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.

Masked drama in Asia

Speaking of masks for the current crisis, the use of masks in performance is common throughout the world. It occurs to me that this blog now has a quorum of posts featuring masked drama around Asia.

Starting with Tibet:

For China and Japan:

And for Tuva:

Elsewhere, apart from Africa and the Americas, masked performances around Europe would make a fruitful theme, both in folk and art cultures.

First Nations: trauma and soundscape

Tell them we don’t just wander around.

—Sami herder, to ethnographer Robert Paine

Standing Rock protests, 2016.

Further to my post on the harrowing story of Grassy Narrows, and the resulting series on Native American cultures, I’ve been reading

  • Tanya Talaga, All our relations: indigenous trauma in the shadow of colonialism (2020),

based on her 2018 lecture series. Talaga, a journalist, had to rediscover her Ojibwe heritage on her mother’s side. Whereas Shkilnyk’s book on Grassy Narrows is a detailed ethnography of the sufferings of one small community, Talaga extends her scope to the wider fate of indigenous peoples in north America and around the world—including the Inuit, tribal groups in Brazil, the Sami people of Scandinavia, and Australian Aborigines. I’m also reminded of the fate of ethnic minorities in the PRC such as Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Talaga opens her account with the high incidence of suicides—particularly of children—in the territories of NAN (Nishnawbe Aski Nation), a group of forty-nine First Nations in northern Ontario. From 1986 to 2017 there were over 558 suicides there; 37 people took their own lives in 2017 alone. The problem was common throughout First Nation bands in Canada, notably among the Inuit, where the suicide rate is ten times the national average.

Left: Inuit demonstration, c2018
Right: Sami climate strike joined by Greta Thunberg, 2020.

Nearly one in three Sami have thought about or attempted suicide. In Guarani-Kaiowá in southwest Brazil, the suicide rate is 34 times higher within indigenous communities than among the non-Indigenous population. In Australia too, intentional self-harm was the leading cause of death for all Aboriginal people between the ages of 15 and 34. Meanwhile incarceration rates are far higher than in the general population.

Talaga puts all this in the context of the global search for justice, civil rights, and freedom—subsuming environmental protection, housing, healthcare, education, nutrition, and access to clean, drinkable water.

She sketches the painful colonial histories that have led to the ongoing plight of these peoples: genocide, disease, treaties betrayed, multi-generational trauma, discrimination, suppression of identity; residential schools and churches, constant official prevarication and obstruction.

As she notes, all this is strongly reminiscent of the apartheid system in South Africa. She cites Martin Luther King:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the 16th century onward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which has triedas a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore, all exalt it.

Against the legacy of the residential schools, the “lock hospitals” of Australia, and segregated hospitals in Canada, Tanaga meets fine community leaders striving to redress injustice, themselves mostly survivors of the residential schools.

NAN awards, 2019.

Yet despite the involvement of such enlightened figures and social scientists, a plethora of institutions—themselves responsible for much of the trauma—have been quite unable to tackle such problems, and are widely distrusted.

With a long succession of decrees falling far short, protests have been frequent for many decades. Despite the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline from 2016, construction has resumed under Trump, with his contempt for the environment.

Tanaga suggests that while education has long kept people in ignorance, it can now play a major role in alleviating the situation.

Here’s one of several of her talks to be found online:

* * *

While expressive culture may seem a cruel irrelevance in all this, it was precisely the forced removal of these people from their cultures that led to their sufferings.

So moving to soundscape, Mitchell Akiyama, in “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project”, unpacks the methodologies of the ten-hour radio series Soundscapes of Canada, recorded for CBC in 1973.

As project leader Murray Schafer observed, “the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society”. Prescriptively, the series warns against “the degradation of the soundscape thanks to the mounting din of industrial modernity”.

Innovative and well-meaning as the series was, it appears as a “back to nature” project, and “what the broadcasts exclude is perhaps more important than what they include”. The recordings largely ignored urban soundscapes: “Anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian soundscape would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the world’s second largest nation was a bastion of early industrial machinery, a sanctuary for quiet, self-reliant, God-fearing folk”.

Also largely absent are the First Nations and its “visible minorities”. “Their portrait of a pastoral, post-colonial British outpost shunted the country’s sizeable non-Christian, ethnic population squarely out of earshot”, dismissing

a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another. For generations of Indigenous Canadians, the sounds of church bells would likely not have connoted community or belonging, but would have rather reverberated with echoes of the “re-education” in settler religion and language that many were forced to endure in Canada’s residential schools”. […]

If a nation needs a myth, it can do better than telling stories about the necessity of shoring up a colonial legacy whose time has come.

Of course, the “traditional”, and changing, cultures of indigenous cultures have also been a popular subject; what is at issue with this series is how they are kept separate, marginal. And it’s very common for a project to be less all-embracing than its title suggests (e.g. “Singers of the world“, “British music”, Punk).

As long as we bear this in mind, it’s quite natural to focus on a particular area within a culture; with the bolder aim of encompassing the soundscape of a whole culture, however, one has to be more inclusive.

Another post on the site explores the “hubbub” of First-Nation healthcare in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, and the film East Hastings pharmacy (Antoine Bourges, 2012):

For Sami musical culture, we might start with the article “Sámiland: joiks of the tundra” in The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. Among recordings of traditional song, Yoik: a presentation of Saami folk music comprises 3 CDs with a 310-page book. And here’s the playlist of the 1956 Folkways album Lappish joik songs from northern Norway (liner notes here):

For the maintenance of aboriginal cultures in Australia, click here. See also links under Society and soundscape.

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 (notably for China, starting here, as well as Uyghur, Lorestan, south Asia, Morocco), 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.

Yaman 2

In my earlier post on rag Yaman I focused on dhrupad, so that by the time I reached the sitar I contented myself with the great Nikhil Banerjee. Thanks to Daniel Neuman we can now admire versions by some other masters.

Vilayat Khan (cf. his rāg Malkauns here) gave a classic exposition in 1968, accompanied by Manik Rao Popatkar:

Dispensing with alap, he launches into a leisurely gat in 16-beat tintal, with 1st-beat cadences often falling on Ga. He plays mellifluous phrases in even quavers, as in the extended passage from 4.59, and again from 9.54 and 10.40, with easy syncopations. Moving on upwards, patterns revolve around cadences on Pa from around 11.56, Ni from 13.37, top Sa by 16.01, but still often balanced by cadences on Ga, with top Ga from 17.45, and a flow of gorgeous melodic phrases from 18.04. In the final section from 19.17 he sets off again in the middle register, soon leading to faster patterns, with bursts of energy punctuating the metre.

From 23.46 he begins another gat, still in tintal. From 33.58, great syncopated energy around phrases setting forth from sharp MaPa MaPa lead to a fast drut laya from 38.57, always firmly melodic.

And here’s his younger brother Imrat Khan on surbahar (bass version of sitar) in 1974:

As on the rudra vina, the glides are most affecting. Even the high passages from 23.33 are full of rhythmic creativity.

Here are both brothers in duet:

On sarod, here’s Ali Akbar Khan in 1982:

Just one single rag generates such a wealth of melodic creativity…

Other posts in this series include Yaman KalyanKafi ZilaMarwaMalkauns, and Bhairav and Bhairavi.

Music and the potato

The potato is central to the structuring of musical expression.

—Henry Stobart *

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. As a meretricious bonus, I can offer the classic headline

Oh my gourd!

(cf. these other silly article titles).

LMS potatoes

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.



* To be fair, Stobart 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.”

Recent posts on Tibet

Amidst outcry over China’s recent assault on the Uyghurs, I’m finally giving equal coverage to the plight of the Tibetans. My comments set forth not from any knowledge of the societies in question, but from my interest in local communities and lives under the CCP, both during the Maoist era and since the 1980s’ reforms. So these posts cover social change, political upheavals, and expressive culture.

and necessary corrections to misguided views:

On the ritual cultures of ethnic groups around Amdo, see

A conspicuous absentee from my coverage so far is monastic ritual, a major part of the Tibetan soundscape that has been much studied, even at the expense of other genres. And as many Western studies turn to the lively scene of Tibetan pop, I tend to seek the changing fortunes of traditional culture.

See also Tibet tag.

Iranian lives

In reportage, a cartoon book, and feature films

I’ve been seeking to glean a few basic perspectives on Iranian society beyond its (seemingly “autonomous”) chamber music—note Laudan Nooshin’s useful Songlines introduction to the sound spectrum in Iran.

  • Ramita Navai, City of lies: love, sex, death, and the search for truth in Tehran (2014)

makes a compelling read, an effective blend of interviews, observation, and research. The eight vignettes read like a novel—in “Sources” she explains how she compiles each account, giving further references. In a final note she summarises her own story: based in London from young, returning to Iran as a journalist since 2004, engaging with the poor of south Tehran. Her website also includes her excellent films for Channel 4 from around the world.

With the long avenue of Vali Asr as a thread linking bourgeois north Tehran and the gritty south of the city, the characters (both male and female) encompass all the contradictions of changing modern life there—regime supporters, mullahs and judges, party-goers and dissidents, morality police and mobsters; fashion, nose jobs, and rap; opium, crystal meth, and heroin.

Among all the waves of repression and executions since the 1979 revolution, the protests of 2009 loom large, as well as the constant lure of refuge in the diaspora—including the murky Iranian underworld in Japan.

The book opens with the tale of an MEK hit-man returning to Tehran for a botched assassination attempt. Other characters include Somayah, a devout girl who still falls foul of the regime’s moral strictures, reveals the society’s misogyny; Amir, unable to forgive a repentant judge for sentencing his parents to death; Leyla, whose divorce leads to her to sex work and the thriving porn scene, exploited by hypocritical police and judges; Morteza, an abused young member of a basiji militia who finally manages to have a sex-change operation (a chapter that opens with a vignette on ritual self-mortification); and Farideh, a widow from an affluent family fallen on hard times, who, having learned that swinging 60s’ London was uptight and “backward”, finally decides to make a home there, but returns to Tehran after only two months.

While the contrast between tradition and modernity is a staple cliché of travel writing, here Navai brings real insight to these life stories, always nuanced, conflicted.

Even in large cities, the soundscape is among ways in which such conflicts are evident—in this case, not just the contrast between rap and the call to prayer, but the duality of the art music of the radif and more gritty sounds like festive shawm bands. As Morteza observes the incantations, sobs, and drum-beats of ritual self-flagellants in trance, he notes that they appear strangely like the north Tehran ravers they abhor (cf. Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

To varying degrees, duplicity is perhaps a universal in societies, “the consequence of surviving in an oppressive regime”. While it has been noted as a characteristic of socialist societies (e.g. The whisperers), Alan Bennett also regards hypocrisy as a defining trait of the English. More basic is the imposition of power through intimidation, exercised both by political regimes and by traditional values—often reminiscent of China.

* * *

I was reminded of the educative cartoon book

  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2000­–2003; complete English edition 2007),

another fine introduction to the modern urban society of Iran.

At 343 pages it’s a substantial autobiography, whose innovative format belies its serious message. Under headings such as “The veil”, “The party”, and “The croissant”, it evokes her early experiences after the 1979 revolution, her troubled teenage years in Vienna from 1983, and her return, feeling defeated, four years later to Iran—where she gets married and divorced before leaving again for good. Since 1993 she has been based in France.

Here’s a trailer for the 2007 film version:

* * *

One of Ramita Navai’s characters approves of the film A separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011), by contrast with the “overrated and pretentious” Iranian films, with their heavy-handed symbolism, that beguile the Western media—a suspicion that is widely common within societies, again as in China.

Still, the new wave films of Iran have a distinguished history, the “second wave” led by Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016) such as the Koker trilogy—here’s a trailer for Where is the friend’s home? (1987):

As to the “third wave”, Samira Makhmalbaf (b.1980), following the path of her father Mohsen (b.1957; family website here) directed her first film The apple (1998) at the age of 17, a moving story of a Tehran family in difficulty (reenacted by the family themselves) that again blurs the line between documentary and fiction.

By contrast, Blackboards (2001) depicts the plight of Kurdish refugees in desolate countryside, against the backdrop of the chemical bombing of Halabja, only revealed at the devastating greyed-out ending. As an itinerant teacher struggles stoically to convince poor villagers of the remote benefits of literacy, he creatively puts his blackboard to more practical uses:

All this just to remind myself again that music is never autonomous… Cf. Three women of Herat.

Bhairav and Bhairavi

Rediscovering my youthful devotion to north Indian raga, so far I’ve featured Yaman Kalyan, Kafi Zila, Marwa, and (in a discussion of Neuman’s classic account of the changing social context of north Indian raga) Malkauns.

Both Bhairav and its female partner Bhairavi are highly popular ragas.

Bhairav, associated with Lord Shiva, uses a flat second and sixth but natural third and seventh degrees (S r G m P d N S). Here’s The raga guide outline:

For a vocal version in dhrupad style, here’s the sublime Uday Bhawalkar again (see under rāg Yaman for more structural clues):

For the extended alap, it’s useful again to anchor ourselves in the main cadences. Exploring the tension between natural Ga and flat re, like that between Ni and flat dha, he builds up to a decorated cadence on Sa from 10.01, and then explores further around Ga, with the “subdominant” ma too featuring quite prominently. Always expanding the combinations of phrases, in a long passage from 14.51 he starts ascending to the flat dha. Still moving upwards, hints of top Sa are confirmed in long sustained cadences from 21.53.

From 25.38 he introduces a firm pulse with mukhṛā cadential refrains, exploring lower and middle registers in turn, eventually building to another sustained cadence on top Sa at 38.52, with excursions up to top Ga. From 43.19 the pulse intensifies further, until the pakhavaj entry at 50.08. As my trusty gurus explain, the two concluding songs are devotional bhajan, the first from 1.05.00 to Lord Shiva in 10-beat jhaptāl (2+3, 2+3), followed from 1.20.43 by a song to Vishnu in 10-beat sūltāl, with five duple units.

Here’s another vocal rendition, by Rashid Khan, with discreet sarangi:

On sitar, I’m charmed as ever by Nikhil Banerjee:

with gats in 7-beat rupak tāl (3+2+2, which I pick up from 41.19) followed by 16-beat tintāl (from around 55.51).

And another version:

All that is more than enough to absorb, so take a break before embarking on

Bhairavi, the “devoted and compassionate consort of Bhairav”, is “usually portrayed in a small shrine worshipping a Shiva linga” (which, like touring, clearly doesn’t count; for some sacred phalluses in Bhutan, see here).

Here’s The raga guide on rāg Bhairavi:

To the ear—as with the whole raga-ragini theoretical system—there is no apparent male-female dichotomy here. Bhairavi is based on flat second, third, sixth, and seventh degrees (S r g m P d n S), but the natural version of Re is often heard as a passing note leading upwards to the flat ga. Now that we have some clues on how to listen, I’ll be more sparing with my comments.

Here’s rāg Bhairavi in dhrupad style sung the senior Dagar brothers Moinnudin and Aminuddin (from a 1968 LP recorded by Alain Daniélou, whose book was my main guide for raga back in the 1970s):

Still with dhrupad, here’s the great Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina:

And his son Bahauddin Dagar:

In thumri style, here’s the female singer Kesarbai Kerkar:

On sitar, here’s Nikhil Banerjee again, always sooo comfortable to listen to (or if you’d like to admire peacocks rather than trees, click here):

As well as contrasting flat and natural versions of re/Re, he flirts with a natural Dha at 10.15 (and from 16.58 as a passing note up to flat ni). The vilambit, with Nikhil Ghosh on tabla (in jhumra tāl, 3+4+3+4 beats), begins at 11.10.

For wider perspectives, see Unpacking “improvisation”.



Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam

Amidst the current savage repression in Xinjiang, a brilliant new book is

aptly dedicated to the fine anthropologist and film-maker Rahile Dawut, who is among countless Uyghurs “disappeared” into the “re-education” camp system.

Integrating expressive culture, religion, society, and politics, it’s complemented by the website http://www.soundislamchina.org, where we can find audio and video examples discussed in the text.

Though Rachel has been unable to return to Xinjiang since 2012, alongside others like Rian Thum and Darren Byler, she has been assiduously documenting the whole cataclysm there with a whole series of articles, some of which form the basis for chapters in this volume. Since then too, her research has benefitted from the perspectives of visiting Uyghur communities in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Indeed, even her fieldwork in Xinjiang from 2006 to 2012 was hampered by tensions that came to a head with the protests and inter-ethnic violence of 2009 in Urümchi. Since 2016 for Xinjiang Uyghurs to have any contact with relatives and friends abroad has become highly dangerous.

After a long period of research on the largely masculine worlds of the muqam and Uyghur pop music, Rachel turned late to the less visible world of female culture, studying a group of pious women in a village in southern Xinjiang who recite the Qur’an and intone zikr religious formulas. Their schedule was busy, including calendrical and life-cycle rituals, rituals for the dead, and to heal sickness, for individual families and the whole community. The village women were “immersed in a perpetual cycle of reciprocal hospitality and mutual aid. […] Moral propriety and communal responsibility were intertwined with being a good Muslim.”

By contrast with media images, these women were not isolated, but highly networked and responsive to social change. They continued practising, often clandestinely, throughout the Maoist era, becoming more open after the 1980s’ reforms—until being suppressed since 2014.

The seven chapters flow compellingly in an escalating sequence of tragedy, moving from poor villages to labour camps

.Chapter 1 is an exemplary exposition of the main themes, adding to our material on society and soundscape, always striking just the right balance between cross-cultural theory and grassroots fieldwork. The chapter opens with insightful sonic vignettes:

The massive development of recent decades in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China has brought rapid advances in infra-structure, the wholesale extraction of natural resources, and large-scale Han Chinese immigration into a region until recently dominated by Turkic Muslim peoples, the most numerous of whom are the Uyghurs. This development has wrought huge changes, not only in the landscape but also in the soundscape. By 2012, coal mines and oil refineries had come to dominate the desert landscape, and heavy trucks thundered up and down the new highways transporting minerals and building materials. In Xinjiang’s provincial cities, bulldozers rumbled over demolition sites and mud-brick shacks crashed to the ground, fracturing precarious communities of Uyghur rural migrants. The thudding of pile drivers echoed around the high-rise residential developments that were shooting up in their place. In the manicured town squares, the evening soundscape became carnivalesque. Groups of Han Chinese women performed American line dancing or Chinese yang’ge dancing to techno soundtracks that competed with tinny music from children’s fairground rides. In the Muslim graveyard in Ürümchi, there was an audible hum from the electricity pylons and the mass of wires that passed overhead; relatives complained that the noise was disturbing the sleep of the dead. In the Uyghur villages of the rural south, the roar of motorbikes had all but replaced the groan of the donkeys, and the nights throbbed to the sound of water pumps as farmers took advantage of cheap electricity to pump water to their cotton fields. The village loudspeaker, that supreme sonic marker of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was once again filling the village streets with a mixture of popular songs and news of the latest political campaigns.

But just as important is silence: “equally important for an understanding of the soundscape are the sounds that are not heard, sounds that do not circulate in the public sphere”—such as the call to prayer. Even the women’s religious gatherings, the main subject of the book, were held furtively behind closed doors. And by 2018 people didn’t even dare to talk (cf. The whisperers).

Rachel introduces the religious history of the Uyghurs, and the revival since the reforms of the 1980s, noting increasing piety among local communities, and placing it within the wider context of transnational flows of Islamic ideologies and practice, notably activity within Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But already on the eve of 9/11 even the most routine of Muslim practices were coming to be targeted by the Chinese state in campaigns against “extremism” and “separatism”. Nor were Uyghur communities unified in their faith, with a growing debate around stricter forms of Wahhabism. She notes the interpretation of religious revivals as a response among marginalised and deprived people to the upheavals prompted by the introduction of globalized capitalism.

She presents fine perspectives on “Why sound?”, “Is it music?”, and “Thinking about music”, and among “Contested soundscapes”, she draws attention to gendered aspects. With “music”, singing, and dancing all subject to scrutiny within Uyghur communities themselves, she highlights the experience of the participants, and notes the social circulation of religious media via recordings and the internet, finding similarities with the transmission of pop music.

Gathering before khätmä ritual.

As an interlude, a village woman tells her story in 2009, growing up under the Maoist commune system, and her experiences since the 1980s’ reforms, cautiously taking part in the village’s ritual events. Rachel reflects on the account in Chapter 2, which focuses on the khätmä healing ritual, also used for commemorating the dead. She explores the role of  büwi, the senior ritual specialist who leads the women in reciting and weeping in trance. The role is often hereditary, but one of Rachel’s mentors had begun her path after a dream, like many spirit mediums in China (see e.g. here, with many links) and further afield.

The authority for their learning is often conferred by a period of study with male ritual specialists. Some identify as tariqa, people of the path, and she traces the connection with Sufi lodges and the wider history of organised Sufism.

Rachel gives a detailed account of a khätmä ritual she attended in 2009, alternating surah verses in the Qur’an and zikr short repeated phrases of prayers. With the affective power of sound more important than lexical meaning, she focuses on bodily, rhythmic entrainment, as well as ishq (divine love, passion) and därd (suffering), expressed through weeping (some links here), which she explores with yet another detailed cross-cultural analysis. As one büwi commented on watching the video of the climax of the ritual:

The oil is sizzling in the pot [qazan kizip kätti]. Their love for Allah is so strong that they can’t stop themselves crying, just like the pot on the stove. When the oil is hot, you must throw in the meat otherwise the oil will catch fre. It’s just like that. Then you must put in the vegetables, otherwise the meat will burn. So just like that the women cry a lot. . . . Their love [ishq] for Allah is like the hot oil in the pot, their love for Allah is so strong.

She notes that

reciting the khätmä and weeping not only is for alleviating one’s own sin but can also serve as an act of intercession on behalf of the families of the deceased, or even for the whole community.

Chapter 3 discusses the hikmät sung prayers of the women’s rituals, the complex interactions of text and performance, and debates over style. Acknowledging the work of Chinese musicologist Zhou Ji (see here, under “The muqaddime“), she again gets to the heart of religious practice. She describes a healing ritual in 2012, when the political climate was already tense; and a 2015 ritual across the Kazakh border, with insightful comments on the modern history of the region (cf. The Kazakh famine).

Do listen to the audio examples here and here; see also under https://www.musicofcentralasia.org/Tracks.

Chapter 4 continues to incorporate material from Uyghur communities beyond Xinjiang, exploring patterns of circulation of Qur’anic recitation, and how they are discussed and strategically deployed in public spaces, digital media, and daily practice.

Under the more relaxed conditions of the 1980s and 90s, travel and trade helped satisfy the longing for engagement with the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East. The growing influence of Saudi and Egyptian styles of recitation as heard on media platforms brought a certain dilution of local styles, which was not always welcome. Rachel’s attuned ear notes both the tajwid rules for recitation, including nasal timbre, and the taste for reverb in recordings.

She makes adroit comparisons with modal improvisation and changing styles in Egypt and Indonesia. With all this in mind, she looks again at the vocal style of the khätmä ritual in her adoptive village in south Xinjiang, in another detailed analysis of a “spiritual aesthetic in transition”. She notes the apparent contradiction in the rural büwi incorporating the Saudi style, which preaches against the “superstitious” Sufi practices that they represent. While she notes that “many observers of the Islamic world have pitted supposedly tolerant and hybrid forms of local Islam against the purifying practices of reformist individuals and groups”, the distinction is far from clear-cut. While internalising their marginality,

For them, mimicking the sounds of Salafism did not necessarily denote an adoption of Salafi ideology. For Aynisa, as for other reciters, rather than indexing rival ideologies, what both the Egyptian and Saudi styles indexed was modernity.


felt the need to make herself strong and to make herself modern, in part in response to pressure from state religious policies, in part in response to criticism of her own practice by Uyghur reformists. Cyborglike, magpielike, she mimetically absorbed and deployed foreign styles of recitation within a very local form of ritual, using them to resist backward status and to lay claim to alternative styles of modernity.

After another interlude translating the anonymous satirical poem “They’ll arrest you” posted on WeChat in 2014, showing clearly that the campaign’s true target was normal moral behaviour for Uyghurs, Chapter 5,“Mobile Islam: mediation and circulation”, explores depictions of religion and Uyghur identity (not least through the sensory, affective experiences of images and sound) that thrived briefly on social media platforms, and the complex debates among Uyghurs about how to be a good Muslim—in particular a good, modest Muslim woman. With state repression escalating after the 2009 unrest (fed by the Global War on Terror), virtually any form of Uyghur behaviour became vulnerable to accusations of “religious extremism”, and debate was silenced. Countering the state discourse, she notes:

Together these phenomena helped to produce new structures of feeling within Uyghur society that may be best characterized as a crisis of suffering—both personally and collectively experienced—to which only Islam, in different guises, could provide a solution through its capacity to enable personal and collective transformation. For the majority, this spiritual awakening and quest for greater religious knowledge, and the projects of practice and self-discipline impelled by their new faith, were primarily personal. For some, they converged with experiences of the increasingly repressive state policies and took on a more overtly political dimension.

In July 2014 violent confrontations in Yarkand county in southern Xinjiang began with a police raid on an “illegal religious gathering” by a group of village women. Rachel returns to the ubiquitous theme of därd suffering, now denoting national as well as spiritual pain, and expressed in religious worship and pop music alike. The latter often took the traditional—and transnational—a cappella form of anashid, sung poetry in praise of Allah, only in a breathy popular style remote from the nasality of tajwid recitation. Though their main theme was the call to prayer, Rachel confronts the radical message of some of these items. And with typically instructive cross-cultural examples, she contemplates the power of rumour.

Agents of the state reacted with horror at the spread of what they perceived as alien, antimodern, and hence threatening ways of being, and they invoked the globally circulating trope of Islamic terror, which enabled new violence to be unleashed against the supposed terrorists and against the Uyghur people, who were now coming to be collectively defined by this trope.

Chapter 6, “Song and dance and the sonic territorization of Xinjiang”,notes people’s alienation from the formal musical performances promoted by state media since the intensification of campaigns since 2014. The chapter opens by unpacking Little apple, a bizarrely kitsch video adopted nationally by the security forces to promote stability and ethnic unity. Rachel utilizes research on Tibet. Uyghur culture and the Chinese state have irreconcilable images of the landscape; noting the rebuilding, and bulldozing, of sites like Kashgar and Qumul to bolster the Chinese agenda, she discusses sonic territoralisation. Since 2015 the soundscape of urban Xinjiang has been dominated by Chinese propaganda songs, evoking the mass propaganda of the Maoist era—cue for further instructive introductions to Muzak and shopping malls, and to the use of sound in warfare.

She now discusses the campaign against religious extremism in detail.

Rather than targeting the small number of people who might reasonably be judged vulnerable to radicalization and violent action, the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang sought to eliminate all visible and audible expressions of Islamic faith—veiling, beards, public prayer, fasting, religious gatherings, instruction, and media—from the landscape and soundscape.

Among the targets were visible signs of religiosity, including women’s clothing. “By 2016, veils and beards had disappeared from the landscape.” Also to be eliminated was “noise”—meaning Muslim noise, inside unofficial mosques, in restaurants and family homes, and on social media. Listening was dangerous.

Again we are reminded of the debate within Uyghur communities with a discussion of the proper observance of weddings. But the state now fabricated a simplified and misleading opposition: “foreign” religious extremism versus “traditional” song and dance.

To replace Muslim noise, the commodified Chinese song-and-dance style was heavily promoted. In another fascinating discussion Rachel unpacks the meanings of smiling in such performances—by contrast with the Uyghur emphasis on weeping.

If China’s professional minority performers had long been accustomed to smiling to service the requirements of nation building, the unfolding of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang made it clear that it was no longer sufcient for paid professionals to smile; now ordinary Uyghurs from schoolchildren to büwis were required to silence their weeping and publicly demonstrate their happiness. From 2015 on, local cultural bureaus across Xinjiang organized villagers to participate in song-and-dance performances, mass dancing displays, weekly sessions for singing revolutionary songs, and weekly mäshräp gatherings in order to counter extremism.

The mäshräp had long been a contested and regionally variable forum—see her 2020 article, also bearing on the incongruous attempt to gain UNESCO status under the Intangible Cultural Heritage; and in similar vein, “You shall sing and dance: contested ‘safeguarding’ of Uyghur Intangible Cultural Heritage”, Asian ethnicity 21.4 (2020), by an anonymous (apparently Uyghur) scholar.

Again referencing the Maoist era, another focus of the campaigns was singing “Red Songs”, which even religious personnel were required to perform.

With the Uyghur diaspora responding by declaring such performances haram, Rachel has to clarify that “music”, song and dance, including muqam and the songs of the ashiq Sufi mendicants, had long co-existed with more orthodox, austere modes of religious expression, constituting another historical object of debate among Uyghurs. And even the staged song-and-dance style had a history going back to the early 20th century: “a rejection of this culture implied, in the view of many urban intellectuals, a rejection of the development of the modern Uyghur nation”.

Such issues were hotly debated on Uyghur forums in exile.

It was in this context, with music and Islam in Uyghur culture fixed into positions of opposition, and musical performance deployed as a tool of control by the state, that Uyghur pop singers like those mentioned in chapter 5 fled the country, arrived in Turkey “repenting of their sins”—sins that might well have included performing patriotic or revolutionary songs praising the Chinese Communist Party—and atoned for these sins recording radical anashid supporting the mujahidin.

The Xinjiang campaigns were an attempt to replace one form of embodied practice with another—secular, modern, patriotic. While Rachel notes that such compulsory gatherings weren’t invariably experienced as the imposition of an alien sonic regime,

the fact that these experiences of singing and dancing were coercive and underpinned by state violence was completely consistent with past precedent, and this juxtaposition of song and dance and state violence would come still more sharply into focus in the new context of the mass internment camps that were already under construction across the region.

And so the reeducation techniques in the camps are the subject of Chapter 7, “Erasure and trauma”. Among much coverage, this too is a masterly account.

By 2017 the campaigns had extended way beyond the religious sphere.

Increasingly the term “religious extremism” seemed to serve as a gloss for Uyghur culture and identity, which was now regarded as a “virus” in need of eradication.

Again, coercive musical performance played a key role in the reeducation programme of the camps. I remain unclear how making inmates sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for foreign journalists might ever be expected to convince anyone—I suppose it’s more of a demonstration of power.

The chapter continues with an astute discussion of trauma, subsuming the Cultural Revolution and other societies.

Rachel finds the binding theme of repetition—in Red Songs and forced confessions, as in zikr and repeating the shahadah 72,000 times for a death ritual. She reads the securitisation of Xinjiang as a colonial project, prompting further global comparisons. Yet—or thus,

we should not assume for one moment that the effects of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang will be a permanent erasure of the religious sensibilities and the cultural identity of its subjects and to rewire them as patriotic automatons.

Simple acts of remembering “suggest the inevitable failure of state projects of social reengineering”.

She adopts scholars’ metaphor of the palimpsest to evoke unsuccessful attempts to erase previous layers.

Far from internalizing understandings of their culture and faith as an infectious disease that led inexorably to terrorist violence, I suggest that Uyghurs are well accustomed to the periodic and transient nature of political campaigns, and they know how to attune themselves to the requirements of the present.

While it will hardly console those grieving over bulldozed gravelands or mourning their loved ones, it’s a remarkably far-sighted and optimistic conclusion.

* * *

While some sections on Islamic transmission are highly technical, Rachel has a gift for integrating theory with ethnographic detail. In all, despite pertinent reminders in the later chapters, Xinjiang faces firmly west, not east: Han Chinese culture may be highly visible, and audible, in the towns, but here it hardly appears except (as Barnett observes for Tibet) as an “inanimate or malignant force”. In Xinjiang and further afield, the whole culture is dominated by the diverse practices of Islam—which are precisely what the Chinese state is now trying to erase.

For more, see Uyghur tag; and for a comparable case, see posts under the Tibet tag. These themes should never have been considered marginal in studies of the PRC, and now they seem all the more urgent.

Minimalism, counter-tenors, and a viol consort

A little series setting forth from minimalism and the ethereal counter-tenor voice:

The genre-bending work of Orlando Gough:

and a plaintive Buxtehude lament, with versions by Michael Chance and Andreas Scholl—in a post on performing Daoist hymns on the concert stage:

Which leads us to Bach:

Rāg Yaman Kalyan

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

Along with our explorations of performance genres around the world, it’s always inspiring to return to north Indian raga.

Equipped with Daniel Neuman’s classic exposition of the changing social and historical background, let’s immerse ourselves in some fine recordings of the highly popular rāg Yaman Kalyan, exploring its pitch relationships and melodic nuts and bolts (see also Unpacking “improvisation”). For a sequel, click here.

In my Beatles roundup I observed:

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

See also Analysing world music.

The raga guide (Nimbus, 1999) always makes a useful manual for the framework, structural features, and vocabulary of raga. To remind ourselves of the degrees of the heptatonic scale:

Then, armed with the introduction (pp.1–13), we can consult the basic ascending and descending patterns of particular ragas:

So Yaman uses what “we” [Right you are—the Plain People of Ireland] would call a lydian scale, featuring the sharp Ma (our faa long long way to run!). In Yaman Kalyan the natural (low) ma, sometimes also heard as a fleeting, unstressed decoration of Ga, is said to be a feature distinguishing it from Yaman—though since aficionados don’t seem too fussy about this, I won’t be either.

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

It’s worth trying to sing along, anchoring ourselves with the Sa-Pa tonic-dominant drone (in tension with the often-stressed adjacent melodic pitches Ni and sharp Ma), and registering opening and cadential pitches of a phrase. As middle, low, and high registers are covered in turn, short motifs develop into longer ascending and descending phrases.

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

Dhrupad vocal versions make a fine starting-point, with their long, sublime alap, intimate and ecstatic. [1] Let’s focus on two performances by the great Uday Bhawalkar.

Of course, structurally and melodically they have much in common, and it would be instructive to compare them in parallel; but here I’ll content myself with offering a few signposts separately, only reminding you to zoom in on all the detail in between. So my very rough outlines below are based on prominent cadences—including the mukhṛā “refrains” of rhythmic repeated notes in a firm pulse. But the microstructure and ornamental detail is always to be savoured, with gamak embellishments and mīnd glides—as well as techniques (explained by Widdess) such as āghāt, “the onset of a pitch, whether by direct attack, or by indirect approach”, and anuraṇana, “resonance”, its prolongation and/or inflection up or down: [2]

It’s inspiring to see, as well as hear, this live performance from 2016, his expressive hand gestures complementing the contours of the melody:

Singing prescribed non-lexical syllables akin to mantra, he begins by exploring the building blocks of the rāg, expounding the relation of Ni to Sa, as well as sharp Ma and Re. From 3.49 he reaches exquisite sustained cadences on Ga, with some infinitely anticipated resolutions such as from Re up to Ga from 5.21—always placing it in the context of the scale, with the sharp Ma also entering the mix. From 8.23 he reaches hushed, ecstatic cadences on Pa—with one of many instances of “resonance” heard from 10.13.

Returning to the middle-register tonic Sa from 11.53, he builds up again to high Ni, eventually reaching top Sa at 16.19, always expanding our understanding of the pitch relationships.

As we hang on his every inflection, from 19.48, back around middle Sa he injects a firmer pulse, including mukhṛā refrains with rhythmic repeated notes. Continuing downwards, he generates longer phrases, often starting from Ga GaRe Sa…, in a long section with cadences on Ga, gravitating to Pa from 28.16; and then via Ni (from 31.48), up again to reverential cadences on top Sa from 33.44 (with another wonderful “resonance”!), setting off once more to explore the scalar gamut further.

From 37.47 he reinvigorates the pulse in the middle register; the time has come for more extended melodic phrases, always based in the structure of tonal hierarchies, with the pakhavaj drum entering around 41.04.

Dhrupad performances commonly end with an auspicious song; as Richard Widdess tells me, this one (from 57.25) evokes a bridal palanquin, based on a motif descending from Ni, in 10-beat sūltāl.

It’s also worth comparing this version by Uday Bhawalkar, just as wonderful:

This performance, using dynamic contrast, is again structured around long sustained cadences, as in the extended passage revolving around Ga from 7.12, leading to lengthy extended appoggiaturas from sharp Ma down to Ga from 9.00, eventually landing exquisitely on sotto voce cadences on Pa from 11.56. From 16.43 he extends the range further upwards, revolving around high Ni before reaching the high tonic Sa at 18.51.

By 21.45 he returns to the lower register, introducing a firm pulse setting forth from repetitions of Sa, reaching low Sa by 24.45. Returning to the middle octave, by 27.07 he is exploring around Ga again with the new metrical element, wonderful quaver passages from 28.23 building to cadences on Pa and (from 32.38) on up to Ni, eventually landing again on top Sa at 34.21.

From 36.41 he sets out once more in middle and lower registers, with quirky nomtom passages in faster quavers, building long phrases from 40.28 on a refrain centered on Ga, going on to cover the whole gamut; from 49.55 the discreet pakhavaj, in 16-beat tintal, subtly supports his increasingly ornate (but always melodious) flourishes. This main section ends with a brief slow free-tempo coda from 57.39, reaching a cadence on the tonic Sa.

He ends (from 58.54) by singing a dhamar song in praise of Krishna, for the Holi spring festival, in 14-beat dhamar tāl (5+2+3+4)—not easily identified for outsiders like me.

For more from Uday Bhawalkar, see here.

And still with dhrupad, here’s Ritwik Sanyal, supported by his son Ribhu, in 2014—the first 48’ unmetered, with pakhavaj accompanying the concluding song from 50.18:

Wary though I am of hippy orientalist romanticising, these renditions lead me back to the reflections on mystical sound by Inayat Khan (n. 1 in my post on his daughter Noor).

* * *

Morgan Davies (worthy custodian of my sarangi) guides me to an exhilarating metered version by the fine female singer Mogubai Kurdikar:

Turning to instrumental versions, back in dhrupad style, Morgan again led me to a profoundly meditative live performance on rudra vina by the great Zia Mohiuddin Dagar in 1990—his last year: [3]

On rudra vina the low passages (e.g. from 3.27) have a particular intensity; after introducing a regular pulse from 40′, he again explores the low register from 44.35.

Indeed, we can compare this rendition with his studio recording (also from 1990) on the classic Nimbus CDalap followed by metered jor and jhala from 40.35:

In the latter, just one instance of how his exposition of the scale is complemented by mastery of timbre: for over seven minutes from 24.00 he explores all around the sharp fourth Ma, contemplating it in wonder with a varied range of right-hand attacks and left-hand glides, at first tending to fall back to Ga and then revealing it as a step upwards to Pa (cf. the passage I mentioned from 9.00 to 11.56 of Uday Bhawalkar’s second recording).

We can also compare this live performance in 1982:

Among a multitude of sitar versions, I find myself most enthralled by Nikhil Banerjee. I’ve already featured his inspired performances of Kafi Zila (minor), Malkauns (anhemitonic pentatonic), and Marwa (a challenging yet bewitching “A major over a C drone”?!)—YAY! There’s my crash course in raga!!! And now, Bhairav and Bharavi too…

So here he is playing Yaman Kalyan (joined from 31.24 by a tabla player who may not actually be Zakir Hussain):

Wonderfully melodic, to my ears Banerjee sounds even more expressively vocal than the vocalists. He favours quite extended phrases from early on, often framing sequences of regular quavers with initial and cadential phrases of three or more repeated notes: x x x —. And he soon introduces the jor metered section, with exquisite explorations of low and high registers. I relish the low passage from 13.36, with ecstatic long phrases from 15.45 and 19.46—a constant flow of invention. From around 15′, as the pulse becomes ever more regular, he already becomes rather virtuosic by around 24′, but he’s never merely technical: melodically and rhythmically he always remains creative. From 31.24, starting with a more restrained tempo, the tabla accompanies gats in 9-beat matta tāl (4+2+3 beats—cf. Taco taco taco burrito!) and then 16-beat tintāl, rhythmic drive now taking precedence over melody.

And here’s Nikhil Banerjee again, playing Yaman with Anindo Chatterjee—alap and jod again followed by gats in matta tāl (from 30.50) and tintāl:

By now, like me, you may want to listen to all his renditions of this and other ragas on YouTube. Alas, Banerjee died in 1986 at the age of only 54 (cf. the end of my post on Coltrane).

On sarangi, Nicolas Magriel’s fine website has many examples of Yaman. I find Sultan Khan, this time with Zakir Hussain for real, quite distinctive:

By contrast with Banerjee, at first he mainly stresses Ga, Re, and Ni, and even later the sharp fourth Ma is rather less prominent. His exposition is more florid than the dhrupad versions; an ecstatic high passage from 13.12 leads into the metered section with tabla from 16.22.

For the related rāg Maru Bihag, see here.

* * *

As a non-specialist, I can only scratch the surface of all this, and that’s kinda the point: if I can begin picking up these clues, then so can you. I’m finding the versions of Uday Balwalkar, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, and Nikhil Banerjee most inspiring models to begin learning from. Anyway, these performances, all very different, make a great introduction to the infinite art of raga.

In the words of a Classic FM announcer,

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

With many thanks to Richard Widdess and Morgan Davies

[1] Further to Neuman, for the social context of the dhrupad revival, see Richard Widdess, “Festivals of dhrupad in northern India: new contexts for an ancient art”, British journal of ethnomusicology 1994.3.

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

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

Musics of Crete

Crete first

The music of the 1960s often appears on this blog—notably the BeatlesMotown, and so on. But meanwhile traditional genres were continuing to adapt; and since I also feature Mediterranean musicking (for island delights, see Sardinian chronicles, and Sicily under Italy: folk musicking), I’m reminded of the musics of Crete. *

As ever, these are largely village traditions for festivities, handed down in the family, based in dancing (syrtá, kondylies, and so on) and sung mantinades couplets. [1] Though audio recordings can’t reproduce the spirit of taking part, compilations of archive recordings can be evocative. I relish

  • Cretan musical tradition: radio broadcasts 1960–70 (3-CD set, Aerakis/Cretan Music Workshop, 1996),

featuring lyra (cf. Middle Eastern kamanche) or violin, with laouto lute and singing.

Lyra players, 1961: left, Nikos Xilouris; right: Vasilis Skoulas. 

Along with the pleasures of the recordings, the liner notes offer a window on the lives of musicians through the travails of the modern era (for more biographies, see here).

Often they came from family traditions in rural Rethimnon, spending periods in Heraklion and Athens, sometimes touring for the diaspora. Musicians include Giannis Dermitzakis (Dermitzogiannis) (1907–84) on lyra and violin, also the author of popular couplets satirising post-war Cretan society; and the blind violinist Giannis Papachatzakis (Stravogiannios) (b.1905)—here he is playing syrtó from Chaniá:

PapadakiIn a highly macho society, the only woman performer here is Aspasia Papadaki (b.1932), the first female lyra player in Cretan music. At the age of 14 she made her own instrument; though her widowed mother persuaded Aspasia to play violin instead, by 1960 she found that she could only record for radio if she reverted to the lyra (see below). Here’s a track:

And here she is on violin, and singing, in later years:

Going back further,

  • Oi protomastores 1920–1955: Kritiki mousiki paradosi (10-CD set, Aerakis, 1994) and
  • The first recordings of Cretan music: original recordings made between 1940–60 (Greek folk and popular music series, 6) (Aerakis), sadly not annotated (some clues hereapart from naming the performers—mostly on violin: Dermitzogiannis, Pantelis Baritantonakis (also heard on the 1920-1955 set), Yannis Papahatzakis, and Georgis Lapokonstantakis.

Here’s the latter CD as a playlist:

As radio broadcasts and festivals on stage came to dominate the media, videos of musicking for local festivities are not easily found on YouTube, although judicious searches using the Greek alphabet may yield more results…

* * *

For all Crete’s long history of Venetian and then Ottoman occupation, the use of violin or lyra seems to have been mainly regional until the mid-20th century. What we might not notice at first when listening to such recordings from before and after 1955 is that the choice became a hotly-contested ideological issue. As we learn from

competing myths now came to portray the lyra either as bearer of the true Cretan and Hellenic identity, or as an inferior Turkish importation.

Thus the violin became an unlikely casualty in the whole troubled story of Greek–Turkish relations. Whereas it had long dominated in western Crete, the ideologically-driven musicologist Simón Karás sought to rescue Greek music from “the tastes of people who play heinous foreign music that feminises and stupefies the youth”—a common lament among dictators, such as Salazar and Mussolini (cf. foreign music in Tang China). So in February 1955 (just before the Istanbul pogrom) the violin was banned from Chaniá radio station, to the “bewilderment and outrage” of locals.

The renowned violinist Kóstas Papadákis (1920–2003) mounted a spirited (if equally polemical) defence of the tradition.

tells his story in revealing detail. Forced to keep on the move by the risk of vendetta (a disturbing feature of Cretan and other Mediterranean cultures), after making a living on the Athens rebetika scene during the war, he returned to Chaniá in 1953, and continued to adapt while resident in the USA from 1959. But after returning to Crete in 1976, he no longer “recycled himself”, instead engaging in vehement cultural resistance against the violin ban. Here he is:

Though the ban still remains in nominal effect today, the violin did resurface on the radio from 1983; but by then most musicians and audiences had accepted the dominance of the lyra. Anyway, the association of Cretan music with lyra is a rather recent fabrication.

For a less ideologically-driven audience, the choice of violin or lyra may seem barely relevant: in many world traditions, indigenous bowed lutes and Western violins can sound equally idiomatic (e.g. in Indian, Uyghur and indeed Turkish musics). Listening to the 1940–1960 tracks, what I’d have imagined as a more likely target of cultural ideologues is not the choice of bowed fiddle, but the use of simple Western harmonies in the plucked accompaniment.

It’s always worth considering Bruno Nettl‘s wider taxonomy of musical change. Argyro Pavlopoulou cites Ross Daly, who considers tradition an illusion: rather than a body of material from the past, it refers to the internal dynamism of a music which develops in time—while it’s not a restricted system that cannot include new components, the novel elements should be compatible with the pre-existing system. 

Gauhur JanGauhur Jan accompanied by harmonium, 1902.

Meanwhile in India, the violin had long been popular in Carnatic music, while in the north, sarangi still dominated as accompaniment to the voice, so there seem to have been no principled assaults on the violin. Instead, over the course of the 20th century some singers began to favour the harmonium, threatening the livelihood of sarangi players, which prompted it to be banned from All India Radio from the 1940 to 1971. Though the sonic differences between sarangi and harmonium were more striking than those between the Cretan violin and lyra, the impetus again came from ideologues rather than performers. [2] 

For now I’ll resist exploring the lyra style of the island of Karpathos… Anyway, you get the idea: the diversity of Mediterranean musical cultures is to be treasured.

[1] Some useful sources in English, with further refs., are Kevin Dawe, Music and musicians in Crete: performance and ethnography in a Mediterranean island society (2007) and “The engendered lyra: music, poetry, and manhood in Crete”, British journal of ethnomusicology 5 (1996), as well as Argyro Pavlopoulou, Musical tradition and change on the island of Crete (2011).

[2] See Matt Rahaim, “That ban(e) of Indian music: hearing politics in the harmonium”, Journal of Asian studies 70.3 (2011).

* On a lighter note, do read the wonderful story from Captain Corelli’s mandolin. This post on Crete also marks an improvement over my previous coverage of Greek music, limited to the bouzouki in the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch. I have at least explored the rituals of Mount Athos.

The enchanting world of Tibetan opera

All images here from Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, The singing mask.

Tibetan opera is just enthralling.

Best studied of the various dramatic genres among the Tibetan peoples is ache lhamo of central Tibet—a seamless blending of sacred and secular, human and divine, comedy and deep introspection (cf. European mystery plays, or indeed Mozart’s The magic flute).

Usually I leave audio/video clips for a later section, but here I want to plunge right into this enchanting world, with its intoxicating singing, in this excerpt from Sukyi nyima performed by former members of TIPA from Dharamsala:

As a caveat against reification, such footage reminds us that, as with all musickinglhamo is a social event—performed over a whole day (or more) under an awning in the open air. In the words of Jamyang Norbu, it “combines the relaxed informality of village cricket [!], the magical world of pantomime, and the open-air eating and drinking of a good picnic”.

Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy makes a fine guide to lhamo, with her experience among Tibetans both inside the PRC and in exile—an order that now seems suitable. [1]

She edited the attractive, instructive volume

  • The singing mask: echoes of Tibetan opera (2001)
    (some chapters here).

In her Introduction, she sums up the main themes within the “fragmented and politicised” research. Both in the PRC and in exile, lhamo has become an icon of “popular” Tibetan culture, with concomitant folklorisation. Though ritual elements are strong, in the PRC it is perceived as a necessary counterpart to monastic culture. Professionalisation has brought modifications to vocal styles, costume, and movement, as well as in context and economic conditions.

Within the PRC, Isabelle comments that lhamo became a focus of the “mind-boggling” search for entirely secular elements within Tibetan culture”, an ideological mold that “obliterated the deep ties that opera had with religious and institutional aspects […] not only in its content and symbolism but also regarding its social context”. More generally, I note that the dichotomy fails to do justice to the rich variety of performance genres along the sacred-secular continuum.

As Isabelle observes,

any attempt at (re)presenting Tibetan culture today is inseparable from an implicit ideological and political commentary on the situation of Tibet, through history and at present. Tibet’s past still has a very long future. Given all these difficulties, how can one make a valid representation of the tradition of opera? Who can claim representational authority? An academic point of view would understand that a valid representation needs to incorporate in a critical way all the key diverging views.

With that qualification, most articles are based on documenting the tradition before the transformations since the 1960s; and on the Lhasa tradition, in particular that of the Kyormolung troupe—also a popular theme of studies within the TAR. Most of the splendid photos show the early period.

The main periods, and areas, can be outlined thus: before the Chinese occupation of 1950; until the 1959 rebellion and escape of the Dalai Lama into exile at Dharamsala; and the reform era within the PRC.

The volume proper opens with a reprint of Jeanette Snyder’s ground-breaking 1979 overview, based largely on her studies in Dharamsala in 1963–64, giving a historical introduction and vivid accounts of the unfolding of the drama. Citing a 1958 list, she provides details of the four major and six minor troupes engaged by the (Tibetan) government for the summer Shotön festival at the Norbulingka.

After Tashi Tsering’s chapter on the early history of lhamo through the life of the saintly Thang stong rgyal po, Lobsang Samten focuses on the ritual prelude (see also here) and coda (“auspicious victory of the gods”), both substantial sequences of blessings led by hunters, princes, and goddesses. With the help of actors themselves, as well as scholars of classical Tibetan, he elucidates their complex orally-transmitted language, providing valuable clues to performance vocabulary.

lhamo 130

Perhaps this is a suitable moment for an outline of the elements of lhamo in performance.

In a largely oral tradition (with most performers illiterate), the voices are accompanied by a mere two percussionists on drum and cymbals, without melodic instruments (like the strictest traditions of Chinese ritual—but unlike modernised versions of professional lhamo groups in the PRC). Some masks are worn (cf. Noh). The plot is punctuated by dance, some popular songs, and comic interludes, with some characters akin to panto.

lhamo 111
Norbu Tsering.

And so onto Isabelle’s chapter with Tenzin Gönpo, which addresses the nuts and bolts of the two main vocal styles, with comments from the great Norbu Tsering (1927–2013), whose autobiography is a major resource. The lack of notated examples is of no consequence, but one longs for video, or at least audio, of their demonstration.

The authors discuss fast chanted recitation and, most remarkably, the intense, moving namthar arias—high and guttural, free-tempo, melismatic, with glottal tremulations, sung solo with supporting chorus.

The namthar play a rather similar role to the arias of Bach Passions, though the resemblance perhaps ends there… Here the authors discuss the incipit, inflexions (“change through bending”), glottalisations, non-lexical ornamental interpolations (a common feature of other Tibetan genres, and in much singing around the world, e.g. Navajo), and (also in fine detail) the role of the chorus that supports the solo namthar. They cite a wonderful description by Jacques Bacot in 1921—in Isabelle’s translation:

The king is the one who sings the slowest, as is becoming for such a solemn and august character. In a way, he stutters at the end of his sentences. The last syllable (in Tibetan, the verb encapsulating the idea) cannot merely go out from his mouth and hurry. It sort of falls off his mouth, separate, precious, like a gift anxiously awaited. And all his court, as if suspended during his speech, collects the king’s last word and sings it with him. The feeling is admirable.

Next they analyse namthar melody, discussing in turn terminology, leitmotivs, male and female melodies (gendered concepts as in dancing), “long” and “short” tunes, the special category of “sad” songs, the relation of principle and practice, and the incorporation of folk elements.

This whole discussion adds to our already complex notions of “improvisation”; and it makes a model integration of emic and etic approaches. Though Isabelle proclaims her lack of qualification to broach “musical” issues, this chapter shows how much untrained scholars can—and must—contribute to study of soundscape, confounding the feeble disclaimers of scholars of Daoism.

The authors conclude by observing increasing standardization, mainly within the PRC but also in exile.

The volume ends with a chapter by Jamyang Norbu—always a stimulating, frank commentator. He gives a fine introduction to the challenges faced by the exile community from 1959 in establishing the lhamo scene in Dharamsala, under the guidance of Norbu Tsering, as they pieced the melodies together like a jigsaw from the memories of various people”. Jamyang Norbu reflects on his early years as member of the Drama Society, forerunner of TIPA, which he served as director from 1980 to 1985.

lhamo 113

Jamyang Norbu: “My inability to sing opera arias did not prevent me from playing the role of the village idiot in the story”.

At first living conditions were grim, and many of the performers in poor health. In Dharamsala too, there was a lively debate over the tensions between tradition and innovation. Some monks objected to the scenes in lhamo satirising religion, but

I replied that opera performers had been performing such satires and making such irreverent jokes even in the old days, and that I would certainly not stop this democratic tradition in our performing culture.

Indeed, in an adaptation of Prince Norsang he managed to insert a scene satirising religious intolerance: a priest, realizing that whatever ritual he performs will cause offence to one sect or other, is reduced to singing a popular Hindi film song instead.

Morale was low, with performers suffering from the traditional prejudice against actors and musicians; funding was also a problem. Gradually they created a viable tradition, mustering sets, costumes, masks, and props, and training performers. While adhering to the traditional accompaniment of drum and cymbals, they experimented with three different sizes of drum. They also recreated the Shöton opera festival in Dharamsala.

In 1981 Jamyang Norbu wrote a new lhamo script Chaksam (“The iron bridge”), based on the trials of Thangtong Gyalpo (cf. Tashi Tsering’s chapter), with Norbu Tsering adapting the melodies. Jamyang Norbu’s questioning spirit is evident. Observing that “the Tibetan opera is frankly Lhasa-centric and unabashedly medieval in outlook”, he notes the stereotyped depictions of regional characters as villains and buffoons. So, wanting to have “at least one opera where a humble Tibetan layperson from outside Lhasa was the principal character”, he wrote the story around two lowly pilgrims—one from Kham, the other from Amdo. And he also sought to educate younger Tibetans in the texture of life in the past.

As they refined their productions, they also worked on giving contemporary relevance to the comic scenes. They paid attention to the whole pageantry of performance. Lhamo became a meaningful part of community life. Only the quality of singing was considered inferior to the halcyon days of old Lhasa.

In 1985 Jamyang Norbu was ousted from TIPA amidst political intrigue, again featuring his experiments in drama. He comments on the later fortunes of lhamo in Dharamsala, and other diaspora groups, reflecting on the challenges of maintaining Tibetan culture outside Tibet.

In order to truly survive, not only in museums, or in the accolade and admiration of foreign friends, Tibetan culture, especially performing culture, must be able to entertain and inspire a new generation of Tibetans, and must have real meaning in the lives of Tibetans everywhere.

In 1986 Jamyang Norbu edited Zlos-gar, an important early introduction to the Tibetan performing arts. Meanwhile he has kept a keen eye on the revival within the PRC.

For a vignette evoking a rainy TIPA performance of opera in 1995, see Keila Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala (2002), pp.70–72.

* * *

As ever, such careful work on documenting the tradition should complement studies of ongoing change. There’s always more fieldwork to do among both professional and amateur troupes. [3]

I look forward to reading Isabelle’s magnum opus (976 pages!)

  • Le théâtre ache lhamo: jeux et enjeux d’une tradition tibetaine (2017) (reviewed here), with historical background, the relationship with Buddhism, social ethnography, and a focus on the practical aspects of performance.

* * *

We’re now ready to immerse ourselves in the trials of the pious Nangsa woebum (plot summary here), as performed by TIPA in Dharamsala, unfolding over nearly seven hours! Starting here:

followed by Parts 23, and 4.

We can also compare online videos from within the TAR, like this excerpt from Sukyi Nima at the Norbulingka for the 2014 Shöton festival:

And here’s the first of eighteen short clips from a 2019 Shöton performance at the Norbulingka (they don’t follow on, so type 羅布林卡藏戲):

Returning to the exile scene, after our initial introduction to Sukyi Nyima, we can again relish it complete—here’s the first of fifteen instalments (again, they don’t often appear in sequence, so you may have to type the next section into the YouTube search box):

One of the most charming stock characters in world drama is the truth-speaking parrot (“Despite the warnings King Sengey receives from his sagacious parrot advisor, he banishes Sukyi Nyima from the kingdom”).

lhamo 122

But in between the more popular songs and dances, the rapid narration and the slapstick, it’s the searing intensity of the namthar singing that is most captivating.

[1] See her section in the New Grove dictionary, §III, 5; her bibliography of Western-language sources, §7; and for Tibetan and Chinese sources, see here.
In Chinese, note also the opera volumes (Zhongguo xiqu zhi and Zhongguo xiqu yinyue jicheng) of the Anthology for TAR. For all its ideological perspective, as with the volumes for Han Chinese traditions, a wealth of information is contained among the many rubrics of the xiqu zhi—such as masks, costumes, professional and amateur troupes, venues and performance customs, and historical artefacts.
For more comparisons of the PRC and exile scenes, see e.g.

[2] As with Flann O’Brien‘s references to the ouevre of De Selby in The third policeman, the footnotes often dwarf the main text, but are most edifying. Please excuse the brevity of this footnote.

For the related tales of folk lama mani performers, see here.

[3] For some more adventurous recent innovations within the PRC, see Isabelle’s article “Quelques voies de renouveau pour le théâtre traditionnel tibétain depuis les années 2000” (2019).

Native American cultures: a roundup

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

  • Bruno Nettl with an introduction to themes in music, history, and change
  • Ceremonies of the Navajo, based on McAllester’s classic Enemy way music
  • The Ghost Dance of 1890—citing Bury my heart at Wounded Knee, and the 1900 Boxer uprising, including Buffalo Bill’s “Rescue at Pekin”.

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

My interest was initially prompted by the tragic story of

See also

For the dream songs of Australian aborigines, see here.

A dream: the Tibetan ancestry of I Will Survive

Songs are commonly revealed in dreams—from Aboriginal and Native American cultures to Paul McCartney’s Yesterday.

In my own life I tend to eschew dreams as a source of insight, though they have provided me with some inspiring moments—reminding me of songs I had long neglected, or coming up with a wonderful linguistic reproach to my pretensions to insider status in Lisbon.

The elements of my dream last week can all be identified in my recent experience. * But, typically, they were recombined: somehow I was researching the Tibetan ancestry of I will survive and its links to the Chinese shifan ritual ensemble. And the yunluo frame of ten pitched gongs was a prominent part of the sound. Niche or what?

I’ve already featured Gloria Gaynor’s iconic disco anthem in this post on feminist songs. BBC Radio 4’s long-running series Soul music is always evocative (cf. Moon river). While its themes of loss and recovery tend to recur, its personal vignettes remind us of the transformative power of music in people’s lives—as in the recent programme on I will survive.

Rather than the song’s adoption by the camp “community”, it’s the cathartic theme of women’s empowerment that is important. The message of survival should resonate with Tibetan people too. To me it suggests not the bland propaganda of Princess Wencheng “civilising” Tibet, but rather the tragic tale of Lady Meng Jiang.

For all I know, I will survive may long have been a karaoke hit in the nangma-töshe bars of Lhasa—but I have in mind a more traditional version.

* * *


Dodar ensemble, Labrang. Source: Anthology, Gansu vol.

I’ve no idea how the gong-frame worked its way into my dream. The mkhar-rnga bcu-pa frame of ten pitched gongs is one of the lesser-known instruments of Tibetan music. Apart from its use in the dodar ensemble of monasteries around Amdo, it also accompanied the loud shawms and drums of the Dalai Lama’s gar courtly ceremonial ensemble—a most exceptional combination. This image (from the rare, silent 1945 footage in the section on gar here) shows the gong-frame and shawms together on procession—blurry as it is, unlike the sharp focus of dreams, I might try and suggest that it suits my hazy recollections:

gar 1945

The Chinese equivalent yunluo, while mainly a component of the shengguan ritual ensembles of north Chinese temple and folk ritual groups, was also part of Daoist shifan groups in south Jiangsu—which appeared in my dream.

Left: Shifan, Wuxi c1962, showing yunluo on left, next to gongs.
Right: Kaikou village ritual association, Xiongxian county, Hebei, with two frames of yunluo. My photo, 1995.

To everyone’s great relief, just as I was starting to pursue arcane, spurious historical clues in detail, I woke up.

My new Tibetan version of I will survive might also feature an ondes-martenot à la Messiaen. I imagine it as a big hit on the world-music fusion scene; it might even become a component of my global Matthew Passion (cf. Bach, um, marches towards the world).

Mind you, I don’t have to be asleep, or even drunk, to come up with such wacky connections—see e.g. Bhutan: a tongue-twister, archery festivals, and teasing cheerleaders.

* For likely Tibetan ingredients of my dream, see e.g. Labrang 1How not to describe 1950s’ Tibet, and Women in Tibetan expressive culture.

Leyli and Majnun


Huseyngulu Sarabski as Majnun in the premiere of
Leyli and Majnun, Baku 1908. Source: wiki.

The great Bruno Nettl gave a useful outline of the diverse responses to modernisation and Westernisation in traditional cultures.

The opera Leyli and Majnun is a youthful work by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885–1948), premiered in Baku in 1908. It was not only the first Middle Eastern opera, but apparently “the first piece of composed music” in Azerbaijan—just at a time when orientalism was in vogue in western Europe (see e.g. Mahler, Ravel), in between Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West.

As Hajibeyov recalled:

The first musical education I got as a child in Shusha came from the best singers and saz-players. At that time I sang mughams and tasnifs. The singers liked my voice. They would make me sing and teach me at the same time.

(For “growing into music” in Azerbaijan, note this site).

He was influenced by great Azeri musicians like the khananda singer Jabbar Garyagdioglu (1861–1944)—here he is accompanied by tar and kamancha:

Leyli paintingSoon Hajibeyov also picked up the language of WAM.

The ill-fated romance of Leyli and Majnun (“the Romeo and Juliet of the East”—Byron. YAY!) [1] is widespread across Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Indian cultures. And it’s a major subject for Uyghur culture, encapsulating the mystical association of love and madness that is such a common theme in the muqam there.

So here’s the opera (libretto here, with cues to each of the mughams used). Don’t be misled by the staging, or the unpromising orchestral opening—what really intoxicates the ear is the traditional style, accompanied only by tar plucked lute—first heard from 8.49, with searing, ecstatic singing from 15.54; further instances from 49.12, 1.14.06, and the long, tragic final sequence from 1.37.28:

So, far from using “ethnic culture” as a mere colorful prop, it is the Western elements which serve as occasional decoration. Indeed, since the mugham is at the heart of the drama, one might wonder why it was considered desirable to go to the trouble and expense of using an orchestra and chorus—but that’s precisely the irony of the evolving power relations between tradition and modernity.

This considerably predates similar Chinese experiments in the conservatoire fusion of traditional and Western idioms—to which I’m quite resistant.

And somehow I find the opera more interesting than the recent adaptation of the story by Alim Qasimov with the Silk Road Ensemble, with Mark Morris. But exploring the whole canon of the Azeri mugham is a most enriching experience. Here’s Qasimov in concert with an ensemble including his daughter Fargana:

See also The genius of Sergei Parajanov.

[1] For amazing WAM versions of Romeo and Juliet, see Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. For “Suzhou, Venice of the East” and other clichés, see here.

The genius of Sergei Parajanov

Pomegranates 2

The films of Sergei Parajanov (1924–90) are utterly spellbinding (wiki here, or this succinct introduction by the splendid Elif Batuman; for photos, see here). I’ve already featured The colour of pomegranates in a tribute to my much-missed friend Natasha, but Parajanov’s other surreal fantasies on the folk cultures of the Caucasus also deserve a tribute.

An Armenian brought up in Georgia, he was inspired by Tarkovsky. His surreal, mystical, sumptuous, austere vision was utterly at odds with Soviet orthodoxy, at a time when people had little choice but to retreat into private worlds (cf. The whisperers).

Shadows of forgotten ancestors (1964) was filmed in the Ukrainian Carpathians:

The colour of pomegranates (1969) is his Armenian film. While you may just wish to let the images wash over you (cf. the merits of analysing Beatles songs), a useful companion is The world is a window:

including insights into the creation of the musical soundtrack (from 46.55). Indeed, apart from the sumptuous visuals, Parajanov’s films are a treasury of folk vocal and instrumental music, which had been so thoroughly repressed under Stalin.


The tableaus, not quite static, almost recall Messiaen.

The Soviet authorities had regularly persecuted Parajanov ever since 1948. But released from prison in the wake of glasnost, he was able to make two more masterpieces:

The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984), celebrating Georgian folk culture:

and Ashik Kerib (1988), his last completed film, exploring the folk culture of Azerbaijan:

including the singing of Alim Qasimov (for Uyghur mendicants, cf. the ethnographic film Ashiq: the last troubadour).

Sure, Parajanov was hounded and imprisoned under the Soviet system; but somehow he managed to make these priceless, visionary films. Such creative imagination couldn’t find an expression in Maoist China.

Parajanov Vysotsky 1979

With Vladimir Vysotsky, Tbilisi 1979.

Women in Tibetan expressive culture


Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy with Kham shopkeeper, Lhasa 1997.

Following my recent posts on Labrang (here and here), the Cultural Revolution in Tibet (here and here), and 1950s’ Lhasa, I continue exploring Tibetan expressive culture as an outsider.

Only quite recently has the role of women in Tibetan society has become a field for enquiry. And as in other disciplines, the study of gender has become a major topic in ethnomusicology (for a basic introduction, see here). Yet our image of the expressive culture of Tibet is still based on monastic ritual, and thus dominated by men (though nuns too perform vocal liturgy).

A finely-wrought discussion is

It’s a useful volume; other chapters on the modern era include Hildegard Diemberger on female oracles, Charlene Makley on nuns, and Robert Barnett on women and politics. For more on nuns and female visionaries, see the work of Nicola Schneider. And for further articles of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, click here.

* * *

First Isabelle gives a useful outline of gender roles in Tibetan areas before 1959. Women were usually the “beer vendors”, and as “ceremonial beer-servers” they sang for parties and weddings. Indeed, they still are. And she introduces the “label-girls” of nangma-töshe song-and-dance. [1]

Lhasa label girls

Acha Yitsa, leading performer of the nangma’i skyid sdug association, flanked by two famed “label-girls” at an aristocrats’ picnic, Lhasa 1936–37. Photo: Sir Basil Gould.

She then discusses six Tibetan female singers on the eve of the occupation, the Maoist era, and since the 1980s’ reforms—describing the exceptional case of “stars”, as she explains, since they are better documented than common performers: three from the world of tradition, as well as three stars of popular music, providing an instructive spectrum. She constantly interrogates the role of gender in their careers, offering valuable perspectives on the tensions within modern Tibetan society over three distinct periods, both within the PRC and in exile.

Ama Lhagpo
This first sketch makes a good introduction to Isabelle’s fine work on lhamo opera, which I extol here. Ama Lhagpo (1909–97) performed lhamo for over eighty years (!).

Orphaned at the age of 3, she was taken in by a woman whom she accompanied begging on the streets and in chang taverns. There she was spotted by the celebrated Kyomolung lhamo troupe in Lhasa, just in the process of reviving. She gave her first public performance at the age of 8, taking the lead roles from 15.

After the occupation she kept performing with the troupe through the 1950s. In 1961, after a two-year hiatus following the rebellion, she was recruited to the government’s newly-formed Tibetan Opera Troupe, spending a period training at the Shanghai Conservatoire—where she soon lost her voice.

With the revival of tradition that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ama Lhagpo trained a new generation while being showered with honorary titles. As Isabelle notes, “what is poignant is that, in lhamo, the ascribed emblem of ‘tradition’ was an old lady with a broken voice”. A rare female star in a largely male genre, she was a model for the incorporation of women into the state professional troupes. Isabelle draws us into the world of singing and dancing styles for male and female roles in lhamo.

Chung Putri
Again, Chung Putri (1920–85) came from a poor folk background, singing and dancing to make a living with her husband and daughter by itinerant begging over a wide area. In 1956 she was recruited to the state Arts-work Troupe in Shigatse, along with Tseten Drolma (see below). From 1957 to 1959 she taught Tibetan dance in Beijing. Returning to Lhasa in 1960, she joined the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble and Tibet Opera Troupe. After the 1980s’ revival, with her extensive repertoire, she played a role in the “salvage” work on folk-song, working with the Chinese scholar Tian Liantao.

Thus having lived through the first wave of state-sponsored adaptation in the 1950s, she came to represent the changing tradition in the 1980s, her style at some remove from musicians from more elite backgrounds like Zholkhang Sonam Dargye.

As Isabelle suggests, the lively debate over “authenticity” took place not only between Tibetans in the PRC and in exile, but within the PRC.

“Salvage” continues to feature in the portrait of Yumen (b. c1957), a renowned performer of the monumental Gesar epic (see here, n.2), born to a nomadic family in Kham.

As Isabelle explains, there are two types of bards: those who learned by listening to other bards, and—the more valued method—those who (like Yumen) received the text through spiritual revelation in trance following a psychological crisis. The great majority were male: among a hundred bards surveyed in the 1980s, Yang Enhong’s study of 26 bards lists Yumen as one of two women performers.

It seems that we can assume at least sporadic ritual performances until at least 1959. Yumen’s father was also an “inspired” bard; she herself acquired the ability to recite the epic after a dream at the age of 16—in the mid-1970s, note, well before the liberalisations. As she gained a local reputation, she was soon in demand.

But already from 1977, though illiterate, she was summoned to Lhasa to work in state literary units, going on from 1983 to work in the Gesar salvage project. Again, Isabelle gives a good introduction to the process of folklorisation. While performers, perhaps even in ritual contexts, are still quite common, Yumen is one of a dwindling number of “inspired” bards, albeit safely enshrined in a state work-unit.

Yumen is heard on the CD 12 treasures: Gesar songs and prayers from The saltmen of Tibet (Ulrike Koch, 1998).

The Gesar epic is a rather popular subject in online videos. Here’s a short film from UNESCO:

or more extensive coverage, with Chinese commentary:

And here’s a trailer for A Gesar bard’s tale (Donagh Coleman and Lharigtso, 2103):

Tseten Drolma
Tseten DrolmaBy contrast, the songs of Tseten Drolma (b.1937),“the golden voice of the Party” under Maoism, “symbolizing the Tibetan devotion and gratitude to the Party and to China, and telling again and again about the miseries of pre-1950 feudal life in Tibet”. While rather few Tibetans may subscribe to the ideology of her songs, they are widely known, inescapable.

Born to a serf family in Shigatse, her mother was yet another famed beer-vendor.

In 1956 she joined the Shigatse Arts-work troupe, meeting Chung Putri. From 1958 to 1963 she was sent to study at the Shanghai Conservatoire, developing a combination of Tibetan style and “Chinese” bel canto.

Her popularity was enhanced by her propaganda songs during the Cultural Revolution, and she has remained in favour since the reforms, accumulating honorific, ornamental political titles.

Nowadays, her CDs are purchased mainly by Chinese customers. Amongst Tibetans, they are the usual gifts that work units distribute to their workers, who usually immediately and dismissively throw them away.

This is the kind of thing:

See also the work of Anna Morcom, e.g. “The voice of the state: musical propaganda in Tibet”, in Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (2004); for Woeser’s comment on the ironies of her song Beautiful Rigzin Wangmo, see here.

The article now turns to two younger pop singers since the reforms (cf. Isabelle’s Western-language bibliography, §10), who have chosen exile.

Until she defected in 1992, Dadon (b. c1968) was a major star, genuinely popular among Tibetans, in the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble from 1987.

DadonBoth her parents were members of the ensemble, and from 1980 to 1985 she studied at the music department of the Central Minorities Institute in Beijing. Back in Lhasa she sang Chinese pop in karaoke bars, modeling herself on the Taiwanese crooner Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng), then highly popular in the PRC. She soon began to blend Tibetan folk melody with an “Asian pop” style. As unrest erupted in Lhasa, her lyrics discarded the old political messages for melancholic and spiritual themes. After an interlude for further vocal training in Beijing and Shanghai, she broke into the national market in 1990, bolstered by TV appearances, just as the “Tibet craze” was developing in China. Yet, working within the state system, she eschewed political messages—like alternative Chinese pop singers of the time.

As her lyrics came under increasing scrutiny, she escaped to Dharamsala in April 1992, where her style was hardly appreciated. She soon moved to the USA, again struggling to gain a footing in a niche market. As she campaigned for human rights, she appeared in the film Windhorse (Paul Wagner, 1997), based on her own story—here’s a trailer:

Isabelle summarises with typical lucidity:

Dadon’s life-story shows the imbrication of at least four issues. First, her aspirations whilst in Tibet: as she sang the first significant songs with a Tibetan flavour after the Cultural Revolution, she navigated carefully within the PRC for a modern, yet Tibetan pop style to be accepted. Second, her defection signalled the impossibility of realizing her aspirations within the PRC. Third, the difficulty of finding, or even creating, a place for her in the exile community. And fourth, her voice changes, which exemplify the search for a modern tone in Tibetan singing.

Yungchen Lhamo
By contrast with Dadon, highly popular in Tibet yet little known in the West, Yungchen Lhamo (b. c1964), “a Tibetan diva for a Western audience”, enjoyed a certain vogue on the world music circuit but is hardly known by Tibetans within the PRC.

Both were born in Lhasa and fled to exile around the same time, but Yongchen Lhamo, not having gone through the mill of PRC work-units, built her career in the West from 1995 with a style of “Buddhist devotional songs”.

From a poor religious background, she had no access to education. Escaping on foot soon after the Lhasa demonstrations in 1989, there was no clear role for her in Dharamsala, and in 1993 she moved to Australia.

Yungchen Lhamo

Cover of Yungchen Lhamo’s first Real World CD.

Yungchen Lhamo released her first album Tibetan prayer in 1995, and coming to the attention of World-Music supremo Peter Gabriel she recorded for his Real World label. Performing totally alone on stage, she undertook a busy global concert schedule. As Isabelle notes, she had to come to terms not so much with the Chinese state but with the pressures of the Western record industry. She later engaged in charitable projects.

This track comes from her second album for Real World:

Like Dadon, but in a very different style, her themes are spiritual and melancholic.

With a longing for a lost country, a constant reference to the religious way of life of the Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama as dominant icon, Yungchen Lhamo wields the three core identity markers of contemporary exile Tibetans. But her approach is personal in that she departs from the singing of religious melodies, and creates her own style […] . The melodies she composes cannot be called Tibetan, and her voice is not recognized as typical by the Tibetans themselves.

As with all the singers discussed, discussions hinge on the issue of “Tibetanness”.

Her mission contrasts with that of the Chinese pop star Dadawa, whose use of Tibetan themes aroused protest among the exile community. Yet Yungchen Lhamo too struggled to find a niche there.

All such stars wax and wane; these singers may already seem as dated as Tseten Drolma. Before venturing into the more challenging recent Tibetan pop scene, as illustrated on the High Peaks Pure Earth site, Isabelle’s article offers fine perspectives on the longer history of traditional and popular musics, and gender, in the PRC and in exile. [2]

As she summarises:

Singing is always more than just producing melodious sounds. Music is as much a vehicle for politics as it is for pleasure, as it crosses between the realms of public and private use. More than different aspects of Tibet’s singing traditions, these women represent different periods of Tibet’s recent history, and we can see how all six women form a tiled historical bridge […] . The lives of all of them also appear traversed by contradictory tensions stemming from their problematic political positioning. They have been involved willingly or unwillingly in presenting a political message, holding a public position in the community, representing their nationality, mediating between past and present, Tibet and China, and Tibet and the West, yet failing to fully be acknowledged by all Tibetans, from both Tibet and Dharamsala. All these life-stories have been caught up in the redefinition of what it means to be Tibetan, both within Tibet and in exile, and in the negotiation of a professional and cultural identity within the new social forces of contemporary Tibet. […] In their own ways, each of these six women has had to come to terms with the same question: how to be at the same time “modern” and “Tibetan”?

I do recommend this detailed, nuanced article!

[1] For the demi-monde of Lhasa society before the occupation, note Jamyang Norbu, “The Lhasa Ripper”. For the chang-ma at Dharamsala festivities, see Kiela Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala (2002), pp.57–62, 88–94.

[2] Another popular female star in the PRC who might further thicken the plot is Han Hong (b.1971)—see e.g. Nimrod Baranovitch, Representing Tibet in the global cultural market: the case of ChineseTibetan musician Han Hong”, in Andrew Weintraub & Bell Yung (eds.), Music and cultural rights (2009); and the important study by Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004). Click here for Han Hong’s song Heavenly road (2005); and here’s a live version from 2001 of her 1994 song Tibetan plateau:

Tibet: a blind musician

Ajo Namgyal

Photo courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum,
via the fascinating article of Jamyang Norbu, “The Lhasa Ripper“.

Having introduced some blind musicians in China and further afield, as well as the nangmatöshe scene in Lhasa before and since 1950, a tribute to a noted blind musician from pre-occupation Tibet is apt.

Ajo Namgyel (1894–1942) came from a poor wood-logging family in the Dakpo region of southeast Tibet. He lost his eyes after being attacked by a raven at the age of one. Becoming a talented musician like his father, he was first spotted while busking on the dramyen lute in Lhasa shortly after arriving there in 1914. One version even suggests that he was invited there after being spotted by members of the Kashag cabinet on a mission to Dakpo.

Like other folk musicians in Tibet, China, and elsewhere, Ajo Namgyel was a versatile instrumentalist. Later he was invited to join the Nangma’i skyid sdug association, of which he became the last teacher, playing piwang fiddle as well as dramyen at high-society banquets. He created the popular töshe style in Lhasa by adapting folk-songs from western Tibet. He picked up new songs from visiting lhamo opera troupes on their summer visits for the Shotön festival. And he found a wife.

Geoffrey Samuel cites an evocative vignette from Hugh Richardson, British diplomat in Tibet until 1950. As Richardson recalled, the association

was engaged to perform at parties given by the Tibetan government for the British Mission at Lhasa in the summer. The players were Namgyel with the pi-wang [fiddle]; a Ladakhi Muslim on the flute and (I think) a Chinese on the sgra-snyen [lute]. The dancers were also three, headed by a famous old woman who was the teacher of dancing and singing … The players sat on the ground with a plentiful supply of chang [Tibetan beer] and tea and a small boy to look after Namgyel’s pipe for he was the only person with an unspoken license to smoke in the presence of the Kashag [the Tibetan cabinet]. The dancing was always on a board; the women wore their Lhasa headdresses and aprons and their hands were decorously covered by the sleeves of their blouses, hanging down a good foot or more below their hands. These sleeves played a big part in the gestures that were part of the dance. The songs were accompanied by gestures of their arms and a rhythmic shuffling of their feet and slight forward kicks. That was all in slow time. When the tune broke into quick time—a sort of scherzo!—there was, so far as I remember, no singing but the dance became much more vigorous and lively and there was some stamping on the board [“quickstep” as Jamyang Norbu calls it]. One of the songs, which always caused much amusement to them and the Tibetans, was an innovation (perhaps after the visit of Sir Charles Bell or one of his successors) in which the dancers turned to one another and made a gesture of shaking hands, singing “Good morning” or something like it, in English. The whole affair was very casual and informal and the song and dance went on while the guests were chatting or drinking. The only song that was almost always heard with some attention was bkra la shis pa [“Good Fortune”] which was described as being very old and of good omen. The three instruments I have mentioned were all I ever saw played out of doors. A yangchin [Chinese dulcimer] might be added indoors.

Posthumously, through no fault of his own, one of Ajo’s melodies was adapted into the Cultural Revolution hit in praise of Chairman Mao Jingzhu Mao zhuxi wanshou wujiang 敬祝毛主席万寿无疆, which those so inclined can find on YouTube…

A Chinese post on Ajo, hagiographic but full of detail, opens with an inevitable kowtow to his contemporary the blind Chinese musician Abing (1893–1950), whom Yang Yinliu inadvertently elevated to iconic status at the expense of all the innumerable other great blind musicians all over China—and Tibet. Abing made an unlikely hero for the CCP: his life declined from performing rituals with admired Daoists in Wuxi to becoming an opium-dependent street beggar after losing his eyesight through syphilis in his 30s. Conversely, Ajo Namgyel, blind from infancy, went from itinerant begging to leading the most respected nangma-töshe group in Lhasa. [1]

[1] He has a brief entry in the New Grove dictionary under “rNam-rgyal, A-jo”. The Chinese post may be based on a 1980 article in Tibetan by the leading scholar of nangmatöshe, Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (1922–2007)—himself a former member of the association and pupil of Ajo Namgyel from the age of 13. See also here. Geoffrey Samuel’s article is “Songs of Lhasa”, Ethnomusicology 20.3 (1976).

How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet

“There is singing everywhere in Tibet”


gunsTibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959. AFP/Getty.

In my first post on Labrang, recalling the debate over how to represent Tibetan music in the New Grove dictionary, I mentioned a succinct, nay flimsy, article by

  • Mao Jizeng 毛繼增, “Xizang wuchu bushi ge: minzu yinyue caifang zhaji” 西藏無处不是歌——民族音乐採訪札記 [There is singing everywhere in Tibet: fieldnotes on national music], Renmin yinyue 1959.5, pp.8–11 (!).

—a strong candidate for the award of Most Ironic Title Ever. [1]

* * *

Mao Jizeng’s brief article resulted from a ten-month stay in Lhasa that he made from 1956 to early 1957. He was part of a team chosen to do a field survey in Tibet, led by the distinguished Tibetologist Li Youyi 李有义 (1912–2015); Mao Jizeng (b.1932) had just been assigned to the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing after graduating from Chengdu.

The team clearly set out from Beijing with the intention of covering a wide area of central Tibet (then just in the process of becoming the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, TAR). Unrest was already common in Amdo and Kham, and the political situation there would soon deteriorate severely in the TAR; but even in 1956, as Mao Jizeng recalled in a 2007 interview, Tibetan–Chinese relations were so tense that they had to remain in Lhasa, unable to get out into the countryside. One member of the team was so scared that he soon returned to Beijing; Mao Jizeng, being young, “didn’t know what fear was”—but he still got hold of a revolver for protection, which doesn’t suggest total faith in the warm welcome of Tibetans for their Chinese friends.

Anyway, for Mao Jizeng, “everywhere” in Tibet could only mean Lhasa. However, I learn here that Li Youyi did manage to travel farther afield with a separate team of Tibetan and Chinese fieldworkers (perhaps with military back-up?); and despite incurring political criticism in the summer of 1957, he continued doing field studies in TAR and Kham right until 1961, though not on music.

At the time, Chinese music scholars knew virtually nothing of Tibetan musical cultures—or even of Han-Chinese regional traditions of such as those of Fujian. That was the point of these 1950s’ field surveys, which would later blossom with the Anthology. But even as a musical ethnography of 1956 Lhasa, Mao Jizeng’s article is seriously flawed; it could only provide a few preliminary clues.

Those field surveys among the Han Chinese were given useful clues by the local Bureaus of Culture. But although Li Youyi was bringing an official team from Beijing, it’s not clear if there was any cultural work-unit to host them in Lhasa. Such cultural initiatives as there were in Tibetan areas at the time took place under the auspices of the military Arts-work Troupes—hardly a promising start. So Mao Jizeng may have been left to his own devices. Indeed, while in my early days of fieldwork I learned a lot from home-grown cultural workers, as time went by their successors were more interested in platitudinous banquets than in local culture, and it was preferable to bypass them in favour of grassroots sources. Still, Mao Jizeng would doubtless have been quite happy working within the state system.

The MRI had entrusted him with one of their three Japanese-imported recording machines, but batteries were an intractable problem. Billeted in the Communications Office, he could hardly engage meaningfully with Lhasa folk.

Now, I’m full of admiration for all the brave efforts of music fieldworkers in Maoist China to convey useful material on traditional culture despite political pressure—but this is not one of them. In a mere four pages Mao Jizeng managed to pen a tragicomic classic in the annals of the dutiful mouthing of propaganda, obediently parroting the whole gamut of Chinese music clichés. We might regard it under the Chinese rubric of “negative teaching material” (fanmian jiaocai 反面教材).

At the same time, I try not to judge his article too harshly: we should put ourselves in his shoes (cf. feature films like The blue kite, and indeed Neil MacGregor’s question “What would we have done?”).

Han Chinese scholars, not to mention peasants, were already quite familiar with the effects of escalating collectivisation upon their own society; there too, fewer people had the time or energy to sing or observe traditional ritual proprieties. But conditions in Lhasa must have alarmed the team that arrived there in 1956. Worthy as fieldwork projects were, they could only gloss over the social upheavals of the time.

At the head of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu, his distinguished reputation based on seniority and massive erudition, had earned a certain latitude for his studies of traditional music. While paying lip-service to the political ideology of the day—elevating the music of the working masses at the expense of the exploiting classes, and purporting to decry “feudal superstition”—he somehow managed to devote just as much attention to “literati” and “religious” culture as to more popular, secular genres.

After all, ethnomusicology was only in its infancy even in the West; and despite some fine fieldwork by Chinese folklorists before the 1949 revolution, the concepts of anthropology were still barely known—still less as it might apply to musicking. David McAllester’s pioneering 1954 monograph on the Navajo makes an interesting comparison, free of glib defences of the policies of his compatriots who had usurped their land.

Of course, in reading any scholarship, one always has to bear in mind the conditions of the time—particularly when we consult documents from Maoist China (as we must). They often provide revealing details, as I’ve noted for the history of collectivisation and famine in the Yanggao county gazetteer and sources for Hunan. We have to learn to “read between the lines” (cf. my Anthology review).

The main audience for such articles was urban, educated Han Chinese, who would know no better, and were willing or constrained to go along with the pretence. Their perspectives grate only with modern readers, certainly those outside China who are equipped with more information about conditions in the PRC under Maoism than was then available. [2]

The political background
Here, while consulting Robbie Barnett’s course on modern Tibet, we should turn to the masterly, balanced

  • Tsering Sakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of modern Tibet since 1947 (1999), chapters 5–7. [3]

In a nutshell, from 1956 the lives of Tibetans deteriorated through to the major 1959 rebellion and the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile; then by 1961 a brief respite led to still more appalling calamities after 1964.

Lhasa 1956

Source here.

For the first few years after the 1950 Chinese occupation, traditional life remained relatively intact. But the forming of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) in 1955 made Tibetans anxious that the noose was to be pulled more tightly. For central Tibet, Chairman Mao was adopting a more gradualist policy than with the Han Chinese, proceeding more cautiously with collectivisation. But in 1955 “democratic reforms”, land reform, and mutual aid groups began to be implemented in Kham and Amdo, and armed uprisings soon erupted there, prelude to the major rebellion of 1959. The Chinese responded by bombing monasteries.

Even as refugees were arriving in Lhasa from Kham and Amdo with tales of Chinese violence and assaults on religion, the city also saw an influx of Chinese labourers, troops, and cadres; anti-Chinese feeling grew. But both Tibetan and Chinese officials strove to isolate central Tibet from the unrest, and Khampa refugees found themselves unwelcome in Lhasa.

Still, opposition to Chinese rule grew in central Tibet. During the Monlam New Year’s rituals of 1956, wall posters appeared in Lhasa denouncing the Chinese and saying that they should return to China. By the end of March 1956—when Mao Jizeng must have been in Lhasa—the atmosphere there was tense.

In November, as the Western press were equating the revolts in Kham with the Budapest uprising, the Dalai Lama managed to visit India. Amidst complex diplomatic considerations (which Shakya explains with typical clarity), he eventually agreed to return to Lhasa in March 1957. There, despite the Chinese promise to postpone radical reform, he learned that the situation in Tibet had deteriorated further.

In mainland China, large-scale public rituals had already become virtually unfeasible. But in July 1957 a sumptuous Golden Throne ritual was held in Lhasa for the long life of the Dalai Lama—providing a focus for the pan-Tibetan resistance movement. And from summer 1958 to February 1959—even as monastic life was being purged in Amdo and Kham—the Dalai Lama “graduated” in Buddhist philosophy with his lengthy geshe examinations, in an opulent succession of ceremonies and processions apparently unmarred by Chinese presence:

The Khampa resistance continued, with little support from Lhasa. But events culminated at the Monlam rituals in March 1959. Amidst popular fears that the Dalai Lama (then 25) would be abducted by the Chinese, he fled to India—where he still remains in exile. Meanwhile further revolts occurred in Lhasa and further afield. Their suppression was the end of both active resistance within Tibet and the attempt to forge a co-existence between “Buddhist Tibet and Communist China”.

In 1962 the 10th Panchen Lama presented his “70,000 character petition” to Zhou Enlai. It was a major document exposing the devastation of Tibetan life wrought by Chinese rule—and the reason why he was then imprisoned for the next fifteen years. For more on Amdo and the Panchen Lamas, see here.

With whatever degree of preparation, ethnographers always walk into complex societies. Such was the maelstrom into which Mao Jizeng unwittingly plunged in search of happy Tibetan singing and dancing. While one can hardly expect to find it reflected in his work, it makes essential context for our studies.

MJZ title

The 1959 article
Whereas monastic Buddhism has long dominated Western research on Tibet, Mao Jizeng passed swiftly over the soundscape of the monasteries. Unrest was brewing, particularly in Kham (see e.g. here), but rituals were still held in the populous monasteries in and around Lhasa, with the revered Dalai Lama still in residence; indeed, even after his escape into exile amidst the 1959 rebellion, the monasteries were still busy in 1964, as we see in Gallery 1 of Woeser’s Forbidden memory. Despite the sensitive status of “religious music”, Yang Yinliu would have been keen to study this major aspect of the culture. But while Mao Jizeng mentions elsewhere that he attended a “large-scale” ritual at the Jokhang in 1957, the monasteries seem to have been largely outside his scope.

Dutifully praising the long history of fraternal bonds between Tibetans and Chinese, Mao Jizeng toes the Party line in his brief historical outlines of various genres. He inevitably alludes to the marriage alliance with Tang-dynasty Princess Wencheng, exhibit no.1 in China’s flimsy historical claim to sovereignty over Tibet, citing the lha-mo opera telling her story, Gyasa Balsa. But while lha-mo remained popular in Lhasa until 1959—and it’s always an enchanting spectacle—that’s his only brief reference to it; he doesn’t mention attending any performances or meeting any of the musicians. [4]


Lhamo opera at the Norbulingka. 1950s. Source: Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (ed.), The singing mask (2001).

And these happy smiling ethnic minorities, they just can’t stop singing and dancing, eh! [5] Mao Jizeng tells how he often witnessed street gatherings with young and old singing and dancing together. And he was told a story about a Tibetan work team conscripted to build a new Lhasa airport in 1954, getting together every evening after work to sing and dance till late at night. In order “to look after their health and make sure they got enough sleep” [Yeah, right], the Chinese foremen stepped in to forbid such parties, whereupon the labourers’ mood, and their work, deteriorated; their overlords had no choice but to give way. [6]

How one would like to hear the Tibetan side of the story. Indeed, Tsering Sakya (The dragon in the land of snows, p. 136) gives a vignette from the same period:

In an attempt to reduce their expenditure, the Chinese began to ask people working on road construction to take a reduction in their pay. The Tibetan workers were urged that they should give their labour free as a contribution to the “construction of the Motherland”. Barshi, a Tibetan government official, remembered that when the people refused to accept a cut in their wages, the Chinese started to lecture them, saying that in the new Tibet everything was owned by the people, and that the wealth of the state was inseparable from the wealth of the people.

One intriguing genre that Mao Jizeng might have found suitable to record was khrom-‘gyu-r’gzhas, satirical songs lampooning prominent officials in the Old Society; but alas he doesn’t mention them. I don’t dare surmise that such songs might have been adapted to satirise their new Chinese masters. [7]

Tsering Shakya cites a more blunt street song popular in Lhasa after the Dalai Lama’s return from India in 1957:

We would rather have the Dalai Lama than Mao Tse-tung
We would rather have the Kashag than the PCART
We would rather have Buddhism than Communism
We would rather have Ten sung Mag mu [the Tibetan army] than the PLA
We would rather use our own wooden bowls than Chinese mugs. 

What Mao Jizeng did manage to study was the popular instrumental, song, and dance forms nangma and töshe, for festive entertainment—then still largely associated with elite patronage, and in decline but still not purged. Around the 1920s, in addition to the “art music” style of nangma, Lhasa musicians began adapting töshe (stod-gzhas) from dance-songs of western Tibet (“Western songs”, as Geoffrey Samuel calls them).

nangma 1956

Open-air performance of nangma, 1956.

Though Mao Jizeng might appear to have been largely engaging in “salvage” work, the photo above shows that he also witnessed some social activity. Among the performers of nangma-töshe were Tibetan Hui Muslims—including the senior master “Amaire” 阿麦惹 (Amir?), whom Mao describes as recalling the largest repertoire of nangma pieces. But he doesn’t mention meeting Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (1922–2007), who having taken part in the Nangma’i skyid sdug association, the most renowned of such groups, went on to write authoritatively on nangma-töshe from 1980. In an instructive 2004 interview (in Chinese) Zholkhang recalls senior musicians in the group—including the leader, celebrated blind performer Ajo Namgyel (1894–1942). [8]

Left: nangma, 1940s. Right: Ajo Namgyel. Source here.

Zholkhang provides some brief details for Amir. His grandfather had been a sedan-bearer in Tibet for a Chinese official from Sichuan, and Amir himself had a Chinese name, Ma Baoshan 馬寶山. A farrier by trade, he was an accomplished instrumentalist, and had served as organiser for the Nangma’i skyid sdug association.

But rather than instructing Mao Jizeng himself, Amir introduced him to the distinguished aristocrat and litterateur Horkhang Sonam Palbar 霍康·索朗边巴 (1919–95), a patron of nangma-töshe who was to be his main informant for the genre. As Mao describes in a tribute to Horkhang, for over three months he regularly visited him at his house near the Barkhor, studying with him in the mornings before taking lunch with his family. Even in the 1990s, some Chinese collectors still clung to the dubious habit of interviewing and recording folk musicians by summoning them to cultural offices (cf. my 1987 trip to Chengde), but that probably wasn’t practicable over an extended period.

And here (inspired by the likes of Mao Jizeng to bring “class consciousness” into the discussion!) I’m pretty sure we can read between the lines again; considerations of “face” must have come into play on both sides. Amir would have made an ideal informant on nangma-töshe; but he was a common “folk artist”, perhaps living in a humble dwelling in a poor quarter—unsuitable, even dangerous, for a Chinese scholar to frequent. Whether or not he considered himself unsuitable to represent Tibetan culture to a Chinese visitor, the annual round of festivities that had long kept the musicians busy must have shrunk after 1950, and their livelihood was doubtless suffering. Like others in that milieu, Amir may have been finding it hard to adapt to the new regime, perhaps worried about the consequences of regular contact with a Chinese scholar, or simply reluctant. For Mao Jizeng to have spent more time in the folk milieu would only have exposed him to inconvenient truths that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, document.

Conversely, Horkhang was prestigious, despite his aristocratic background. Elsewhere I learn that as a prominent official under the old Tibetan administration, he had studied English with the Tibet-based diplomat Hugh Richardson (for whose photos of the old society, see under Tibet album). Horkhang was captured by the PLA in 1950 during the battle of Chamdo (or as Mao Jizeng puts it, “the Liberation of Chamdo”). After the occupation he accommodated to Chinese rule, “turning over a new leaf” by necessity; like many former aristocrats whose status under the new regime was vulnerable, he was soon given high-sounding official titles in Lhasa, through which the Chinese sought to mask their own domination.

Horkhang’s house would have been comfortable; he still had servants. Moreover, he didn’t drink, whereas the nangma-töshe musicians had a taste for the chang beer that was supplied at parties where they performed. And it would be easier for Mao Jizeng to communicate with Horkhang than with a semi-literate folk musician. While Mao must have had help with interpreting, perhaps Horkhang had already picked up some Chinese in the course of his official duties; anyway, Mao claims that his own spoken Tibetan improved over the course of these sessions.

So in all, while Horkhang was a patron rather than a musician (cf. the mehfil aficionados of Indian raga, and narrative-singing in old Beijing), he seemed a more suitable informant for the Chinese guest. While we should indeed document the perspectives of patrons and aficionados, it should only be a supplement to working with musicians themselves. But the ideology of “becoming at one with the masses” only went so far. Given the obligatory stress on the music of the labouring classes, it may seem ironic that Mao Jizeng’s main topic was a genre patronised by the old aristocrats, and that he chose to study it with one of them rather than with a lowly “folk artist”. He justifies his studies by observing his mentor’s warm relations with the common folk. He doesn’t say, but perhaps Amir and other musicians also took part in some sessions at Horkhang’s house—in which case it would have made an ideal setting.

By contrast with the distinctive soundscapes of the monasteries and lha-mo opera, nangma’s heterophony of flute, plucked and bowed strings, and hammer dulcimer, however “authentic”, often sounds disconcertingly like Chinese silk-and-bamboo, as you can hear in this playlist— sadly not annotated, but apparently containing tracks both from exile and within the PRC:

Indeed, as with the dodar ceremonial ensemble of Amdo monasteries, the Chinese influence goes back to the 18th century. This doubtless enhanced its appeal for Mao Jizeng; and like silk-and-bamboo, it was to make nangmatöshe a suitable basis for the state song-and-dance troupes. Woeser gives short shrift to modern incarnations of nangma in her wonderful story Garpon-la’s offerings (n.9 below).

So Horkhang Sonam Palbar was Mao Jizeng’s main source for the two slim volumes that he also published in 1959,

  • Xizang gudian gewu: nangma 西藏古典歌舞——囊玛 [Tibetan classical song and dance: nangma]
  • Xizang minjian gewu: duixie 西藏民间歌舞——堆谢 [Tibetan folk song and dance: töshe].

Even the enlightened Music Research Institute was anxious about publishing Mao’s afterword acknowledging a Tibetan aristocrat.

According to Mao Jizeng’s 2007 tribute, Horkhang told him that he survived the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed. This fiction may result both from people’s general reluctance to remember trauma and from the limitations of their relationship—we learn a very different story from Woeser’s Forbidden memory.

Horkang 1966Horkhang Sonam Palbar (centre) paraded with his wife and father-in-law at a thamzing struggle-session, August 1966. Forbidden memory, fig.80.

As Woeser explains, the Red Guards dressed him in a fur coat and hat that they found in his home, to denote his official rank in the former Tibetan government and his “dream of restoring the feudal serf system”.

Woeser goes on to describe how among the “crimes” of which Horkhang was accused was his friendship with the famous writer and scholar Gendun Chöphel (1903–51). Horkhang had helped him through times of adversity, and before Gendun Chöphel died he entrusted many of his manuscripts to Horkhang; these were now confiscated and destroyed by the activists. Still, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Horkhang assembled what he could find of Gendun Chöphel’s work, eventually publishing a three-volume set of his writings that became an authoritative work.

“Palace music”
By contrast with the entertainment music of nangma-töshe, in his 1959 article Mao Jizeng also gives a brief introduction to gar, the ceremonial “palace music” of the Dalai Lama. Indeed, having worked on the genre “in some depth” in the winter of 1956–57, he compiled a third monograph on it, but realised it was too sensitive a topic for publication, and it was lost during the Cultural Revolution.

Gar seems to have been in decline even before the Chinese occupation, though details on its life through the 1940s and 50s are elusive. The little section in Mao Jizeng’s article is characteristically headed “The dark system is a stumbling block to the development of music”; his main purpose here is to decry the former feudal society’s cruel exploitation of the teenage boys who served as dancers—actually an interesting angle, however tendentious Mao’s approach.


Mao Jizeng, liner notes for CD 5 of Xizang yinyue jishi (n.9 below).
Right, gar dancers, 1950s, provenance unclear.

The main instrumental ensemble for gar consisted of loud shawms and kettle-drums, of Ladakhi origin (cf. related bands in XinjiangIran, and India)—formerly, at least, with the halo of a mkhar-rnga bcu-pa frame of ten pitched gongs (cf. Chinese yunluo). [9] A brief scene (from 5.50) of this silent footage from 1945 shows the gong frame on procession with two shawms:

But a subsidiary chamber instrumentation, closer to that of nangma, included the rgyud-mang dulcimer—and as a gift from the MRI, Mao Jizeng presented the musicians with a Chinese yangqin, which must have made an unwieldy part of Mao Jizeng’s luggage on the arduous journey.

He doesn’t cite a source for this section, so it’s unclear who the musicians he consulted were; the Dalai Lama, whom they served, was still in Lhasa, and by 1956 the performers were still at liberty. But following the 1959 rebellion, when the Dalai Lama had to flee, they were deported en masse to the Gormo “reform through labour” camp at Golmud in Qinghai, over a thousand kilometres distant—part of a network of such camps in the vast, desolate region (cf. China: commemorating trauma). There they were to spend over twenty years; conscripted to work on constructing the new railway and highway, singing and dancing can hardly have been part of their regime.

Mao Jizeng ends his 1959 article with a brief section on “New developments since the Peaceful Liberation [sic] of Tibet”—the formation of professional troupes, and the creation of new folk-songs in praise of Chairman Mao; also, of course, themes worthy of study. Encapsulating the fatuity of Chinese propaganda, his final formulaic paragraph is just the kind of flapdoodle we have to wade through:

With the defeat of the former local Tibetan government and the reactionary upper-class elements, traitors to their country, the great mountain weighing down on the hearts of the Tibetan people was overturned, providing more profitable conditions for the development of their ethnic music. The way ahead for Tibetan music is limitlessly broad. It will shine radiantly forth in the ranks of the music of the Chinese nationalities.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies only a few years later, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”. Selflessly, I have read Mao Jizeng’s article so that you won’t have to.

Back in Beijing, and the reform era
Mao Jizeng may have largely ignored the fraught social conditions of the time, but one has to admire his persistence in remaining in Lhasa for ten months. Even by the 1990s, Chinese fieldworkers, and most foreign scholars, still tended to find brief “hit-and-run” missions more practicable, albeit over an extended period (cf. here).

Between 1956, when Mao Jizeng set off for Tibet, and the publication of his report in 1959, the political climate deteriorated severely in Beijing too. From 1957, music scholars were among countless intellectuals and cadres demoted or imprisoned during the Anti-Rightist campaign, not to be rehabilitated until the late 1970s; and the 1958 Great Leap Backward soon led to severe famine and destruction. Chinese people had to deal with their own devastating sufferings, without worrying about distant Tibet.

Even so, in 1960 Yang Yinliu managed to publish the Hunan survey that he had led, also in 1956; its 618 pages (as well as a separate study on the Confucian ritual!) make a stark contrast with the paltry material resulting from the hampered Tibetan expedition. * I wonder if his original fieldnotes have survived.

Disturbingly, the misleading clichés of Mao Jizeng’s article still continue to recur in more recent PRC scholarship. There, forty years since liberalisation, no frank reflections on the conditions of fieldwork among minority peoples in the 1950s seem to have been published—and amidst ever-tighter limits on academic freedom, such work is becoming even less likely.

Nonetheless, along with the widespread revival of tradition in the 1980s, more extensive study developed. For the major Anthology project Tibetan and Chinese cultural workers were no longer so cautious about documenting elite and religious genres. They now collected much material—with hefty volumes for TAR, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan on folk-song, opera, narrative-singing, instrumental music, and dance. For the historian, the monographs on opera and narrative-singing (xiqu zhi 戏曲志, quyi zhi 曲艺志) are particularly useful. As with Han Chinese traditions, much of this research focused on the cultures that had been impoverished under Maoism, rather than the process of impoverishment.

From early in the 1980s, in both Dharamsala and Lhasa, gar court music was recreated under the guidance of Pa-sangs Don-grub (1918–98), the last gar-dpon master to have served under a ruling Dalai Lama in Tibet (and like Horkhang, a pupil of Gendun Chöphel), as well as the former gar-pa dancer Rigdzin Dorje. In Dharamsala it began to serve the ceremonies of the Dalai Lama again, whereas in Lhasa it was performed only in concert.


The gar-dpon, 1980s. Photo: Willie Robson.

Though we don’t know how many inmates of the Gormo camp survived, Pa-sangs Don-grub was at last able to return to Lhasa by 1982, literally scarred by two decades of hard labour. The precise timeline seems unclear, but in Woeser’s plausible interpretation, he only overcame his reluctance to accept the Chinese request for him to lead a revival of the genre when, in a brief rapprochement, he was given the opportunity to pay homage to his revered former master the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala through training performers at TIPA—and only on the Dalai Lama’s advice did he return to Lhasa to teach it there too.

The 1980s’ revival of gar. Photos: Willie Robson.

In July 1987, while I was still seeking folk ritual bands in China, the enterprising Willie Robson (with whom I later worked to bring a Buddhist group from Wutaishan to the UK) put together the Music from the Royal Courts festival at the South Bank for BBC Radio 3—a grand enterprise the like of which would hardly be possible to organise today. It included groups from Africa and India, Ottoman and Thai music, the Heike biwa epic from Japan, nanguan from Taiwan, Uyghur muqam, the Chinese qin zither—and, remarkably, a combined group from Lhasa, performing both gar and nangma-töshe.

Pasangs Don-grub

Pa-sangs Don-grub, early 1980s; from the Chinese version of Woeser’s story.

Moved by Pa-sangs Don-grub’s 1985 book in her father’s collection, Woeser encapsulates our task in reading PRC documents:

Even a short introduction in a book can reveal a lot of information. This was the case with Songs and dances for offerings, with its brief introduction to the 14th Dalai Lama’s eleven-member dance troupe. After a few pages, only bits of information about the troupe emerged, such as the number of members and their ages. There wasn’t a lot, but at the time it probably wasn’t safe to write much more. The introduction seemed to be quite ordinary, even mediocre. Nevertheless, much information was hidden between the lines. These nuances could only be understood by another Tibetan, who would discern from just a glance what was really being said, what happened when and where. Many Tibetan readers experienced the hardship and torment the troupe endured before they had at last survived the disasters in their lives. Anyone who hasn’t experienced similar torments will find it hard to read between the lines of the writing and know what the men went through. That’s why a narrator like me is needed, who is at some distance from the incidents but is sympathetic to their reality and able to retell the story.

Also in the 1980s, Mao Jizeng’s former mentor Horkhang Sonam Palbar, having endured his own tribulations in the Cultural Revolution, was once again showered with high-ranking official titles in the Chinese apparatus—in a common pattern, serving as “décor for the state and as mouthpieces for its policies”, as Woeser observes in Forbidden memory.

Meanwhile, from 1983 Mao Jizeng was finally able to visit regions of the TAR that were out of bounds to him in 1956; and after the convulsive events of the 60s and 70s, on his trips to Lhasa he was able to meet up again with Horkhang.

Horkang 1987Horkhang Sonam Palbar leading a study team to a village of the Lhoba minority people,
Mainling county, southeast TAR 1987 (cf. here, n.1).

Blissfully oblivious to all the evidence, Mao Jizeng still constantly parroted the cliché of the warm fraternal feelings between Han Chinese and Tibetans, and his own rapport with the latter, including Horkhang (for more subtle views on rapport, see the excellent Bruce Jackson; and here I develop Nigel Barley’s characterisation of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot” into “harmful idiot”).

In his 2003 tribute to Horkhang, Mao tells a story that inadvertently suggests a less rosy picture—revealing both Tibetan resentment and the insidious hierarchical power dynamics among Tibetans in their dealings with the Chinese:

In Lhasa in 1988—during yet another period of serious unrest, by the way—Mao Jizeng was having problems mustering the recalcitrant Shöl Tibetan Opera Troupe to perform Sukyi Nima for him to record. Rather shooting himself in the foot, he even lists some of their excuses: some actors hadn’t showed up, the troupe was out of money, they couldn’t find the drum… * It was only when the illustrious Horkhang stepped in to cajole them that they finally had to play ball.

And widespread unrest has continued in Tibetan areas. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods. For eleven Tibetan singers imprisoned since 2012, click here. [10]

* * *

As William Noll observes, the whole history of ethnomusicology abounds with scholars who come from a society that oppresses the culture in question; and around the world there are plenty of accounts of fieldwork projects that fell short of their ambition. The limitations of Mao Jizeng’s ten-month sojourn in the tense, turbulent Lhasa of 1956, and even his inability to reflect on the issues involved, may not be such an exceptional case.

As another kind of outsider, only able to read Chinese and English but not Tibetan sources, such are the slender clues that I can offer. Note also Tibet: conflicting memories and Forbidden memory.

So much for “There is singing everywhere in Tibet”. Meretricious (and a Happy New Monlam).

With thanks to Robbie Barnett

[1] Since the present or past tense is not necessarily specified in Chinese, one might almost be tempted to read it as “There was singing everywhere in Tibet [until we barged in and broke it all up]”—or perhaps as an optative, like “Britannia rule the waves”?!).

[2] By the way, “singing” is a very broad, um, church. Both singing and dancing on stage are only the tip of the iceberg; they lead us to folk festivities, notably calendrical and life-cycle rituals. Though “revolutionary songs” were an obligatory component of Chinese collecting throughout the PRC (if anyone remembers songs of resistance sung by the Tibetan rebels from 1956, people certainly weren’t going to sing them for Chinese fieldworkers—who anyway wouldn’t want, or dare, to listen), their main interest was the traditional soundscape (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”). Tibetan and Chinese pop music only came to play a major part in the Tibetan soundscape after the 1980s’ reforms.

Even today in a (Chinese) region like Shaanbei, famed for its folk-songs, it would be misleading to claim that singing is everywhere, harking back to the romantic image of Yellow earth. Sure, folk-songs are still heard quite often there, but often in rowdy restaurants rather than by shepherds on picturesque hillsides (cf. One belt, one road).

[3] For yet more detail, see Melvyn Goldstein’s multi-volume A history of modern Tibet—for this period, vol.3: The storm clouds descend, 1955–1957 and vol.4: In the eye of the storm, 1957–1959. There’s also extensive research unpacking the representation of ethnic minorities in the PRC, from Dru Gladney and Stevan Harrell and onwards. For the changing physical and mental landscape of Lhasa, note Robert Barnett’s sophisticated book Lhasa: streets with memory (2006).

[4] Naturally, Mao Jizeng rendered Tibetan terms in Chinese characters, just as Western visitors devised systems to render it in their alphabet. Later, as the variants of the Wylie system became standard for international publications, Chinese transcription was acknowledged to be inadequate—though it still works for the Chinese… I’ve tried to give Wylie versions of Mao Jizeng’s Chinese terms.

[5] For Tibetan folk-song, see §9 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s Western-language bibliography—including this detailed ethnography of a family in Amdo, yet another impressive publication from Kevin Stuart’s team; Sangye Dondhup’s list for sources in Chinese and Tibetan; and the folk-song volumes of the Anthology.

[6] The first such project is usually dated to 1956; even then, the airport didn’t become operational until 1965. Perhaps the 1954 labourers, too exhausted by singing and dancing, and too demoralised at being forbidden to do so, were unable to complete the job?

[7] See Melvyn Goldstein, “Lhasa street songs: political and social satire in traditional Tibet”, Tibet journal 7.1–2 (1982), based on material collected among exile communities. For Sitting Bull’s ingenious speech in Sioux for assembled white dignitaries, cursing them with impunity, see n.1 here.

[8] For nangmatöshe, see the bibliographies cited in n.5 above, as well as the Anthology for TAR. For the work of Geoffrey Samuel, apart from his chapter in Jamyang Norbu (ed.), Zlos-gar (1986), see “Songs of Lhasa”, Ethnomusicology 20.3 (1976)—including an Appendix referring to fifteen 78s recorded in Lhasa between 1943 and 1945 by the British Mission under Sir Basil Gould, which one would love to compare with later versions!

The writings of Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (Zhol-khang bSod-nams Dar-rgyas) feature in Sangye Dondhup’s list of Tibetan sources; he is included among the biographical entries for Tibetan musicians in the New Grove dictionary (handily assembled here; main article on Tibetan music here). For the role of female performers before 1959, see the fine article Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Women in the performing arts: portraits of six contemporary singers”, pp.204–207.

In search of Ajo Namgyel, I found the fascinating article by Jamyang Norbu “The Lhasa Ripper“, on the “dark underbelly” of pre-occupation Lhasa: crime, prostitution, beggars. For nangma bars since the 1990s, see e.g. Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004), and her “Modernity, power, and the reconstruction of dance in post-1950s Tibet”Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 3 (2007).

[9] A useful introduction to gar before the occupation, and then from exile, is Jamyang Norbu with Tashi Dhondup, “A preliminary study of gar, the court dance and music of Tibet”, in Zlos-gar. See also Mark Trewin, “On the history and origin of ‘gar’: the court ceremonial music of Tibet”, CHIME 8 (1995). As well as the entry for Pa-sangs Don-grub in the New Grove (with a list of his publications), do read Woeser‘s story “Garpon La’s offerings“, Manoa 24.2 (2012). Dates given for the gar-pa Rigdzin Dorje differ: 1915–83 apud Zlos-gar, 1927–84 according to Grove. The mkhar-rnga bcu-pa gong-frame is mentioned in the Zlos-gar chapter and the Grove section on gar.

Within TAR the fortunes of gar are documented in the Anthology; and Mao Jizeng’s six-CD anthology of Tibetan music in TAR, Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (Wind Records, 1994), recorded since the 1980s, features both nangma-töshe (CDs 3 and 5) and gar (CD 5, ##3–4), despite the nugatory liner notes; see Mireille Helffer’s review. In the absence of Mao Jizeng’s monograph, all I can find of his notes on gar is on pp.38–42 of this trite overview of Tibetan music.

[10] For another thoughtful article by Woeser, exploring the shifting sands of prohibited “reactionary songs” and the challenge of keeping track of subtle allusions, see here.

* In another age, he might have returned with gifts emblazoned “My mate went to Lhasa and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.

** Impertinently, this reminds me of both the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch and various instances of musos’ deviant behaviour (notably this, and even Revenge at the Prague opera).

A Beatles roundup


Under the Beatles tag in the sidebar are several posts on particular albums, based on the insightful comments of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online: see his guide to the whole series, as well as a useful overview by Ger Tillekens). I began writing what turned into a series in non-chronological order, so now I’ve tried to re-edit them more logically, with this as the introductory post.

From the age of ten—though with my sheltered, genteel, classical upbringing I was quite immune to a lot of pop music—I avidly spent my pocket-money on the early Beatles singles and EPs. In my book Plucking the winds I reflected on the stark contrast between the lives of my village friends under Maoism and my own tranquil upbringing:

Meanwhile Gaoluo villagers were starving. I began to learn the violin in a polite suburb south of London, under very different conditions from those in which Cai An had learned music. By 1963 I was doing quite well, and won a local contest, though I was less keen on Handel sonatas than on the new songs from the Beatles, whose photo I kept in my violin case. My awareness of issues in defining classical and popular musics was still very basic.

At some stage I acquired the LPs of Rubber soulThe white album, and Revolver—all of them brilliant. But I don’t recall becoming hooked on Sgt Pepper and Abbey road until after 1972 at Cambridge, when they were party regulars. I trust I didn’t attempt to dance.

* * *

Wilfrid Mellers’s tenure at York was formative for innovations in new composition and early music. And with his book Twilight of the gods: the Beatles in retrospect, published in 1973, quite soon after the Beatles had disbanded, he was among the pioneers of taking pop music seriously. It was work like this that opened the floodgates, to the consternation of old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon—as some, indeed, still do, although for them the Beatles  seemed more palatable candidates for admission to the elite club than many popular and folk genres.

Clearly, popular music is not dependent on such complex skills for its efficacity; but neither are folk or art musics. Many, even most, popular songs (e.g. Country: “three chords and the truth”), making use of a more limited technical palette, can make a deep effect individually, without the verbose sanction of the metropolitan elite and all our fancy analytical vocabulary. In his Preface Mellers qualifies his approach:

Music quotation, even in reference to literate “art” music, can never be adequate; in reference to Beatle music (and to most pop, jazz, folk, and non-Western music) it may be not only inadequate but also misleading; for written notation can represent neither the improvised elements nor the immediate distortions of pitch and flexibilities of rhythm which are the essence (not a decoration) of a music orally and aurally conceived. […]

To those who still found it “inherently risible” that pop music should be discussed in technical terms at all, his reply suggests an ethnomusicological grounding:

There is no valid way of talking about the experiential “effects” of music except by starting from an account of what actually happens in musical technique, the terminology of which has been evolved by professional musicians over some centuries. The fact that a Beatle—or a jazzman or a peasant singer or a perhaps highly sophisticated oriental musician [sic!]—has never heard of a dominant seventh or a mediant relationship or whatever, is neither here nor there; people who live and work in “oral” traditions have no need critically to rationalise about what they are doing. Of course it is possible to argue that all discussion and writing about music is a waste of time; I’ve occasionally come near to saying this myself. However, if this is true, it applies to all discussion of all music equally; analysis of Beethoven is no less irrelevant than analysis of Beatles.

This chimes in with Allan Marett’s point, inspired by Susan McClary, on Aboriginal dream songs—which indeed are among the exhibits in Mellers’ “Prologue and initiation”, whose opening section explores general themes in the Beatle world. Pursuing the mission to treat all musickings around the world on an equal footing, he ponders music as a way of life:

It is not an embellishment of living which one can take or leave; it does something, being music of necessity in somewhat the same sense as this phrase is applied to the musics of primitive peoples [sic].

After considering childhood games and ritual, he moves on to the evolution of musicking in European cultures; the “mythological” significance of popular lyrics; the origins of pop melody, and vocal and instrumental style, in blues and folk; the role of harmony and metre; and the narcotic loss of identity in the communal act. He goes on to explore the Beatles’ development of their cosmopolitan Liverpool background, quoting John:

I heard Country and Western music in Liverpool before I heard rock and roll. The people there—the Irish in Ireland are the same—take their Country and Western music very seriously.

Far more all-embracing than other pop music of the time, the Beatles (and we should also bear in mind George Martin’s input as producer) would refine elements from blues, Country, folk, rock, music-hall, children’s games, and psychedelia into their unique “Edenic dream”.

So some may still find it redundant to analyse such works that are so widely appreciated on an intuitive level, but For What It’s Worth, Mellers’ analysis reveals the great artistry of the Beatles. Actually, such are the riches of their creativity that his discussion could be far more extensive—covering their whole ouevre, Twilight of the gods only has space for eleven pages on Abbey road, for instance. Others, notably Pollack, have taken analysis further.

Great as the songs on the other albums are (and Revolver has been much praised), I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road most cohesive as orchestral song-cycles (for wonderful examples of which, see here), like unstaged operas—whether or not they were designed as such. So whereas I can select some individual songs in the earlier LPs, in discussing these final masterpieces I have to give them all equal weight in the total effect.

* * *

So here’s a roundup of my main posts:

In his page on Here, there, and everywhere Pollack makes a wonderful observation:

I save my favorite free association, this time, for last. Now, this song is characterized by the following gesture that opens each verse: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent in the tune, as in—”Here (pause) making each day of the year …”

He lists other songs by Paul that share this feature:

  • Listen (pause) do you want to know a secret
  • Eleanor Rigby (pause) picks up the rice
  • Day after day (pause) alone on a hill
  • Hey Jude (pause) don’t make it bad
  • Hold me tight (pause) tell me I’m the only one
  • Honey pie (pause) you are making me crazy
  • The long and winding road (pause) that leads to your door
  • Michelle (pause) ma belle
  • Oh darling (pause) please believe me
  • Try to see it my way (pause) do I have to keep on talking
  • Look (pause) what you’re doing
  • When I call you up (pause) your line’s engaged
  • Yesterday (pause) all my troubles seemed so far away.

The vocal melodies and harmonies of the Beatles, and their technological innovations, are so entrancing that one may underestimate their instrumental skills. So I may also mention pleasingly technical discussions of their guitar technique, such as this and this.

* * *

In his final chapter, “Elegy on a mythology”, Mellers reflects on the whole trajectory of Beatle music, pondering on the relationship between music and myth.

As pop musicians they are simultaneously magicians (dream-weavers), priests (ritual celebrants), entertainers (whiling away empty time), and artists (incarnating and reflecting the feelings—rather than thoughts—and perhaps the conscience of a generation). If this multiplicity of function is a source of much semantic confusion, both on the part of the Beatles themselves and of those who comment on them, it is also a source of their strength.

He observes

Only in a very partial sense can we dismiss the teenager’s orgiastic dancing as a tipsy escape from the hard realities of life. On the contrary, as compared with the romantic unreality of the previous generation’s ballroom dancing (which is in turn related to the fairy-tale myth of classical ballet), one might rather describe teenage dance as practical and functional in Collingwood’s sense: an inchoate attempt to rediscover the springs of being.

On revivalist movements he cites Mary Douglas, who notes that

it is not quite true that effervescence must either be routinised or fizzle out. It is possible for it to be sustained indefinitely as a normal form of worship.

Mellers goes on,

The magical-religious and the art-entertainment functions of Beatle music don’t cancel each other out; they do, however, in their interrelationship, contain an element of equivocation: which is part of the Beatles’ “representative” fascination.

He returns to Collingwood, citing his distinction between hedonistic amusement (entertainment) and utilitarian magic. And he disposes of red herring of the profit-motive. He stresses:

To deplore the illiteracy of the Beatles—or of any pop or jazz group—is nonsensical: for the essence of their achievement is that it is a return from literate and visual to aural and oral culture.

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

if they guffaw at intellectuals (like me) who discover “hidden meanings” in their songs, they’ve given plenty of evidence that these meanings are not hidden at all but merely, like 80% of the meaning in all art, in part unconscious.

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

Though my later path has intersected but rarely with these albums, I take impertinent pride in belonging to a generation capable of producing such genius. Personal reception histories are a significant aspect of our cultural appreciation, but at whatever point in Life you engage with the Beatles, their work is astounding.

Like the audiences of Bach and Mahler, we didn’t know how lucky we were… But beyond any personal identification with the zeitgeist that the Beatles express, all this is significant not only because of the Beatles’ central place in modern Western culture, but in view of the whole incorporation of popular culture into our perspectives on musicking around the world

Given my whole argument about society and soundscape, I’m aware of the irony of my celebrating “great works” mostly created in the recording studio without an audience. So I’d like to stress again that stunning as all this artistry is, efficacity, generally, doesn’t depend on complexity, or on narrative development; not only does the logical flow of Indian raga or Messiaen work within very different parameters, but more static sound-worlds are also valid—such as punk, Northern soul, Aboriginal songsNote also What is serious music?!

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 encyclopedia. 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 herehere, and for an anthropological approach, 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
Here’s 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 (unpacked by Gary Younge, and in this review): 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.



In 1966, only a year after Rubber soul, the Beatles released Revolver. In a 1996 interview, George found the two albums quite similar: “to me, they could be Volume 1 and Volume 2”. But it is Revolver that is increasingly recognised as one of the greatest and most innovative albums in popular music.

Here it is as a playlist, again in the 2009 remastered version:

Studio technology and psychedelia are coming to the fore; love songs are becoming subsidiary. Yet again I’ll cite Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Mellers opens:

Though Revolver still contains ritual elements, one can no longer discuss it in terms of adolescent ceremonial, nor is it relatable to the conventions of commercialized pop music. Halfway between ritual and art, it’s both verbally and musically an extraordinary breakthrough; and since the songs complement one another without forming a sequence, one cannot avoid some comment on each.

I won’t do so, but some songs most dear to me are;

  • Eleanor Rigby, the polar opposite of the satirical opening Taxman, is accompanied only by string octet—an innovation that one might hardly notice (cf. She’s leaving home on Sgt Pepper). Mellers is in fine form again:

It is about compassion, loneliness, and implicitly about the generation gap—three basic themes of second period Beatle music—and there is no precedent for its musical idiom, which has nothing to do with jazz, but is an amalgam of rural folk and urban music-hall. The tonality is a dorian E minor, though the initial invocation of “all the lonely people” is a rising and falling scale (with sharpened fourth) over a C minor triad, with a rocking and chugging accompaniment. The song proper is narrative ballad, and the words are poetry, evoking with precise economy Eleanor Rigby, the middle-aged spinster who picks up the rice at somebody else’s wedding, lives in a dream, keeps her face “in a jar by the door”; and Father Mackenzie, the priest who lives alone, darns his socks in the empty night, writes the sermon that no-one wants to listen to, wipes off his hands the dirt from the grave where he’s buried Eleanor Rigby after administering the last rites by which “no-one was saved”. The words reverberate through their very plainness; and manage to characterise not only those two lonely people but also (as George Melly has put it) “the big soot-black sandstone Catholic churches with the trams rattling past, the redbrick terraced houses with laced curtains and holy-stoned steps” of the Beatles’ boyhood Liverpool. The tune, lyrically sung by Paul, never modulates but has a tentative, groping tenderness as it stretches up the scale to those modally sharpened sixths, only to droop again, in a flexible rhythm that often overrides the barlines; so when it returns to the choric introductory phrase as a refrain, the scope of the song is marvellously extended. Miss Rigby and Father Mackenzie, the soaring refrain tells us, may be founded on real characters from the Beatles’ childhood, yet none the less represent all the lonely people; and that includes us, and the young Beatles (who were soon to be members of Sgt Pepper’s LONELY HEARTS club band). Yet there is never a suspicion of emotional indulgence in this song; that is belied by the rigidity of the chugging accompaniment, even though it is given to emotive strings. Occasionally (after that dismayed octave leap for “where do they all come from”) the violins wing up scalewise; more often they reinforce the thumping crotchet pulse, or the rocking quavers. In the final phrase of the tune and in the coda the “where do they all come from” query reaches up not through an octave but through a tenth. This makes something like a climax, and the song has an end which is not, however, decisive. The final cadence is the only V I progression in the piece, and even here the dominant chord is in second inversion. All the other cadences reinforce the tonal ambiguity of the submediant introduction, an effect the more disturbing because the C major triads conflict with the sharpened Cs in the modal tune.

Pollack notes:

You can look at this song from at least two angles and try to pull it apart with great clinical precision; the Verismo lyrics and grainy, tintype backing arrangement for strings on the one side, and the more familiar bluesy, syncopated, boxy form on the other. But the truth here is even more elusive than usual, and I dare say that the real irony of this song is to be confronted in the extreme to which the otherwise analytically separable elements within its blend are so well synthesised. Think of it as an amalgam whose elements can no longer be so easily separated ever again once combined.

Having first played sitar for Norwegian wood, George now developed the sound more prominently—the soundscape now augmented by tabla:

  • Love you to was “the Beatles’ first unambiguous exploration of orientalism”. Their use of Indian timbres was influential; indeed, it only strikes me now that this was the beginning of my own youthful fascination with raga. Introduced by the briefest quasi-alap, the song soon launches into a regular metre. Mellers:

The vocal line oscillates around G, moving up to B♭, the flattened seventh, down to F♮; and the music convinces not because it is “like” genuine Indian music (it is by Indian standards rudimentary), but because it is an extension of the anti-Western, anti-materialism, anti-action theme we have seen to be endemic in Beatle music. Though George seems to be singing (as did all the early Beatle songs) of sexual love and presumably of coitus itself, his point is that the act of love can destroy the temporal sense (“make love all day, making love singing songs”) which is what happens in the drone-coda and fade-out.

Pollack comments:

At the time it seemed like many people who, just the week before, had never seen a sitar or heard of Ravi Shankar, were running out, overnight, to buy what we nowadays call “world music” recordings, tickets to rug concerts, and even authentic instruments.

But as he goes on to note, it was a rather fickle fad:

It’s a chutzpah for the Westerner to expect to confront this stuff without sincere and patient preparation.

The only merit of attempts to suggest a specific raga as the basis for the scale of George’s Indian-based songs (such as Within you, without you on Sgt Pepper) is to draw us to the complexities of raga in its native form. Much as Pollack admires the experiment, he’s not entirely convinced by the result here; the connoisseur of raga may be still less convinced by some of these Indian-inspired songs.

And George was still a beginner on sitar; even supposing that he might have played the opening, the player for the rest of the track remains unidentified; it seems most unlikely that it is George that we hear.

As Mellers notes in a later chapter,

The Beatles’ tinkering with oriental metaphysics, even if sincere, as was certainly the case with George, hardly amounts to more than an alleviatory game if contrasted with the late music of John Coltrane, who might genuinely be said to have prayed with and through his horn.

Ravi Shankar liked both Trane and George; but he was perplexed by the disturbed results of the former’s immersion in Indian music and philosophy, whereas he seems to have looked more favourably on George’s experiments (for more, see e.g. here and here).

Love you to is followed by the gorgeous ballad

  • Here, there, and everywhere—as Mellers observes, deceptively simple: love as revelation, with tonal as well as metrical metamorphosis, further unpacked by Pollack.
  • Yellow submarine (cf. Octopus’s garden in Abbey road) is too easily taken for granted. Mellers hits the spot again:

Typically, the Beatles then torpedo this lyrical tenderness… Ringo’s blunt Liverpudlianism brings us back to earth, or anyway to “the town where I was born”, in a rhythm as strictly circumscribed, a diatonicism as plain, as that of the Celebrated Working Man’s Band. Yet the banality is as deceptive as was the simplicity of Here, there, and everywhere. For the song turns out to be a revocation of childhood memory that is also a liberation into dream—an “instant nursery rhyme”, as George Melly has put it, “as unselfconscious as a children’s street song, but true to their own experience… It’s not American comic book heroes who climb aboard the Yellow submarine but Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty and his pals. The departure for the Sea of Dreams is from the Liverpool pierhead.” On might even say that the song’s human triviality sets off the mystery of the “acquatic unknown tongues” we then hear bobbing on and in the waters; in which sense regression is prelude to another rebirth. If there’s nothing in the music that is memorable in itself—except the fact that it’s easy to memorise and so stays in the mind—we’re soon aware that the experience isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, purely musical. A hubbub of friends is heard on the quay, the town band blasts its blatant farewell, and we’re in a mythical world—to be more deeply explored in Sgt Pepper—which cannot be adequately realised in concert hall or on stage. The music has, again, a talismantic function, recalling a Liverpudlian childhood, launching the Beatles on a submarine voyage into the unconscious: out of which their later and greater music was to spring.

As Pollack observes, the musical simplicity

provides the firm platform needed to support the campy-yet-futuristic collage of sampled sound-bites overlaid upon it.

The extraordinary final track

  • Tomorrow never knows is again tinged with the Indian influence. Mellers:

Drums and a tambura drone on C re-establish an oriental atmosphere, while the melody alternates a non-metrical phrase on the triad of C major with a triplet on the fifth, rising to the flat seventh, then to the tonic. “It is not dying, it is shining, it is the end of the beginning”, we’re told, with sundry references to the Tibetan Book of the dead culled from Timothy Leary. […] The singing voice, which is here the mind alone, is gradually engulfed in an electronic hubbub emulating the cries of birds and beasts, the hurly-burly of the natural world. Having begun with adolescent regression, the Beatles conclude the first work of their young maturity with an almost-literal aural synonym for return to the womb. There are parallels to this in avant-garde jazz (the jungle noises possibly derive from Mingus) as well as in “art” music, but this doesn’t weaken the impact of the song.

Listeners may find some of these Indian-inspired songs more successful than others, but here the Beatles create an effective sound-world. Pollack notes that while Tomorrow never knows is a “kitchen sink” of the Beatles’ repertoire at the time, the effect is unified.

* * *

Revolver is indeed a great album. As I reflect in my introduction to this series, Call Me Old-fashioned, but I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road more consistent, and more cohesive as song-cycles—but hey, like Mahler symphonies, rather than making a futile attempt to rank them, let’s just rejoice in them all.

Unpromising chromaticisms

Anglo-American popular music—like most music in the world—is so firmly based on the anhemitonic pentatonic (or at least diatonic) scale that it’s intriguing to note how successful songs can be despite unobtrusively break the rules.

Putting familiarity aside, few listeners even pause to reflect that the remarkably similar chromatic opening phrases of these two melodies from 1939 and 1942 are highly implausible:

We'll meet again

I'm dreaming

Hey, no-one’s ever going to listen to songs beginning like that—surely they could never catch on?! (For scathing reviews of Great Works, see Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective.) Without context, you might suppose them to come from soundtracks for horror movies. OK, here’s a clue: like oxygen, it’s something to do with harmony (although no-one needs to know that)… Anyway, the composers soon realised that such slithery meanderings just weren’t going to work—but it was precisely those opening phrases that would become universal earworms. So here they are in context:

We’ll meet again, by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, sung by Vera Lynn, R.I.P. (for reflections on the predicament of “our” current nostalgia, also unpacked by Stewart Lee, see here):

and (serving a similar role, for GIs spending their first Christmas away from home after entering the war) Bing Crosby with Irving Berlin’s I’m dreaming of a white Christmas * (“Dream on”—Greta Thunberg):

Who’d have thought it, eh? For a melodically less challenging early-music song, see Edouard Ibert’s Pique-nique. And listeners can get used to additive metres as well.

All this is yet more proof that I am O’Fay with the latest developments of these New-Fangled Popular Beat Combos (see also stile nuovo). See also When I’m sixty-four.

* With my ears attuned to Mahler, I can’t help hearing echoes of the motif in the third movement of the 9th symphony, which returns in the finale—its rhythmically related melody also opening on mi, but less chromatic:

Mahler 9.3

Native American cultures 2: the Navajo

Was advised to stay in the car.

—David McAllester, 22nd September 1950.

Squaw dance

The Squaw dance: undated early photo by Joseph Howard McGibbeny (1891–1970).

With Bruno Nettl’s wise reflections on Native American musical cultures in mind, among the many groups that he and others have studied, I’ve been trying to get a basic grasp of the ceremonies of the Navajo (Diné) [1]—most populous among the indigenous peoples in the southwestern USA (Hopi, Pueblo, Apache, Yuma, Pima, and so on).

Again, apart from the intrinsic merits of such research, the topic suggests fruitful perspectives for our studies of Chinese folk ritual and the sacred–secular continuum.

Here’s a basic map:

map SW

and a map of the Navajo territories:


From Titon (ed.), Worlds of music.

Modern Navajo history is just as troubled as that of other indigenous peoples—savage army repression from the 1840s leading to the Long Walk of 1864, followed by containment on reservations, assimilation in boarding schools, and the relocations and environmental degradation wrought by the mining industry since the 1960s. Yet their ceremonial life has remained lively. The Navajo language is still widely spoken (note this fine riposte); the wartime code talkers make an absorbing theme.

First I’ll give an outline of Navajo ceremonies, and then get to grips with a classic study of the Enemy Way, its soundscape and cultural values. Last But Not Least, for those of us unable to attend such rituals in person, I’ll offer a few audio and visual materials, which make an essential complement to silent, immobile text!

While many general themes in ritual are widespread (see e.g. Catherine Bell and Frits Staal), societies around the world slice their ritual pies in different ways. Many rituals, or segments, are multi-purpose (on a jocular note, do enjoy Stewart Lee’s youthful illustration of ritual redundancy).

In China, beyond the ancient binary classification of Daoist rituals as zhai Fasts and jiao Offerings, later we find yin and yang rituals for the dead and the living (more broadly, red rituals for the living, white for the dead), or a tripartite taxonomy such as funerary, earth, and temple scriptures, and so on (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.15–20). Even a list of different types of jiao Offering is extensive. And scholars may adopt their own categories, such as exorcism, healing, pestilence rituals, rites of affliction, and rituals for domestic blessing.


Kinaalda ceremony. Source here.

Navajo ceremonies may last for up to nine days and nights. Among several sites, the focus of healing rituals is the circular log hogan (by the mid-20th century, often a specially-constructed edifice rather than an everyday dwelling), inside which the medicine man (the Navajo term hatali “singer” isn’t gender-specific, though most are indeed male) deploys his jish bundle and depicts sand paintings [2] (see films below). Altars are also constructed outside the hogan.

Again the ritual taxonomy is complex. Among a wide range of Navajo ceremonies (Night Chant Way, Mountain Chant Way, and so on), some have become obsolete—their ritual activities have long been changing, albeit more subtly than other areas of their life such as material culture. But the Blessing Way (Hózhójí), the core ritual, is frequently held; it may be performed for expectant mothers shortly before birth, for young men leaving for the armed forces, and for kinaalda puberty rituals for girls (for which, see films below); moreover, parts of the Blessing Way feature within most other Navajo ceremonies. [3]

The Enemy Way
On the Enemy Way (Anaa’jí), a ceremony for countering the harmful effects of ghosts, I gladly turn to a monograph that Nettl cites often—an early classic of ethnomusicology:

(cf. later influential classics of ethnomusicology relating musicking to culture, such as Neuman, The life of music in north India, and accessible books like Lortat-Jacob, Sardinian chonicles, and indeed Proulx, Accordion crimes).

Navajo cover

McAllester’s study is based on fieldwork in the Rimrock area of Arizona over four and a half months from 1950 to 1951. Utilising an already substantial body of anthropological studies, in a mere 96 densely-packed pages—many of which are devoted to transcriptions and musical analysis—he manages to provide a wealth of information on the relation of sound to ritual culture and aesthetic values.

Apart from making formal recordings, McAllester lists the public Enemy Way ceremonies that he attended in September 1950—including one of my favourite fieldwork tips ever, which heads this post (cf. More fieldwork tips).

diary 1

diary 2As Nettl went on to observe, the very term for “music” is far from universal—an issue that McAllester addresses in his Introduction. Distinguishing existential and normative values, he notes:

There was no general word for “musical instrument” or even for “music”. A face-finding question such as “What kinds of musical instruments do you use?” (really intended to start the informant thinking and talking about music) had to be phrased, “Some people beat a drum when they sing; what other things are used like that?”. A “fact” in the Navajo [4] universe is that music is not a general category of activity but has to be divided into specific aspects of kinds of music. I learned, moreover, that beating a drum to accompany oneself in song was not a matter of esthetic choice but a rigid requirement for a particular ceremony, and a discussion of musical instruments was not an esthetic discussion for the Navajos but was, by definition, a discussion of ceremonial esoterica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And though McAllester claims that

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

he goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on p.77 he comments:

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

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

As he explains at the outset,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enemyway 27

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

score 1

Sway songs (cf. comments above).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Recorded by Laura Boulton:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more recent introduction to kinaalda:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bomba: resistance and celebration


Scene from La bomba.

AOCThe wise, principled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) is always an inspiration.

Combining politics with culture, AOC recently tweeted clips of Puerto Rican bomba from the protests ignited by the police murder of George Floyd: *

So I’m prompted to do a very basic reccy on the genre. In Puerto Rico the effects of the devastating hurricane in 2017 have been compounded by the paltry US government response. Among various performance genres there, bomba (“barrel”) is not only a celebration but, developed by slaves on the sugar plantations, has a long history of expressing dissent—a call to resistance. Yet another instance of “serious music“!

This documentary highlights the political functions of bomba:

Like the related development plena, it’s based on the interplay between drummers and dancers, the latter leading, with topical improvised sung verses and choruses. And like flamenco, it’s based on family traditions. The piquetes dance figures are mainly in duple metres, such as Sicá, Cuembé, and Holandés, as well as the triple Yubá—all with derivatives.

See also here.

* Brief resumé for any visiting Martians: Police Departments mount novel defence against accusations of gross brutality by providing copious new evidence of gross brutality; and just when you thought he couldn’t possibly get any more offensive, destructive, morally deficient, and infantile, the Orange Baby-in-Chief continues to surpass himself with callous divisive inarticulate rants, providing the wonderful Sarah Cooper (MUST WATCH!) with endless material, such as this.

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 know or at least conjectured of the Plains Indians before about 1800CE, 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 [cf. the care needed in approaching “music” in China (cf. here; 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 Aborigines in Australia and other nomadic populations (e.g. Kazakhs); the Jews and Roma; and traumas under Stalin (e.g. Figes, Applebaum), the Holocaust, and Mao (such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, and for the Han Chinese, China: commemorating trauma).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noor Inayat Khan

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

—Inayat Vilayat Khan, 2003

Noor 1

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

Basu cover

I’ve been reading

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

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

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

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

Amina Begum; right, with her daughter Noor.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Sister drum

Sister durm

As Tibetan culture continues to change, and as scholarship has matured, it’s worth revisiting a lucid article from 2002,

  • Janet L. Upton, “The politics and poetics of Sister drum: ‘Tibetan’ music in the global marketplace”, in Timothy J. Craig and Richard King (eds), Global goes local: popular culture in Asia. [1]

To the consternation of many, the album Sister drum (Ajiegu, 1995) by the Han-Chinese singer Dadawa (Zhu Zheqin) soon became a huge hit in East Asia, and sold well in the West too.

Amidst an increasingly diverse pop scene with the PRC, the CD was part of the packaging of Tibet for a Chinese audience—the “Tibet craze” since the 1990s in literature, art, and film, to which some Tibetans also subscribe.

While Zhu Zheqin, a native of Guangzhou, had no prior experience of Tibetan culture, composer He Xuntian and his brother He Xunyou, the main lyricist, had experience of collecting folk-songs and working in Tibetan areas. In summer 1993 they all travelled to Tibet to collect and record folk-songs.

The primary intent of Sister drum’s producers seems to have been to use Tibetan culture and quasi-Tibetan religious themes to explore musical and spiritual worlds of their own.

Rather like people have long done in the West, you might think—the so-called “singing bowls” are just one extreme instance; the “om mani padme hum” mantra of the title track has, after all, been amply exploited in the West too. Indeed, the sound of Sister drum appealed not only to the Chinese but to the wider world music and New Age markets. The liner notes spell out the Exotic Othering image of a “primitive” society (a notion also long promoted in the West), providing more classic entries in the Catechism of cliché:

Tibetans are a community noted for group dances and choral singing. An alien land filled even today with marvelous tales and legendary colour. Lacking the so-called “individual” or “individual consciousness”, people there still live as one, according to the ancient custom.

Cultural appropriation is the tightrope that “world music” constantly has to tread.  Chinese people, sharing with Westerners an enthusiasm for an image of Tibetan culture, are hardly responsible for the actions of their government—but they are likely to come in for more criticism.

Zhu Zheqin was rebuked for assuming the name Dadawa, and for dressing in quasi-Tibetan costumes for the artwork (which for exiled Tibetans resembled an abomination of a nun’s robes). On the album’s creators, Upton comments:

On the one hand, they focus on the “traditional” qualities of Tibetan culture and the authenticity of their interpretation of Tibetan music; on the other hand, they stress the innovative aspects of their presentation. At one point, for example, the project is described as “a record about Tibet” that represents “20 years of Tibetan folk music”. Yet in the following paragraph, composer He Xuntian states, “We didn’t go to Tibet to find Tibet as such, we went to find ourselves.”

Again, such interplay of innovation and appropriation seems normal in the world music scene.

Noting that the album didn’t emerge from a cultural vacuum, Upton considers some antecedents of the Tibet craze in Chinese intellectual and artistic circles, such as the short stories of the Tibetan author Tashi Dewa, the modern art of Tibetan painter Nyi-ma Tshe-ring, and collections by Chinese photographers. Yet all this enthusiasm, by contrast with romantic Western imaginings,

is framed within a state-sanctioned discourse that demands the representation of Tibet as “an integral part of the motherland”.

As Upton observes,

It is easy to condemn Sister Drum and other products emerging as part of the “Tibet craze” as callous Chinese appropriations of Tibetan culture in response to a new market for the exotic, but the process is much more complex and historically situated. […]

Attempts to incorporate Tibet and Tibetan culture within a Chinese nationalist discourse began long before the founding of the PRC. […] The field of music has been an especially productive terrain in this respect. Ever since the 1930s, Chinese musicians have been utilising Tibetan themes, including Tibetan folk tunes, as they seek to construct a new national music that embraces all of the modern nation-state’s ethnic diversity. This pre-revolutionary pattern of cultural appropriation was continued in the early post-1949 period, when the collection of folk songs was used by the new regime as an important means of coming to know the social concerns of the minority populations of the new People’s Republic. Collections of Tibetan folk songs were published in the 1950s, and their contents represent a more or less balanced presentation of Tibetan musical style, if somewhat weighted toward new revolutionary concerns in content.

These compilations demonstrate a real concern with the accurate portrayal of Tibetan musical life and the cultural context from which it derives, a concern that is remarkable given that many of the compilers were members of the People’s Liberation Army, the agency enforcing the “liberation” of Tibet [cf. Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans]. [2]

Upton goes on to outline the state-promoted “Tibetan folk songs” of the 60s and 70s.

Ironically for the Tibetan people themselves (and for other minority groups as well) their appearance at the centre of the stage of state-sponsored culture was contemporaneous with the physical and spiritual destruction of much of their historical and cultural legacy. […] So effective were these media campaigns that even when confronted with physical evidence of the devastating effects of revolutionary policies on Tibetan culture, many Han Chinese have difficulty reconciling that reality with the images they carry in their heads.

Meanwhile at the commercial level, by the early 1990s saccharine-sweet cassettes of “folk-song” featured Tibetan and other minority songs prominently. While one aspect of the collection of folk music under Maoism was as source material for new socialist creations, the “new-wave” composers who studied at the conservatoires after the end of the Cultural Revolution (such as Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, and indeed He Xuntian) were now adopting a more challenging approach to incorporating traditional ethnic culture into their work, often on the basis of fieldwork—liberating themselves from the constraints of Maoist orthodoxy.

Thus, as Upton points out, Sister drum built on a long tradition of co-opting Tibetan music. She then discusses the hazards of cultural appropriation as the album came to be digested outside China. As Tibetans in exile gained a higher profile, they and other reviewers soon published detailed rebuttals. As one review commented:

For the Western listener, it is hard to tell whether the album represents a Chinese claim on Tibetan culture, sympathy for Tibet, or simply musicians seeking spiritually tinged exotica.

All of the above, perhaps. Anyway, the hype around the album did at least draw wider attention to the Chinese ravaging of Tibet.

In a balanced conclusion, Upton recognizes the positive role of the album in espousing Tibetan culture and religion, and reminds us that Western interest has itself grown out of a legacy of colonialism and Orientalism. Such creations may prompt re-examinations and reworkings of these legacies, both in the West and in China, and even as a forum for protest. Still, for many Han Chinese the state-sponsored image of Tibet—“as backward, under-developed minorities on one hand, and smiling, dancing recipients of the Party’s benevolence on the other”—wields considerable power.

Upton ends by considering a follow-up release, Voices from the sky, which includes a song whose lyrics are adapted from poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Moreover, the song “Himalayans” addresses the departure of many Tibetans for a life in exile, invoking a terrible sense of loss. However deliberate, such works “can and will be read in different ways”.

* * *

Upton’s article was a rather early venture into the contested field of Tibetan popular music in the global bazaar, but remains instructive.

§10 (“Pop music, world music and contemporary genres”) of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s extensive, essential Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts lists impressive research covering pop both within the PRC and in exile, including work by Nimrod Baranovitch, Keila Diehl, Anna Morcom, and Yangdon Dhondup, and singers as diverse as Tseten Dolma, Han Hong, Yungchen Lhamo, Yadong, and Sa Dingding. This article by Henrion-Dourcy herself makes a good introduction.

Since the early years of the reform era, it’s good to see young Tibetan musicians forging their own interpretations (see sites such as High Peaks Pure Earth and Radiichina.com). And Tibetan thinkers like Woeser continue to further the dialogue.


[1] The same volume also includes an article by Rachel Harris on the Uyghur music industry.

[2] I would add that by the 1980s, in the spirit of pioneers like Yang Yinliu, local cultural cadres were engaged in the vast nationwide Anthology project—including the documentation of the vocal, instrumental, and dance traditions all around the Tibet Autonomous Region [sic], Amdo, and Kham, county by county. Like their counterparts in Han Chinese regions, they were genuinely concerned to document their local traditions, and many of them would have done what they could to bypass any expectations of serving state cultural propaganda. As with the material on Han Chinese traditions, the project is flawed, but provides valuable leads.

Cf. William Noll‘s comments on ethnographers of one cultural heritage conducting fieldwork among a people of  different cultural heritage, where both groups live within the political boundaries of one state.




Photo gallery: updates

Now and then I add images to the Gallery that appears as you scroll wa-ay down in the sidebar. While selective, it serves partly to lead you to some of the posts and pages that I found interesting to write, supplementing the *MUST READ!* category.

Gallery 1

They’re very loosely grouped by theme, with the Li family Daoists and Hebei ritual associations at the top, followed by European cultures and politics; WAM, world music, and gender; and more personal posts further down.

Gallery 2

So as you click on the images, do follow up by reading the posts to which they’re linked! Anyway, it’s another way of browsing,

The spiritual path of John Coltrane

Coltrane 3

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

John Coltrane (1926–67)

Coltrane 2

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

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

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

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

Coltrane 1

Trane with Dizzy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And McCoy Tyner noted:

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

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

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

Coltrane Miles Kind of Blue

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

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

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

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

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

This playlist has many other fabulous tracks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditations (1966) (as a playlist):

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

Expression (1967):

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

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

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

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

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

Unpacking “Tibetan singing bowls”

singing bowls

There is no credible historical evidence, whatsoever, of Tibetans ever having used singing bowls.

The Tibetan singing bowl doesn’t exist and isn’t real, but the racist mythologization of Tibetan people most definitely is.

For the sake of our collective sanity, it’s worth spreading far and wide recent exposés debunking the myth of “Tibetan singing bowls”. Two online articles are especially relevant, by Tenzin Dheden and Ben Joffe—do please share!

The orientalist fetishisation of the Mystic East comes into its own with the suspicious package of New Age healing, meditation, and “spirituality”, of which the bowls makes sonorous emblems. [1]

In recent decades, through shrewd marketing they began appearing in curio shops and New Age boutiques—and Tibetan refugee stalls. Fed by Google, Twitter, and Amazon, the myth just won’t go away—a field day for muddled hippies, along with crystals and chakras. Don’t get me wrong—do what you like (It’s A Free Country—Oh, hang on…): just don’t pretend they’re part of Tibetan ritual practice. Or that they’re “ancient”.

As Tenzin Dhoden observes:

This Western practice of essentializing Tibetan culture and capitalizing on that cultural commodification forces marginalized Tibetan refugees into a tricky situation—they get the economic opportunity to sell some metal bowls to fascinated white people but at the cost of being a willing participant in the orientalist imagination of Tibetanness, which in turn causes great cultural trauma and pain to the Tibetan people.

Eager hippies are undeterred by the lack of evidence—Joffe notes:

Tibetans’ silence or disavowals of knowledge are interpreted in three typical ways:
1) the Tibetans to whom the author spoke were not privy to the deepest secrets of their own culture, and therefore unable or unqualified to speak
2) These Tibetans had forgotten or lost the secret knowledge of which the bowls are a part, or
3) These Tibetans are hiding something, guarding their knowledge from prying outsiders or for fear of persecution by ‘orthodox’ Buddhist authorities.

He refers to a passage by “French-Belgian anarchist-feminist-opera-singing-esotericist-explorer” Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969), that turns out not really to support the hippies’ argument. And he cites Robert Beer:

Brass or bronze bowls first began to appear on Tibetan refugee stalls during the 1970s, but these objects were actually the eating or offering bowls of these impoverished refugees. Over the last few decades, these Tibetan singing bowls have been widely manufactured for the tourist markets of India and Nepal, but stories of their employment in ancient Tibet as mystical musical instruments are a modern myth.

The bowls seem to have made their debut in a 1972 recording by Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings. Joffe cites Choetso Amnyetsang on Miley Cyrus, and Austrian anthropologist Agehananda Bharati’s “pizza effect”. He ends on a tolerant, nay enlightened, note:

As Tibetans continue to discuss the potential meanings and consequences of these sorts of cultural commodification pizza-effect-meets-cultural-appropriation scenarios, singing bowl enthusiasts continue to strongly resist acknowledging their own “off-label” use of the bowls. As an anthropologist, rather than throw down some gauntlet and declare that singing bowls are or aren’t Tibetan, I would much rather focus on the complicated social and political lives of these deceptively mundane/deceptively sacred objects. If the anthropological literature on religious movements has taught us anything it’s that cognitive dissonance need not spell disillusionment and cosmological collapse. Rather, cognitive dissonance, epistemic “murk”, and excess themselves spur reformulation, and promote innovation, religious creativity, and change. Which totally feels like a vibe anthropologists can get into.

Tenzin Dheden is more candid:

If you find “sound baths” healing, great! Good for you! But if you can, however, please kindly stop mythologizing and exoticizing Tibetans, and leave us out of your pseudo-scientific New Age nonsense. We are quite preoccupied resisting China’s violent settler colonial rule and fighting to preserve our rich cultural heritage as it is.

Not only are the bowls doing a disservice to Tibetan culture generally, but they detract from our understanding of the social life of Tibetan ritual and its soundscape of complex vocal liturgy accompanied by drums and cymbals, shawms and trumpets. [2] Here’s the Lyrichord album Tibetan ritual music (1967):

See also Sister drum.

[1] For a broader treatment of Western images of Tibet, see e.g. Donald Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (1998). “World music” may also take some of the blame. On the bowls, see also here.

[2] By comparison, “Daoist music” gets off quite lightly, with its “mystical” CDs. Cf. “whirling dervishes”—whose commodified performances are also a proper object of study.




Frozen brass

Wind bands, and brass bands, continue to play a major role in the soundscape of many cultures around the world (cf. trumpet tag; for early wind bands in Europe, see here).

A splendid project by Rob Boonzajer Flaes, with Fred Gales, Ernst Heins, and Miranda van der Spek, resulted in 2 CDs issued on Pan records in 1993:

  • Frozen brass: Anthology of brass band music, #1: Asia
  • Frozen brass: Anthology of brass band music, #2: Africa and Latin America.

They’re magnificently ear-scouring. Both are on Spotify, and the Asia tracks are on a YouTube playlist:

The liner notes give perspectives:

In the times of colonialism, when European soldiers, traders,and missionaries set out to occupy large parts of other continents, they were accompanied by brass bands. The brass band stood for more than just instruments, uniforms, and songs. The martial appearance, the loudness of the instruments, the discipline of the musicians, and its mobility made it a proper symbol of the culture of the conquerors. Technological developments, strict training, rationality, and standardization had produced this ensemble: a band that could play anything in the temperate scale, everywhere, and always in time; a multi-functional ensemble suitable for emperors and military campaigns, enlightening the masses and evoking edifying religious feelings.

The brass band conquered the world as a well-devised formula, as a musical weapon, and a thunderous proof of Western military and religious superiority. Western habits and customs were forced upon the colonized; traditional music, dances, and instruments were forbidden; and local musicians were trained on brass instruments to perform in church, in school or at public events such as national holidays, royal birthdays, and visits of dignitaries. But of course sooner or later, someone discovered that a brass band could do more than merely reproduce Western classics, and enterprising musicians started to use the instruments to music a local audience would listen to, dance to, and—even more important—pay for.

The rigid and uniform colonial brass band came to terms with local music, leading to a wide variety of popular band traditions. Musical hybrids developed, not as part of any grand cultural tradition, but as an ingredient of local popular culture. Nowadays in many countries brass bands (or brass band derivatives) have become indispensable for weddings, circumcisions, processions, funerals, and even for communicating with spirits and inducing trance-like states.

Similar musical hybrids, for example the Bleh music from the Balkansklezmer from the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, and—most famous of all—the development of jazz in New Orleans attracted the attention of the recording and writing industry. Outside Europe and North America, however, brass bands are only locally known.

The African, Asian, and Latin American brass bands are in many ways different from their western counterparts: the instruments may be worn out, or replaced by replicas; traditional drums may be added; and the uniforms can be anything from the local postman’s cast-offs to the most elaborate pieces of art. Marches and hymns are replaced by local tunes, mesmerizing rhythms, or decorous funeral music: tokens of the creativity of thousands of nameless plodders who made the brass band formula their musical way of living.

CD 1 contains tracks from Nepal, India, Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, the Moluccas, Sulawesi), and the Philippines; CD 2 has examples from Ghana, Surinam, Bolivia, and Peru. The notes give useful introduction to genres and bands.

For a taste, how about this Batak hymn from Sumatra, for the second day of a 1992 Protestant funeral:

Such tracks are not mere curiosities, but a window onto the soundscape of social life. Of course, audio recordings can only hint at the “red-hot sociality” of people interacting for communal activities—indeed, at the moment one misses social interaction altogether.

* * *

CWZ big band

Chang Wenzhou’s big band plays for village funeral, Shaanbei 2001.

Brass bands also became common in major Chinese cities from the 1880s, introduced by such Westerners such as Robert Hart, and in the Republican era warlords used them for their own armies. Since the 1980s they have developed out of folk shawm bands (my many posts on which start here), such as in Shaanbei (see my Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, ch.9, and DVD).

Left: funeral procession, Quanzhou 1990;
Right: Catholic band, Gaoluo village, New Year 1995.

As a bonus, here’s a wind band on ice in Tuva—opening with a Tsam masked ritual procession, to boot:

This rather pre-empts my plan to stage the Matthew Passion On Ice.

Some posts on Japanese culture

Here’s a varied selection from the Japan tag in the sidebar.

A little series on Noh:

and, less reverently:

On film:

Some haiku in English:

as well as

and some great Western proponents of Japanese culture:

Not forgetting the Must-read


Another Uyghur film-maker


In Xinjiang, the Uyghur people, and their whole culture, remain under severe repression. Still no news emerges of the great anthropologist Rahilä Dawut (see also Uyghur tag, notably Ashiq: the last troubadour, Uyghur culture in crisis, and Uyghur drum-and-shawm).

The Uyghur dancer, film-maker, and anthropologist Mukaddas Mijit, based in France since 2003, has a creative engagement with the beleaguered culture of her homeland. Do consult her website, and her YouTube channel,

Among her short films, I note this documentary on the Centre for Muqam Transmission in Qumul, inaugurated in 2009 with UNESCO support, some years before the clampdown. The Centre, like others of its kind, makes a classic instance of staged commodification, a world away from Uyghur folk culture—showing how the Chinese state attempts to sanitise it through reification, under the insidious banner of “safeguarding”:

One senses the reservations of the senior muqam masters recruited to the Centre. What has become of such flagships for Uyghur culture amidst the current genocide?

It’s not that an autonomous Uyghur nation wouldn’t be capable of such reification. Such initiatives have long been common among independent nations in Central Asia and elsewhere.

Here’s Mukaddas Mijit’s artistic tribute to her parents’ hometown of Ghulja—long among the flashpoints for ethnic tension in the region, and the site of a 1997 massacre:

She also pays attention to Uyghur rock music—here’s the band Qetig, recorded in Urumqi:

Meanwhile the fate of Uyghur culture at the grassroots—life-cycle observances, pilgrimages, and village celebrations like the mäshräp—looks bleak.

For a recent conference at SOAS on “Surveillance and repression of Muslim minorities: Xinjiang and beyond”, click here.







The struggle against Mussolini



Amelia with her sons Carlo r(ight) and Nello Rosselli.

As a necessary reminder that Italy is more than gorgeous paintings and picturesque piazzas, I’ve been reading


  • Caroline Moorehead, A bold and dangerous family: the Rossellis and the fight against Mussolini (2017).

The book is framed by crucial murders: of Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, and of the brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli in 1937.

The rise of fascism in Italy is amply studied by scholars such as Richard Bosworth. Yet the focused, personal angle of biography makes an engaging perspective on the political upheavals of the 20th century—as we find for China (e.g. here; see also under Cultural Revolutions, including my work on the Li family Daoists).

The present physical and mental landscape of Europe is shaped by the events of the past century (for fascism—Italy 1922–45, Portugal 1933–74, Germany 1933–45, Spain 1939–75—see this wiki article). I’ve outlined the rise of fascism in Spain and Portugal in the context of their singing cultures. And as in China, it can be tempting to retreat into nostalgia for early cultural grandeur.

Amelia: the early years
While the fate of the brothers is the main story of the book, their lives shouldn’t overshadow that of their mother, Amelia Pincherle Rosselli (1870­–1954), Jewish feminist, playwright, and translator.

Reminding us that Italy was only unified in 1870, Moorehead evokes Amelia’s early life in Venice; alongside its splendour, she notes its decaying, sinister feel (D.H. Lawrence: “abhorrent, green, slippery”). She was excited by the launch of the first vaporetto in 1881. Her father died when she was 14, whereupon she moved to Rome. She came to share the ideals of Giuseppe Mazzini, a family friend who spent much of his exile in London. His

patriotism, his hatred of xenophobia and imperialism, his honesty and moral clarity, were all crucial to the Rossellis’ view of themselves and the world they lived in.

Amelia young

Amelia at the time of her marriage.

After her wedding in 1892, the couple took a honeymoon of nearly three months, visiting Naples, Nice, Monte Carlo, Spain, Portugal, North Africa, France, and England. In Vienna Amelia became more politicised, absorbing feminist ideas; becoming multi-lingual, she soon gained a reputation for her challenging plays. After returning to Rome, she gave birth to three sons. But as the couple grew apart, Amelia took them off to live in Florence in 1903, a rather benign separation. There, as Moorehead notes with perspective on modern architectural vandalism, in the last fifteen years alone,

one of the most famous city centres in the world had been stripped down—26 old streets destroyed, along with 40 piazzas—in the name of modernity and hygiene.

Florence (also with a lively expat English community) now made a lively venue for Amelia’s creative talents. Her plays in Venetian dialect were well received. She took part in the evolving feminist movement. Politics played a growing role; as anarchists fostered strikes among the many poor city-dwellers, later battle lines were drawn between reformers and reactionaries. Gaetano Salvemini (1873–1957), an inspiration for the Rossellis, was among the most long-lived anti-fascist historians.

While thinkers were keen to free Italy from the passatismo cult of the past, some futurists also extolled war, like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti; it was important, he wrote, to liberate Italy from

its smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, Ciceroni and antiquarians. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards. […] We will glorify war, the world’s only hygiene […] and scorn women.

Hmm—just when it was going so well…

Amidst the cataclysm of World War One (Moorhead notes that as many as half of the Italian soldiers were illiterate), the death of Amelia’s oldest son Aldo in the Dolomites was devastating.*

The rise of Mussolini, and the resistance
The unhealed scars of hatred from the war led to the rise of Mussolini. Major strikes of workers from 1920 to 1922 were countered by “punitive expeditions” against “subversives” by fascist squadristi, egged on by the police, army, and judiciary.

Carlo became part of a committed anti-fascist circle that included Filipo Turati, Giacomo Matteotti, and the young Piero Gobetti. Through Salvemini he met the Englishwoman Marion Cave, who would become his wife. In 1923, after a trip to Paris, he got to know the Italian community in London, busy with its own political tensions.

The first Italians, pedlars, organ-grinders, and jugglers had arrived in London early in the 18th century, and settled in Clerkenwell, turning its narrow, modest streets into a little Italy, where few of the women spoke English. England had been welcoming to these exiles, as it was to the artisans, barbers, asphalters, carpenters, tool-makers, cooks, and ice-cream makers who travelled up through France and across the Channel all through the 19th century. Arriving in Clerkenwell, they felt at home among the flowering window boxes and the sheets hanging from the windows. Some sold ice from the back of a cart. Others opened boarding houses. Pasta was made at home, then hung from the washing line to dry.**

Among the more affluent Italian community in London many were sympathetic to the fascist cause, including groups like the splendidly-named Ice Cream and Temperance Refreshment Federation. But others lampooned the fascists.

After taking part in a Fabian gathering in genteel Hindhead, Carlo visited Birmingham and the Midlands, “the real England, smoky, dirty, industrial, ugly, productive”—though he found no redeeming features in English food of whatever social level.

After a brief period of ambivalence towards women’s rights, by 1923 Mussolini went on the attack against feminism. Soon

magazine articles showed pictures of comely peasant women in national dress. And sturdy peasant men “mirthful”, yet “sober in their habits”, enjoying “health” and “praiseworthy” pastimes. Private dance halls were closed “for reasons of morality”. People were urged to become lean, willowy, sinewy. “I have no pity,” declared Mussolini, “for the fat”. The new Italian was to be “Herculean”, potent, granite-like, made of steel.

Italian youth were indoctrinated in the Balilla movement (not to be confused with the Barilla pasta company, latterly unlikely sponsors of the wonderful Coco Gauff). Mussolini sent a mission to England to sudy Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts.


The last photo of Matteotti (centre), shortly before his murder.

The murder of Matteotti in 1924 was a decisive moment, shocking the younger dissidents into political action. It was now clear that Mussolini could not be defeated by legal means.

As repression intensified in Italy, Carlo visited London again to observe guild socialism and the new Labour government. Back in Florence, fascist squadri were ever more active. In Monteleone a sculpture was erected of a Madonna and child brandishing a club, La Madonna del manganello. Salvemini was forced into exile.

After managing to help Turati flee to Paris, Carlo was thrown into prison. Though the sentencing of the defendants to a mere ten months at the “trial of the professors” in 1927 seemed like some kind of victory against fascism, Mussolini still sent them off for five years’ confino on a succession of remote island penal colonies. Meanwhile Nello married Maria Todesco; but he too was soon sentenced to confino.

Banishment to penal colonies was a common method of dealing with opponents of the fascist regimes in Europe (for Portugal, see here; cf. The first gulag), and had a long history as far back as ancient Rome. As elsewhere, in recent years these islands—Ustica, Favignana, Lipari, Ponza, Pantelleria, Lampedusa, Le Tremiti—have become tourist destinations, their painful histories often ignored. In recent years they have also become staging posts for desperate migrants on the route to Europe.

Though conditions were spartan, the islands had a certain rustic charm, and compared to many other such camps conditions were relatively benign. Those with sufficient funds were able to find their own dwellings; they received basic supplies from relatives, and educated themselves—and the locals. The Rossellis’ wives and children, and Amelia, were permitted to join them. Early in 1928, Nello was released from Ustica, though he remained under surveillance.

Meanwhile Carlo was on Lipari. Again the confinati kept busy, selling doughnuts, organizing deliveries of Parmesan, giving talks on Dante.

Left: Nello’s house on Ustica, with a crowd of confinati.
Right: Carlo, with Nitti and Lussu, escaping from Lipari on their way to freedom.

Fleeing from such islands was considered impossible; yet in 1929, after several attempts, Carlo managed to escape with two other confinati by boat to Tunisia, eventually reaching Paris, where he joined a lively community of anti-facist exiles; soon Marion and their young children arrived. Nello was soon returned to Ustica before being moved on to Ponza, but he was released again by November.

The struggle continues
Though Mussolini’s network of spies was active in Paris, Carlo and his comrades still managed to stage demonstrations in Italy against fascist power, dropping leaflets by plane over Milan. Such resistance may seem largely ineffectual, but it was significant.

In 1930 Nello spent time in England, meeting up with Salvemini and English supporters of the cause. Amelia joined him. Her nephew Alberto Moravia also arrived; though he was now fêted for his novel Gli indifferenti, Amelia and Nello were disturbed by his cool cynicism. Stopping off in Paris on his way back to Italy, Moravia met up with Carlo, who asked him to post a letter in Rome for an anarchist friend, which he did reluctantly.

This passage may sound familiar:

The Italians were fed inconsistencies, falsehoods, contradictions, differing interpretations, all designed to mystify and confuse, many of it [sic] couched in stentorian, martial tones over the radio. It was forbidden to mention failures.

As the indoctrination of youth continued, we can imagine Amelia’s reaction:

As for girls, who had to be protected from the “unnatural desires of English suffragettes” and the frivolity and worldliness of “French coquettes”, they were made to dance, garden, iron, and knit, and given “doll drills”, in which they were taught how to hold babies the correct way. When, in the early summer of 1928, thousands of girls between the ages of 16 and 18 were brought to Rome for the first gymnastic-athletic competition, they were told to discipline their muscles and take part in rifle practice, while at the same time to study “good mothering”, in order to become “neither feeble… nor gloomy”. (Pope Pius XI protested about the rifles: if girls raised their arms, it should “be always and only in prayer and charitable actions”.)

Marinetti continued to propound his wild vision: he

wanted to “fascistise” all culture, do away with classical architecture and fill Italy’s squares with electric trams and overhead wires. He wanted to industrialise Venice and ban everything foreign—films, food, orchestras, and even languages—within “our virile, proud, dynamic pensinula”.

Being antipassatista involved being anti-pasta:

And since the new man had to be futuristic inside as well as out, he launched a campaign against pasta, saying that it had made Italians gross, lazy, complacent, and stupid, and led to pessimism and prostitution. “Until now men have fed themselves like ants, rats, cats, and oxen,” he declared in an article on Futuristic cooking. The new man would do better to eat black olives, fennel hearts, and kumquats, and as he ate, stroke sandpaper and velvet, enjoying the contrast in taste and texture, while a waiter sprayed carnation-scented water on to the back of his neck and from the kitchen were relayed the roars of aeroplane motors. At the Holy Palate, his proposed Futuristic restaurant in Turin, diners would be given a boiled chicken accompanied by ball bearings in whipped cream, served by a “woman of the future”, bald and wearing spectacles. Compared to the remorseless severity and humourlessness of most fascist dictators, Marinetti’s crazy fantasies had a certain innocent charm.

Though Marinetti’s vision may have had little long-term impact, Mussolini did indeed wage war on pasta. His remark to Bocchini, head of his secret police, has a more contemporary ring:

We want to create a kind of magical eye which keeps Italians under control and can at any moment provide me with a complete, up-to-date picture of everything being said and done in the whole of Italy. Men … with the craftiness of a fox and the speed of a serpent, they need to learn the difficult art of provocation, how to insinuate themselves into a crowd, how to fit into every situation and every social circle.

In Florence

a “moral cleansing” was launched, with campaigns against swearing, pornography, immoral plays, and indecent fashions. “Eroticism” was done away with, wherever it occurred. Girls were enjoined not to dance the Charleston, and to wear thick stockings and blouses with long sleeves. Dance halls were closed down. There were calls to ostracise “Northern habits”, such as Christmas trees.

Amelia resigned from the Lyceum, once a lively forum for ideas.

The anti-fascists continued their work. In October 1931 leaflets were dropped over Rome. But the secret police were ever-vigilant.

Turati, whom Carlo described as the moral leader of Italy, died in Paris in 1932. With the aid of Sylvia Pankhurst (but not the British government), Carlo attempted to help Matteotti’s widow leave Italy for Paris.

After Hitler came to power in Germany, he came to Venice in 1934 to meet Mussolini for the first time—neither was enamoured.

In 1935 the remaining members of the anti-fascist network in Turin were arrested—including Carlo Levi, whose months of exile in a southern village prompted him to write Christ stopped at Eboli.

Full of bellicose imperial ambitions, Mussolini launched a brutal campaign in Abyssinia. The reproaches of the British government prompted another tirade from the ever-reliable Martinetti, decrying British snobismo, alcoholism, degeneracy, lack of genius, and above all their “sexual abnormalities”.

Carlo was now recognized as leader of the Paris exiles, and, for the spies watching him, the main threat. In Italy, Moravia had just published Le ambizioni sbagliate, but he rebuffed Carlo’s attempt to recruit him to the cause.

Spain, and the assassination
In 1936 the Spanish civil war broke out, with Franco supported by Mussolini. As the anti-fascists sought to redeem their past failures, Carlo set off for the front with a band of volunteers. But with the resistance soon riven by dissent, Carlo returned to Paris in January 1937. That year too, Antonio Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, died after eleven years in prison.

In Florence anti-semitism was ever more flagrant. Just as a cell of French Cagoulards, with the blessing of Mussolini, was plotting to have Carlo eliminated, Nello, fatefully, resolved to meet his brother in Normandy. In June 1937, after a happy reunion, they were ambushed and murdered as they drove through the woods—Carlo was the target, Nello an unfortunate collateral victim.

The truth emerged only gradually; Pablo Picasso and André Breton were among a group of intellectuals who wrote that if the death of Matteotti had signalled the death of liberty in Italy, that of the Rosselli brothers has signed its death warrant in the whole of Europe.

From Alberto Moravia, Amelia’s much loved nephew, there was total silence. No telephone calls, no letters, no flowers. She did not take it well.

Amelia, broken, left Italy with Maria to Switzerland; soon Marion joined them. Seeking wider horizons, in 1939 they moved to an English village. In 1940 the Germans invaded France; the family now felt it wise to emigrate again to the USA. In New York too, politics were divisive. They met up with like-minded exiles, including the senior Salvemini, who had taken up a teaching post at Harvard in 1934 after going into exile in Paris in 1925.

In a household of women, the matriarch Amelia was now in her seventies; more than either of her daughters-in-law, she approached the New World with curiosity and openness.

Mussolini was ousted from power in the summer of 1943 before he was executed in April 1945. From afar, the Rossellis learned of the liberation of Florence and Rome. Trials were now held for the murders of Carlo and Nello. The family returned to Italy in June 1946, learning how their friends and acquaintances had collaborated with the fascists. In 1951 the bodies of Carlo and Nello were moved from Père Lachaise cemetery to Florence.

In 1945 Alberto Moravia had at last written to his aunt Amelia trying to explain his inability at the time, under surveillance, to express his condolences for the murder of Carlo and Nello; but she considered him to have acted “out of opportunism, or, at its most charitable, out of weakness”.

Moravia (1907–90) comes poorly out of this whole story. His novel The conformist (1951), which Bertolucci made into a wonderful film (see this post), reads as a telling denunciation of fascism, and is based on the lives and deaths of the Rossellis. The story of Marcello, the damaged protagonist falling prey to the fascist cause in his vain search for “normality”, contrasts with the principled, life-affirming exiles in Paris; his betrayal of Professor Quadri leads to the horrifying assassination of him and his wife in the woods. Yet Moravia remained distant from the Rosselli family. Was his novel a plea for absolution? Of course, not everyone could be as brave as the Rossellis: at the time, and for many years to come, people had to make uncomfortable moral choices throughout Europe (e.g. the GDR), Russia, and China.


From the film The conformist.

Carlo’s widow Marion died in 1949, and “the Rosselli heroes left sad legacies of depression and troubled minds”. Amelia, ever strong, died at the age of 84 on Boxing Day 1954. Melina, daughter of Carlo and Marion, became a successful poet, but committed suicide in 1996 on the anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath, whose work she had translated.

* * *

As this review notes, Moorehead makes use of contrasting sources: not only the family archive of letters, shot through with love and shared political passions, but also the huge stash of documents, inspired by suspicion and hostility, from the network of spies who documented their every move.

Now I look forward to reading her account of the resistance around Turin, A house in the mountains: the women who liberated Italy from fascism (2019). And then onto all the murky politics of later Italian politics, and the continuing threat of fascism.

Why didn’t I know, or care, about all this through my youth? Alas, my interests were so abstruse. It’s also a world away from the concerns of the Burlesque-only generation; yet the scars remain, and as fascism turns out not to have been erased, it seems ever more relevant. Like Neil MacGregor, I also wonder,

What would we have done?


* In England such trauma was to be movingly evoked by Vera Brittain, who lost her brother Edward in the same region.

** For a fascinating account of Italian folk musicians in England playing zampogna bagpipes and other folk instruments, see here. The zampogna was still heard in 1960s’ New York. Moorehead might also have mentioned more reputable early Italian migrants to England like performers of WAM.






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).
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).

The changing musical life of north India: social structure, and the sarangi

Neuman cover

The photo shows a gathering of music masters in Nepal, c1900.

While immersing ourselves in the melodic and rhythmic riches of Indian raga [1] we may forget that, like any other musical culture (including WAM), it is an evolving product of a social system, and that “music isn’t a thing, but an activity“. Bruno Nettl’s imaginative citing of the north Indian gharana system in his book on the schools of WAM reminded me to re-read the important early study

  • Daniel M. Neuman, The life of music in north India: the organization of an artistic tradition (1980, with updated preface, 1990).

Nettl ranks Neuman’s work alongside other ethnographic studies of a similar vintage, such as Steven Feld’s work on the Kaluli, Paul Berliner on the mbira, and Lorraine Sakata on Afghan musicians. It also makes a good instance of Nettl’s own taxonomy of responses to change in musical traditions around the world.

Bearing particularly on traditions of “art music”, Neuman’s points may vary significantly for regional folk genres, for India (see under Indian tag, e.g. Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia) and elsewhere around the world (such as flamenco, the festivities of Morocco, or—you guessed it—Chinese shawm bands), where intensity and communication are just as relevant but depend more on constant exposure than on rigorous formal training.

From afar I was absorbed in raga long before I began visiting China. It was a pioneer on the scene later dubbed “world music”, invigorated by the hippy vibe of the 1960s. Raga (at that stage mainly considered as a solo instrumental genre) seemed a pure, spiritual art—and that is indeed part of the story. Like WAM (see links under Society and soundscape) and Chinese music (e.g. Debunking “living fossils”), it may seem timeless, autonomous; and most early studies focused on disembodied musical analysis, notably on the art of improvisation. But change, both social and musical, is a constant theme—a process going on since at least the mid-19th century and still proceeding apace. Neuman’s analysis makes an important corrective to those who still prefer to leave their orientalist fantasies of the Mystic East untrammelled.

In a preface for the 1990 paperback edition, Neuman observes change even over the years since he carried out his original fieldwork, such as the boom in institutions, festivals, and research (both in India and abroad), further technological revolutions, a broadening in class, the increasing importance of pop music—and the scene has continued to transform since. While the general sound of the tradition has proved quite resilient,

as constant as the sound itself is the persistent concern and dismay about the present state of classical music, an ever-present dismay that must be as old as the tradition.

In his Introduction, Neuman asks

how such a characteristic, yet elusive and ephemeral, cultural phenomenon continues to maintain its integrity and autonomy in a world so vastly changed from that which gave it birth.

He reminds us of the 19th-century background of elite private patronage, with musical events taking place in the noble courts and homes of the wealthy, rulers going to great lengths—as in baroque Europe—to sustain a top-ranking musical establishment. And from the 1920s, the scene was partially redefined by the tastes and economic power of the rising middle class and the search for a national identity, with musicking becoming one of the social graces of the bourgeoisie, not least among women—as in 19th-century Europe. From the 1930s new radio stations, and the film industry, played an increasing role in patronage; the culture of art music was becoming urbanized and diversified.

I like Fox Strangways’s comment (1914!):

India has had time to forget more melody than Europe has had time to learn.

Take that, Berlioz!

In Chapter 2, “Becoming a musician”, Neuman focuses on riaz “practice” and the guru–shishya relationship between master and disciple that defines the gharana stylistic “school”. Riaz is a source for many stories of extreme, ascetic devotion to practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”), many of which have taken on a mythic air. Such tales of the moral virtues of perseverance put my tribulations with Ševčík violin studies in the shade.

Neuman gives a nice instance of participant observation:

Often when I met musicians, the very first thing they asked me was whether I had been practicing hard; and while saying this, one would take my left hand and look at my nails and cuticles for the “hard” evidence. If the cuticles were built up into a horny ridge, and if my nails had grooves at the point where the nail meets the cuticle, then the evidence was there.

He discusses the transition from the dedicated discipline of the disciple to maintenance in later years, as “the leisure of the idealized village of the past or the princely patronage system is replaced by the scramble to earn a living”. As Ram Narayan observed, an important stage is learning how to practice correctly. Again, parallels here with WAM.