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. 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.

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. 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.

Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s extensive, essential bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts, §10 (“Pop music, world music and contemporary genres”) 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 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.




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.







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 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). 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 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.

Exploring the relationship between disciple and master, Neuman cites a venerable ustad on the possible demise of the surbahar bass sitar, with a simile that precisely recalls the Chinese proverb “playing the qin for an ox” 对牛弹琴:

You think that the ustads want to keep the surbahar to themselves. It is wrong to think that way. We want to teach, but who is going to learn? It is such a big science, and if anybody asks for it and we give it then it would be like playing the vīṇā [the bīn] in front of a water-buffalo, so we can only play for those who understand.

Some “secret” ragas, too, are conveyed only to exceptional disciples.

In Chapter 3, “Being a musician”, Neuman discusses music as divine expression. But

although music and God are closely related, music and religion are not.

By “music”, he’s referring to the raga tradition—the soundscape of Indian ritual practice is another subject. He mentions rag Malkauns, considered especially attractive to jinn spirits. But the move to the concert stage has attenuated such knowledge:

Musicians are, in a sense, twice removed from the sacred and magical. They believe in the power of music, but rarely seem to experience it. Like riaz as a sacred duty and the guru-shishya system as a hallowed relationship, musicians as magical performers are becoming a thing of the past. “It is the common man,” as some musicians are fond of putting it, “who calls the tune”. The piper’s patron which has emerged is a very complex mixture of people, and musicians are now listening carefully so that they know which tune to play.

This leads Neuman to a discussion of the listening public. As audiences have become more diverse, musicians adjust their repertoire. Sometimes they perform in special mehfil gatherings for connoisseurs, including other musicians—the most intimate and satisfying context (I think of the flamenco juerga, or the qin gathering in China).

But usually in recent decades they have to perform on the concert platform for a large, unfamiliar audience, or even (as often in the case of radio) with no listeners present as they play. Neuman gives instances of audiences around India considered more and less discriminating, and discusses amplification. He mentions the verbal reactions of audiences—at prescribed junctures—such as kyā bāt! (“what a thing!”) or javāb nahī (“no answer”), yet again reminding one of the jaleo calls of flamenco (olé, agua, and so on).

The move to the concert stage has made performers tailor their repertoire, calibrating the sequence and length of more highbrow alap and vilambit, and the more virtuosic sections of the raga, including crowd-pleasing sawāl-jawāb question-and-answer exchanges.

The book wisely refrains from discussing the substantial variations in length of the preludial alap in the various vocal and instrumental genres. [2] Rather than a simple modern abbreviation of a once-grandiose form, in some cases it may be the opposite. The advent of recording, with its limited capacity, may have influenced performance practice to some extent, but doesn’t seem to correlate closely with the varying duration of alap in live performance. A major factor may be the performer’s assessment of the changing audience’s discernment.

Neuman discusses musicians’ own evaluations under the headings of competence, appropriateness, and affect. His account doesn’t quite resemble the contrast between an abstract study period and having to make a living in the real world (cf. Training Daoists in Shanghai).

In Chapter 4, “The social organization of specialist knowledge”, Neuman attempts an etic taxonomy, observing hierarchies. As in many cultures, there is no common term for “musician” (and even our term is extremely vague). Neuman unpacks the term “professional musician”—an occupational category that subsumes a variety of performing specialists from various social groups. He discusses performers by ethnic origins (based in Delhi, he found that most musicians came from hereditary Muslim families), community, caste; by gender, residence, and age; by the extent of their musical knowledge; and by the type of music that they performed.

Musicians acknowledge the distinction between soloists and accompanists: a singer with an accompanying instrument (harmonium increasingly replacing sarangi), or a melodic instrumentalist with tabla. Vocal genres (dhrupad, khyal, thumri, ghazal)—ranked on a scale of seriousness—are a constant theme.

Neuman notes that the sarangi player Ram Narayan was rare in making the transition from accompanist to soloist; and he discusses the female vocalists, formerly associated with the courtesan tradition. While most soloists still perform on sitar and sarod, performers of other instruments such as shahnai oboe, bānsrī (bansuri) flute, and violin have occasionally come to achieve celebrity (see also Indian and world fiddles).

He goes on to consider the sarangi and tabla accompanists, mostly belonging to specific occupational groups and “associated by outsiders with dancing girls, tawaifs, and brothels”. The sarangi players are mainly associated with khayal, but never accompany dhrupad. Their knowledge is different from that of soloists (“artists”): while less creativity is expected of them, they are skilled, expert craftsmen (“artisans”). The role of the tabla, previously subsidiary, has grown. Neuman unpacks their basis in the caste system, with historical leads involving rural and urban origins.

In Chapter 5, “Gharanas: the politics of pedigree”, he notes conflicting views about the value of the gharana, yet another fluid system formed with “the introduction of the railway and telegraph system in the 1850s, the great uprising of 1857 with its concomitant social dislocations, and a slow but steady increase in urbanization”.

Chapter 6 concerns adaptive strategies. He returns to the theme of changing patronage; for the former musical parties of the nobility he reminds us of Sayajit Ray’s 1958 film The music room. A fine section follows on the important role of All India Radio, which became a major employer of vocalists and instrumentalists. Neuman discusses the accompanying role of the harmonium, now standard: commonly used in India since the 19th century, it became popular with vocalists themselves. As it came to threaten the livelihood of sarangi players, its use was controversial; All India Radio banned it in the 1950s, but had to recant by the 1970s.

An image of Gauhar Jan led me to this 1902 recording—with harmonium:

For another early instance to illustrate that the use of harmonium is not just a modern abomination, listen to Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1909 here.

Neuman then discusses public performances, fixing fees, “foreign returned” artists, contacts, and changing modes of tuition, including educational institutions. Against the broad and superficial teaching of such schools,

professional musicians are often heard to say that it is far better to concentrate on one or a very few rags, exploring each in depth to enable the disciple to extend his understanding of many other rags quickly. “If you practice rag Yaman intensely, and come to really know it, then the knowledge of other rags will come of itself”

Again, this reminds me of the Chinese qin zither: Wu Jinglue, one of many senior masters recruited to the conservatoire yet never wholly absorbed into its ethos, gave me just the same advice. More broadly reminiscent of Chinese music are the decline of elite patronage, and social change since the traumas surrounding independence—though the historical trajectories of China and India are utterly different.

In Chapter 7, “The ecology of Hindustani music culture”, Neuman ponders the perceived constancy amidst social change and a radically altered cultural terrain (again recalling Nettl’s parameters). On producers of music, he further ponders themes such as the increasing diversity of the scene, hereditary and non-hereditary musicians, and the growing participation of women.

Such changes are reflected in repertoires. Returning to rag Malkauns, he comments:

When rag Malkauns ceases to be the rag of jinns and becomes a pentatonic scale, the music becomes something different because it means something different.

Here are two versions by Nikhil Banerjee and Vilayat Khan, both with magical long alaps: [3]

As to consumers, Neuman includes advertising and sponsorship in his discussion, as well as the role of the state and audiences for live and recorded music. For modern stage performances, he distinguishes “courtly” and “devotional” models, noting stage presentation and costume. He discusses technologies of production and reproduction and their influence on performance practices—again a popular theme in studies of WAM. He suggests a decrease in the diversity of performance styles along with an increase in the variety of experiments and forms.

Chapter 8, “The cultural structure and social organization of a music tradition”, further unpacks the relationship of musicians and audiences to the imagined past. While there is not always a harmonious equilibrium between social and cultural changes, Neuman suggests that the structure

can adapt to changing social conditions because it is constructed from elements which allow both contradictory intepretations and a continuing potential for revision.

* * *

Among the accompanying instruments, the sarangi has long been prominent, though (as we saw) threatened by the harmonium. The remarkable website of Nicolas Magriel contains a wealth of information on individual players, along with a treasury of precious audio and video field recordings—made just at a time when the system was going into decline. As he comments in this interview,

“One thing that’s really unique is the amount of footage inside very traditional musicians’ homes. No one else has done this with anything in Indian music. I happen to be crazy enough to make 450 hours of video of sarangi players—I met most of them in the 1990s, in 18 cities across India. This is the real life of the musician—people practising and teaching at home, while the women are cooking vegetables, people are wheeling motorbikes in and out of the room, and the kids are going crazy. Even in India the concert-going public has no idea what this traditional life of musicians is; they know music as a packaged item that they see on the stage.” […]
“The sarangi is the black sheep of Indian music. It’s the most difficult instrument and the lowest status. It was a rural folk instrument, and in the 18th century it came into the classical world because courtesans needed it to accompany singing and dance. It was by far the most popular and widespread instrument in 19th-century India, because every brothel had sarangi players. But in the 20th century sarangi players were more and more marginalised; they were excluded from the mainstream of classical music, so they maintained their premodern way of life.”

Magriel’s Sangi Rangi website has both male and female stars—the men are sarangi players and teachers, while the women are courtesans: skilled dancers and singers who employ sarangi players as accompanists and sometimes their agents. “In the words of my dear Ustad Abdul Latif Khan,” he says, “these women kept this music alive for the last 400 years.” The site has films of them at work, and pays tribute to their role, which Magriel feels has been written out of Indian musical history. “That was the core of classical music, and it’s something that’s been whitewashed, both in the West but specially in India. Everyone wants to think of it as a kind of spiritual music that was played in the temples. There was court music, but in many cases the male musicians who were idolised, actually they existed in order to teach the women how to sing. When India moved towards independence there was a feeling that there should be a classical music tradition, and so you needed first to connect it with ancient texts. Secondly they tried to create a pure Hindu art, whereas music had been the domain of muslims in India for 400 years. Ordinances were passed which in effect gradually repressed the courtesan tradition. Muslims were discriminated against, and sarangi players were discriminated against by association.”

Still, while Magriel finds a growing shallowness in the music, along with Indian art music in general, he doesn’t entirely subscribe to the notion that the sarangi is endangered.

sarangi pics

Among the numerous masters covered in depth on Magriel’s site are Sabri Khan and Bundu Khan, who feature in Neuman’s study. The site includes much material on female musicians (such as here), as well as his films for the Growing into Music project.

One of the first sarangi players to attract attention abroad was Ram Narayan, who was largely responsible for elevating the sarangi as a solo instrument on the international concert stage, and who collaborated with Neil Sorrell in Indian music in performance: a practical introduction (1980), just as Neuman was writing. Joep Bor (compiler of the indispensable annotated CD set The raga guide) also paid great attention to sarangi players.

Having featured rag Marwa in a previous post on Heart of glass (yeah, I know), here’s a version by Ram Narayan:

What I find so attractive about this raga is the challenge of having to struggle to keep track of the scale and its relationship with the tonic. This is always true, actually—just that in this case one is forced to engage with the pitch hierarchies.

While our interests in the diverse ways of musicking around India, and elsewhere, have broadened substantially, the northern raga tradition remains a major topic, for which Neuman’s work was an important early ethnography.


[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, to the Grove and Garland encyclopedias, The Rough Guide to world music, and so on), useful references include Jairazbhoy’s chapters in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993) and Richard Widdess’s lucid introduction in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

[2] For dhrupad, note Richard Widdess, Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004), chapters 5 and 6.

[3] NB for those who are no more expert than me in the subtleties of sargam solfeggio: taking C as the notional tonic, you may at first here the basic scale as
however, the drone strings are not the common C and G, but C and F—so it’s actually
F–A♭–B♭–C–E♭–F—or rather, rearranged with the tonic as C:
in sargam (lower-case denoting the lower degrees of pitches):
with the 5th (Pa) and 2nd (Re) degrees absent. As always, it’s a lot more complicated, and enthralling—but that’s a start…



Reviving culture: the Yazidis

Lalesh April 2019

Lalish, April 2019.

Among all those who suffered under ISIS, the Yazidi people, and particularly its women, endured most appalling traumas. [1]

Yazidi 1920s

Sinjar, 1920s.

With most Yazidi populations living in north Iraq, they are ethnically Kurdish, speaking Kurmanji dialect; major locations include the pilgrimage site of Lalish and Mount Sinjar to the west.


While the fate of the Yazidis under ISIS is shocking, they have long been persecuted, with massacres during the Ottoman empire and tribulations under Saddam. For social and religious change over recent decades, suggesting the region’s troubled history and complex economic and political context, do watch this documentary by Eszter Spät, filmed on the eve of the genocide, about the ritual tour of the sacred peacock standard—with the hymns of the qewwal ritual specialists accompanied by frame-drums and flutes:

For the oral tradition, see e.g. here, and for a detailed textual study,

  • Khanna Omarkhali, The Yezidi religious textual tradition: from oral to written (with CD-ROM, 2017).

Under the ISIS regime the Yazidis were executed, abducted, enslaved, raped. With many survivors now in displacement camps, refugee communities are also quite widespread, such as in Germany and Nebraska.

In extremis, culture may lie dormant (cf. Blind minstrels of Ukraine, and the ongoing onslaught on the Uyghurs), or adopt exceptional forms (cf. the Cultural Revolution in Tibet). Now a project from the AMAR Foundation is working with Yazidis to support and document their musical culture, and earlier this month they brought a group of male qewwals and female singers to England to perform for select audiences in Oxford and London (see e.g. here and here).

While media coverage tends towards clickbait headings like “rescuing ancient music”, suggesting an unspoilt, pristine culture destroyed by a single apocalypse (cf. China), the Yazidis’ fate under ISIS is but the latest and most extreme instance of their persecution.

And music is not a thing, it’s what people do. So as AMAR recognizes, the whole maintenance of Yazidi culture is part of a complex long-term endeavour, depending on the rebuilding of communities with a modicum of stability that require ceremonial and entertainment activities and have scope to practise them. Cultural foundations may play a certain role, but most of what such societies need is beyond their powers. The task is not to become the latest flavour-of-the-month on the world music bandwagon; foreign tours can help promote their international profile, but the regeneration of Yazidi culture depends on their’ own efforts in their homeland, and in the camps where they have been relocated. This was filmed in July 2019 at Khanke displacement camp, Duhok:

As Bruce Jackson observes about “salvage” fieldwork, it’s always too late. The fate of the Yazidis may be an extreme case, but much of this applies to the cultures of the diverse ethnic groups and communities throughout the war zone. For instance, what will become of the rich musical and ritual culture of Aleppo, whose fall is so movingly documented in For Sama? And alongside traditional music, popular genes (rap, hip-hop, and so on) are a major part of the identities of such ethnic and political groups.

For Kurdish ritual culture, see here.


[1] On wiki, see here, and for Yazidi religion, here. Apart from the outstanding journalism of Channel 4, I also admire the sincerity of reports by Stacey Dooley; in this programme she spent time with an all-female Yazidi battalion. Among numerous media articles from before and since the 2014 genocide, see e.g.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Wonga wang wunga Wangchuk chuka wangka Wangchuk wunga chuka wang?

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

And some more choral songs:

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

Talking of Bhutanese films, this looks interesting.

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

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

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


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

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

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



Noh drama in London

Noh poster

Following my recent posts on contemporary Noh drama and transmission and change in Noh, and hot on the heels of relishing late Beethoven quartets, for a different vision of sublime mysteries I returned to the South Bank for a live performance of a new English-language Noh play at the Purcell Room. Do hurry (an unlikely word in this context!) to catch further dates on the tour here, with more in London, as well as Ireland and Paris.

Since the group can hardly recreate the elaborate Noh stage on tour, they’ve opted for a simple backdrop. But the performance, by the seasoned artists of Theatre Nohgaku with their long experience of creating Noh in English, was mesmerizing.

The evening opened with the auspicious final dance from the traditional drama Takasago, which I introduced in my first post, with the distinguished Akira Matsui embodying the God of Sumiyoshi.

Then came the world premiere of the English-language Noh drama Between the Stonesthe third collaboration between author Jannette Cheong and composer Richard Emmert. It explores how the burden of grief can be transformed through the healing power of the karesansui Zen rock garden. Attuned to the spirit of traditional Noh, the text is highly poetic. The programme’s libretto gives helpful clues to structure—shidai and issei entrance music, sageuta and ageuta low- and high-pitched song, mondo dialogue, and so on.


In the midst of a typhoon, a grieving traveller (waki, Jubilith Moore) visits the rock garden at the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto. where she meets a woman gardener (shite, Kinue Oshima—the only professional female Noh actor in the Kita school). Understanding the traveller’s sadness, the gardener helps her appreciate the nurturing properties of the garden and how the art of raking the gravel enhances its beauty and evokes a peaceful soul. The gardener then vanishes.

In the interlude a temple priest (ai, Ashley Thorpe) appears, giving the traveller an introduction to the history and mystical significance of the garden. He then tells her that the woman gardener was an illusion, perhaps the spirit of the garden appearing to the traveller.

Act Two takes place some years later “on an island in the West”, where the traveller has now created a simple rock garden of her own. The woman gardener reappears and reveals herself as the garden’s Spirit of the Silent Waves. Along with the chorus, they evoke the pain of loss and the courage of those who face death—”as heavy as Mount Tai, or as light as a winter butterfly”. The Spirit of Winter Butterflies then emerges with the final dance, performed by 11-year old Iori Oshima—sixth generation in the Oshima lineage.

The hayashi ensemble—including two female performers—is entrancing as ever, with ethereal flute and haunting kakegoe cries from the three drummers. The international chorus plays a major role too.

Between the Stones makes a numinous addition to the growing repertoire of Noh in English. Here’s an excerpt from Pagoda, the first collaboration of Cheong and Emmert from 2009, a modern British–Chinese story pondering themes of identity and migration:

Transmission and change: Noh drama



Further to my post on contemporary Noh drama, I’m grateful to Allan Marett for drawing my attention to

the lucid text well rendered in fluent translation by Edgar W. Pope—no easy feat.

I introduce this lengthy article here not just for its insights on Noh, but because it bears more widely on the transmission of traditional genres—including the WAM canon. Indeed, it often reminds me of debates over rubato in romantic piano music.

Bruno Nettl has suggested parameters for change in musickings around the world; Noh would seem to belong to his rubric of “gradual, normal change” (“An absolutely static musical culture is actually inconceivable”; for Daoist ritual, see e.g. here), and the concept of “isolated preservation”. Fujita’s article also bears on Nettl’s discussion of flexibility and improvisation.

Within the conservative goal of preservation, Fujita seeks to reconcile apparently conflicting emic and etic viewpoints, and the tensions between ideal and real performance—common concerns of those analysing world music. He wisely considers the whole Noh community, and addresses both the nuts and bolts of performance and the mystical underpinnings of the tradition. As Pope summarizes:

A puzzling situation defines the contemporary transmission of Noh. On one hand, the genre’s community of practice is governed by strict orders to preserve musical sound through repeated imitation and to avoid change at all costs. On the other hand, the community discourages explicit dialogue between teachers and learners concerning what exactly constitutes those ideal musical sounds as well as the extent to which those sonic ideals are being faithfully maintained across performances. With a focus on the transmission of hiranori vocal rhythms, Fujita explores the ambivalent strategies with which participants navigate this conundrum and discovers a paradoxical process by which Noh’s so-called “preservation imperative” actually encourages musical change.

Pope also highlights the relationship between ideal models and actual performance, discourses of continuity and authenticity, and the sometimes-frustrating ambiguities of self-consciously “traditional” arts.

The article also demonstrates Fujita’s characteristic methodological approach: combining close musical analysis with perspectives gained from extensive ethnographic experience, and using critical historical insights to complicate his own ethnographic observations and challenge common scholarly assumptions.

As Fujita explains:

According to the theorists cited above, the place of performance is precisely where creativity happens. But in reality, do the spectators gathered in that place of performance always expect creativity or novelty from the performing art? At each and every performance, do they always focus their attention on how much creativity is being exhibited? One cannot necessarily say so. Depending on time and circumstance, many spectators are likely to expect not something new, but rather a past performance repeated in the same way, here and now. A performance that makes use of bodily movement and sound occurs only once, and then immediately vanishes. The desire to try repeating it again the next day often arises; but can we say conclusively that creative processes and interpretive variation exist there as well? […]

Classical music is like an antique, in the sense that as times change it does not necessarily adapt itself to the changing tastes of its audience. In order to transmit this antique from generation to generation, the community itself has taken on the distinctive form of the iemoto system, in which the iemoto and their branch families are at the apex, and beneath those, in the form of a tree, are positioned their disciples and the disciples of disciples (cf. my image of the iceberg). The focus of this essay is the acquisition by low-level members (disciples) of the techniques held by high-level members (teachers).

Performing artists must be sensitive to the changing demands of changing times if they always construct their performances on the basis of unchanging prescriptions, it is likely that audiences will eventually grow tired of them, and the art itself will become extinct. [….]

This high-pressure imperative takes the form: “Even if it’s boring, don’t ask why—just preserve!” […] Suppose, hypothetically, that you were to find yourself a member of such a community. You yourself have no clue as to what the purpose of preservation might be. And yet you are compelled to participate in preservation. You think to yourself “What’s the use of this? It’s boring. I want to quit!” But you are unable to defy the preservation imperative, and as your participation immerses you completely in the various mutually contradictory rules of practice that fall under the preservation imperative, you experience, at some times and in some cases, a joy in the very practice of preservation itself. Once you have had this sort of experience a number of times, you reach a state where you suddenly think to yourself “I’m glad I’m doing this.” Even though you are repeating (or being made to repeat) over and over again things that have been determined in advance, one day a feeling even comes over you that some realm of freedom is finding expression here—a world in which you feel that a kind of richness that surpasses the merely technical has been secured. The community that provides this strange experience is the community of classical music transmission in Japan.

Fujita suggests the enduring basis of this conservatism in the vestiges of Confucian ideology, with instances from Buddhist chant and biwa music (and of course around the world other ideologies impose limiting effects on creativity in varying ways and degrees), and a brief aside on the aesthetics of calligraphy. He goes on to observe that the community’s emphasis on preservation is modified in actual practice, adroitly suggesting why my suggestion of punk versions of Noh was so impertinent (not to mention this).

Notation is always an imperfect tool. Analysing the rhythmic structure of Noh, Fujita uses tradional graphical representations, largely to reveal their inadequacy. Indeed, he notes that in the past, they “were considered an impediment to learning and were apparently kept hidden”; that they have never come to be used as standards; and that the actual sound of Noh deviates greatly from such schemas.

A stable flow of sound that could appropriately be called a pulse never reaches your ear. You hear a series of terrible arrhythmias, so to speak. As a result, it is generally difficult to perceive an eight-beat meter [2] from the actual sound, that is, to reconstruct the graphical representation from the sound.

Fujita explains in detail the vital roles of the kotsuzumi and ōtsuzumi drums. Commenting on the great flexibility of the pulse, he gives a magnificent analogy:

For the reader who is unfamiliar with the sound of Noh, please envision, for example, a scene in which a drunk person is singing a song with a great deal of emotional expression. Large changes in the pulse will often occur. If a sober listener who knows the song well tries to clap along with the performance, it will become clear that there are large expansions and contractions in the intervals between pulses, of the kind we have described here.

On singing, Fujita observes:

Scholars who try to explain the rhythm of Noh singing usually abandon from the beginning any attempt to explain this phenomenon of elasticity of the aural pulse. Many of them, when explaining rhythm, begin by introducing a graphical representation (such as Figure 1) that shows twelve syllables arranged over eight beats. After that they add some such commentary as the following:

In transcription it appears as shown above, but in actual performance the rhythm is transformed, through various techniques, to the point that this basic meter can barely be perceived. When watching Noh, the parts where one cannot follow the beat in relation to the performance on stage are mostly these hiranori parts, which are constructed through an extremely complex and subtle rhythmic sense. One might call it a rhythm that does not show its rhythmic sense on the surface.

This is clearly a declaration that the writer has given up on explanation. But why does he arrive at this kind of impasse? The problem is that with no detailed observation or description of contemporary practice, he has developed an explanation that depends from the outset on graphical representations, which are not actively used as models within the community. We have seen that the rhythm of Noh, when compared to its graphical representation, involves large tempo changes and is greatly “distorted” in performance. We must not, however, take such “distortion” [henkei] to mean literal distortion. The “distortion” of Noh rhythm is systematic and has been thoroughly drilled into the performer in the course of practice. To that extent, rather than being the result of individual contrivance, it is more accurate to think of it as something that has been habitualized.

He then identifies the set of norms that produce such “distortion”: the way that the drummers memorize sequences, with mnemonics for timings (komi, the preparations for producing sounds) and timbre, and the haunting kakegoe vocal cries (mostly in the intervals between pulses, and a major element in Noh’s rhythmic elasticity). The interplay of the two drummers is crucial. We may be only mildly reassured by the conclusion of this section:

The form of explanation that begins with something like “Noh rhythm is based on an eight-beat meter”, although not at all incorrect as a historical explanation, turns out to be completely meaningless as a description of current practice. In reality, as we have seen, the lengths of drum syllable sequences used by ōtsuzumi and kotsuzumi players do not necessarily fill up a span of eight beats; and performance proceeds from a consciousness centered on those drum syllables. During a performance, moreover, many performers have no idea where they are (i.e., which beat they are on) in terms of pulse numbers. In actual practice, this is no longer eight-beat music. It is quite natural, then, that the sound produced by the performers does not sound like eight-beat music.

While he points out that performers are not entirely oblivious to graphical schema, they may adopt some principles and regularities that they perceive therein for the purposes of their own performance.

Principles discovered by performers for themselves are not used as oral explanations in education. Moreover, graphical representations of those principles have never come to the forefront and circulated as a primary means or as standards for learning. This has been especially true in the study of Noh singing.

In §3 Fujita takes a historical approach to komi. While the concept has long existed, it has only been emphasized more recently. Identifying “surreptitious” change below the preservation imperative, he astutely unpacks emic and etic approaches:

When scholars accept without question the ideology of the preservation imperative, thinking that the practices of traditional music transmit the forms of ancient sounds mechanically like a tape recorder, and repeating like parrots the community’s assertions that they “do it exactly the way it was taught,” it is evident that we have a problem. On the other hand, a standpoint that assumes people in the community are simply lying when they say “we do it exactly the way it was taught”, that focuses only on empirically tracking down changes in actual sound and seeking to discover in those the creativity of performers, could be seen as rushing to conclusions and distorting the object of research. What we need, then, is to look carefully at how the ideology actually operates.

So he goes on to discuss the language used since the late Meiji period to inhibit undue reliance on graphical rhythmic schema—particularly with regard to singing, the most popular activity within the amateur community.

With regard to singing practice, sound itself is excessively emphasized [!]. Everyone in the community is expected to imitate faithfully the sound of Noh singing. From the beginning, they must not rely on schemas that serve as frameworks. They must not look at graphical representations. They must not have any interest in theory. This sort of thing is hammered into their heads.

Fujita cites a passage from 1943 [his italics]:

At first there is no need to think about the logic of jibyōshi [the eight beat meter]. One simply has to swallow as a whole the actual way of singing with the meter, and pound it into one’s memory until it becomes a habit. Regardless of any theory about meter, its actual use is nothing other than a focusing of the spirit [kiai], and so the best way to give life to the meter is to grasp the focusing of spirit that appears in your teacher’s singing. In short, the fundamental problem must be to build a foundation from which you can sing more or less together with the meter, even if you don’t know how to keep the meter. You can try to study meter on the basis of Noh singing, with its uncertain pulse, but all you will get is a logical understanding, which you will not necessarily be able to use in the actual practice of singing. Even worse, you may well end up with meter for the sake of meter, not meter for the sake of singing.

He explores the learning process, and the interaction of singers and drummers:

Of course, the singer’s memory of the sound is not perfect. The singer, furthermore, has no understanding of the schema. It is therefore entirely possible that discrepancies will arise between the singer and the drummers in some places. For example, it must frequently happen that a singer starts one pulse too early, or one pulse too late. Those who do so are instructed to practice that part over and over, and as a result of this repeated practice acquire a feeling of “falling into the meter”, even in that part.

§4 goes on to discuss the mysticization of identity: the realm of kokoro (heart/mind)—”the place for secret manouevring”. Here he turns to the flute:

In the following episode, a teacher of Noh singing critiques the flute-playing of one of his students. Unlike the drums discussed in §2, the flute is an instrument with a low degree of structure in the realm of articulation, and in that sense we could say that it is similar to vocal performance. On one occasion, a flute performance was critiqued in the following way. Kaneuchi Yoshihira was the youngest Noh flute player during the time my teacher was alive, and he also had a weak physical constitution. One time when he was playing flute for the otokomai dance in “Atsumori” he noticed that his teacher was looking at him; apparently he froze, and the sound of his flute abruptly stopped. Nevertheless out of fear of his teacher he tried even harder to play, while taking kurai, but finally he lost his composure and was unable to produce a sound. He continued on like a madman, puffing away at his flute without making a sound, until the piece ended. He then went back to the musicians’ room, cringing at the thought of the scolding he would get. But he found his teacher to be in an extremely good mood. “It was fine, it was fine. Your iki [spirit] and your kuraidori [taking kurai] were very good today.” Kaneuchi spoke of how happy he was when he heard those words of praise, and said that for the first time he felt self-confidence in his flute playing.

Noting a further tendency: “an irresistible turning toward the enjoyment of unrepeatable immediacy”, he ponders the apparent conflict between emic (“we always do it the same”)  and etic (“these details are completely different”) views (again, cf. Nettl), and lists significant emic terms that appear to resolve them.

Observing that

in spite of its rigid, closed, and conservative appearance, there actually do exist “free” and “creative” processes,

Fujita concludes by discussing the recent influence of audio-visual techology on the learning process, which was slow to gain acceptance but is now compressing the space for the preservation imperative.

Such thoughtful, detailed analysis is a valuable contribution to studies of change in musickings around the world.


[1] For this post I silently [sic] convert the “nō “of the text to “Noh”. For more in English, see e.g. here.

[2] For the very different (and more audible) eight-beat structure of Chinese shawm bands and Daoist groups, see here. For official attempts to replace ritual skills with discursive knowledge, see Training Daoists in Shanghai.


Contemporary Noh drama

AM poster

Noh drama is both austere and enthralling.

Whereas gagaku traces its origins to Tang China, Noh evolved within Japan, notably with the canonical work of Zeami (c1363–1444). [1] While the local ritual dramas (often using masks) of China have been much studied (setting forth from projects led by C.K. Wang), everything about Noh seems remote from Chinese theatre.

The plots, derived from medieval literature such as the Genji and Heike monogatari, are based on the theme of exorcism; often a traveller or pilgrim (the waki role) meets a local dweller, who is later revealed as the ghost of a renowned ancient personage who died there in tragic circumstances (the role of shite).

Perpetuating the spirit of Zen in modern Japan (cf. posts on Eugen Herrigel and Gary Snyder), all the performative elements are other-wordly and entrancing—from the vocals of the solo actors and chorus, and the masks and costumes, to the hayashi ensemble of piercing flute punctuated by the haunting rhythms of the three types of drums (with their otherworldly kakegoe cries), and the cathartic final dance (cf. Bertolucci).

Noh in Japan, 1992. My photos.

Orchestral tours always gave me an opportunity to explore local cultures (flamenco in Seville, táncház in Budapest; for a fortuitous spinoff, see here), and on tours of Japan in the 1990s local Noh theatres were always my first port of call. Here are two complete dramas:

Atsumori is a mugen ghost play by Zeami, based on the Heike monogatari:

The monk Renshō (in the waki role) arrives at Ichi-no-Tani seeking to ask forgiveness from Atsumori (the shite role) and calm his spirit. There he meets a flute-playing youth and his companions; after they briefly discuss the flute and Atsumori, the youth reveals that he has a connection to Atsumori.

In the second act, after a kyōgen interlude, the actor who played the youth in the first act has changed costume, now playing Atsumori. Along with the chorus chanting for him, he relates his tragic story from his perspective, re-enacting it in dance form. The play ends with Renshō refusing to re-enact his role in Atsumori’s death; the ghost declares that the monk is not his enemy, and asks him to pray for his release.

In Takasago, a priest travels to Takasago in pleasant spring weather. Among the beautiful pine trees, he hears a bell toll in the distance. An elderly couple arrive and begin to sweep the area under the pine bower. The old man recites from a collection of waka poetry, describing the Takasago and Sumioe wedded pine trees that, according to legend, will remain together for eternity. When he explains that the paired pines are a symbol of the marital relationship, the priest observes that all relationships, like life itself, fall short of the ideal expressed in the poem.

At this point, the old couple reveal that they are the spirits of the paired pines, and they set sail across the bay in a small boat. As the tide goes out, the priest also sets sail.

* * *

While the Noh scene in Japan has remained largely faithful to medieval plots, Allan Marett, working with Richard Emmert, has composed two remarkably imaginative new Noh dramas in English. Among the distinguished pupils of Laurence Picken working on Tang music at Cambridge in the 1970s, Allan then began devoting himself to Noh, and his drama Eliza (1985) makes a kind of bridge to his fine fieldwork on aboriginal culture in Australia:

A traveller to Fraser Island in Australia meets an old woman who tells the story of Eliza Fraser, the wife of the captain of a ship shipwrecked years ago. The woman begins to tell fantastic stories about Eliza’s experiences and how these were used to satisfy the beliefs of white society. As the traveller questions her story full of exaggeration, the woman’s true nature as the spirit of Eliza is set free. The spirit then reappears and dances in an aboriginal festival, reliving her experiences of aboriginal culture and the truth of her harmonious stay with aboriginal peoples.

No less remarkable is his 2015 drama Oppenheimer:

In Noh, agents of suffering (often warriors) first appear trapped in the form a ghost and then—in the course of the play—attain liberation; thus the drama traces the spiritual journey of Robert J. Oppenheimer from tormented ghost to agent of redemption. It makes an allegory about the tragedy of Hiroshima and how it affects us all. As Allan comments, “my play points beyond Hiroshima to all acts of violence and inhumanity.”

Oppenheimer has the structure and form of a traditional mugen Noh, where the main character is the ghost of a person who, because of some karmic hindrance, is unable to leave their human form at death. In many cases, the action of a mugen play will free the ghost from the wheel of samsara, so that they can attain liberation. In this play, the ghost is that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, tormented by the horrible consequences of his action in fathering the atomic bomb, is condemned to return each year to Hiroshima to himself suffer the agonies that his weapon caused. Through a contemplation of the traditional Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox, the ghost of Oppenheimer is finally released from his suffering when he encounters Fudô Myô-ô within the fires of Hiroshima. Fudô gives Oppenheimer his sword and snare, so that he can dance for the liberation of all beings from suffering, and in particular the wounds and scars that we all bear as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Putting to one side experiments like traditional Noh versions of Shakespeare (such as Macbeth), and the influence on Western dramatists and composers (Yeats, Brecht, Britten, and so on), much of the impetus for innovation within Noh has come with international collaboration. Richard Emmert has long been a protagonist in developing Noh in English. Here’s his introduction to its history—citing several other productions, including Pagoda and Between the stones by Jannette Cheong, as well as Deborah Brevoort’s Blue moon over Memphis,

a stark and beautiful meditation on loneliness, with numerous textual and musical allusions to 20th-century popular song. Judy is a lonely, middle-aged woman, and a devout Elvis fan. She makes a pilgrimage to Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis’s death, but she is forced to wait outside, due to the overwhelming crowds. Her dream shattered, she is left to reflect on her life, through the verbal imagery of popular song. But then, during the candlelight vigil, a mysterious man lets her into the Meditation Garden where Elvis is buried, and there, under the light of a blue moon, she encounters a spirit.

Further productions are listed on the Theatre Nohgaku site.

Such creations feature new plots while remaining faithful both to the spirit of Noh (recognition, redemption, and so on) and to traditional performance style and staging. I wonder impertinently if there’s more radical potential for modern Noh. Bruno Nettl has suggested some parameters for change in world musicking (gradual or radical, allowable variation, isolated preservation, and so on), with varying approaches to maintaining elements considered to be core. In Europe, opera changes substantially over time. Apart from new operas, we have avant-garde productions of older operas, using the original plots but interpreting them in modern settings, often with the “original” music; and we have “rock operas”. Within Japan, might one use sax, or ondes martenot, with drum-kit, and punk vocals; skyscrapers and modern costumes? [Noooh—Ed.] For a masterly rebuttal of these meretricious ideas, see here.

Irrespective of such idle musings, works like Eliza and Oppenheimer make refreshing, stimulating innovations in the Noh repertoire.


Having enjoyed a London reunion with Allan Marett,
I much appreciate his guidance on this post.


[1] For a useful database, see here. For succinct introductions to Noh in the context of other Japanese genres, see Isabel Wong’s chapter in Bruno Nettl et al. (eds.), Excursions in world music, and David Hughes’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics. For a meretricious footnote to this post, see here.

Uyghur culture in crisis

My love’s flames, I have become a beggar, indeed Allah
Before the whole world I stand alone, indeed Allah
I have suffered for an age, Allah, my patience is ended, Allah
I have become a moth drawn to the beauty of your face, indeed Allah
Oh lovers, your desire, Allah, my heart is addicted, Allah
I revel in your pleasure, Allah, I have become a drunkard, Allah
In the city, Allah, I have become a wine shop boy, indeed Allah
Before the whole world, Allah, I have been ruined, indeed Allah

—from Chahargah muqam, fifth mäshräp,
translated by Rachel Harris.

I’ve already featured Uyghur culture in Ashiq: the last troubadour, shrine festivals, and drum-and-shawm bands, I began writing this post with the simple idea of sharing an exquisite free-tempo prelude from the great muqam suites; but, as often, it has grown into more wide-ranging reflections.

In particular, since I noted the perceived crisis of “serious music” in the West, the current plight of Uyghur culture makes an extreme instance of crisis—to which the muqam’s lyrics of religious anguish make a sadly fitting commentary.

The muqam
I’ve been revisiting

  • Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Chinese Central Asia (2008),

a book that seems even more important now that virtually all of the culture she describes, which having been tolerated (and in its official manifestations even supported) by the Chinese state for more than half a century, is now being ruthlessly extinguished. [1]


Over an economical 157 pages, Harris pinpoints a range of major issues.

Throughout the course of the 20th century, as newly formed nations have sought to assert and formalise their national identity, they have typically acquired a range of identifiable national aspects. Thus we find in this new period new musical canons springing up across the world. These canons, however, cannot be dismissed as arbitrary collections of works imposed on the public by the authorities. They acquire deep resonance and meaning, both as national symbols and as musical repertories imbued with aesthetic value.

The Chinese state has invested large sums of money in a succession of projects to preserve and develop [sic!] the Twelve Muqam, and it uses these projects to showcase the positive aspects of its minority policies on the national and international stage.

Describing the wider project on minority cultures, she comments:

Subject to processes of “reform and ordering”, dance styles were transformed into group choreographies, songs were transcribed and fixed, scales and musical instruments standardized, and a nation-wide system of professional performers was put in place, trained in arts academies, and organized into state-sponsored performing troupes.

These versions are disseminated through live performance, TV and radio, publications and recordings. Still, while documenting the official urban troupes, Harris never loses sight of local folk traditions. She also places the Uyghur muqam within the wider context of Central Asian muqam families (notably in Chapter 5).

Perhaps I should now use the past tense in this section:

The muqam are large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes, and instrumental sections. Lyrics by both the major Central Asian poets and folk poetry. Religious mendicants also perform versions of the songs, and drum-and-shawm bands play the instrumental melodies. All this music is traditionally handed down without notation.

The titles of the muqam denote modal attributes, while the names of the pieces within them denote rhythmic patterns. Its tripartite outline subsumes numerous subsections:

  • chong näghmä, a lengthy suite of sung pieces with märghul instrumental interludes
  • dastan: a sequence of folk narrative songs, again with märghul
  • mäshräp: faster dance pieces, sung to folk lyrics.

One fascinating theme of Chapter 2 is how canonisation predates the PRC initiatives, with Uyghur troupes in the Soviet Central Asian states formalising the repertoire as early as the 1920s under the influence of Soviet ideology.


From Wong, “The value of missing tunes”.

In China under the PRC, the 1951 and 1954 recordings of the Kashgar master Turdi Akhun (1881–1956) formed the basis of transcriptions by the Beijing-based scholar Wan Tongshu, published in 1960, and went on to become the core of the whole glossy edifice of the official Twelve Muqam. [2]

So it seems strange that these celebrated recordings (apart from a brief section on the CD with a 2007 book) have remained under a cloak of secrecy. Doubtless Turdi Akhun’s performing style was less polished than that of the state troupes, but archive recordings of Chinese music [sic] from the pre-Cultural Revolution era have been issued.

Wan Tongshu also headed a new state-supported Muqam Research Working Group, which in 1957 organised a three-month fieldtrip to the southern region. Another leading Han Chinese scholar working on the muqam in the 1950s was Jian Qihua, whose transcriptions of the “Ili variant” were belatedly published in 1998. The official song-and-dance troupe in Urumchi began performing sections of these arrangements until the Cultural Revolution disrupted traditional activity. Meanwhile similar initiatives, producing composite versions of the muqam, were under way beyond the borders of China.

Ozhal coverIn Xinjiang the liberalisations following the collapse of the commune system from 1979 allowed the resumption of both folk activity and official research. Furthering the work that had begun in the 1950s, a Muqam Research Committee was formed in 1979, soon incorporated into the Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble. They went on to produce major series of recordings and transcriptions. Meanwhile the compilation of the Anthology provided a major new stimulus to fieldwork.

The 16th-century princess Amannisa Khan, subject of a popular 1993 film, was now claimed as an early fieldworker and compiler of the muqam, providing a fanciful historical cachet. Chinese state support for the muqam continued despite the increasing tensions that followed 9/11.


Reminding us that the musicians and researchers involved in such projects are real people with real lives, Chapter 3 is a vivid portrait of the eccentric musician Abdulla Mäjnun (b.1946). Indeed, the word mäjnun denotes an ashiq religious mendicant and a fool, a sarang: intoxicated and infatuated. Though he identified strongly with the ashiq, and was an outsider in the official Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble troupe where he was employed, he had learned to consider himself not a muqamchi, a term to describe an accomplished folk performer (cf. the Chinese minjian yiren), but a “muqam expert”, a more prestigious term with connotations of science, modern scholarship, and the urban world. In the professional musical circles of Urumchi, where drinking culture loomed large, he was in a league of his own.

Harris gives lively vignettes of a trip with him back to his native Khotan, observing his prestige and capacity for liquor. She concludes:

On one level Mäjnun’s conversations are revealing because he is so clearly engaged in strategically deploying the range of different metaphors at his disposal. On another level Mäjnun is interesting precisely because he embodies that collision of metaphors which I delineated in my discussion of Uyghur music histories: the disreputable, uncontrolled aspects of music and creativity in Uyghur tradition which sit uncomfortably with the notion of “national traditions” and the canon.

Abdulla Mäjnun is heard, solo, on the CD with the book, notably in some intimate muqaddime preludes. For these he favours the diltar, a combination of dutar and satar that he himself invented, “a cross between a double-necked electric guitar and a cathedral, or perhaps, rather, a mosque.” He also features on the CD Majnun: classical traditions of the Uyghurs.

Harris mentions Sabine Trebinjac’s brief biographies of female beggar musicians such as Shāyrnisa Khan,

living in Kashgar in the 1980s, who had had four husbands. Her husbands had disapproved of her begging, but she suffered from a sickness, and had to sing and play daily, in front of the mosque or at festivals, or on pilgrimage. She was a member of Naqshbandi Sufi group, and also took part in regular zikr rituals.

Such accounts, like my own for Han Chinese folk musicians, contrast with the compulsory image presented in Chinese biographies, in which folk musicians “selflessly present their art”, the vicissitudes of their lives under modern regimes largely ignored.

Contrary to the current tendency to regard the Twelve Muqam as something isolated and essentially different from the song repertoire (“classical” versus “folk”), in practice the two have often been mixed together, and it is common practice to follow the muqaddime with a suite of folk songs.

Chapter 4 gives details of the musical structure of the competing, evolving versions, showing that in the diversity of traditional performance, both the musical and lyrical repository of the so-called Twelve Muqam have long been combined in different ways.

A mounting body of evidence suggests that the Twelve Muqam have existed less as an actual body of music and more as a kind of idealised framework surrounding a much more fluid oral tradition, from which individual musicians would learn and perform different parts, and into which musicians might slot their own local repertoires and compositions.

After an astute historical introduction, Harris shows the links between the mäshräp sections of the muqam with hikmät prayers of Sufi religious mendicants. She notes the Muqam Research Committee’s ongoing quest for another Turdi Akhun among the folk:

They were not above pulling in ashiq they found begging in the bazaar to see if they might possess the holy grail of previously undiscovered parts of the repertoire. Mäjnun told me one morning as I arrived for my lesson:

We found an ashiq on the street this morning, playing sapaya [wood or horn percussion sticks set with metal rings]. We brought him to the Muqam Ensemble to see what he could do, but he was all mixed up, he played a bit of Chābayyat then followed into Ushshaq.

She goes on to give a diachronic analysis of renditions of the muqaddime preludes:

If there is any vestige of an improvised tradition in the Twelve Muqam, then it would be these muqäddimä sections, which are structured like an exploration of the mode.

As she notes,

Traditionally the lead vocalist would accompany himself, but specialisation in professional training has meant that these roles are separated in the troupes.

Sensibly, she gives reductive outline transcriptions, rather than the etic versions of other publications; indeed, I favour this method for traditional Han Chinese melody. Despite the importance of notation for the canonisation project, among Uyghur performers its influence is limited.

In orchestration too, Harris notes the contrast between folk and professional ideals, citing Ted Levin on the Bukharan Shash Maqām—the “limpid filigree” of the traditional small ensemble versus the “bloated heterophony” of the large-scale professional versions.

The muqaddime
In my post Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham I gave a little introduction to free-tempo preludes around the world. The Uyghur muqaddime are most wonderful accompanied by the resonant satar long-necked bowed lute. I am particularly entranced by the intense muqaddime of Özhal muqam—perhaps because of its tonal variety, with new scales, featuring a flat 7th and sharp 4th, introduced gradually. Here’s a 1997 recording:

My afflicted soul heads towards the Valley of Insanity
I hope this already wretched life of mine will break
The gravedigger who ignores the candle of my tomb
Will surely have his house and rags burnt by its sparks
Do not ask where I go—I have no choice
I have surrendered choice to the hands of Destiny
The rose-coloured tears have dried up, leaving but a withered face
The tyranny of Fate has exchanged my spring with autumn
My people, together with my beloved, gave me much trouble
What will become of me if I resolve to leave them behind?
Anyone’s chest will ache for my condition, when they see
My face smeared with blood from the broken pieces of my bosom
Peace is impossible until one abandons the world
Nawai, burn my existence, and deliver me
Way, derdim ah!

Abdulla Mäjnun was especially devoted to Chahargah muqam, said to be for the ashiq (CD #7, which he played with tears running down his cheeks). But all the muqaddime are exquisite—here’s a transcription of Nawa, from the climax (äwäj): [3]


Chapter 6 explores the impact of canonisation, not least the inclusion of the “Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam” in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) since 2005. She discusses the impact at grass-roots level of efforts to “rescue” local traditions:

To what extent had these efforts established hegemony over local practices? Had rural musicians adopted the officially promoted repertoire or were they maintaining local traditions, and how did these traditions relate to the official repertoire? What plans had been drawn up as part of the UNESCO plan, and how were they being put into action?

Among the local traditions, the “raw, macho sounds” of the Dolan muqam were now elevated to become a folk counterpart to the official professional version. But other local folk styles were fragile and perishable; and as in other parts of the world, any official promotion played little part in their evolution. Harris describes the impact of the independent recording industry, finding the cassettes of performers like Abliz Shakir more significant an influence than those of the official troupes:

The failure of the Muqam Ensemble to capture the popular imagination lies in a combination of aesthetic and political considerations. Firstly the state-run ensemble is arguably too closely associated with the Chinese regime for their performances to be popularly adopted as Uyghur nationalist icons. Secondly, amateur musicians were deterred by the complexity of the chong näghmä section, and by the heavy orchestral-choral arrangements. In fact these aesthetic and political considerations are inseparable, as the ensemble aesthetic—one which is modelled on transnational models of canonic, national traditions—is itself representative of the state. Abliz Shakir’s recordings, released through the independent recording industry and sold on stalls in the bazaars, signalling another kind of authenticity in their performance style, and perhaps aided by the performer’s own ambivalent relationship with the authorities, achieved a far greater popularity.

She notes

concerns about the possibility of negative impact following the UNESCO bid, with local muqam traditions becoming increasingly commercialised and exploited in Xinjiang’s exploding tourism market.

She illustrates the complexities of local activity with a vivid description of a village mäshräp festivity. Indeed, the mäshräp always made an implausible candidate for the ICH: having been commodified by the state it has recently been coopted into the sinister form of the “mäshräp to tackle religious extremism“. [4]

In conclusion Harris comments:

If the few surviving local traditions of Twelve Muqam, which are all too lacking the glamour and musical sophistication of the recorded versions recorded by star performers, are to be locally revived and maintained then they must somehow achieve greater relevance to local musicians and audiences.

But as she stresses, the canonised Twelve Muqam are only one aspect of the whole muqam tradition, elements of which may be found in a wide range of Uyghur musicking. Or rather could be found, until 2016.

Among the scholars whom Harris cites is the Han-Chinese Zhou Ji (1943–2008), who by the 1980s was the leading figure in Uyghur music research. A native of Jiangsu province, in the critical times of 1959, aged 16, he set off to Xinjiang in response to the state’s call to “support the frontier regions”. He remained based there for the rest of his life; from 1985 he was employed at the Xinjiang Arts Research Unit in Urumchi, which he went on to lead. Thoroughly immersed in Uyghur culture (not least its drinking culture), Zhou Ji was highly regarded in the Uyghur musical world. [5] Chief editor of the Xinjiang volumes of the Anthology, he took the folk ritual life of the Uyghurs seriously—note his major 1999 book on Islamic ritual music of the Uyghurs—[6] and even studied female ritual specialists and their repertoires. While he was inevitably involved with official promotions such as the ICH, Harris notes that he dared to publicly voice a number of criticisms concerning the canonisation project.

Zhou Ji

Zhou Ji with Uyghur musicians.

But it was Uyghurs who formed the core of researchers before and since the Cultural Revolution. More recently, scholars such as the anthropologist Rahilä Dawut—also supported within the academic apparatus of the Chinese state—furthered scholarly work.


Rahilä Dawut.

The current devastation
Harris’s book was published in 2009, at a time when Uyghur cultural life was still much in evidence despite growing restrictions since 9/11; Uyghur, Chinese, and foreign scholars were still able to do fieldwork. Apart from local traditions such as shrine festivals and pilgrimages, the state (for all its ideological motives) was still actively promoting Uyghur culture.

And then, from 2016, came the repression—in which musicians like Sanubar Tursun and academics like Rahilä Dawut are among innumerable casualties. The ruthless current assault is being diligently documented in the media, such as

As centuries of magnificent lyrics are erased, sporadic official performances set to secular Chinese texts now reduces the muqam to flagrant propaganda, mere political rituals of loyalty to a Han nationalist vision of the Chinese state.

I used to think that such demonstrations of state power were tangential to folk life, but in the current plight of the Uyghurs, with the whole culture—architecture, religious life, clothing, hair styles, food, language—being purged, little else may remain.

Despite all the difficulties of maintaining Uyghur culture since 1949, and the political tensions that state performers, and Uyghur and Chinese scholars, had to negotiate, the scene before 2016 now seems almost unimaginable. Both urban and rural, folk and academic life, even the state-sanctioned versions of Uyghur culture, have been decimated.

The current campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture is an affront to humanity.


[1] For her numerous other publications, see, with further material under Note also Nathan Light, Intimate heritage: creating Uyghur song in Xinjiang (2008). Among many recordings, note the 2-CD set of local folk groups by Jean During and Sabine Trebinjac, Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïgoure (1990).

[2] See also Chuen-Fung Wong, “The value of missing tunes: scholarship on Uyghur minority music in northwest China”, Fontes Artis Musicae 56.3 (2009).

[3] For a complete version of the Özhal suite, click here (for the jarring exoticised visuals, “an imagined idyll of the past”, see Harris, pp.91–2). Since I never got to master its muqaddime with the London-based singer Rahime Mahmut—my attempts to learn the satar being even more inept than my limited abilities on ghijak—I was happy to hear her performing it (with ud!) at the 2019 Muslim news awards for excellence (from 10.38). Abdulla Mäjnun plays the Nawa muqaddime on the CD, #6; for another version, click here; and for the complete suite, here.

[4] See Rachel Harris, ” ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang”, in Roberts and Bovingdon (eds), “Develop the West”: Chinese state development and Uyghur cultural resilience, adaptation, and cooptation in Xinjiang (2018).

[5] Tributes, mainly from Chinese musicologists, are assembled in a commemorative volume edited by Tian Qing 田青, Mukamu weini songxing: Zhou Ji jinian wenji 木卡姆为你送行:周吉纪念文集 (2009).

[6] Zhongguo Xinjiang Weiwuerzu Yisilanjiaode liyi yinyue 中国新疆维吾尔族伊斯兰教礼仪音乐—a title that could not be published today; it’s still visible online in the PRC, though no longer for order.


Iran: chamber music


Ostad Dariush Talai.

Following my post on shawm bands of Lorestan, I went along to a fine concert of Iranian chamber music at the Purcell Room led by the unassuming ostad Dariush Talai (b.1953).

In contrast to the loud outdoor soundscapes of rural ceremonial, which inevitably draw us towards changing local social life, outsiders are often attracted to the more “classical”, “refined” urban chamber genres. Such music is much better represented in recordings, and feeds into the WAM taste for “autonomous”, “absolute” music—a notion convincingly debunked by ethnomusicologists such as NettlMcClary, Small, and Bigenho.

Amaneh Youssefzadeh provides context (in Michael Church, ed., The other classical musics, 2015):

Until the 20th century most classical music was performed in private gatherings—for small circles of connoisseurs, at Sufi brotherhoods, for family and friends, or in festivities including poetry recitation; the public concert was essentially a Western phenomenon. Moreover, apart from military music, public musical performance took place mostly in the context of religious and ceremonial rituals which are not considered musical per se; these include events in zurkāneh (Iran’s traditional fitness-clubs), the recitation of the Qur’an (tajwid), the call to prayer (‘azān), the recitation of the national epic Shāhnāmeh (naqqāli), the Shi’a passion play (ta’zieh) and the singing of laments (rowzeh-khāni) […]. Such ceremonies require singers skilled in classical music, and they have been crucial supports for classical music during. the periods of decline and discrimination. And in Iran, as in many parts of Middle East, classical singers have traditionally honed their skills in the call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an; many celebrated singers from the first half of the 20th century sang in the ceremonial mourning rites described above. Mohammad Reza Shadjarian was a noted qāri (reciter of the Qur’an) before gaining fame as a classical performer.

* * *

At the Purcell Room Dariush Talai, on tar and setar plucked lutes, was supported by his younger protégés Hooshmand Ebadi (ney end-blown flute), Kaveh Mahmoudian (tombak drum), and singer Hadi Hosseini. Like the Chinese qin masters of yore, they play for their own self-cultivation—the dedicated audience in the austere Purcell Room must have felt they were eavesdropping on a private gathering.

In the first half Talai played in duo—first on tar with sensitive tombak accompaniment, and then on setar with the breathy ney. The second half consisted of one long suite, with all three musicians joined by the singer Hadi Hosseini. While the progression of such suites is more episodic than the gradual acceleration of Indian raga from alap to fast sections, it’s always engrossing to follow long sequences—by contrast with the short snappy solos of the Chinese conservatoires!

The opening duet was Dastgah Nava—here’s an earlier solo version with Talai on setar:

And here’s a track from Talai’s 1991 Ocora CD:

As a novice, while spellbound by the musicians’ artistry, it would require a thorough grounding for me to get a handle on the modal and melodic features of such pieces. Part of a widespread muqam family that also extends to the Uyghurs, each of the two hundred or so gushehs and the twelve dastgahs of the complete radif repertoire are individually named (cf. nanyin in south Fujian).

This music was one of the main focuses of the great Bruno Nettl. In chapter 7 of The study of ethnomusicology, “Contemplating musical repertories: a sampling of descriptive and analytical approaches”, he is as lucid as ever:

Iranian musicians taught the radif, the body of music that is memorized and then used as the basis for improvisation and composition. They labelled its sections (dastgahs) and their subdivisions (gushehs) clearly, although there was some disagreement on terminology and in determining which gushehs properly belonged to which dastgah. Musicians were willing to analyze certain performances, dividing them into sections and stating upon which sections of the radif each of them, in the improvised performance, is based. An ethnomusicologist who has studied with Iranian musicians can analyze such sectioned performances in this way but can’t be sure, on account of the lack of complete consensus, that the analysis will be accepted by every Persian master. This is the kind of analysis in which the ethnomusicologist does what the musicians of the culture do.

But one could go further. There are, for example, performances or sections that masters of the radif are not willing to analyze in this fashion, giving their equivalent of “he’s just improvising here”. They may say about such a performance that the musician does not know the radif, or he is purposely and expertly mixing materials from several sources, or he is simply playing avaz (nonmetric improvisation) in a dastgah in general, not taking account of the differences among the subdivisions of the dastgah that the radif provides. The first approach mentioned here would simply report these anomalies and perhaps point out the difference between the carefully sectioned and the other performances and refer to the fact that it seems to be readily recognized by Iranians. The second approach would take these unsectioned performances and, with the use of motivic analysis, determine almost moment by moment on which part of the radif each short bit of performance is based. Instead of just accepting that a particular five-minute segment is simply “avaz of the dastgah of Shur”, one could show that it is composed of materials from three gushehs (for example, salmak, golriz, and shahnaz), and makes fleeting references to three other gushehs. Now, certain Persian musicians, when confronted with analysis of this sort, pronounced it correct but found the information only mildly interesting, and not particularly relevant. It seemed that I had tried to take their way of looking at their own music further and had managed to avoid violating their way of approaching the analysis, but I had gone beyond where they were prepared to go, had divided their concepts into units smaller than those they were willing to use. I had gained some insights into how the music is put together; on the other hand, I could no longer claim simply to be presenting the system as it presents itself.

By comparison with my Chinese experience, I find it intriguing how the radif tradition in Iran seems to have been maintained more successfully under the umbrella of conservatoire training and concert performances. Again, Nettl’s templates for the various possible forms of change and responses to modernization are salient.

* * *

The concert inspired me to go back to the great senior masters like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian (to whom the suite in the Purcell Room concert was dedicated), with his ecstatic singing, and Mohammad-Reza Lotfi.


This live performance by Shadjarian is part of a playlist:

I’ve included a wonderful kemenche solo from Mohammad-Reza Lotfi under Indian and world fiddles.

For a general introduction to the musics of Iran, with discography, see Laudan Nooshin’s article in The Rough Guide to world music: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and chapters in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol. 6: The Middle East. Note also the site For the “classical” tradition, see e.g. Jean During, Jean During, Zia Mirabdolbaghi, and Dariush Safvat (eds), The art of Persian music (1991), and Amaneh Youssefzadeh’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

For related posts, see Performance, and Three women of Herat. For more on the folk-art dichotomy, see e.g. Italy: folk musicking, and Das Land ohne Musik, as well as Popular culture in early modern Europe.


Uyghur drum-and-shawm

ordam 1

From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, Music of the Ordam shrine festival.

To follow my posts on shawms in south Asia and Lorestan, travelling northeast (if one could, via Afghanistan), one reaches Xinjiang, where shawm bands are also common.

The Uyghur tag in the sidebar includes my review of the film Ashiq: the last troubadour, and a post on mazar shrine festivals and the disappearance of the scholar Rahilä Dawut. Deplorably, since 2016 much of the rich culture of the Uyghurs seems to have become a historical subject.

The muqam suites are mainly sung and danced to the accompaniment of plucked and bowed strings, but they are also part of the repertoire of naghra-sunay bands, with paired kettle-drums and shawm. As elsewhere, these bands perform mainly for life-cycle events (notably weddings), calendrical rituals, and shop openings. The CD

contains brief tracks (#1 and #12), as well as a lengthier excerpt from the Charigah muqam as played in Turpan (#8)—including a “limping” metre of 17 beats divided 7+6+6.

Incidentally, here’s an excerpt from Charigah muqam as performed in Khotan by Chistiyya Sufis (for more, see here):

Here’s a 2006 clip of a naghra-sunay group in Kashgar playing Shadiyana to accompany sama dance at the Heyitgah mosque (longer audio here):

For more, see the “Sounding Islam China” channel on YouTube. [1]

As always, studying such music soon leads us to consider the wider ritual culture—not least the great pilgrimages to mazar Sufi shrine festivals, at which bakhshi ritual healers who attend the mazar also play naghra-sunay. Again, we are drawn to the fine work of the anthropologist and film-maker Rahilä Dawut—and her outrageous detention. 

ordam 2

It’s not just the religious life of Xinjiang that is being destroyed, it’s the whole culture. See also Uyghur culture in crisis.


[1] For transcriptions, in addition to the instrumental volumes of the Anthology for Xinjiang, see e.g. Xinjiang guchuiyue: Weiwuer suona he nagela hezou taoqu 新疆鼓吹乐: 维吾尔唢呐和纳格拉合奏套曲 [Drumming-and-blowing music from Xinjiang: suites for sunay and naghra] (Shandong wenyi cbs, 2002, 186 pp.), with introduction by Jian Qihua 简其华, and transcriptions based on recordings by him and Mao Jizeng 毛继增 from 1962 to 1963.


Shawm bands of Lorestan



Pursuing my shawm theme, one of my favourites among a whole host of wonderful world-music CDs from the heyday of the Nimbus label (not least flamenco) is

  • The music of Lorestan, Iran (1994),

with Shahmirza Morādi (1924–97) on sornā accompanied by his son Rezā Morādi on dohol drum, recorded at a 1993 concert in Paris.

Shahmirza Morādi belonged to a hereditary tradition in the town of Doroud southwest of Tehran. His early training was on the kamancheh bowed fiddle and tonbak drum. He mastered the sornā from the age of 15. He claimed that the sornā he played at the Paris concert, an ebony instrument encrusted with silver, had been handed down in his family for seven generations—the CD booklet notes their imprint on the area around the finger-holes. In north China, while I know of no wind instruments being used over such a long period, this is an evocative feature of shawms, guanzi oboes, and sheng mouth-organs that have been played constantly for even two or three generations.

Shahmirza Morādi began working for the radio in 1971, taking part in cultural festivals. After a hiatus in the early years of the revolution, his first recordings were released in 1981. Both the world music scene and the state troupes tend to pluck out particular musicians for stardom; as in China, brief biographies tend to privilege their official careers above the quotidian (but changing) local ceremonial life of the majority of such players.

While Chinese bands usually feature two shawms with drum, cymbals, and gong, and elsewhere several shawms may play together with a varied percussion section, here (as commonly in the Middle East and east Europe) we find the minimal quorum of one solo shawm and drum.

The shawm often plays instrumental versions of vocal melodies from popular epic tales. The pieces on the CD accompany dance, mainly for weddings—as ever, audio recordings can only hint at the vibrancy of such events. Here’s a video clip from the concert:

What we need now is documentaries about ceremonial life in Lorestan… Indeed, the sornā and dohol also perform a funeral repertoire, not featured on the CD; I’d like to learn more about the Ahi-e-hag cult, the chamariune melody and muye wailing of female mourners.

As in much of the world, outsiders pay most attention to the “classical” (and mainly urban) chamber genres of Iran, which are indeed wonderful too. But now I’m keen to learn about shawm bands elsewhere in Iran, such as Khorasan, Chaharmahal, Bakhtiari, Sistan, and Baluchestan, and the Kurdish and Azeri regions; and to find material on funerary practice and religious cults. There’s a whole other story to be told here of the changing customary life of local society under successive regimes.

The site has an impressive discography here, notably the extensive series Regional music of Iran.

For Afghan musicking, click here. See also Uyghur drum-and-shawm.

Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia


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

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

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

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

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

Here I mainly cite the work of Carol Tingey:

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


Citing Felix Hoerburger (1970):

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

she goes on,

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Tingey list

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

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

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

and several playlists, such as

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

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

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

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

Rolf Killius has produced several CDs, including

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

as well as a book,

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

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

* * *

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

Archive Chinese recordings

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

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

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

Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe at the MRI, 1961.

The series highlights the sterling work of the MRI under the great Yang Yinliu—to whom Wind Records also dedicated a 2-CD set. Of course audio recordings alone can’t encompass the complexities of changing social life, but basic familiarity with soundscape should be an essential aspect of our education in Chinese culture. For more discography, see my article in The Rough Guide to world music; for films on rural and ritual life in China, click here; and for precious recordings from 1901–2, here.


A Tang mélange

On China, let’s face it, what people really really want to read about is the Tang dynasty. Which may be why many of my posts go down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.

Regarding Chinese history, my focus is the local cultures and politics of the modern era, including both my own fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms and Maoism. Of course, all the living ritual traditions I study are deeply rooted in the late imperial period, into whose culture I occasionally make more historically-minded excursions (such as this series).

Going further back, just in case you haven’t explored the Tang tag in the sidebar, it contains a growing number of posts. After all, that’s where I came in. So never mind the rest of Chinese history, allow me to offer a resumé of posts bearing on Tang culture—starting with my Cambridge mentor:

In the ludic tone of some of my other posts on the Tang, I was egged on by the great historian Denis Twitchett:

For Tang poetry, see

Last and decidedly least,

On Li Bai and Mahler:

See also


Still, there’s much to be said for my own eventual conversion from abstruse ancient history to living genres of Chinese culture—always relating them to imperial traditions, of course. Among many genres active today that are not a “living fossil” of Tang music:

Going back still further, try

An American musician in 1920s’ China

The great Yang Yinliu (1899–1984) (whose work is essential for an understanding of Chinese culture!) was brought up in the city of Wuxi amidst an environment of Kunqu, qin, and Daoist ritual.

In August 1921, the composer and violinist Henry Eichheim (爱希汉, 1870–1942), with his wife and daughter, made a journey to Wuxi to visit the great Wu Wanqing 吴畹卿 (1847–1927), leader of the prestigious Tianyun she 天韻社 Kunqu society, which dated back to the late Ming. Wu now arranged a series of seven private evening concerts for Eichheim. [1]

Apart from the main programme of unstaged Kunqu, the hosts performed solos for qin and pipa, “silk-and-bamboo” ensemble pieces—and Shifan gu and Shifan luogu, staple instrumental components of the local Daoists’ ritual repertoire, which Yang Yinliu was later to document in two definitive monographs. (Note how I avoided the dangerous term “Daoist music” there!) [2]

Shifan gu and Shifan luogu under the more monitored conditions of Maoism.

The concerts ended with Eichheim himself playing a selection of WAM violin pieces accompanied by his wife on piano—I can’t find a list of items, but I like to imagine that they included Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois (1910).


Yang Yinliu, undated early photo. Source: Yang Yinliu jinian wenji.

Among the musicians that Wu Wanqing assembled was his pupil Yang Yinliu, still only 22. Already a pupil of the American missionary Louise Strong Hammond, he now served as translator for Eichheim.

After trips to Japan, Korea, and India, Eichheim returned alone to a snowy Wuxi in December that year to hear more Shifan luogu. As Yang recalled,

I asked why he wanted to hear shi-fan-luo-gu again. He said that in the intervening months he had travelled to many countries, but this is the music that impressed him the most.

They played from 2 to 7.30pm, before Yang took Eichheim to the train station to rejoin his wife and daughter in India.

Later he also made trips to Indonesia. He was among many composers inspired by the soundscape of the Mystic East, including Ravel and Colin McPhee (but not Berlioz…)—though the influence of gamelan in his works, such as his symphonic variations Bali (1931), is not always audible.

Eichheim’s instrument collection is now housed at USCB. I wonder if any further records, such as photographs, survive of his visits to Wuxi. If only there were recordings! Perhaps it would be too much to expect Yang Yinliu to have taken him to film the rituals of the Daoists…


[1] See my Folk music of China, p.248 (amidst an introduction to the Shifan genres, pp.252–69), and Peter Micic, “Gathering a nation’s music”, p.96, both based on Yang Yinliu, Shifan luogu (1980), pp.233–4. In my post on Yang I cited his earlier volume with Cao Anhe on Shifan gu. For the Tianyun she, see also Zhongguo xiqu zhi, Jiangsu juan 中国戏曲志, 江苏卷 p.726. Note also my lengthy review “Images of Abing”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 6 (1997).

[2] Despite my aversion to the term “Daoist music”, two volumes by Qian Tieming 錢鐵明 et al., Wuxi daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 無錫道教科儀音樂研究 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 1999) are substantial. Still, there is a wealth of research on Daoist ritual around the Jiangnan region that doesn’t pluck soundscape out of its ritual context—notably in recent years from Tao Jin 陶金 in Suzhou, Shanghai, and so on: note Roundup of posts on south Jiangsu.


Gender: a roundup


“Daughters are also descendants”: village slogan, Hebei, 1990s. My photo.

For International Women’s Day, here’s a varied roundup of some highlights from the gender category in the sidebar.

For China, posts on the lives of rural women include

and on urban women:

For Europe, posts include:

Some thoughts on sexist language, featuring “Rear Admiral” Foley—the Benny Hill of the US Navy:

and a paean to AOC and Katelyn Ohashi:

In music, gender studies have become a major theme, besides female musicians generally:

and many more. Indeed, my varied Playlist of songs is dominated by female singers. Oh, and don’t forget The T-shirt of female composers—constantly in need of new additions!


Among humorists, Stella GibbonsBridget Christie, and Philomena Cunk have their own tags in the sidebar, among which some favourites are

Relevant posts on film include

Anyway, that’s just a selection from an ever-growing list…



Das Land ohne Musik


Royal Earsdon Sword Dancers, Northumberland, 1912. More here.

Das Land ohne Musik

Oscar Schmitz, 1914

There is no city in the world, I am sure, where so much music is consumed as in London.

Hector Berlioz, 1851

Susan McClary’ s book Feminine endings is always full of leads, such as:

Linda Austern and Richard Leppert have demonstrated that one reason the English have produced so little music is that they—more than their German or French neighbors—have long associated music with effeminacy. (p.17)

An intriguing thought, but it begs questions. First of all, “produced” here clearly refers to the composition of art music. A perceptive essay is

  • Peter Holman,* “Eighteenth-century English music: past, present, future” (ch.1 of David Wyn Jones (ed.), Music in eighteenth-century Britain, 2000),

where he tellingly probes the description of 18th-century England as “Das Land ohne Musik” (cf. Haydn). He dates it back further to a pithy 1840 comment by Heinrich Heine:

These people [the English] have no ear, either for rhythm or music, and their unnatural passion for piano playing and singing is thus all the more repulsive. Nothing on earth is more terrible than English music, save English painting.

Touché! As Holman notes,

Of course, this agenda is part of a larger one that has more to do with 19th-century cultural politics than with a proper, balanced evaluation of the total corpus of 18th-century music. It privileged what was perceived as as the centre—Italy, Germany, and Austria— over the supposed periphery—Scandinavia, eastern and central Europe, France, the Iberian peninsula, and England. It privileged instrumental music, especially those genres that used Viennese sonata form, over vocal music. And it privileged the work of the professional secular male in concert music over all others, such as church musicians, amateurs, and women.
The most persistent observation on musical life in 18th-century England is that it was dominated by Handel and other immigrant composers, the implication being that native composers were too feeble, parochial, or conservative to offer them much competition.

OK, he’s broadly following the continental critics here in equating “musical life” with art music—not all the diverse folk traditions, such as the musical life of taverns in East Anglia. But he unpacks the assumptions of even this limited definition:

It was not a new situation. Immigrants had played an important role in bringing new ideas from the continent ever since the reign of Henry VII. (See Wind, ethnicity, and gender, and They come over ‘ere…)

Adducing Ferrabosco, Notari, and Draghi, Holman notes that that as the scale of immigration increased,

these developments were not symptoms of weakness or decline, but evidence of a vibrant and complex musical life. Musicians were not attracted to London from all over Europe by the prospect of becoming big fish in a small, stagnant pond, but because London was the largest and most exciting pond of all, where you did not need to be a big fish to make a fortune.

Indeed, it could be argued that England was the most musical country in Europe by the second half of the 18th century, judging by the amount of musical activity of all types.

The variety he cites here includes rival concert series, Italian opera, provincial music societies, church choirs, and amateur musicking such as “gentlemen” competing in taverns. This is indeed more diverse than the narrow picture he criticizes, but still doesn’t subsume “folk” activity such as sea shanties or street fiddlers. He goes on:

My second objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that there is little sign that immigrants replaced native musicians in lucrative employment, or prevented them from obtaining it.

Just as the Lupo and Bassano families had supplemented indigenous instrumentalists at the court of Henry VIII, Italian opera became just an extra strand enriching the musical life of London. But

My most serious objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that it is based on an anachronistic conception of national and racial identity. […] England has always been a nation of immigrants, and it makes no sense to restrict an account of its culture to the work of natives, or, more accurately, to the work of the descendants of less recent immigrants.
What is often forgotten is that immigrant composers, anxious to be accepted in England, adapted their own idioms to conform to English taste.

This is all grist to Stewart Lee‘s mill.

At the same time, the “foreign domination” theory does rest to a large extent on the focus on the composers and performers of art music. Despite my pleas to broaden the social scope, Holman’s perspective, like a lot of in-depth studies of WAM, belongs firmly within the wise counsels of ethnomusicology. His chapter contains many more perceptive observations, which you must read!

* * *

To return to McClary’s lead,

  • Richard Leppert and Susan McClary (eds.), Music and society: the politics of composition, performance and reception (1987)

is full of stimulating chapters, not least her own:

  • “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”,

which I introduced here. As the book’s Introduction notes, recent changes in scholarship,

especially evident in literature, film, and visual art, have led to a systematic investigation of the implicit assumptions underlying critical methods of the last two-hundred years, including prominently the assumption that art consistutes an autonomous sphere, separate and isolated from the outside social world.

Janet Wolff’s Foreword is another nail in the coffin of “autonomous” art—and another critique that should be compulsory for heritage pundits in China. The book ranges rather widely, with chapters from Rose Subotnik on Chopin, Simon Frith on popular music, John Shepherd on music and male hegemony, John Mowitt on electric technology in sound production, and Leppert’s own discussion of the music, domestic life, and cultural chauvinism of British subjects in India.

The authors point out that they hardly deal with music and society in non-Western cultures, touching “only lightly on questions about the music of women, and ethnic and racial minorities”. They observe that women, and the lower classes, have been erased from the received picture, though they are rarely excluded from musicking—just from prestigious public musicking.

So again the book is largely based on the musical activities of the bourgeoisie—not least because the source material largely derives from them. Still, the debt to ethnomusicology is clear: even if WAM scholarship may seem to contrast with ethnomusicology, they can enter into a rapprochement [uh-oh, more non-national terms?—Ed.].

* * *

Actually, all we need to deflate the idea of Das Land ohne Musik is the classic question “What is music?“—or rather, “What is musicking?”. Pundits of both WAM and pop music tend to take a limited view, as I often observe (e.g. here, and here).

By a narrow definition based on composers of art music, most of the world over most of history would be considered “without music”. Do mothers singing lullabies, spirit mediums, or percussion bands, count? Even once we’ve thrown out the narrow assumption that music means art music, I wonder how one might rank the cultures of the world in terms of “musicality”: Inuit, Italian, Andalucian, Tibetan, Bolivian, Malian, Afghan, and so on. Were Afghans or Andalucians “unmusical”, and are they now? And we may be lumbered with the dodgy cliché that Africans, like Chinese ethnic minorities, are “good at singing and dancing”—but where might north Americans come in the spurious league table, for instance?

Cultural genocide—the suppression of indigenous cultures by a dominant force—is a separate subject. As I write this, I notice this blurb for what I’m sure is a fine BBC4 programme:

Masters of the Pacific coast: the tribes of the American northwest
Exploring how culture was established on the American northwest.

Discuss… An inspiration for the Party’s current replacement of the complexities of Uyghur music by “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” (note also this post)?

Is a society in which most people frequently sing or dance less musical than one with an opera house, a symphony orchestra, and a conservatoire? “Expenditure on the arts” is a dubious index. Is a funding-dependent society in which children are discouraged from singing and dancing unless they’re formally trained as musical as one where such activity is assumed, embedded in the culture? Indeed, even in such a culture, formally-trained musicians make up only a small proportion of participants.

As always, it’s worth considering the wise words of Bruno Nettl, in his

  • The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions,

He addresses the issue of “what is music?” —a point also made by Christopher Small in his introduction to Musickingin a famous vignette in his chapter 2, “Combining tones: the concept of music”:

Let me reconstruct a cocktail party conversation about 1975 when I confessed to working in ethnomusicology. “Studying American Indian music?” says one amazed person. “I didn’t know they even had music”. I try patiently to explain. “Oh yes, I knew they had chants, but is that really music?” From an elderly gentleman: “I spent a year in Africa, heard a lot of singing and drumming, but is that music? After all, they don’t write it down. Maybe they just make it up as they go along. Do they really know what they’re doing?” More explanation. A young man has added himself. “But these sounds that some peoples in Asia make with their instruments and voices, or the Indian chants, can you call them music? They don’t have harmony.” And a middle-aged lady: “My teenage sons play something they call music all day. I can’t stand any of it.”

We might now wonder if Nettl was going to the wrong kind of parties; indeed, he notes that people may have since become more broad-minded, but the issue remains. He discusses John Blacking’s important book How musical is man? (1973):

writing today, he would likely have asked “How musical are humans?” […] He recognized the world as a group of musics, though he personally was always more interested in their borderlands than the centers, but he wanted to make sure that his readers understood a major point: in the end, all musics are equally valuable, or, let’s put it this way, all musics are to an equal degree music.

Nettl’s whole book explores such themes—essential reading! Even his models for types of cultural change may be instructive to understand the fates of native American and Uyghur cultures.


Billy Purvis (1784–1853).

So the Land ohne Musik slight rests on a blinkered valorization of a league table of Great Works by Great Composers, rather than the diverse forms of musicking in society generally. Ironically, it’s based on new music.

As to England being ohne Musik in 1914 (or indeed 1714), never mind all the WAM activity then, how about all the traditions then being unearthed by Cecil Sharp and Co.—singing, local dance traditions, street music, wind bands? In the narrow view, none of these seem to count.

Issues here include the balance of “active” producers and “passive” consumers, amateur and occupational performers. What of a society which expects to invite performers often, as in Hokkien cultures in southeast China; or one where people simply attend a lot of parties?

Music does seem more ubiquitous than ever today: not just via technology (over speakers in malls and, um, elevators), but actively: both listening to recorded music most of the time, and active musicking at all kinds of social events, including clubbing, places of worship, and football matches.

So never mind 1730s’ Leipzig or 1780s’ Vienna, how about Liverpool and Detroit in the 1960s, or Herat in the 1970s—or Beijing, New York, and London today? I’m not exactly disputing the notion that some societies may be more “musical” than others, but attempting to compile a league table of world musicality would ultimately be a cul-de-sac. Whether for the 18th century or today, it’d take a thorough broad-based survey of soundscapes to assess all this—one fine example of the broad view is Ruth Finnegan’s 1989 The hidden musicians, on musical life in Milton Keynes.

At least, people don’t wait for composers (whether indigenous or foreign) to write symphonies and operas to express their musicality. All this may seem obvious, but people still tend to stick within their particular tribes.

By the way, I constantly dispute the narrow dominance of one particular limited view of what constitutes “Chinese music”. I’ve given many instances of the narrow dominance of the conservatoire style and commercial pop; but punk, all kinds of vocal music along the continuum from folk-song to opera, spirit mediumshousehold Daoists, shawm and percussion bands, and so on, are all part of the picture we have to consider—as for any society in the world, for any period. Yet again, we should delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse

* This is neither here nor there, but it was on tour with Peter that Paul O’Dette told me the hemiola story


Update on Uyghur culture


While I am tarred by the brush of studying Han Chinese cultures—themselves long accustomed to state brutality—the traditions of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang also feature in several of my posts, collected under this tag. Now painfully aware that my review of the film Ashiq: the last troubadour already needs revisiting in the light of the recent cultural genocide in Xinjiang—reminiscent of Stalin’s nationalist purges yet much more efficiently hi-tech and far-reaching—I’ve just done a distressing update to that post, with some further links.

Yet again this illustrates the vacuous, duplicitous claims of heritage pundits (note this post), whose reified presentations (for the Han Chinese too, if less fragrantly destructive) serve mainly to consolidate the ideological agenda of the modern state. But such polite, subtle manipulations are now rendered brutally obsolete.

Other posts under the Uyghur theme should also be read with this picture in mind.

Musicking at the Qing court 2: Pedrini and Amiot

pedrini 2

To return to my fantasy of Bach at the 18th-century Beijing court (see—and hear!—The Feuchtwang variations), the musicking of the European missionaries there makes an intriguing tangent to the varied material on all the diverse forms of musicking at the Qing court (a list to which I’ve now added Manchu shamans).

An authority here is François Picard (list of publications here, including this useful summary—and note his CDs, introduced below).

Jesuit missionaries had established themselves as early as 1589 at the Ming court, and continued to find favour at the Qing courts of Kangxi and Qianlong. As Picard explains:

Their strategy was to convert the Chinese to Christianity, starting from the top. They did this, first of all, by demonstrating their status as experts and thus gaining access to the court; they then aimed to prove the superiority of the West, of Christendom, and therefore—syllogism—of Christianity, in the realms of science, astronomy, cartography, measurement, and music, the study of which belonged to the field of scholarship in both civilizations. Acoustics, instrument-making, notation, and performance were all part of that strategy of integration, competition, and persuasion.

Following Matteo Ricci (1562–1610), Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666), and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–88), Tomàs Pereira (1645–1708; for a range of studies, see here) is notable for his major compilation for the Kangxi emperor on the theory of Western (art!) music. This was completed by the Lazarist priest Teodorico Pedrini (1671–1746), who, reaching Beijing in 1711 (after an epic eight-year journey that puts the travails of British train commuters in perspective)* was active there along with Florian Bahr (1706–71) and Jean Walter (1708–59). Pereira and Pedrini are further discussed by several scholars, including Joyce Lindorff and Peter Allsop (e.g. here). The Jesuit priest Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–93) arrived in Beijing in 1751.

Even transporting the keyboard instruments was a mind-boggling task for the missionaries. While they were braving such obstacles, Bach’s long-term residency in Leipzig was bearing fruit in a constant stream of creation.

François Picard’s work bears fruit in his collaboration with Jean-Christophe Frisch and his ensemble XVIII-XXI Musique des Lumières, notably an enterprising series of CDs—with contributions from the Fleur de Prunus ensemble and the choir of the Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris, and instructive liner notes with further references.

While the missionaries were not mainly concerned with documenting or performing Chinese music, Amiot notated some Chinese melodies, and some canticles were set to Chinese texts.

The Congregation of Musicians of the Northern Church in Beijing, numbering about thirty young musicians, including several Manchu princes, would accompany important celebrations, the most spectacular of which was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.


Liuyejin, in gongche solfeggio with stave transnotation, Amiot 1754.

Some of Amiot’s Divertissements chinois, based on Kunqu melodies, are imaginatively recreated with Chinese instruments on the CD

  • Teodorico Pedrini: concert baroque à la cité interdite (Auvidis, 1996)

Here’s a playlist:

Other CDs in the project include

  • Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718-1793), Messe des jésuites de Pékin (Auvidis, 1998)
  • Chine: jésuites et courtisanes (Buda Records/Musique du monde, 2002)
  • Vêpres à la Vierge en Chine (2004)

In the chamber items with both baroque and Chinese instruments, the timbres blend well—and would do so even better had the latter been set up in 18th-century fashion, with silk or gut strings.

All this makes an intriguing if inconclusive exploration of elements: whereas ornamentation is common to both traditions, it’s more of a challenge to reconcile Chinese heterophony with the harmonic basis of baroque music. Amiot didn’t take the “superiority” of his musical culture for granted—Picard cites a perceptive passage:

Here, there is neither bass, not tenor, nor treble, everything is in unison, but that unison is varied according to the nature and capacity of each instrument [what we now call heterophony! SJ], and the composer’s skill, the beauty of the piece and the whole art of music lies in that variation. […] It would be of no avail to endeavour to prove to the Chinese that they must find pleasure in something in which they really find none at all.

In Picard’s notes for the Chine: jésuites et courtisanes CD he cites some contemporary reports relevant to the “suite-plucking” of the nobility, such as notes by courtier Gao Shiqi:

[The Kangxi emperor] ordered the ladies of the palace to play a melody, hidden behind a folding screen. He then said: “The people of the palace are excellent with string instruments (xiansuo).” He ordered his courtiers to show their art and successively play the hupo, pipa, and sanxianzi string instruments. He then said: “Play the qin piece “On the beach the geese are landing” (Pingsha luoyan) on the four string instruments—hupo, pipa, xianzi, and zheng—together.”

Adding female nobles to our list of performers, the emperor went on:

“The ladies of the palace have played the zheng zither since their childhood, to the point of forgetting to eat or sleep.** After ten years of efforts, they have attained sheer mystery [cf. Shenqi mipu].” He then ordered them to play “The moon is high” in a “changing tonality” (Bianyin yuer gao).

For more excursions in Qing ritual culture, see here.

* * *

To return to my Bach fantasy, European art music performed by European musicians at the Chinese court is a perfectly valid topic. It’s a welcome clue to early Chinese exposure to Western music, which from the late 19th century would become a major and more pervasive theme. And Amiot’s arrangements of Chinese melodies may have been performed by Chinese musicians. But while it’d be nice to think of European missionaries learning Chinese style, whether on Chinese fiddles (tiqin, sihu) or on violin, I can’t see any evidence; their contacts with the broader society, and indeed their tastes, were circumscribed.

Of course, world music “fusion” in China goes back to the Tang dynasty and earlier. But in the Qing, even within the rarefied milieu of the court, and despite the efforts of the missionaries, I find little evidence of more significant interaction, such as Chinese performing European music on Chinese instruments or Europeans taking part in Chinese ensembles.

For the Vêpres à la Vierge CD I took part, implausibly, on baroque violin, erhu and shawm—but I never quite knew whom I was impersonating (an imaginary missionary, either steeped in Chinese style or not? Perhaps even a Chinese Catholic convert keen to bury his musical heritage beneath superior Western learning?!). My ears conditioned by exposure to living Chinese traditions that often go back beyond the Qing, I found our experiments tentative; we were on firmer ground with the purely Western items, which now sound more successful to me. Later in a couple of concerts I began doing some semi-chinoiserie noodling on the two types of fiddles (miantiao? tagliatelle?) that I, at least, found a bit more satisfying; but I still couldn’t work out who I was—me, I guess.

Anyway, I was content to get back to my work with the living folk ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi—where besides indigenous traditions, Christian groups had come to adopt their own local shengguan wind ensembles for ritual observances.

Catholics in rural Shanxi—left: Wenshui, 1933 (see South Gaoluo: the Catholics);
right: Xinzhou, Shanxi, 1992 (see Shanxi, summer 1992).

* * *

For such imaginative cross-cultural time-travelling excursions, one might compare several projects on baroque music in Latin and south America, and the fine project of Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI on the routes of slavery:

—in line with their previous work on medieval music, such as their versions of the medieval estampies (better received than ours…)

* * *

In these two posts on the Qing court I’ve given just two instances of the great variety of musicking there. As you know, I don’t go in much for recreations. While such experiments are imaginative, as Taruskin reminds us, the whole social and aesthetic framework in which we experience them—our very ears—are quite different (see e.g. Bach and Daoist ritual); we can only hear them for what they are: our creative response, for our own tastes in our modern societies.

* Since this post entails historical re-enactment, many would doubtless welcome the nomination of Transport Minister Chris “Failing” Grayling to retrace Pedrini’s route.

** I dunno, these teenage kids on their mobiles, Typical!—Ed.

Calligraphy of a Manchu imperial scion

Aixin shufa

In my post on Robert van Gulik I mentioned my 1986 encounter with the painter and pipa-player Yang Dajun (1913–87), who was in wartime Chongqing with van Gulik and my mentor Laurence Picken. Another illustrious heir to traditional culture whom I visited in Beijing in 2001 was Aisin Gioro Yuhuan 愛新覺羅毓峘 (1930–2003), great-great grandson of the Daoguang emperor.


As we saw in my post on the “suite plucking” of old Beijing, apart from his distinguished painting, Aisin Gioro Yuhuan had learned the sanxian plucked lute from the age of 8 with a former palace eunuch, and then with blind folk musicians; from 1985 he mentored conservatoire students as they recreated the repertoire once played by Manchu–Mongolian nobles along with lowly itinerant blind performers.

My visit was rather belated, perhaps because whereas I was aware of the genre, by the 1980s it was long been obsolete in social practice. In Beijing I’d been spending more time with elderly former monks; and the village ritual associations in which I was immersed were still active, their shengguan wind ensemble repertoires still forming richer repository of early melody. Still, meeting Aixin Gioro Yuhuan, a living descendant of the Qing imperial family, made an apt reminder of Granny Liu’s epithet in The dream of the red chamber on the continuity of tradition despite all its tribulations.

In the calligraphy that he wrote for me, we can discount its typical flattery of the foreigner, attributing to me a deep empathy with Chinese music (for a more humble yet heartfelt example from my Gaoluo friends, see here; and for the calligraphy of Tian Qing, here). But it makes a precious souvenir.

Musicking at the Qing court 1: suite plucking

On the folk–art continuum in culture

XS early

“Musiciens Chinois. légation a Pékin”, Paul Champion, 1865/1866, with sanxian plucked lute, xiao end-blown flute, yangqin dulcimer, and sihu fiddle.

Inspired in 2017 by Stephan Feuchtwang’s 80th birthday to essay a fantasia on Bach at the court of the Qianlong emperor, I’ve been meaning to give a little introduction to the court music of the Qing dynasty (for another vignette, see here).

First we need to unpack the wafty term “court music”, subsuming all kinds of activities (for an early study from the Forbidden City, see e.g. Wan Yi and Huang Haitao, Qingdai gongting yinyue, 1985; see also the succinct introduction in Yang Yinliu, Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao, pp.1005–1009). It includes the large-scale yayue, ceremonial groups of both Inner and Outer courts, Daoist, Buddhist, and shamanistic observances, various genres of opera—and recreational chamber ensembles for life-cycle celebrations.

Most of the groups that I study in rural China serve the ritual needs of their local communities—whether occupational or (as in the case of sectarian associations) devotional. Amateur musicking for recreation or entertainment is less common. Even vocal genres like opera and narrative-singing are often occupational, largely serving ritual; but we do find some recreational groups, mainly in urban areas. And even here, the ceremonial–entertainment dichotomy is not clear-cut: recreational genres too were often performed for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies.

Suite plucking
After Liberation, cultural cadres gave misleading names to many folk genres (cf. here, and for the “songs-for-winds”, here). The recreational chamber repertoire known since the 1950s as the “thirteen suites for strings” (xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套) was simply known as “suite plucking” (tantao 彈套). [1]

Often valorized by a narrow association with the Manchu court elite, it turns out to belong to a wider circle of folk activity (and here we may detect echoes of the hype surrounding the Zhihua temple). Indeed, it’s not useful to draw a clear line between folk and elite musical cultures in China—for a detailed instance, see this comparison of a qin piece and a shawm suite.

The social and cultural life of the late Qing is a rich topic, little explored in relation to these suites. I learn much from a 2013 article by Zhang Weidong 张卫东, stalwart of the amateur narrative-singing clubs around Beijing. Among many sources, he cites Jin Shoushen 金受申, Lao Beijingde shenghuo 老北京的生活—just the fascinating kind of social detail also found in the work of Chang Renchun on the customary and ritual life of old Beijing.

As part of his broad cultural education Aisin Gioro Yuhuan 爱新觉罗毓峘 (1930–2003), descendant of the Qing imperial family, learned the sanxian plucked lute from the age of 8 in Japanese-occupied Beijing with the former palace eunuch Luo Defu 羅德福, and later with blind musicians Wang Xianchen 王宪臣 and Zhang Songshan 张松山. He expanded on this background in several interviews, including articles in Renmin yinyue 1988.9 and 1990.6. For my visit to him, see here.

Like most musicking in China and worldwide, the genre wasn’t dependent on notation: indeed, it was largely an oral tradition. And again it illustrates the continuum between folk and art musics: it now tends to be associated with the Manchu–Mongolian nobility, but they learned this repertoire as patrons of lowly blind itinerant street performers (menxianr 門先 or gumu 瞽目) whom they invited to their mansions. Blind musicians are important in local social life, such as shawm players and bards (and, further afield, in Ukraine—formerly), and the menxianr were major players in the Beijing narrative-singing scene.


Illustration from the “72 trades of old Beijing”.

In the mid-19th century [2] a blind sanxian player called Zhao Debi 趙德壁 was renowned for his rendition of the suites. His pupil Yue Fengting 岳鳳亭 was an influential transmitter of the repertoire. And Wang Xianchen, a protegé of the empress Cixi, served the inner court.

Instruments included the plucked lutes sanxian and pipa; a bowed lute tiqin or sihu; and the zheng zither—which, despite its rippling ubiquity in the conservatoires, is rarely used in folk ensembles in north or even south China. A xiao end-blown flute, dizi transverse flute, or small sheng mouth-organ might also take part, but were already less often used by the early 20th century.

In the early 19th century the Mongolian nobleman Rong Zhai (Ming Yi 明誼) learned the repertoire along with four other princes (gong 公), and in 1814 he compiled a gongche score in his Xiansuo beikao 弦索備考.

By the 1940s, this and several related scores kept in private hands had reached Beijing music scholars (cf. this post), Later Cao Anhe thickened the plot with a discussion of these versions, including forgeries, showing the importance of textual research:

  • Cao Anhe, “Xiansuo shisan tao paishengchulaide jizhong wei yuepu” 弦索十三套派生出来的几种伪乐谱, Wenyi yanjiu 1981.4.

This resulted in yet another project from the brilliant Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing under the aegis of Yang Yinliu, largely consisting of transnotations. It was first published in three slim volumes in 1955 and 1962, and then reprinted in 1985:

  • Cao Anhe 曹安和 and Jian Qihua 简其华 (eds.), Xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套.

Yet again I marvel at the energy and discrimination of the Beijing scholars before and after Liberation, also including Wang Shixiang, the great painter and qin player Pu Xuezhai雪齋 (1893–1966, also a scion of the Aixin Gioro imperial family—see below), and Ling Qizhen 凌其阵. [3]

In 1963 Aisin Gioro Yuhuan was invited to teach at the Beijing conservatoires, but this was soon interrupted by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (cf. Daoist drum master Zhu Qinfu: my Folk music of China, pp.255–6). By 1985 he had hardly played sanxian for over thirty years, but he now worked closely with Tan Longjian to recreate the style of the Xiansuo beikao suites. She went on to publish separately the results of their work on the sanxian parts:

  • Tan Longjian 谈龙建, Qing gu gongwangfu yinyue: Aisin Gioro Yuhuan sanxian chuanpu 清故恭王府音乐: 爱新觉罗·毓峘三弦传谱 (1988), with a useful introduction by Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳.

Rong Zhai had given individual parts for each instrument, spelling out their heterophony. By contrast, when melodies of instrumental ensembles were notated, it was invariably in a single gongche skeletal outline, with the realizations on particular instruments left to the taste and experience of the musicians. This was evidently so for these suites too: the score was an isolated instance of documentation in what remained an oral tradition.

In one case Rong Zhai even gave a “full score” with all the parts aligned—perhaps a unique instance in traditional notation:


Xiansuo beikao, opening of Shiliuban. From Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian, vol.4 (1955).

Still, as in all traditions of musicking around the world, performance requires practical experience of learning with a master; and this applies even when notation is available.

The suites consist of sequences of melodies, though titles within the suites are not always given. The repertoire overlaps with that of shengguan ritual wind ensembles such as Haiqing 海青 and Pu’an zhou 普安咒, widely performed both in the temples of old Beijing and among amateur ritual associations in the countryside nearby and further afield. It was on these rural groups, still active, that I came to focus; and here too, I learned that one’s field of study must be far broader than “instrumental music“.

Changing society
As I often note for ritual studies too, scholars tend to favour reified documents, at the expense of changing social context.

Well before the Communist revolution of 1949, the social system had been changing along with the demise of the imperial system in 1911. But when musicologists began transnotating the suites in the early 1950s, there were still some musicians who recalled playing them—like Aisin Gioro Yuhuan, indeed. How I wish Yang Yinliu and his colleagues had managed to record them then, like their 1953 Zhihua temple recordings (playlist #14, with commentary here). According to Cao Anhe (1981) the MRI did indeed record four or five suites played by the great blind sanxian player Wang Xianchen (for whom, see again Zhang Weidong’s article). By 1950 Wang must have been at least 80 years old, but alas these recordings appear to have been lost. I’ll save another surviving recording for further below.

QYDWhat did persist in Beijing, both before and since the Cultural Revolution, was the amateur narrative-singing scene—a must for any aficionados of The dream of the red chamber, by the way. Some instrumental pieces are still played there as preludes or interludes, but the suite repertoire didn’t survive. Anyway, it’s another of the pleasures of Beijing musical life, less well publicized than the indie/punk scene there.

In the 1990s, between fieldtrips in Hebei, I enjoyed visits to a little hutong in Xinjiekou for the weekly gatherings at the house of the late great Qian Yadong 钱亚东 (right, in 1995—then aged 85!).

Jixian chengyun

Sihu, pipa and sanxian players (the latter blind—long rare at such gatherings) at Qian Yadong’s house, 1995.

For the narrative-singing scene in early 1950s’ Beijing, the vicissitudes of Czech and Chinese scholars and artists, and the 1980s’ Anthology, see here.

Belated recordings
With the renewed vigour of the 1980s, the Central Conservatoire in Beijing organized students to perform the suites on the basis of the 1950s’ transnotations, consulting Aisin Gioro Yuhuan and Cao Anhe.

I’ve given some instances of the aesthetic gulf between folk and conservatoire, and here’s another. While well-intentioned, these reified conservatoire recordings can hardly capture the more traditional mood of the earlier masters. Of course, young conservatoire students were not only learning from prescriptive modern notation, but belonged to another aesthetic world to that of the itinerant blind performers and the Qing nobility—and even to that of their own conservatoire teachers, many of whom (including masters like Yang Yinliu, Cao Anhe, Yang Dajun, Cao Zheng) had been brought up in a traditional aesthetic. Even the instruments, and their strings, would have been different.

You can find the conservatoire recordings in a YouTube playlist from David Badagnani (note also the Chinese documentary to which he refers):

So just like my own humble rendition of Bach on the erhu,

After intensive research on Qing-dynasty performance practice, I can now say with some certainty that…  it wouldn’t have sounded like this.

We can get more of a flavour of a convincing style for “suite plucking” from early recordings of narrative-singing in old Beijing. And thanks to Yuan Jingfang I learn of a 1950s’ recording of (a variant of) the “plucking suites” piece Hehuan ling 合歡令 on sanxian by none other than Pu Xuezhai (see above)! Indeed, whereas Pu quite Correctly regarded the qin as merely part of the whole “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” amateur literati culture, he seems to have been more adept as a sanxian player. Gratifyingly, the recording has been reissued:

* * *

Such genres in China, largely performed by amateurs for entertainment, are commonly grouped under the umbrella term of “silk-and-bamboo” (sizhu). Some are mainly for instrumental ensemble (as in Shanghai or Chaozhou); in others (such as the nanyin of south Fujian) the ensemble mainly accompanies a solo singer, and genres may be classified under narrative-singing. They are often linked to a literate elite background, later becoming popular among ordinary people.

These groups have survived well along the southeastern coast. Nanyin continues to enjoy wide popularity, not just in the main urban centres like Quanzhou and Xiamen but throughout the surrounding countryside. Some genres are nationally renowned, and a common topic of music scholars; but my reading of the fine ethnographic reports around the region suggests that they are only a minor part of expressive culture there—with Daoists and mediums, opera troupes and puppeteers, shawm bands and percussion ensembles dominating the rich ritual culture of the area. Many more genres, little-known outside their catchment area, can be found in the instrumental and narrative-singing volumes, by province, of the Anthology (see e.g. the “silk-strings” of Wugang in Hunan, mentioned in my “Reading between the lines”, pp.327–8, and also recently the object of heritagification).

In the north, most string ensembles with substantial separate repertoires seem to have declined since the 1950s, suffering from a decline in both recreational activities and patronage. As for the south, I introduced some groups briefly in my Folk music of China, and again you can pursue them further in the Anthology—such as in Chengde northeast of Beijing; various types of Shifan 十番 ensemble; Henan bantou 板頭 and Shandong peng baban 碰八板 repertoires. See also my post on the “little pieces” of Yulin city—amateur groups that survived Maoism but became moribund since the reforms, with the kiss of death bestowed by the reforming zeal of cultural officials.

The question remains, why amateur folk activity in those chamber genres along the southeastern coast has remained strong through the Maoist and reform eras, with a spectrum of traditional and official styles, whereas in the north most amateur string ensembles seem to have become musical casualties of the revolution.

* * *

So while a narrow musicological approach tends to encourage reification, the study of “suite plucking” should lead us to the cultures of late imperial Beijing, both folk and elite; and to the voluminous sources on the whole history of vocal music.

What such research doesn’t spell out is that entertainment has moved on: the social milieu in which the plucking suites were performed before 1911 has long ceased to exist. The current Beijing elites no longer play along with itinerant blind musicians! Of course, the 1980s’ project on the suites was not seeking to reinvigorate them as a form of social life; they came to form part of the nostalgic re-imagining of the imperial past, quite removed from society. So this yet again confirms my reservations about recreating early music for genres whose performing traditions have been lost. As with any musicking worldwide (including WAM, such as Bach or Haydn), we need to study changing performance practice in social context, and reception history.

Ritual activity, however, persists in China. The rosy reification of imperial culture may distract us from the ethnography of groups that have remained active through the tribulations of the 20th century, and from the enduring importance of living soundscapes as part of changing social activity.

Lastly, even where we can distinguish between folk and elite cultures, there is nothing “superior” about the latter, either in China or elsewhere!


[1] Here I’ve expanded modestly on my brief introduction in Folk music of China, pp.208–12. For rich material on vocal and instrumental groups in the late imperial period, note Yang Yinliu, Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao, vol.2.

[2] Cao Anhe and Jian Qihua give Qianlong–Jiaqing eras, but Zhang Weidong’s later dates of Daoguang–Xianfeng (1820–61) seem more reliable.

[3] Ling Qizhen (1911–84) was a qin player, originally from Shanghai, later professor at the Shenyang Conservatoire, where he founded the Liaoning qin research association. For his useful 1958 article on “Buddhist music”, see here.

Guide to another year’s blogging


Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!



Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans

Photo: Cheremis “pagan” ritual singer H.H. Musztafa (then 69), June 1975.

Along with from the many Hungaroton LP box-sets of the musics of east Europe, another impressive 3-disc set that I brought back from Budapest is

collected and published by László Vikár (1929–2017) and linguist Gábor Bereczki. The set documents musical traditions of peoples in the “autonomous” republics around the eastern perimeter of the European part of the USSR, the central Volga and Urals—peoples about whom I know nothing, but feel we should know:

Mordvinians, Votyaks (Udmurt), Cheremis (Mari), and the Turkic-speaking Chuvash, Tatars, and Bashkirs.



Between 1958 and 1979 Vikár and Bereczki made four long summer fieldtrips to some 286 villages, accompanied by local scholars. With sound engineer Pál Sztanó they recorded life-cycle and calendrical items, both vocal and instrumental, including bridal dirges, funeral laments, dance tunes, and historical epics.

The recordings on this box set are part of a much larger archive. Some tracks appear on YouTube, such as

Note also this channel.

The 43-page booklet contains detailed notes, as well as maps, translations, photos, and some transcriptions.

notes 2

A page from the booklet, on Mari singing.

Bartók, Kodály, and Bence Szabolcsi had already shown an interest in these groups, mainly as part of their comparative musical paleography, classifying melodic types; Vikár was building on this tradition. [2]

Such early recordings were made on request, not—as ethnographers later also sought—while documenting the social events of which they are the core. So we meet the typical issue that often crops up in Chinese collections: were they performing items then still in use, or recalling them from an earlier social practice?

And of course these projects could barely hint at the painful recent histories of such peoples (cf. The whisperers). Music is never autonomous, but gives us a window into the study of changing local societies.

Indeed, it’s worth recalling what else was happening in those years. Notwithstanding the interest of early east European music scholars in “archaic layers”, these are not timeless idyllic communities; though by the 1970s they had weathered the worst of the years of repression under Stalin, they had been constantly starved, deported, subject to political whims, suffering under collectivization and the Great Purge (cf. Blind minstrels of Ukraine, under “Other minorities”). This too is a rich field of research—see e.g.

See also The Kazakh famine.

The task of modern ethnographers—just as for China—is to integrate socio-political histories with expressive cultures. In 1975 the moment had still not come to record the memoirs of “pagan” Mr Musztafa—and now it’s too late.

In addition to the Garland encyclopedia of world music, for more on early collecting, see under

  • Margarita Mazo, “Russia, the USSR and the Baltic states”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.197–211,

and in the same volume,

  • Theodore Levin, “Western central Asia and the Caucasus”, pp.300–305.

In the early years after the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising, one might wonder how smooth was the collaboration between Hungarian and Soviet scholars—only of course the latter too would have suffered under the policies of their own regime.

* * *


Left to right: Yang Yinliu, Bence Szabolcsi, Li Yuanqing, Beijing 1955.

Meanwhile in China, scholars were also documenting local traditions, for both the Han majority and the many ethnic groups—under testing conditions, and with a similar caution in broaching socio-political issues. By the 1950s, with a growing interest in early connections between Hungarian and Chinese musics, China was open to Hungarian musicology; Bence Szabolcsi visited the great Yang Yinliu in Beijing in 1955, on the eve of the Budapest uprising. And Yang Yinliu visited the USSR in 1957, just after his remarkable fieldtrip to Hunan—just before the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward led to untold suffering.


Yang Yinliu (seated, right) on a visit to the USSR, 1957.

For Czech–Chinese exchanges over the period, see here.

Kodály’s Folk music of Hungary, dating from 1935, was published in 1964 in a Chinese translation from the 1956 German edition—just as a brief lull after the Leap was destroyed by the Four Cleanups and Cultural Revolution.


In east Europe, the USSR, and Maoist China, the enthusiasm of ethnographic collectors of the day is admirable—even as their leaders were imprisoning them and manipulating the peoples they were studying. As William Noll observes, such studies need both to be intepreted in their historical framework and updated constantly, both by augmenting the earlier material and by documenting more recent change. Also in that post, note Noll’s comment that ethnographers of one cultural heritage commonly conduct fieldwork among peoples of a different cultural heritage—even if both groups live within the political boundaries of one state.

Left: monks lay down their arms, 1959. Right: Norbulingka, 1966.
For insights on the period in Tibet, with rare photos, see this fine series by Woeser.

A flagrant instance of circumspection is fieldwork by Chinese musicologists in Tibet in the 1950s, rosily portraying the region (like Xinjiang) as a happy land of singing and dancing—even in 1959 Lhasa, just as mass rebellions were breaking out all over Tibet against Chinese occupation. Two of the most distinguished, and well-meaning, Chinese scholars resumed their fieldwork upon the 1980s’ reforms, encouraging their Tibetan pupils; but the whole social-political backdrop remained taboo.

Expressive culture is an illuminating window on society. How little we know about the world…


[1] The term Finno-Ugric seems somewhat dated, but see here for a more extensive list of peoples.

[2] An early curiosity among the ouevre of the great Bruno Nettl is his slim tome Cheremis musical styles (1960), part of a Cheremis project at Indiana. The Preface by Thomas Sebeok has a useful summary of interest among Hungarian and other scholars. But written from a distance, the monograph could still only be narrowly musical—free of ethnomusicology’s later concern for society and culture, in which Nettl has played such a major role; and the material that he assembles consists largely of transcriptions rather than recordings.

For Chuvash and Mordvins, note also the 1996 Auvidis CD Chants de la Volga: musique traditionnelle de Tchouvachie et Mordovie.


Trumpets, wind and brass bands

Trumpet chart

As this blog features a growing number of posts on trumpeters (both jazz and WAM), wind bands, and brass bands, here’s a handy list. I’ve already awarded trumpet its own tag in the sidebar. My usual proviso: all these genres belong within changing social life!

The list might begin with Chinese shawm bands (e.g. herehere, and here)—I won’t try and index all the shengguan wind ensembles here, but they’re a constant theme of posts under Local ritual, for instance. Both types feature in the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here.

Some great jazz trumpeters:

wind band

Also on jazz, starting from African musicians at European renaissance courts, is


WAM trumpeters featured include

  • John Wilbraham
  • enchanting versions of Handel‘s Eternal source of light divine by Alison Balsom, Wynton Marsalis, and David Blackadder (WOW).

For folk bands, see

  • the high trumpets punctuating ritual saeta songs in Andalucia, here and here.

And whatever you do, don’t miss

  • the amazing wind and brass turbo-folk bands of east Europe!


Performance: from Iran to Morocco



Another formative experience of frequenting late-night screenings at arthouse cinemas in the 1970s was the cult film Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg 1968/70). It remains totally mind-blowing—alas, I was too late to share it with Natasha.


James Fox and Mick Jagger make mesmerizing, disorienting presences, along with Anita Pallenberg (like Anouk Aimée, already a veteran of La dolce vita) and Michèle Breton.

In an effective soundtrack, most brilliant use of music is the Iranian santur dulcimer accompanying the languid threesome of Jagger, Pallenburg, and Michèle Breton (from 43.17)—actually a most beautiful scene (and allegedly, um, method acting—I’m like, hello?), although it may not be quite the image that the Iranian Ministry of Culture envisages. Complementing the mood perfectly, it’s taken from a 1968 Nonesuch Explorer album played by Nasser Rastegar-Nejad.

The same piece also appeared later on his 2007 album In a Persian garden: the santur. On the somewhat remote chance that you would rather focus on the gradual unfolding of the melody without the distraction of watching the threesome, here it is:

It’s also reminiscent of John Cage’s music for prepared piano. For more on Iran, see here and here.

Left: Mick with Paul Bowles, 1989. Right: Brion Gysin and William Burroughs.

Of course Indian music was in the air by the 60s, and the spirit of experimentation also led to Brian Jones’s first trip in 1968 to the “Master Musicians of Jajouka” in the mountains of north Morocco. Early beneficiaries of the World Music craze long before the label had been invented, they were already playing for beat audiences in the 1950s, who were drawn by the likes of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs—and notably Paul Bowles, long-term resident of Tangier. Later, inevitably, schisms appeared in the village along with global fame. The wiki article, and this Songlines introduction, have useful links. If only this had led to wider appreciation of shawm music further afield…

Here’s the first of three parts from a 1989 Arena documentary, including Mick chatting with Paul Bowles:

Among many readings on Performance, as well as on the Stones in Morocco, Keith Richards’ autobiography Life is revealing, nay astounding. For the trail east, and Herat in the 70s, see here.

Nic Roeg died in November 2018—among tributes, this is very fine; see also under Bertolucci.


Mahler and the mouth-organ


More on the European taste for exotic orientalism (see Berlioz, and Ravel).

Stimulated by the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the 1889 Exposition universelle in Paris, I was interested to read

Among composers she discusses are Purcell, Debussy, Puccini, and Stravinsky; but here I’d like to continue my series on Mahler by reflecting on his possible exposure to Chinese music. While the “imitations” of Tang poems by Hans Bethge that Mahler used for Das Lied von der Erde have been much discussed, Kang discusses the oboe lines of Der Abschied (see also here):

One can ponder whether Mahler may have heard the reedy timbre of the traditional and popular Chinese instrument called the sheng on the wax cylinders given to him by his friend Paul Hammerschlag. M. De La Grange gives an account of an event which may have strongly influenced the Chinese dimension in Das Lied:

During the last fortnight [of the summer of 1908] Mahler had a visit [at Toblach] from Paul Hammerschlag and his wife. Later, the banker recalled two memories of that summer, particularly one of a lively discussion during which, to his great surprise, Mahler suddenly threw up his table napkin so that all the guests could see that he had slashed it with his knife as it was on his knees. Another, more interesting, concerned some cylinders of Chinese music, recorded in China itself, that Paul Hammerschlag had bought in Vienna in a shop near the cathedral, and that he had given to Mahler at that time. This makes it quite certain that Mahler had not only read, but actually heard music from that far- off land before composing Das Lied.

There is no evidence with regard to what types of music the cylinders contained, and whether it was instrumental, percussive, or vocal music. And one can only speculate whether it was popular, celebratory, religious, or funeral-like.

57 shengguan trio

Indeed, I don’t know why Kang chooses the sheng mouth-organ here, rather than the guanzi oboe that accompanies it in north Chinese ritual; after all, Mahler didn’t feature the organum characteristic of the sheng. Still, it makes an equally intriguing speculation. Unfortunately, neither the shengguan ensemble nor the deafening shawm bands make likely candidates: several scholars have been studying early recordings of Chinese music, but most were vocal, with chamber ensemble of plucked and bowed strings. Had Mahler heard early recordings of the solo qin zither, such as those among the wax cylinders made by Herbert Müller in China between 1903 and 1913, that meditative sound-world might have appealed more to him.

Anyway, Kang goes on:

Traditional Chinese music tended to be categorized according to social function. Aside from the possible influence of the wax cylinders, there was also research being undertaken in Vienna on non-Western techniques (as in other major centres of musical creativity). This was no doubt as a result of current fashion, thinking, and growing academic interest in sinology and ethnomusicology as we have already witnessed in France in chapter 3. Guido Adler’s article “Uber Heterophonie” (1908) is a prime example of the fascination with and thinking about non-Western traditions that was common in Vienna at that time. Adler writes:

Although there is as yet a very incomplete, and largely unreliable body of exotic music extant, it is, nevertheless, possible—thanks to reliable material on music for several voices, whether vocal or instrumental—clearly to distinguish one kind of treatment that is essentially different from both homophony and polyphony. We may then sum up the main corpus of the kind of exotic music just referred to as follows: the voices begin in unison, in harmony or in octaves, only to separate from one another subsequently. The main theme is paraphrased and distorted, so that secondary and transitional melodies arise to join the main theme, now consonantly, now dissonantly. This paraphrasing and distorting, then, lead one to suppose that the instrumentalists and singers wanted to add something of their own, whether in individual deviatory sounds or merely in grace notes. But these deviations soon give the impression that the instrumentalist or singer has only unconsciously deviated from the right path, that the deviation is merely a coincidence, either because the performers have had a mental aberration or because they do not consider these middle sections worthy of their attention. As at the beginning, the voices then approach the end almost invariably in unison, or in a regular parallel movement. This kind of movement of several voices is the main branch, even the stem, of heterophony.

Today Adler’s comments hardly stand up. Anyway, I wonder if anyone can now find further clues to those wax cylinders. Still, whatever sounds they captured, I doubt that they were the ethereal transcendent tones of Mahler’s imagination. However timeless anyone might suppose Chinese music to be, he was seeking neither to reproduce the Chinese music of his own time nor to recreate that of the Tang. So in all, any precise links with actual Chinese soundscapes remain elusive; like Bethge’s poems, his fantasy of the Mystic East is uppermost—which is fine by me.

All the same, how I wish I could have introduced Mahler, and Berlioz—not to mention Bach—to the exquisite shengguan ensemble of the Li family Daoists, who only managed to perform  in France and Germany long after they were gone.


Berlioz and the not-so-mystic East


The unflattering views on Chinese music expressed by Berlioz have been much cited. He may have been an iconoclast within his own culture, but it would be asking too much to expect his horizons to transcend the limited aesthetics of his day.

In The Cambridge companion to Ravel, Robert Orledge cites Berlioz’s comments on hearing Chinese musicians at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London in 1851—only a few years after the Opium Wars:

The melody, which was altogether grotesque and atrocious, finished on the tonic, like our most undistinguished sentimental songs [!]; it never moved out of the original tonality or mode. […] Nevertheless, the ludicrous melody was quite discernible, and one could have written it down in case of real need [!].

And as Orledge comments, his conclusion, after listening to a wider range of exotic musicians, was that

Chinese and Indian music would be similar to ours if it existed [WTF]; but that, musically speaking, these nations are still plunged in a state of benighted barbarianism and childish ignorance where only a few vague and feeble instincts are dimly discernible; that, moreover, the Orientals call music what we should style cacophony, and that for them, as for Macbeth’s witches, foul is fair.

Another passage has been translated thus:

As for the Chinaman’s voice, I have never heard anything so strange in my life—hideous snorts, and groans, very much like the sounds dogs make, when they wake up, stretch their paws and yawn with an effort.


More sympathetic is this report from the Illustrated London News:

A PLEASING addition has been made to the Chinese Collection, consisting of a Chinese Lady, named Pwan-ye-Koo, with small lotus-feet only 2½ inches in length, a Chinese professor of music, his two children (a boy and a girl), the femme de chambre of the lady, and an interpreter. The children are gay, lively, and intelligent, the lady herself agreeable and interesting, and the gentleman civil and obliging. A Chinese concert forms part of the entertainment: the lady Pwan-ye-Koo singing a Chinese air or two, accompanied by the professor, who likewise treats the public with an exhibition of his vocal powers. The group is one that has much to commend it: it is picturesque and peculiar, and presents an image in high relief of the native manners of a Chinese family. The conduct of the domestic blended the humble and the familiar in a significant manner; and there was an air of freedom, and a sense of mutual obligation manifested in the whole party, calculated to make a favourable impression on the spectator.

They even had an audience with Queen Victoria at her summer retreat of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Still, if we read the full passage, Berlioz did at least make an effort. Further to A French letter, here’s some more language practice [sections between asterisks translated above]:

A propos de cantatrice, j’ai enfin satisfait le désir que j’avais d’entendre la fameuse Chinoise, the small-footed lady (la dame au petit pied), comme l’appelaient les affiches et les réclames anglaises. L’intérêt de cette audition était pour moi dans la question relative aux divisions de la gamme et à la tonalité des Chinois. Je voulais savoir si, comme tant de gens l’on dit et écrit, elles sont différentes des nôtres. Or, d’après l’expérience assez concluante que je viens de faire, selon moi, il n’en est rien. Voici ce que j’ai entendu. La famille chinoise, composée de deux femmes, deux hommes et deux enfans, était assise immobile sur un petit théâtre dans le salon de la Chinese house, à Albert gate. La séance s’est ouverte par une chanson en dix ou douze couplets, chantée par le maître de musique, avec accompagnement d’un petit instrument à quatre cordes de métal, du genre de nos guitares, et dont il jouait avec un bout de cuir ou de bois, remplaçant le bec de plumes dont on se sert en Europe pour attaquer les cordes de la mandoline. Le manche de l’instrument est divisé en compartimens, marqués par des sillets de plus en plus rapprochés au fur et à mesure qu’ils se rapprochent de la caisse sonore, absolument comme le manche de nos guitares. L’un des derniers sillets, par l’inhabileté du facteur, a été mal posé, et donne un son un peu trop haut, toujours comme sur nos guitares quand elles sont mal faites. Mais cette division n’en produit pas moins des résultats entièrement conformes à ceux de notre gamme. Quant à l’union du chant et de l’accompagnement, elle est de telle nature, qu’on en doit conclure que ce Chinois-là du moins n’a pas la plus légère idée de l’harmonie. *L’air (grotesque et abominable de tout point) finit sur la tonique, ainsi que la plus vulgaire de nos romances, et ne module pas, c’est-à-dire (car ce mot est généralement mal compris des personnes qui ne savent pas la musique) ne sort pas de la tonalité ni du mode indiqués dès le commencement.* L’accompagnement consiste en un dessin rhythmique assez vif et toujours le même, exécuté par la mandoline, et qui s’accorde fort peu ou pas du tout avec les notes de la voix. Le plus atroce de la chose, c’est que la jeune femme (la [small-]footed lady), pour accroître le charme de cet étrange concert, et sans tenir compte le moins du monde de ce que fait entendre son savant maître, s’obstine à gratter avec ses ongles les cordes d’un autre instrument de la même nature, mais au manche plus long, sans jouer quoi que ce soit de mélodieux ou d’harmonieux. Elle imite ainsi un enfant qui, placé dans un salon où l’on exécute un morceau de musique, s’amuserait à frapper à tort et à travers sur le clavier d’un piano sans en savoir jouer. C’est, en un mot, une chanson accompagnée d’un petit charivari instrumental. Pour la voix du chanteur, rien d’aussi étrange n’avait encore frappé mon oreille: *figurez-vous des notes nasales, gutturales, gémissantes, hideuses, que je comparerai, sans trop d’exagération, aux sons que laissent échapper les chiens quand, après un long sommeil, ils bâillent avec effort en étendant leurs membres.* Néanmoins, la burlesque mélodie était fort perceptible, et je porterai un jour du papier réglé chez les Chinois pour la noter et en enrichir votre album. Telle était la première partie du concert.

A la seconde, les rôles ont été intervertis ; la jeune femme a chanté, et son maître l’a accompagnée sur la flûte. Cette fois l’accompagnement ne produisait aucune discordance; la flûte suivait la voix à l’unisson tout simplement. Cette flûte, à peu près semblable à la nôtre, n’en diffère que par sa plus grande longueur, par son bout supérieur qui reste ouvert, et par l’embouchure qui se trouve percée à peu près vers le milieu du tube, au lieu d’être située, comme chez nous, vers le haut de l’instrument. Du reste, le son en est assez doux, passablement juste, c’est-à-dire passablement faux, et l’exécutant n’a rien fait entendre qui n’appartînt entièrement au système tonal et à la gamme que nous employons. La jeune femme est douée d’une voix céleste, si on la compare à celle de son maître. C’est un mezzo soprano, assez semblable par le timbre au contralto d’un jeune garçon dont l’âge approche de l’adolescence et dont la voix va muer. Elle chante assez bien, toujours comparativement. On croit entendre une de nos cuisinières de province chantant: «Pierre! mon ami Pierre», en lavant sa vaisselle. Sa mélodie, dont la tonalité est bien déterminée, je le répète, et ne contient ni quarts ni demi-quarts de ton, mais les plus simples de nos successions diatoniques, est un peu moins extravagante que la romance du chanteur. C’est tellement tricornu néanmoins, d’un rhythme si insaisissable par son étrangeté, qu’elle me donnera sans doute beaucoup de peine à la fixer exactement sur le papier pour vous en faire hommage. Mais j’y mettrai le temps, et, en profitant bien des leçons que me donnera le chien d’un boulanger voisin de ma demeure, je veux, à mon retour à Paris, vous régaler d’un concert chinois de premier ordre. Bien entendu que je ne prends point cette exhibition pour un exemple de l’état réel du chant dans l’Empire Céleste, malgré la qualité de la jeune femme, qualité des plus excellentes, à en croire l’orateur directeur de la troupe, parlant passablement l’anglais. Les dames de qualité de Canton ou de Pékin, qui se contentent de chanter chez elles et ne viennent point chez nous se montrer en public pour un shilling, doivent, je le suppose, être supérieures à celle-ci presque autant que Mme la comtesse Rossi est supérieure à nos Esmeralda de carrefours.

D’autant plus que la jeune lady n’est peut-être point si small-footed qu’elle veut bien le faire croire, et que son pied, marque distinctive des femmes des hautes classes, pourrait bien être un pied naturel, très plébéien, à en juger par le soin qu’elle mettait à n’en laisser voir que la pointe.

Mais je penche fort à regarder cette épreuve comme décisive en ce qui concerne la division de la gamme et le sentiment de la tonalité chez les Orientaux. Je croirai, seulement quand je l’aurai entendu, que des êtres humains puissent, sur une gamme divisée par quarts de ton, produire autre chose que des gémissemens dignes des concerts nocturnes des chats amoureux. Les Arabes y sont parvenus, au dire de quelques savans; ils ont pour cet art inqualifiable une théorie complète. Je parie que les savans qui ont écrit ces belles choses ne savent rien de notre musique, ou du moins n’en ont qu’un sentiment confus et peu développé. Que la théorie des Arabes existe, cela est fort possible, mais elle n’ôte rien à l’horreur de ce qu’ils font en la mettant en pratique.

La musique des Indiens de l’Orient doit fort peu différer de celle des Chinois, si l’on en juge par les instrumens envoyés par l’Inde à l’Exposition universelle de Londres. Cette collection se compose, 10 d’un grand nombre de mandolines à quatre et à trois cordes, quelques unes même n’en ont qu’une; leur manche est divisé par des sillets comme chez les Chinois; les unes sont de petite dimension, d’autres ont une longueur démesurée; 2d’une multitude de gros et de petits tambours en forme de tonnelets, et dont le son ressemble à celui qu’on produit en frappant avec les doigts sur la calotte d’un chapeau; 30 d’un instrument à vent à anche double, de l’espèce de nos hautbois; 40 de flûtes traversières exactement semblables à celles du musicien chinois; 50 d’une trompette énorme et grossièrement exécutée sur un patron qui n’offre avec celui des trompettes européennes que d’insignifiantes différences; 60 de plusieurs petits instrumens à archet, dont le son aigre et faible doit rappeler les petits violons de sapin qu’on fait chez nous pour les enfans; 70 d’une espèce de tympanon dont les cordes tendues sur une longue caisse paraissent devoir être frappées par des baguettes; 80 d’une petite harpe à dix ou douze cordes, assez semblables aux harpes thébaines dont les bas-reliefs égyptiens nous ont fait connaître la forme, et enfin d’une grande roue chargée de gongs ou tamtams de petites dimensions, dont le bruit, quand elle est mise en mouvement, a le même charme que celui des gros grelots attachés sur le cou et la tête des chevaux de routiers. Je conclus, pour finir, que *les Chinois et les Indiens auraient une musique semblable à la nôtre, s’ils en avaient une; mais qu’ils sont encore à cet égard plongés dans les ténèbres les plus profondes de la barbarie ou dans une ignorance enfantine où se décèlent à peine quelques vagues et impuissans instincts.*

Hee Sing

Detail: Hee Sing.

Also part of the Great Exhibition was a Chinese junk moored on the Thames—occasion for the curious case of the “fake Chinese mandarin” Hee Sing, who appears in a painting depicting the retinue of the royal family. In Berlioz’s Les soirées de l’orchestre (21st evening, including a variant of the above) he was even more underwhelmed by the soirées musicales et dansantes given onboard by the sailors:

Maintenant écoutez, messieurs, la description des soirées musicales et dansantes que donnent les matelots chinois sur la jonque qu’ils ont amenée dans la Tamise; et croyez-moi si vous le pouvez.

Ici, après le premier mouvement d’horreur dont on ne peut se défendre, l’hilarité vous gagne, et il faut rire, mais rire à se tordre, à en perdre le sens. J’ai vu les dames anglaises finir par tomber pâmées sur le pont du navire céleste ; telle est la force irrésistible de cet art oriental. L’orchestre se compose d’un grand tam-tam, d’un petit tam-tam, d’une paire de cymbales, d’une espèce de calotte de bois ou de grande sébile placée sur un trépied et que l’on frappe avec deux baguettes, d’un instrument à vent assez semblable à une noix de coco, dans lequel on souffle tout simplement, et qui fait : Hou ! hou ! en hurlant ; et enfin d’un violon chinois. Mais quel violon ! C’est un tube de gros bambou long de six pouces, dans lequel est planté une tige de bois très-mince et long d’un pied et demi à peu près, de manière à figurer assez bien un marteau creux dont le manche serait fiché près de la tête du maillet au lieu de l’être au milieu de sa masse. Deux fines cordes de soie sont tendues, n’importe comment, du bout supérieur du manche à la tête du maillet. Entre ces deux cordes, légèrement tordues l’une sur l’autre, passent les crins d’un fabuleux archet qui est ainsi forcé, quand on le pousse ou le tire, de faire vibrer les deux cordes à la fois [sic]. Ces deux cordes sont discordantes entre elles, et le son qui en résulte est affreux. Néanmoins, le Paganini chinois, avec un sérieux digne du succès qu’il obtient, tenant son instrument appuyé sur le genou, emploie les doigts de la main gauche sur le haut de la double corde à en varier les intonations, ainsi que cela se pratique pour jouer du violoncelle, mais sans observer toutefois aucune division relative aux tons, demi-tons, ou à quelque intervalle que ce soit. Il produit ainsi une série continue de grincements, de miaulements faibles, qui donnent l’idée des vagissements de l’enfant nouveau-né d’une goule et d’un vampire.

Dans les tutti, le charivari des tam-tams, des cymbales, du violon et de la noix de coco est plus ou moins furieux, selon que l’homme à la sébile (qui du reste ferait un excellent timbalier), accélère ou ralentit le roulement de ses baguettes sur la calotte de bois. Quelquefois même, à un signe de ce virtuose remplissant à la fois les fonctions de chef d’orchestre, de timbalier et de chanteur, l’orchestre s’arrête un instant, et, après un court silence, frappe bien d’aplomb un seul coup. Le violon seul vagit toujours. Le chant passe successivement du chef d’orchestre à l’un de ses musiciens, en forme de dialogue; ces deux hommes employant la voix de tête, entremêlée de quelques notes de la voix de poitrine ou plutôt de la voix d’estomac, semblent réciter quelque légende célèbre de leur pays. Peut-être chantent-ils un hymne à leur dieu Bouddah, d’ont la statue aux quatorze bras orne l’intérieur de la grand’chambre du navire.

Je n’essaierai pas de vous dépeindre ces cris de chacal, ces râles d’agonisant, ces gloussements de dindon, au milieu lesquels malgré mon extrême attention, il ne m’a été possible de découvrir que quatre notes appréciables (ré, mi, si, sol). Je dirai seulement qu’il faut reconnaître la supériorité de la small-footed Lady et de son maître de musique. Evidemment les chanteurs de la maison chinoise sont des artistes, et ceux de la jonque ne sont que des mauvais amateurs. Quant à la danse de ces hommes étranges, elle est digne de leur musique. Jamais d’aussi hideuses contorsions n’avaient frappé mes regards. On croit voir une troupe de diables se tordant, grimaçant, bondissant, au sifflement de tous les reptiles, au mugissement de tous les monstres, au fracas métallique de tous les tridents et de toutes les chaudières de l’enfer… On me persuadera difficilement que le peuple chinois ne soit pas fou…
[For a fine English version, see Berlioz, translated Barzun, Evenings with the orchestra (Chicago, 1956/1999 edition), pp.246–250.]

Here the Illustrated London News acquits itself no better:

At the evening performance the queer old craft is lighted up with festoons of coloured lamps—a sort of miniature [missing] hall, and in the midst stands an open orchestra, in which four or five instrumentalists (“barbarians,” not Chinese) prepare the ear for the extraordinary combination of sounds which is to follow. Nothing can exceed the gravity of the “celestials,” as they take their position in the midst of the assembly on the main-deck, and proceed to fright the ear with gong and drum, and cymbal and agonizing cat-gut: the leader beating time with a stake upon a sort of tin saucepan-lid supported on three legs. Then the vocalization! The extraordinary squeaking duet, half plaintive, half comic, between the said leader (who is a sort of Costa and Mario rolled into one) and a younger aspirant in the background—what can possibly exceed its harrowing and ludicrous effect? Nothing except that impromptu feline discourse which we sometimes hear on house-tops at the dead of night.

The concert being concluded amidst the breathless silence of an astonished auditory, the war demonstrations and feats of arms then commence and these are certainly no less extraordinary than what has gone before. The first set consists of a set of grotesque posturing, in which the performers disport themselves severely one after the other, each succeeding one striving to outdo the other in the wildness and extravagance of his gesture—flying and leaping round the deck, thrusting out the arms right and left, threatening, retreating, &c. the musicians all the time keep up a terrific clang.

Next come a series of somewhat similar performances with long poles or lances, this scene closing with a set-to between two performers, which we have endeavored to embody in our engraving. Swords are also introduced and brandished about in the same manner, which, if intended to give any idea of the military science of the Chinese, shows them to be very far behind any other known nation in the world in that respect. One young hero, in the course of his “war demonstrations,” afforded great amusement every now and then, particularly after some very startling efforts at cut and thrust, by throwing himself down, and turning a somersault over his shield. When we left, the “barbarian” orchestra was about to strike up again, and dancing, it was said, was about to commence, but we did not wait for it.

For a recent French recreation, see here. Indeed, both the family and the junk had already appeared for P.T. Barnum’s Chinese museum: see Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface: creating the Chinese in American popular music and performance, 1850s–1920s (2005), pp.62–6. For another portrait of the family, see here.

Berlioz 1851

Hector’s Napoleon impression always brought the house down.

Among composers, a broader view of musicking worldwide would have to wait for figures such as Bartók. Still, even today views like those of Berlioz remain far from obsolete. So much for music as a universal language.

* * *

Ironically, in reviews by Berlioz’s contemporaries of his own new works he was hoist on his own petard—using rather similar vocabulary, as if taking revenge on behalf of the Chinese. Here are just a few among an embarras de richesse, cited in Slominsky’s wonderful Lexicon of musical invective, pp.57–61:


His rare melodies are deprived of meter and rhythm; and his harmony, a bizare assemblage of sounds, not easily blended, does not always merit the name. I believe that what M. Berlioz writes does not belong to the art which I cusomarily regard as music, and I have the complete certainty that he lacks the prerequisites of this art.

Berlioz, musically speaking, is a lunatic; a classical composer only in Paris, the great city of quacks. His music is simply and undisguisedly nonsense.

M. Berlioz is utterly incapable of producing a complete phrase of any kind. When, on rare occasions, some glimpse of a tiune makes its appearance, it is cut off at the edges and twisted about in so unusual and unnatural a fashion as to give one the idea of a mangled and mutilated body, rather than a thing of fair proportions. Moreover, the little tune that seems to exist in M. Berlioz is of so decidely vulgar a character as to exclude the possibility of our supposing him possessed of a shadow of feeling.

I can compare Le Carneval romain by Berlioz to nothing but the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon, over-excited by a dose of alcoholic stimulus.

Dragging the icon to the trash, eh. For some Messiaen reviews that escaped Slonimsky, see here; and for astounding Saint-Saëns on the violon chinois, here.

For Berlioz’s prophetic word-painting of a 1960s’ curry-house menu, cliquez ici; and for his evocation of furniture removal, ici.

And for Mahler’s vision of the mystic East, see here.

Haydn: 1795, 1927, 1973, 2018


Just as I was immersing myself in Afghan singing, how nostalgic the other day to hear the limpid slow movement of Haydn’s G major piano trio on Private passions (for the first of several posts inspired by the series, see here).

Like the Adagio of the Schubert string quintet, it seems suspended beyond time. Of course, it’s not: as ever, we hear it with the successive patinas of our personal listening histories.

The trio is part of a set that Haydn composed in London, and the version that remains with me is that of Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaud, and Pablo Casals, recorded on 20th June 1927 at Queen’s Hall. I used to listen to it late at night (after closing time) with friends at Cambridge from 1973—just as Veronica and John were embarking on their Afghan journey, indeed; and as the Rito y geografía del cante flamenco series was being completed, and Li Manshan’s wife gave birth to their first daughter…

Today I wonder how we got into such early recordings, like the late Beethoven of the Busch quartet. They meant a lot to me—but I can’t quite say what: this was considerably before I became involved in early music, or began to care about changing performance styles. Indeed, in those days I was more interested in the politics of the Tang court than in the experiences of our more recent European forebears.

But now I think of the trio’s London audiences between the wars (my great-aunt Edith Miles was losing her hearing in 1927), and wartime audiences in Britain and Germany (doubtless the appalling Hans Frank loved the trio). The group had been working together since 1906; but Casals, a firm opponent of franquismo, later broke with Cortot for the latter’s collaboration with the Nazi occupation of France.

Cortot’s 1932 recording of the break in Brandenburg 5 is also great, but early renditions of baroque music may not always suit modern tastes, like Mengelburg’s 1939 Matthew passion.

Haydn dedicated the set of trios to Rebecca Schroeter, Scottish widow of an immigrant German musician (for a taste of late-18th-century mores, see here). So we might further try to imagine cosmopolitan London in 1795 (for “das Land ohne Musik“, see David Wyn Jones ed., Music in eighteenth-century Britainand for London concert life, here; cf. audiences of Tang-dynasty Chang’an, enriched by Central Asian musics—”They come over ‘ere…“).

I don’t know how to fill in the 19th-century lacuna, but despite all the vast social changes since 1795, maybe Haydn’s day isn’t so distant: we seem to have a photo of Mozart’s widow, and Casals was born in 1876.

Haydn’s trio is named after its “gypsy” finale all’ongarese, which we can enjoy without wondering too much about his exposure to folk music—it is what it is. From where we are in 2018, all three movements are delightful, but it’s the slow movement (in the lustrous key of E major, like Bruckner 7 and north Chinese ritual suites for wind ensemble!) that continues to enchant me. As the players lovingly pass the tunes around (the second one is even more spellbinding!) above pearly triplets, via Cortot’s simple translucent links, they explore them like tiny jewelled caskets, deep in meditation.

Musicking worldwide: a new category!

Bartok 1907



As I write more about musicking worldwide, I’ve upgraded the former world music tag to a new category in the sidebar, which allows me to make some rudimentary subheads—and do click on all the internal links too!

The rubric “world music” is a compromise. Of course, all these posts are about far more than mere “music”: they concern the cultures of local societies along with the soundscapes that animate them. The glossy commercial category of “World Music” (to which I am almost as resistant as to “heritage“) features only as an occasional irritant—though it does appear magnificently (under “drôle”) here.

Here’s a selection of some highlights, by subheads:

  • Under Asia, I have included some posts related to the Chinese soundscape (like Different values, and Festivals), but my myriad posts on the Li family Daoists (with subheads!) and other ritual groups (many linked here), as well as the qin, all have their own separate categories and tags. And I’ve included some articles on Indian music, but it’s worth exploring the Indian tag too. Note this post on Afghan musicking.

AND it’s always worth basking in this playlist—while it could be yet more eclectic, it has a variety of gorgeous, plaintive, exuberant songs.


Three women of Herat

Women of Herat

The idea of “women in music” often suggests their starring roles in WAM (as in the T-shirt!) or Anglo-American popular music. But meanwhile gender has become one of the major topics in ethnomusicology (for some refs., see this post on women in flamenco; note also McClary).

Even in the more “classically” oriented confines of ethnomusicology, “women in music” may not immediately suggests the lives of female singers in Afghanistan.

  • Veronica Doubleday, Three women of Herat: a memoir of life, love and friendship in Afghanistan (1998; most recent reprint 2009)

is an engaging, deeply personal story of her time in Herat in the mid-1970s before the Russian invasion. It’s a good illustration of thinking outside the (music) box.


Gradually cutting through the curtain of purdah, she befriends three young women with different experiences:

  • The authoritative figure of Mariam, from a hereditary family of (male) musicians;
  • Mother of Nebi, whose maraz mental breakdown as a young mother, attributed to jinns, had prompted her to become a diviner (cf. China);
  • Shirin, negotiating the stigma of working as a professional entertainer (see also Veronica’s “Zainab Herawi: Finding acclaim in the conservative Islamic culture of Afghanistan” in Ruth Hellier (ed.), Women singers in global contexts: music, biography, identity (2013).

HeratAs Veronica enters their social world of domestic life and ritual celebrations, she learns to admire their warmth and strength. But her account is never sentimental, acknowledging their tribulations. She reflects cogently on her choice to adopt the veil while living among them; and in becoming a regular member of Shirin’s band and an accomplished singer, she gains direct experience of their tough life.

Veronica’s audio recordings from the period seem to have disappeared from YouTube, but these CDs are excellent:

Ever since those days in Herat, she has worked in partnership with John Baily, not only a fine exponent of the rubab plucked lute but a great maker (and theorist) of ethnographic films (see here), including

  • Amir: an Afghan refugee musician’s life in Peshawar, Pakistan (1986)
  • Lessons from Gulam: Asian music in Bradford (1986)
  • A Kabul music diary (2003)
  • Scenes of Afghan music: London, Kabul, Hamburg, Dublin (2007)
  • Ustad Rahim: Herat’s rubab maestro (2008)
  • Across the border: Afghan musicians exiled in Peshawar (2011).

Here’s a preview of Amir:

and Lessons from Gulam:

* * *

Veronica became a beautiful singer, moving both Afghan and other audiences deeply in more genteel concert settings. Here’s an early clip:

And more recently with John Baily:

Tracks on the CD Sweet nomad girl:

Three women of Herat is a model of participant observation, and an early instance of an ethnographic genre that has since flourished. Further to Veronica’s distressing original Epilogue, the 2009 reprint includes a new Preface and Postscript, giving valuable context on changes not only within Afghanistan but in Western perceptions.

She did manage to return to Herat in 1994 and 2004, just before and after the Taliban occupation; but after their initial visits in the 70s, long-term warfare in Afghanistan impelled John and Veronica to pursue their studies mainly among refugee and migrant communities—which was also to become a major theme of music ethnography.


Different values


I’ve written a series of posts on the various ways of playing Chinese fiddles:

And some related articles:

Much of my work revolves around trying to understand the mindsets of rural Chinese dwellers, as in my post on vocabularies. Now I come to think of it, that’s almost an incidental definition of ethnography. But it’s not entirely a contrast between urban and rural: the difference between traditional playing in literati and folk genres (both part of a long imperial tradition, and closely related) seems slight, whereas the modern conservatoire style—romantic and Westernized—is quite remote from both.

The term yijing 意境 has a rather more arty literate feel than the trendy English “mindset”, more like “aesthetic”, and in talking to educated urban Chinese I use it quite often to illustrate the issue. But—ironically, illustrating the issue further—I don’t quite know how rural Chinese people might express it, though they have plenty of terms to describe different ways of performing within their own style.

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua band, 2001.



Indian singing at the BM


Ragamala for rag Bihag. Yale University Art Gallery.

After some time immersed in the rich harmonies of Mahler 10, it made a nice contrast for me to bask in the purity of monophonic Hindustani music in the Indian gallery of the British Museum. With the arhat at the other (Chinese) end of the gallery gazing on serenely from afar, Kaushiki Chakraborty sang with the lucidity and intensity characteristic of the style, accompanied by tabla and harmonium (the latter, alas, only intermittently suggestive of the bandoneon—call me old-fashioned, but you still can’t beat the sarangi).

She began with a khayal in the late-evening rag Maru Bihag—whose relation with rag Yaman (and Yaman Kalyan) is a subtlety to be explored by the aficionado. But even for the less attuned ear it’s worth homing in on the basic vocabulary of rag: the pitch relationships, always expounded most clearly in the opening alap.

To simplify absurdly the ascending and descending scales, and the choices of phrases within them (NB upper-case letters denote higher degrees, lower-case their lower degrees; S and P, do and so, are invariable), Ms Chakraborty’s version of the rag featured N and M prominently, using an ascending scale of

N  R  G  M  D  N—

as in many ragas, feeding on the tension with the tonic drone of S. The natural-fourth degree m is introduced as a subsidiary theme (N G m, or S m, and G m G), and later a sustained P also features. Here’s a version she sang in 2017:

Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of solfeggio is a good way of listening to Chinese ritual melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organizing sound.

Some would date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, and even the invention of graphic notation… Comes in jolly handy for Mahler 10, though.

Hokkien culture: nanyin

Nanyin 1986

Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.

In my little introduction to Chinese bowed fiddles, I mentioned the wonderful chamber genre nanyin 南音 (aka nanguan 南管), one of the most refined social activities in the Hokkien culture of south Fujian and Taiwan, complementing the riches of Daoist ritual there. The slow tempi, instrumentation, and the restrained passion of its singing style may remind us of the more plangent of medieval European ballads.

nanyin 86

Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.

At some remove from research on performance genres in north China, this is a clear case of long-term and deep fieldwork from local scholars. I still find rather apposite my 1993 review of a wonderful Ocora CD-set of the Nansheng she group from Tainan (CHIME 7, pp.114–20), and chapter 14 of my book Folk music of China, where I gave a brief overview of the (then) state of the field. (Click here for one of several online tributes to Ts’ai Hsiao-yueh, leader of the Nansheng she group on the Ocora recordings.)

Apart from its reification for the concert stage, nanyin is deeply embedded in community life—amateur clubs, temple fairs, opera, puppetry, Daoist ritual—all within the special circumstances of rapprochement with overseas Hokkien communities, cross-strait diplomacy, and vast social and economic transformations.

Wonderful as nanyin is, alas the idea of “living fossils” has still not been erased—anyway, it’s far from alone in China in preserving an ancient tradition. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s only one of a glorious profusion of performance genres even in Fujian—it occupies a mere 22 of 611 pages in the 1986 Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun by Liu Chunshu and Wang Yaohua, themselves leading proponents of the genre.

This UNESCO introduction is almost bearable, covering some of the main bases:

And among many online videos, this documentary also suggests the broader social and ritual context:

One little caveat: like a recent article on shadow puppetry (“How a bunch of Americans preserved a dying Chinese tradition”!), it’s worth registering the contributions of laowai without getting an inflated notion of their importance. Scholars like Kristoffer Schipper, leading light in producing the Ocora CDs, are justly admired in China and Taiwan, but genres like nanyin are never dependent on such a deus ex machina.

Even in 1982, or 1993, it was far from true that nanyin was “almost forgotten in its own country”! As I commented, the statement “the positive reception of the European public led to regained esteem in China. Nan-kuan was authorized on the continent once more” is worthy of Tintin. Are we to believe that the 139 village nanguan societies in 1986 in the single county of Nan’an (to give just one example) were spurred into action by a single concert in Paris?! Folk activity (for nanyin and other genres) had even persisted throughout the years of Maoism. Meanwhile activity has continued to thrive, and research, already extensive by the early 1990s, has kept pace. A wealth of recordings is now available on CD and online. It’s exquisite music—do keep exploring!

For a broader introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian, see here.

A brief guide to Chinese fiddles

Further to the delights of Indian and world fiddles, I write this partly as a reminder to myself, while I enjoy an unlikely renaissance in my playing of the “mellifluous” erhu fiddle (see also here).

For Chinese instrumental music, I’ve showed how the conservatoire solos are merely the tip of the iceberg. The great majority of instruments are played not solo but as part of ensembles, not on the concert platform but as part of social life. Bowed strings mainly accompany vocal music—the ritual genres that I study in north China are dominated by wind and percussion ensembles (the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here, making a useful introduction).

So ironically, the four solo instruments (pipa, zheng, qin, and erhu) that dominate the popular image of “national music” are rather rare in the countryside. But even if it’s bowed fiddles (“friction chordophones”, ha) you’re after, don’t limit yourselves to the erhu. Much as I love fine renditions like this, there’s a wide range, to rank alongside all the variety of world fiddles.

One guide, mainly useful for historical sources on early fiddles (huqin, xiqin, and so on), is the 1999 book

  • Xiang Yang 项阳, Zhongguo gongxian yueqi shi 中国弓弦乐器史 [A history of Chinese bowed string instruments].

For illustrated introductions, see e.g. Zhongguo yueqi tujian 中国乐器图鉴, pp.236–73. For folk practice in modern times one should look to field reports on local traditions, setting forth from the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (for leads, see my book Folk music of China).

Suzhou Daoist Zhou Zufu on tiqin and banhu fiddles, UK 1994.

On a journey south, passing the tiqin of Kunqu and Daoist groups of south Jiangsu, regional traditions along the southeast coast have several types. The nanyin of south Fujian and the ensembles of Chaozhou (areas that are nearby yet culturally very different) use distinct fiddles (both written as erxian 二弦).

Wang Axin 1990

Nanyin ensemble, Wang Axin on erxian. Quanzhou 1990.

The exquisite Hokkien tradition of nanyin (nanguan) of south Fujian and Taiwan uses a core chamber ensemble of pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, xiao, end-blown flute, and erxian fiddle—all regionally distinctive versions. The large repertoire of long slow sustained ballads somewhat resembles the last page of Mahler 9 elevated into a whole genre. The pipa and xiao are focal to the group, but the erxian is also amazing, demanding extraordinary bow control, full of inflection. For an introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian, see here.

Putian 1990

Fiddles in Shiyin 十音 ensemble. Puxi village, Quanzhou 1990.

Chaozhou blind

Blind instrument-maker Cai Qiuzong (b.1947) on touxian, Dahao town, Shantou 1990.

Guangdong province has several other fiddle types, such as the yehu, and the Cantonese gaohu.

If strings are better known in south China, note that wind and percussion ensembles are just as common there. But northern fiddles are also varied, such as the banhu, huhu (some played with metal rings on the left finger, as in the photos below) and sihu, the Beijing-opera fiddle jinghu, and zhuihu and ruyigou in Henan and Shandong. What most of these fiddles have in common is a gritty timbre, quite far from the suave polished ideal of the conservatoire erhu.

WWQ 2001

yingxian 硬弦 fiddle from Xi’an puppet ensemble: Huang Yuying (b.1932), Xi’an 2001.

XJY 2003

Fiddles accompanying opera, Xujiayuan temple fair, Yanggao 2003. Dodgy screenshot from my film Doing Things, with 2007 book Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi.

An honorable mention too for bowed zithers (zhaqin and so on) played in various traditions north and south. Not to mention all the diverse fiddles among the ethnic minorities— Mongolian morin khuur, Uyghur satar and ghijak, and so on.

Of course, one may end up specializing, but musicians are versatile: they pick up various instruments in order to learn how to take part in the social activity of musicking. The repertoires of such regional traditions took shape long before the modern standardizations of “national music”.

Indeed, outside the conservatoires and apart from the children of the urban bourgeoisie, the only bowed fiddle that’s not at all popular is the erhu! It has commonly been added to ensembles accompanying regional vocal genres since around the 1920s, but remains subsidiary. As always, we should rejoice in regional diversity.

Zooming out, see here for an introduction to the sidebar tag fiddles.


Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up doing a gig at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty:

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi—click here for a fine website.

I outline some of the diverse bowed lutes of China here; the erhu is the least traditional of them, but you must hear this astounding playing. See also here.

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands (see mainly here):

From Iran, here’s Mohammad Reza Lotfi on kamancheh:

Kamancha playing from Azerbaijan is amazing too. I used to have a clip here of an Azeri party—complete with mobile phones, naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and no fancy fakelore costumes. But it’s disappeared, so we’ll have to settle for a reified official concert version:

And here’s a stellar gathering of players, all with their own distinctive styles (with thanks to Jeffrey Werbock, himself a fine exponent of Azeri music):

For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (useful site here), besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar—played here in a more natural setting:

And the Uyghurs use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:

Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s a start. I leave jazz fiddling to another post… For yet more, see fiddles tag in the sidebar, introduced here.

Ashiq: the last troubadour

*Distressing update*

After all these years when the common response to a comment on the Uyghurs of Xinjiang was “The WHAT of WHAT?”, their new-found global fame is yet more unfortunate. It’s hard to believe now that the screening of this film, less than two years ago, came at a time when the Uyghurs were little known, when films like this could still be made about groups that were still active, and still seemed relevant; when dedicated Uyghur scholars and performers still had room to maintain their culture. Following their pervasive silencing since then, among a host of fine articles on the appalling current situation in Xinjiang, see here, and here, including Rachel Harris’s comments on the disappearance of Sanubar Tursun. Among many articles on the distinguished ethnographer and film-maker Rahilä Dawut, another victim of the purge, is this. For more, see Shrine festivals of the UyghursUyghur drum-and-shawm, and Uyghur culture in crisis..

I’ve left the review below as I first wrote it.

* * *

In my little list of ethnographic films, I mentioned Liu Xiangchen 刘湘晨, an outstanding film-maker based in Urumqi in Xinjiang. On Monday at SOAS, as part of a conference on Islamic soundscapes in China (itself part of an excellent project[1] he attended a screening of his Ashiq: the last troubadour (2010, 122 mins), one of several films by him on various ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Filmed mainly between 2003 and 2007, Liu’s four-hour version of Ashiq was shown last year at the splendid Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music, with a detailed discussion (which, ominously, has since disappeared from the web).

Here’s an 8-minute trailer:

and an introduction.

The “exotic” ethnic minorities are always a more popular research topic than the somewhat mundane Han Chinese; I would say, only I’d sound like the UKIPs, that the Han Chinese have become a minority in their own country—which would be just as absurd, given that, in the face of vast Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang, it is precisely the Uyghurs who feel threatened. But I envy scholars of the minorities the stunning scenery, and the costumes—and if they no longer wear them, they’re used to being asked to put them on for the cameras…

I’m now a little confused about what ashiq actually means among the Uyghurs. Simply stated, they are Sufi mendicants who congregate at the shrines of Islamic saints. From the YouTube blurb:

Some ashiq are ironworkers, others are beggars, merchants, grave diggers, barbers, woman ashiq, Sheikh (the Islamic clergy) and so on.

As Rachel Harris notes, [2] the term may be a rather modern usage for people once more commonly known as dervishes or qalandar. It’s taxonomy again.

Liu described them as marginalized, a minority themselves, but it looks like a substantial phenomenon. And marginalization is their very raison d’être: they thrive on flouting social norms (cf. Merriam). The subtitle “the last troubadour” seems unsuitable, not only since the use of a (largely secular) term like troubadour is hardly useful, but because the film doesn’t seem to show that they are dying out. Maybe they are, but it repeats a mantra chanted by anthropologists since early times, claiming to have discovered a pristine tradition that is endangered, rather than noting constant change.

For an outsider, the film, like that of De Martino in south Italy, may also shock. For the total novice, it will just amaze: didn’t the CCP destroy religion over sixty years ago—all the more in Xinjiang or Tibet? At least it shows what a huge task the CCP faces. Are we to celebrate the slow spread of state education and modernization?

The nomination of the ashiq for Intangible Cultural Heritage status is captioned early in the film without comment, though (like that of the Uyghur meshrep) [3] it will seem so very incongruous; perhaps it serves as a kind of amulet to protect the film from official criticism. As with the Han Chinese, a majority of genres selected for the ICH are grounded in ritual, impossible to reconcile with the state’s goals without destroying them—which may indeed be the idea. It is the duty of the ethnographer to reflect such micro-societies faithfully, like any other. It goes without saying that it is no use to regard them purely as “musical cultures” detached from their social roots.

The conceit of academic objectivity may make ethnographers seem to refrain from either celebration or criticism, yet at the same time (to return to De Martino), some may be shocked, pondering the link between religion and poverty—an obstacle to those social changes that can genuinely improve people’s lives, health, life-expectancy, and so on?

I gave an instance for the Han Chinese in my Shaanbei book (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and one main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

One doesn’t have to be a Maoist apparatchik to worry about this. Observers will draw their own conclusions.

Returning to the Uyghurs, the gender issue is sobering too. There’s one fine scene of a group of female ashiq, but as Rachel Harris (whose next book, including a study of female religious groups, I await eagerly) pointed out at the screening, only a female film-maker could get proper access to such groups—like Rahilä Dawut (on whom see here).

The film suggests so many complex issues. It gives full coverage to songs, and texts, not just sonic icing on the cake. The ashiq aren’t big on cake, but some weed helps them commune.

Their basic accompaniment is the sapaye, paired sticks pierced with metal rings, played in a kind of stylized self-flagellation, notable in various degrees in both Islamic and Han Chinese ritual cultures (for one gory instance from Fujian, see Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven).

The tear-stained faces of the ashiq as they sing may remind us that the expression of suffering is a quasi-universal feature of music-making. But it’s always culturally mediated, with differing implications; Rachel Harris again explores the significance of “performative tears” both for Uyghur and other cultures (for the Bach Passions, see here).

The sudden, startling, introduction of scenes from the bustling modern capital of Urumqi is effective. I didn’t pick up hints to change in the rural scene, which must be constantly occurring too, so the film may seem merely to suggest a contrast between (“backward”?) rural traditions and harsh urban commodification. But the structure works well, right down to the final scenes with a birth and a death, the latter in an extraordinary landscape.

I pen these thoughts as a mere outsider. Talking of which, one also wonders how all this relates to the old rejection of ethnographic outsiders, summarized by Nettl as “You will never understand our music”. But here, as with the late great Zhou Ji 周吉 (1943–2008), one of the consultants on the film, Uyghurs seem to have few reservations about certain Han Chinese (or Westerners, indeed) documenting their lives—as long as they are clearly in sympathy and willing to engage fully. Liu Xiangchen, though not himself Uyghur, was also advised by Dilmurat Omar of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology at Xinjiang Normal University.


[1] I am grateful to Rachel Harris, estimable authority on Uyghur culture and music, for pointing me towards several sources. As usual, it goes without saying that I am entirely responsible for my interpretations here.
[2] “Theory and practice in contemporary Central Asian Maqām traditions” (forthcoming).
[3] Note this important report. See also Rachel Harris, “ ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang” (forthcoming).

Rag Kafi Zila


From the late 60s, at a time when it was hardly possible to be amazed by the riches of Chinese traditional music, I was devoted to Indian music—which then meant mainly the solo “classical” traditions, as it mainly still does in the popular image.

If Heart of Glass reminded me fleetingly, impertinently, of rag Marwa and Nikhil Banerjee, I still treasure his lyrical rendition of rag Kafi Zilawhich appeared magically on BBC Radio 3 in the early 1970s.

It’s an entrancing raga, for the second quarter of the night. Within its basic minor scale with flat 3rd and 7th, it sometimes features the major 3rd degree.

The suave BBC announcer’s introduction (citing Alain Daniélou) remains etched in my heart:

Of shining whiteness,
Kafi, who inspires lust,
tenderly sits on the lap of her playmate in the royal palace.
Fond of parrots,
she is dressed in blue
and decked with jewels.
She is the image of sensuousness.
In the Lotus of my heart
I cherish her,
lovelier than Lakshmi
the goddess of Fortune.

Of course, as with Bach, I’m just reporting my own infatuation, which is merely a product of a particular place, social milieu, and time—far from the responses of indigenous audiences of various types.

Here’s one of several exquisite versions by Banerjee:

As I observed here, training in Indian sargam solfeggio is a basic grounding in monophonic musics—far from a mere conceptual exercise, it draws us towards the heart of the music.

For more raga, and a fine study of its changing social context, see here.

Heart of glass, and Rag Marwa

Heart of glass is yet another masterpiece from the late 70s—just after Naturträne.

Apart from its spacey vibe, there’s one detail of Debbie Harry’s song that Yer Average fan will experience instinctively, but the tedious analytical bent of the musicologist may home in on: the hallucinatory temporary modulation at the end of the third line (find/blind), fleetingly sketching a major triad on la—all the more ironic for the deflation expressed by the lyric.

That harmonic shift reminds me of rag Marwa, with its implied major scale on Dha/la (A major, one might say) over the Sa–Pa/do–so/C–G drone, the flat re (C♯) clashing with the tonic. Sure, Heart of glass hardly compares with the complexities of the ascending and descending scales of the rag, worked through over a long period, but hey. Here’s a sarangi version from Sultan Khan:

Or Nikhil Banerjee on sitar:

For another rendition on sarangi, see here.

Festivals: the official—folk continuum

The upcoming CHIME conference in LA (29 March to 2 April), presided over by the excellent Helen Rees, looks like a fine event, though I can’t make it. The theme this time is festivals.

Gansu miaohui FKTemple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. [1]
Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Of course, festivals and pilgrimages all over the world are a major theme of ethnography: not just Uyghur meshreps and mazar, and Tibetan monastery festivals, but Indian melas, Sufi festivals, the Mediterranean (Andalucian fiestas, south Italy…), Moroccan ahouach, you name it. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s 1994 book Musiques en fête is charmant, with wise and vivid words about Morocco, Sardinia, and Romania (¡¿BTW, why do French books put the list of contents at the back?! ¡¿Typical Gallic contrariness?!)

To adopt the metaphor of “the whole dragon” again, there is a long continuum between folk festivals, based on ritual (often calendrical) observances, and secular events for a largely urban audience.

So I too am going to link up diverse themes like temple fairs, ritual, famine, village names, Eurovision, and propaganda. It does make sense, though—trust me, I’m a doctor.

Traditional events in China`
Funeral rituals have been my main topic in China for thirty years, but of course it’s not easy to plan visits much in advance. The calendrical dates of temple fairs (often known as miaohui) may seem easier to anticipate. Again, scholars of religion tend to home in on their specifically religious elements, as in the great jiao Offering—though note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven. But like funerals they are multivalent, embracing all kinds of activity: ritual, opera, folk-song, pop, commerce, “hosting” and “red-hot sociality” (Chau!)…

Apart from my 2007 and 2009 books, names like Zhao Shiyu, Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Yue Yongyi, Stephan FeuchtwangAdam Chau, and Wu Fan spring to mind. The knack is to detail both sacred and secular aspects of temple fairs.

But the dates of calendrical rituals, like temple fairs, may not be easily vouchsafed to the outsider either. The temple fairs on the Houshan mountains in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, mainly in the 3rd and 7th moons, are much less well known than those of Miaofengshan, but they also draw huge crowds, both local and from further afield.

To work all this out you have to spend time around the villages of Liujing and Matou in the foothills around Houshan, and then observe who goes where when and does what. Although Chinese villagers are a rich source of ritual and musical information (far more than any silent library), they often speak prescriptively rather than descriptively, telling us on what occasions a jiao Offering ritual should be performed, whether or not is has been performed since the 1940s. They don’t necessarily volunteer information on change, preferring (like some officials and scholars) to present their traditions as constant, eternal—even if contexts and repertoires have evidently changed in their lifetime. On our first visit to Liujing we rather assumed that villagers’ descriptions of ritual pilgrimages related to “the past”— but we soon found that they were very much alive.

The Songs-for-winds associations: propaganda and catastrophe
What got me “thinking” (I use the word loosely) about all this was that 1950 visit to Tianjin of the “Songs-for-winds” band from Ziwei village, in what later became Dingxian county.

The Central Conservatoire (as it was then) was then still based at Tianjin, of course. The work of Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe on the Songs-for-winds may be considered a prelude to that on the more solemn ritual style of the Beijing temples that Yang undertook from 1952, a topic that was to expand vastly after 1986. But the Songs-for-winds groups, more popular than the ritual style that is my main focus, are worth a little detour here.

We should bear in mind that such wind ensembles were quite unfamiliar to southerners like Yang and Cao. Having invited the Ziwei band to the conservatoire, they recorded their repertoire on a Webster wire recorder. The band went back some six generations, and under the leadership of the celebrated Wang Chengkui, they had invited the great wind player Yang Yuanheng  to teach them in the winters of 1945 and 1946. Yang Yuanheng, a former Daoist priest in a little temple in Anping county, was himself appointed professor of guanzi oboe at the conservatoire in 1950. [2] Yang Yuanheng, like the Buddhist monk Haibo, was a major influence on many shengguan ritual associations in the area: we would hear their names from many village associations.

Yang and Cao’s monograph on the Ziwei band, published in 1952,  consists mainly of transcriptions, with little of the social detail that they covered for the Wuxi Daoists or Yang’s 1956 Hunan fieldtrip. Ziwei would go on to supply wind players to many state troupes for decades to come.

Langfang huahui 1991

Secular New Year’s huahui parade, Langfang city, 1991.

Adapted from my Folk music of China (p.196):

During the 1958 Great Leap Forward (or Backward, as it’s known), Dingxian and particularly Xushui counties became model counties for the relentless drive to full communization. [3] At the height of the Leap back in August 1958, Chairman Mao visited communes there. In Dasigexiang district just southeast of Xushui county-town, Dasigezhuang village was now renamed the 4th August brigade. Notable for its revolutionary fervour at this time was the “Great Leap Forward Songs-for winds association” of Qianminzhuang brigade in Xushui, which performed for this visit.

The propaganda of the Leap makes a stark contrast with the grim realities of the period, with villages throughout the area suffering from crop failure, famine, and social disruption.

Our visit to Qianminzhuang in 1993 was the only time I’ve ever had a police escort—to take me there for a change, not to drag me away! Predictably, such an effusive welcome for me as a “foreign guest” indicated close supervision and censorship of our fieldwork.

QMZ band 1993

QMZ pose 1993

Striking a pose with the leaders, Qianminzhuang 1993

In 1995 we visited some of the senior musicians independently, with much more useful results.

Xushui’s favoured status did nothing to prevent many starving to death there in 1960—but just near Qianminzhuang, the Gaozhuang ritual association still managed to restart in 1961. Religion revived in China precisely at moments of political crisis such as the famines of 1960 and the Cultural Revolution, albeit with great difficulty. It may provide solace, or a focus for resistance—both against Maoism and later against the insecurities ensuing its demise.

The Gaozhuang ritual association was one of many in Xushui villages that used, and use, the older more solemn shengguan style. Ritual associations throughout the area commonly claim transmission from either Buddhist monks (heshangjing 和尚經) or Daoist priests (laodaojing 老道經)—the Gaozhuang association is Buddhist-transmitted. In another common taxonomy, the association divides into “front altar” (qiantan, the shengguan instrumental ensemble, and “rear altar” (houtan, vocal liturgy).

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religion, notably the cult of the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu. Associations there commonly hang out ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings (Shiwang) or Water and Land (Shuilu) series, and they use “precious scrolls” and other ritual manuals. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the pilgrimage to Houshan. Even the revolutionary Qianminzhuang band told us that their former tradition was to recite the scriptures, performing only as a social duty for funerals, not for weddings. And certainly not to accompany mendacious parades to report a bumper harvest…

In 1994 the Gaozhuang association built an Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother (Laomu citang), occupying about one mu, stylish and grand. It cost around 60,000 kuai to build; the stele lists 132 donors, who gave from 50 up to 3,000 kuai. The altar has Wusheng laomu in the centre, Wangmu niangniang and Songzi niangniang to the right, Cangu niangniang and Houtu niangniang to the left.

Gaozhuang citang

The village Party Secretary told us that sources of support included incense money from the Great Tent Association (Dapeng hui, a common term in the area for a ritual association) and from the temple, and money from fortune-telling and curing illness. He reflected, “A dozen or so women kept on coming to see me about building a temple. I had no choice—the brigade couldn’t refuse, so I gave them a plot of land. Believing in the gods and having a temple is no bad thing, it’s not as if you stop production if you believe in it!”

In all, the flamboyant (and readily secularized) Songs-for-winds style remains a common image of wind bands on the Hebei plain, but since all our fieldwork through the 1990s it is clear that ritual practice, with its more solemn shengguan instrumental style, is both older and more common. It is resilient too. This persistence of tradition, both in religious and musical practice, is all the more striking in such a once-revolutionary county as Xushui.

Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972:

“I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking.”  [4]

But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it. Still, disruption was severe. For more on Xushui, see here.

Official festivals in the 1950s
Meanwhile, the new government, in its own way, was promoting local culture through the medium of regional folk festivals (diaoyan, huiyan). First, local festivals were held to select representatives for major performances in the regional capitals. Some laicized priests were even assembled to perform as “troupes“, sometimes for the first time in many years—such as Baiyunshan Daoists (1955), Wudangshan Daoists (1956 and 1957), Wutaishan Buddhists (1958). For such performances, inevitably, their shengguan instrumental music was plucked out of its ritual context. I haven’t heard stories as distressing as the fate that befell kobzari blind minstrels in Ukraine when summoned for an official festival in the early 1930s; but folk ritual specialists were still anxious about performing for officials around 1980.

These festivals served partly as auditions for the state song-and-dance troupes then expanding all over China. Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists had a deserved reputation as outstanding instrumentalists. Many, like our very own Li Qing (my book pp.113–25), were recruited as musicians to state troupes around 1958—and then sent home again as the state apparatus collapsed in 1962.

While such festivals stimulated the collection and documentation of folk music, we must balance this with the ongoing assaults on its traditional context. The background ( beginning from the 1940s) was campaigns against “feudal superstition”, terrifying public executions of sectarians, and the destruction of temple life.

The reform era
Urban festivals featuring rural groups—perhaps related to a conference—make a convenient recourse for busy academics into whose holidays they fit nicely. From the 1980s, the secular arts festivals of the Maoist era were remoulded into more glossy events. In 1990 the Li family Daoists took part in a festival of religious music in Beijing.

By the 21st century the new ideology was confirmed in the regular staged “living fossil” presentations of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The latter project, with its whole bureaucratic workings, has now become a major research topic on its own, at the expense of studies of the local traditions that it is supposed to assist (my book pp.331–3). Note also the Qujiaying bandwagon.

I tend to steer clear of conferences, but in May 2016, as a pretext for going to hang out yet again with Li Manshan in Shanxi for a couple of weeks, I accepted an invitation to take part in a conference celebrating the 80th birthday of my esteemed teacher Yuan Jingfang in Beijing. It was a déjà-vu experience. Apart from a sequence of eulogies, the event also featured staged performances from three representatives of Yuan Jingfang’s long-term research areas: the Hanzhuang ritual association from Xiongxian in Hebei (near Xushui), the Zhihua temple group, and a ritual band from near Xi’an.

Hanzhuang 1993

Filming the Hanzhuang association in their ritual tent, 1993 (photo: Xue Yibing). Rear centre: two frames of ten-gong yunluo.

It made me feel my age, reminding me of all our visits to these very groups between 1986 and 2001. Taking time out of the conference to chat with the Hanzhuang group outside by the lake, we recalled their kindly association leader Xie Yongxiang 解永祥, father of the present leader, and another of those wise sheng masters. We had learned a lot from him in 1993 and 1995.

Xie Yongxiang 1995

Xie Yongxiang, 1995

But returning to the conference—the object of admiration, inevitably, was their “music”, detached from its enduring social context. I already missed hanging out with Li Manshan in the scripture hall.

All the glossy stage presentation has many Western parallels—flamenco on the Terry Wogan show (remind me to do more on flamenco in due course), WOMAD, Songlines, prizes, urbane discourse explaining its “cultural value” to outsiders… The fancy costumes and dry ice of many Chinese events are reminiscent of Eurovision; they may seem like a Disneyland version of the Chinese heritage.

That photo comes from a recent ICH “performance” of the Baiyunshan Daoists, no less.

Now, I adore opportunities to present the Li family Daoist band on the concert platform (see this post and a whole related series of Vignettes from May 2017), but while it is of course a compromise, we take care not to tart them up—we can hardly do otherwise, so solemn is their demeanour.

Hberg 2012

The Li family Daoist band in concert, Heidelberg April 2013.

And their regular “rice-bowl”—day in, day out— is always performing funerals for their local, not global, clientele.

What is dodgy is when people begin mistaking the staged events for the Real Thing, or some kind of ideal. Urbanites may do so, but villagers know better. Of course those staged events are themselves a legitimate, and popular, object of scholarly analysis. But I worry that it creates a fait accompli, like the way that in old-school WAM musicology the Great Composers were the main story (as deconstructed by McClary, Small, Nettl)—“this is what we find, so it must reflect the real picture, and so this is the object of study”. As always, “modern” secular performance doesn’t replace traditional activity: they co-exist.

The CHIME conference in LA will doubtless turn up many instances of what I’m struggling not to call “contested negotiation”. Anyway, staged events can give us a lead, rather like using the photos in the Anthology, otherwise flawed, to draw us towards folk activity.



[1] For more, see Frank Kouwenhoven, “Love songs and temple festivals in northwest China: musical laughter in the face of adversity”, in Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen eds., Music, dance and the art of seduction.
[2] For this whole section, see my Folk music of China, pp.48–52, 195–203; “Chinese ritual music under Mao and Deng”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 8 (1999): 27–66; “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003): 287–337. See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.166–7, 183–4, 188–90.
[3] As correctives to all the Xushui propaganda, see e.g. the brilliant works of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China—describing a commune not far from Xushui. Note Chinese village, socialist state, pp.215–20; Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, pp.40, 47–9, 68–70; and estimable analysis online in Chinese, e.g. For the model commune of Greater Quanshan in Shanxi, precursor of Dazhai, and temporary “home” to the Li family Daoists, see my book, pp.122–3, and here, under “Famine in China”.
[4] Also reported by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek, 3rd March 1997, p.31.

The meaninglessness of ritual


The work of Frits Staal on Indian ritual contains much from which scholars of Daoist ritual (not least I) might benefit, confronting issues that I encounter in working with Li Manshan. Staal’s ideas about orthopraxy seem to go beyond the discussions following those of James Watson for China. There’s a lot more to Staal’s work than that, but this is a start.

In “The meaninglessness of ritual”, [1] Staal eschewed “the dewy-eyed romanticism that is pernicious to any serious study of cultures and people.”

A widespread but erroneous assumption about ritual is that it consists in symbolic activities which refer to something else. It is characteristic of a ritual performance, however, that it is self-contained and self-absorbed. The performers are totally immersed in the proper execution of their complex tasks. Isolated in their sacred enclosure, they concentrate on correctness of act, recitation and chant. Their primary concern, if not obsession, is with rules. There are no symbolic meanings going through their minds when they are engaged in performing ritual.
Such absorption, by itself, does not show that ritual cannot have a symbolic meaning. However, also when we ask a brahmin explicitly why the rituals are performed, we never receive an answer which refers to symbolic activity. There are numerous different answers, such as: we do it because our ancestors did it; because we are eligible to do it; because it is good for society; because it is good; because it is our duty; because it is said to lead to immortality; because it leads to immortality. A visitor will furthermore observe that a person who has performed a Vedic ritual acquires social and religious status, which involves other benefits, some of them economic. Beyond such generalities one gets involved in individual case histories. Some boys have never been given much of a choice, and have been taught recitations and rites as a matter of fact; by the time they have mastered these, there is little else they are competent or motivated to do. Others are inspired by a spirit of competition. The majority would not be able to come up with an adequate answer to the question why they engage in ritual. But neither would I, if someone were to ask me why I am writing about it.
Most questions concerning ritual detail involve numerous complex rules, and no participant could provide an answer or elucidation with which he would himself be satisfied. Outsiders and bystanders may volunteer their ideas about religion and philosophy generally—without reference to any specific question. In most cases such people are Hindus who do not know anything about Vedic ritual. There is only one answer which the best and most reliable among the ritualists themselves give consistently and with more than average frequency: we act according to the rules because this is our tradition (parampara). The effective part of the answer seems to be: look and listen, these are our activities! To performing ritualists, rituals are to a large extent like dance, of which Isadora Duncan said: “If I could tell you what it meant there would be no point in dancing it.”
Ritual, then, is primarily activity. It is an activity governed by explicit rules. The important thing is what you do, not what you think, believe or say.

This echoes Catherine Bell’s comment that I cited in my post on Bach and Daoist ritual. Indeed, she pursued the theme further in her books Ritual: perspectives and dimensions and Ritual theory, ritual practice .

Poul Andersen offers caveats to Staal in a review of volumes on Shanghai Daoist ritual (Daniel Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.263–83). He highlights the interpretations of the participants (including the liturgists themselves), which “in many ways influence the actual performance. They are relevant for the way in which performances take shape, develop, and are modified over time.” Such interpretations, while important, rarely offer a detailed critique, so such a view refines rather than refutes Staal’s point.

I pursue the theme under Navajo culture.


[1] Numen 26.1 (1979): 2–22. See also Ritual and mantras: rules without meaning (Motilal Banarsidass, 1996), and (source of my quote here) S.N.Balagangadhara, “Review of Staal’s Rules Without Meaning”, Cultural dynamics 4.1 (1991), pp.98–106.