not only for young monks and nuns but also for unmarried and ambitious young Tibetan laywomen and laymen” from surrounding rural areas and even other provinces. As in other urban centres,

a new form of commodified sexuality worked to sell not only bodies and products but also the sparkling future visions of a capitalist modernity.

Again, Makley’s discussion subsumes the periods before the Chinese occupation and under Maoism. She qualifies some common misconceptions. Monks had commonly engaged in commercial activities long before the reform era. Makley refines the contrasting images of “the transcendent power of celibate lamas in the monastery and relatively open sexuality in town”. She notes the enduring Tibetan taste for discretion, and the role of sexuality in tantrism; she cites Goldstein’s observation that the very ethic of “mass monasticism” meant that only a small minority of monks approximated the monkly ideal.

Most ordinary monks differed little from nuns except in the relative prestige attached to the various occupations they undertook to bring in income—most stopped at the novice level of vows and achieved only basic literacy.

Referring to the revival of the early 1980s, she notes one distinction:

All the monks I spoke to who entered monkhood at that time did so either on their parents’ initiative or with their enthusiastic support, and all of them were younger brothers with many (between four and nine) siblings. In contrast to nuns I interviewed, many fewer monks fled home to enter monastic life. Twelve out of eighteen nuns I spoke to who were ordained after the reforms fled home to enter the monastic life, while only two out of eighteen monks I interviewed who were ordained after the reforms had done so.


Most monks did not remain sequestered in monasteries; instead, they moved frequently between natal homes and monasteries (especially those who joined monastic communities close to home), growing up playing with lay boys, and in adulthood travelling often between monasteries on pilgrimage, monastic business, or trading missions.

Makley adduces the courtship themes of layi folk-songs, performed in ritualised contexts—and now also in bars and dance halls as prelude to commercial sexual encounters.

Again, while Tibetans seemed to subscribe to media and state laments about the apparent “chaotic” breakdown of sexual morality, they too were agents, negotiating modernities on their own terms—albeit enduringly androcentric.

The presence in the valley of foreign and urban Han women tourists, as well as of rural Tibetan laywomen and nuns, exhibited an unprecedented translocal mobility of female bodies. This had dangerously sexualised and desacralized public spaces in and outside the monastery. It had thus become paramount for local women to distinguish themselves from the unrestrained sexuality associated with tourist women, nuns, and prostitutes—even though many young laywomen in town who sought to distance themselves from commercial sex their own aspirations for independent social mobility and their desire to postpone the disproportionate burdens of marriage were precisely the motivations that were increasingly leading young women of every stripe to accept money for sex, not only in Labrang, but across the country.

Tibetan men vigorously pursued possible “modern” futures and lifestyles held out for them in the globalizing media. And

communal masculine consumption—of alcohol, food, travel funds, and cigarettes—was considered to be an essential means for building and reproducing the vital masculine networks across generations and regions that in post-Mao China provided any opportunities for social mobility or participation in commercial entrepreneurship.

In an aspect of such consumption, young men and monks frequented video halls by night—lured by the newly available soft-porn images (at first mainly of Western women, later of Chinese and other Asian models) displayed as pin-ups, on playing cards, and even on the covers of scholarly journals. Young women, including nuns, who ventured out at night risked harassment and violence.

In “the new eroticism of the frontier”, “state and local gazes converged on Tibetan women’s bodies as commodified objects both of sexual desire and efforts to contain it”.

In Chapter 5, “Monks are men too: domesticating monastic subjects”, Makley delves further into the new tensions in the claim of Gelug monkhood to transcend the polluting attachments of one’s sexual-karmic inheritance, and “the performative claim of the monastic community to have tamed lay masculinity in the service of Buddhism”.

The inherent gap between between the monk ideal and actual monk behaviour that fall far short of it was not necessarily experienced as “paradoxical” or “contradictory” for Tibetans. […]

Monkhood did not necessarily represent a “sharp division” of the male population either before or after Communist intervention.tangkha 1949

Attending the spectacular Great Prayer Festival in 1996 (for recent images, uncomplicated by reflection, see e.g. here)—just as news of the dispute over the recognition of the new Panchen Lama was circulating—Makley elicits the conflicting messages of the event for a wide range of participants, with tourists and state cadres alongside monks and lay pilgrims. The unfurling of the massive thangka became “the ritual frame for a culmination of interethnic and state-local hostilities played out in legitimized masculine violence”.

She tells the story of a committed young graduate student from rural Qinghai who had grown up hearing stories of the brave resistance to PLA military campaigns and Cultural Revolution struggle sessions. He was now struggling to find a career in which he could benefit ordinary Tibetan people.

“Heroic masculinities” are enshrined in the Gesar epic—the object of much attention from the heritage industry that hardly broaches its social life. [2] In Amdo the focus on such ritual exchanges was also evident in popular VCDs featuring mountain deities, threatening “to configure masculine loyalties and inspirations outside the disciplinary purviews of both monastery and state”. Chinese and Tibetan cadres were still frustrated by the enduring power of trulkus to mediate in feuds between tribesmen.

Amidst considerable historical latitude in monkly behaviour, even “hypermasculine” warrior monks known as dapdop could flourish, serving as a kind of monastic police force.

But despite the return to mass monasticism, Tibetans had to adapt to the emasculating power of the state. Official regulations persisted in distinguishing dutiful, “patriotic” religious activities from “superstition”:

[The monastery] must absolutely forbid such people as mediums and diviners from carrying out such activities inside Buddhist monasteries as calling deities or demons, curing illness by taming demons, or reading signs or letters, or divining in any way.

As in Han Chinese regions, prohibitions like this may alert us to the continuing activities of such folk ritual specialists.

Apart from the entrepreneurial activities of the monastery, lay offerings—in the form of money, goods, livestock, and donated labour—also constituted a vast income. Such unregulated movements of capital, and the enduring charisma of leading trulkus, represented a danger to the state.

Yet older Tibetans were disturbed to find the younger generation of men, with their new mobility, becoming lazy, selfish, and undisciplined; loitering around town, with a propensity for violence.

As Makley recognises, monks and nuns commonly claimed to be motivated by the exalted study of Buddhism. But they too were part of an increasingly venal society. And since those monks who were more devoted to their studies tended not to perform ritual services for wages, locals often requested such services from the ranks of those not within assemblies. But to wear a monk’s robes no longer conferred automatic respect.

* * *

So we can ignore neither the vast revival since the 1980s nor the ongoing tensions. As a particularly visible, accessible site, Labrang is not “typical”. But all these stories reveal not a simple conflict between pious lamas and a cruel state, but conflicts, and agency, at all levels of a diverse society amidst constant change. Indeed, as I noted in my first post on Labrang, unrest has intensified since 2008. [1]

We may now bear in mind Makley’s perspectives to assess online representations, such as this clip of the cham ritual dance in 2015:

See also Women in Tibetan expressive culture, and Makley’s chapter in Conflicting memories.

[1] Here I mainly cite descriptive passages, homing in on the ethnographic detail rather than the densely-argued theoretical sections. The latter are anyway hard to encapsulate, but it’s also my personal choice. It’s always a challenge to balance narrative and theory (cf. my review of Emily Ng’s book on spirit mediums in Henan). I don’t always find this an issue: for instance, Jing Jun manages to incorporate theoretical discussion readably (see also A forfeit for theorists). So here I’m not so much criticising Makley’s style as querying the wider anthropological discipline to which she belongs—in which jargon, compounded by lengthy in-text references, may seem to exert a new kind of, um, hegemony, substituting another alien vocabulary for that of the CCP. All this can make the text rather heavy going to negotiate, particularly early on. This concerns me since it’s such an astute analysis of a great topic, deserving a wider readership.

[2] For Western-language sources on Gesar, see §6 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s bibliography, and more recently the work of Timothy Thurston, such as this. Within the PRC, Gesar studies have long been popular, expanding into a major field since the 1980s; yet as Sangye Dhondup suggests in his review of Tibetan and Chinese sources, the important dimension of ritual performance in society has still received little attention. See also under Yumen here.

Labrang 1: representing Tibetan ritual culture

When I rashly venture to comment on the cultures of ethnic minorities within the PRC such as those of Tibetans and Uyghurs, I’m always acutely conscious of my background in Han-Chinese culture. But inspired by the impressive scholarship on modern Tibet that has developed since the 1980s, here I recall a 2002 UK tour of monks from the Labrang monastery; and as some issues become clearer to me, you can blame the wonders of the internet that I can now revisit various ideas.

Background: Amdo and Labrang
Of the three main regions within the PRC where Tibetan people live (TAR, Amdo, and Kham), there’s a growing body of research on the changing society of Amdo, such as

  • Toni Huber (ed.), Amdo Tibetans in transition: society and culture in the post-Mao era (2002)
  • Yangdon Dondhup, Ulrich Pagel, and Geoffrey Samuel (eds) , Monastic and lay traditions of north-eastern Tibet (2013)
  • Jarmila Ptackova and Adrian Zenz (eds), Mapping Amdo: dynamics of change (2017)
  • Ute Wallenboeck, Bianca Horlemann, and Jarmila Ptáčková (eds), Mapping Amdo: dynamics of power (2019)
  • the Amdo Research Network and its conference proceedings
  • many articles by Kevin Stuart’s team, listed in ch.2 here
  • the work of Gerald Roche.

Labrang map Makley

Source: Makley, The violence of liberation.

Labrang monastery, [1] in Sangchu (Xiahe) county of Gansu province, was founded as recently as 1709—with a strong Mongol influence. As the Muslim warlord Ma clan became powerful, by the time of the Chinese occupation in 1950 the whole area had already been a site for “decades of brutal clashes between state and local Han, Hui, and Tibetans fighting for regional control, revenge, and, increasingly, ethnic hatred”. [2]

Still, after the Chinese occupation, having “witnessed different Chinese regimes come and go”, the Labrang monks accepted the Communists at first, [3] and religious life there continued until resistance to Chinese policy flared widely in the late 1950s.

By the fall of 1958 in Labrang, the monastery was looted and closed, most Tibetan guerrillas had been captured or killed, and almost two-thirds of the thirty-five hundred resident monks were imprisoned or in labour camps. The rest of the monks were returned to lay life; worship was forbidden, and rural regions were reorganised into communes.

Monastic activity revived briefly from 1962 to 1965 before the further calamity of the Cultural Revolution. With the reforms from 1979, as young Tibetan men flocked to become monks and religious activities resumed on a large scale, the major monasteries also became exotic destinations for Chinese and foreign tourists; a variety of changes continued to occur throughout Labrang society, based on market reforms under the all-powerful Chinese state. While apparently a showcase for the cultural and economic revival of Tibetan culture, such monasteries are not only centres for worship but potential sites of conflict and resistance, and life there is always sensitive and tightly surveilled. [4]

For instance, Labrang monks took part in the widespread protests of 2008, and self-immolations (common in Tibetan areas since 2009) took place there in 2012. [5]

Labrang has been the focus of some fine ethnographic work since the revival of the 1980s; the work of Charlene Makley stands out, notably her book

  • The violence of liberation: gender and Tibetan Buddhist revival in post-Mao China (2007), to which I devote a separate post,

and a wealth of articles, such as

  • “Gendered practices and the inner sanctum: the reconstruction of Tibetan sacred space in ‘China’s Tibet’ “, The Tibet journal 19.2 (1994), and
  • “The politics of memory: gender, autobiography and Maoist violence in Amdo”, in Fernanda Pirie and Toni Huber (eds), Conflict and social order in Tibet and Inner Asia (2008).

Soundscape, research, recordings
Such issues are basic to life at monasteries like Labrang, forming the context for ritual practice and its soundscape. However, music scholars within the PRC can still hardly offer detached analyses of modern social and political issues; their writings tend to look reified and timeless at best, and this is even more the case with their studies of minorities like Tibetan and Uyghur cultures. At the same time, they have at least done fieldwork documenting the diversity of local traditions that remained largely inaccessible to foreign scholars.

A subsidiary theme is how such traditions are packaged for the concert platform. Within the PRC, the touring Labrang group was among “temple music troupes” formed from the late 1980s to showcase Buddhist and Daoist “music”. They performed for an important 1990 Beijing festival of religious music, conceived by Tian Qing 田青, leading promoter of such traditions, though he was then “indisposed”. In seeking to document religious traditions throughout China, Tian Qing’s work was sincere, based in his Buddhist faith. [6]

As in all Tibetan monasteries, ritual practice at Labrang is based on vocal liturgy, with percussion, shawms and long trumpets. But by contrast with the more austere logocentric practices of Gelug monasticism in central Tibet, Labrang was renowned for exhibiting a wider range of performing arts.

Labrang CD cover

Most recordings of Tibetan monastic music feature groups in Bhutan, Ladakh, and India. In 1995 [7] Tian Qing recorded a CD at Labrang for the French label Ocora (with his notes adapted by François Picard), including brief selections of vocal liturgy (##2–6, 19) and dramatic music (##12–18)—as well as the dodar ensemble (rendered in Chinese as daode’er) (##7–11), derived from Chinese shengguan ritual music (see here, under “Ritual associations on the Hebei plain”) in its instrumentation, repertoire, melody, and style.

Dodar was already one of the showcases for Labrang ritual as it came to be presented on stage—though within the overall soundscape of Tibetan monastic liturgy the genre plays only a tiny role in a few of the major monasteries, such as Tibetan temples in Wutaishan and old Beijing (both being possible sources of the dodar music of Labrang); Chengde in northeast Hebei, and Hohhot in Inner Mongolia; and nearer Labrang, at the monasteries of Kumbum and Domkar.

The Panchen Lamas, and the succession crisis
Whether by design or coincidence, it’s ironic that the dodar ensemble became Labrang’s main musical claim to wider fame, since it derives from Han Chinese culture. Moreover, it had been performed at Labrang since the 18th century to welcome the ceremonial visits of the monastery’s own Jamyang Shepa lineage and revered trulku high lamas from elsewhere—including successive incarnations of the Panchen Lama, whose tense relationship with the Chinese state may remind us that music such as the dodar ensemble is part of a powerful political force-field.

Left: struggle session against the Panchen Lama, 1964 (source: wiki).
Right: the Panchen Lama blessing believers at the Jokhang temple, Lhasa 1982
(source here).

Following the Chinese occupation, the 10th Panchen Lama (1938–89) made ceremonial visits to Labrang in 1951 and 1955; but after writing a major denunciation in 1962 of the terrible ravages caused by Chinese policy in Tibetan regions, he was then detained until 1977. Along with the religious revival following the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1980 and 1982 he visited Labrang again during his first appearances in Tibetan regions for nearly two decades. He was rapturously received everywhere—unlike his eventual successor.

Following the death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989, both the Tibetan government in exile and the Chinese government started parallel processes in a six-year-long search to identify his successor. By 1995 the Dalai Lama recognised Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (b.1989) as the 11th Panchen Lama; but the Chinese state promptly “disappeared” him—the world’s youngest political prisoner. As the Chinese installed their own candidate, Gyaincain Norbu (b.1990), they put influential lamas under sustained pressure to recognise him and denounce the Dalai Lama’s choice—pressure so intense that Arjia Rinpoche, abbot of Kumbum monastery near Labrang, defected to the USA in 1998.

The Chinese also assigned a high lama from Labrang to serve as Gyaincain Norbu’s tutor. However, most Tibetans, and monks—in Labrang, Kumbum, and elsewhere—remained loyal to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Dalai Lama’s choice. Labrang monks resisted planned visits of the puppet Panchen Lama; amidst ongoing unrest, monks continued to protest in 2011.

Dodar, and the Anthology
So that’s just by way of illustrating the troubled modern political context to the ceremonial function of the dodar ensemble.

While the repertoire is small, it is notated in a rare Tibetan mnemonic form, perhaps a version of Chinese gongche solfeggio. In all, it makes an intriguing byway within the broad Tibetan monastic soundscape.

Labrang JC score

Even within Han-Chinese ritual, the shengguan wind ensemble was the most popular theme of research—giving a misleading impression of ritual practice, where it plays a subsidiary role to vocal liturgy and ritual percussion. Within the soundscape of Tibetan ritual, it clearly played an even more minor part. Still, it made an attractive counterpoint—even once began taking geopolitical factors into account.

And the Labrang touring programme evolved: apart from dodar, they also featured excerpts from vocal liturgy and the regional opera namthar—the latter no mere attempt by state authorities at secular dilution, but representing another popular aspect of the real soundscape at Labrang, adding further to the sonic variety for audiences.

Meanwhile regional collectors were busily compiling the Gansu volume of the Anthology for instrumental music (cf. here), eventually published (in Chinese!) in 1997, containing the most comprehensive introduction to all aspects of the Labrang monastic soundscape, written by regional cultural worker Hao Yi 郝毅. [8]

Labrang JC 1

Top: the dodar ceremonial ensemble; below, the New Year’s rituals.

Labrang JC 2

New Year’s rituals, including the cham dance.

Apparently innocent images like these may seem to serve as propaganda for the CCP’s liberal religious policies since the reforms; but while the revival of ritual life was indeed remarkable, it was under close control.

I don’t doubt that the fieldwork of all these regional and central scholars was well-meaning; yet they were inevitably affected by the political climate, and such presentations entered a contested field. In particular, the showcasing of the Labrang group on stage could hardly help seeming like a display of “ethnic unity”, a tool of propaganda—which would convince more audiences in China than abroad.

Meanwhile from exile, Tibetan monastic groups such as Tashilunpo, Drepung, and Gyuto were well received on tours of the West, presenting an image of a culture that had been decimated since the Chinese occupation.

Now I’m curious to learn how the actual soundscape of vocal liturgy at Labrang may have changed over the long term; and indeed how the monastic liturgy of Tibetan monasteries within the PRC compares to similar traditions in exile.

After helping BBC Radio 3 with the visit of former Buddhist monks from Wutaishan in 1992, I had gone on to work with Asian Music Circuit in arranging UK tours of a Buddhist group from Tianjin (1993) and a Daoist group from Suzhou (1994).

Such concert performances always make a compromise, reducing the complexity of ritual life in changing local society to a brief staged presentation; but for Western audiences they can still open a window onto little-known traditions (cf. concert tours with the Li family Daoists). The Labrang group had already performed in France in 1997; in 2002 a UK tour was proposed.

This came soon after we had been wrestling with thorny issues about the representation of “Tibetan music” in the New Grove dictionary. In addition to editing the New Grove articles on China, I was responsible (along with Carole Pegg, general editor for the ethnomusicological entries) for pulling together the sections on Tibetan music—much in need of updating since Peter Crossley-Holland’s 1980 article, which focused on exile communities at a time when little, if anything, appeared to remain to document under the CCP yoke, rather as Taiwan then seemed the only surviving location to study Chinese tradition (cf. The resilience of tradition).

Given the vast revival since the 1980s, and the extensive fieldwork documenting local genres, it no longer seemed suitable to portray Tibetan culture only through the lens of the exile communities. So I was hoping to find scholars who could reflect the persistent vitality of performing arts among Tibetans within the PRC, where most of them still lived; many of these traditions had hardly been studied.

The issue of who is entitled to represent a culture is a common one around the world. As William Noll observes, the whole history of ethnomusicology is one where scholars are commonly outsiders to the traditions they research; indeed, they are often members of a society that oppresses the culture in question.

The younger Chinese scholar Wu Ben had already broached the disparate approaches in

  • “Representation of Tibetan music East and West: the state of the field” (MA, Pittsburgh 1995), abbreviated as “Music scholarship, West and East: Tibetan music as a case study”, Asian music 29.2 (1998).

The senior PRC scholar Tian Liantao 田联韬 (b.1930), an indefatigable fieldworker, had an unmatched overview of the diverse genres. When we learned of the article that he had published in a Japanese update of the New Grove, we invited him to send a draft. He went to great lengths to provide a substantial article, with maps, many photos, a glossary, and a lengthy bibliography. [9]

To me this looked more promising than commissioning a scholar with little or no grasp of fieldwork among Tibetans within the PRC. But some at Grove still feared that it might not be PC to invite a Chinese scholar to write about Tibet. While I observed that Tian Liantao shouldn’t be tarred with the brush of his government, it was eventually decided that instead of publishing his work we would create a composite article with contributions from various scholars.

Fortunately Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy glided in to steady the ship; with her experience of fieldwork both within the PRC and among exile communities, she had a balanced view, and I learned much from a lively correspondence with her. While the expertise of most of the authors eventually chosen was still among exile groups, Isabelle’s own substantial sections (with Tsereng Dhondup) introduced living genres in TAR, Amdo, and Kham; and in the bibliography we were able to suggest something of the energy of research within the PRC. For the result, see here.

Meanwhile the Garland encyclopedia of world music plumped for a single author, Mao Jizeng 毛继增 (b.1932)—the other senior Chinese authority on Tibetan music. He had studied Tibetan music ever since 1956, when he was part of a team from the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing chosen to do a field survey in Tibet.

The MRI’s great fieldwork projects of the 1950s took place under challenging conditions, but nowhere so much as in Tibet. At that time, as Mao Jizeng recalled, conditions were so tense that they had to remain in Lhasa—where he carried a revolver for protection. Inevitably, the growing desperation of Tibetans at the time is entirely absent from the resulting publications, such as his 1959 article “There is singing everywhere in Tibet”—a strong contender for Most Ironic Title Ever. [10]

Mao Jizeng’s work, while also extensive, could hardly offer a balanced perspective palatable to the wider world. In translation his Garland article is not only bland, but its sinocentrism is paraded by leaving terms and names in pinyin without conversion into Wylie.

While it’s important to acknowledge the work of scholars within the PRC such as Tian Liantao and Mao Jizeng, who have themselves cultivated Tibetan students, the whole subject clearly belongs within the rubric of Tibetan studies. Tibetan scholars within the PRC have been active, even if their approaches are inevitably shaped by Chinese methodologies.

Now that Charlene Makley and others have published substantial work on the troubled modern history of the Labrang region, the work of music scholars looks paltry in the extreme—as if “music” were indeed an autonomous zone.

By 2017 Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy produced a lengthy, outstanding Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts; and while doing a post-doc with her, the Beijing-trained Sangye Dhondup gave a thoughtful bibliographical review of the state of the field within the PRC, including studies by Tibetan and Chinese scholars:

  • “Looking back at Tibetan performing arts research by Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China: advocating for an anthropological approach”, Revue d’études Tibétaines 40 (2017).

The UK tour
Anyway, I wasn’t responsible for initiating the 2002 Labrang tour, but I found myself closely involved. I was aware that it might be rather controversial to bring a Tibetan group from within the PRC to the UK; whereas scholars were already elaborating nuanced approaches towards the painful revival of Tibetan culture under CCP rule, British audiences might take a simple anti-Chinese stance.

Labrang tour poster

So as the tour approached I consulted Isabelle again—as well as Charlene Makley, who was already deeply engaged in fieldwork around Labrang, then still in progress. She had already expressed the main issues cogently in reviewing a concert at Ann Arbor by a group from TIPA in Dharamsala, showcase of Tibetan culture in exile:

  • Performing authenticity: Tibetan song-and-dance ensemble makes its argument”, Journal of the International Institute 4.2 (1997).

Though agendas have changed substantially since then, both within TIPA and the PRC, Makley’s points seemed to bear on the Labrang dilemma. She observes the audience’s delight at the diverse snippets presented in the TIPA performance;

But free of politics it was not. For there is an irony to such performances which is lost on American audiences. They are at once openly political and meant to demonstrate an apolitical, changeless Tibetan culture. They are meant to inform, yet they elide as much as they reveal. They are meant to display a Tibetan space completely different from a Chinese one, and yet in this context, these performances are inseparable from the fierce struggles with the Chinese since the reforms of 1980 over the ability to display and control what is “authentic” Tibetan culture. The stakes of this struggle over authenticity must be seen in the context of two competing nationalisms, one backed by the immense and powerful Chinese state apparatus fueled by recent market reforms [for Chinese propaganda on the “Tibet issue”, see e.g. this 2001 report from the Tibet Information Network], the other embattled and stateless, attempting to maintain its appeal to youth growing up within larger Hindi and Euro-American cultures. Tibetan traveling road shows are a microcosm of this struggle because both Tibetan and Chinese nationalists must present their claims of sovereignty to the international community in order to shore up their opposing nationalisms by winning not only moral support but also crucial financial aid and investment from wealthier countries.

And she notes that the terms of the struggle had changed:

Despite the violent repression of political dissidents, most Tibetans in China have been able to return to religious activities and the creative arts within new limits imposed by the state. A generation of Tibetans has now grown up under Chinese rule, and among them the performing arts are again flourishing. Amateur folk troupes organized privately by Tibetans far outnumber state-run “professional” troupes in most Tibetan regions, and most are run by those dedicated to reviving “traditional” Tibetan performing arts.

In the early 1980s Tibetan performers from within China started to visit the international stage, and Tibetan exiles and their supporters protested the Chinese state’s use of these troupes to demonstrate Tibetans’ “happy” acceptance of Chinese sovereignty. Indeed, in a review of the 1992 European tour of Tibetan drama troupes from Lhasa, the Beijing Review reported that the audiences applauded the PRC flag held by the Tibetan performers, and that all Tibetan members supported the People’s Republic of China. […]

Indeed, the main purpose of TIPA from its founding in 1959 has been to preserve “authentic” Tibetan performing arts and to train performers and teachers in them. This was never more necessary than during the starkly brutal Chinese state violence against Tibetans in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when Tibetans faced nothing less than forced assimilation. But the context of a more open China in recent years has generated new difficulties for TIPA’s project, and new ironies accompanying its claims. For TIPA’s performances are no less nationalist than those sponsored by the Chinese (the performance ended with the display of the Tibetan flag and national anthem, for which the audience was asked to rise). And nationalisms, because they must represent an “imagined community” encompassing disparate interest groups, by their very nature must present a selective “truth” in order to convince foreigners and natives alike.

If the nationalist arguments hinge on the issue of “authenticity,” then Tibetan “culture” must be portrayed to audiences by both sides as a timeless, unchanging essence. Tibetan exile activists seek to unmask Chinese attempts to portray Tibetan performances as the essence of an unchanged Tibetan culture — “the time,” says Jamyang Dorje, “for cheating Western audiences is gone.” Hence, the threat to Tibetan performing arts is represented as if it were exclusively from “sinicization” (in the form of ballet-like acrobatic movements, high-pitched falsetto singing of Peking opera, and the rearrangement of plot and lyrics to reflect Chinese themes and nationalist propaganda). Yet no mention is ever made of the influences of Hindi or Euro-American cultures on Tibetan performers growing up in India, Europe or North America.

The final irony of these most recent struggles between Chinese and exiled Tibetans over “authentic” Tibetan culture is that Tibetan performers within China, acting within the more open climate to revive Tibetan performing arts, must be portrayed by exiled activists as victims of Chinese state coercion. Their performances are seen to be “less Tibetan,” because they are seen to be automatons in state-run troupes, told what to perform by their leaders. Yet, exiled activists do not distinguish between state-run troupes in China and the far more numerous amateur folk troupes. Nevertheless, both types of troupes have in the past decade and a half been the source of much creativity among Tibetans, and the site of the reaffirmation of Tibetan identity and even resistance. How should such performers, who have had opportunities to travel and perform abroad, be distinguished from Tibetans who are mere “dupes” of the state? And if Tibetan culture is seen to be an unchanging essence, is the creativity of Tibetan performers in China (or elsewhere for that matter) who seek new forms or new syntheses of traditional forms to express themselves then unworthy of international support? […]

If Chinese nationalist claims about Tibetan culture are to be subjected to analysis, then so too must those of Tibetan nationalists. For claims to authenticity on both sides elide painful realities the international community should know about and consider carefully. How in these changed times should European and North American sponsors and activists support all Tibetans as they struggle to live and create amidst both increased opportunity and great adversity?

Still discussing the presentation of secular genres, Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy reflected further on propaganda, folklore, pop music, and modernity in

  • Performing Tibet: on the role of traditional and modern performing arts in the making of contemporary Tibetan identities” (2005).

Such issues are even more apposite for presenting “monastic music” on stage. For the Chinese state such a tour might serve to further their claim to liberal, enlightened cultural policies—with what success, it was hard to say. At the same time, it doesn’t seem suitable on such tours to encourage concert audiences to round on the hapless monks as an object of righteous Free Tibet recriminations.

Anyway, I provided brief, bland programme notes, with terms in Wylie rather than pinyin. And I made a paltry attempt to assuage my self-inflicted guilt at being tarred with the Chinese brush by going to some lengths to ascertain the Tibetan names of the monks for inclusion in the notes, rather than the pinyin versions provided by Chinese officials.

After a concert in Antwerp, the Labrang group performed in Llangollen, Huddersfield, Torrington, Stoke-on-Trent, Southampton, Brighton—and in London at SOAS, where an opening speech in Tibetan went down well with the assembled Amdo expats.

Indeed, the tour seemed to avoid pitfalls quite successfully. For better or worse, there were no demonstrations from Free Tibet activists; audiences didn’t appear to regard it as mere propaganda for Chinese policy; and it provided a rare opportunity to hear diverse and largely unknown soundscapes.

* * *

In 2004, soon after the Labrang tour, Asian Music Circuit, perhaps in a spirit of balance, invited TIPA from Dharamsala to perform some wonderful Tibetan opera—a further challenge to my Chinese connection, as I’ll relate in another post.

Scholarship on Tibetan society and culture has moved on apace since then; but repression continues, sparking protest and self-immolations.

Anyway, that’s the kind of tightrope on which such concert performances often have to teeter; it’s pertinent to unpack these issues when we attend any Tibetan performance by either PRC or exile groups. And meanwhile, religious life persists—under the ever-closer scrutiny of the Xi Jinping regime—throughout TAR, Amdo, and Kham, together with a wealth of folk genres along the sacred–secular continuum.

With thanks to Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy and Tsereng Dondhup

[1] For Labrang’s early history, see e.g. Paul Kocot Nietupski, Labrang monastery: a Tibetan Buddhist community on the Inner Asian borderlands, 1709–1958 (2011), and his photo essays for 1921–49, Labrang: a Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the crossroads of four civilizations (1999).

[2] This and the following indented quote come from Charlene Makley, The violence of liberation, pp.62 and 95.

[3] Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999), p.137; see also pp.35, 270.

[4] See e.g. Tibet Watch, “Tibet’s ‘intolerable’ monasteries: the role of monasteries since 1950” (2016), with a section on Labrang; Martin Slobodnik, “Destruction and revival: the fate of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery Labrang in the People’s Republic of China”, Religion, state and society 32.1 (2004); and this 2013 NYT article.

[5] See e.g. Robert Barnett here, Woeser here, and this from the International Campaign for Tibet. For self-immolations throughout Tibetan areas, see here, and here; for an anthropological approach, here, and for an accessible introduction, here. Monks from Labrang were among many who continued making their way into exile; as Makley learned (The violence of liberation, p.313), by around 1998 one single monastery in south India housed over a hundred of them (cf. Slobodnik, “Destruction and revival”, p.13 and n.44).

[6] Among many other instances of Tian Qing’s patronage are Wutaishan, folk Buddhist ritual from Tianjin, and the blind bards of Zuoquan. See also his interview with Ian Johnson.

[7] Also in 1995, Ngawang Choephel (b.1966) was arrested while documenting folk traditions in Tibet. After graduating from TIPA in Dharamsala, he studied music and film-making in the USA from 1993; returning to Tibet to do fieldwork, he was sentenced to 18 years for unspecified “espionage” activities. Following his release in 2002 he went on to complete his film Tibet in song.

[8] Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Gansu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 甘肃卷, text pp.1003–28, 1103–05, transcriptions pp.1071–95, original Tibetan scores pp. 1096–1105. Brief Chinese articles (see refs. in my Folk music of China, p.31) focus on the notation. On dodar, Tsereng Dondhup has now co-authored a volume in Tibetan (awaiting formal publication), with new transcriptions.

[9] For a taste of Tian Liantao’s work, he recorded and wrote clear notes for the CD Achelhamo Celestial Female: parts from Tibetan opera (Pan, 1996), with excerpts of achelhamo from Lhasa and namthar from Amdo recorded respectively in 1983 and 1986.

[10] Mao Jizeng 毛继增, “Xizang wuchu bushi ge: minzu yinyue caifang zhaji” 西藏无处不是歌——民族音乐采访札记 Renmin yinyue 1959.5. For an unexpectedly verbose diatribe on this slight article, see here. Apart from his many publications, note his 6-CD anthology of genres within TAR (Wind Records, 1994) Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (reviewed here by Mireille Helffer). He went on to do fieldwork in Xinjiang, with similar methods and results.

Native American cultures 3: the Ghost Dance

Ghost dance image

To follow Bruno Nettl’s overview of Native American musical cultures, and studies of Navajo ceremonies, here I explore the Ghost Dance religious movement of 1890 among the tribes of the western USA; and again I consider Chinese parallels.

Alongside the wealth of academic research, I remind myself of the background by re-reading the accessible

  • Dee Brown, Bury my heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian history of the American West (1970).


The book was original for being based on the stories of tribal leaders, showing the agonising choices confronting them as their peoples were decimated. While citing their own accounts, often documented at treaty councils, Brown assesses the conditions in which they were recorded. [1]

If an eloquent Indian had a poor interpreter, his words might be transformed to flat prose, but a good interpreter could make a poor speaker sound poetic.


Even military leaders were often impressed by their demeanour, harking back to Columbus’s appraisal of the Tainos of San Salvador:

Their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.

Brown catalogues the betrayals and atrocities of the white invaders, as tribal land was progressively usurped amidst ethnic cleansing, massacres, disease, and famine. The settlers were bolstered by the overwhelming force of troops, and flimsy “treaties”. Long before the disasters of the 1960s, the destruction of the natural environment, along with its indigenous custodians, was routine.

Already the once sweet-watered streams, most of which bore Indian names, were clouded with silt and the wastes of man; the very earth was being ravaged and squandered. To the Indians it seemed that these Europeans hated everything in nature—the living forests and their birds and beasts, the grassy glades, the water, the soil, and the air itself.


The chapters—each prefaced by bulletins for the relevant years recalling the wider picture of the March of Progress—detail major flashpoints, such as the 1864 “Long Walk” of the Navajo; the Santee Sioux in Minnesota (cf. the Ojibwa), and Little Crow; the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and the Sand Creek massacre; Red Cloud, and the Fetterman massacre; the careers of Sitting Bull and General Custer, and the background to the notorious epithet “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”; the rise and fall of Donehogewa, Commissioner of Indian Affairs; Cochise and the Apache wars; the forced relocations of the Nez Piercés, Cheyenne, Poncas, and Utes; and Geronimo, the last Apache chief, who, demonised by the press for his raids, lived until 1909 in submission after his surrender.

The final two chapters cover the 1890 Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee massacre. By this time major resistance had largely been crushed, for the descendants of those who survived to be subjected to other insidious forms of suppression.

The Ghost Dance
All the time that the tribes were under attack, the need to perform their own ceremonies to ward off danger was all the more urgent, attracting little outside attention.

But the Ghost Dance movement of 1890 was a Messianic Christian cult inspired by Wovoka (renamed Jack Wilson), “the Paiute Messiah” in Nevada, who preached a message of universal love. It was based on the circle dance and singing, with the goal of entering into trance.


The cult soon spread widely through the American West.

While many European Americans were alarmed by the Ghost Dance and saw it as a militant and warlike movement, it was quite the opposite—an emergence of a peaceful resistance movement based on Indian beliefs. It was also a movement of desperation .

Not all tribespeople were convinced by the Ghost Dance. Indeed, Sitting Bull (a recurring figure in Brown’s story) was sceptical—but he was considered a dangerous figurehead, and he was killed in a struggle as troops tried to arrest him. Brown suggests that it was the sustaining force of the Ghost Dance that discouraged his followers from retaliating.

Nor did it become popular among the Navajo: their leaders described it as “worthless words” in 1890, though a brief 1944 article gives a more nuanced interpretation. [2] The movement was thoroughly studied in the early 1890s by the anthropologist James Mooney in

  • The Ghost-Dance religion and Wounded Knee (1896, 452 pp.!),

based on fieldwork over twenty-two months among some twenty tribes, as well as extensive archive material.

Mooney intro 1Mooney intro 2

The story is told in the documentary Like grass before the sickle.

The songs
In 1894 Mooney made recordings of the Ghost Dance songs of several tribes; click here for a fine introduction, with audio here. Though he sung them himself (!), solo, however flawed his renditions may have been (and I wonder what Native Americans made of them then, or now: cf. cautionary tales by Barre Toelken, n.5 here), one has to admire his attempt—even a century later so few ethnographers considered participant observation. Note also

  • Natalie Curtis, The Indians’ book (1907).

The songs were later analysed by

  • George Herzog, “Plains Ghost Dance and Great Basin music” (1935), augmented by
  • Judith Vander, “The creative power and style of Ghost Dance songs”, in Tara Browner (ed.), Music of the First Nations: tradition and innovation in Native North America (2009).

Herzog found consistency in style, even among tribes whose songs were otherwise quite different.

The aftermath
After the Wounded Knee massacre the dance went underground. It is said to be still practised by the southeastern Caddo people. Most Native American have “martial” ceremonies (though the Ghost Dance wasn’t among them); but they have been subsumed into more general healing rituals, such as the Enemy Way of the Navajo. See also here.

The Ghost Dance movement was a helpless response to a particularly severe crisis at a point when the worst damage had already been done.

By then the Native Americans were already becoming branded as exotic “savages” for the smug entertainment of the colonisers, soon moving from travelling Wild West shows (Sitting Bull did a stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885) to film and TV.

As to intertribal ceremonies, the later Powwow dance was of a more secular nature.

* * *

We might see the Ghost Dance as the ultimate failed ritual (cf. Clifford Geertz’s famous instances from Indonesia, and for China, A flawed funeral), powerless to halt the genocide.

Ghost Dance cover

For more ghost shirts, see here.

The Ghost Dance movement has similarities and differences with the Boxer uprising of 1900 in north China (see e.g. Ritual groups of Langfang, Catholics of Gaoluo). Both were millenarian, seeking magical aid; and both rashly claimed invulnerability to swords and bullets. However, by contrast with the peaceful Ghost Dancers, the Boxer movement was one of armed resistance, at first to foreign incursions and then to the Qing state. As Joseph Esherick commented in The origins of the Boxer uprising (19):

The Ghost Dance is interesting to us because it entailed both trances and invulnerability rituals, and it clearly expressed a longing among the North American Indians for a world once again free of the much-hated white man. There is, accordingly, much of the movement that is quite reminiscent of the Boxer Uprising itself.  It can serve to remind us that the peasants of north China were not the only ones who wished for a world free of Caucasian intrusion, and hoped that their invulnerability rituals would help bring that world about.

Indeed, such movements evoke the Taiping rebellion of 1850–64 and later Chinese millenarian unrest—and even, on a far smaller scale, the Nyemo uprising in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. For astute parallels over a broader area, see Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s 2014 LARB article.

Buffalo Bill Boxers

In his 1901 Wild West Show, Buffalo Bill even celebrated the routing of the Boxers as yet another triumph of civilisation over savagery, in the tableau “The rescue at Pekin”, as discussed in the fascinating article

  • John R. Haddad, The Wild West turns East: audience, ritual, and regeneration in Buffalo Bill’s Boxer uprising”, American studies 49.3/4 (2008).

The Sioux Indians already appearing in the show now doubled as Boxers, donning blue cotton uniforms and long braids—as one reporter observed, they were “used to dying” on stage.

The Boxers were becoming the new Indians—a bold yet unfortunate group that dared to use violence to resist the inexorable march of civilisation. […] Substantial evidence suggests that Americans understood the Boxers by ascribing to them the stereotypical traits once reserved for defiant Indians: cruelty, savagery, and blodd-thirstiness.

Jingoistic American audiences received the show with wild, bellicose acclaim.

* * *

The history of the Americas has been described as “framed by the dual tragedies of genocide and slavery”. The whole painful process of the Native Americans’ subjugation still endures in their ancestral memory; Brown comments,

If the readers of this book should ever chance to see the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation, they may find it possible to truly understand the reason why [cf. Grassy Narrows].

And it makes a disturbing background to the modern “values” of the conquerors, based on the great myths of the American West—as Brown comments,

an almost reverential attitude toward the ideal of personal freedom for those who already had it.

Indeed, for those bent on denying it to others.

To outsiders—and one might say, to rational people—much of this will remain mystifying, such as gun culture (on which the Guardian coverage is useful); recently, the surge in gun purchases during Coronavirus, and the armed occupation of the Michigan statehouse in protest against lockdown. And now, as Native Americans are among minorities suffering particularly from the virus, the Baby-in-Chief has used the sacred lands of the Sioux to divide people further.

[1] Here’s an instance of a common meme (cf. the scene in Bananas; there’s a closer analogy in another visit of Prince Sihanouk to China, which I’ll refrain from telling here). In 1883 Sitting Bull was chosen to deliver a speech to celebrate the opening of the transcontinental railroad, working with a young army officer who would translate it for the assembled white dignitaries:

He arose and began delivering his speech in Sioux. The young officer listened in dismay. Sitting Bull had changed the flowery text of welcome. “I hate all the white people,” he was saying. “You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts.” Knowing that only the Army officer could understand what he was saying, Sitting Bull paused occasionally for applause; he bowed, smiled, and then uttered a few more insults. At last he sat down, and the bewildered interpreter took his place. The officer had only a short translation written out, a few friendly phrases, but by adding several well-worn Indian metaphors, he brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation for Sitting Bull. The Hunkpapa chief was so popular that the railroad officials took him to St Paul for another ceremony.

[2] W.W. Hill, “The Navaho Indians and the Ghost Dance of 1890”, American anthropologist 46.4.

[3] See also the brief introduction in Worlds of music (6th edition), Chapter 2.

Forbidden memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution

Woeser cover

This is an extraordinary book:

  • Tsering Woeser, Forbidden memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution (2020).

It’s a thoughtfully-revised version of the Chinese edition, first published in Taiwan in 2006 (Weise 唯色, Shajie 杀劫). The English text results from the effective team work of Woeser, editor Robert Barnett, and translator Susan T. Chen.

Forbidden memory contains some three hundred images, mostly photos taken by Woeser’s father Tsering Dorje at the height of the Cultural Revolution from 1966­–68, complemented by her own illuminating comments and detailed essays. While the focus is on the first two years of extreme violence, the book is not merely the record of a brief aberration: it contains rich detail both on the previous period and the situation since the end of the Cultural Revolution, as Woeser pursues the story right through to the 21st century. Using her father’s old camera, she went on take photos of the same locations in Lhasa in 2012. Some of the material also appears on the High Peaks Pure Earth website (links here and here).

Tsering Dorje (1937–91) was born in Kham to a Chinese father and a Tibetan mother. In 1950, aged 13, he was recruited to the PLA on their push towards Lhasa. By the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he was a mid-ranking PLA officer, working in a military propaganda unit as a photographer. [1] In 1970 he was purged, transferred to a post in the People’s Armed Forces Department in Tawu county in his native Kham, 600 miles east of Lhasa. He returned to Lhasa in 1990, serving as a deputy commander of the Lhasa Military Subdistrict under the Tibet Military District, but died there the following year, still only in his mid-fifties.

His daughter Woeser was born in Lhasa in 1966; while her first language as a child was Tibetan, she received a Chinese education, and writes in Chinese. Having graduated from university in Chengdu, she worked as a reporter and editor while writing poetry. Through the 1990s she became increasingly sensitive to the plight of the Tibetan people, and though working under severe limitations, she has managed to keep publishing. [2] As the book’s Introduction comments, while she is openly critical of China’s policies in Tibet,

many of the issues that she raises, at least in this book, are criticisms of China’s cultural policies in Tibet rather than its claim to sovereignty.

Most of the book’s images come from Lhasa—which, of course, doesn’t represent the wider fate of Tibetans in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR), Amdo, and Kham (covering large areas of the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan respectively), all deeply scarred by the Chinese takeover.

After a Foreword by Wang Lixiong, Robert Barnett, most lucid and forensic of scholars on modern Tibet, provides a substantial introduction.

The “grotesque forms of humiliation and violence” presented in the book are a forbidden memory indeed. Explaining the importance of the images in the book, Barnett notes that most of the information previously available was based on the accounts of “new arrivals” into exile since the 1980s, some of whom published accounts of their experiences during the Cultural Revolution—

Yet most of these writers had been in prison throughout the Cultural Revolution years and so had seen little of what took place on streets or in homes beyond the prison walls, events which in certain ways were worse outside the prison than in. And no one outside Tibet had seen photographs of revolutionary violence and destruction there.

For China as for Tibet, several scholars note that it’s misleading to take the Cultural Revolution as a shorthand for the whole troubled three decades of Maoism—as if those years of extreme violence were a momentary aberration in an otherwise tranquil period. Barnett gives a useful historical summary of China’s involvement with Tibet—before the 1950 invasion, succinctly exposing the flaws in the Chinese claim for sovereignty since ancient times; the relatively benign early 1950s, and the escalating destruction from the late 50s, culminating in the 1959 escape of the Dalai Lama; widespread hardship, and the 1966 Cultural Revolution; the liberal reforms since the early 1980s, and recurrent outbreaks of unrest since. [3]

Tsering Dorje’s photos

stand as artworks in their own right and as exceptional sources or provocateurs of knowledge. That is, they tell us not only information about the images they contain, but, like any work of art, point to moral and philosophical questions that go to the heart of the Chinese socialist attempt to construct or reconstruct Tibetan history and modernity. Woeser points to many of these issues in her comments—Which of these pictures were posed for the photographer? What were the participants really thinking but could not show? And, necessarily of special urgency for her, what did her father really feel about the often brutal and unprecedented events he was capturing with his camera?

So why did Woeser’s father take these photos? She wonders if it was to resist forgetting. It was clearly not to expose abuses; nor merely because he was a keen photographer. Barnett is always attuned to visual images and their messages (and we should all learn from his former courses at Columbia, here and here; see also §§11 and 12 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s fine bibliography on the performing arts in Tibet). He points to two images (figs.9 and 21) where we see individuals who appear disengaged from the central action.

The aesthetic precision of these photographs itself provokes the question as to what is outside the borders of the image. For example, where are the Chinese? […] Were they just outside the frame, did they inform and shape those actions in some way from afar, had Tibetan activists by that time learnt to initiate and run these actions without them, or had Tibetan culture changed so as to incorporate and naturalize such actions? […]

All of Tsering Dorje’s photographs have this bivocal quality, telling two stories at the same time, and leaving Woeser unable to resolve her fundamental question about how her father viewed the events that he turned into lyrical images of socialist achievement. [4]

Barnett makes another important point:

She is clearly an engaged and committed writer, but, read carefully, she appears to be arguing almost the opposite of the conventional advocate for Tibet or the typical opponent of the socialist project. Clearly, she is appalled at what was done in the name of that creed, both to the individuals involved and to the nation and the culture that were its targets. But she is unusually careful to avoid saying that Tibetans had no responsibility for the atrocities that occurred. She does not remove the moral burden from their new rulers or avoid the unstated but obvious implication that Chinese rule involved unusually oppressive domination. But neither does she lift the moral burden from Tibetan participants or depict them, as is done in much of the writing on this topic by foreigners and exiles, as victims only: they are participants in the events that she describes, involved in very complex situations, which might or might not be in some way of their own making. Indeed, at least twice she makes the point that in certain issues during this period (such as adherence to one or other faction) ethnicity was not a factor. This already distances her from more simplistic polemics on this topic.

But she goes further than that: she also declines to say that Tibetans shown as happy in these photographs were always faking that emotion. She has no reluctance in stating that in many cases, particularly at the outset of the Chinese arrival in Tibet, ordinary Tibetans welcomed reforms and social changes at that time. As far as one can tell, she is not criticizing socialism as such, or even land reform and radical social redistribution. Her criticism is of the barbarities—cultural, historic, and cognitive as well as physical—that occurred as the socialist project in Tibet progressed. She presents a strongly critical perspective toward China’s record in Tibet and its social experimentation there, but much of her effort is not so much the chronicling of abuse as an attempt to understand what led people to become involved in their perpetration. “Why,” Woeser asks of the unknown woman hacking golden finials on the roof of the Jokhang temple, “did she seemingly believe that turning the past to ruins would give birth to a bright new world?”. The question remains unanswered, but, like so many of these photographs and their captions, it challenges us to try to understand the ideological constructions of the time that made such actions seem natural and even necessary to so many participants, both the rulers and the ruled.

These distinctions, undeclared though they are, are important ones, because we can imagine that they could have offered some common ground between her and her father, the search for which is clearly the underlying project of Forbidden Memory. In that sense, Woeser’s work is not just about exploring through the criticism of excess the possibilities for reconciliation between herself and her father, but also about searching for a shared space between herself, a person brought up as Chinese, and China, a nation that has chosen to forget much of what was excessive and abusive in its past and its treatment of Tibetans. As such, Woeser’s appeal to remember a painful history can also be seen as an unstated suggestion that the acknowledgement of previous abuse and suffering could offer a route toward potential reconciliation between the Tibetan people and the state of which they are now a part. Her father’s photographs cannot in themselves change political history or reshape the future, but, her work seems to suggest, they can open up a discussion and perhaps even a healing of the underlying wounds and pain that have marked Tibet’s calamitous encounter with China since the 1950s.

The galleries
The images are presented in eleven galleries under five headings. In describing the scenes, Woeser’s own illuminating comments amount to a detailed chronicle of the whole period. Far from an impersonal panorama of suffering, she attempts to identify the people shown in the photos, both victims and their tormentors, often seeking them out many years later. And she refers to the succession of incidents since the reform era.

The first group of galleries is headed “Smash the old Tibet! The Cultural Revolution arrives”. The first photos are from 1964, five years after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. In these images

traditional ways of life are still evident—we see monks, former aristocrats, and religious ceremonies that appear to be functioning normally. Their focus, however, is on the excitement of socialist construction.

  • Gallery 1, “On the eve of the storm”


Fig.6: A debating session during the Monlam Chenmo festival, 1964.

  • Gallery 2, “The sacking of the Jokhang”. Wondering “Who is to be blamed?”, Woeser later interviewed several participants and eyewitnesses, going on to pursue the later history of the Jokhang..

According to one source, over 2,700 monasteries were active in TAR [NB] before 1959, 550 by 1966; by 1976 only eight were still standing.


Fig.35: The Great Courtyard in the Jokhang immediately after the “revolutionary action” of August 24, 1966.

Woeser’s text:

The courtyard had traditionally been used for monks attending the annual Monlam Chenmo. Those from Drepung Monastery would sit in the middle while those from other monasteries would sit in the cloisters and in the gallery. The Dalai Lama would come down from the Sun Chamber, the viewing chamber that looked down on the courtyard from the upper floor, to take part in the prayer gathering, seated on a golden throne on the left side of the courtyard.

It was in this courtyard that armed police beat and arrested scores of monks during the Monlam Chenmo of 1988. Long queues still form there during religious festivals when pilgrims come to the temple from all over Tibet, but increasing restrictions by the authorities mean the privately sponsored ceremonies once held there now rarely if ever occur.

  • Gallery 3 “Denouncing the ox-demon-snake-spirits”. We now move on to the human targets of the destruction. As Woeser comments:

Some were religious figures, statesmen, or military officers of the Tibetan government prior to the 1950s; others were merchants, landlords who owned rural estates, or managers working for those landlords. They were denounced and humiliated in mass assemblies, struggle parades, and smaller struggle sessions organized by various Neighborhood Committees. […]

The outcomes for some of those in these photographs were insanity, illness, or death. Some of them died back then, others passed away in the years after the Cultural Revolution was over. Not many of them are still around. Among the survivors, some have gone abroad, while those who have stayed put have been awarded new roles: they became “United Front personages,” with paid positions in the TAR Political Consultative Conference, the People’s Congress, or the local branch of the Buddhist Association. Once appointed, for the sake of self-protection, they all have to serve as décor for the state and as mouthpieces for its policies.

As ever, Woeser goes to great lengths to identify the people in the photos.


Fig.58: the Tenth Demo Rinpoche paraded with his wife. From a major lineage of reincarnated lamas, he was also the first photographer in Tibet—the camera slung around his neck was meant as “criminal evidence” of his foreign connections and his nature as a reactionary element.

In fig.66, a former aristocrat-official has been made to carry a case of gleaming knives and forks, probably to show “that he was a member of the exploiting class, living a life of luxury and corruption”, and perhaps that the family was close to Westerners—evidence of treason.

A series of images (figs.67­–75) show the parading of Dorje Phagmo, best-known of the female trulku reincarnate lamas in Tibet.


Fig.68: Dorje Phagmo, flanked by her parents.

She had been hailed across China as a “patriot,” having returned to Tibet soon after following the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959; she had even been received by Mao in Beijing, and back in Lhasa was granted high official positions. And after the end of the Cultural Revolution she was again given government posts, often appearing in TV reports of official meetings.

In Fig.85 the involvement of Woeser’s father in the events becomes even more disturbing:

The photograph captures a moment when Pelshi Po-la, staring without expression at the camera lens, must have momentarily exchanged eye contact with the PLA official behind the view finder of the camera: my father.

The reflections prompted by such images almost recall representations of the Crucifixion.

This gallery concludes with fine essays on “ox-demons-snake-spirits”; the diversification of activists as they manufactured “class struggle”:

a considerable number of activists pivoted dramatically to religion after the Cultural Revolution was over. […] It was often said that these people’s passion in embracing religion was as intense as the zeal they had previously displayed in destroying it.

and “Rule by intimidation: life under the neighbourhood committees”.

  • Gallery 4, “Changing names”—streets, stores, villages, people. As Woeser’s mother explained to her:

Back then [in my work unit], we were all required to change our names, we were told that our Tibetan names were tainted by feudal superstition and were therefore signs of the Four Olds. So we were to change both our given names and our family names. For me and my coworkers in the [school of the] TAR Public Security Bureau, when we handed in our applications for our names to be changed, they were all processed within the Bureau. You could choose which name you wanted to change to, but it had to be approved by the Bureau’s Political Affairs Office. Usually everyone chose Mao or Lin as their new family name. Or some chose to be named Gao Yuanhong, which meant “Red Plateau.” My first choice was Mao Weihua, meaning “one from a Mao family who protects China,” but that name had already been taken by someone else in the Bureau. So then I thought that since Yudrön sounds similar to the Chinese name Yuzhen, maybe I could be called Lin Yuzhen, and that would mean I could have the same family name as Marshal Lin.

We were all told to use our new names. But except for those times when representatives from the Military Region did the head count before each military drill session held in the Bureau, no one actually used these names. Many people forgot their Chinese names. One of my colleagues, Little Dawa, was also Gao Yuanhong. But every time the name Gao Yuanhong was called during the head count, she missed it. We had to poke her—“Dawa-la, they’re calling you”—and then she’d shout out, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!” in a rush. Now when I think of it, it was really funny.

The second group of galleries has the theme “Civil War among the Rebels:
 ‘whom to trust—the faction decides!’ ”

  • Gallery 5. Here the theme is the violent civil war broke out between the two main rebel factions Gyenlog and Nyamdrel in 1967, with the military playing a disturbing role. “Although the two groups were bitterly opposed to each other, their aims and methods were almost indistinguishable.”

Violence continued into 1969 throughout most of the TAR—including the Nyemo uprising, on which Woeser provides further material.

The following galleries move away from Lhasa. The third group is headed “The dragon takes charge: the People’s Liberation Army in Tibet”:

  • Gallery 6: the PLA in Tibet
    Woeser’s father was a deputy regimental officer in the Tibet Military Region during the early phase of the Cultural Revolution; after the Tibet Military Control Commission was established, he was assigned to its propaganda team. As Woeser’s mother explains, he was a firm supporter of the Nyamdrel faction. He was purged in 1970, transferred to a post in Tawu county in Kham.
  • Gallery 7: the Tibetan militia.
    In Tawu, Woeser’s father was responsible for training the militia. As Woeser notes, his photos were now staged rather than shots of action taken in real time, lacking the immediacy and authenticity of his earlier Lhasa photographs. By now the images come more often from other sources.

The fourth group, “Mao’s new Tibet”, includes

  • Gallery 8: the Revolutionary committees from 1968. As ever, Woeser gives detailed accounts. Violence and destruction continued, including the destruction of Ganden monastery. But religious activities resumed from 1972, gradually and discreetly.
  • Gallery 9, “The people’s communes”. Here Woeser describes the adverse effects of the establishment of people’s communes with yet another fine essay. The communes were only set up in TAR from 1965, much later than in mainland China. Woeser notes again that her father’s photos did not capture the heavy repercussions of communalisation in many of the farming and nomadic areas of Tibet.

After he had witnessed and documented those terrible scenes of monasteries being wrecked, statues of the Buddha being destroyed, and Buddhist texts being burned in their thousands, did he really believe in the new era of Tibetan rural happiness that he tried to capture with his camera? I still struggle with this question.

  • Gallery 10, “Installing a new god”, Chairman Mao—again mainly illustrated with sanitised propaganda images.

The final group, “Coda: the wheel turns”:

  • Gallery 11: the karmic cycle. This brief section on the reform era is based on the experiences of Jampa Rinchen (see below).

Those who had been ox-demon-snake-spirits in the previous cycle were now wheeled out once again into the political arena, this time in their function as “political flower vases” […] Ordinary Tibetans picked up their rosaries and prayer wheels and reentered the shells of ruined and half-restored temples to resume the worship of the Buddha.

46 years later, Woeser used her father’s old camera in 2012–13 to revisit some of the scenes in his photos, now mostly using colour film. At yet another sensitive moment, following the 2008 protests and as self-immolations spread to TAR, she was under surveillance.

Trying to retrace his footsteps in Lhasa so many years later was anyway confusing and difficult. There was almost nothing that I could see in front of me that was shown in the photographs he had taken. It was as if that which should be remembered had all been removed.

Chinese tourists have replaced Red Guards, but security cameras, metal detectors, and police booths are now very much in evidence—as well as new propaganda. In the book Woeser sometimes contrasts old and new images. Still, she managed to find many traces of the past.

I tried to adopt the same camera angles, focal length, and exposure that my father had used, and to imagine what he might have felt, but the attempt to make his camera work again taught me what the more advanced technology could not replace: the immediate realities his camera captured, the changes that have happened since then, and the complexities rooted in human intention. […]

fig.285An Appendix reproduces from Tibet remembers the testimony of Jampa Rinchen, whose recollections have featured in various episodes of the book. A former monk at Drepung Monastery, he had become a Red Guard, and then a member of the militia and the Gyenlog faction. In 1986 he volunteered to serve as a cleaner at the Jokhang temple (right: helping monks at the Jokhang fashion sculptures out of tsampa and butter to be offered to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas). As he reflected sadly to Woeser in 2003,

I destroyed a stupa. It’s no longer proper for me to wear monks’ robes.

But on the night he died,

all the monks from the Jokhang chanted for him. They prayed for him again in the evening when his body was sent for sky burial. These can be said to be the best arrangements that could have been made for him. Yet he had been unable to wear the robes again that had meant so much to him, that had symbolized for him the purity of monastic life, and that had marked the greatest loss in his life.

* * *

Again, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Lhasa and TAR don’t represent the whole story for Tibetan peoples; our studies should also include Amdo and Kham. Amdo in particular has been the focus of several fine recent works by scholars such as Charlene Makley and Benno Weiner. Alongside the recent escalation in the repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, we should never forget the Tibetans. And meanwhile in China, academic freedom is increasingly constricted.

Less melodramatic than many Chinese memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, this distressing, nuanced book makes a template not just for Tibet, and China, but (as Yu Jie observes in this review) for many regions of the world where victims and persecutors have to come to terms with a traumatic past.

Note also Tibet: conflicting memories.

[1] Tsering Dorje had been sent to take photos during the Sino-Indian War in 1962; and as early as 1956, to document the Lhoba people, perhaps the smallest of the many ethnic minorities in the region—images I’d love to see. En passant, you can hear some audio recordings of Lhoba folk-songs on CD 6 of Mao Jizeng’s anthology Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (Wind records, 1994).

[2] For Ian Johnson’s 2014 interviews with Woeser and Wang Lixiong, see here and here; cf. Woeser on the recent wave of self-immolations (also the main theme of Eat the Buddha).

[3] Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999) is a masterly, balanced single-volume history of modern Tibet, besides the ongoing multi-volume work of Melvyn Goldstein.

[4] Within the much larger image database for the Cultural Revolution in China, note Li Zhensheng’s photos from Heilongjiang, Red-color news soldier: a Chinese photographer’s odyssey through the Cultural Revolution (2003).

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!):

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. And here’s a roundup of all the related posts.

[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).

Native American cultures 1

More from Bruno Nettl—and the Blackfoot


In a Piegan lodge: Yellow Kidney (left) and his father Little Plume inside a lodge, pipe between them (Edward Curtis, c1900, Library of Congress). In a later version, Curtis erased the clock in the centre; by now, I suspect some anthropologists might even add it.

Learning about the disturbing story of Grassy Narrows reminded me at last to delve modestly into Native American ritual and musical cultures. [1]

Like ethnic minorities within the PRC, such groups are a much-favoured subject for fieldworkers (“The typical Indian family includes a father, a mother, three children, and an anthropologist”). Meanwhile the popular imagination easily reduces such cultures to an Exotic Other, sweeping social issues under the carpet—further compounded by New Age flapdoodle (cf. dervishes, Tibetan singing bowls).

Fortunately, changing Native American cultures have long been the subject of serious academic study. Their musics were among the major focuses of the great Bruno Nettl, and besides his dedicated monographs, for a novice like me in this vast field his The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions makes a cogent and eminently readable introduction, the fruit of his long engagement with Native American groups—notably the Blackfoot, his long-term fieldwork project—recurring as illustrations within his topics illuminating global musicking. So here I’ll assemble some of Nettl’s most pertinent insights (cf. Iran: chamber music and Heartland excursions).

Here’s a very basic map:

Map N. America

I’ll begin with a passage from Chapter 31, “Second thoughts: some personal disclosures”, where Nettl notes that our own ideas can and should be revised—such as concepts about the simplicity and complexity of “folk” and “art” musics (pp.455–8; for China, see e.g. my own Dissolving boundaries):

Fundamentally, around 1950 the principal distinction between the music of indigenous societies (then called “primitive”) and “art” (or “cultivated”) music involved intellectualisation. Indigenous music, it was thought, didn’t have ideas about the technicalities of music, while art music (in Europe but also in the so-called high cultures of Asia) was based on complex theoretical systems. Essentially, this is what my teacher George Herzog taught, although in one article, “Music in the thinking of the American Indian”, he contradicts this view. But it’s significant that this (actually very interesting) article is extremely short and appeared in an obscure periodical, in contrast to Herzog’s several major works on Native American musics of the 1930s, which appeared in major journals and were often quite voluminous but said virtually nothing about the ideas about music held by Indians. He analysed the songs and showed that structurally they were often moderately interesting. I have to confess that for a long time, this made sense to me. Societies that had been nonliterate, learned songs orally, had no formalised music teaching—they couldn’t, it seemed to me, have much in the way of a system of ideas about music.

Well, by now I think the opposite. The styles of Native American songs are certainly very interesting but hardly very complex, but in my experience the Blackfoot people, for example, didn’t seem to think that the structure was worthy of much attention. To them, Western music—which they called “white” music—now that was complicated music. One had to know a lot to perform it, including reading music and understanding harmony. But white people, some Blackfoot singers told me, didn’t think very deeply about their own music, they only enjoyed its sound.

The Blackfoot people, I discovered from a good many interviews and observations but also from reading older ethnographies and examining myths, actually had (maybe used to have) a very complex system of ideas about music. […] For one thing, music was a reflection, a kind of counterpart, of the whole of life. The most important myth about the origin of the Beaver medicine bundle, perhaps the most fundamental ceremony [see also pp.257–8], told how each animal or bird had its own song and its supernatural power. The right way to do something is to sing the right song with it; everything has its song. A man would expand his musical knowledge by having repeated visions in which he learned songs and by moving through a series of age-grade societies, each of which had its songs. The old man, the most respected, was also the one who had learned the most songs. And further, songs are like objects [!]: they can be given, traded, bought, inherited—though just what constitutes the identity of a song is not totally clear—and as a result, it is believed that songs cannot be divided, or changed.

These are the kinds of things that show that indigenous peoples do indeed have complicated ideas about music and about the role of music in culture. I certainly had to change my mind about that, moving from an image of indigenous peoples as having songs but no ideas about them to one of peoples whose systems of ideas about music gives you far more insight into the culture than merely listening to the songs. […]

These thoughts led me to consider Native American music more broadly. It’s the music with which I’ve been concerned longest, and early on two things struck me as significant, things that were generally accepted in the scholarly literature up to that time. One was that in each society or nation, there is one dominant musical style. These musical styles were grouped in somewhat homogeneous areas, each one geographically delimited; these areas correlated somewhat with culture areas, and somewhat with areas determined by language relationships, but they did not follow either—how shall I say it—slavishly. And second: many Native nations had a number of songs that were simpler than the rest—game songs, songs in stories, lullabies—and were pretty much alike throughout the continent. From this, one was led to believe, there could be reconstructed a kind of broad history of Native American music, in which an old, homogeneous layer of simple songs that all people shared was followed by a layer of styles that correlated somewhat with language and culture, and this was followed by individual and unique developments in each nation, representing relatively recent events.

I’ve come over the years to realise that this is a very simplistic approach. Let me fast-forward to the past couple of decades in which I’ve begun to think that if there is “a” history, it might have been quite different. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the complexity of many Native cultures before 1492. The advanced state of agriculture, which developed many plant foods that were then taken up and became staples in Europe, and the large cities in the Andes and Mexico, but also in what is now the United States, such as the metropolis of Cahokia near present-day St Louis—these suggest cultures whose social, religious, and economic structures matched their European and Asian counterparts, and so did the size of their populations. I find it hard to imagine that they didn’t have music consisting of long compositions with complex structures, perhaps polyphonic, performed by large groups of singers and percussionists and other instruments. Perhaps there was court music, and surely mass ceremonials. To be sure, we have no evidence of notation or complex melody-producing instruments. And we can’t talk about musical styles except in terms of 20th-century Native music. If we imagine that Cahokia had music with complex styles, we have no idea what it sounded like. […]

And it’s not as if the contemporary Native cultures we do know about didn’t have some pretty complicated music, especially when it comes to architectonic structure. I think of the song cycles of southeastern nations, of Pueblo peoples, of the Navajo, of Peyote songs of the Kiowa. But instead of seeing these as a kind of apex of Native American musical creativity, I would now like to think of them as the remnants of what may once have been a more complex musical culture—or cultures. […]

These ideas relate to some hypotheses recently promulgated by Joseph Jordania and also Victor Grauer, proposing that relatively complex music—polyphonic singing, in Grauer’s approach—was once more widespread in indigenous societies than it is now, suggesting to me that while many of the world’s musical cultures have moved to increasingly complex systems, the opposite—simplification, abandonment of complex structures—might, for a variety of reasons, be another type of development. Anyway, I’ve had second thoughts; the typical history of a society’s music may not be unidirectional at all.

In Chapter 19, as a prelude to his useful taxonomy of musical change in world societies, Nettl speculates on the more recent history of indigenous groups (p.282):

Our understanding of change in the past in indigenous and folk societies is extremely limited. But as an example, trying a bit of reconstruction and conjecture, let us see in a bit of detail what can be known or at least conjectured of the Plains Indians before about 1800 CE, noting conditions parallel to some of those characterising the modern world. It is difficult to know when things happened in the history of the Plains Indians, but we know at least that certain things did happen. At some point, probably in the period between 1000 and 1500, a number of peoples from diverse areas collected in the western Plains. Their diverse origin is attested by the diversity of languages. In various ways, the area began to be culturally unified. Travel began to be widespread, related to the nomadic lifestyle adopted in part because of the horse. […] Relatively dramatic changes thus seem to have taken place, and we have in microcosm evidence of some of the characteristics of 20th-century world culture: technology, suddenly improved by the introduction of the horse and other indirect acquisitions from the whites; increased intertribal communication; a unified religious system overlaying more individual tribal traditions; and no nation-states, but a unified culture that led to tribal allegiances and intertribal languages, such as sign language and the widespread use of Lakota and, eventually, of English.

The evidence is extremely scanty, but there is a bit of an indication that rapid musical change accompanied or immediately followed this development. The geographic distribution of the so-called Plains musical style indicates rather recent origin, at least in the “classical” Plains culture, where this style developed its extreme characteristics. Distribution also suggests a diffusion to outlying areas—the eastern woodlands, the prairie tribes, and certain Salish and Great Basin peoples such as the Flathead and the Shoshone. Merriam particularly notes the Plains-like character of Flathead music and culture, despite the Salish background. The overlay of Plains music in the Flathead repertory, contrary to the homogeneous style of the coast Salish, appears to be recent, as does the introduction of the Plains style in the previously simpler and homogeneous basin repertory.

Again, it seems likely that rapid or at least substantial change in music and its surrounding social events occurred with, or perhaps followed, the development of technology, communication, and widespread standardisation along with knowledge and tolerance of diversity. But of course, this highly generalised ans speculative discussion is intended to do nothing more than suggest to the reader the possibility that certain kinds of cultural situations seem to be accompanied by large-scale change and others by its virtual absence.

More on styles (pp.325–7):

Physically, the Plains Indian groups, extending from the Blackfoot in the North to the Comanche in the South, are not particularly alike. Yet Blackfoot music is very similar to that of other Plains tribes, and so we rule out biological factors. There is a closer relationship between the distribution of the Plains musical style and the physical environment of the high Plains. But while it’s difficult to separate culture from ecology, the Plains musical style is also found in peoples living in other areas, and it has become a major component of the more recently developed intertribal powwow culture.

Language also appears not to be a factor. Although the minor musical difference among Blackfoot, Crow, and Comanche (members of three language families) might in part be related to differences in language and speech patterns, the main thrust of the musical style of the Plains peoples is the same, even though the languages belong to four or more language families.

On to matters of culture. The Blackfoot in their recent “precontact” history were a hunting-and-gathering society in the western Plains, but there is evidence that they came from farther east and once enjoyed a different lifestyle, possibly including some horticulture. Marius Schneider’s description of the music of hunting cultures sort of fits them: it is “interspersed with much shouting, is formed from free-speech rhythms, and has little tonal definition”. But Schneider’s correlation of hunting with polyphony and with metric predomination over melody doesn’t apply here at all.

Here’s my summary of traditional old-time Blackfoot culture, coming from standard ethnographies: based on human and animal energy, it had little social stratification. The social organisation was quite complex, revolving about the individual’s association with a nuclear family, with a band, with various societies, and with other individuals who shared the same guardian spirit, and so on, all however within a rather informal framework. For all of those characteristics, we can easily identify close relationship to musical concepts, functions, behaviour. But when it comes to musical style, we look far and wide for correlation. The variety of social relationships is paralleled by a number of musical genres with stylistic boundaries that are blurred, reflecting conceivably the informal approach to life’s rules. The lack of complex technology is reflected in the predominantly vocal music. In a more speculative vein, we would associate the great difference between Blackfoot singing and speaking styles to the supernatural association of music.

Referring again to McFee, Nettl concludes:

In the end, some of the most obvious musical traits cannot be related to a culture core, however defined, and we are unable, say, to associate pentatonic scales with bravery and heptatonic with cowardice. […]

In traditional Blackfoot culture, […] there was a great difference in cultural role between men and women. In most respects, human relationships were informal and easy. A person was associated with several social groups. Political hierarchy was absent and authority temporary. People did cooperate and showed little hostility to each other, but most actions were carried out by individuals, while collaboration was not pervasive.

In Blackfoot music, there are also substantial differences in men’s and women’s activities and repertories. The singing styles differ considerably. Informality is evident in many aspects of music, notably in the difference between theory and practice, between stated rules and execution. Thus, songs are said to be repeated four times, but recordings show a lot of variation. The musical system is exhibited as a large body of separable songs, but in fact the difference between similar songs and sets of variants is not easily drawn. Songs have texts but may also be sung with newly created words or meaningless syllables. As a person is associated with several groups, a melody may be associated with several uses. Musical authority resides in part with song leaders, who, however, hold musical power temporarily and informally.

Change more recently: intertribalism, the powwow, and white music
Bringing the discussion into the modern period, Nettl goes on:

In a powwow singing group—a “Drum”—there is a male (or, recently, sometimes a female) leader whose tasks are mainly administrative. He also leads more song performances than others, but the leadership role in a song’s structure is confined to the beginning, after which others, again informally determined, hold roles of prominence. Singing in groups is common, but in earlier times solo singing predominated. In group singing, a loose kind of musical cooperation is necessary, and articulation of notes and drumbeats must be in good unison, but singers make little attempt to blend voices and it is easy to hear the individual. Nonmembers of singing groups may be welcome to sit in, and a singer may perform with several groups tough mainly associated with one. Those elements of style that can be best related to components of social relations and conceptions of life are those that are conventionally called “performance practice” and are present throughout a musical performance. But Blackfoot culture and other things we know about the Blackfoot people really haven’t given us an explanation of the particular sound and style of their music.

Under the global theme of minorities under a dominant society, he ponders the influence of white contact upon Native Americans (pp.410–414):

Native American peoples of the north Plains readily distinguish between “Indian” and “white” music, both of which they perform and hear. The two are symbolic of the culture in which Indians move. “White” social contexts, such as drinking in a bar or going to a Christian church, are accompanied by white music performed by Indians. The traditional contexts of Indian music may be largely gone, but when the people are engaged in activities in which they wish to stress their Indian identity, such as powwows, social dances, or gambling games, they use Indian music.


Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1916. Source: wiki. Cf. Bartók in 1907.

Nettl goes on to adduce the Native Americans as a case study of “a minority overrun by immigrants to their territory who became the majority”:

But their musical cultures have not been studied very much from this perspective. […] I have in mind issues such as these: how being a minority has affected a Native tribe’s musical culture, how the music of the majority has affected them, how they have used music in relating to the (white) majority, or how they affected the music of the white majority. Typical studies of American Indians have essentially treated each culture or tribe in isolation, trying to reconstruct their musical life as it might have been before and without majority intervention—before the coming of white people and their music.

My principal experience has been with the Blackfoot people of Montana, and this conventional approach was the one I followed when I studied, principally in the small town of Browning and its surroundings. Looking back now, I could have come up with a somewhat different ethnographic and musicological picture if I had looked at the Blackfoot people as a minority among the various culture of North America. Let me give a few examples of the kinds of things on which I might have concentrated:

Basically, the Blackfoot say they have both Indian and white music, and in their musical lives Indian music is a minority music, but it has special functions in the modernised Blackfoot culture. Their most important musical activity, the powwow, is used to negotiate and to a degree resolve conflicts. For example, at a large powwow there is the daily presentation of the US flag with an American military colour guard to the accompaniment of unmistakably Indian music. The functions and uses of the traditional repertory have shidted in accordance with culture change. While powwows are explicitly modern events, some of the older and at one time central Blackfoot musical traditions that were wiped out, forgotten, or abandoned are being reconstructed, and there are some musical styles of white-Native fusion. The participation of non-Blackfoot Native Americans, and also of white dancers and singers (usually referred to as “hobbyists”), in certain components of Blackfoot musical life would be important to study. Now, coming initially from a tradition of scholarship that emphasised the purity and authenticity of the tradition to be investigated, I have to criticise my research tradition for treating these issues as merely the result of corruption or pollution.

But the Blackfoot picture is made more complicated because their main town of Browning, Montana, population around 8,000, is not homogeneous but consists of several groups perhaps best labeled as minorities. When I worked there, around 1966–83, there were a small number of whites, including the majority of professionals and business owners, the wealthy; there was a majority of people who called themselves mixed-bloods, although this was a category less biological than cultural, as biological descent is hard to specify, indicating allegiance to a mixture of cultural values and practices; and then there was a smallish population of so-called full-bloods, largely poor people whose cultural interests were closer to older traditions. They were treated like a minority by all of the others, and this included customary stereotyping with undesirable connotations—drunkenness, laziness, ignorance of modern ways. This kind of a mix goes back to prewhite days, when the various and complex ways in which traditional Blackfoot divided themselves socially—including the special role of women—had its musical analogues.

And so, as with most Native American peoples, the musical culture of the Blackfoot, despite their small population, was not homogeneous. To put it very simply, not all people knew all the songs. On the contrary, the Blackfoot repertory was divided among formally constituted age groups, among people associated with different guardian spirits, among different bands of people who separated during winter, by gender, and more.


Source here.

Very significantly, some of this situation was the result of the events of the 19th century when Native American peoples came to have a minority status among the white invaders. The musical repertories experienced both centrifugal and centripetal forces. On the one hand, as tribal allegiance of individual Blackfoot people began to vary and among some to simply disappear, the typical musical idiolect (the individual’s musical experience) became more varied. Some people held on to many songs, even singing songs to which they traditionally would not have been entitled. Others again forgot most Indian songs and learned “white” music—church music, vernacular music, folk music. On the other hand, as the extant repertories of most Native American peoples shrank because their functions declined or disappeared, and as member sof once separate tribes were thrown together on common reservations and in cities, some songs became a core of common property that, through the intertribal powwow circuit, came to be shared intertribally.

Like most American minorities of European origin, a large proportion of Native Americans in the United States today live in large cities, maintaining a tenuous, perhaps love-hate relationship to the reservations from which they came and where relatives still live. Like the Europeans (more properly, Euro-Americans), they have developed national festivals celebrating music, dance, foodways, the most important being the already mentioned powwow. Thus, for example, about half of the nation’s Blackfoot people live in large cities in the North—mainly Seattle and Minneapolis—and many schedule annual visits to relatives in Montana so as to participate in the main four-day powwow. But while there are anthropological studies of urban Native American communities, not much has been done to learn about their musical culture. How is it like and unlike that of Italian Americans, Arab Americans, Mexican Americans, Hungarian Americans? Although there are, perhaps surprisingly, interesting parallels, one is struck by the significant contrasts.

Further to the idea of expressing various kinds of identity (p.271):

The major midsummer powwow, North American Indian Days, is a kind of event that would not have been conceivable in earlier Blackfoot history and even in the first part of the 20th century. It is polysemic, overtly and subtly expressing
1) Blackfoot national identity—the emcee says so, and occasionally speaks Blackfoot;
2) Native American ethnic identity (or is Blackfoot the ethnic group, and are Native Americans the nation?)—again, the emcee tell us, the Drums, the singing groups, come from many reservations in the United States and Canada, and the dancers perform a widely intertribal repertory;
3) US national identity—much is made of the presentation of the colours by military veterans;
4) age identity—there are dance contests for different age groups; and
5) personal identity—there’s the incredible variety of costumes.
There is plenty of “white” music going on in town at the time of the powwow; country music and rock at dances for older and younger folks, respectively; US patriotic song recordings on sale at an “Indian” rodeo. But at North American Indian Days, while all kinds of appurtenances from “white” culture are in evidence, from flags to tape recorders, the music is totally “Indian”, even for the presentation of the military guard. The association of music with identity is very strong here.

More on the powwow (pp.351–2):

If one were to look for a ranking of musicians among modern Plains Indians, one could do it most conveniently by comparing ensembles of singers who habitually perform together and by examining the social and musical structure of the individual ensemble. At the major Blackfoot powwow […] in the 1960s, several Drums (singing groups) alternated, each performing for an hour or two. The groups were associated with towns on and off the reservation—Browning, Heart Butte, Starr School, Cardston (Alberta), and so on. Members did not need to be residents, and membership was informal and floating; a singer from one group could occasionally sing in another. Each group had a leader who began many but by no means all of the songs and who assembled the singers. Each singer in the group could lead songs, for example, determining what song to sing and to begin it by singing the first phrase solo; there was no set order for the leading of songs. On the surface, at least, the situation was one of informality and equality. Most of the time, little was made of distinctions among groups and singers. In the powwow sector of the culture, there is only one class of individuals who make up something of a musical elite, the class of (mainly) men known as “singers”. But the Blackfoot do distinguish quality and status of musicianship. The singing groups competed for prizes, and during my stay with the Blackfoot there was one that had the reputation of being the best, its superior quality attributed to the members’ musicianship,with details unspecified. Individual singers were also singled out as being particularly excellent. The criteria included knowledge of a large repertory, as well as the ability to drum well (quality of singing was evidently a less important criterion), with emphasis on the ability to drum in a precise “off the beat” relationship to the vocal rhythm, and in perfect unison. Men who made songs were also (automatically) regarded as superior singers but not put into a separate class as composers. Since the 1960s, the culture and social organisation of powwow Drums have become much more formalised and commercialised; it is now similar to that of professional musicians in American society as a whole, and the music has become part of American mass-mediated musical culture.

Nettl also reflects wisely on the scholarly use of Native American music in education. In Chapter 9 on comparative study he again considers changing academic perspectives, giving instances of student reactions to his lectures outlining musical styles over 25-year intervals (pp.122–3).

Native American culture again features in Chapter 29 in a highly pertinent discussion on applied uses of ethnomusicology and social activism (cf. Guo Yuhua), “Are you doing anyone any good?”—including sections on healthcare, the politics of representation, and “Trying to make peace”.

Music and learning
Nettl points out that while such music may seem “simple” in certain parameters, it’s quite complex in many other respects (cf. What is serious music?!).

In his very opening discussion of how to define “music” in the first place, he observes that rather like the Hausa of Nigeria, Native American societies have no word to tie together all musical activities (p.24):

The Blackfoot have a word, paskan, that can be roughly translated as “dance”, which includes music and ceremony and is used to refer to religious and semireligious events that comprise music, dance, and other activities, but this word does not include certain musical activities, such as gambling, that have no dancing. They have a word for “song” but not one for instrumental music.

That’s a common issue—such as in China, where care is needed in approaching the term “music”: in traditional north China it doesn’t apply to vocal music, or even other genres of intrumental music, but narrowly to the paraliturgical shengguan wind ensemble!

In Chapter 26, engagingly titled “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?“, among Nettl’s instances of teaching, learning, and rehearsing in a variety of cultures around the world, he wonders how traditional Native American societies worked (pp.381–3):

Blackfoot people traditionally believed that humans could learn music in two interconnected ways, from supernatural powers such as guardian spirits in visions and from other humans. The ideal was the learning of songs from the supernatural, and the concepts of learning and creating music are therefore closely associated. The way in which songs were thought to be learned in visions, normally in a single hearing, has influenced the concepts that people have about learning music in an entirely human context. In the culture of the Blackfoot, “once” may presumably mean four times through, so the concept is there, but the idea that the guardian spirit teaches you a song simply by singing it to you is important, and human teachers instruct similarly. Thus, a medicine bundle, with its attendant songs, was transferred from one person to another by a single performance of the ceremony, during which the new owner was expected to learn the songs. Today, when people learn songs from each other and recognise the process as such, they say that quick learning is desirable and certainly possible, though lately often subverted by the ever-present cassette recorder. The standardisation of form and the possibility of roughly predicting the course of a song from its initial phrase also facilitate quick learning. […]

There is evidence that those cultures that demanded the precise rendering of music for validation of religious ritual also required systematic practising and rehearsing and looked at it all competitively. We are told this about the Navajo and the North Pacific coast peoples […]. Rehearsing was essential, mistakes were punished, and rituals in which mistakes were found would have to be repeated entirely or in part in order to be valid. Some northern Plains peoples took a less formalist attitude. Having been learned largely from visions for the use of one person, music was more closely associated with the individual and private rituals, and therefore the control of the community over musical performance was less highly developed. Evidently, a man who learned a song in a vision would use his walk or ride back to camp as an opportunity to rehearse or work it out. No doubt, actual composition took place along this walk [cf. Unpacking “improvisation”—including a wonderful passage on the creative processes of Mozart, Blackfoot singer Theodore Last Star, and Brahms!]; the inspiration from the white heat of the vision would be rationally worked out. Practising in effect took place at this point, and the song would be readied for presentation to the other members of the tribe. But since music was primarily a personal and individualistic activity and experience, practising was not done systematically to any large extent, and not much heed was paid to the accuracy of performance. Just as composing and learning are related concepts, composing and practising overlap. How things have changed!

 Nettl’s consultant told him (p.293):

“Oh yes. Every year about a hundred new songs come to the reservation.” Did they sound different from the old songs? “No, they are new songs and we add them, and that way we get more and more songs.” The Blackfoot regard change as basically a good thing.

Pondering the life of the “typical musician”, Nettl comments on the changing life of an individual Blackfoot (p.195):

He moved through a series of age-grade societies whose activities included ceremonies and music. As an individual grew older, he or she was successively initiated into new societies, learning their songs and dances. Again, the oldest men would know the largest amount of music, learned gradually, more or less at four-year intervals. The vision quest of the Plains Indians and of tribes surrounding the Plains exhibited a similarly gradual learning of songs. A so-called medicine man or woman would have a succession of visions of his or her guardian spirit, each time learning more in the way of dealing with the supernatural, which included songs.

This is the traditional picture. For recent times, the tendency to gradual learning of new material is a pattern both supported and altered in the career of one Blackfoot singer with whom I worked. Born about 1915, this man was first exposed to Western music through his reservation school, learning French horn, but he also—sometimes secretly—learned a few traditional songs. As a young adult, he took up the modern intertribal repertory of the powwow culture, which consisted largely of social dance songs without words. In later life, he gradually became interested as well in the ancient traditional Blackfoot music, learning it from older persons who knew but rarely performed the songs. This sequence had idiosyncratic causes: the third stage coincided with the death of the singer’s stepfather, an esteemed tribal leader. But the pattern may also be typical, at least insofar as the most sacred music has long been the province of tribal elders. In this respect, my consultant, although he was exposed to musics not known in earlier times, such as the so-called intertribal songs and powwows and the music of the whites, seems to have followed a traditional pattern. But in the sense that he withdrew from interest in one musical repertory as he learned a new one, he probably did not reflect the gradual and cumulative learning of a cohesive musical system. In any event, the concept of typical pattern in musical life can be found among the ordinary singers of a small tribe as well as the master composers of Western music.

In a passage on “genius”, he finds technical virtuosity of little significance among the Blackfoot (p.59):

Outstanding singers and men who commanded large repertories of religious songs were singled out, but the role of musical culture hero seems to me to be most clearly associated with those men who, in times of the greatest adversity of the Blackfoot nation, tried to lead the tribe into some kind of acceptable future and did so by maintaining and teaching the people’s songs and dances.

Related are Nettl’s comments in a section on locating informants, consultants, and teachers in various cultures (pp.152–3)—reminding me of our search for ritual specialists in China:

In working with Blackfoot people, I was introduced to a man who was described as a singer. I did not ask further; he had been so designated in contrast to dozens of others who were not. I didn’t care whether he was the best or the worst, as I was grateful for anyone’s help, and I assumed that he would be somehow representative of that part of the population who were titled “singers”. I had it in mind to study the musical culture as it existed, was interested in the mainstream of musical experience, not in what was exceptionally good, or, for that matter, bad. I valued most the contact with someone who would speak articulately and give me a lot of information. I hoped he would in some way be typical, and I thought I would later be able to put my hope to the test. I believed, rightly or not, that among the sixty or seventy “singers” whom the community turned out to have, perhaps a half dozen would be considered outstanding, another few barely adequate, and the majority simply good, in a sort of bell-shaped curve. This majority group interested me the most. The members of the society seemd to find my approach compatible, didn’t feel that I should be concentrating only on the best.

More on “polymusicality” (p.314):

Most of the world’s societies find themselves in the 20th century participating in two or more musics that can be rather easily distinguished, and the idea that each music functions as a symbol of particular aspects of a culture is a convenient approach to the study of one aspect of musical symbolism. In the culture of the Blackfoot during the 1960s, three kinds of music were distinguished by insiders and outsiders: older, traditional, tribal music; modernised intertribal or “pan-Indian” music; and Western music. The three had different symbolic values, the first as a symbol of the tribal past, to be remembered but placed in a kind of museum context; the second, of the need of Indian cultures to combine in order to ensure people’s cultural survival as Indians; and the third, of the modern facts of Indian life. Integrations as a tribe, as an Indian people, and into the mainstream American environment are symbolised. The relationships seem obvious to an outsider, but they are also articulated by the culture’s own interpretation of itself.

McFee, looking at modern Blackfoot society, followed a similar line of thought, dividing the Blackfoot population and its values into white- and Indian-oriented groups. For Indian culture, he lists individualism, bravery, skill, wisdom, and generosity; for white orientation, self-dependence, acquisition, and work. The two groups overlap, but one can find some of the Indian-oriented values in traditional music and musical behaviour. Individualism is evident in the need for people, ideally, to learn their own songs in visions and to develop personal repertories of songs, and perhaps also in the tendency for traditional music to be soloistic or, when performed by groups, to avoid a high degree of vocal blend [cf. Lomax].

Bravery can conceivably be related to the practice of singing before a group, sometimes with improvised texts, in a ceremony replicating courage in physical conflict. Generosity is exhibited in the system of giving songs, the willingness to borrow from and give to other tribes. The three “white” values given by McFee can be associated with “white” music and with the modern Indian music used by the Blackfoot. The use of notation and the ownership of complex instruments such as pianos and electric guitars can in various ways be associated with all three. Composition (in contrast to acquisition of songs through visions) is related to self-dependence. The importance of size of repertory in the modern genres and the idea of rapid learning with the use of tape recorders are relevant to the idea of acquisition. The practice of rehearsing and the development of complex performance styles in modern Indian music can be related to the idea of work.

Gender, scholarship, and recording
Nettl was always attuned to gender issues (for my brief reading list under flamenco, see here). Among the Blackfoot in the mid-20th century (p.394),

women probably sang little in public (my consultants regarded it as evidence of immodesty). I was told they had some songs of their own (some of these songs could be given to men), but often they “helped” the men, and they seemed to know—though usually not to sing—many of the men’s songs. But I was told (and read) that women were important as sponsors of music-bearing rituals [cf. China], and in the mythology they are instrumental in bringing songs into existence. Since 1980, however, women have become very active in the powwow repertory, participating as a minority in many of the Drums, and forming a few “women-only” Drums. Early recordings show women’s singing style to have been rather different to that of men. Thus, in the public dance repertory, the rhythmic pulsations that in men’s singing consisted of sudden, momentary increases in amplitude or dynamics were rendered by women as slight changes in pitch. When participating in Drums, in recordings made after around 1980, women’s singing style approximates that of men.

Besides women as performers, Nettl also observes (pp.400–401) that

the five most significant scholars of Native American music before 1950 were the following four women (plus George Herzog). The major accomplishments of this group constitute the classics of that period: Alice C. Fletcher (1904) published the first detailed description of a ceremony, with complete transcriptions. Frances Densmore’s oeuvre of publications still probably exceeds what has been published by anyone else, but her detailed musical and ethnographic collections of Chippewa and Teton Sioux musics (1910, 1918) are early exemplars of comprehensive accounts of musical culture. Natalie Curtis’s main work, The Indians’ book (1907), did much to bring Native American music and culture to the attention of the public. And Helen Roberts’s imaginative analytical work on Native Californian and Northwest Coast music and her study of geographical distribution (1936) of musical styles, providing the first continental synthesis, belong to the central literature of this area. After 1950, too, women scholars, including Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner, continued to provide leadership. To a somewhat lesser degree, the same could be said for other world areas and repertories.

(In China the preponderance of female music scholars and students had to wait until the 1990s.) He goes on:

It’s interesting to contemplate the cultural or personal roots of the special contributions of women scholars to Native American music studies. It may be suggested that women were motivated in this direction because their own unfavourable social position made them sensitive to oppressed peoples and also because they found themselves directed towards the margins—to marginal peoples, and to music, a marginal field in the Western academy, and in America marginal even among the arts. No doubt a few early figures, who had arrived by chance and through personal interest and determination, such as Densmore and Fletcher, became models for others. Franz Boas encouraged women to enter anthropology in its early American years. 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.

On the “repatriation” of recordings and archives (pp.182–3; cf. similar projects for Australian Aborigines) Nettl refers to archives such as the Federal Cylinder Project, the Smithsonian Institution and the American Folklife Center, mentioning works such as Victoria Levine, Writing American Indian music (2002) and Brian Wright-McLeod, The encyclopedia of native music: more than a century of recordings from wax cylinders to the internet (2005).

Blackfoot cover

He describes his own “longitudinal” work on the Blackfoot (p.186):

After doing some fieldwork and making some recordings, I had the opportunity to examine collections of Blackfoot songs made earlier. I was astonished to find that although, for some reason, no ethnomusicologist had published research on the subject, a huge amount had been recorded, beginning in 1897. By 1987 (when I finished with this project), I could identify some sixteen collections made by ethnomusicologists and anthropologists—cylinders, acetate disks, reel-to-reel tape, cassettes. And I identified about forty commercial recordings, largely LPs (but there were five songs on a Victor record of 1914), and some prerecorded cassettes. Since then, a few dozen more cassettes and CDs have been produced, for Blackfoot listeners and for tourists, and for some singers in other tribes. Well, comparing those early recordings with the recent ones helps to show how very much things have changed in repertory, singing and drumming styles, form, intonation, and—I guess—aesthetics. If early ethnomusicology concentrated on how consistent an authentic culture had to be, using archives and the history of records helps us to see, at least for a period of about 120 years, some aspects of the way musical life has changed [for early Chinese recordings, see here and here].

So here’s Nettl’s An historical album of Blackfoot Indian music (1973/2004; click here for his fine liner notes), with 19 tracks recorded between 1897 and 1966 (the latter by Nettl himself), including Beaver Medicine and Sun Dance songs, war music, love songs, lullabies, gambling and social dance songs:

And for a taste of Blackfoot ceremony, here’s the 1956 documentary The Piegan Medicine Lodge, filmed in Heart Butte, Montana, on a ceremony commissioned as a vow to give thanks upon a grandchild’s recovery from polio (for background, click here):

Nettl’s perspectives, accessible even for those diffident about tackling “music”, are valuable for us in studying any culture—including WAM and China.

This is followed by posts on the Navajo and the Ghost Dance.

[1] The anthropology of Native American cultures is a vast field. For musicking, see e.g. The Garland encyclopedia of world music: the United States and Canada (1998), Part 3 Section 1; Elaine Keillor, Timothy Archambault, and John M. H. Kelly (eds), Encyclopedia of Native American music of North America (2013); and Chapter 2 of Jeff Todd Titon (ed.), Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (with CDs; 5th edition by David McAllester, 6th by Christopher Scales).

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.

Self-mortification: dervishes of Kurdistan

with a note on Tibetan spirit mediums in Amdo


Leading on from my post on Yazidi culture, here I consider a distinctive kind of ritual activity among the Kurds—mainly through a fine documentary from 1973.

Suffering in the quest for union with God is a universal theme, such as among the Uyghur ashiq, or indeed the Bach Passions. An extreme instance is the controversial yet widespread practice of tatbir ritual self-mortification by such acts as flagellation and skewering the body. Practised quite widely through the Islamic world, mortification of the flesh is a theme in other ritual cultures too, including Christianity: it was practised by Lutherans and Methodists, and among Catholics, rituals continue in Spain and Italy. It seems rare in China, though spirit mediums perform self-mortification at extreme northwest and southeast regions: Tibetans in Amdo, and Hokkien in south Fujian and Taiwan. [1] As ritual performers in the public domain, they are male (see here).

As to Kurdistan, dervishes—broadly members of a Sufi tariqa lodge/order/fraternity, sometimes also religious mendicants—perform dhikr (zikr) ecstatic devotional acts, commonly in the form of litanies, but also in rituals of self-mortification. Of course, as in other cultures, this is only one among many manifestations of faith. Beyond sensationalist voyeurism, one hopes for a more sober ethnographic approach—like the documentary

  • Kurdistan: the mysterious dervishes (André Singer and Ali Bulookbashi, 1973, in the series Disappearing world).

It shows the daily lives and religious practices of a dervish community in the Kurdish village of Baiveh on the border between Iran and Iraq, at a time when the two countries had cut diplomatic ties. Many were refugees from Kurdish areas of Iraq; a major source of their economy was contraband. They were dervishes of the ecstatic, mystical Qadiri cult. The film explores the spiritual and temporal power wielded by their leader Sheikh Hussein. By serving him the dervishes consider that they are also serving God. He presides over rituals in which they have the power to carry out acts which would normally be harmful, such as having electricity passed through their bodies, eating glass, and skewering their faces.

It is the less privileged members of the community who seek to enhance their status through performing such acts of subservience—demonstrations of loyalty, as much to the Sheikh as to God. The film also includes explores the tensions with the local mullah, representative of orthodox Islam; but it is the complex of modern secular values that pose a greater challenge to the ways of the dervish, and to the Sheikh’s feudal power.

Here’s the film—not at all for the faint-hearted:

A restudy would be interesting.

This more recent French documentary also features extreme scenes:

The resilience of tradition in troubled modern times is also shown in the revival of ritual pilgrimages, again often featuring tatbir (on the revival since the fall of ISIS, see e.g. here). The ancient battle of Karbala is commemorated in the Arba’een pilgrimage to Karbala that marks the end of the Ashura festival.

As ever, the commodified urban dervish performances for tourists that are often featured in the media—invariably cast as “whirling”—are a world away from local rituals—though they too are a proper subject for ethnographers.

Tongren 1

Qinghai 2

Tibetan self-mortification, Rebkong: source here.

[1] For trance mediums in Amdo, see here. For the 6th-moon Klu-rol festival of Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren), Qinghai, note
Charlene Makley, “Rebgong’s Klu rol and the politics of presence: methodological considerations” (2013), perceptively situating the event within the changing politics of the area as it has become a tourist attraction since 2001 (as you can see from online videos). And now she has published The battle for fortune: state-led development, personhood, and power among Tibetans in China (2018).
Among several other articles, see e.g.
Kevin Stuart, Banmadorji, and Huangchojia, “Mountain gods and trance mediums: a Qinghai Tibetan summer festival”, Asian folklore studies 54 (1995);
Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Xue Yibing 薛艺兵, “Renshen gongwu: Qinghai Tongren liuyuehui jishen yuewude diaocha yanjiu” 人神共舞: 青海同仁六月会祭神乐舞的调查研究, in Cao Benye (ed.), Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究, 西北卷 (2003, with DVD);
and Katia Buffetrille’s chapter in a special volume on Mediums and shamans in Central Asia.
For more, see Isabelle Henrion’s extensive Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts, §10.

For self-mortifying mediums in south Fujian, note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven; for Taiwan, see Donald Sutton, Steps of perfection (2003), Margaret Chan, Ritual is theatre, theatre is ritual; tang-ki: Chinese spirit medium worship (2006), and Patrice Fava’s 1995 film Mazu la déeese de la mer, réalité d’une légende.

For a broader treatment of self-inflicted violence in the imperial history of Chinese religion, see Jimmy Yu, Sanctity and self-inflicted violence (2012).

Cf. the Rufai order in the Balkans, and Sun dance rituals.

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 hi