Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia


Shawms of panche baja band, Nepal. For more images, see here.

Just as the common images of instrumental music in China are the conservatoire solos of erhu, pipa, and zheng, for south Asia many may think of solo genres like the sitar. However, in both of these vast regions the social soundscape is dominated by loud shawm and percussion groups, performing for ceremonial contexts in the open air, often on procession.

Alongside my interest in Chinese shawm bands, similar groups are common throughout the Islamic world and Europe. I’ve already featured some traditions—in Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Italy.

And shawm and percussion bands are also common in south Asia; here I’ll give a little introduction to groups in Nepal and Kerala. As in China and elsewhere, one soon finds that they are among a varied cast of performers for ritual events. And not only do temple festivals require ritual specialists, minstrels, and so on, but we need to place the soundscape within the whole fabric of social life.

The Dutch scholar Arnold Bake (1899–1963) (see here, and here) did pioneering fieldwork in the 1930s and 50s—just as Robert van Gulik was exploring Chinese culture. And in 1969 Mireille Helffer released the LP Musician castes in Nepal.

Here I mainly cite the work of Carol Tingey:

  • Heartbeat of Nepal: the pancai baja (1990), and
  • Auspicious music in a changing society: the damāi musicians of Nepal ( 1994).


Citing Felix Hoerburger (1970):

Shawms, wherever they occur, from northwest Africa to the Balkans and down to southern Asia, are always played by outcasts of one sort or another: in the Balkan states and in Turkey only by gypsies; in Arabic countries by negroes; in Afghanistan by Jats (a kind of gypsy) or by the socially low members of the barber profession. Yet very important social tasks are associated with the playing of shawms.

she goes on,

In Ladakh, the shawm is played by an untouchable caste of carpenter-musicians, the mon; in Bihar, Orissa, and west Bengal by the ghasi leatherworkers; in south India by barber-musicians, and there are examples to be found throughout south Asia.

The panche baja ensemble is played by occupational damai tailor musicians for Hindu Nepali castes. Along with blacksmiths, tanners, shoemakers, and itinerant minstrels, they are low-class, outcasts—as in China. But they are indispensable, and serve an auspicious function, performing both for calendrical ceremonies of the devotional and agricultural year and for life-cycle rituals (notably weddings).

Throughout Nepal such bands are common in various versions; Tingey focuses on the west-central Gorkha area. I note that Nepal’s total population of 30 million is merely that of one small Chinese province.

The ensemble comprises shawms (sahanai, like shehnai), kettledrums, cymbals, and natural trumpets karnal and/or curved horns narsingha.


Yet again it’s worth admiring the wonders of the Sachs-Hornbostel taxonomy.


from Geneviève Dournon, “Organology”, in Helen Myers (ed.) Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The new Grove handbooks in music).

The trumpets and horns are played in pairs, or in even numbers, with a far more complex technique than in China. Whereas in China the two shawms play at the octave in heterophony, the south Asian bands tend towards unison. But on a blind tasting, so to speak, one might easily mistake many of the Nepali tracks for Chinese shawm bands.

Tingey gives detailed accounts of instrument-making and techniques. Many other features that she observes remind me of China. The repertoire is varied; and a more flexible use of more popular tunes from folk-song and film has been challenging the stricter sequences of ritual items. Tingey notes that “in the Gorkha area, during the course of a single generation, a whole repertoire has been lost”, giving instances of the rags formerly prescribed for each stage of a wedding. And she finds a growing perception of the bands as providing mere ostentation.

Still, Tingey details the complex observances of the ritual ensembles serving temples, more resilient to change. Meanwhile she pays attention to the varied soundscapes of social events, as in this list of recordings:

Tingey list

Nepal is also one focus in the outstanding research of Richard Widdess, such as his book

  • Dāphā: sacred singing in a south Asian city: music, performance and meaning in Bhaktapur, Nepal (2013).

For the shawm and percussion bands, you can find clips online, such as

and several playlists, such as

South India
In Kerala (again, as in China) percussion ensembles (panchari melam, pandi melam) serving kshetram and kavu rituals, without the melodic component of shawms, are common; but shawms (kuzhal, or the long nadaswaram) and kombu curved horns may play a supplementary role.

South India was another site of Arnold Bake. And his 1938 fieldwork there was the subject of a 1984 restudy. Other notable work includes

  • Laurent Aubert, Les feux de la déesse: rituels villageois du Kerala (Inde du sud) (2004)

and the three films collected in the DVD Sketches of Kerala.

Rolf Killius has produced several CDs, including

  • Drumming and chanting in god’s own country: the temple music of Kerala in south India 
  • Drummers from heaven: panchari melam: the ritual percussion ensemble of Kerala
  • Inde: percussions rituelles du Kerala (2 vols)

as well as a book,

His websites on the ritual and ritual music of Kerala and on the folk, devotional, and ritual musics of India provide much information, with further links—as well as this varied playlist.

For films by Bake, Tingey, Killius et al., see here.

* * *

So this is my latest valiant attempt to embed shawm bands in the public consciousness, whatever that is… It’s also a reminder that musicking in south Asia (and everywhere) is far broader than the so-called “classical” traditions. Adjusting the imbalance in the representation of folk and elite cultures involves exploring both context and class. Just as for China, an initial focus on “music” soon reveals the importance of ritual in local communities, demanding that we broaden our scope to consider the variety of participants who create the “red-hot sociality” of such events.

Morocco: Paul Bowles

1950 with Jane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More photos here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Music of Morocco (2016).

Schuyler provides further material on the trips, such as:

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Bernard also released several CDs:

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

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

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

as well as also producing his own recordings.

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

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

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

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

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

Wedding, Imlil 2000. My photos.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

group 1961

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

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

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

Sawyer-Lauçanno goes on:

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

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

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

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


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

Mozart for winds, and “genius”

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua band, 2001.

The specialisation of professional training in WAM tends to work as an obstacle to appreciating the broader soundscape. Of course as a fiddle player, taking part in The Rite of Spring, Bach, Mahler, or opera gave me ample opportunity to admire great wind playing and singing; but somehow it seemed impertinent, as if it was none of my business—”just play the dots”, do your job, like a factory worker or a soldier not privy to the grand design (cf. Ecstasy and drudge). Chamber music offers more personal input, but makes a less reliable food-bowl for most performers.

Studying world music inevitably broadens our horizons. However inept, my training in participant observation among Chinese ritual groups and shawm bands helped me focus on the artistry of a range of musicking outside my own expertise.

Returning to WAM, Mozart’s piano concertos are full of exquisite wind parts (see also here, and here). And during our time at Cambridge my ears were opened by Stephen Barlow conducting the astounding Serenade in C minor—here’s an earlier recording:

Such miraculous inspiration is movingly articulated in one of the great scenes from Amadeus (on the Gran partita):

Such wonders are not the exclusive preserve of WAM composers. As always, Bruno Nettl has wise words (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, pp.57–9):

“Musical genius”. It’s the term music lovers in Western culture use to describe their greatest creators of music in classical music and also in jazz (like Louis Armstrong). It is sometimes also used for key figures in the history of popular music (like the Beatles and Elvis Presley).

After unpacking the mythology of Mozart and Beethoven, Nettl compares similar figures in Carnatic music—notably Tyagaraja, also credited with divine inspiration. He goes on:

There certainly are many cultures that share the concept of musical genius on one way or another. Again in my experience, a kind of star system was there in the classical music of Iran in the mid-20th century,  where the line between stars and others was even more pronounced than in Europe, star performers being accorded relatively more status, artistic license, and money. The nonstars were readily ranked from acceptable to incompetent. What distinguishes the “stars” among the msot significant creative musicians in Iran, the ones who excel in the improvisiatory section of the performance of a dastgah—the avaz—is their ability to do something new within strict confines.

And while technical virtuosity was less of an issue in my experience of the music of the Blackfoot people, 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.

Anyway, while we naturally seek out the most outstanding bearers of tradition, yet as Christopher Small observed, musicking is a diverse social activity in which genius and virtuosity play only a limited part. Indeed, in both art and popular traditions they serve as something of a red herring; all kinds of performance events can be meaningful, and moving—from lullabies to a Dolly Parton gig.

Still, to return to inspired wind playing, I always relish Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations of Daoist vocal liturgy, or Hua Yinshan’s searing and soaring shawm playing. See also jazz and trumpet tags—selection here.


Songs of Sicily


Between the heavyweights of Saturday-night noir viewing on BBC4 (The bridge, The KillingSpiral), Inspector Montalbano (set in Sicily, based on the novels of Andrea Camilleri) makes an alluring interlude.

Music enriches some of the great Italian films, including La strada and Cinema Paradiso. The instrumental soundtrack for Montalbano, by Franco Piersanti, grows on one. But it’s well worth staying tuned in for the final credits, featuring the haunting songs of Olivia Sellerio (playlists here and here), moving on from the more traditional styles that feature so strongly in collections of Italian folk music.

And here’s the opening of the prequel series Young Montalbano:

She also sings Fabrizio De André’s Bocca di rosa, with a cameo on marranzanu jews harp:

* * *


From an earlier generation a great Sicilian singer was Rosa Balistreri (1927–90), who escaped a life of poverty, violence, and intolerance to work as a maid in Florence in the 1950s (thoughtful article here). Championed by Dario Fo and Leonardo Sciascia, she returned to Sicily in 1971. Unconcerned with “fidelity” to a notional tradition, her songs, issued on the Teatro del sole label (playlist here), often suggest parallels with fado or rebetika.

Over on the mainland, for great singing from Puglia see here and here. And please allow my usual paean to the riches of Mediterranean popular culture (e.g. flamenco and fado, under Iberia tag)!



Flamenco: a recap

flamenco tree

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

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


Flamenco, 1: palmas—soleares, bulerías: starting with the complex palmas metrical patterns, and some wonderful footage of the de Utrera sisters with Diego del Gastor.

flamenco: gender and politics

Flamenco, 2: gender, politics, wine, deviance: reading William Washabaugh, I explore the Franco era and gender, as well as the image of “departing from behavioural norms“, with more films from the Rito series illustrating family traditions and some fine female singers.

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

For more, including Portuguese fado, see Iberia tag.

Ey-up! A new haiku


Further to my post on Morris dancing and the controversies it provokes, here’s a new English haiku—to follow the original one, as well as my own ode to the 94 bus and garbled reference to a popular graffiti.

It should be read in a strong Lancashire accent. The opening line (for a variant, note comments below!) would be a headline, rather in the style of “Ping-pong ding-dong“. And the “rhyme that doesn’t quite work” doubtless has one of those fancy names that they try and teach you in school:

Trouble at t’Morris
‘As PC gone mad? Ey-up—
T’Nutters of Bacup!

For Stewart Lee’s trenchant rebuke of “PC gone mad gone mad”, see here; for “Ey-up!” in Venice, here; and for another altercation, here.


Archive Chinese recordings

One essential resource for studying—and teaching—Chinese culture is an excellent series from Wind Records 風潮公司 (Taipei), based on archive recordings of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, many made amidst the constant campaigns of the first fifteen years of the PRC before the Cultural Revolution—the most authoritative overview of Chinese music on disc.

Four 2-CD sets (with booklets in Chinese) are devoted in turn to folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music:

  • Tudi yu ge 土地與歌 [English title Songs of the land in China: labor songs and love songs] (1996).
    Far from the kitsch arrangements that flood the market, these tracks—many recorded in the 1950s—are mostly unaccompanied, with work songs, songs of boatmen and foresters, love songs, wedding laments, passionate huar from Qinghai, and shan’ge from Shaanbei. Also featured are recordings from Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
  • Shibaduan quyi 十八段曲藝 [Shuochang: the ultimate art of Chinese storytelling] (1998).
    This collection of early recordings of narrative-singing includes drum-singing from Beijing and Tianjin, tanci from Suzhou, and less well-known examples from Henan, Gansu, Qinghai, Hubei, and Guangxi.
  • Jinye lai changxi 今夜來唱戲 [The beauty of Chinese opera] (1998).
    An overview of regional dramatic traditions, including not only Kunqu and Beijing opera (with Yu Zhenfei, Mei Lanfang, and others), but tracks from Hunan, Sichuan, northern “clapper” operas, as well as yangge opera and searing puppet drama from Shaanxi.
  • Xianguan chuanqi 弦管傳奇 [Special collection of contemporary Chinese musicians] (1996).
    Complementing my 2-CD set on AIMP (also based on early MRI recordings), this set focuses on solo instruments, with some of the great masters from the 1950s. Apart from qin and zheng zithers (Zhao Yuzhai, Gao Zicheng, Luo Jiuxiang), pipa plucked lute, and various fiddles, there are also ensemble tracks led by dizi flute and suona shawm (from southwest Shandong), and guanzi oboe (Yang Yuanheng). The set ends with a drum section from the Shifan gu repertoire played in 1962 by the great Daoist master Zhu Qinfu.

Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe at the MRI, 1961.

The series highlights the sterling work of the MRI under the great Yang Yinliu—to whom Wind Records also dedicated a 2-CD set. Of course audio recordings alone can’t encompass the complexities of changing social life, but basic familiarity with soundscape should be an essential aspect of our education in Chinese culture. For more discography, see my article in The Rough Guide to world music; for films on rural and ritual life in China, see here.