Gurdjieff and the Truth Seekers

Gurdjieff 1

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

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

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

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

Gurdjieff cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gurdjieff 2

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

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

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

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

movements
Source.

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

and Meditation:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Landscapes of music in Istanbul

Landscapes cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rembetika 52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion Yildirim observes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This and the preceding chapter suffer rather from leaden translation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion, Papadopoulos observes:

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

Zithers of Iran and Turkey

To follow my posts on bowed zithers (Korea and China, and Alpine), among an extensive family of plucked or hammered zithers around west and central Asia are the Persian santur and the Turkish kanun. Both have developed a solo repertoire quite recently.

Some of us were first entranced by the Iranian santur with Nasser Rastegar-Nejad’s playing on the 1970 film Performance. Here’s a further selection.

This 1955 recording is by Hossein Saba (1924-1957):

Here’s a 1984 LP by Faramarz Payvar:

And Hossein Farjami:

* * *

Whereas the Persian santur is also often part of chamber ensembles, the Turkish kanun now seems to be more commonly heard solo.

Plucked or hammered zithers were part of the multicultural musickings of the Ottoman empire and its periphery. [1] I can’t interpret the clues from early written sources and iconography, but the term santur looks more common. In Constantinople, zithers seem to have been played mainly by musicians of the peripheral minorities; by the 17th century Evliya Çelebi described the santur as of Jewish origin. This 1779 image shows six Muslim and six non-Muslim (Greek or Armenian) musicians, including a santur, as well as ney flutes and both rebab (keman) bowed lute and Western violin:

Ottoman music 1779

Concert at the official residence of Sir Robert Ainslie, British Ambassador in Constantinople,
by Chevalier d’Otée 1779.

In Constantinople the kanun seems only to have become a regular member of elite chamber ensembles from the late Ottoman era. In his entry on “Qānūn” in The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, Christian Poché states

Turkish writers agree that the qānūn in its present form was introduced into their country during the reign of Mahmud II (1785–1839) by a Syrian immigrant, Ūmer Effendi, from Cairo. It would thus seem that the instrument was diffused from the area of Egypt and Syria. […]

The more recent history of the qānūn resumes at the time of the technical revolution that reached Istanbul in 1876. There is a gulf between the old qānūn and the new, the earliest examples of which were made by the Istanbul instrument maker Mahmut Usta.

In wider Turkish society, both urban and rural, Sufi ritual groups and davul-zurna drum-and-shawm bands continue to maintain imperial traditions. By contrast, I’m unclear if the kind of “art music” traditions that incorporated the kanun have survived beyond the concert platform; perhaps someone can tell me if it’s commonly part of folk ensembles around Anatolia.

Anyway, it’s a most beguiling sound—especially in solo free-tempo modal taksim, always to be relished (cf. Indian alap).

Here’s an early recording by Ahmat Yakman (1897–1973):

In her vimeo series (in Turkish) Esra Berkman profiled some masters from the senior generation, some samples of whose playing you can hear below.

Nuri Şenneli (1922–2006) (interview):

Nevzat Sümer (b.1927) (interview):

Cüneyt Kosal (1931–2018) (interview):

Erol Deran (b.1937) (interview):

Chinese parallels for the shift from folk activity to the conservatoire might be the zheng zither and pipa lute; cf. Musicking at the Qing court 1 and Amateur musicking in urban Shaanbei, also featuring the yangqin dulcimer.

If Pachelbel played the zither, it might be called Pachelbel’s kanun—to complement Pachelbel’s capon.

 


[1] For musicking in Ottoman Constantinople, note the work of Ersu Pekin, e.g. here. See also the introduction to Ottoman music on wiki, and Dilek Göktürk-Cary, “Ottoman music in travel books: a path to restructure the forgotten Ottoman instruments” (2017).

Three Women of Herat: a new edition!

Herat 1
Veronica Doubleday practising a piece with minstrel Shirin, Herat, mid-1970s.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the most recent calamity suffered by the people of Afghanistan had receded from the news; but both have heightened awareness of the trauma of conflict.

Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the splendid Eland Books (“the quintessential travel publisher”, in the words of Michael Palin), they have just issued a handsome new edition of Veronica Doubleday’s classic Three women of Herat (1988), which I introduced here.

Herat cover

Having last heard Veronica singing in a cameo for the launch of Musics lost and found in the Wigmore Hall (as WAM concert halls go, rather a satisfying venue, but still rather grandiose and formal), I sallied forth to Exmouth market (clearly still a great place to be young…) for a double celebration, held at the charming church hall of the Holy Redeemer (cf. Buildings and music). Veronica led a concert of live music, her intimate singing with daireh frame-drum accompanied by John Baily on rubab and dutar plucked lutes, with Sulaiman Haqpana on tabla.

Even before she begins to sing, Veronica’s gift for natural communication is revealed in her spoken introductions, portraying the world of women—notably as evinced in their wedding songs. Of course, through no-one’s fault, for a London audience to bask in exquisite singing in a cosy venue over a glass of wine is far removed from the sufferings of Afghan women today.

Wedding bands, 1970s.

The new edition contains a section of Veronica’s evocative photos. In her thoughtful Afterword she reflects on changing recent perceptions.

Now and then “the plight of Afghan women” resurfaces, but media images tend to stereotype Afghan women as downtrodden victims of abuse and violation—a simplistic message that does not reflect my own experience.

Still, reflecting on her visit to the Peshawar refugee camps (described further in her Epilogue to the original edition), she comments:

After all, men had choices. They could take up arms and fight, they could go and find work in the city, meet new people and adapt to their new surroundings. Women had no options. They were trapped at home with harrowing memories and the psychological pain of dislocation and isolation, impotent to act against the powerful forces that had transformed their lives.

Veronica relates her sporadic access to the stories of the women she befriended: news of the 1979 uprising in Herat, the visit to Peshawar in 1985, and a trip to Herat in 1994 on the eve of the Taliban takeover. She outlines the clandestine resilience of women’s culture even during those dark years of violence and forced marriages. In 2004 Veronica and John managed to visit Kabul and a dangerous but fast-developing Herat; and in 2014 they returned to Kabul—amidst heavy security—to teach and perform at the Afghan National Institute of Music. They continue to serve as ambassadors for an endangered culture, giving fund-raising concerts to support urgent charitable causes.

You really must buy this book! And as you read, do listen to the tracks, and watch the films, in my original post.

Ding without dong

À propos household appliances, I’ve already regaled you with the saga of my ancient fridge. Now, in another of those “hideous encounters with domestic necessity“, my trusty doorbell is on the blink.

It hasn’t worked for months, even when I imaginatively changed the batteries; so in the absence of a sturdy knocker (cf. Horatio E. Brown, Some Venetian knockers), my rare visitors have been reduced to beating vigorously on my door. Now, working diligently with a fine array of tools, my fine neighbourhood handyman has managed to reinstate the ding, but I still find myself without dong. It makes me feel better that it wasn’t just that I put the batteries in the wrong way round.

Examples I’ve heard of the ding-dong (not to be confused with the polemical ding-dong, nor with Dang in Gujarat and Korea—nor indeed with Dingding, Chinese for Tintin, or Doof-doof) all seem to be standardised at the same pitch, concert F♯–D:

Conditioned by long experience, on hearing the ding one’s ears eagerly anticipate the dong. Thus I can’t help hearing the first pitch as a mi, looking forward to a resolution on do (“do, a note to follow mi“—see Solfeggio). If the first note were a single pitch devoid of social history, one could perfectly hear it as a do, or indeed any other pitch degree.

Brahms 4The two-note motif could be any major third, actually: I doubt if anyone hears it as ti–so or la–fa, or even the fifth and third of a minor triad, as at the opening of Brahms 4—but once my second note is restored, I’m going to have a jolly good try to hear it that way. Were I an Inuit hunter (yeah right), the motif would have its own associations (looks around for doorbell on igloo).

* * *

If you’re really at a loose end (and currently for me this serves as a welcome distraction from trying to get to grips with ritual theory, with all its “redemptive hegemony flapdoodle), the doorbell has an interesting history. Or at least a history. As Wiki helpfully explains, it’s

a signalling device typically placed near a door to a building’s entrance. When a visitor presses a button the bell rings inside the building, alerting the occupant to the presence of the visitor.

Thanks for that, wiki (it’s even funnier, with a link defining the word “door”—”a hinged or otherwise movable barrier that allows ingress [entry] into and egress [exit] from an enclosure”). The article goes on:

William Murdoch, a Scottish inventor, installed a number of his own innovations in his house, built in Birmingham in 1817; one of these was a loud doorbell, that worked using a piped system of compressed air. A precursor to the electric doorbell, specifically a bell that could be rung at a distance via an electric wire, was invented by Joseph Henry around 1831. By the early 1900s, electric doorbells had become commonplace.

Bell-pulls

Before electrical doorbells, large houses and estates often had complicated mechanical systems to allow occupants of any room to pull a bell pull and ring a bell at a central bell panel in the staff quarters, to summon a servant.

Note the operative word there (cf. All things bright and beautiful).

Bell pull cartoon

James Gillray, 1804.

Irresistibly evoking the capacious household of the baffling Jacob Tree-Frog, aka The Haunted Pencil or Minister for the 18th century,

bell pulls may be used to summon workers in homes of people who employ butlers, housemaids, nannies, or other domestic workers, [who] and often have a tassel at the bottom.

Owl's bell pull

English readers of a certain age may also associate the bell pull with Eeyore and Owl.

Of course, more artsy sounds have been developed. I’m reminded of Helen Rees’s fine aperçuDoorbells play muzak when pressed”.

Zeng Houyi bells

Indeed, you may recall that I rejoice in the sonorous Chinese surname of Zhong 鐘, “Bell”. Picture a domestic scene in Hubei in the 5th century BCE: whenever someone popped in for a chat with the Marquis Yi of Zeng over a pot of tea and a macaroon, a slave had to notify his master by striking the relevant bell of his immense set of bianzhong with a wooden mallet. Fortunately, of the sixty-four bells, only one is required to create the ding-dong, as each was ingeniously designed to sound two notes a third apart!!!

See also Cowbells: Mahler, Messiaen, and Bill Bailey.

Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London

with a homage to Cantonese music and jazz in Soho

RM 2022 for blog

Ray Man at home, 2022.

The splendid Ray Man (文賢慶, b.1937) has been a pillar of the Chinese music scene in the UK since he arrived from Hong Kong in 1956. It’s been many years since we met up, but it was delightful to visit him again recently at his house in Chalk Farm, listening as he recalled the old days with his quirky sense of humour. His story illustrates profound social and musical changes in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China. [1]

Ray’s early life in Hong Kong
Ray was brought up in rural San Tin in the New Territories, just south of Shenzhen (then still a sleepy little town!). The Wen lineage was the dominant clan there. Ray’s early memories are of hiding from the Japanese troops after they invaded Hong Kong in 1941. His father was a seaman who went on to trade rice in Singapore; imprisoned by the Japanese, he was only released when his father-in-law (who had long emigrated to New York) paid a huge ransom. But he lost his business, and after the war it was some time before he could return home; he was now suffering from TB.

HK Fan He
“Work and play”, from the iconic albums of Fan He.

In San Tin living conditions were poor. After the surrender of the Japanese, Ray moved with his mother to Kowloon in 1946, helping her with a little homemade catering enterprise, delivering congee and snacks.

HK Cantonese opera 1950s
Hong Kong club, 1950s. Source.

At the age of 9, while reading a cartoon book in a stairwell, Ray was entranced by hearing a blind busker playing a plaintive melody on yewu [yehu] 椰胡 coconut fiddle. He began frequenting the bustling area around Temple street, [2] where a variety of entertainments could be heard, such as the naamyam ballads sung by teahouse bards. Ray had absorbed Cantonese opera from infancy, perching on his mother’s back at New Year in the village; his older brother was a great fan, so now Ray too went along to clubs to relish the drama. He borrowed a violin (evocatively transcribed as 梵鈴), by then a popular member of the Cantonese ensemble, and picked up yehu and gaohu fiddles, as well as various plucked lutes.

Ray finds his feet in the UK
Following the British Nationality Act of 1948, waves of immigrants arrived in the UK from the Pearl River Delta—mostly male, and single, working in Chinese restaurants (wiki: here and here).

Through his old seafaring connections, Ray’s father, in frail health, reached London in 1955. In late 1956 Ray himself borrowed the princely sum of £165 for his own passage to the UK, boarding a ship with only his violin, Chinese yewu, and banjo; after forty-five days at sea he was less than pleased to find himself having to disembark in Marseilles (cf. Nearly an Italian holiday). Eventually he made his way on to London, finding the new Chinese community in Soho, which, as restaurant work supplanted seafaring, had recently replaced their original base of Limehouse—potent material for the racist fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu (see e.g. here, and here).

Limehouse 1911
Limehouse, 1911.

Musicians from China had performed in 19th-century London, but I haven’t found early evidence of musical life among its small settled Chinese community. In Soho Ray soon observed the gambling habits of Chinatown and acquainted himself with the Chinese Workers’ Association. There he took out his violin to play a little piece of Cantonese music to the old folks sitting around. When they all stopped what they were doing, he too broke off, thinking “I play something wrong?”. Far from it: “Hey, why you stop? Keep going—never hear something like that before!”

Here’s a solo by the celebrated Hong Kong violinist Yin Zizhong 尹自重 (1903–85), from the heyday of Cantonese music:

1956 club for blog
The “London Co-operative Workers’ Association Music Group”, late 1956;
Ray (holding violin) is fourth from right.

Just a few days after arriving in London, Ray was recruited to an ersatz group to be shown on BBC TV, portraying a sanitised image of the London Chinese community—all spruced up in smart suits and ties, a far cry from the drudgery of their real lives. Ray was the youngest, and as he recalls with a chuckle, though apparently the only one in the photo not playing, he was the only real musician in the band—“they no play anything at all!”. When they told him the group was going to appear on television (which indeed was still in its infancy), he asked, “What’s that?!”

As Chinese and Indian restaurants began to provide jaded British palates with a welcome relief from their drab post-war diet, Ray took work where he could find it, mainly as waiter and cook around the north of England—Hull, Manchester, and York; he remembers Bradford as particularly poor.

Back in Hong Kong he had enjoyed the sound of the saxophone in the Cantonese opera ensemble. While working in the first Chinese restaurant in Belfast he paid £165 for his first sax, taking part in jazz bands. He was startled to have to fork out £920 for his second one, paying it off by HP instalments.

After learning to drive in Newcastle in 1957, in Soho Ray spent some time as a driving instructor: “That’s right, I was the first driving instructor—in history!”, he chortles; “All my students were gamblers and gangsters!”. But he managed to avoid being ensnared by the Triad mafia.

Meanwhile Ray’s father was still suffering from the effects of TB, and Ray spent a stressful time finding treatment for him on the impressive new NHS—which enabled him to live until 1998.

A fast learner, Ray was hard-working, easy-going, and popular. Quite soon he had aspirations to become his own boss. By now his mother was living with her father in New York; they encouraged Ray to come and join them there, and he was tempted—not least by the prospect of learning to play jazz on the sax. That would have been a different story altogether (“That would have been a different story”). Instead, his jazz idols came to Soho.

The 1960s: swinging London
By now the Soho jazz scene was beginning to take off. In 1959 Ronnie Scott opened his club in the basement of 39 Gerard street.

Ronnie Scott

Ronnie Scott’s, original venue. Source.

From 1962 Ronnie’s began hosting jazzmen from the USA, working round the ban on overseas musicians. Just up the road was Ray’s restaurant—which itself soon served as an after-hours nightclub for jazzers still on a high, needing to keep jamming after they staggered out of Ronnie’s at 3am. There Ray loved hearing great artists like his idol Ben Webster—here he is with Ronnie in A night in Tunisia (1965, as part of BBC2’s Jazz 625 series):

BTW, Ben Webster took the first solo in Billie Holiday‘s astounding 1957 TV appearance, the all-time most moving jazz video (click here—part of my extensive jazz series)!!!

Billie
Billie entranced by Ben Webster’s playing.

Ray was captivated by the new sound, so very different from the slick commercial pop music of the day. Himself a migrant from a poor rural background, he identified with the way that black people gave voice to their hard life, infused by the blues, “singing from the heart” (as later did Liu Sola, from her very different background). Later, during my time with the band, Ray was bemused and amused by the raised eyebrows of patrons when the splendid Black British percussionist Reggie took part.

Ronnie with KirksOriginal caption (source):
Mrs Edith Kirk smiles at Ronnie Scott as he holds a glass of wine and stands alongside
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, outside Ronnie Scotts’ [sic!] Jazz Club,
39 Gerrard Street, London circa 1963.

Recalling the blind street musicians of his youth in Hong Kong, another jazzer whom Ray much admired was the blind sax player Roland Kirk. Here he is at Ronnie’s in 1964:

Doubtless those early sessions also gave Ray his lasting taste for the “jazz cigarette”. At the same time, he is well aware that trying to make a living from making music is a fraught and insecure life. While unable to transcend mundane concerns (like Henry James!), he is devoted to the amateur ideal of Chinese music, aspiring to the simple life with a kind of detachment that now reminds me of my Daoist master Li Manshan.

One day at the club Ray received a visit from a cheery plainclothes sergeant from Holborn CID. “We’ve been watching you for the last six months, Ray. My partner’s crazy about your place. Enjoy it! Just slip us a hundred quid now and then, there’s a good fellow…”

Opening the shop
By 1967, as the jazz scene was catering to rather more salubrious patrons, Ronnie’s had moved to its present venue in Frith street. Ray lost a lot of money in 1969 with his older brother on an ambitious project to organise “the first professionally-organised, full-length Cantonese opera in London”, but they now managed to set up a takeaway together. In 1972 Ray took on a little restaurant at a prime location in Covent Garden just across from Chinatown, on the corner of Earlham street. He began by selling instruments from a corner of the restaurant, with a display in the window looking onto Shaftesbury avenue. Soon this promised to become a business on its own.

RM shop
Ray’s shop, 1982.

Another guest at Ronnie’s was the versatile jazzman Yusuf Lateef—here he is live in 1966:

Yusuf Lateef’s music often featured oriental instruments such as shawms, flutes, and bells (e.g. Eastern sounds, 1961), and later he used to augment his collection at Ray’s shop. It was he who introduced John Coltrane to Inayat Khan’s book on Sufi music which a mystically-inclined fellow violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me in 1978—just around the time I was playing in Ray’s band! 

Our paths converge
On Sunday afternoons Ray got a band together to rehearse for occasional appearances at Chinese community events. The musicians were then still largely second-generation immigrants or recent arrivals from Hong Kong, some just passing through.

While Ray was gradually accommodating a more “pan-Chinese” style, his own culture was rooted in Cantonese opera and instrumental pieces. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the youthful genre of “Cantonese music” had been remarkably innovative through the Republican period, incorporating jazz-tinged violin, guitar, sax, and zany xylophone (cf. Shanghai jazz). Click here for a playlist with nine LPs of the great Lü Wencheng 呂文成 with his band, issued between 1957 and 1967. There’s more to Cantonese music than meets the ear—here’s a fine traditional rendition of Shuangsheng hen 雙聲恨 (“Double voicing of bitterness”), based on the plangent yi-fan mode (with brief excursions into more cheerful scales), with a trio led by Yin Zizhong, c1930: [3]

In 1972, as the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were subsiding, I began studying ancient Chinese at Cambridge under Denis Twitchett, often visiting Laurence Picken there to learn about Tang music—at a time when Chinese music seemed to reside solely between the pages of history books, and the survival of any traditional cultures in mainland China was a matter of guesswork. In those days, blinkered by my classical training, I had little idea of either jazz or folk (cf. What is serious music?!). While my listening tastes in Asian music were for Indian raga, visiting Ray’s shop gave me my first inklings of how a living Chinese musical tradition might sound.

By now I had begun picking up the erhu fiddle. On my visits to Soho and Chinatown, besides finding books on Zen and Daoism at Watkins in Cecil court, I would browse in the recently-opened Guanghwa bookshop. Among the Chinese books there, alongside collections of model operas, revolutionary songs, and the occasional pamphlet on imperial culture (mostly fulminating against Confucius), I found a tutorial for the erhu and a couple of collected scores of modern solos. That was how I first acquainted myself with cipher notation—but I would learn more through emulating the nuance of Ray’s playing.

RM band c1979
With Ray Man’s band for Chinese New Year at Imperial College, early 1980s
(the music-stands revealing our novice status!).
Ray in the middle on plucked lute, me second left on erhu.

After graduating in 1976 I settled in London, working in orchestras under maestros like Boulez and Rozhdestvensky while continuing to help Laurence Picken on his Music from the Tang court project. It was through taking part in Ray’s Sunday sessions that I got used to playing the erhu in ensemble. All this was long before I first began visiting China in 1986, coming to realise the huge variety of regional cultures and joining in sessions at silk-and-bamboo clubs in Shanghai.

Ray’s shop was “like a bazaar”, as The Asia magazine described it. There he began offering tuition on a range of instruments. In 1975 he married Manyee, who had recently arrived from Hong Kong; they went on to have three children. Ray must have had a certain flair for business, but soon he could let Manyee take on the daily business of running the shop while he sat sage-like in the basement studio, surrounded by his instruments and the fug of herbal substances, his eyes always sparkling. A true aficionado, his English has remained engagingly impressionistic, as has his Mandarin. I guess I imagined him as a kind of musical Lee Chong.

Since the 1980s
The early Chinese communities around the UK had largely been Cantonese-speaking immigrants; even in the 1980s mainland Chinese voices were still rarely to be heard on the streets (for fictional treatments of Chinese lives in London, click here).

The insular dominance of the Cantonese community in the UK might have lasted longer had it not been for the death of Mao, the overthrow of the Gang of Four, and the ensuing dismantling of the commune system, which paved the way for the spectacular emergence of mainland China after decades of isolation, reverberating widely. Soon, as people arrived from all over China to study or do business, Mandarin was commonly heard on the streets of London. Gradually, as restaurant workers moved out to the suburbs, along with the wider transformation of Soho, the Cantonese focus of Ray’s band was diluted.

Back in the homeland too, amidst radical social change—both in postwar Hong Kong and in mainland China (following both the 1949 Communist takeover and the 1980s’ liberalisations)—“Cantonese music” lost much of its energy, becoming stultified in polished renditions on the concert platform. [4]

As “world music” became A Thing, Ray’s Soho shop continued broadening to stock a wide array of instruments from around the globe, and stars from the pop and film music scenes (George Harrison, Elton John, Björk, Noel Gallagher…) began visiting in search of exotic sounds.

RM Chalk Farm shopThe shop in Chalk Farm.

In 1999 the shop relocated to Chalk Farm, opposite Camden market, catering to the growing market in ethnic instruments; but in 2020 it was forced to close by the pandemic.

Whereas the Bhavan centre makes a well-supported focus for Indian expressive culture in west London, with fine visiting musicians teaching and performing a range of genres, London lacks a comparable venue for Chinese music. Numerous community associations have been formed; New Year brings out a parade of pan-Chinese lion and dragon dancing around Chinatown; Cheng Yu maintains a forum for the literati world of qin and pipa, and the “pan-Chinese” style that had evolved out of silk-and-bamboo. But Ray’s dream of a London Chinese music centre has remained unfulfilled. Similar initiatives in Chinese musicking have been held in the communities of Liverpool and Manchester, again broadening out from their original Cantonese base. If only south Fujian immigrants (a significant component of the later UK Chinese demographic) had a community maintaining the venerable amateur art of nanyin, for instance; but for such regional traditions we can only look to China itself.

From 1986, when I finally began exploring China, my fieldwork soon came to focus mainly on ritual life in poor northern villages, leading me to Gaoluo and the Li family Daoists. But it was Ray who first opened up that world to me, and I still feel grateful for my early exposure to Cantonese music with him—rather as he seems to have continued recreating the dream of his early musical inspirations in Hong Kong.

With many thanks to Ray and Manyee


[1] In addition to chatting with Ray and his wife Manyee, I’ve consulted various early press cuttings, notably an article in The Asia magazine (29th August 1982).

[2] For the transformation of Temple street in later decades, see e.g. this 2011 documentary.

[3] Chapter 15 of my 1995 book Folk music of China has a basic survey, along with various genres in Guangdong province; the Shuangsheng hen recording (transcribed on p.360) is #15 of the CD with the 1998 paperback edition, or #8 of disc 2 of my 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. Many thanks to Yuan Jingfang, who introduced me to a range of genres at the Central Conservatoire, Beijing, in 1987.

[4] See also The folk-conservatoire gulf. For the changing times of Hong Kong musicking, note the research of scholars such as Bell Yung (including Cantonese opera: performance as creative process, ch.4) and Yu Siu-wah 余少華. Opera played a prominent role for early Cantonese immigrant communities in north America (cf. sites linked under A Daoist temple in California); and click here for Cantonese music societies in Vancouver since the 1930s.

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 2: Anatolia

 

Cler sema
Alevi cem ritual, Tohal.

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

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

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

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

Cler birlik

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

  • Opening:

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

  • sofra (meal):

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

  • End of the sofra and departure of the assembly:

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

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

For more bibliography, see my first post.

The call to prayer

Imam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aydin Hoca cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

A with Kadir's mum

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

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

Barber Murat, and simit vendor Irfan.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


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

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

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

Alevi cem 17
Sema
for Alevi cem ritual, Istanbul 2022.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also e.g.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But their outline sums up the issue:

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

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

Bektashi altar room

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

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

BB on baglama Sipos and Csaki

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alevi sema 7

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

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

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

Alevi cem group pic

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

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

See also Alevi ritual in rural Anatolia.

* * *

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doof doof

Doof Doof

I was tickled by a recent headline in OK! magazine:

OK

There’s the ultimate DOOF DOOF:

What if EastEnders isn’t real?? Like, if they’re all… acting??

Confession: I’ve never been able to interpret the doof doofs. How do we hear the rhythm—how would you beat time to it? Or is it a free-tempo prelude? I guess most EastEnders fans don’t talk in such fancy terms, so such online talk as I’ve seen is limited to a fatuous debate over how many doof doofs there are (nine, obvs), irrespective of rhythm. More to the point, can people keep a regular beat to it?

We have an Urtext of Simon May’s melody from 1985. The synth drums were added to the opening in 1994, in a version that remained in use until 2009, when he rescored the theme tune to include a stronger drum beat and additional percussion. But I haven’t seen a score for the doof doofs. Because one’s ears (rightly) want it to be a 4/4 bar, like the following melody, somehow I’ve always heard the first three drumbeats as a triplet:

Doof triplets

That’s close—but a more accurate rendition, as I am reliably informed by a talented drummer, is

Doof

That opening syncopation, even before a tempo has been established, must confuse other listeners besides me. Still, EastEnders addicts evidently take it in their stride, like Aretha fans with the triple-time insert in the chorus of I say a little prayer, or Turkish dancers with aksak limping metre—or, now I come to think of it, music lovers everywhere…

The opening of Beethoven 5 may sound to the casual listener like a triplet upbeat—as PDQ Bach observes in his illuminating commentary, “I don’t know if it’s slow or fast, cos it keeps stopping, folks… doesn’t seem to be able to get off the ground” (NB also Creative tribulations).

A comparison that springs to mind (OK, my mind) is the luopu motif that opens and closes the hymns of the Li family Daoists (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.280; examples in our film, e.g. 1.01.56). In this post the motif is mainly a pretext to tell a story about the singularly unimaginative opening of the Beethoven violin concerto on timpani—which would be much enlivened by replacing it with the Doof Doof.

Most rhythmically satisfying of all is the Pearl and Dean theme tune!

New tag: West/Central Asia

In the sidebar I recently added a new tag for West/Central Asia.

Turkey is a growing presence among my posts, so far including

with more to follow…

Elsewhere, by way of

I may list

Posts on Uyghur culture (with separate tag) are rounded up here.

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

Liu Sola, voice of alternative China

Ever since the 1980s, Liu Sola (刘索拉, b.1955) has remained an invigorating alternative voice in both Chinese music and literature.

The main websites are here (with this fine survey of her ouevre, cited below) and here.

Sola and motherSola is one of three children of Liu Jingfan, younger brother of Liu Zhidan (1903–36), a guerrilla hero in Shaanbei whose career as Red Army commander was cut short by the arrival of Mao Zedong’s Long March forces. After the story of Liu Zhidan’s fate was exposed in a historical novel by Sola’s mother Li Jiantong, in 1962 Mao not only banned the book (declaring “Using novels to engage in anti-Party activities is a great invention”), but had all those involved in its publication ruthlessly persecuted (see David Holm, “The strange case of Liu Zhidan”, 1992). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Jiantong continued to struggle against censorship as she compiled sequels.

Sola CCM 1978 for blog
Composition students at the Central Conservatoire, 1978.
Left to right: Liu Sola, Ai Liqun, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Sun Yi, Zhang Lida, Zhang Xiaofu.
More images in this short documentary.

In 1977–78, as the Central Conservatoire in Beijing reopened after the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Sola—already seriously cool—gained admission to the composition department, along with bright young students like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, and Ye Xiaogang. Having only recently been liberated from punishing stints of rural labour as “sent-down youth”, their studies were punctuated by fieldtrips to collect folk-song in the remote countryside of south China—an experience that now felt more revelatory (cf. Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign).

Sola popAfter graduating, partly in rebellion against the establishment that contemporary Western Art Music seemed to represent, Sola chose to become a pop musician, giving concerts and composing for film soundtracks, TV, and theatre. At the same time she made a great impression with her 1985 novellas Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择 (You have no choice), Lantian lühai 蓝天绿海 (Blue sky green sea), and Xunzhao gewang 寻找歌王 (In search of the king of singers). Her voice was

irreverent and honest, blasé and innocent, light and serious, negative and positive all at once; a voice marked by a characteristic humour that manages to be dark and yet not cynical.

By now she was the life and soul of a lively artistic scene in Beijing.

London and New York
In 1987 the US News Agency invited Sola on a visit to the States—where, igniting her early interest in blues, the “King of Singers” turned out to be Junior Wells. In 1988 she came to live in London, “a challenging and precarious time”, furthering her studies without the celebrity status of her time in Beijing.

Sola Vini
With Vini Reilly, 1988.

Working with British musicians like Justin Adams, Clive Bell, and the Durutti Column, she tasted WOMAD, performing with Mari Boine, though dissatisfied with the exotic pigeonholing of “world music”.

In summer 1989—as she witnessed the horrifying events of Tiananmen from afar—Sola deepened her devotion to blues on a trip working with musicians in Memphis (Memphis diary, 1993). Her experience of blues is a major theme of the wide-ranging, richly illustrated collection of conversations Xingzoude Liu Suola 行走的刘索拉 (Liu Suola on the move, 2001). Meanwhile she composed for Zuni Theatre in Hong Kong, and for Chiang Ching’s dance drama June snow.

Sola Chaos

Among writings from her London period is Hundun jia ligelong 混沌加哩格楞 (Chaos and all that, 1991), a novel that “both acknowledges cultural diversity and provides a darkly comic critique of it”. I’m also very fond of her paintings, like this from June 1990 (signed “Chegong”, Sola’s name in traditional Chinese gongche notation!):

Sola painting

After taking part in the Iowa Writers’ Program in 1992, Sola moved to New York in 1993. Immersing herself in the avant-garde scene there, she relished collaborations with musicians like Bill Laswell, Fernando Saunders, and Ornette Coleman, enjoying a freedom that had been elusive in London. This bore fruit in her wonderful 1995 album Blues in the East.

Sola Blues CD

In her following New York albums such as China collage (1996) she took a rather different path. She later reinvented her exhilarating song Festival as A chicken at the country fair:

In this period she also wrote Da Jijiade xiao gushi 大继家的小故事 (Little tales of the great Ji family, 2000), perhaps her finest novel (translated into Italian and French, still not available in English), a historical fantasy based on the tribulations of her family—“part Virgil, part Monty Python”.

Back in the PRC
After fifteen years abroad, by 2003 the cultural scene in China seemed promising, far from the mood when Sola had left in 1988. Still, she

cannot be associated with the many haigui’s or “sea-faring turtles” who return after working or studying abroad to flaunt their “international credentials”. Nor is working in China with Chinese music a form of cultural nationalism; such nationalism is especially easy to profess at a moment when Chinese music will sound less marginal now that China has become a dominant world power. Rather […] her work in China undertakes the almost Sisyphean task of overcoming clichéd ideas of Chinese music and the use of such clichés for propaganda.

In 2005 she appeared in Ning Ying’s film Wuqiongdong (Perpetual motion, 2005), for which she also wrote the music. Notable compositions include two chamber operas, both international collaborations. Fantasy of the Red Queen (Jingmeng 惊梦, 2006) is “a woman’s tragedy about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, told through through the devilish persona of Jiang Qing. It draws on Berg, Schoenberg, the qin zither, Beijing opera, Kunqu, revolutionary and folk opera, and 1930s’ Shanghai pop, with snatches of jazz, tango, and hip hop. Here’s an excerpt:

The afterlife of Li Jiantong (Zizai hun 自在魂, 2009) is a deeply personal drama in which Sola receives a visitation from her mother, who takes her on a journey to the spirit world to meet her late father. Using a complex compositional scheme, Sola makes use of the kuqiang “weeping melody” style of Chinese opera, with a baroque group led by Paul Hillier among the accompanying ensemble.

Sola operaFrom The afterlife of Li Jiantong.

Always relishing live performance, she went on to form the Liu Sola and Friends ensemble with select Chinese musicians, building on her grounding in jazz to overcome conservatoire and ideological training. And she has continued to publish, with the essay collection Kouhong ji 口红集 (Lipstick talk, 2009) and the novel Milian zhou 迷恋咒 (Lost in fascination, 2011); a new novel is on the way.

Here’s a short CCTV documentary:

* * *

Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing), Liu Sola’s constantly innovative mix of music, fiction, and drama is utterly distinctive; her musical and literary works, both early and later, have a cult following. She remains vivacious and young at heart, always exploring.

Learning raga at the Bhavan

Bhavan

The Bhavan Centre in West Kensington is a lively venue, running courses on Indian raga (both vocal and instrumental), dance, and so on, with regular concerts (see Indian and world fiddles).

As live events resume, last weekend I went along to hear Prabhat Rao accompanying his students on harmonium singing a light programme of north Indian raga, with Himmet Singh Bahra on tabla.

Prabhat Rao

Of course, group tuition in London is quite different from family training in India (cf. The changing musical life of north India, along with the splendid films of the Growing into music project). But the basic task is to memorise short and longer patterns, before achieving the freedom to develop one’s own interpretations of the material (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”). While I had to adjust to the choral format (some of the larger-scale numbers rather evoked The sound of music), it’s great to hear young musicians becoming fluent in sargam solfeggio, learning the building blocks of ragas like Yaman, Jog, Bihag, and Bhairavi.

I’m quite fond of the way the Bhavan tends to roll back the yellow curtain to reveal a tableau of the musicians already seated on stage—making a change from the lengthy preparations normally de rigueur as they adjust their clothing and tune up interminably…

Whether or not the students go on to take up khyal, thumri, or even dhrupad (main topic of my extensive series on north Indian raga) in earnest, this is a valuable element of their training in London’s global bazaar.

Uyghur music in London

Uyghur gig for blogPhoto: Isabela Rodrigues.

If I leave my own town, will anyone visit me?
If I wander in the town of orphans, will anyone visit me?
I have drunk the nectar of love, overflowed like a boiling pot
If I abandon this world, will anyone visit me?

— from Nawa muqam

Having relished live music from Afghanistan, Georgia, Iran, and Anatolia at the Wigmore Hall for the launch of Musics lost and found, it was good to catch up with Uyghur musicking in London last Saturday for a concert at St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield—the oldest parish church in London, well worth a visit on its own.

The concert, in aid of the Tarim Network for the global Uyghur youth community, featured Rahima Mahmut and the Silk Road Collective of Uyghur Music and Culture, together with Uzbek musicians led by the master percussionist Abbos Kosimov on doira frame drums—illustrating a shared culture. The livestream (mirrored!) is on Facebook.

Uyghur programme

Spoken introductions were provided by singer Rahima Mahmut of the World Uyghur Congress, and Rachel Harris of SOAS (dutar), whose meticulous research covers the range of Uyghur culture and its current eradication (see here, and here).

Abbos Kosimov (website; You Tube channel) is enthralling. No mere virtuoso, he’s a sensitive ensemble player, relishing his rapport with the fine rubab/dutar player Sardor Mirzakhojaev. After a charming number on qairoq castanets, in the second half he launched into an astounding party-piece, culminating in polyrhythms on three frame-drums at once.

It was the most inspiring drumming I’ve heard since Asaf Sirkis accompanying Krzysztof Urbanski for Polish jazz at POSK… And I’m in the mood for frame-drums since my recent trip to Istanbul, having found some Uzbek/Kirghiz ones at Mustafa Bey’s instrument shop in Kanlica as gifts for friends’ children.

Uyghur music was represented by excerpts from the muqam, and regional folk songs; Dostonbek Mirzakarimov played an undulating solo on Uzbek ney flute. The second half opened with a lively Uzbek dance from Rashid Shadat, and ended with Uyghurs and others from the audience dancing gracefully in the aisle.

Until a few years ago, activities like those of the London Uyghur Ensemble were inspired by a vibrant muqam scene in Xinjiang, nourished by exchanges with outstanding musicians there such as Abdulla Mäjnun and Sanubar Tursun. Now that Uyghur culture in the homeland has been brutally repressed and all contact cut off, the activities of diaspora groups take on a greater significance.

Do also watch the recent online concert “Longing for home: Uyghur muqam in exile”, with Shohrat Turson (Australia), the Meshrep Uyghur Ensemble (Netherlands), and the SOAS Silk Road Collective—beautifully introduced by Mukaddas Mijit.

Useful sites include Stop Uyghur Genocide, the European Uyghur Institute, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project; the YouTube channel of the London Uyghur Ensemble, and The music of Central Asia. Click here for a roundup of my series on Uyghur culture.

Turkey: musicking of the yayla

Yayla CD 1

Continuing to educate myself belatedly about the rich musical traditions of Turkey (on a bit of a Turkey roll—see e.g. Songs of Asia Minor; The Janissary band; Köçek in Kuzguncuk!): among the various ethnic groups, the musicking of the yayla is documented by Jérôme Cler.

In southern Anatolia, the inhabitants of the “high pastures” (yayla) around the towns of Çameli and Acipayam claim descent from nomadic Turkmen peoples (cf. Bartók’s 1936 visit to the Yörük around Adana).

Yayla map

As Cler explains, the zeybek is a slow solo dance performed by men; the kïvrak oyun havalarï is a faster, more popular dance. Among song genres, the unmeasured gurbet havasï is a type of uzan hava “long melody”. Instruments included plucked lutes (cura, a variant of saz); the reed flute sipsidavul-zurna; and violin, played upright like the kemenche, resting on the thigh (cf. Indian and world fiddles). Aksak additive metres are standard, with various combinations of 2s and 3s, usually in nine beats.

Here’s Cler’s video montage of yayla musicking in society—including a scene on a bus from 19.01; davul-zurna from 21.53; song indoors with fiddle and saz from 26.22, followed by a fine contrast:

Cler released an excellent overview of yayla musicking in his CD Turquie: musiques des yayla (Ocora, 1994). This selection has most tracks:

It’s an enthralling album. In 1998 Cler followed this up with two further CDs,

  • Turquie: le violon des yayla
  • Turquie: le sipsi des yayla.

He has also published a book on the topic:

  • Yayla: musique et musiciens de villages en Turquie meridionale (2011),
    with video illustrations here.

Cler’s website has many more entries on yayla musicking here.

I like his comment—reminding me of arriving in a dingy modern Chinese county-town, and widely applicable around the world:

The traveller in search of music will see nothing; he [sic] needs an introduction.

Köçek in Kuzguncuk!

A fanfare in advance of the anniversary of Atatürk’s death on 10th November

Kocek 6

Just back home after an ecstatic week in Istanbul—first time I’ve needed my passport since visiting Li Manshan in 2018!

The neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus is a delightful community from which I can hardly drag myself away. Amidst constant inspiration, I’ve met more people there in the last week than in the previous five years… Having made a few brief trips to Istanbul Back in the Day to perform with London early music groups, I feel the European side of the city can wait—rather as I take eccentric pride in never having visited the Great Wall on all my stays in Beijing.

As elsewhere in Istanbul, vestiges of Armenian, Greek, and Jewish cultures are still evident in the architecture of Kuzguncuk.

Armenian church next to a mosque.

Synagogues.

synagogue 2

Inside the main synagogue.

 

The two Greek churches.

* * *

Kastamonu deli

Among Kuzguncuk dwellers are migrants from Kastamonu, due east of Istanbul in the region south of the Black Sea. Kastamonu is a leading centre of festive köçek dancing, and for the celebrations following Republic Day on 29th October a group came to perform along the lovely tree-lined main street of Kuzguncuk that leads up from the Bosphorus. The dancers’ main instrumental support is provided by davulzurna drum-and-shawm, ubiquitous accompaniment to festivities over a wide area. 

AM filmingIn the afternoon, first they performed at the entrance to the shops lining the street. As locals and visitors threw lira notes at the twirling feet of the two dancers, they gyrated gracefully down to pluck them up in their mouths. The group then made a base at the entrance of a side-street, performing a lengthier sequence beneath a large banner depicting Atatürk; the musicians, now seated, were supplemented by a kemençe bowed lute (cf. Indian and world fiddles, Musics of Crete), with gutsy, exuberant singing. Here are some clips from Augusta’s fine filming:

The band bursts into song as the dancers kneel to assemble the notes around the skirt:

They get back on their feet for the climax:

That evening they went on to perform for a lively street party up the hill.

* * *

Köçek troupes, 1720 (wiki):
left, musicians and dancers entertain the crowds;
right, at a fair for Sultan Ahmed’s celebration of his son’s circumcision.

 Köçek dancing (cf. this introduction) thrived from the 17th century, along with çengi. Notably since the late Ottoman era, courtly genres dispersed among the folk from the courts (a transmission trope also commonly attributed to late imperial China—see “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“; cf. The Janissary band). The androgynous young male dancers, * then recruited from non-Muslim subject peoples of the empire, began training early (for the Ottoman background, note the useful article by Şehvar Beşiroğlu, “Music, identity, gender: çengis, köçeks, çöçeks”), as well as his “The musical role of Turkish women in perspectives from the Mediterranean music scene“. Having long been part of meyhane tavern culture, groups have continued to perform for folk festivities such as weddings and circumcisions.

In folk traditions today, there may be a solo dancer, or a pair. Of course costumes (and concepts of gender) have changed over time, throughout the whole Levant. We saw two young adult dancers, both clean-shaven, their costumes and props each playing on male-female roles. One wore a long flaring skirt decorated with coins, jewels, and gold, as well as a kind of sporran at the waist, but a (“male”?) waistcoat; he/she sounded the zil finger-cymbals, as played by the female çengi dancers. Meanwhile the “male” dancer wore the skirt of the çengi, and necklaces, clacking the kaşık spoons (cf. çarpare castanets). 

I’ve adapted these leads from §4b here:

Specially-composed musical forms for çengi and köçek dances include tavşanca, çiftetelli, and ağırlama. A collection of songs in the same modal form with lively instrumental ritornellos is called takım. These include songs by named or anonymous composers and performers. Hammamizade Ismail Dede (himself a fine composer of köçekçe) called such forms musikinin orospuluğu (“musical whoring”). Köçekce are composed in popular modal systems like karcığar, gerdaniye, hicaz, hüzzam, gülizar, bayati araban, and saba. Those köçekçe in aksak limping metres are beautiful in both their musical style and poetic lyrics.

The köçek tradition of Kastamonu is renowned. Among many videos online, this general introduction includes a wedding party from 7.14:

Here’s a succinct personal account of change in the livelihood over the last two decades (with a rather confused appeal to “the government” that reminds me of China):

I can hardly begin to encapsulate the myriad delights of Kuzguncuk…

See also Greek Christmas in Kuzguncuk, and for more on modern Turkey, this roundup.

 

With boundless thanks to Kadir Filiz, Caroline Finkel, Augusta,
and Millie!


* Elsewhere too, cross-gender dancing is rather common, such as in Egypt and Afghanistan (see the distressing 2010 documentary The dancing boys of Afghanistan), not to mention Europe and east Asia.

Bowed zithers, 1: Korea and China

ajaeng

Korea: the ajaeng.

Leading on from Dangak, I’ve been exploring the theme of bowed zithers in Korea and China.

Organology can be a stimulating topic (see e.g. here), illustrating the riches of human creativity. Under the Sachs-Hornbostel system [1] chordophones are classified as lutes, harps, and zithers; it considers playing techniques as well as construction (and while I think of it, do admire the gardon of Gyimes!—here, under “Hungary, Transylvania, Romania”). We find many types of zithers: bar, tube, raft, board, trough, frame. Bowed zithers are a minor but intriguing rubric.

zithers

 

Schematic chordophone types, from Hournon, “Organology”.

Still, organology tends to reify, whereas instruments should lead us to the genres in which they play a part, and to musicking in society. I can meet that challenge for China, but below my explorations for Korea are somewhat hampered by the fact that such clips as I’ve found on YouTube largely feature performances on the concert stage rather than folk activity.

Grove Zither 1

Grove Zither 2

From The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, “Zither” entry.

East Asia is notable for its half-tube board zithers. In Korea, a striking component of the hyangak ensemble is the ajaeng bowed zither. The bow, now usually made of horsehair, is traditionally a rosined stick.

In the sanjo genre, Kim Il-Gu:

and in Kim’s style, Han Lim:

Kim Yong-seong:

Here’s Kim Young-Gil’s 2012 CD L’art du sanjo d’ajaeng (playlist):

The ajaeng is used in the sinawi genre, derived from shamanism:

Here’s the CD Korea: the art of sinawi (playlist):

Note also the bowed fiddle haegeum, whose Chinese characters 奚琴 attest to its early origin (see Xiang Yang 项阳, Zhongguo gongxian yueqi shi, 中国弓弦乐器史 [History of Chinese bowed string instruments, 1999] pp.174–83).

kut

Away from the concert stage, to complement the video footage of a shamanistic kut ritual in my previous post, in this 2001 film of a ssitkimgut post-death cleansing ritual from the southwestern island of Jindo (cf. Keith Howard) both ajaeng and haegeum are part of the accompanying ensemble (e.g. from 14.03):

* * *

In China, if the variety of bowed lutes (fiddles) is rather little known, bowed zithers are fewer but also remarkably widespread. Following the 1992 Zhongguo yueqi tujian 中国乐器图鉴 (pp.262–4), Xiang Yang devotes chapter 4 of his book (see above) to them.

XY table 1

XY table 2

Bowed zithers in Chinese folk traditions, with alternative regional names.
Table, Xiang Yang pp.165–6.
Illustration from the Yueshu of Chen Yang (1101).

In early history, the zhu 筑 was a struck zither, long predating bowed lutes, as Laurence Picken noted in his “Early Chinese friction-chordophones”, The Galpin Society Journal 18 (1965); Xiang Yang discusses it further in his chapters 2–3.

Left: yaqin, Yixian in Hebei; right, yaqin, Pingdingshan, Henan.

In modern folk traditions, the yazheng 轧筝 or yaqin 轧琴 (here and here) accompanies some regional vocal genres, such as in Yixian county, Hebei (where it was part of the Shifan ensemble), the Handan region of south Hebei, Hejin county in south Shanxi, and the Pingdingshan region of Henan. For the cuoqin 挫琴 around Qingzhou in Shandong, and links with early bowed zithers, see here and here. Recently in China such instruments tend to attract Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle, but hey. For the plucked zheng zither in Shandong, click here.

Left: wenzhen qin, Putian; right, yaqin, Hejin.

In Fujian, the Shiyin bayue ensemble of Putian includes the wenzhen qin 文枕琴.

This excerpt from Pingdingshan in Henan features the yaqin:

For the sequel on Alpine bowed zithers, click here. See also Zithers of Iran and Turkey


[1] See e.g. Geneviève Dournon’s chapter in Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), pp. 276–7.

With thanks again to Simon Mills

Dang: Gujarat and Korea

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

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

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

which are also heard here:

Pawari dance

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

Here’s a Dang pas-de-deux:

And in ensemble:

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

and P’yojŏngmanbangjigok:

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

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

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

* * *

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

With thanks to Simon Mills

Posts on Uyghur culture

Dawut

Rahilä Dawut.

Tarred as I am by the brush of specialising in China, my interest in Tibetan and Uyghur cultures is merely that of an outsider. But having written a series of posts on Tibet, it seems suitable to round up my readings on Uyghur culture—and its recent decimation—with a selection from the Uyghur tag in the sidebar.

I began by reviewing

For the fine publications of Rachel Harris, see

See also

which leads us to the outstanding work of anthropologist Rahilä Dawut, who was disappeared in 2017:

On the work of Mukaddas Mijit, see

Two more posts feature the wonders of Uyghur music, as they were until recently:

See also

Rāg Vindaloo

With apologies to my esteemed mentors…

swanee kazoo

Jugalbandi duet, rāg Vindaloo.

While I very much hope that my series on north Indian raga will encourage you to absorb the melodic and rhythmic intricacies of all the individual items, I’ve reached a point where a certain levity is called for.

In classical treatises rāg Vindaloo is described as a raga for dusk, shortly after opening time; the Portuguese etymology perhaps explains its saudade mood (though fado only seems to have taken root in Goa). To the great relief of mehfil aficionados, the raga is rarely performed today.

Scholars have recently questioned the authenticity of a ragamala painting depicting an obese balding accountant in a pink sombrero, bedecked in opulent wombat furs and clutching a gaily-coloured [can of] Kingfisher, his sumptuous belvedere adorned with a garden gnome.

Questionably, Bhatkande classified rāg Vindaloo under Paneer thaat. It had already appeared by the 18th century in the bold attempt of picaresque, nay swashbuckling, adventurer and arms-dealer Lord Auberon Cholmondeley-Smythe to codify the repertoire, notwithstanding his comment in the Prefatory Observations that “it all sounds the same to me, this Indian music”.

PPIn dhrupad renditions the nomtom syllables tiddley-pom and poppadom are prominent. As to arohana and avarohana patterns, whereas in ascent flat and natural re, ga, dha, and ni, natural and sharp ma may be sounded interminably and apparently at random, in descent all notes are avoided entirely. In the gat, a common phrase—alluding to rāg Madhuvanti, * and later adopted by Henry Mancini—is

Sa, Re ga, Ni Sa Re ga dha Pa, Sa ga Pa Ma,

with a descending anuraṇana “resonance” on the cadential note.

In lengthy alap expositions, the phrase Ni dha pi serves as a cue. The tempo picks up upon the entry of the pakhavaj drum; the rhythmic cycle prescribed in early sources is chapati tāl with 792 mātras. But even in the more leisurely conditions of bygone courtly performance, no-one ever managed to get through even one whole cycle; so more often used in modern times is the challenging dintāl consisting of only one beat, subdivided 2 3 3 4 2 3, the first beat of the 3s marked with a cheery wave of the hand—a subtlety only revealed since the advent of slow-motion technology.

As a legacy from the days of the Raj, the raga is sometimes played in jugalbandi duet with swanee whistle and kazoo, hastening the audience’s departure.

* * *

For instructive multi-cultural exercises in solfeggio, click here. Cf. the spoof entries for the New Grove dictionary; for spoofs on early Chinese history, see Yet more French letters, Faqu tu 2, and More Tang drolerie. Cf. The ascent of Rum Doodle.


* In a vain attempt to redeem myself, for the sake of including some genuinely wondrous dhrupad in this post, here’s Zia Mohiuddin Dagar playing rāg Madhuvanti on rudra vina:

A garland of ragas

As my coverage of north Indian ragas grows, this may be a good moment for an overview. [1]

To guard against any timeless image, divorced from social change, it’s good to start with Daniel Neuman’s fine book:

In my post on Noor Inayat Khan I referred to her father Inayat Khan’s 1921 classic The mysticism and sound of music, along with his 1909 recordings.

I illustrate most of these posts with 17th-century ragamala (“garland of ragas”) paintings reproduced in The raga guide.

* * *

In my Beatles roundup I wrote:

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

See also Analysing world music.

To immerse ourselves in the melodic soundscape, note The raga guide (Nimbus, 1999, with 4 CDs), and (among a wealth of online material) this site by Patrick Moutal, including audio and video archives for both vocal and instrumental renditions (cf. his 2012 book Hindustani Raga Sangita). Also worth consulting is my post Unpacking “improvisation”.

To help us focus on the infinite riches of raga, it’s illuminating to anchor ourselves in the sargam solfeggio that expresses the pitch relationships. [2] Here are the basic pitches of the heptatonic scale:

Sargam

In this series I use upper-case initials to denote higher degrees (e.g. Ma, sharp fa), lower-case for their lower degrees (ma, natural fa); Sa and Pa (do and so) are invariable.

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

It’s worth trying to sing along, anchoring ourselves with the Sa-Pa tonic-dominant drone, and registering stressed and cadential pitches. As middle, low, and high registers are covered in turn, short motifs develop into longer ascending and descending phrases.

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

Armed with the introduction of The raga guide (pp.1–13), we can consult the basic ascending and descending patterns of particular ragas. In these posts I content myself with offering a few signposts, with very rough outlines based on prominent cadences, leaving you to zoom in on all the detail in between. For dhrupad, my star exhibit, the signposts include the mukhṛā “refrains” of rhythmic repeated notes in a firm pulse. But the microstructure and ornamental detail is always to be savoured, with gamak embellishments and mīnd glides—as well as techniques (explained by Richard Widdess) [3] such as āghāt, “the onset of a pitch, whether by direct attack, or by indirect approach”, and anuraṇana, “resonance”, its prolongation and/or inflection up or down:

The raga guide introduces 74 ragas—like the repertoire of Chinese qin players (see my comments on Chapter 6 of Neuman’s book), few individual musicians perform more than a couple of dozen ragas, and some concentrate intensively on a handful. So here’s my series so far:

Besides vocal renditions, these are illustrated with instrumental versions on the plucked lutes rudra vina, [4] sitar, and sarod, as well as the bowed sarangi; so in a further post,

  • Raga for winds, I feature further instances on bansuri flute and shehnai shawm, featuring some of the above ragas as well as rāgs Desh, Lalit, and Puriya.

Even this modest selection displays great scalar variety: some ragas are largely “diatonic” (Yaman, Maru Bihag, Kedar), some “minor” (Kafi Zila, Bhairavi, and the anhemitonic pentatonic Malkauns, with Chandrakauns a revision of Malkauns with a semitone from Ni to Sa); others showcase augmented intervals (Bhairav, Shri); and Marwa is a challenging yet beguiling “A major over a C drone”.

As a non-specialist, I can only scratch the surface of all this, and that’s kinda the point: if I can begin picking up these clues, then so can you. Anyway, these performances, all very different, make a great introduction to the infinite art of raga.

To draw you into the individual posts, in the playlist below I choose one rendition of each of the ragas I’ve discussed so far, highlighting alap, dhrupad (the Dagar lineage, and Uday Bhawalkar), and Nikhil Banerjee.

  • Kafi Zila:

  • Yaman:

  • Maru Bihag:

  • Bhairav:

  • Bhairavi:

  • Malkauns:

  • Shri:

  • Chandrakauns:

  • Kedar:

And on a meretricious yet entertaining note, a spoof (with a serious bonus of rāg Madhuvanti on rudra vina):

Two more posts derive from concerts I attended at the Bhavan Centre in west London:

I’ll add to this list as I explore further… In other fields, see A playlist of songs, and the Chinese selections in the playlist as you scroll down in the sidebar, with commentary here.

In the words of a Classic FM presenter,

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

With thanks to Richard Widdess, Morgan Davies, and Daniel Neuman.


[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy to the New 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] Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of sargam is a good way of listening to traditional Chinese 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 organising sound (cf. What is serious music?!).

Some might 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, or even the invention of graphic notation

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

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

Raga for winds

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Left, Bismillah Khan; right, Hariprasad Chaurasia.

So far in my series on north Indian raga, besides vocal renditions I’ve only featured instrumental versions on the plucked lutes rudra vina, sitar, and sarod, as well as the bowed sarangi, all of which have illustrious traditions. * While these dominate the scene, the bansuri flute and shehnai shawm have also taken to the “classical” concert recital format, emerging from more popular styles. They are best known through the work of three masters.

The bansuri is strongly associated with Krishna. With its mellifluous timbre, in media publicity it’s particularly prone to romantic visual imagery, with sunsets and rippling waters adorning naff titles like Relaxing Lord Krishna flute music for meditation. But none of this should deafen us to the artistry of the great exponents.

The pioneer of bansuri as a concert instrument was Pannalal Ghosh (1911–60)—here he performs rāg Malkauns:

More recently, Hariprasad Chaurasia (b.1938) became the celebrated master of the bansuri. Here he is with  Marwa (“A major over a C drone”):

Now for two ragas that I haven’t previously featured—Desh (largely “diatonic”, with flat ni in descent):

and Lalit:

With flat re and dha, lacking Pa, Lalit is rather complex—here are its basic melodic contours as shown in The raga guide:

Lalit

Again, we can hear Pannalal Gosh playing Lalit:

Here’s the 2013 documentary Bansuri guru on Hariprasad Chaurasia, directed by his son Rajeev:

* * *

More strident, but no less beguiling, is the shehnai, of which Bismillah Khan (1916–2006) was the great exponent (for the modern evolution of the shehnai, see here; cf. shawms in Nepal and south India; see also Shawms around the world).

Here’s his long, entrancing rendition of rāg Yaman:

Bhairav:

and Bhairavi:

(for Bhairav and Bhairavi, see here).

Here’s Malkauns again, in this short film.

In this early video he plays Puriya and (from 16.32) Maru Bihag:


* The mixture of roman and italic here reflecting my confusion about the current status of the instruments regarding their currency in the Western world. BTW, in modern China we find a similar descending hierarchy in the solo conservatoire repertoire: from the plucked zheng and pipa, to the bowed erhu, down to the less common dizi, guanzi, and suona (see e.g. here, and here). But in both China and India, beyond the confines of urban musicking, folk ensemble traditions dominate the soundscape.

Rāg Kedar

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Kedar ragamala

Kedar, ragamala:
“… in penance, adorned, grey [with ashes] and dark, a young man beauteous in every limb,
[this is] Kedar raga.”

RF Dagar

Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar.

Another raga that I’ve only acquainted myself with recently is rāg Kedar.

Sargam

Here’s the introduction in The raga guide:

Kedar RG 1

Kedar RG 2

So (unlike my recent posts on the “chromatic” Shri and Chandrakauns) rāg Kedar is largely “diatonic”, with the sharp fourth Ma also enriching the complex ascending and descending patterns (cf. Yaman).

Beginning as ever with dhrupad, here’s Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar:

He lingers on ma before introducing the sharp Ma, revealing how both degrees appear within particular motifs around Pa, as from 18.17, going on to mirror the semitone from Ma to Pa with that from Ni to Sa (introducing the interval NiMa), with an interlude from 30.55 in the lower register. Ever more confident phrases build to climactic cadences on top Sa from 37.30. From 41.17 he sets off again more reflectively, ascending from the middle range. By this stage of the alap, as the tempo accelerates, long phrases commonly embrace the whole range of the earlier explorations of motifs, as here from 46.18.

In standard dhrupad structure, he then becalms the mood to lead into two concluding dhamar songs of praise, in 12-beat chautāl (from 52.09), and then 14-beat dhamar tāl (5+2+3+4, from 1.07.57), both becoming ever more exultant.

Here Uday Bhawalkar sings an alap to introduce another song in dhamar tal (from 20.16):

This track has only a short introduction leading into the praise song in dhamar tāl:

And on sitar (guess who), Nikhil Banerjee, with 16-beat tintāl (from 24.52), then 12-beat ektāl:

Here he launches straight into a gat in tintāl:

Rāg Chandrakauns

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Dagars

Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar.

To follow rāg Shri, another raga I’m just getting to know is Chandrakauns.

Sargam

Indeed, The raga guide describes it as “a ragini of Malkauns”, sharing flat ga and dha, and stressing ma along with Sa—the 5th degree Pa absent from both melody and drone, and also lacking the 2nd degree Re (though listen to Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar below). But in the common variety of modern times, natural Ni (replacing the flat ni of Malkauns) is also pivotal. The third paragraph here lists some variant forms:

Chandrakauns 1

Chandrakauns 2

As ever, I begin with dhrupad and the Dagar lineage. The longue durée of Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar, live in concert, is wondrous (ending with a dhamar praise song from 1.05.00):

And here’s Uday Bhawalkar in duet with Bahauddin Dagar on rudra vina (missing opening and closing sections):

Here the intense depth of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina blends magically with the voice of his brother Zia Fariduddin Dagar (live in Amsterdam, 1985):

In most interpretations of Chandrakauns that I’ve heard, ma sounds like a tonic throughout. But I find the Dagars’ whole long opening section rather different: stressing the semitone from ni to Sa, with excursions up to ga and down to dha, ma is heard only in passing. It is only later that ma begins to compete as a pitch centre, often seeming to serve as a “tonic” from 16.48, and for sustained cadences—so it’s only now that we may have to remind ourselves that we are hearing not Sa but ma, just as in rāg Malkauns. Even after the introduction of a faster, firmer rhythmic pulse revolving around ni–Sa from 46.22, ma remains a subsidiary part of the tonal palette to the end, featuring more strongly in passages from around 50.45 and 53.45.

Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar creates a quite distinct effect/affekt—not only is ma important throughout, but he frequently uses natural Re in passing (even descending ma-gha-Re-Sa from 16.06, and again from 42.42 and 53.57). Again he ends with dhamar from 59.22:

Lastly, I always delight in the sitar playing of Nikhil Banerjee:

Shawms around the world

ordam 1

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

Shawm bands, accompanied by percussion, are an essential—and seriously loud—feature in the soundscapes of life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies in many parts of the world, appearing often on this blog. So in lieu of an unwieldy tag, here’s a roundup of some of the main posts.

Shawms (with a wooden body and a flared bell, small unlipped double reed enclosed in the mouth, and a pirouette, overblowing at the octave) are more common than oboes (like Chinese guanzi and Armenian duduk), although the distinction is complex, also involving cylindrical or conical bores (zzzzz)—see here.

Names for shawms are often variants of zurna, but there’s a wealth of local terms. The musicians are low in social status.

For China, large shawms are particularly imposing in the north, as shown in my two books Ritual and music of north China. The starter post is

I analyse the complex melodies of the Hua family band in

See also

and, observing a certain scholarly reluctance to countenance such orally-transmitted cultures,

The Shaanbei bands feature in my post on the great

and, adding nearby Gansu, cf.

See also

and for trouble in Shandong,

Shawm bands are common in south China too, such as in Fujian and Hunan.

Some of these styles also appear on the Playlist in the sidebar (##5, 6, 11, and 15, with commentary here).

For Xinjiang, see

and for Tibet, as well as the monastic shawms and long trumpets (still only featured at the end of this post), the courtly gar features in

Elsewhere, most traditions have spread with Islam from the Middle East. See

Among a wealth of audio-video tracks on the playlist of

is a fine taksim on the Turkish zurna.

Additive shawm metres from Turkey and east Europe feature in

For Azerbaijan, see under

and for Morocco, under

In Europe, Spain features in

And for Italian shawms (not least the 1963–64 recordings from the USA!):

See also

And cf. the extensive trumpet tag.

Rāg Shri

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Shri ragamala

Shri, ragamala:
“Splendidly enthroned, of peerless beauty, he sits hearing stories from Narada and Tumburu.
By the great sages he is called Shri-raga king.”

So far in this series I’ve mainly surveyed ragas that I’ve long known, but now I’m beginning to explore some that haven’t previously come to my attention.

Sargam

The sargam solfeggio system.

Here’s the introduction to Rāg Shri in The raga guide:

Shri 1

Shri 2

A “mysterious, gentle, and austere” raga for the early winter harvest, its melodic progression is distinctive, with the pivotal wide intervals of flat re and sharp Ma (D♭ and F♯, if you will); the natural third Ga and flat sixth dha are heard mainly as fleeting ornaments; in ascent the flat re leaps to sharp Ma or directly to Pa. The natural Ni gives the option of three adjacent semitones NiSare; while the flat sixth dha is less prominent, the equivalent sequence Ma–Pa–dha may be heard.

As ever, dhrupad makes a fine way of immersing ourselves in the raga. Here are the “Junior Dagar brothers” Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar:

More recently, Uday Bhawalkar is just as wondrous (cf. his Yaman, and Bhairav):

Udayji’s opening exposition revolves around long sustained re, and then Sa and Ni, introducing the sharp Ma, and Pa, in the lower register at 1.50, ascending to re, now decorated with Ga. At 6.17 he ascends to Pa before returning to the semitone cluster around Sa. From 8.16 he clearly expounds the ascending sequence Ma Pa Ni Sa re. After revolving around the augmented interval of reMa, he reaches sustained cadences on Pa from 9.29. From 16.31 he explores the upper range around top Sa (17.06: Ma Pa Ni, Sa Ni, re Sa).

For the jor section of the alap from 21.29, Udayji injects a firmer pulse, with a mixture of nomtom and ākar (“aah”) syllables around low Sa; having explored around low Pa from 21.24 he returns to Sa after 26.15, the wide interval reMa always featuring prominently. From 31.02 he is oscillating around high Pa, eventually reaching up higher, with sustained cadences on top Sa from 34.19 as the melodic phrases become more florid.

From 38.13 Udayji returns again to the lower register, Sa eventually giving way to Pa as pivotal pitch from 46.14, incorporating the higher register from 49.33 before the pakhavaj drum enters.

From 56.18 he concludes (as in his wonderful Yaman) with a praise song at a more sedate tempo in 14-beat dhamar tāl (5+2+3+4), followed by a faster section from 1.13.02 in sūltāl with five duple units (as he does for Malkauns and other ragas). The very ending is missing.

An audio recording by Udayji appears over two tracks, with alap and a lively jod:

followed by another song in dhamar tal:

On sitar, here’s the sublime Nikhil Banerjee in 1975—note how he features Ga quite prominently, and relishes the interval Ma–dha:

And a longer performance:

This up-tempo version by Ali Akbar Khan on sarod from 1969 brings out the angular wide intervals even more:

And here’s a short but exquisite rendition by Ram Narayan on sarangi:

With thanks yet again to Morgan Davies!

The ritual calendar: cycles and seasons

Bach

In my page on Bach—and Daoist ritual, I cited John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant Music in the castle of heaven. For Easter Week, I’ve been re-reading Chapter 9, “Cycles and seasons”. At least in an increasingly secularised north Europe, our awareness of the rich annual programme has been severely diluted—but it does remind me of the continuing calendrical rituals of Chinese temple fairs.

Bach’s church cantatas were performed not for “concerts” but as part of religious services. As in Chinese ritual, elements within them could be recycled. However, whereas minimal change—both conscious and unconscious—was doubtless a feature of the Daoist soundscape (as in much of the world), Bach’s congregation grew used to hearing new music every week.

Gardiner places the Passions within the cycle of cantatas (note also the vast database on bachcantatas.com).

On the face of it, there is little reason to bother about Bach’s cantatas today. Never intended to be performed or listened to other than as part of a lengthy church service, they were composed (and rehearsed) each week at great speed to act as a foretaste of the Sunday sermon. *

Whereas Charles Rosen disputed the “fashionable” placing of the cantatas as Bach’s principle achievement, seeking to return to the conception of the keyboard works as central to his oeuvre, Gardiner cites John Butt (see Passion at the Proms, and Playing with history):

Cyclic time is essential to a liturgical, ritualistic approach to religion, in which important events and aspects of dogma are celebrated within a yearly cycle.

Bach devoted himself to such cycles, first at Weimar (with twenty-two extant church cantatas) and then in Leipzig, notably in his first few years there from 1723. Even in the “closed” seasons of Advent and Lent, when no figural music was allowed in church, he was busy preparing new works.

Following his cantatas in their seasonal context also allows us to notice how Bach, like Janâček two centuries later, often brings to the surface pre-Christian rituals and forgotten connections that reflect the turning of the agricultural year—the certainty of the land, its rhythms and rituals, the unerring pace of its calendar and the vagaries of rural weather. Saxony in the 18th century was still a predominantly agrarian society in which these seasonal events and happenings were closely linked to the concerns of religion—reminding us how, in today’s predominantly urban society, many of us tend to lose contact with the rhythms and patterns of the farming calendar and even with perceptions of the basic, cyclical round of life and death which feature prominently in so many of Bach’s cantatas. […] For Bach to remind his urban audience of Leipzig burghers of the patterns of seed-time and harvesting existing just beyond their city walls was nothing unusual, and the rhythms and rituals of the agrarian year frequently seep through into his music, giving it topicality and currency as well as a layer of simple rusticity.

Among their doctrinal messages, the cantatas allude to sowing, corn-flattening summer storms, bird damage, crop-failure. Rediscovering this seasonal basis on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000

was markedly different from the conventional practices of music-making we were used to in concert halls, which, however persuasive, cannot help but carry resonances foreign to the intrinsic purpose of the music.

Through his hectic first Leipzig cycle, Bach’s self-imposed task was to keep pace with the weekly demand:

There was the copying out of parts and guiding his (as yet) untried group of young musicians in how to negotiate the hazards of his startling and challenging music with a bare minimum of rehearsal. […] Come the day, there was first a long, cold wait in an unheated church, then a single shot at a daunting target. Then, without a backward glance, on to the next, maintaining a relentless rhythm. […]

One marvels at how he and his performers could have met these challenges. We shall of course never know how well they acquitted themselves and just how well the music was performed under such pressure.

As Gardiner notes,

The underlying theology is at times unappetising [to us today, that is—SJ]—mankind portrayed as wallowing in degradation and sinfulness, the world a hospital peopled by sick souls whose sins fester like suppurating boils and yellow excrement.

Here I can only sample Gardiner’s vivid commentaries on individual cantatas. In BWV 25, Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, the dark text (such as “The whole world is but a hospital”; Adam’s Fall “has defiled us all and infected us with leprous sin”) is somehow healed by Bach’s setting:

For another of many doom-laden cantatas, see Lukewarm Laodiceans and puffed-up Pharisees.

As autumn passes into winter the themes of the week become steadily grimmer as the faithful are urged to reject the world, its lures and snares, and to focus on eventual union with God—or risk the horror of permanent exclusion.

Cantata schedule

After Advent the mood is lightened by the glorious explosion of festive music for the Christmas season (for the Christmas oratorio, see under Weimar here). Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121), for the Feast of St Stephen, is “one of the oldest-feeling of all Bach’s cantatas”, adding cornett and trombones to the orchestration.

Replacing the portrayals of dancing seraphim are images of those angular, earnest faces that 15th-century Flemish painters use to depict the shepherds gazing into the manger-stall. […] Bach’s design for this cantata mirrors the change from darkness to light and shows how the moment when Christians celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world coincides with the turning of the sun at the winter solstice.

For a change, here’s Ton Koopman directing:

But there was no respite: Bach composed six new cantatas for the period between Epiphany to the beginning of Lent—including the operatic Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV 81), with Jesus calming the storm at sea. Here’s Koopman again:

Always pushing the boundaries of the Leipzig councilmen’s warnings about excessive theatricality, such music leads to Holy Week and Bach’s Passions.

Bach opened his second Leipzig cantata cycle on 11th June 1724 with another setting of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20), again evocatively described by Gardiner. Time for some Sigiswald Kuijken:

The opening chorus of Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101, for the tenth Sunday after Trinity) features a trio of oboes, the voices doubled by archaic cornetto and trombones, and dissonances for the “grave punishment and great distress” of the hymn text. In the “rage” aria for bass the oboes become “a kind of latter-day [sic] saxophone trio”; and the pairing of flute and oboe da caccia that complements the soprano and alto duet foretells Ausliebe in the Matthew Passion. Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

Gardiner contrasts Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65) and Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen (BWV 123), written for Epiphany in successive years. The first is “oriental and pageant-like”; getting a bit carried away, he describes

high horns to convey majesty and antiquity, recorders to represent the high pitches traditionally associated with oriental music, and still more, oboes da caccia so redolent—to the modern ear—of the Macedonian zurla, the salmai of Hindustan and the nadaswaram from Tamil Nadu. […] With their haunting sonority these “hunting oboes” seem to belong the world of Marco Polo—of caravans traversing the Silk Route—and it remains something of a mystery how a specialist wind-instrument-maker, Herr Johann Eichentopf of Leipzig, could have invented this magnificent modern tenor oboe with its curved tube and flared brass bell around 1722 unless he had heard one of those oriental prototypes played by visitors to one of Leipzig’s trade fairs.

(Cf. my fantasy of Bach on the erhu.) Indeed, the riches of Bach’s writing for the oboe are inexhaustible—as are those of world shawms! Returning to Gardiner’s own performances, here’s the Saba cantata:

Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen “opens with a graceful chorus in 9/8, a little reminiscent of an Elizabethan dance”. But as Gardiner reminds us, the central arias are just as captivating as the opening choruses:

In accord with the brief of ethnomusicology (e.g. works like Enemy Way music, or Thinking in jazz; cf. Pomodoro!), Gardiner’s study integrates social life, sound object, and doctrine, which lesser scholars often consider separately.

* * *

Mouldering away somewhere in the attics of [Leipzig] citizens there could still be letters holding what we so sorely lack—direct testimony to the varied responses by members of Bach’s listening public to the music he put in front of them.

Whatever their responses, I never cease to envy them as they dutifully turned up every Sunday to be regaled with such extraordinary new music. And the musicians—imagine Bach’s oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch when he got home after rehearsal:

“Good day at the office, dear?”
“You’ll never believe it when you hear what our new Kantor has given me to play this Sunday! God knows how I’m going to manage it—but it’s amazing…”

For the cantatas, Passions, and much more, see under A Bach retrospective.


* A cantata might even be punctuated by the sermon—bear this in mind when you find your listening on YouTube cruelly disrupted by a smarmy ad for funeral care, a latter-day vision of the torments of hell. On the other hand, the Leipzig congregegation couldn’t click on “Skip sermon”, so Thanks Be to God.

Rāg Malkauns

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Malkauns ragamala

Malkauns, ragamala:
“A scarf round his neck and and fanned by the fair-hipped one,
a golden seat has been made for the king of the gandharvas.
Handsome and wealthy, Shri Malav is known as the fifth Malav.”

Here’s another post in my series on the wonders of north Indian raga.

Malkauns is a pentatonic raga for the late night, to which supernatural powers are attributed (see e.g. here and here). To reacquaint ourselves with the basic sargam solfeggio system of raga:

Sargam

Here’s the summary for Malkauns in The raga guide:

Malkauns 1

Malkauns 2

First, a note for those who are no more expert than me in the subtleties of sargam. Taking C as the notional tonic, you may at first hear the basic scale of Malkauns as
C–E♭–F–G–B♭–C (as in the lighter rāg Dhani, for a flavour of which click here; also in The raga guide); however, in Malkauns the drone strings are not the common C and G, but C and F—so the scale is actually
F–A♭–B♭–C–E♭–F—or rather, transposed with the tonic as C:
C–E–F–A–B–C,
in sargam (lower-case denoting the lower degrees of pitches):
S–g–m–d–n–S,
with the 5th (Pa) and 2nd (Re) degrees absent. In other words, what one first hears as a Pa is actually the tonic Sa!

Dagar

Dhrupad always makes a fitting introduction to the subtleties of the unfolding melodic phrases—here are the “junior” Dagar brothers Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina with the vocals of Zia Fariduddin Dagar in 1968, blending perfectly:

So here the lenghthy alap opens with the tonic Sa—descending to ni and then dha before ascending to ma at 1.35, with ga featuring. In a lengthy passage from 4.04, dha, ni, and Sa are explored in the low register, from 10.10 juxtaposed with ga and ma in the middle range.

From 14.46 the middle range returns more strongly, with Sa as the pivotal note. From 20.25 ga begins featuring more often. Following a low ma in the voice from 22.59, rather more extended sequences gradually begin to emerge, before another low vocal passage from 31.19.

A more dynamic vocal passage from 34.25 does nothing to disturb the tranquility. A sequence from 36.52 is again juxtaposed with the low register. At last from 43.00 we reach top ma—before returning to the low gamut yet again.

From 46.35 we hear mukhṛā repeated pitches in a regular pulse, and by 51.36 some longer ascending melodic phrases are appearing. More often, ga falls to Sa rather than ascending to ma. Only by 58.30 can we finally feel a faster tempo, with rhythmic exchanges.

Even by the lofty standards of dhrupad I find this whole exposition exceptionally still and profound.

In north Indian raga (as in other traditions, including WAM), variation emerges from the character not only of the raga itself but also that of the performers and their lineages—as well as over time, and according to the contextual dynamic. When the Dagar brothers recorded that performance in 1968, the intensity of dhrupad was little appreciated outside the circles of mehfil aficionados. But fifty years later it had enjoyed a wider revival—here’s the great Uday Bhawalkar (himself a disciple of the Dagars) again:

Perhaps as a sign of the changing times, Udayji seems more concerned with structural markers and melodic exposition than the Dagar brothers, with longer phrases and a clearer sense of “development”. He explores the pitches around high ma more; and he injects a firm mukhṛā pulse with repeated notes from 23.43, as his decorations become ever more florid. From here on I’m guided by Morgan Davies, worthy custodian of my sarangi: from 55.47 the jhāla section, sung to rapid nomtom syllables, is accompanied by pakhavaj drum, introducing a stately seven-beat rupak tal (3+2+2) from 1.02.09. The rapid final section from 1.16.00, a sādra, is in sūltāl, with five duple units (commonly used towards the conclusion of dhrupad, as in Udayji’s Yaman and Bhairav).

Here he sings another version of Malkauns:

With that orientation, I’ll leave you to admire the detail of instrumental renditions. On sitar, we can explore several versions by the mellifluous Nikhil Banerjee, such as this from 1966:

And this 1972 recording is wondrous too:

I can’t find dates for these next two, longer versions:

This one has a lengthy alap:

Here’s Vilayat Khan in 1985:

and two consecutive renditions by his younger brother Imrat Khan on surbahar in 1975:

Bernard Lortat-Jacob also recommends Balaram Pathak on sitar:

On sarangi, here’s Abdul Latif Khan:

and Bundu Khan:

On violin, N. Rajam:

For renditions on bansuri and shehnai, see Raga for winds.

And then it’s always worth returning to the meditative dhrupad versions…

We might follow this up with rāg Chandrakauns, in which natural Ni replaces the flat ni of Malkauns.

With many thanks to Morgan Davies

Amazing Grace meets gagaku!

Making an elegant bridge between the enchanted worlds of Aretha and ancient gagaku, here’s Hideki Togi playing Amazing Grace on hichiriki—aptly uploaded to YouTube on Inauguration day:

Do click on those links above—the first to Aretha’s overwhelming 1972 sessions, the second to the great Toru Takemitsu’s captivating explorations of Japanese traditional soundscapes—notably gagaku.

I find myself more amenable to this arrangement than to the “world music fusion” that I churlishly characterised as “throat-singing gala with Dame Kiri and Ry Cooder—Afro-Cuban grooves, Balkan brass, kora, and didjeridu…” (cf. Bach, um, marches to the world!).

Tibet: the Golden Age

L'age d'or cover

Adding to my series of recent posts on Tibet, I’ve been reading a fine book in French:

  • Katia Buffetrille, L’âge d’or du Tibet (XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles) (2019; 311 pages)
    (review here; this brief notice; numerous other publications by Buffetrille here).

While Tibetologists have long focused on early history, more recently many scholars have turned, impressively, to addressing the complexities and traumas of Tibetan society since the Chinese occupation in 1950; so this volume on the historical background is welcome. Notwithstanding the focus on the “Golden Age”, it provides material on both earlier and later history, making a useful, wide-ranging introduction for the greater Tibetan region—including Amdo and Kham—before the Chinese occupation, as well as relations with neighbouring countries including Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, and Manchu China.

Using Tibetan, Chinese, and European sources, the book is attractively presented in the Guide Belles lettres format, with copious illustrations and a bibliography arranged by topic. Paying attention to both material and conceptual aspects of Tibetan culture, Buffetrille covers not just the upper echelons but popular life too, correcting misconceptions in the process (cf. Tibetan clichés).

Here I’ll merely list some main themes of the eight chapters.

History: subsuming both the thriving period of political stability under the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–82), with the hegemony of his Gelugpa school of Buddhism, and attendant power struggles.

The Tibetan space: cosmology; central Tibet and the peripheral regions, notably Amdo and Kham; and cosmopolitan Lhasa, with its ethnically mixed population (also including Muslims, Newars, Armenians, Christians), dynamic commercial life, and monuments.

Chapter 3 looks at the political and administrative organisation in more detail, including justice, the army, finance, and the postal system.

Chapter 4 unpacks the society and economy. Buffetrille introduces the nobility; the varied strata of common people (“serfs”, in the parlance of some modern observers), including brigands; and the clergy, another stratified category. As to the economy, she discusses agriculture, nomadism, commerce, measures and currency, mining, hunting, and the artisanat.

Age d'or 1

In a chapter on Time, she discusses astrology, the calendar, divination, and the life cycle.

Chapter 6 considers Religions in all their forms. Besides giving a useful overview of the various schools of Buddhism (with earlier historical background) and Bön, Buffetrille features “social inscription”: the life of monasteries, lay practices, pilgrimages, beliefs, indigenous rituals, and local deities.

Age d'or 3

Intellectual life: language, writing, paper, xylography, printing, libraries, and literature (Buddhist, historical, scientific, fiction).

Age d'or 4

The arts, again enmeshed with religious practice: artists, painters (with an interesting vignette on pigments), iconography, sculpture, architecture—ending with a brief mention of music, which is further covered in

Pastimes, with the annual cycle of festivals, both in Lhasa and in rural communities, including courtly and popular songs and dances, lhamo opera—and picnics.

Private life, including naming customs, family, women, sexuality; the house, tents, food and drink; healthcare, costume.

All this makes a suitable reminder that before the Chinese occupation, for all its social issues, Tibet was a mature, functioning, independent society. This concise introduction much deserves an English translation.

Toru Takemitsu

Takemitsu

The recent additions to my series on Messiaen (here and here) remind me that he was a major influence on Toru Takemitsu (193­0–96). Here I’ll just feature some of his works directly inspired by the traditional Japanese soundscape—though of course there’s much more to explore in his ouevre (wiki; see also e.g. Tom Service’s succinct general introduction).

Having spent his early years until 1938 with his family in Dalian in occupied northeast China, where his father worked as a businessman, military conscription in 1944 further alienated him from Japanese militarism and nationalism; coming to associate these—not incorrectly—with the musical traditions of Japan (see e.g. this article on gagaku), he was drawn instead to new Western Art Music. He extended his initial aversion to Japanese music to other traditional forms:

There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. (Folk music in a “contemporary style” is nothing but a deception). [Hah! Discuss!]

Indeed, by contrast with the value-free ears of outsiders, some younger urban native listeners often hear their own traditions as tainted by association with a repressive or stultifying establishment—such as Chinese and Moravian folk, English choral music, or Russian Orthodox liturgy.

So it was only from the early 1960s, partly through John Cage—another important inspiration for him—that Takemitsu came to value the Japanese concept of ma 間 “empty space” (exemplified by Noh drama) and began consciously to borrow from Japanese music. As he recalled:

One day I chanced to see a performance of the Bunraku puppet theatre and was very surprised by it. It was in the tone quality, the timbre, of the futozao shamisen, the wide-necked shamisen used in Bunraku, that I first recognized the splendour of traditional Japanese music. I was very moved by it and I wondered why my attention had never been captured before by this Japanese music.

Here’s the second story, “Woman of the snow”, from the soundtrack for Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964):

November steps

Best known among his Japanese-inspired works is November steps (1967), for shakuhachi, biwa, and orchestra, commissioned by the New York Phil at the behest of Bernstein, premiered under Seiji Ozawa:

For the same combination is Autumn: into the fall after a little while (1973):

Traditional Japanese music, notably the courtly tradition of gagaku, deriving from Tang China, had long inspired Japanese and Western composers. Henry Eichheim‘s visits to east and southeast Asia (for his trips to China, see here) led to works such as Oriental impressions (1919–22), including the gagaku-derived E[n]tenraku (cf. Japanese nocturne); in 1931 Hidemaro Konoye (who the previous year conducted the very first recording of Mahler 4!) made a more faithful orchestral arrangement of Etenraku. Both works were soon taken up by Leopold Stokowski in his programmes with the Philadelphia orchestra.

After the war, Etenraku was again the basis for Yoritsune Matsudaira‘s Theme and variations for piano [hmm] and orchestra (1951); he followed it in 1961 with the orchestral piece Bugaku. Also channelling gagaku were Henry Cowell in Ongaku (1957), and Olivier Messiaen in Sept haïkaï (1963)— to which I devoted a separate post. [1]

Reigakusha

The Reigakusha ensemble (site, largely in Japanese).

But now some composers actually began writing for the gagaku ensemble itself, as innovation became a significant subsidiary theme in the gagaku world. Takemitsu wrote Shūteiga for the gagaku ensemble of the Imperial Household (hichiriki oboe, shō mouth-organ, ryūteki flute, biwa lute, gakusō zither, and percussion), later incorporating it into In an autumn garden (1973), one of the most enthralling essays in the genre. Besides the Imperial Household’s own version, the sonorities of this recording, by the Reigakusha ensemble that grew out of it, are even more mesmerising (cf. this live performance):

Garden rain (1974), for brass ensemble, evokes the cluster-chords of the shō mouth-organ (so very different from the anhemitonic pentatonic organum of its Chinese ancestor the sheng!):

See also this interview with the enterprising shō performer Mayumi Miyata.

Just in case you suppose all these to be avant-garde creations far distant from their model, here’s some “traditional” gagaku:


[1] For the Japanese explorations of Eichheim, Cowell, and others, see W. Anthony Sheppard, Extreme exoticism: Japan in the American musical imagination (2019), ch.3. For other Western works inspired by gagaku, click here. For Western devotees of Zen, see The great Gary Snyder, and More East-West gurus; see also under Some posts on Japanese culture. See also Amazing Grace meets gagaku!

Messiaen in Japan

 

Messiaen Ozawa 1962

Messiaen with Yvonne Loriod and Seiji Ozawa, July 1962.

The exotic soundscapes of the Mystic East have long attracted composers, particularly in France (Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy).

Messiaen may be more commonly associated with Indian music (e.g. Turangalîla), but his fascination with Japanese culture goes back to his honeymoon there with his wife Yvonne Loriod in summer 1962. [1]

While the young Seiji Ozawa led rehearsals for a performance of Turangalîla, Messiaen, besides sightseeing and birdwatching, bought books and recordings of gagaku (cf. Laurence Picken, with whom he shared a love of birdsong), and attended an evening of koto zither, as well as performances of bunraku, kabuki—and Noh drama (see under Some posts on Japanese culture):

I delighted in the music, the steps, the slowness of the movements, and the extraordinary cries of the tsuzumi.

Noh 2

Noh drums, 1992. My photo.

After admiring Mount Fuji and Nara, they visited Hiroshima, guided by the Belgian Catholic priest Fr Ernest Goossens. The fifth movement of Sept haïkaï was inspired by a boat trip to the Miyajima shrine; his notes evoke many images that recur throughout his music:

The sea: salty smell, of seaweed and of water, and the scent of a grove of pines. Large red torii [gateways] in the sea. Marvellous red Shinto temple, maze of rooms, corridors, columns of red wood. Dark interior of the temple where the divinity is hidden (principle room), and the other temple (which one cannot see) with the invisible true God, behind the red torii, in the sea and the sky. Monstrous stone lions defend the temple—stone lanterns on the path beside the sea—the mountains velvety with pines. Sunset above the temple. From a distance one can see the torii against the evening clouds, orange, red, pink, violet. At night one can just make out the torii in the darkness—a full moon, gold and silver, with a hazy red halo, veiled by a thin strip of completely black cloud.

Torii

The result was Sept haïkaï (for piano, wind, brass, percussion including cowbells, and eight lonely violins!), premiered in 1963, with Yvonne Loriod on piano and Pierre Boulez conducting.

  • Introduction
  • Le parc de Nara et les lanternes de pierre
  • Yamanaka cadenza
  • Gagaku (from 7.36; for an earlier orchestral adaptation by Hidemaro Konoye, see here)
  • Miyajima et le torii dans le mer 
  • Les oiseaux de Karuizawa
  • Coda

The vignettes are purely instrumental—it is only the title that alludes to haiku. But I’ve composed a couple for the occasion:

Besides world music
Olivier Messiaen
Enjoyed his birdsong

Meanwhile in Cambridge,

Wise Laurence Picken
Finding gagaku too slow
Relished birdsong too

See also Toru Takemitsu.

 


[1] See e.g. Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (2005). Apart from the voluminous scholarly literature on Messaien (Paul Griffiths, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, and so on), good overviews of his ouevre are Richard Taruskin, The danger of music, pp.289–99, and Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.485–96 (see The right kind of spirituality?).

Yaman 2

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are both brothers in duet:

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

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

For a roundup of other posts in this series, click here.

Recent posts on Tibet

*UPDATED!*

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

and necessary corrections to misguided views:

On the ritual cultures of ethnic groups around Amdo, see

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

See also Tibet tag.

Iranian lives

In reportage, a cartoon book, and feature films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

I was reminded of the educative cartoon book

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

another fine introduction to the modern urban society of Iran.

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

Here’s a trailer for the 2007 film version:

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam

*For more, see my roundup of posts on Uyghur culture*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gathering before khätmä ritual.

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

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

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

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

She notes that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aynisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

She now discusses the campaign against religious extremism in detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such issues were hotly debated on Uyghur forums in exile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Rāg Yaman Kalyan

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Kalyan ragamala

Kalyan, ragamala:
“He looks like Kandarpa [the god of love] himself. He has a voice like a cuckoo
and a complete knowledge of musicology. He has a stout figure and is not called a commoner. This is Kalyan, who is known as a king of the poets.”

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

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

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

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

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

Dhrupad vocal versions make a fine starting-point, with their long, sublime alap, intimate and ecstatic. [1] Let’s focus on two performances by the great Uday Bhawalkar. It’s inspiring to see, as well as hear, this live performance from 2016, his expressive hand gestures complementing the contours of the melody:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more from Uday Bhawalkar, see here.

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

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

* * *

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

Turning to instrumental versions, back in dhrupad style, Morgan again led me to a profoundly meditative live performance on rudra vina by the great Zia Mohiuddin Dagar in 1990—his last year: [2]

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

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

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

We can also compare this live performance in 1982:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a version on shehnai, see Raga for winds.

For the related rāg Maru Bihag, click here.

With many thanks to Richard Widdess and Morgan Davies


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

The enchanting world of Tibetan opera

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

Tibetan opera is just enthralling.

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

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

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

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

She edited the attractive, instructive volume

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

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

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

As Isabelle observes,

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

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

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

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

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

lhamo 130

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

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

lhamo 111
Norbu Tsering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The volume ends with a chapter by Jamyang Norbu—always a stimulating, frank commentator (cf. The Lhasa ripper, The mandala of Sherlock Holmes, and Women in Tibet, 2). He gives a fine introduction to the challenges faced by the exile community from 1959 in establishing the lhamo scene in Dharamsala, under the guidance of Norbu Tsering, as they pieced the melodies together like a jigsaw from the memories of various people”. Jamyang Norbu reflects on his early years as member of the Drama Society, forerunner of TIPA, which he served as director from 1980 to 1985.

lhamo 113

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

followed by Parts 23, and 4.

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

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

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

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

lhamo 122

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

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

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

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

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

A dream: the Tibetan ancestry of I Will Survive

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

labrang-jc-1

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

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

gar 1945

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

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

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

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

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


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

Leyli and Majnun

Majnun

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

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

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

As Hajibeyov recalled:

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

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

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

Leyli paintingSoon Hajibeyov also picked up the language of WAM.

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

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

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

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

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

See also The genius of Sergei Parajanov.


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

Women in Tibetan expressive culture

IHD

Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy with Kham shopkeeper, Lhasa 1997.

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

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

A finely-wrought discussion is

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

* * *

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

Lhasa label girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or more extensive coverage, with Chinese commentary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the kind of thing:

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

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

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

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

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

Isabelle summarises with typical lucidity:

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

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

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

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

Yungchen Lhamo

Cover of Yungchen Lhamo’s first Real World CD.

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

This track comes from her second album for Real World:

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

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

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

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

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

As she summarises:

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

I do recommend this detailed, nuanced article!

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

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

Tibet: a blind musician

Ajo Namgyal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet

“There is singing everywhere in Tibet”

Discuss

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lhasa 1956

Source here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MJZ title

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

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

lha-mo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nangma 1956

Open-air performance of nangma, 1956.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MJZ CD 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gar-dpon

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

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

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

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

Pasangs Don-grub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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


With thanks to Robbie Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Labrang 1: representing Tibetan ritual culture

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

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

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