Saint Bill: Black books

Coffee and books is a fad.

YAY!!! As further evidence that there’s hope yet for civilisation, I’m delighted that Bill Bailey, guided by the ever-wise Oti Mabuse, has just been canonised by winning Strictly (see this fantasy). So to supplement all the adulation:

His musical standup is brilliant (e.g. here; and Love song: The duck lies shredded in a pancake, Soaking in the hoisin of your lies…). Here’s another one, ranging from panto and military calls to the Alberti bass (“making the music go further—like cutting your blancmange with Angel Delight”), culminating in the East European version of the Match of the Day theme (“The tractor would not start”):

Nor should we forget Black books—episodes from Saint Bill’s earlier life (Channel 4, three series 2000–2004).

Black books

All three protagonists—Bernard (Dylan Moran, also co-author with Graham Linehan), Manny (Bill Bailey), and Fran (Tamsin Greig)—are delightful, making complementary role-models. Despite Bernard’s persona as a “vile, rude, arrogant, elitist, filthy, chain-smoking alcoholic”, and, um, all the senseless cruelty and violence, the series has the charming mood of a kinder bygone age.

The first episode of Season 2 has more on learning the piano. If you already know that Bill is an accomplished musician (as one does nowadays), then you just have to suspend disbelief. This is a nice reversal of a persistent dramatic cliché:

I always wanted to learn, but my parents forced me not to. I spent hour after hour playing football, all by myself, peering in at all the other children in the neighbourhood practising their piano.

In a Baileyesque kinda way, all this might lead us to John Cage‘s Sonatas and interludes, the Persian santur, and Studying the cello.

Folk traditions of Poland

String band, Polish highlands 1931. Source here.

My recent post on the great siege of Przemyśl reminds me to explore Polish folk soundscapes, which were somewhat outside my remit in surveying folk musics around east Europe but also deserve to be savoured.

As Simon Broughton observes in his useful Songlines update, since he edited the second edition of The Rough Guide to world music in 1999, Polish folk music has seen a dynamic revival akin to the earlier Hungarian táncház movement. See also the third edition (2009).

Fieldwork project, early 1950s. Source here.

Fans of “world music” have long made an avid audience for the folk musics of Hungary and Romania. Poland’s extreme sufferings in the mid-20th century (see also Bloodlands) were followed by Communism and its sanitised musical “fakelore” (brilliantly dissected by Kundera for Moravia). But local traditions were maintained there too—and indeed collected, both before the 1939 invasions [1] and in the early 1950s, although official support for such fieldwork was an ironic casualty of the 1956 political thaw. Note also chapters in Music traditions in totalitarian systems, 2009 (slow to load, but worth persisting!). Cf. fieldwork in Maoist China.

So here, as is my wont, I seek more hardcore rural traditions, the inspiration for higher-profile bands touring on the world music circuit like the Warsaw Village Band, Kroke, and, notably, Janusz Prusinowski’s group.

Do explore the riches of Andrzej Bieńkowski’s Muzyka Odnaleziona site (in Polish; for perceptive interviews with him in English, click here and here), along with hundreds of wonderful videos on his YouTube playlists, featuring both instrumental bands and singers from regions including Lublin, Radom, and (in Łódź province) Rawa and Opoczno, as well as Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian traditions within current Polish borders (several of my posts also feature Ukraine and the work of William Noll, such as this).

Recording venues of the Muzyka Odnaleziona project.

We might start with Bieńkowski’s own selection of favourite clips:

Kapela string bands (often family-based) for festive dancing are led by fiddles—with sawing accompaniment, or sometimes a slapped bass resembling the gardon of Gyimes [Plain people of Ireland nod knowingly]. As one moves south, triple-time dances give way to duple metres. The Muzyka Odnaleziona material also does a nifty sideline in bagpipes.

Among the discography in Simon’s article is an impressive anthology of 27 CDs in the Muzyka Źródeł series from Polish radio (here, or here), featuring great musicians such as the fiddler Stanisław Klejnas (1905–88), from the tiny village of Raducz east of Łódź:

He’s also shown in this clip:

From the 1970s, a major inspiration for the renewed interest in Polish folk traditions was Kazimierz Metó (1922-–2008), from Glina south of Łódź. Here he is at home in 1987:

The brothers Jan and Piotr Gaca, based in Przystałowice Małe in the Radom district, are also renowned:

Particularly famed for its distinctive traditions is the Podhale region of the southern Górale highlands, near the border with Slovakia (and west of Przemyśl)—despite the popularity of the main town Zakopane as a tourist resort. In similar vein to Bartók, Kodály, and Janâček, the folk culture of this region inspired WAM composers from Mierczyński and Szymanowski to Górecki, as well as the anthropologist Malinowski. [2] 

This style is addictive as that of the string bands of Transylvania at the southern reaches of the Carpathians. Besides the sheer energy of the music, it’s intriguing to become acquainted with the syntax and signposts of the distinctive harmonic progressions; and above them, apparently quite independent, the decorations of the fiddle melodies. Such features are all the more stimulating for seeming rather close to the familiar conventions of WAM (and indeed pop music) while operating quite outside them.

The ever-discerning Nimbus label (e.g. their flamenco recordings) issued two intoxicating CDs in 1996. Recorded a couple of days apart in nearby villages, they evoke a festive conviviality, punctuated by gutsy vocals and dance calls:

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Gienek Wilczek’s Bukowina band —among whose many delights are the funky coda of Oh, Susanna that rounds off the ballad sequence of #5 on this playlist!:


  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Trebunia family band:

Here’s a 1985 video of Tadeusz Szostak’s kapela—based, like the Trebunia band, in Poronin:

And here’s the playlist of the CD Poland: folk songs and dances (VDE-Gallo, 1993), compiled by Anna Czekanowska (author of many works, including Polish folk music, 1990):

As in China, it’s only by zooming in from region to county to village to family that we can marvel at the depth of local traditions. By analogy with my experience of the Hebei plain and north Shanxi, I can well imagine the wealth of material that detailed fieldwork can afford on the lives of Polish people through all the vicissitudes of modern history.

* * *

Further to Accordion crimes, and among a rich archive of recordings of migrant communities in the USA (such as Italian piffero and ciaramella players in 1963–64!), yet another great Folkways album features early recordings (1927–33) of Polish bands around Chicago and New York; as the liner notes suggest, over this period the rougher folk string-band style (e.g. #4, from the Tatras—where, as we’ve heard, it has persisted) was giving way to a more, um, polished idiom with wider commercial appeal:

Note also the “cheerfully infanticidal” #2.

See also Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland, and Polish jazz, then and now.

[1] For the early history of documenting Polish folk music, see also Barbara Krader’s section in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993), pp.171–7.

[2] For the music of Podhale, note the works of Timothy Cooley, such as Making music in the Polish Tatras: tourists, ethnographers, and mountain musicians (2005), and this article; see also here, and for the renowned fiddler Bartek Obrochta (1850–1926), here. For a hint of the region’s travails during and after World War II, see here and here.

Dancing in the streets!!!


Just to join in the parties from afar:

Kamala’s beautiful speech here is worth watching in full:

As to the Inauguration— just WOW: Kamala, the Bidens, the Obamas, Amanda Gorman (speech here!!!), Lady Gaga…

So here’s a little playlist for expressions of joy:

Detroit 67.
Katelyn Ohashi.

And among a wealth of festive Bach, the final chorus here, from 14.46, is an exhilarating number for dancing in the pews:

O ewiges feuer.

Here’s an interesting electoral map for the 2016 elections:

Meanwhile, in a parking lot between a dildo store and a crematorium:

Tibet: some folk ritual performers

Ngagmo female ritual group, Rebkong (Amdo), c2009. Source here.

For the Tibetan peoples, both before the Chinese occupation—or the uprisings from 1956—and under the reform era since the 1980s, our popular image of religious life is dominated by “institutional” monastic activity. Even genres like lhamo opera, nangma-töshe, and grand local folk communal rituals seem more commonly known than the diverse types of folk ritual performers.

To remind ourselves of a pertinent comment,

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. 

Emic and etic ways of slicing the cake of expressive cultures vary; and for Tibet they vary both within and between Tibetan, Chinese, and Western approaches. As in many cultures, a simple dichotomy like sacred–secular will only confuse, even if we take it as a continuum. Catherine Bell reflects wisely on the variety of “ritual specialists” within world cultures in Ritual theory, ritual practice, pp.130–40. But again, such an etic umbrella term often seems inadequate for Tibet.

One would include the male ngagpa and female ngagmo self-cultivational groups of Tantric practitioners (see e.g. the work of Nicolas Sihlé, such as this article; wiki, and here; photo above). Further, with religion such a pervasive element in the daily life of Tibetan people, there’s no simple way of encapsulating the variety of performers, family groups and individuals, occupational, often itinerant—such as spirit mediums and diviners, mendicants and beggars (for the latter in pre-occupation Lhasa, see e.g. Part Two here, under “Professional and spiritual beggars”). Moreover, the trite rubric of “song-and-dance” subsumes calendrical rituals with communal, largely ascriptive participation (see e.g. here). [1] Indeed, since the 1950s, and still now, lay performers may be less closely surveilled than the major monasteries such as Labrang (for which see here and here).

A variety of such genres is described in the 2006 book (in Chinese) Zangzu shuochang yishu [Narrative-singing arts of the Tibetan people] by Suolang Ciren 索朗次仁 [Sonam Tsering], (cf. this page).

As with Han Chinese traditions, some of these genres are described as obsolete, and appear to belong to “salvage” fieldwork. Having so often heard this claim from Chinese cultural cadres anxious about revealing “superstitious” activities in their domain, I am reluctant to take it as gospel. It is hard to assess the current picture from published material in Chinese and Tibetan. On one hand PRC scholars may take mediated, secular performances on the concert platform as evidence of the continuing life of tradition; on the other, their access enables them to document local genres. But of course change is always a factor. As with some Han Chinese traditions, folk activity may be continued by other means, and I suspect that lengthy immersion in a given area may still reveal neglected life in such genres. At the same time, few of these groups quite resemble the household ritual specialists who are my main theme in local Han Chinese communities.

In exile, while some genres of the former elite were maintained, and the monasteries have long been the main scholarly focus, many folk ritual genres hardly feature in representations of Tibetan expressive culture such as the 1986 Zlos-gar. However, some of the folk performers who made their way into exile sought to continue activity there.

Moreover, one would seek to consider groups among Tibetan communities such as those of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh, from where some of the most interesting material derives. As with other “marginal survivals”, always bearing in mind that these are local traditions, it can be tempting to regard such manifestations as suggestive of culture within old Tibet (cf. “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”).

* * *

Among all these genres, by far the most popular area of research is the Gesar epic (see here, n.2, and here). Though it is often treated as a reified genre of oral literature, and since the 1980s has also been performed on the secular stage, the solo performers (both the “inspired” bards who received the text through spiritual revelation in trance after a psychological crisis, and those who learned by listening to other bards) continued to play a role in the domestic rituals of their local communities after the 1980s’ reforms, despite the encroachment of pop and media culture.

But as in south Asia and China, there was (and is) a variety of performers. So here I will illustrate the difficulties of simple classification with brief introductions to lama mani, drekar, and ralpa.

Lama mani
The itinerant solo folk storytellers lama mani enact religious tales with the aid of thangka paintings. It may be more suitable to regard them as educators. [2]

An important source for the wider historical context around China and south Asia is

  • Victor Mair, Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis (1989).

For the TAR, the lama mani feature in Zangzu shuochang yishu; see also this introduction. Around Lhasa, this 2014 article portrays “Chilie” [Thinley / ‘Phrin las] (b. c1940), typically, as “the last lama mani”.

Brought up in a village of Nagarze county in the Lhoka region of southeast TAR, both of his parents had performed lama mani, and he learned with them from young, along with his three older sisters; here one would wish to fill in the gaps in his biography for the Maoist decades. Even recently, his status as a Transmitter of the Intangible Cultural Heritage hadn’t brought him security: in 2014, performing on the street in the Barkhor, he was moved on by the police.

Thinley performing in Lhasa, 2014.

Some lama mani have also been active in exile—note

Besides a film by Tsering Rithar on a refugee lama mani in Nepal, this is a 10-minute film on lama mani there:

Drekar oldAlso belonging within this diverse rubric are the drekar (in Chinese, zhega 折嘎: see this useful page), mendicant masked buffoons reciting auspicious verses for New Year and weddings (cf. Chinese beggars, such as in Shaanbei).

Again, the drekar have been described as obsolete, both within and beyond the PRC. A brief recorded excerpt (from since the 1980s’ reforms!) can be heard in #2 of CD 6 in Mao Jizeng’s anthology Xizang yinyue jishi. Whereas it was clearly recited on request, Woeser filmed this even briefer video during a street performance, suggesting that there may still be potential for fieldwork:

Until the 1950s the ralpa or relpa (in Chinese, reba 热巴), mostly from the Kham region in origin, were family-based, low-class, itinerant performers, using narration, singing, dancing, acrobatics, and small plays, based on the life of Milarepa.

Ralpa dancers, Dengchen, Chamdo. Source here.

But the sense in which ralpa is now commonly promoted is as a communal dance festivity in the villages of Kham—subject of a book by Gonpo Gyaltsen (1928–2020), himself a former ralpa from the Dechen region there: in Chinese, Oumi Jiacan 欧米加参, Xuecheng reba 雪域热巴 (1998), Tibetan translation Gangs-ljongs ral-pa (2017).

Today this form too may be largely obsolete (see e.g. this useful survey), even as it has become a victim of commodified dance arrangements and the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

* * *

Under Chinese occupation and modernity some of these genres have doubtless suffered more than others; but we should include them all within our picture of the varied religious behaviours in local Tibetan societies—even as many fine scholars, quite legitimately, turn their attention to the pop soundscape. And of course more revealing ethnographies could be compiled on how individual, family, or devotional groups of lay participants dovetail in local societies with monasteries, communal ritual activities, and so on [3]over time: as usual, we might hope to seek threads of continuity in 1950s’ activity.

With thanks as ever to Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy

[1] Sources for such genres appear rather piecemeal. Some feature in §III of the New Grove article on Tibet, and in the bibliographies of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (for Western-language sources) and Sangye Dondhup (for Tibetan and Chinese items); but Isabelle surveys much of the material in chapter 3 of her magnum opus Le théâtre ache lhamo, with references including some notes by early Western Tibetologists (such as Tucci and Stein), and for the post-reform era, studies by Tibetan and Chinese scholars, again mostly brief.

For Tibetan communities within the PRC, among the Anthology volumes (for the Tibetan Autonomous Region [TAR], Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, in Chinese), those on narrative-singing (and perhaps on folk-song, and dance) should give further leads.

At a tangent, YouTube has a range of interesting material under “Tibetan wedding”, like this 2013 ceremony from a village in Qinghai, with some fine singing. This might lead us to the chang ma beer servers in old and new Tibet.

[2] Among references to lama mani in Le théâtre ache lhamo (n.1 above), two discuss the drama Padma ‘od-‘bar (also popular in lhamo, like many items here): Anne-Marie Blondeau’s chapter in Zlos-gar (referring mainly to the relation of paintings and text), and a 2012 booklet (in Tibetan) with three CDs, for the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

[3] For a mendicant singer in early 20th century Amdo, with pertinent details on present-day performers, see this article by Gerald Roche.

Musics of Crete

Crete first

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going back further,

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

Here’s the latter CD as a playlist:

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gauhur JanGauhur Jan accompanied by harmonium, 1902.

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

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

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

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

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

The enchanting world of Tibetan opera

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

Tibetan opera is just enthralling.

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

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

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

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

She edited the attractive, instructive volume

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

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

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

As Isabelle observes,

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

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

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

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

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

lhamo 130

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

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

lhamo 111
Norbu Tsering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lhamo 113

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

followed by Parts 23, and 4.

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

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

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

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

lhamo 122

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

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

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

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

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

Native American cultures: a roundup

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

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

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

My interest was initially prompted by the tragic story of

See also

For the dream songs of Australian aborigines, see here.

Amdo rituals: early and recent films

While my own focus is on the local ritual cultures of the Han Chinese, I’ve recently found myself trying to get a basic grasp of some of the fine research on ritual and musicking among the ethnic minorities within the PRC—such as the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and the peoples of Yunnan.

My Chinese colleagues and I like to cite the dictum attributed to Confucius (“already”!), “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“—which may mean villages just an hour’s drive from Beijing, but is even more apposite for regions more remote from centres of Han Chinese culture.

I’ve already featured some remarkable 1930s’ film footage from Fujian in southeast China; now, alerted by Gerald Roche, intrepid anthropologist specialising in both ritual and the politics of language endangerment and revitalisation, I’ve been admiring footage of similar vintage from northwest China (“northeast Tibet”!), at the far opposite corner of the empire.

The Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai (including the Tibetan region of Amdo) are home to a patchwork of ethnic groups (for some basic resources on the region, see here).

Carter D. Holton (1901–73) was a missionary who worked with his wife Lora in northwest China from 1923 until 1949. His footage on the “two” films online (click here) is identical. It contains material from around Hezhou (now Linxia) in 1940–41, including scenes from Labrang, showing the daily life and rituals of Tibetans, Mangghuer (“Tu”), Muslims, and Han Chinese—during a period of ethnic and political unrest.

The footage itself is (alas) silent, with a basic voiceover recorded in 1995 by Robert Carlson (1928–2019), himself son of missionary parents active in the region at the time. And while the scenes of daily life are suggestive (transport, food, clothing, and so on), the clips of ritual are tantalisingly short (here I refer to timecodes in the “first” film):

  • 11.48 Daoist priests, directing a spirit medium, and
  • 12.45 burial procession (part of same sequence?)
  • 16.26 Muslim observances
  • 25.55 Prostrations and circumambulation at Labrang?
  • 33.10 burial procession
  • 34.04 someone should be able to give more detail than Carlson or I on this sequence, mostly (all?) at Labrang, with female dancers, Bön priests, cham masked dances, processions, and at the end a brief glimpse of Apa Alo with Marion Griebenow (Makley, The violence of liberation, pp.50–52, cf. Nietupski, Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the crossroads of four civilizations, ch.4).

* * *

In many ways one may regard this footage as evoking a bygone age; but after the Communist revolution, notwithstanding convulsive social transformation, the style of rituals shown was not erased until 1958, and revived strongly upon the 1980s’ reforms. As ever, I’m also keen to learn of any tenuous connecting threads that persisted through the 60s and 70s.

If Holton’s footage from the 1940s offers slim pickings for those concerned with ritual, far more substantial are recent scenes filmed by Gerald Roche and Wen Xiangcheng, in the YouTube playlist “Rituals and ritual practitioners of the northeastern Tibetan plateau“. Roche’s work has focused on nadun rituals of Mangghuer communities for the summer harvest. [1]

One element in the ritual practice in the region is self-mortification. Roche and Wen’s film “The gods incarnate: the huala of China’s Sanchuan region” shows Mangghuer trance mediums piercing themselves with skewers. While other ritual activities also suffer from 21st-century pressures, they seem to remain lively; but Roche notes that such mediums are now becoming less common.

Huala trance mediums:
left, mid-1930s (reproduced here, from the remarkable archive of Zhang Xueben);
right: from The gods incarnate, 2009; cf. Roche’s extensive galleries of images from fieldwork.

The lengthiest sequence, filmed by Wen Xiangcheng (clips 6 and 7, 109 minutes in total, with Chinese introduction) shows the grand four-day consecration of a temple in Jishishan county, Gansu, in 2009, with local household Daoists presiding, featuring much ritual dancing with fan drums, and the parading of a god palanquin:

Alongside all the ritual activity of local ethnic groups, Gansu is one of the major regions for household Daoists, as I keep saying; for Daoist ritual elsewhere in the province, see here, and here. For the changing fortunes of a Confucian temple in Gansu, click here.

[1] Among many articles by Roche assembled here, for the modernizing agenda, and more on Mao worship (cf. Gansu, Henan), see

On early historical change, see Roche’s

See also e.g.

For more on the huala mediums, see e.g.

  • Kevin Stuart and Hu Jun, “Tu fala: trance mediums of northwest China”, Shaman’s drum 23 (1991),

and for some sources on self-mortifying at the Klu-rol festival in Rebkong, see n. here.

How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet

“There is singing everywhere in Tibet”


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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lhasa 1956

Source here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MJZ title

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nangma 1956

Open-air performance of nangma, 1956.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Pasangs Don-grub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

With thanks to Robbie Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native American cultures 2: the Navajo

Was advised to stay in the car.

—David McAllester, 22nd September 1950.

Squaw dance

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

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

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

Here’s a basic map:

map SW

and a map of the Navajo territories:


From Titon (ed.), Worlds of music.

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

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

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

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


Kinaalda ceremony. Source here.

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

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

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

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

Navajo cover

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

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

diary 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And though McAllester claims that

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

he goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on p.77 he comments:

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

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

As he explains at the outset,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enemyway 27

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

score 1

Sway songs (cf. comments above).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Recorded by Laura Boulton:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more recent introduction to kinaalda:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bomba: resistance and celebration


Scene from La bomba.

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

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

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

This documentary highlights the political functions of bomba:

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

See also here.

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

Native American cultures 1

More from Bruno Nettl—and the Blackfoot


In a Piegan lodge: Yellow Kidney (left) and his father Little Plume inside a lodge, pipe between them (Edward Curtis, c1900, Library of Congress). In a later version, Curtis erased the clock in the centre; by now, I suspect some anthropologists might even add it.

Learning about the disturbing story of Grassy Narrows reminded me at last to delve modestly into Native American ritual and musical cultures. [1]

Like ethnic minorities within the PRC, such groups are a much-favoured subject for fieldworkers (“The typical Indian family includes a father, a mother, three children, and an anthropologist”). Meanwhile the popular imagination easily reduces such cultures to an Exotic Other, sweeping social issues under the carpet—further compounded by New Age flapdoodle (cf. dervishes, Tibetan singing bowls).

Fortunately, changing Native American cultures have long been the subject of serious academic study. Their musics were among the major focuses of the great Bruno Nettl, and besides his dedicated monographs, for a novice like me in this vast field his The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions makes a cogent and eminently readable introduction, the fruit of his long engagement with Native American groups—notably the Blackfoot, his long-term fieldwork project—recurring as illustrations within his topics illuminating global musicking. So here I’ll assemble some of Nettl’s most pertinent insights (cf. Iran: chamber music and Heartland excursions).

Here’s a very basic map:

Map N. America

I’ll begin with a passage from Chapter 31, “Second thoughts: some personal disclosures”, where Nettl notes that our own ideas can and should be revised—such as concepts about the simplicity and complexity of “folk” and “art” musics (pp.455–8; for China, see e.g. my own Dissolving boundaries):

Fundamentally, around 1950 the principal distinction between the music of indigenous societies (then called “primitive”) and “art” (or “cultivated”) music involved intellectualisation. Indigenous music, it was thought, didn’t have ideas about the technicalities of music, while art music (in Europe but also in the so-called high cultures of Asia) was based on complex theoretical systems. Essentially, this is what my teacher George Herzog taught, although in one article, “Music in the thinking of the American Indian”, he contradicts this view. But it’s significant that this (actually very interesting) article is extremely short and appeared in an obscure periodical, in contrast to Herzog’s several major works on Native American musics of the 1930s, which appeared in major journals and were often quite voluminous but said virtually nothing about the ideas about music held by Indians. He analysed the songs and showed that structurally they were often moderately interesting. I have to confess that for a long time, this made sense to me. Societies that had been nonliterate, learned songs orally, had no formalised music teaching—they couldn’t, it seemed to me, have much in the way of a system of ideas about music.

Well, by now I think the opposite. The styles of Native American songs are certainly very interesting but hardly very complex, but in my experience the Blackfoot people, for example, didn’t seem to think that the structure was worthy of much attention. To them, Western music—which they called “white” music—now that was complicated music. One had to know a lot to perform it, including reading music and understanding harmony. But white people, some Blackfoot singers told me, didn’t think very deeply about their own music, they only enjoyed its sound.

The Blackfoot people, I discovered from a good many interviews and observations but also from reading older ethnographies and examining myths, actually had (maybe used to have) a very complex system of ideas about music. […] For one thing, music was a reflection, a kind of counterpart, of the whole of life. The most important myth about the origin of the Beaver medicine bundle, perhaps the most fundamental ceremony [see also pp.257–8], told how each animal or bird had its own song and its supernatural power. The right way to do something is to sing the right song with it; everything has its song. A man would expand his musical knowledge by having repeated visions in which he learned songs and by moving through a series of age-grade societies, each of which had its songs. The old man, the most respected, was also the one who had learned the most songs. And further, songs are like objects [!]: they can be given, traded, bought, inherited—though just what constitutes the identity of a song is not totally clear—and as a result, it is believed that songs cannot be divided, or changed.

These are the kinds of things that show that indigenous peoples do indeed have complicated ideas about music and about the role of music in culture. I certainly had to change my mind about that, moving from an image of indigenous peoples as having songs but no ideas about them to one of peoples whose systems of ideas about music gives you far more insight into the culture than merely listening to the songs. […]

These thoughts led me to consider Native American music more broadly. It’s the music with which I’ve been concerned longest, and early on two things struck me as significant, things that were generally accepted in the scholarly literature up to that time. One was that in each society or nation, there is one dominant musical style. These musical styles were grouped in somewhat homogeneous areas, each one geographically delimited; these areas correlated somewhat with culture areas, and somewhat with areas determined by language relationships, but they did not follow either—how shall I say it—slavishly. And second: many Native nations had a number of songs that were simpler than the rest—game songs, songs in stories, lullabies—and were pretty much alike throughout the continent. From this, one was led to believe, there could be reconstructed a kind of broad history of Native American music, in which an old, homogeneous layer of simple songs that all people shared was followed by a layer of styles that correlated somewhat with language and culture, and this was followed by individual and unique developments in each nation, representing relatively recent events.

I’ve come over the years to realise that this is a very simplistic approach. Let me fast-forward to the past couple of decades in which I’ve begun to think that if there is “a” history, it might have been quite different. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the complexity of many Native cultures before 1492. The advanced state of agriculture, which developed many plant foods that were then taken up and became staples in Europe, and the large cities in the Andes and Mexico, but also in what is now the United States, such as the metropolis of Cahokia near present-day St Louis—these suggest cultures whose social, religious, and economic structures matched their European and Asian counterparts, and so did the size of their populations. I find it hard to imagine that they didn’t have music consisting of long compositions with complex structures, perhaps polyphonic, performed by large groups of singers and percussionists and other instruments. Perhaps there was court music, and surely mass ceremonials. To be sure, we have no evidence of notation or complex melody-producing instruments. And we can’t talk about musical styles except in terms of 20th-century Native music. If we imagine that Cahokia had music with complex styles, we have no idea what it sounded like. […]

And it’s not as if the contemporary Native cultures we do know about didn’t have some pretty complicated music, especially when it comes to architectonic structure. I think of the song cycles of southeastern nations, of Pueblo peoples, of the Navajo, of Peyote songs of the Kiowa. But instead of seeing these as a kind of apex of Native American musical creativity, I would now like to think of them as the remnants of what may once have been a more complex musical culture—or cultures. […]

These ideas relate to some hypotheses recently promulgated by Joseph Jordania and also Victor Grauer, proposing that relatively complex music—polyphonic singing, in Grauer’s approach—was once more widespread in indigenous societies than it is now, suggesting to me that while many of the world’s musical cultures have moved to increasingly complex systems, the opposite—simplification, abandonment of complex structures—might, for a variety of reasons, be another type of development. Anyway, I’ve had second thoughts; the typical history of a society’s music may not be unidirectional at all.

In Chapter 19, as a prelude to his useful taxonomy of musical change in world societies, Nettl speculates on the more recent history of indigenous groups (p.282):

Our understanding of change in the past in indigenous and folk societies is extremely limited. But as an example, trying a bit of reconstruction and conjecture, let us see in a bit of detail what can be know or at least conjectured of the Plains Indians before about 1800CE, noting conditions parallel to some of those characterising the modern world. It is difficult to know when things happened in the history of the Plains Indians, but we know at least that certain things did happen. At some point, probably in the period between 1000 and 1500, a number of peoples from diverse areas collected in the western Plains. Their diverse origin is attested by the diversity of languages. In various ways, the area began to be culturally unified. Travel began to be widespread, related to the nomadic lifestyle adopted in part because of the horse. […] Relatively dramatic changes thus seem to have taken place, and we have in microcosm evidence of some of the characteristics of 20th-century world culture: technology, suddenly improved by the introduction of the horse and other indirect acquisitions from the whites; increased intertribal communication; a unified religious system overlaying more individual tribal traditions; and no nation-states, but a unified culture that led to tribal allegiances and intertribal languages, such as sign language and the widespread use of Lakota and, eventually, of English.

The evidence is extremely scanty, but there is a bit of an indication that rapid musical change accompanied or immediately followed this development. The geographic distribution of the so-called Plains musical style indicates rather recent origin, at least in the “classical” Plains culture, where this style developed its extreme characteristics. Distribution also suggests a diffusion to outlying areas—the eastern woodlands, the prairie tribes, and certain Salish and Great Basin peoples such as the Flathead and the Shoshone. Merriam particularly notes the Plains-like character of Flathead music and culture, despite the Salish background. The overlay of Plains music in the Flathead repertory, contrary to the homogeneous style of the coast Salish, appears to be recent, as does the introduction of the Plains style in the previously simpler and homogeneous basin repertory.

Again, it seems likely that rapid or at least substantial change in music and its surrounding social events occurred with, or perhaps followed, the development of technology, communication, and widespread standardisation along with knowledge and tolerance of diversity. But of course, this highly generalised ans speculative discussion is intended to do nothing more than suggest to the reader the possibility that certain kinds of cultural situations seem to be accompanied by large-scale change and others by its virtual absence.

More on styles (pp.325–7):

Physically, the Plains Indian groups, extending from the Blackfoot in the North to the Comanche in the South, are not particularly alike. Yet Blackfoot music is very similar to that of other Plains tribes, and so we rule out biological factors. There is a closer relationship between the distribution of the Plains musical style and the physical environment of the high Plains. But while it’s difficult to separate culture from ecology, the Plains musical style is also found in peoples living in other areas, and it has become a major component of the more recently developed intertribal powwow culture.

Language also appears not to be a factor. Although the minor musical difference among Blackfoot, Crow, and Comanche (members of three language families) might in part be related to differences in language and speech patterns, the main thrust of the musical style of the Plains peoples is the same, even though the languages belong to four or more language families.

On to matters of culture. The Blackfoot in their recent “precontact” history were a hunting-and-gathering society in the western Plains, but there is evidence that they came from farther east and once enjoyed a different lifestyle, possibly including some horticulture. Marius Schneider’s description of the music of hunting cultures sort of fits them: it is “interspersed with much shouting, is formed from free-speech rhythms, and has little tonal definition”. But Schneider’s correlation of hunting with polyphony and with metric predomination over melody doesn’t apply here at all.

Here’s my summary of traditional old-time Blackfoot culture, coming from standard ethnographies: based on human and animal energy, it had little social stratification. The social organisation was quite complex, revolving about the individual’s association with a nuclear family, with a band, with various societies, and with other individuals who shared the same guardian spirit, and so on, all however within a rather informal framework. For all of those characteristics, we can easily identify close relationship to musical concepts, functions, behaviour. But when it comes to musical style, we look far and wide for correlation. The variety of social relationships is paralleled by a number of musical genres with stylistic boundaries that are blurred, reflecting conceivably the informal approach to life’s rules. The lack of complex technology is reflected in the predominantly vocal music. In a more speculative vein, we would associate the great difference between Blackfoot singing and speaking styles to the supernatural association of music.

Referring again to McFee, Nettl concludes:

In the end, some of the most obvious musical traits cannot be related to a culture core, however defined, and we are unable, say, to associate pentatonic scales with bravery and heptatonic with cowardice. […]

In traditional Blackfoot culture, […] there was a great difference in cultural role between men and women. In most respects, human relationships were informal and easy. A person was associated with several social groups. Political hierarchy was absent and authority temporary. People did cooperate and showed little hostility to each other, but most actions were carried out by individuals, while collaboration was not pervasive.

In Blackfoot music, there are also substantial differences in men’s and women’s activities and repertories. The singing styles differ considerably. Informality is evident in many aspects of music, notably in the difference between theory and practice, between stated rules and execution. Thus, songs are said to be repeated four times, but recordings show a lot of variation. The musical system is exhibited as a large body of separable songs, but in fact the difference between similar songs and sets of variants is not easily drawn. Songs have texts but may also be sung with newly created words or meaningless syllables. As a person is associated with several groups, a melody may be associated with several uses. Musical authority resides in part with song leaders, who, however, hold musical power temporarily and informally.

Change more recently: intertribalism, the powwow, and white music
Bringing the discussion into the modern period, Nettl goes on:

In a powwow singing group—a “Drum”—there is a male (or, recently, sometimes a female) leader whose tasks are mainly administrative. He also leads more song performances than others, but the leadership role in a song’s structure is confined to the beginning, after which others, again informally determined, hold roles of prominence. Singing in groups is common, but in earlier times solo singing predominated. In group singing, a loose kind of musical cooperation is necessary, and articulation of notes and drumbeats must be in good unison, but singers make little attempt to blend voices and it is easy to hear the individual. Nonmembers of singing groups may be welcome to sit in, and a singer may perform with several groups tough mainly associated with one. Those elements of style that can be best related to components of social relations and conceptions of life are those that are conventionally called “performance practice” and are present throughout a musical performance. But Blackfoot culture and other things we know about the Blackfoot people really haven’t given us an explanation of the particular sound and style of their music.

Under the global theme of minorities under a dominant society, he ponders the influence of white contact upon Native Americans (pp.410–414):

Native American peoples of the north Plains readily distinguish between “Indian” and “white” music, both of which they perform and hear. The two are symbolic of the culture in which Indians move. “White” social contexts, such as drinking in a bar or going to a Christian church, are accompanied by white music performed by Indians. The traditional contexts of Indian music may be largely gone, but when the people are engaged in activities in which they wish to stress their Indian identity, such as powwows, social dances, or gambling games, they use Indian music.


Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1916. Source: wiki. Cf. Bartók in 1907.

Nettl goes on to adduce the Native Americans as a case study of “a minority overrun by immigrants to their territory who became the majority”:

But their musical cultures have not been studied very much from this perspective. […] I have in mind issues such as these: how being a minority has affected a Native tribe’s musical culture, how the music of the majority has affected them, how they have used music in relating to the (white) majority, or how they affected the music of the white majority. Typical studies of American Indians have essentially treated each culture or tribe in isolation, trying to reconstruct their musical life as it might have been before and without majority intervention—before the coming of white people and their music.

My principal experience has been with the Blackfoot people of Montana, and this conventional approach was the one I followed when I studied, principally in the small town of Browning and its surroundings. Looking back now, I could have come up with a somewhat different ethnographic and musicological picture if I had looked at the Blackfoot people as a minority among the various culture of North America. Let me give a few examples of the kinds of things on which I might have concentrated:

Basically, the Blackfoot say they have both Indian and white music, and in their musical lives Indian music is a minority music, but it has special functions in the modernised Blackfoot culture. Their most important musical activity, the powwow, is used to negotiate and to a degree resolve conflicts. For example, at a large powwow there is the daily presentation of the US flag with an American military colour guard to the accompaniment of unmistakably Indian music. The functions and uses of the traditional repertory have shidted in accordance with culture change. While powwows are explicitly modern events, some of the older and at one time central Blackfoot musical traditions that were wiped out, forgotten, or abandoned are being reconstructed, and there are some musical styles of white-Native fusion. The participation of non-Blackfoot Native Americans, and also of white dancers and singers (usually referred to as “hobbyists”), in certain components of Blackfoot musical life would be important to study. Now, coming initially from a tradition of scholarship that emphasised the purity and authenticity of the tradition to be investigated, I have to criticise my research tradition for treating these issues as merely the result of corruption or pollution.

But the Blackfoot picture is made more complicated because their main town of Browning, Montana, population around 8,000, is not homogeneous but consists of several groups perhaps best labeled as minorities. When I worked there, around 1966–83, there were a small number of whites, including the majority of professionals and business owners, the wealthy; there was a majority of people who called themselves mixed-bloods, although this was a category less biological than cultural, as biological descent is hard to specify, indicating allegiance to a mixture of cultural values and practices; and then there was a smallish population of so-called full-bloods, largely poor people whose cultural interests were closer to older traditions. They were treated like a minority by all of the others, and this included customary stereotyping with undesirable connotations—drunkenness, laziness, ignorance of modern ways. This kind of a mix goes back to prewhite days, when the various and complex ways in which traditional Blackfoot divided themselves socially—including the special role of women—had its musical analogues.

And so, as with most Native American peoples, the musical culture of the Blackfoot, despite their small population, was not homogeneous. To put it very simply, not all people knew all the songs. On the contrary, the Blackfoot repertory was divided among formally constituted age groups, among people associated with different guardian spirits, among different bands of people who separated during winter, by gender, and more.


Source here.

Very significantly, some of this situation was the result of the events of the 19th century when Native American peoples came to have a minority status among the white invaders. The musical repertories experienced both centrifugal and centripetal forces. On the one hand, as tribal allegiance of individual Blackfoot people began to vary and among some to simply disappear, the typical musical idiolect (the individual’s musical experience) became more varied. Some people held on to many songs, even singing songs to which they traditionally would not have been entitled. Others again forgot most Indian songs and learned “white” music—church music, vernacular music, folk music. On the other hand, as the extant repertories of most Native American peoples shrank because their functions declined or disappeared, and as member sof once separate tribes were thrown together on common reservations and in cities, some songs became a core of common property that, through the intertribal powwow circuit, came to be shared intertribally.

Like most American minorities of European origin, a large proportion of Native Americans in the United States today live in large cities, maintaining a tenuous, perhaps love-hate relationship to the reservations from which they came and where relatives still live. Like the Europeans (more properly, Euro-Americans), they have developed national festivals celebrating music, dance, foodways, the most important being the already mentioned powwow. Thus, for example, about half of the nation’s Blackfoot people live in large cities in the North—mainly Seattle and Minneapolis—and many schedule annual visits to relatives in Montana so as to participate in the main four-day powwow. But while there are anthropological studies of urban Native American communities, not much has been done to learn about their musical culture. How is it like and unlike that of Italian Americans, Arab Americans, Mexican Americans, Hungarian Americans? Although there are, perhaps surprisingly, interesting parallels, one is struck by the significant contrasts.

Further to the idea of expressing various kinds of identity (p.271):

The major midsummer powwow, North American Indian Days, is a kind of event that would not have been conceivable in earlier Blackfoot history and even in the first part of the 20th century. It is polysemic, overtly and subtly expressing
1) Blackfoot national identity—the emcee says so, and occasionally speaks Blackfoot;
2) Native American ethnic identity (or is Blackfoot the ethnic group, and are Native Americans the nation?)—again, the emcee tell us, the Drums, the singing groups, come from many reservations in the United States and Canada, and the dancers perform a widely intertribal repertory;
3) US national identity—much is made of the presentation of the colours by military veterans;
4) age identity—there are dance contests for different age groups; and
5) personal identity—there’s the incredible variety of costumes.
There is plenty of “white” music going on in town at the time of the powwow; country music and rock at dances for older and younger folks, respectively; US patriotic song recordings on sale at an “Indian” rodeo. But at North American Indian Days, while all kinds of appurtenances from “white” culture are in evidence, from flags to tape recorders, the music is totally “Indian”, even for the presentation of the military guard. The association of music with identity is very strong here.

More on the powwow (pp.351–2):

If one were to look for a ranking of musicians among modern Plains Indians, one could do it most conveniently by comparing ensembles of singers who habitually perform together and by examining the social and musical structure of the individual ensemble. At the major Blackfoot powwow […] in the 1960s, several Drums (singing groups) alternated, each performing for an hour or two. The groups were associated with towns on and off the reservation—Browning, Heart Butte, Starr School, Cardston (Alberta), and so on. Members did not need to be residents, and membership was informal and floating; a singer from one group could occasionally sing in another. Each group had a leader who began many but by no means all of the songs and who assembled the singers. Each singer in the group could lead songs, for example, determining what song to sing and to begin it by singing the first phrase solo; there was no set order for the leading of songs. On the surface, at least, the situation was one of informality and equality. Most of the time, little was made of distinctions among groups and singers. In the powwow sector of the culture, there is only one class of individuals who make up something of a musical elite, the class of (mainly) men known as “singers”. But the Blackfoot do distinguish quality and status of musicianship. The singing groups competed for prizes, and during my stay with the Blackfoot there was one that had the reputation of being the best, its superior quality attributed to the members’ musicianship,with details unspecified. Individual singers were also singled out as being particularly excellent. The criteria included knowledge of a large repertory, as well as the ability to drum well (quality of singing was evidently a less important criterion), with emphasis on the ability to drum in a precise “off the beat” relationship to the vocal rhythm, and in perfect unison. Men who made songs were also (automatically) regarded as superior singers but not put into a separate class as composers. Since the 1960s, the culture and social organisation of powwow Drums have become much more formalised and commercialised; it is now similar to that of professional musicians in American society as a whole, and the music has become part of American mass-mediated musical culture.

Nettl also reflects wisely on the scholarly use of Native American music in education. In Chapter 9 on comparative study he again considers changing academic perspectives, giving instances of student reactions to his lectures outlining musical styles over 25-year intervals (pp.122–3).

Native American culture again features in Chapter 29 in a highly pertinent discussion on applied uses of ethnomusicology and social activism (cf. Guo Yuhua), “Are you doing anyone any good?”—including sections on healthcare, the politics of representation, and “Trying to make peace”.

Music and learning
Nettl points out that while such music may seem “simple” in certain parameters, it’s quite complex in many other respects (cf. What is serious music?!).

In his very opening discussion of how to define “music” in the first place, he observes that rather like the Hausa of Nigeria, Native American societies have no word to tie together all musical activities (p.24):

The Blackfoot have a word, paskan, that can be roughly translated as “dance”, which includes music and ceremony and is used to refer to religious and semireligious events that comprise music, dance, and other activities, but this word does not include certain musical activities, such as gambling, that have no dancing. They have a word for “song” but not one for instrumental music [cf. the care needed in approaching “music” in China (cf. here; in traditional north China it doesn’t apply to vocal music, or even other genres of intrumental music, but narrowly to the paraliturgical shengguan wind ensemble!].

In Chapter 26, engagingly titled “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?“, among Nettl’s instances of teaching, learning, and rehearsing in a variety of cultures around the world, he wonders how traditional Native American societies worked (pp.381–3):

Blackfoot people traditionally believed that humans could learn music in two interconnected ways, from supernatural powers such as guardian spirits in visions and from other humans. The ideal was the learning of songs from the supernatural, and the concepts of learning and creating music are therefore closely associated. The way in which songs were thought to be learned in visions, normally in a single hearing, has influenced the concepts that people have about learning music in an entirely human context. In the culture of the Blackfoot, “once” may presumably mean four times through, so the concept is there, but the idea that the guardian spirit teaches you a song simply by singing it to you is important, and human teachers instruct similarly. Thus, a medicine bundle, with its attendant songs, was transferred from one person to another by a single performance of the ceremony, during which the new owner was expected to learn the songs. Today, when people learn songs from each other and recognise the process as such, they say that quick learning is desirable and certainly possible, though lately often subverted by the ever-present cassette recorder. The standardisation of form and the possibility of roughly predicting the course of a song from its initial phrase also facilitate quick learning. […]

There is evidence that those cultures that demanded the precise rendering of music for validation of religious ritual also required systematic practising and rehearsing and looked at it all competitively. We are told this about the Navajo and the North Pacific coast peoples […]. Rehearsing was essential, mistakes were punished, and rituals in which mistakes were found would have to be repeated entirely or in part in order to be valid. Some northern Plains peoples took a less formalist attitude. Having been learned largely from visions for the use of one person, music was more closely associated with the individual and private rituals, and therefore the control of the community over musical performance was less highly developed. Evidently, a man who learned a song in a vision would use his walk or ride back to camp as an opportunity to rehearse or work it out. No doubt, actual composition took place along this walk [cf. Unpacking “improvisation”—including a wonderful passage on the creative processes of Mozart, Blackfoot singer Theodore Last Star, and Brahms!]; the inspiration from the white heat of the vision would be rationally worked out. Practising in effect took place at this point, and the song would be readied for presentation to the other members of the tribe. But since music was primarily a personal and individualistic activity and experience, practising was not done systematically to any large extent, and not much heed was paid to the accuracy of performance. Just as composing and learning are related concepts, composing and practising overlap. How things have changed!

 Nettl’s consultant told him (p.293):

“Oh yes. Every year about a hundred new songs come to the reservation.” Did they sound different from the old songs? “No, they are new songs and we add them, and that way we get more and more songs.” The Blackfoot regard change as basically a good thing.

Pondering the life of the “typical musician”, Nettl comments on the changing life of an individual Blackfoot (p.195):

He moved through a series of age-grade societies whose activities included ceremonies and music. As an individual grew older, he or she was successively initiated into new societies, learning their songs and dances. Again, the oldest men would know the largest amount of music, learned gradually, more or less at four-year intervals. The vision quest of the Plains Indians and of tribes surrounding the Plains exhibited a similarly gradual learning of songs. A so-called medicine man or woman would have a succession of visions of his or her guardian spirit, each time learning more in the way of dealing with the supernatural, which included songs.

This is the traditional picture. For recent times, the tendency to gradual learning of new material is a pattern both supported and altered in the career of one Blackfoot singer with whom I worked. Born about 1915, this man was first exposed to Western music through his reservation school, learning French horn, but he also—sometimes secretly—learned a few traditional songs. As a young adult, he took up the modern intertribal repertory of the powwow culture, which consisted largely of social dance songs without words. In later life, he gradually became interested as well in the ancient traditional Blackfoot music, learning it from older persons who knew but rarely performed the songs. This sequence had idiosyncratic causes: the third stage coincided with the death of the singer’s stepfather, an esteemed tribal leader. But the pattern may also be typical, at least insofar as the most sacred music has long been the province of tribal elders. In this respect, my consultant, although he was exposed to musics not known in earlier times, such as the so-called intertribal songs and powwows and the music of the whites, seems to have followed a traditional pattern. But in the sense that he withdrew from interest in one musical repertory as he learned a new one, he probably did not reflect the gradual and cumulative learning of a cohesive musical system. In any event, the concept of typical pattern in musical life can be found among the ordinary singers of a small tribe as well as the master composers of Western music.

In a passage on “genius”, he finds technical virtuosity of little significance among the Blackfoot (p.59):

Outstanding singers and men who commanded large repertories of religious songs were singled out, but the role of musical culture hero seems to me to be most clearly associated with those men who, in times of the greatest adversity of the Blackfoot nation, tried to lead the tribe into some kind of acceptable future and did so by maintaining and teaching the people’s songs and dances.

Related are Nettl’s comments in a section on locating informants, consultants, and teachers in various cultures (pp.152–3)—reminding me of our search for ritual specialists in China:

In working with Blackfoot people, I was introduced to a man who was described as a singer. I did not ask further; he had been so designated in contrast to dozens of others who were not. I didn’t care whether he was the best or the worst, as I was grateful for anyone’s help, and I assumed that he would be somehow representative of that part of the population who were titled “singers”. I had it in mind to study the musical culture as it existed, was interested in the mainstream of musical experience, not in what was exceptionally good, or, for that matter, bad. I valued most the contact with someone who would speak articulately and give me a lot of information. I hoped he would in some way be typical, and I thought I would later be able to put my hope to the test. I believed, rightly or not, that among the sixty or seventy “singers” whom the community turned out to have, perhaps a half dozen would be considered outstanding, another few barely adequate, and the majority simply good, in a sort of bell-shaped curve. This majority group interested me the most. The members of the society seemd to find my approach compatible, didn’t feel that I should be concentrating only on the best.

More on “polymusicality” (p.314):

Most of the world’s societies find themselves in the 20th century participating in two or more musics that can be rather easily distinguished, and the idea that each music functions as a symbol of particular aspects of a culture is a convenient approach to the study of one aspect of musical symbolism. In the culture of the Blackfoot during the 1960s, three kinds of music were distinguished by insiders and outsiders: older, traditional, tribal music; modernised intertribal or “pan-Indian” music; and Western music. The three had different symbolic values, the first as a symbol of the tribal past, to be remembered but placed in a kind of museum context; the second, of the need of Indian cultures to combine in order to ensure people’s cultural survival as Indians; and the third, of the modern facts of Indian life. Integrations as a tribe, as an Indian people, and into the mainstream American environment are symbolised. The relationships seem obvious to an outsider, but they are also articulated by the culture’s own interpretation of itself.

McFee, looking at modern Blackfoot society, followed a similar line of thought, dividing the Blackfoot population and its values into white- and Indian-oriented groups. For Indian culture, he lists individualism, bravery, skill, wisdom, and generosity; for white orientation, self-dependence, acquisition, and work. The two groups overlap, but one can find some of the Indian-oriented values in traditional music and musical behaviour. Individualism is evident in the need for people, ideally, to learn their own songs in visions and to develop personal repertories of songs, and perhaps also in the tendency for traditional music to be soloistic or, when performed by groups, to avoid a high degree of vocal blend [cf. Lomax].

Bravery can conceivably be related to the practice of singing before a group, sometimes with improvised texts, in a ceremony replicating courage in physical conflict. Generosity is exhibited in the system of giving songs, the willingness to borrow from and give to other tribes. The three “white” values given by McFee can be associated with “white” music and with the modern Indian music used by the Blackfoot. The use of notation and the ownership of complex instruments such as pianos and electric guitars can in various ways be associated with all three. Composition (in contrast to acquisition of songs through visions) is related to self-dependence. The importance of size of repertory in the modern genres and the idea of rapid learning with the use of tape recorders are relevant to the idea of acquisition. The practice of rehearsing and the development of complex performance styles in modern Indian music can be related to the idea of work.

Gender, scholarship, and recording
Nettl was always attuned to gender issues (for my brief reading list under flamenco, see here). Among the Blackfoot in the mid-20th century (p.394),

women probably sang little in public (my consultants regarded it as evidence of immodesty). I was told they had some songs of their own (some of these songs could be given to men), but often they “helped” the men, and they seemed to know—though usually not to sing—many of the men’s songs. But I was told (and read) that women were important as sponsors of music-bearing rituals [cf. China], and in the mythology they are instrumental in bringing songs into existence. Since 1980, however, women have become very active in the powwow repertory, participating as a minority in many of the Drums, and forming a few “women-only” Drums. Early recordings show women’s singing style to have been rather different to that of men. Thus, in the public dance repertory, the rhythmic pulsations that in men’s singing consisted of sudden, momentary increases in amplitude or dynamics were rendered by women as slight changes in pitch. When participating in Drums, in recordings made after around 1980, women’s singing style approximates that of men.

Besides women as performers, Nettl also observes (pp.400–401) that

the five most significant scholars of Native American music before 1950 were the following four women (plus George Herzog). The major accomplishments of this group constitute the classics of that period: Alice C. Fletcher (1904) published the first detailed description of a ceremony, with complete transcriptions. Frances Densmore’s oeuvre of publications still probably exceeds what has been published by anyone else, but her detailed musical and ethnographic collections of Chippewa and Teton Sioux musics (1910, 1918) are early exemplars of comprehensive accounts of musical culture. Natalie Curtis’s main work, The Indians’ book (1907), did much to bring Native American music and culture to the attention of the public. And Helen Roberts’s imaginative analytical work on Native Californian and Northwest Coast music and her study of geographical distribution (1936) of musical styles, providing the first continental synthesis, belong to the central literature of this area. After 1950, too, women scholars, including Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner, continued to provide leadership. To a somewhat lesser degree, the same could be said for other world areas and repertories.

(In China the preponderance of female music scholars and students had to wait until the 1990s.) He goes on:

It’s interesting to contemplate the cultural or personal roots of the special contributions of women scholars to Native American music studies. It may be suggested that women were motivated in this direction because their own unfavourable social position made them sensitive to oppressed peoples and also because they found themselves directed towards the margins—to marginal peoples, and to music, a marginal field in the Western academy, and in America marginal even among the arts. No doubt a few early figures, who had arrived by chance and through personal interest and determination, such as Densmore and Fletcher, became models for others. Franz Boas encouraged women to enter anthropology in its early American years. Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.

On the “repatriation” of recordings and archives (pp.182–3; cf. similar projects for Australian Aborigines) Nettl refers to archives such as the Federal Cylinder Project, the Smithsonian Institution and the American Folklife Center, mentioning works such as Victoria Levine, Writing American Indian music (2002) and Brian Wright-McLeod, The encyclopedia of native music: more than a century of recordings from wax cylinders to the internet (2005).

Blackfoot cover

He describes his own “longitudinal” work on the Blackfoot (p.186):

After doing some fieldwork and making some recordings, I had the opportunity to examine collections of Blackfoot songs made earlier. I was astonished to find that although, for some reason, no ethnomusicologist had published research on the subject, a huge amount had been recorded, beginning in 1897. By 1987 (when I finished with this project), I could identify some sixteen collections made by ethnomusicologists and anthropologists—cylinders, acetate disks, reel-to-reel tape, cassettes. And I identified about forty commercial recordings, largely LPs (but there were five songs on a Victor record of 1914), and some prerecorded cassettes. Since then, a few dozen more cassettes and CDs have been produced, for Blackfoot listeners and for tourists, and for some singers in other tribes. Well, comparing those early recordings with the recent ones helps to show how very much things have changed in repertory, singing and drumming styles, form, intonation, and—I guess—aesthetics. If early ethnomusicology concentrated on how consistent an authentic culture had to be, using archives and the history of records helps us to see, at least for a period of about 120 years, some aspects of the way musical life has changed [for early Chinese recordings, see here and here].

So here’s Nettl’s An historical album of Blackfoot Indian music (1973/2004; click here for his fine liner notes), with 19 tracks recorded between 1897 and 1966 (the latter by Nettl himself), including Beaver Medicine and Sun Dance songs, war music, love songs, lullabies, gambling and social dance songs:

And for a taste of Blackfoot ceremony, here’s the 1956 documentary The Piegan Medicine Lodge, filmed in Heart Butte, Montana, on a ceremony commissioned as a vow to give thanks upon a grandchild’s recovery from polio (for background, click here):

Nettl’s perspectives, accessible even for those diffident about tackling “music”, are valuable for us in studying any culture—including WAM and China.

This is followed by posts on the Navajo and the Ghost Dance.


[1] The anthropology of Native American cultures is a vast field. For musicking, see e.g. The Garland encyclopedia of world music: the United States and Canada (1998), Part 3 Section 1; Elaine Keillor, Timothy Archambault, and John M. H. Kelly (eds), Encyclopedia of Native American music of North America (2013); and Chapter 2 of Jeff Todd Titon (ed.), Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (with CDs; 5th edition by David McAllester, 6th by Christopher Scales).

Noh drama in London

Noh poster

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary Noh drama

AM poster

Noh drama is both austere and enthralling.

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

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

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

Noh in Japan, 1992. My photos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

No less remarkable is his 2015 drama Oppenheimer:

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

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

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

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

Further productions are listed on the Theatre Nohgaku site.

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

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


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


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

Northern soul 北靈


Inspired by Detroit 67, I’ve been reading

  • Stuart Cosgrove, Young soul rebels: a personal history of northern soul (2016).

In all kinds of wonderful ways, this book does my head in. [1]

Quite rightly, devotees of northern soul will be underwhelmed if I describe it as a diachronic ethnography based on participant observation—which is just what it is, like some of the great works of ethnomusicology…

Cosgrove captures the buzz of his addiction:

Saturday passed slowly as I browsed around local market stalls. The night slowly fell and we walked through the backstreets of Stoke along cobbled terraces. The army of leather feet resonated like a drum solo, building percussion in our speeding heads and raising the adrenaline of anticipation. A swell of people hung by the door of what looked like a wartime cinema, and a blackout curtain seemed to have closed across the north of England. It was virtually impossible to make out faces or detail; everything was sound. A pounding noise escaped through the doorway and the wild screeching sound of saxophones pushed through the fire escapes, desperate for air. We paid at the ticket booth, but even in the foyer, an intense heat much like an industrial oven scorched through the thick aggressive air, and the noise was so pure, so fearless and so commanding, it dragged you inwards into a scrum of lurching bodies: hot, wet, and demonic. This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floor. There was no going back. No music later in life would ever touch its uniqueness, no rock concert could match its energy, and no rave could come close to its latent illegality. This was northern soul: the reason they invented youth.

Of all the diverse tribes of popular music, this scene is just as alien to me (and, I surmise, to Alan Bennett) as the spirit mediums of Guangxi are to a scholar trained at a Beijing conservatoire (for China, I broach the issue of insider/outsider status here, here, and here).

Ethnomusicologists like Nettl and Small highlight music as a social activity, and McClary valorizes the physical, bodily response to music as a caveat to the cerebral, disembodied, “autonomous” bias of WAM.

Basic to the northern soul experience were the all-nighters hosted by clubs throughout the north. They may evoke the “red-hot sociality” of festivals worldwide; but such club scenes also broaden our picture, in that live music is subsidiary. At the heart of northern soul was live dancing, athletic and technical—amazing dancers like car mechanic Frankie “Booper” New, at the Torch:

It was as if NASA had invented a device that could drill into the surface of the moon, and the device was a sixteen-stone guy from Widnes.

Some visiting live bands made memorable appearances, but recorded music was more common. After all, a multitude of bands, often inspired by old blues records, were being formed (not least in the north), creating all kinds of new music; but here the point was not to try and form your own soul band—the fetish for rare Motown discs was sacred. Nor did club-goers care to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes of black Americans, for whom both blues and soul were mere staging posts in a constantly evolving scene.

Thus DJing assumed a crucial role (akin to that of the conductor?), with fanatical, driven DJs like Ian Levine and Ian Dewhirst. Another basic element was the amphetamine scene. While not hesitating to depict its squalor (the Wigan toilets “resembling a war zone”), Cosgrove naturally refrains from moralistic prurience. Andy Wilson, a northern soul pioneer from Harrogate who spent much of his formative years at Wigan Casino, going on to become senior lecturer in Criminology at Trent University, “is now an expert in drug subcultures. He always was”. A model of participant observation, then.

Obscurity and obsession
Alongside the sweaty hedonism of northern soul, just as important was the craving for obscurity—not just any obscurity, like seeking out early blues, but “rare soul”—rougher, less polished than the mainstream Motown sound. Even the origin of the term “northern soul” itself, commonly attributed to Dave Godin, is somewhat arcane (pp.25–6).

Cosgrove lovingly details the nerdiness of the scene: “compiling lists and recording obscure detail is part of the everyday autism of northern soul”. OCD was rife. He even provides a suitably nerdy Glossary.

One of the cardinal rules of the northern soul scene is a respect for obscurity and those who die young. […] Northern soul cherishes its role as savior of the neglected—rescuing some acts from being almost wholly forgotten while plucking others from semi-obscurity and giving them the status of gods.

Ill-fated singers like Linda Jones and Darrell Banks were idolized. Cosgrove also pays tribute to some of the casualties within northern soul itself.

He notes, and shares, the jihad mentality, “the Hezbollah rituals that defined the scene”:

Eclectic tastes were rarely tolerated on the northern soul scene, which by the mid seventies was hardening into a zealous sect with its own strict rules. […]

One night, a DJ was brought in front of the crowd charged with playing a Bowie record; he was given a stern warning and a second chance, but there was a noisy faction on the committee who wanted him hounded through the streets in sackcloth and then burned at the stake outside H Samuel. I was among that zealous throng and I have not mellowed since.

Northern soul devotees shared a virulent aversion to the mainstream as embodied in Top of the pops; they were creating their own charts. Meanwhile in a parallel universe, Morris dancing was enjoying a revival, and my own nerdy tastes were for Boulez and Zen scriptures. The northern soul collectors remind me rather of scholars poring over the cataloguing systems of the Daoist Canon, or WAM bores who can’t help citing Köchel numbers.

At a certain remove from the quest of Oxbridge academics for neglected Renaissance church music, northern soul addicts were on a different kind of “early music” craze. Trapped in a mythical past, they were also on a constant quest for new material from that past.

Cosgrove notes the importance of rail and road networks (“You can go everywhere from Wigan train station”, as DJ Richard Searling commented), the impact of immigration, and the scene’s distinctive fashion sense. Chapter 7, elegantly titled “Soul not dole” after a Doncaster club, explores the effects of the miners’ strike, with the story of pit closures running in tandem with the high points of northern soul. There’s a cameo for Grimethorpe, whose brass band was to be immortalized in the film Brassed off. And the heyday of northern soul coincided with the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror.

Unlike punk, which was more openly anti-authoritarian, the northern soul scene has often been written about as if it “floated free” from the politics of the day, but the reverse is true. The northern soul scene was rooted in the industrial towns and cities of Britain, which across the arch of time faced unprecedented waves of deindustrialization.

The book has more on the relation with punk:

Britain’s two greatest subcultures had much in common. Both were underground and frequently misunderstood. Northern soul had grown up organically across a period of ten years since the height of the first-generation Mods and was a subculture that was more authentically the product of young people themselves, often hiding from authority, dodging the drug squad and attending self-managed clubs that were only sparsely advertised. Punk was largely contrived and skillfully managed in part by [Malcolm] McLaren, driven by his genuine love of New York garage bands and an opportunistic interest in anarchism and the Situationist movement.

He cites Paul Mason: “we were using the black industrial music of the late sixties to say something about our white industrial lives in the seventies”. I think also of the intriguing Finnish affinity for tango.

Though—like Daoist recluses—the northern soul crowd prided themselves on shunning outside attention, the scene was soon discovered by media moguls like Tony Palmer, whose 1977 film This England: Wigan Casino divided opinion:

Echoing Alan Bennett’s lament, Palmer

added smouldering furnaces, decaying coalfields and derelict canals—overwrought historical imagery that the citizens of Wigan had long since tired of.

But amidst ongoing debate over “purists not tourists”, the Casino soon became a casualty of economic recession.

Cosgrove’s passion for the music is always evident too:

If the beginning of the night was hectic, the end was emotionally more subdued: it was regretful, solemn, almost elegiac. By 1973, it had become established practice that all-nighters would finish with “3 before 8”: these were three soul songs to mark the end of the night, played as the clock reached 8am and the morning light sliced through the skylight windows in the decaying roofs of the Casino.

Discussing them in sequence, he gives pride of place to the second-to-last song in the set, Tobi Legend’s “Time will pass you by”:

The chapters describe the heydays of the legendary clubs in turn. In the early days they came up against another kind of fundamentalist, James Anderton (“God’s copper”), with his moral crusade to clean up Manchester. The Twisted Wheel there became “the template by which all subsequent northern soul clubs were judged: the intense atmosphere, the rare soul music and the extravagant dancers”. It was succeeded by the Golden Torch Ballroom, a converted cinema in the suitably obscure venue of Tunstall, near Stoke-on-Trent:

The interior of the Torch also told a story of change, not least the collapse of traditional religion and the rise of youth culture. It was a small hall with marble pillars and a balcony overlooking the wooden dance floor. It had started out as a church, before becoming a roller-skating rink and, in the immediate post-war period, morphing into the Little Regent Cinema. Local soul fan and businessman Chris Burton changed its use again and it became a Mod club, and then eventually an all-nighter whose influence stretched across the Potteries, to Lancashire in the north and the Midlands to the south.

Many clubs

aped the patterns of older working-class institutions—electing committees and treasurers, and holding nights in fading workers’ clubs, miners’ welfares and industrial social clubs.

Next the baton was taken by Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca, with their musical policies competing. Describing the rise and fall of seaside venues, their decline complementing the rise of foreign package holidays, Cosgrove gives an evocative portrayal of Blackpool, “a wonderland of donkey rides, kiss-me-quick hats and venereal disease”.

He sings the praises of the all-nighters at the Top of the World in Stafford, a late flourishing of the scene from 1982 to 1986, and serving as a bridge between the warring factions. By now he had moved on to a media career, joining the drift to London—a city pithily described by a friend as “just like Barnsley but with more wankers”. He continued to collect rare soul:

After a few days in Washington DC I had perfected a modus operandi that has served me well over many years in America. Written down on paper, it sounds like the machinations of a serial killer, but here goes…

In Birmingham, Alabama he has an epiphany as he discovers a rare copy of the DC Blossoms’ “Hey Boy” (Shrine, 1966) in an inauspicious-looking store minded by an inscrutable assistant:

For northern soul collectors there is nothing more visceral than a “find”. A sudden surge more emotional than meeting an old friend, more powerful than an away goal, and more satisfying than sex itself. I stared in wonder at the light blue label and the iconic burning Shrine logo. I checked for vinyl cracks and deep scratches, but whatever its wandering history, the disc was virtually pristine and had survived its orphan years with no damage. The paint that had splashed over it like semen on a truck driver’s T-shirt had stained the sleeve, but the record itself was flawless. It was a moment of sheer unadulterated joy. I had an uncontrollable urge to snatch the Kool cigarette from the woman’s hands, kiss her peachy lips, rip off her velour pants and make urgent love to her over the cash register. But sense prevailed. I calmly gave her another dollar bill and waited obediently for my fifty cents change. As she handed me the loose coins, her lips curled into a chubby smile, and she gave me the most generous grin I’d seen in three days in Alabama. It had the look of post-coital ecstasy—the look of true love.

Of course, as he notes, northern soul collectors were far from alone. Such initiatives had

a hundred-year history of collectors and black-music pioneers scouring the backwoods of America, visiting brutal prisons, outdoor chain gangs and hidden rural villages, searching for blues performers and for early recordings. […] Northern soul was not the unique leader I had imagined; it was part of a long legacy of trying to collect and catalogue the very best of the African-American heritage from jazz, to blues, and on to soul.

In 2009, just as Frank Wilson’s “Do I love you” came up for auction,

the National Gallery of Scotland had secured the £50 million it needed to prevent Titian’s 16th-century masterpiece Diana and Actaeon being sold at auction. Fearing that Kenny Burrell’s copy of Frank Wilson would also leave Scotland, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature for the Sunday Times arguing that northern soul was as worthy of public investment as high art: “Comparing a soul record to a masterpiece by Titian will seem ludicrous to the uninitiated. But leave aside the mores, prejudices and snob value that separate high art and popular culture, and the strange world of northern soul bears very deep similarities with art. Both are driven by collectors who are fixated by rarity, authenticity and the provenance of their collections. So far, both have also resisted the pressure of recession and the value of collections has either increased or held strong. Words like rare, original and limited edition exist in both communities. Respected dealers existed in both worlds and auctions are a familiar mode of transaction. Art and soul share a culture where fakes, bootlegs and shady attempts to replicate the look of original works are not uncommon.”

Cosgrove mentions the multitude of new underground subcultures, like warehouse parties, the Carolina beach scene, the Chicano low-rider scene, and the rare groove scene in London—where the 100 Club also played a major role.

By the millennium, there was a new and lasting schism within northern soul, the latest division in a series of civil wars: those who wanted to look back to the grand days of the past and saw northern as a revivalist and reunion scene; and those clubs that kept the torch burning and insisted on new discoveries and an upfront music policy. Each new era brought with it ever more demanding clubs. […] Many thousands of people who had drifted away from northern soul returned to swell the ranks of new faces who had discovered the music via the scooter scene and still more who had lasted the journey and never left.

The final chapter, opening with the excellent quote

Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born,

describes how social and digital technology has given the scene a new lease of life—YouTube, Facebook groups (where he notes in particular “I used to Go to Stafford All-Nighters”, a veritable popular history project), Mixcloud, and so on.

For all his fundamentalism, Cosgrove admires the new generation:

Younger and brasher than the survivors on the scene, are passionately engaged in the scene and its origins, but have a healthy disregard for its arcane rules: the chin stroking, the soul police regulations and the grumpy insistence that yesterday was always better. […]

The worldwide web has been kind to northern soul. What was once a scene restricted to cardboard boxes and wooden crates in a few obscure clubs is now a global phenomenon, and the footprint that was restricted to a few hundred miles of the industrial north of England now has worldwide reach.

Popular all-nighters now sprung up in Germany, Spain, and Japan (cf. the punk scene in Beijing).


Fran Franklin.

As to gender, while many female singers from the Motown heyday were worshipped by aficionados (as long as they weren’t too well-known), there were few female DJs, and we find little portrayal of the lives of female dancers—like the young Pat Wall from Rochdale, an early denizen of the Twisted Wheel:

While swimming, she would imagine the body turn at the end of a length as part of a dance routine and would simulate the northern soul “swallow dive”. She often practised in the kitchen of her mum’s council house, mastering the smooth sliding style across uneven linoleum, and within a matter of weeks she would compete with any of the Twisted Wheel’s young men. Her dance trucks were mesmerising and her unassuming smile, whispering the lyrics as if she were praying, as if there were no greater music in the world, made her stand out in a crowd of older and brasher men.”

Another regular on the scene was none other than Jane Torvill, who described her 1984 Boléro at the 1984 Winter Olympics as “the dance of my life”—but as Cosgrove gleefully observes, “that had already happened nearly ten years earlier on the floor of Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.”

As the obscure civil war raged, a more benign figure on the scene was Mary Chapman, who hosted events at Cleethorpes Pier—also including a 1976 appearance of the Sex Pistols as the moral panic over punk exploded. And the much-loved Fran Franklin (1961–2014) gives perceptive insights in documentary footage. More recently, female DJs have become important on the scene.

On film
As usual, however evocatively one writes about music (or ritual), it’s still a compromise: silent immobile text can never approach the sensation of the lived experience (cf. China). Among myriad finds on YouTube, following Tony Palmer’s 1977 This England, try

  • Paul Mason’s tribute Northern soul: keeping the faith (BBC, 2013):

  • Northern Soul: living for the weekend (BBC, 2014; some breaks in sound):

Note also Ian Levine’s YouTube channel.

* * *

I’m rather envious that they coined the term northern soul 北靈 before I could use it for the ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi, but ethnographies like this can inspire us (obscurely, as ever) in documenting pilgrimage networks and temple fairs in China. Echoing northern soul aficionados’ aversion to the mainstream, I essayed an arcane Strictly spinoff here.

And as I write, I also delight in the wondrous Bach orchestral suites in a live broadcast from the Proms, alternating with new compositions inspired by them. Though from an utterly different social milieu, devotees of Bach—whether amateur concert-goers or nerdy professors poring over manuscripts and watermarks—have more in common with the early music movement of the northern soul scene than one might think. Up to a point…


[1] Apart from numerous websites, other books on northern soul include

  • David Nowell, The story of northern soul: a definitive history of the dance scene that refuses to die (1999)
  • Elaine Constantine and Gareth Sweeney, Northern soul: an illustrated history (2013, complementing the former’s feature film).



Pizzica at the Proms


As the end of this year’s Proms approaches, I went along to the “late-night” gig of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS), hot on the heels of the Vienna Phil. Much as I love the Proms (and I recall some wonderful gagaku and raga in the Good Old Days), world music has never played much of a role there. This was another kind of Passion at the Proms.

Complementing Italy: folk musicking, this is the latest in a series of posts on taranta-inspired musicking in south Italy:

and while you’re about it, try

Based in Salento, the original CGS group dates back to 1975, led by Rina and Daniele Durante. The current leader is their son Mauro, on violin—which drew me back to the less polished fiddling on the extraordinary early footage of Ernesto De Martino.

Don’t get me wrong, I love loud music; but in the hall the volume seemed excessively loud and the sound rather fuzzy—it may work better on the radio broadcast (here, for the next month). With gutsy vocals, tamburello frame-drumming, organetto, wind playing, plucking, and dancing, the combo seemed more successful when they grouped more closely on the large stage.

Of course, it’s not just about sound. Pizzica—like Bach, The Rite of Spring, and Turangalîla, indeed—demands a physical reaction; with such pieces it’s hardly possible in concert, but in this case it’s an essential part of the experience. As large concert halls go, the Albert Hall makes a suitable venue; the prommers in the Arena, whether mobile or static, always enhance the occasion.

In LCD World Music fusion fashion (cf. my final rant here), guitarist Justin Adams and Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko joined the band—though I’d still rather hear the latter playing his own music…

On this eclectic playlist, featuring scenic tracks from CGS in full MTV mode, as well as other groups, the intoxication of their live gigs features only rarely:

For the other CGS videos on that list, you may prefer the audio tracks over the glossy visuals. Elsewhere, here’s a 2013 gig in New York:

I’m really not being an old purist fogey here, but maybe what I want is the original line-up—though of course they were always seeking to be relevant to the changing times. Among several tracks on YouTube (search for “vecchio Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino”), try this:


Morocco: Paul Bowles

1950 with Jane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

This makes a pair with my Irish story aout Heifetz.

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

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

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

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

More photos here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Music of Morocco (2016).

Schuyler provides further material on the trips, such as:

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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


Ahouach. Source  here.

Bernard also released several CDs:

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

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

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

as well as also producing his own recordings.

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

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

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

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

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

Wedding, Imlil 2000. My photos.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

group 1961

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

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

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

Sawyer-Lauçanno goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

Flamenco: a recap

flamenco tree

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

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


flamenco: gender and politics

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

For yet more wonderful programmes from the Rito series, see

For other regional styles around Spain, see Songs of Valencia and Festive soundscapes of the Rioja. For more, including Portuguese fado, see Iberia tag.

Ethnography at home: Morris dancing

female dancers

Esperance dancers. Source: EFDSS, via

Why bother traipsing halfway around the world, I hear you ask, when our very own Sceptered Isle offers such potential for pursuing the local ethnography of seasonal ritual?

Our folk culture may be a rich and ever-evolving topic, but Morris dancing has long been a national joke. Here I’ve churlishly suggested it as a suitably disturbing English riposte to the magnificent All-Black haka. I suddenly understand why some Chinese people may initially be reluctant to engage with their folk culture (see e.g. here and here).

Morris dancing comes round every so often as a drôle topic for media coverage—this article by A.A. Gill may not impress academics, but it’s brilliant, evocative, and strangely respectful writing.

I’m reminded of the topic again by a recent BBC4 programme, engagingly titled For folk’s sake.

One could almost mistake the May procession, with its bowery palanquin,
for a rain ritual in Shaanbei.

Now, I take a keen interest in calendrical rituals—indeed, as Easter week approaches, Bach is in store, and it’s a busy season for ritual in China too. But I’m not alone in tending to consign Morris dancing, with its incongruous juxtaposition of hankies, bells, and silly hats with beards and beer, to a long list of embarrassing genteel eccentricities of the English, along with The Archers. But like any social activity performed by Real People it deserves serious study, in the context of social change in England since the Industrial Revolution, and even a preliminary exploration is fascinating. [1]

The wiki entry makes a useful starting point. Whatever the etymological connection between Morris and Moorish, it does seem, Like Life (cf. Stewart Lee), to have come from abroad. It’s part of a group of genres that includes mummers’ plays, sword and stick dances, and so on.

Gender and class
Though there is evidence of female Morris dancers as early as the 16th century, male groups predominated. I’d like to learn more about the 19th-century decline; anyway, by the early 20th century the women who soon became the driving force of Morris learned from surviving male performers. From wiki:

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Lancashire tradition was taken up by sides associated with mills and nonconformist chapels, usually composed of young girls. These lasted until the First World War, after which many mutated into “jazz dancers” [note the cryptic quotes].

Mary NealAfter severe losses in World War One (when some entire village sides were killed) the female dominance increased, with women now teaching men.

In 1895 Mary Neal (1860–1944; website here; see also Lucy Neal’s project and this nice article) founded the Espérance Club, a dressmaking co-operative and club to enrich the lives of young working-class girls in London:

No words can express the passionate longing which I have to bring some of the beautiful things of life within easy reach of the girls who earn their living by the sweat of their brow… If these Clubs are up to the ideal which we have in view, they will be living schools for working women, who will be instrumental in the near future, in altering the conditions of the class they represent.

Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) first experienced Morris at Headington Quarry in 1899. Mary Neal began working with him in 1905, but their outlooks conflicted, and she soon joined the WSPU (for the Espérance’s modern reincarnation, see here). Vic Gammon encapsulates the conflict in his review of Georgina Boyes’s The imagined village culture:

Mary Neal, middle-class reformer, socialist, and suffragette who sees the possibility of reviving folk dance among working-class girls in north London, is defeated by Cecil Sharp, professional musician, Fabian, and misogynist who spread the activity of folk dancing among the young genteel, making vernacular arts fit bourgeois aesthetics.

These clips from 1912 feature the sisters Maud and Helen Karpeles, co-founders of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, as well as Cecil Sharp, and George Butterworth, who died in the Battle of the Somme:

But as in the world of work, male groups soon came to dominate again. The all-male Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides in 1934. And between the wars, for John Eliot Gardiner’s father Rolf “mysticism, misogyny, and Morris dancing formed a coherent whole in which nostalgia was a spur to action”. Whether he would have approved of The Haunted Pencil, with his AfD comrades, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Meanwhile Stella Gibbons and Elisabeth Lutyens took a more cynical view of genteel “folky-wolky” representations of English folk culture (note also Em creeps in with a pie).

Following World War Two, and particularly in the 1960s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, with some women’s or mixed sides. A heated debate emerged over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the Morris; and mainly on the left, critics disputed the method of Sharp’s work as they pondered the perilous concept of “tradition” (as they do). But as in most walks of life, despite bastions of male conservatism, the creative participation of women is again becoming a major driving force, as you can see in this fine article by Elizabeth Kinder.

Boss Morris

Click here for a short clip from Berkhamstead in 1950, with pipe and tabor sadly mute. And this was filmed in Thaxted (“hub of the universe”), c1958—just as collectivization was leading to calamitous famine in China:

All this may seem quaint at any period, but all the more so in the Swinging Sixties. For folk’s sake shows glimpses of a 1966 festival at Thaxted—just as revolution (not least the Cultural Revolution) was in the air, alongside jazz, soul, the Beatles… The Saddleworth rushcart festival features in For folk’s sake—here’s a clip from 2014:

And as with folk traditions in China and worldwide, Morris survives alongside newer genres like punk (for punk in Beijing, see here).


Source: David Holm, Art and ideology in revolutionary China (1991).

Indeed, a survey of the many English villages with teams somewhat resembles our documentation of ritual groups in particular counties of China—or the rich local dance traditions like yangge (among several genres using handkerchiefs and sticks!), Boat on Dry Land, Bamboo Horses, and so on, with their common ritual connections—covered at length in the provincial volumes of the Anthology for dance:

  • Zhongguo minjian wudao jicheng 中国民间舞蹈集成,

with over 30,000 pages there alone, besides all the related material in the volumes for folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music.

Among the main regional Morris traditions are Cotswold, Northwest, Border, and Plough Monday groups in Yorkshire and the east Midlands (all the sides have instructive websites)—and as in China, their styles are often distinctive to individual villages. Four teams claim a continuous tradition predating the revival: Abingdon, Bampton, Headington Quarry, and Chipping Campden. In the 1930s at the important centre of Thaxted, the sinologist Joseph Needham championed Molly dancing.

Only now do I recall that my granddad took me to watch mummers in Wiltshire (at Colerne? Marshfield?). Indeed, his home village of Potterne still has a group. It’s a very blurred childhood memory, by which I seem to have been underwhelmed; but did it sow a seed?


The Britannia Coco-nut [2] Dancers of Bacup (“Nutters”; see e.g. this article) have a venerable history that inevitably attracts controversy (no less inevitably, one of the transmitters is called Dick Shufflebottom, who celebrated fifty years of service in 2006). A.A. Gill’s description of the Nutters is classic:

They are small, nervous men. And so they might be, for they are wearing white cotton night bonnets of the sort sported by Victorian maids, decorated with sparse ribbons. Then black polo-neck sweaters, like the Milk Tray man, with a white sash, black knee-breeches, white stockings and black clogs. As if this weren’t enough, someone at some point has said: “What this outfit really needs is a red-and-white-hooped miniskirt.” “Are you sure?” the dancers must have replied. And he was. But it doesn’t finish there. They have black faces, out of which their little bright eyes shine anxiously. On their hands are strapped single castanets. A single castanet is the definition of uselessness. The corresponding castanet is worn on the knee. To say you couldn’t make up the Coco-nutters would be to deny the evidence of your astonished eyes.

The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white, and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup. What are they for? What were they thinking of? Why do they do these strange, misbegotten, dark little incantations? It’s said that they might have originally been Barbary corsairs who worked in Cornish tin mines and travelled to Lancashire, and that the dance is about listening underground, a sign language of miners. And then there’s all the usual guff about harvest and spring and fecundity, but that doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this troupe from the nether folk world.

Do watch the Nutters on YouTube.

Again as in China, the Morris vocabulary is suggestive, with teams, sides, squires, bagmen, fools, beasts. At least England hasn’t yet fallen for the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle (we have our pride). Still, even without it, contentious arguments about “authenticity” continue to fester. And even now there’s still considerable opposition to admitting women. FFS.

I might be tempted to make the music share the blame. Of course, it is what it is, irrespective of the impertinent tastes of outsiders; but it often seems to endow the proceedings with a twee comfy feel that conflicts with the edgy (“pagan”?!) atmosphere of the dance itself. Once mainly accompanied by pipe and tabor, fiddles and melodeons became more common. The gritty new sounds of great musos like Jon Boden don’t seem so relevant to most Morris sides—though again, see Elizabeth Kinder’s article. I’d love to hear a Bulgarian version—accompanied with suitably complex metres by zurna and davul, relatives of early English pipe and tabor.

For the BBC2 documentary Tribes, predators and me, it was a cute idea to show footage of Morris dancing to tribespeople (click here).

* * *

Of course I’m merely dabbling here. But is this the kind of thing that urban educated Chinese people think I’m doing in their country?

In a way, it is: cultures change, in China as in England. The brief of the ethnographer is the same: to document the whole history, down to today, of local traditions amidst ongoing challenges to community cohesion through social and political change. We both have blind spots about our own cultures, further muddied by patriotic posturing and our reactions against it. It’s not that I can’t see the “value” of Morris, just that I’ve inherited negative associations. While plenty of English writers have debunked the myth of an unspoilt Victorian Merrie England, in China the “living fossils” nostalgia, referring to a Golden Age of much greater antiquity that bears even less relation to rural life there, is still touted by heritage pundits. For the awful cliché of “international cultural exchange”, see here.

And whereas in China I’m keenly aware of major dates in the rural calendar when temple fairs may be held, I’m not alone in being completely estranged from the seasonal rhythms of English life; only Bach cantatas manage to educate me.

This may be a particular issue for the English. In Hungary the táncház revival has become popular; and it would seem natural enough for an American studying old-time music in Appalachia to find continuity when working on China.

The world of Morris and English folk-song culture, like that of Newcastle punks, is no more “home” to me than are the rituals of the Fujian countryside for an educated Chinese from Beijing. But whereas local ritual in China still seems to me an intrinsic component of local life, Morris dancing has long seemed a quaint byway in my whole experience of England. Of course, when pressed, I can quite see this is wrong. OK Guys, I’ll take my culture seriously if you take yours…

Anyway, just think, as you board a rickety bus to a poor Hunan village in search of household Daoist rituals, you could be sitting in a sunny Oxfordshire pub courtyard nursing your pint as you take notes on the magnificent ritual spectacle unfolding before you—complete with its “feudal superstitious colourings” 封建迷信色彩.


See also my haiku on Morris dancing. For a roundup of posts on the English at home and abroad, see here; and for more on Heritage movements, here.


[1] Useful background includes the research of Vic Gammon; Georgina Boyes, The imagined village culture: culture, ideology and the English folk revival (1993/2010); Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps, Performing Englishness: identity and politics in a contemporary folk resurgence (2013); numerous publications from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, e.g. here; Theresa Buckland, ” ‘Th’owd pagan dance’: ritual, enchantment, and an enduring intellectual paradigm” (2002). On class, gender, and national identity, see also this (cf. Stewart Lee!). For innovative performance-based studies of clog dancing, see the work of Caroline Radcliffe. For an accessible introduction to the English folk scene, see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and Pacific, “England: folk, roots”, and regular features in Songlines and fRoots.

For further refs. on the wider context, see Helen Myers, “Great Britain”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.129–48. Among many fine compilations of British folk music, note the extensive Topic Records series The voice of the people (here on Spotify).

[2] Pedants’ corner (or is it Pedant’s corner?): the form “coconut” seems more common (as on their own website)—I can’t find a ruling on the hyphen, but it seems suitably eccentric (but was it eccentric then? That’s the perennial question!).

New tag: dance

I’ve just added a tag in the sidebar for dance, suggesting some of the diversity and creativity of dancing around the world, such as





Das Land ohne Musik


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

Das Land ohne Musik

Oscar Schmitz, 1914

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

Hector Berlioz, 1851

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touché! As Holman notes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is all grist to Stewart Lee‘s mill.

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

* * *

To return to McClary’s lead,

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

is full of stimulating chapters, not least her own:

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions,

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

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

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

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

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


Billy Purvis (1784–1853).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Tzar-spangled banner—diversity—female genius

I began writing this as another paean to the great Bill Bailey, to follow his greatest-ever love song (“soaking in the hoisin of your lies“), but it has soon turned into yet another tribute to diversity and female genius.

David Hughes (himself a prolific drôle songwriter as well as leading authority on Japanese music) thoughtfully alerts me to this (allegedly) Kremlin-sanctioned version of The star-spangled banner, which is becoming ever more topical:

See also “I think you’ll find—it’s MINOR!”

To return to the major (sung by a minor), this, from Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja (taking a rather different path from Alma Deutscher), is remarkable too:

They come over ‘ere…” See also And did those feet in ancient time?, and The haka.

While I’m here, how can I resist featuring another most inspiring viral clip—and do follow up with Katelyn Ohashi’s thoughtful blog and innumerable further links, like this and this—bearing on ecstasy and drudge, and the nature of artistic competition:

OK then, for a hat-trick of What Really Makes America Great (see The wise AOC):

Do follow @AOC, the most articulate and engaged advocate for political change!

Yet more much-needed hope for our future… Call me a typical Grauniad-reading member of the metropolian liberal elite, but long may the likes of “Rear Admiral” Foley turn in their graves.

For another inspirational role model, see here.

Let me see now, what did I come in here for again?

A Daoist serves a state troupe

17 troupe 1959

North Shanxi Arts Work Troupe, Datong 1959. Li Qing front row, far right.

My post on the folk–conservatoire gulf reminds me of the brief sojourn of the great household Daoist Li Qing in the grimy coal city of Datong as a state-employed musician. Indeed throughout China, many “folk artists” were recruited to such troupes, like wind players Hu Tianquan and Wang Tiechui. Daoists were also enlisted (see e.g. Ritual life around Suzhou, §5); Daoist priest Yang Yuanheng even served as professor at the Central Conservatoire in Beijing until his death in 1959.

But under Maoism the “food-bowl” of the state troupes was short-lived; most employees were soon laid off. And while in the troupes, performers’ lives were no picnic: the whole society was poor, all the more so during the Years of Hardship while Li Qing was employed.

The following is adapted from ch.5 of my Daoist priests of the Li family.

In the early years after the 1949 Liberation, religious ritual in Yanggao had persisted despite sporadic campaigns and the nominally atheist stance of the new Communist leadership. But by 1954, as collectivization began to be enforced ever more rigidly (see here, under “Famine in China”), creating ever-larger units which made it hard to protect local interests, and with ambitious new mobilizations taking up more and more time, it was becoming increasingly hard to “do religion.” The main thrust of campaigns may have been economic, as household enterprises were forced into inactivity; but “eliminating superstition” was never forgotten, and was to be one explicit slogan of the 1958 Great Leap Forward.

Li Qing eats off the state
When not busy laboring in the collective fields or doing rituals, Li Qing enjoyed playing his beloved sheng mouth-organ in the village’s amateur “little opera band”, accompanying both the majestic “great opera” (Jinju) and the skittish local errentai duets. In the bitter cold of the first moon in 1958 Li Qing, now aged 33 sui, made the journey to Yanggao county-town to take part with his village band in a secular arts festival there. The county cultural authorities were choosing musicians for their Shanxi opera troupe, [1] and were keen to recruit Li Qing. But scouts attending from the prestigious North Shanxi Arts-work Troupe in the grimy regional capital city of Datong pulled more weight, and it was for this ensemble that he was now chosen. In this period regional arts-work troupes and county opera troupes throughout China commonly recruited Daoists and other folk ritual performers as instrumentalists (see e.g. under Ritual life in Suzhou). Li Qing was to spend nearly four years in the troupe. Thus, although they made regular tours of the countryside, he was protected somewhat from the worst excesses of the Great Leap Forward back home.

In 2011, to learn more about Li Qing’s time in the troupe I visited Datong to seek out some of his former colleagues there—Li Manshan and Li Bin had already bumped into a couple of them on trips there.

It’s good to see my old friend Bureau Chief Li again. We track down two old musicians from the troupe and invite them round to his posh flat where I am staying the night. It would make a tranquil venue, but since it is the time of the Mid-Autumn festival, an auspicious time for weddings, our chat is regularly punctuated by deafening firecrackers echoing around the high-rises, so that the soundtrack evokes the battle of the Somme.


Li Kui (left) and Zhang Futian, Datong 2011.

Li Kui, who played erhu fiddle in the troupe, and the effervescent Zhang Futian, a dizi flute player, both born in 1939, were 19 sui when they joined, thirteen years younger than Li Qing. Wary of hagiography as I am, all those who met Li Qing remain moved by his kindly soul and unsurpassed musicianship. Those years were not just a contrast to the rest of his life but a unique period for everyone. Recruitment to a prestigious state ensemble may sound grand—until you realize not only the desperate conditions of the late 1950s but that they spent much of the year touring the ravaged countryside on foot. Still, for them the period has a bitter-sweet nostalgia that I can’t help sharing. My visit provides an excuse for them to get together to reminisce about old times—they are so loquacious that I rarely get to chip in with a question.

Li Qing went off to Datong to take up his new job in the 8th moon of 1958, just as the Great Leap Forward was being rolled out to great fanfare. Even if he had a choice about taking the job, he can have had little hesitation. With Daoist ritual business, and society as a whole, going through such a tough period since the enforcement of collectivization, he would have been grateful to get on the state payroll.

The Party officials of the troupe must have found out about Li Qing’s rich-peasant status but drawn a veil over it. Throughout the Maoist period, the Yanggao cultural cadres didn’t dare have any contact with the Daoists or even the shawm bands—but the Datong troupe leaders didn’t need to know that Li Qing was a Daoist. His colleagues would find out, but everyone understood there was no need to discuss that kind of thing. He didn’t talk much at first, but became more chatty as he felt more at ease. For his closest friends he even furtively held sessions to determine the date.

The new troupe, based in a compound at no.13 Zhengdian street, was an amalgamation of the North Shanxi and Xinzhou regional troupes. Eight or nine musicians were recruited to the band at first, gradually increasing to around sixteen; with singers, dancers, stage crew, and cadres, the troupe consisted of around sixty people. Its reputation was second only to the troupe in the provincial capital Taiyuan.

Li Qing now found himself accompanying stirring patriotic folk songs and short simple instrumental compositions in revolutionary style. As a household Daoist, he was a born musician, and effortlessly versatile. Apart from his old vocal liturgy and the “holy pieces” of the shengguan instrumental music, he knew a wide range of more folksy instrumental pieces played on procession and for the popular afternoon sequence, and he had the local opera repertoire in his blood.

Dancer Feng Yumei, also from Yanggao, arranged some of the earliest dance suites in folklore style, like “The Earth around the Yellow River” (Huanghe yifangtu), considered one of the earliest and best creations in the idiom. The troupe performed a new opera composed in Hubei, later made into a film.

Li Qing was the only Daoist in the troupe; the only other instrumentalist from Yanggao was the fine gujiang shawm player Shi Ming (1932–2003) from Wangguantun just northwest (see also my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, p.22). They remained lifelong friends. Shi Ming, already 27 sui, had an eye for the dancers, but they preferred the younger more eligible guys, like Li Kui himself! The troupe’s star soloist on the suona shawm was Yang Xixi from Xinzhou. Our friends ranked him alongside the nationally celebrated virtuoso Hu Tianquan, also a native of Xinzhou, mainly renowned for his sheng playing. Li Qing sometimes played Yang Xixi’s guanzi for fun.

As the only sheng player in the troupe, Li Qing accompanied Zhang Futian’s flute solos. Sometimes he played solos himself, accompanied on the accordion by one Ma Yun, over 50 sui in 1958. One solo that his colleagues recall was a Napoleonic Marche du Victoire (Kaixuan guilai), perhaps even the March from Aida. Imagine—Li Qing even performed a foreign piece! He played with feeling, and was infinitely adaptable. The conductor never criticized him; if he made the slightest error, he would correct it at once. Zhang Futian’s appraisal was still higher than that of the local Daoists: “He was a genius—the greatest musician I ever met.”

WGT trio_2

Li Qing (left) with fellow wind players Yang Xixi and Shi Ming, 1959.

No less impressive was Li Qing’s personality. Affable and generous, he had no temper. Even if he got ill, he never asked for leave. He earned a reputation for generosity and for smoothing over disputes in the troupe; his mere presence was enough to ease any tensions within the group. In a society where mutual suspicion was fostered and nasty rumours spread rapidly, he had no bad words for anyone, and bore no grudges. Folk musicians prided themselves on loyalty (yiqi).

The salary system was graded. Ordinary members got 25 kuai a month, most of the band 35 kuai. Relatively senior, Li Qing was soon considered an “old artist” (laoyiren), getting 45 kuai a month. The wind players and dancers got an extra 2 liang in rations.

During his time in the troupe Li Qing learned the modern system of notation called jianpu “simplified notation,” which uses the Arabic numerals 1 to 7 to represent the solfeggio pitches of Chinese gongche notation. [2] Though simple, it never caught on in the countryside; for the Daoists, traditional gongche remained in place as a means of learning the outline of the shengguan instrumental melodies, and they had no need of any notation at all to learn all the complex vocal hymns. The gongche solfeggio translates rather easily into numerical notation. The latter was used in the troupe to learn new pieces, but Shi Ming didn’t take to it, so Li Qing helped him learn them. Li Qing was to put this new skill to use from the 1980s when he used it to write scores of his Daoist repertoire.

For much of the year the troupe went on tour through the impoverished countryside, doing over a hundred performances a year. Apart from visits further afield in north China, they toured throughout north Shanxi, including Yanggao villages—mostly on foot, sometimes with horses and carts. Sometimes they slept in peasant homes, dispersed among several suitable families by the village brigade, or in the village school; or they put up a big tent. They took their own food, and stoves to cook it on. Li Qing didn’t smoke or drink, but the others drank laobaiganr liquor from a little flask; at first the troupe supplied them with packs of Happiness cigarettes, but later they were reduced to picking up fag-ends after a gig and rolling them into a new one. Their program was written in ink and stuck up as a poster. It was a tough life—Zhang Futian admits he got fed up with it.

Over these four years Li Qing was only able to go home once or twice a year for a couple of days, bringing only a bit of money, but no food. His wife, alone with four children to look after, never visited him in Datong. Li Manshan only went to see him once, in 1961; but soon after he arrived, Li Qing had to go off with the troupe to Harbin in northeast China to perform, so he could only go to the station with his father before taking a packed windowless bus back to Yanggao town and walking home from there.

For several generations the Li family’s exquisite sheng mouth-organs had been made by the Gao family in Gaoshantun near Upper Liangyuan. In 1961 Li Qing managed to get an invitation for the elderly master Gao Bin (1887–1967) to spend ten days with the troupe mending his various sheng, when Gao was really down on his luck; even the meager pickings in the troupe’s canteen probably saved his life.

Like many state work-units throughout China, the troupe was cut back in 1962, and Li Qing returned to his village early that spring. With such relocations, by 1963 some 84% of the Chinese population were living in the countryside—the highest proportion in the history of the People’s Republic. [3]

The troupe staggered on until it was disbanded in late 1962. Some of its members were recruited to the provincial song-and-dance troupe in Taiyuan, some of the Xinzhou contingent found work back home, while others like Li Qing and Shi Ming had to return home to their starving villages. Several of the performers went on to wider fame; dancer Feng Yumei 冯玉梅 became chair of the provincial dance association, and folksinger Xing Chouhua 刑丑花, from Xinzhou, gained national renown. The troupe reformed in 1964; soon, mainly using Western instruments for the revolutionary “model operas”, it was dominated by “educated youth” from Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. But it disbanded again in 1968.

For a peasant like Li Qing to be chosen for the troupe was a great honor. His “black” class status was no barrier to being selected, and on his return his local prestige was even greater. But in volatile political times, assaults were not far away. If the economy hadn’t collapsed at this time, Li Qing might have continued in the state system; after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he might even have become a sheng professor at a conservatoire. Still, I am grateful that the troupe folded, and that the troupes or conservatoires never again summoned him. Had he secured a long-term state post, he would never have resumed his ritual practice, copied all those scriptures and scores, or taught the present generation.

* * *

If Li Qing’s repertoire in the troupe was new, and his long ritual tradition on hold, at least he was still playing the sheng there and receiving a handsome regular salary. Food supplies in the city were scant, even in state work units; but meanwhile back in Upper Liangyuan, people were desperate. In the absence of Li Qing there were still plenty of Daoists available; the senior Li Peiye, or Li Peisen (who had cannily absented himself from political scrutiny by moving to Yang Pagoda), could have still led bands if there were demand. But they were virtually inactive; not only had their instruments been confiscated, but people’s bellies were empty, and patrons had no strength to observe ritual proprieties.

Still, Li Qing’s return in 1962 coincided with a very brief ritual revival, with a retreat from the extremist policies of the disastrous Leap. Though very few domestic or temple rituals had been held for some years. Li Manshan recalls taking part in a ritual in 1963, commissioned at the home of an individual as a vow for recovering from illness. This was perhaps the last time they recited the Averting Calamity scriptures (Rangzai jing). Already by now they were mainly doing funerals, but Li Qing’s widow recalled that even then they were only able to do two or three a month. So there was less work in the early 1960s than now—there was still a serious famine, and however many deaths there were, people couldn’t afford to put on a grand funeral even if they had the energy.

However intermittent the Daoists’ appearances were during these years, Li Manshan sighs as he recalls how the villagers loved their grand rituals before the Cultural Revolution—in the days before TV and pop music. Even by the time of my visits in 1991 and 1992 there still wasn’t any singing outside the gate—that only began from 1993. In 1991 virtually the whole village seemed to turn out, crowding round respectfully (see my film, from 30.32). Li Qing’s sojourn in the troupe had added to his reputation as a Daoist and virtuous man; Li Manshan’s own repute is still based to a considerable degree on that of his father.

For the Li family Daoists’ ritual revival from the late 1970s, see here and here.

[1] For which see the Yanggao xianzhi (1993), p.468. Alas, links to Chinese websites cited in my book seem to have disappeared—watch this space.

[2] For gongche and cipher notation, see also my Folk music of China, pp.111–123; Plucking the winds, pp.245–246, 262–263.

[3] Cf. Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China, p.19.

Another everyday story of country folk


We’ve discussed the rural society of Gaoluo village, and Yanggao county; and to follow Cheremis, Chuvash, and Tibetans, now for Ambridge.

Despite my tireless ethnographic devotion to Everyday Stories of Country Folk and, um, popular culture in all its forms, I can’t stand The Archers!!! There, I’ve said it.

Still, like the Hoffnung speeches, I recommend it highly to foreigners. The world’s longest-running radio serial [zzzzz], it makes a perfect portrait of daily life in Middle England, showing what we’re up against—a complement to Watching the English. For Stewart Lee’s somewhat different take on being English, see here.

I do realize that social change has come to Ambridge—indeed, Peter Hitchens moans that the series has become a vehicle for liberal and left-wing values and agendas (“all kinds of sexual revolution stuff and ultra-feminist propaganda”) (PAH! Nay, YAY!). But its core plots still revolve around riveting issues like the loss and rediscovery of a pair of spectacles, and competitive marmalade-making, The scripts are an inexhaustible catechism of cliché that I believed to have expired along with my great-aunts (“Ooh I shouldn’t really…” “And more power to her elbow, that’s what I say!”—the latter perhaps constituting evidence of Hitchens’s “ultra-feminist propaganda”?)

So despite occasional daring updates to the world-views and vocabulary of the “characters” (sic: see below) since 1950, it’s always going to be trapped in a time-warp: the visual image that the series still conjures up today is surely the photo above (note for any Chinese, Chuvash, or Bulgarian readers: YES, this is how we all dress).

As a Chinese immigrant struggling to perceive the underlying ideology of being English, Xiaolu Guo realised that

the drama, with its apparently apolitical presentation of “an oasis of rural England outside the currents of history” is really offering a supremely political position, a peculiarly British ideology: one that privileges endless indirectness and lethargy, endless deflection of real anger and debate, and endless acceptance of the status quo.

The wiki article on The Archers makes fascinating reading, with some drôle diachronic byways, not least on the irritating and inescapable theme-tune Barwick Green—a maypole dance, FFS [Can it be that you have suddenly abandoned your mission to document rural culture? Not Exotic enough for you?—Ed.] (cf. Morris dancing as a suitable riposte to the haka), endowed with “the genteel abandon of a lifelong teetotaller who has suddenly taken to drink”, as Robert Robinson observed.

The 1954 recordings were never made available to the public and their use was restricted even inside the BBC, partly because of an agreement with the Musicians’ Union.

Oh well, that’s one good cause to which the MU has been putting my subscription. But when a new stereo version was recorded in 1992 (quelle horreur!),

the slightly different sound mixing and more leisurely tempo reportedly led some listeners to consider the new version inferior, specifically that it lacked “brio”.

“Brio” is indeed the mot juste. Bless.

A 2011 folk-rock version by Bellowhead was well received, however:

For further windows on changing performance practice, see e.g. Mahler, vibrato, jazz, DaoismTaruskin; the Wimbledon and Pearl and Dean themes. Not forgetting Pique Nique by Ibert’s brother Edouard—an oeuvre that has everything that Barwick Green lacks, despite their shared 6/8 metre (can we have a Bulgarian version, please?). See also By the sleepy lagoon.

Anyway, my main reason for this unseemly rant is to alert you to a brilliant parody that John Finnemore did in 2014, for which I am precisely the target audience:

How The Archers sounds to people who do not listen to The Archers:

[Announcer:] And now on Radio 4—unbelievably—it’s time to accidentally hear a bit of The Archers again.

with all the stereotypes lovingly exposed—

“Hello, one of the men who always sounds tired!”
“Hello, one of the unsufferably wry women…”

“Hello, one of the women with an accent! You’d think that would make it easier to tell you apart from the others, but… no.”

He continues the theme here:

… doomed endlessly to repeat the same morality tale of how all men are feckless idiots with terrible ideas, all women are joyless wet blankets who are nonetheless powerless to stop them.

Indeed, the great Tony Hancock did a spoof as early as 1961:

For denizens of Twitter, the fantasy scripts of @jonreed are also recommended. And inevitably, The Archers is an academic research topic

For a roundup of posts on How to be English, see here—including The mantric Shipping forecast.

Musical cultures of east Europe

tanchaz 93

String trio with cimbalom at the Meta táncház, Budapest 1993another perk of my orchestral touring life. My photo.

Having written about the ill-fated blind minstrels of Ukraine, here I’d like to outline the importance of the varied soundscapes around east Europe (a region I’ve also touched in several posts). Also, changing expressive cultures there—besides their intrinsic fascination—suggest useful perspectives for our studies of China.

This may be Old Hat for World Music fans, but perhaps less so for China-watchers or scholars of Asian ritual. Here I’ll offer a mere smattering of reading and audio-visual material.

As in China, sandwiched between the timeless ancient and recent turbo-rock images of the whole region are the elusive fates of local cultures during the state socialist era. Parallel with the official state ensembles, folk traditions were not entirely dormant (a major theme of mine for China; for the spectrum, see e.g. here and here); and fieldwork and research continued, despite political obstacles. These traditions are not so much national as regional, indeed local; subcultures cross boundaries.

And they are not timeless reified commodities to be preserved, but ever-evolving amidst complex social change. Changing political boundaries, and mutual borrowings, belie ongoing nationalist agendas—another reminder of the fantastic and enduring diversity of European cultures (see e.g. Iberia tag for flamenco and fado). Tensions are apparent between local values and official images—and latterly the World Music scene.

Life-cycle rituals, notably weddings, remain a major context. But as the image of the unspoilt rural idyll recedes, turbo-folk tends to dominate. Weddings have become a focus of modernization; secular festivals, no longer manipulated by the Party state, also come to the fore. Yet changes in rural life also remain a lively topic. There’s never a simple progression from unspoilt rural traditions through kitsch state ensembles to turborock.

Both vocal and instrumental genres are remarkable. Older instruments haven’t entirely been replaced, such as gadulka and gusle fiddles, kaval end-blown flute, zurna shawm, gaida bagpipe.

For an introduction to the different early post-war histories of the whole region, see

  • Anne Applebaum, Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956.

* * *

Fieldwork on east European traditions began still before the explorations of Bela Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Constantin Brăiloiu, but they make a convenient starting-point. Their interests extended far beyond the borders of Hungary and Romania—indeed, Bartók made fieldtrips as far afield as Turkey and north Africa.

Bartok LP

We can admire Brăiloiu’s 1933–43 recordings on this remarkable CD:

For convenient collections of articles, see

  • Bela Bartók, Essays (1976)
  • Zoltán Kodály, Folk music of Hungary (1960/1982—translation revised by Laurence Picken, who maintained a lively correspondence with east European musicologists!)
  • Constantin Brăiloiu, Problems of ethnomusicology (1984).

Still, their work belongs towards the “music” end of the music—culture spectrum, and later under the Communist era, social and political analysis was discouraged from developing. On the one hand, the early fieldworkers are laudable for making trips long before the formal discipline of ethnomusicology; on the other, under state socialism the scholars were laudable for attempting to pursue ethnographic principles under political pressures. Later the whole region became one of the most lively topics of the European Seminar in Ethnomusicology (ESEM).

As Carol Silverman observes about the Roma,

Early folk music studies focus on aesthetics and creativity rather than on power differentials; they were primarily about the culture within folk groups, not about domination, resistance, and conflict among groups.

Indeed, there are varied ways to study the topic, from popular to scholarly. We might start with the articles in the Rough Guide to world music and Songlines magazine, where east Europe is well covered thanks largely to the enthusiasm of their editor Simon Broughton. Apart from the recent glossy World Music stars, it also features local traditions and archive recordings (mostly listed at the start of the discographies).

Among more scholarly studies, note relevant chapters in

  • Timothy Rice and James Porter (eds.), The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.8: Europe (2000).

For many further refs. at the traditional end of the spectrum, showing the energy of early collecting and recording, see

  • Barbara Krader and Bálint Sarosi, “Southern and eastern Europe”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.160–96,

and in the same volume, updating the story, relevant sections of

  • James Porter, “Europe”, pp.215–39.

Chapters in

  • Mark Slobin (ed.), Retuning culture: musical changes in central and eastern Europe (1996)

suggest Chinese parallels in the adjustment following the demise of state socialism. Of course, while the early 1990s were a time of pivotal significance, the scene has continues to change since then. I cited a couple of salient general points from Retuning culture here.

In all these regions, educated urban “roots” movements have become an aspect of the revival since the fall of Communism. In Retuning culture Judit Frigyesi describes this for Hungary, whereas in the following chapter Barbara Rose Lange discusses the reaction against it in the form of lakodalmas rock—resembling similar tensions in China.

At the same time, as Timothy Garton Ash comments in a review of Witold Szablowski’s Dancing Bears,

There is a long tradition, stretching back to the Enlightenment, of western Europeans and North Americans orientalizing eastern Europe, as Voltaire did with Russia and Rousseau did with Poland. What is unusual about Szablowski is that he is orientalizing his own region.

Another constant theme is ritual, along with religion—which persisted in various ways under state socialism. I won’t attempt to cover Polish, Czech, or Slovak traditions here, though they too are a rich topic, with a wealth of material (e.g. Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland; Moravia; Polish folk; and for Polish jazz, here). And I already mentioned Michael Beckerman’s piece in Retuning culture on Milan Kundera’s brilliant dissection of culture clash in The joke.

But despite the glossy stars of the World Music scene, it’s not all about them: they are just the tip of the iceberg of changing social life (cf. my flamenco series, starting here). That’s far from saying that folk traditions are anonymous—on the contrary, personalities are always important, and locally there are always hierarchies and admired performers.

Under state socialism, in the wake of the tradition of Bartók, Kodaly, and Brăiloiu, fieldwork on regional traditions was avidly pursued. Before and after 1989 I returned from concerts in Budapest with suitcases full of box-sets of LPs from the Hungaroton label, founded in 1951.


There’s also a wealth of material on film and online. Gigs are all very well; feature films (see below) are more revealing; ethnographic documentaries are fewer (if only the BBC films of Simon Broughton were available now).

Hungary, Transylvania, Romania
Here—by contrast with the brass-band sound that has come to dominates the Balkans—string bands are still plentiful, surviving notably in Transylvania, source of much of the inspiration for Hungarian folk music studies ever since Bartok’s fieldwork.

The combo of primas fiddle, contra viola, and bass is enchanting (for this and other world fiddle traditions, see here). Foremost among many recordings with a more traditional brief is a series of fine box sets from Hungaroton, followed by the Fono label, including their Final hour/ Új Pátria series.

Unearthing Transylvanian bands has long been at the heart of the projects of the enterprising Budapest-based concert band Muzsikás and the wonderful singer Márta Sebestyén, and of the Budapest táncház (“dance house”) scene (for which see e.g. Jávorszky Béla Szilárd, The story of Hungarian folk, 2015, and an introductiion in Songlines #112). But the fortunes of most such rural bands remained based in the lives of their local communities.

Here Muzsikás accompany the master fiddler Sandor “Neti” Fodor (1922–2004):

Still in Romania, the Rough Guide introduces many distinctive traditions, such as those of Maramureș and Moldavia. The Csángó people of Gyimes are famed for the duo of fiddle with gardon slapped bass—one of the best possible things to do with a bass, apart from furniture effects and marriage guidance counselling (cf. viola jokes).

Here’s a documentary made soon after the 1989 revolution, with contributions from Muzsikás and (from 28.28) the Gyimes fiddle and gardon:

Transylvania is also another of the enviable fieldsites of Bernard Lortat-Jacob:

  • Jacques Bouët, Bernard Lortat-Jacob, and Speranţa Rădulescu, A tue-tête: chant et violon au pays de l’Oach, Roumanie (2002, with DVD),

a detailed ethnography of social musicking in the Oaș region, including musical analyses.

From Clejani near Bucharest, Taraf de Haïdouks were plucked up into the World Music scene; indeed, they are the source of my favourite quote about such success. Speranţa Rădulescu had recorded them from 1983, and introduced fellow-ethnomusicologist Laurent Aubert to them in 1986. Later, taken up by the likes of Johnny Depp, they toured with the Kronos quartet (“Californian pointy-heads” apud Cartwright, Princes amongst men, pp.196–7—actually a telling vignette on the different aesthetics of folk and art musicians).

But with the goals of ethnomusicologists and World Music promoters not always in tandem, such collaborations may not unfold smoothly. The World Music scene not only propels certain bands to fame, but may engender rival clones, misunderstandings, and lawsuits.

Retuning culture has a fascinating article

  • Steluta Popa, “The Romanian revolution of December 1989 and its reflection in musical folklore”,

documenting songs just as they were being composed—if only we could hear them too. But we can hear, from Latcho Drom (see below), the “Ballad of the dictator” by the late great Nicolae Neacșu (of Taraf de Haïdouks)—including my very favorite fiddle technique, evoking anguish, earthquake, or perhaps the creaking door that precedes “The master is not at home” in a Hammer Horror movie (perhaps not so suitable in the Mahler Adagietto, but who knows):

Green leaves, flowers of the fields, What are the people doing?
They’re taking to the streets, yelling and crying “Freedom!”
Green leaves, flowers of the fields, What are the students doing?
They’re marching on Bucharest, yelling and crying “Sweep away the dictatorship.”
Green leaves, a million green leaves on this 22nd day
Here, the time for life has returned, to live in freedom
Green leaves, flowers of the fields, There in Timisoara people are taking to the streets, yelling “It’s all over for the tyrant!”
What are the men doing? They’re taking out their guns. They’re shooting at people. Ceaucescu hears them:
“Tyrant, you have destroyed Romania.”

Beyond all the traumas of warfare and occupation, these are regions where countless Jewish and Roma peoples were deported and murdered in the mid-20th century, transforming the cultural landscape. In addition to its articles by country, The Rough Guide has a section on the trendy tag of Gypsy music—indeed, casting the net as wide as Rajasthan, Turkey, Russia, Spain, France, and Britain.

The fortunes of Roma peoples in various nations are tellingly described in

  • Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing (1995),

and turning to music, another most accessible book is

  • Garth Cartwright, Princes amongst men [sic]: journeys with Gypsy musicians (2005),

with vignettes from Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Though based on interviews with the stars, it makes a lively and well-observed read, a popular introduction not only to the scene at the time of his visits but also to the state socialist background. See his playlist here.

 The transgressive lifestyle of the Roma, Exotic Other “deviating from behavioural norms”, has long made an irresistible commercial proposition, as gleefully evoked in many popular feature films (Cartwright, pp.306–8 gives a useful list), such as those of Emil Kusturica like Time of the Gypsies (1989), Underground (1995), and Black cat, white cat (1998), or—more acceptably to the Roma community—Tony Gatlif, including Latcho Drom (1993, travelling from Rajasthan, Egypt, and Turkey to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain):

and Gadjo dilo (1997)—sorry, the English subtitled version has disappeared from YouTube, so we’ll just have to practise our Hungarian (Yeah, right):

An impressive early film was I even met happy Gypsies (Aleksandar Petrovic, 1967):

The Balkans
Here the scars of the war following the breakup of Yugoslavia are constantly on display. Brass bands have come to dominate the soundscape, the Guča festival making a heady showcase. Among the stars are Boban and Marko Marković (Serbia), the Kočani orkestar (Macedonia), and Fanfare Ciocârlia (from Zece Prăjini in Moldavia, Romania). While high-octane numbers dominate, the slow ballads are also most affecting.

Sorry, can’t find English subtitles for this 2002 documentary Iag bari/Brass on fire, so here’s some Swedish practice:

Modern brass bands have developed from groups led by zurna shawms with percussion, rather as Chinese shawm bands have added Western brass and pop music to their instrumentation since the 1980s.

The label “Balkan jazz” reminds me that I couldn’t resist describing the amazing Hua family shawm band as Chinese gypsies playing Ming-dynasty jazz; but accounts of both the social life of Balkan musos and the wildness of their playing do indeed suggest similarities.

In Bosnia–Herzegovina, apart from sevdalinka singing (sevdah resembling Romanian dor, as well as duende and saudade), Islamic soundscapes include kaside, ilahije, and zikr rituals—note the Smithsonian Folkways CD Bosnia: echoes from an endangered world:

Bulgaria, Macedonia
Academic studies include

  • Timothy Rice, May it fill your soul: experiencing Bulgarian music (1994, with CD)
  • Donna Buchanan, Performing democracy: Bulgarian music and musicians in transition (2006)
  • Carol Silverman, Romani routes: cultural politics and Balkan music in diaspora (2012, with companion website)

See also Silverman’s 2007 article on the changing wedding market, and chapters by Rice and Silverman in Retuning culture.

Silverman notes that Bulgaria had one of the most centralized forms of state socialism, Macedonia one of the least. But under both regimes the Roma—“powerless politically and powerful musically”—continued to play for non-Rom as well as Rom audiences at village and town events, such as weddings, birth celebrations, soldier send-off celebrations, circumcisions, and baptisms.

In the West, broad awareness of Bulgarian music began when “World Music” was just a twinkle in the promoter’s eye, with Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. The original LP, released as early as 1975, was reissued more widely in 1986. After the collapse of state socialism they reinvented themselves with several reincarnations, with further albums following. They made rather more earthy recordings too, like this track from Bulgarian custom songs (1993):

Another early star of the World Music circuit was Ivo Papazov—subject of a fine article by Donna Buchanan in Retuning culture, and vignettes in Rice’s May it fill your soul. Reminding us again that musicking doesn’t necessarily take place in designated venues like concert halls, the wedding scene is important. But Buchanan unpacks the ethnic and cultural tensions. In summer 1989, 370,000 ethnic Turks and Muslims were deported. Buchanan also puts into context how Papazov was promoted abroad by Joe Boyd with the Hannibal albums Orpheus ascending (1989) and Balkanology (1991), soon launching him as a global touring star—just as the local economy was collapsing.

Weddings had been lucrative, and moreover musos prefer their ambience—as Ivo commented,

In truth, a wedding is equal to a dozen concerts. There a person can create… A great deal of music is introduced in a wedding, and in a concert you lack this thrill.

However, by the 1990s weddings lasted only one day: he was being nostalgic for the extravagance of the 1980s! He returned to recording with the great albums Fairground (2003) and Dance of the falcon (2008). Meanwhile the wedding scene in Bulgaria continues to change.

Whatever setting he plays in, his music is just intoxicating. Here’s one of several YouTube playlists, including some raw footage from local gigs also featuring other bands:

And a drôle quote from Frank Zappa, no less:

Ivo’s wedding music, played first thing in the morning, provides thorough and long-lasting attitude adjustment for the busy executive.

Though additive “limping” metres feature in much folk music around the region and further afield (notably Turkey), Bulgaria has been particularly associated with them.

In Macedonia, megastars (sic) are Esma Redžepova (e.g. here, and here; and a playlist:)

and sax player Ferus Mustafov, also featured by Cartwright.

But again, it’s not all about the stars of the World Music scene. At the same time, musical appraisals expand from local to global, which are often at variance. By contrast with both nostalgic romantics and World Music fans in search of the latest groove, the brash sounds of Bulgarian chalga and Romanian manele have become highly popular.

As Cartwright observes,

The difference between what the West’s world music industry sells as Gypsy music and what the Roma listen to back in the Balkans can be huge. Sure, in Serbia Šaban is king and across Macedonia Esma reigns. But this is akin to African Americans acknowledging James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Don’t mean they’re listening to them. And in Romania the breach seems wider than anywhere else. Fulgerica is respected but he’s no pop star while Fanfare Ciocârlia and Taraf de Haïdouks exist only for Western audiences. That they play superior Gypsy music, rooted in tradition, means nothing. The local Roma aren’t listening. What they want is Adrian. And Guța.

Meanwhile, as he notes, the Venezuelan soap opera Kasandra became wildly popular across the Balkans, giving Šaban Bajramović a huge hit in 1997.

Albanian cultures
As a respite from the bombardment of turbo-folk, it’s good to return to a more traditional milieu. Again, ethnic Albanians occupy not just Albania but Kosovo and parts of Macedonia and northern Greece; the soundscape is highly regional, with Gheg culture in the north, Tosk and Lab further south.

The splendid A. L. Lloyd somehow issued a fine album as early as in 1966:

The polyphony here is amazing. From the south, another fine CD from Bernard Lortat-Jacob is

  • Albanie: polyphonies vocales et instrumentales (notes here):

A substantial study is

  • Jane Sugarman, Engendering song: singing and subjectivity at Albanian Prespa weddings (1997, with CD).

Again, the epics sung by bards, over a wide region of south Yugoslavia and Albanian communities, don’t neatly fit national or ethnic boundaries.

The classic study is

  • Albert Lord, The singer of tales (with CD-Rom; complete text here)

following the work of Milman Parry, Most singers are accompanied by a one-string fiddle like the gusle, as in this celebrated 1935 clip:

And in case all this seems like a bygone world, see here for a 2018 Venice performance of a Kosovan bard.

* * *

Under all these unwieldy national rubrics, the diverse ethnic groups negotiate the changing times, interacting. As ever, this is far more than a “merely musical” topic, as such cultures are not merely quaint ornaments, aural pashmina; they are windows on changing local societies, an essential part of what makes them click. As in China, it’s no use clinging onto a romantic idealization of the past; and we should always delve beyond the World Music stars to musicking in local societies.

As ever, Bruno Nettl offers useful perspectives, as in his taxonomies for various types of change and responses to them.

For any sinophiles who have read this far, it may serve as a reminder of the persistent variety of regional and local traditions in China—not just the ethnic tapestries of the northwest, southwest, and indeed northeast, or even Hakka and Hokkien cultures, but all kinds of musicking beneath the provincial level in Han Chinese regions.

The cultures of all these groups—before and during state socialism, and since— deserve detailed attention. And World Music fans may tend to favour modern commercial pop, but it’s important for ethnographers to include it in the picture too. Even in my work on Daoist funerals in China, I could hardly neglect the pop bands outside the gate (my film, from 30.32).

Both academic and popular accounts repay study: and both keep track of change. I wonder what Bartok would have made of all this—another of those fruitless debates like “Would Bach have used the ondes martenot?” or “Mozart would have written advertising jingles”…

For a sequel, click here. See also under Some jazz fiddling.

On a lighter note, far from PC, there’s Molvania

Taco taco taco burrito


Wondering how to get to grips with additive metres?
Awed by the complexities of flamenco palmas?
Despair not, help is at hand!

As a prelude to aksak “limping” metres, we might start with quintuple metres, which go far back, even in WAM. By the baroque period there are niche examples by composers such as Schmelzer, and they feature in 19th-century Russian music—a most popular instance being the “limping waltz” of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony (2+3).

This reminds me of two other subversions of the waltz, albeit in regular triple metre: the 2nd movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (cf. here and here), and Ravel’s La valse, a “surreal nightmarish vision of a decaying society through a broken kaleidoscope”, as I said in my Ravel page. Elsewhere, perhaps inspired by the Basque zortzico dance, Ravel was partial to additive metres—such as in his piano trio, and the quintuple-time Bacchanale finale of Daphnis and Chloé (both also featured on that page, the latter from 45.29). And Messiaen was most partial to complex yet catchy additive rhythms.

Quintuplets, of course, are something else altogether; as are the creative use of additive rhythms in minimalism (see also examples from Reich and Meredith).

From Tchaikovsky we might graduate to

  • the Pearl and Dean theme (which we may hear as two groups each of 3+3+2; or for a Bulgarian, perhaps two fast groups of 3+3+3+3+2+2)
  • Un homme et une femme (after the three upbeats, 3+3+2+2: the first two 3s, in the original “Dabadabada, badabadaba”, were later remembered as “Chabadabada“, a word that entered the language to denote alternating male and female candidates in electoral lists!)
  • and Lalo Schifrin’s theme to Mission impossible (5/4, with a duplet over the first 2 beats).

If you can hum along to such easy examples, then that’s a good start in mastering the intricacies of so-called aksak metres around east Europe and the Middle East…

Indeed, Take five was inspired by hearing Turkish musicians. Rather more challenging is the opening section of Blue Rondo à la Turk (2+2+2+3):

Note the helpful BTL comment there (only without the punctuation!):

Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito.
[SJ: not to be confused with potato, potato]

Still, that’s a rather crude, mechanical usage, the melody merely marking out the metre in regular quavers—whereas further east, melodic rhythms are infinitely varied within the basic metre.

Admittedly, the additive patterns of the Rite of spring have been transcribed in 4/4—was it really Boulez who had this drôle idea?! Cf. Slonimsky‘s help for Koussevitzky, here). Indeed, the scores for both the Pearl and Dean and Un homme et une femme tunes were written in duple metres.

And in the first movement of Winter, Max Richter’s welcome recomposition of the Four Seasons mixes in some great limping 7/8 bars (2+2+3—just the two tacos before the burrito today, thanks waiter) (from 1.18):

An intriguing instance is I say a little prayer, with its quirky insertion of a triple-time bar in the chorus—which no-one apparently even has to think about.

* * *

But all this is mere child’s play compared to folk music. Though such metres are quite widespread, Bartók, Brailiou et al. coined the term “Bulgarian rhythm”.


Some instances of “Bulgarian rhythm”, found here; see also here.

A classic essay is

  • Constantin Brăiloiu, “Aksak rhythm” (in Brăiloiu, Problems of ethnomusicology, 133–67, based on a 1951 lecture),

which contains far more detailed schemata. His work followed that of

  • Bela Bartók, “The so-called Bulgarian rhythm” (1938).

A transcription by Bartók of a Turkish zurna–davul shawm band shows how, over the basic metre, melodic and percussion rhythms seriously thicken the plot:

aksak 2

The whole repertoire of players like Ivo Papazov is based on aksak metres:

I don’t think I’m quite ready for Sedi donka (Plovdivsko horo), a 25-beat pattern divided

    7             7                 11
3+2+2 | 3+2+2  | 2+2+3+2+2

For more on the diverse musical cultures of Bulgaria and environs, see here. And for a wide-ranging discussion, see

  • John Blacking, “Irregular rhythms: movement, dance, music, and ritual”, ch.3 of A common-sense view of all music (1987).

Back with Merrie England, there’s a fascinating article:

* * *

Further east, an example from the muqam of the beleaguered Uyghurs of Xinjiang is sadly topical. A common metre consists of one long beat divided into two equal stresses, followed by two regular beats—which we might notate cumbersomely as


with the initial duplet over a notional 3/8 unit:

Some sections add another duple unit, like this dastan from Chebiyat muqam (actually a duplet over 3/8,  followed by 3/4):


And some muqam have still more metrically complex segments to explore.

As with many world genres, the Uyghurs have no tradition of notation, and seem to have no terminology for such metres (though see Rachel Harris’s chapter in Harris and Stokes (eds.), Theory and Practice in the Music of the Islamic World). As with flamenco, this kind of thing is only an issue for those (like me) hampered by a visual classical education. The trick is to internalize it in the body—and to dispense with notation. Let’s remember that much of this music accompanies dance.

Uyghur musical traditions are part of a rich culture that is currently being systematically erased in Xinjiang: see e.g. here, and here.

Moon river


À propos my Daoist ritual spinoff of Strictly, the brilliant (ethnographer!) Stacey Dooley‘s recent waltz reminds me what a brilliant song is Moon river:

Pace Andy Williams, the classic sung version is that of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961):

Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, “a love song to wanderlust” (cf. Roaming the clouds), are complemented by Henry Mancini’s melody.  I just love the leap of a major 7th:

I’m crossing you in style some day / There’s such a lot of world to see,

always effective—as in the finale of Mahler 9 (introduced by quintuplets!) and, um, Raindrops keep falling on your head! Indeed, there’s another brilliant touch: following “We’re after the same rainbow’s end“, when that sequence returns with

Waiting round the bend, My huckleberry friend,

for the first phrase the melody omits the low tonic, making us nostalgic for the missing major-7th leap (waiting, indeed), until it returns for the second phrase.

So Moon river (nearly cut from the film, PAH!) makes a perfect expression of Holly’s persona—and indeed that of Stacey Dooley, with her documentaries from around the world.

The dominant interpretation currently seems to be that Hepburn’s screen characters make her some kind of feminist role model. But “it’s complicated”—certainly in this film, which largely replaces the edgy feel of Truman Capote’s novella (1958, set in 1943) with a “sugar and spice confection”; indeed, Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part! I tend to side with more critical reviews, such as this, this, and this. After I cited some dodgy sexist terms to describe talented female performersgamine and ingénue are among those for which there are both male and female equivalents, but the latter are far more commonly used, and flawed. Oh, and how ahout “elfin waif”…

For Hepburn’s actual life, Darcey Bussell (another fragrant icon) made a fine documentary Looking for Audrey (2014), including her childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland.

* * *

Capote describes Holly as an American geisha—rural child bride Lulamae, reinventing herself in New York. Film adaptations can be effective, but in this case the novella portrays her with more nuance and depth. So—not least because I’m so averse to Hepburn’s “elfin waif” shtick—I find Capote’s silent invisible original far more moving, and Holly herself far more poignant and (as she would say) sympathique.

Inevitably, at the end of the film the narrator and Holly fall in love and stay together, whereas in the novella their relationship remains platonic, and Holly disappears.

Lending significance to Moon river, the name-slot for Holly’s mail-box reads:

Miss Holiday Golightly, travelling

She reflects on how she demurred from a break in the movies offered by a Hollywood agent:

But he’s got a point, I should feel guilty. Not because they would have given me the part or because I would have been good: they wouldn’t and I wouldn’t. If I do feel guilty, I guess it’s because I let him go on dreaming when I wasn’t dreaming a bit. I was just vamping for time to make a few self-improvements: I knew damn well I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing. My complexes aren’t inferior enough: being a movie star and having a big fat ego are supposed to go hand-in-hand; actually, it’s essential not to have any ego at all. I don’t mean I mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule, and some day I’ll try to get around to it; but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And Holly does indeed sing and play guitar:

Don’t wanna sleep, don’t wanna die, just wanna go a’travellin’ through the pastures of the sky

With a Brazilian suitor in tow, she takes to Linguaphone:

Oh screw it, cookie—hand me my guitar and I’ll sing you a fado in the most perfect Portuguese.

That would surely have rivalled Carminho’s exquisite song.

In the novella, I note with proprietoral pride that Holly’s fellow-geisha Mag Wildwood (intriguingly, Capote gave her the full name of Miss Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood)—as if being a redhead over six feet tall isn’t enough—is a stammerer (Marilyn Monroe might have resented the competition):

Even the stutter, certainly genuine but still a bit laid on, had been turned to advantage. It was the master stroke, that stutter: for it contrived to make her banalities sound somehow original, and secondly, despite her tallness, her assurance, it served to inspire in male listeners a protective feeling.

* * *

Amy Winehouse (see my tribute here) may seem an unlikely exponent of Moon river, but she was grounded in ballads, as we can hear in her “late” sessions with Tony Bennett. Here she is, subverting the waltz, making the song sugar-free—maybe it doesn’t quite work, but even at the age of 16 she was always exploring, discovering new personal connections:

Click here for a discussion of the song in the BBC Radio 4 Soul music series.

From my playlist of songs, it’s clear that, with some noble exceptions, I find female voices more moving than male ones—and I’m right!!! And don’t forget to keep voting for Stacey on Strictly

Just another reminder that a global view of musicking invites us to delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse!

The conformist

Conformist 1

The conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), based on the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, is a most captivating film, visually sumptuous—with the gorgeous Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, and Dominique Sanda bringing out the interplay of political and sexual themes.

For my generation it recalls late-night screenings in art cinemas (along with Parajanov, Seven samurai, Marx brothers marathons, La stradaFive easy pieces and Performance (both also 1970), The bitter tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Céline et Julie (1974), and so on—what an eclectic education; see also here). Revisiting the film now, alarmingly, makes a timely reminder: until recently the dangers of fascism may have seemed quite remote.

Conformist 2

As with Bertolucci’s other films like Last tango in Paris, music and dance play a crucial role. The soundtrack (by Georges Delerue) has the ambivalence of Cinema paradiso and Twin peaks. As with all the best film music, just the opening theme transports us instantly into the story’s troubled world. And the female radio band near the opening reminds me of Franco Cerri’s recollections in my post on Chet in Italy.

By way of comparison with the final dance, here’s the equivalent scene in Last Tango:

—just as iconic as Jack Nicholson’s scene in Five easy pieces where he erupts in the diner, and reminiscent of Alexei Sayle’s critique of ballroom.

Bertolucci died in November 2018 (see also here), soon after Nic Roeg (for an assessment of both together, see here). Many more films to revisit, not least The sheltering sky (based, indeed, on the great novel by Paul Bowles, though he was less than keen on the result), The dreamers, and the epic 1900.

Flamenco in Chiswick

*Sequel to my three posts on flamenco:
gender, politics, wine, deviance; and
cante jondo!*


Among the varied aesthetic pleasures on offer in west London (“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high“), what better for a rainy autumn Sunday evening than another flamenco gig?

It was a small price to pay for missing the public moral verdict on the Strictly dance/snog of shame—though I would humbly suggest to the BBC that such quandaries would be obviated by my Strictly north Chinese Daoist ritual project.

The show featured stalwarts Anita La Maltesa with Ramon Ruiz on guitar, the fine Sevillian singer Julio Lopez (another London local), and the star guest dancer Juan Polvillo on a visit from Seville, all sensitively accompanied by the cajon player Antonio Romero.

After worthy recent distractions (blind Ukrainian minstrels, Chinese female spirit mediums, Barbara Hannigan as Gepopo, and so on), I’m delighted to reinvigorate my naïve studies of the riches of flamenco—continuing to get to grips with palmas hand-clapping patterns with the aid of the amazing Rito y geografïa del cante series and various useful websites (see my first post).

In order to appreciate Mozart you don’t have to analyse sonata form—indeed, the term hadn’t even taken shape in Mozart’s day. But a basic understanding of what’s going on, as with the pitch relationships in Indian music, can enrich our enjoyment.

For a hidebound classically-trained Brit like me, learning is a lot to do with switching off the tedious analytical brain and engaging the body‚ experiencing the performance whole—singing, lyrics, palmas, dance, guitar and all. After all, homing in on the fancy footwork would help me get the hang of the palmas (but don’t worry, the dance world is safe).

How envious I feel of the sleeping Andalucian child in the arms of her mother as she sings her heart out (DO admire the footage of Cristobalina Suarez in this post!)—that’s the way to learn. Anita and Ramon’s sessions must be great for London schoolkids too.

Presenting world music on stage always involves striking a balance between what Chairman Mao called “popularization” and “raising standards” (puji 普及 and tigao 提高). The Rito series shows how in more informal social gatherings in Andalucia, dancing can serve as an organic physical response to the intense singing that draws me to flamenco. By contrast, in more polished shows (at least in the minds of foreign audiences) the balance is often reversed, with the cante subsidiary to the virtuosic dance items—which while also intense, are more popular than, say, an entire evening with a solo gypsy blacksmith singing anguished siguiriyas, perhaps a tad heavy for some. Anita and Ramon manage to strike an effective balance between peña and tablau, incorporating all the elements of flamenco into an inspiring evening.

London, microcosm of world music—for now, anyway: if some people have their way, from here on we may have content ourselves with Morris dancing. For more flamenco in London, see here.



Detroit 67

More “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, à la McClary and Small—in this related post I both make a disclaimer and explore the point of venturing beyond familiar territories.

On soul, apart from classics like

  • Nelson George, Where did our love go? (1985),

I’ve been admiring

  • Stuart Cosgrove, Detroit 67: the year that changed soul (2015)—

not just to educate myself about the music, but to admire compelling writing about history, and the nexus of society and culture.

For background (if you’re on another planet, like me—I guess if you know much about soul, you’ll have better things to do than reading this blog…) it’s worth revisiting the fine BBC documentary R.E.S.P.E.C.T (from the Dancing in the street series), here in four parts—they should segue automatically:

The film also covers the southern scene, no less important—and more edgy. I now look forward to reading Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: the tragedy of southern soul.

* * *

In 1967—just as the Cultural Revolution in China was becoming even more violent, and ritual specialists were keeping their heads down; shortly before the crushing of the Prague Spring; while I was primly learning Brahms and Ravel in a youth orchestra in suburban London, with little idea that there might be any other kinds of musicking in the world—Detroit and Motown were entering a pivotal phase of turmoil.

Cosgrove’s focus on one year is a most effective device. At a time-remove from the “one-year” rule of anthropological fieldwork, he takes 1967 as a microcosm of festering race relations, social upheaval, and musicking.

Incredulous as we are at the current travails of the USA, it’s also a reminder that they have a long history.

This was the year of Sgt Pepper (for all popular [Anglo–American, that is!] genres that year, see here). Indeed, the soul movement had had to react to the market challenge from British groups like the Beatles, and to maintain crossover appeal; but Sgt Pepper itself was a retreat from the innocent lyrical messages they had been crooning on their frantic touring life.

Supremes 2

A fine piece of thick-description ethnography from a distance of time and space, the book is based on the troubled relations of Berry Gordy and his protégées the Supremes, with a focus on the ill-fated Florence Ballard. But Cosgrove adroitly weaves in portraits of individual figures with their back-stories; the automobile industry, social change, race, housing, poverty, crime, and the police; civil rights, Vietnam, hippy counterculture, bikers, and LSD.

There was the hippie Steering Committee, the young rock gods of the Grande Ballroom, the disgruntled officers of the Detroit police, and a legion of car-assembly workers drawn from the tense communities of Polish and African-Americans. There were disenchanted young men who moved from unemployment to Vietnam, the radical soldiers of Black Power, the independent producers who saw soul music as their Klondike, and the caravan of older gospel Christians who had seen their homes destroyed to make way for freeways.

Youth culture was fragmenting into a mosaic of different tribes.

Half a million people had migrated to Detroit between 1940 and 1943, mostly African-Americans from the southern states. Already by 1959 its image as a boomtown was wearing thin, but migrants kept arriving.

As anti-Vietnam protests grew, in 1965 came a wave of self-immolations. By 1967

the area around Twelfth Street had witnessed complete transformation in twenty years as white residents fled to new buildings, better neighbourhoods or the encroaching suburbs. In a contemporary survey by the University of Michigan’s Psychology Department, the area was described as a community of high stress where an overwhelming majority of the residents were disenchanted with their living conditions. […] It was a blighted area about to take centre stage.

Still, the social milieu for Motown was aspirational. In March, Berry Gordy’s mother hosted a coffee evening in her role as past Exalted Ruler of the Lady Camille Temple of the Michigan Elks:

Floral handbags, matching frocks and elegant hats turned the room into a chorus of colour. […] This was a room of elegant elderly women who valued status, took pride in their families, and cared deeply about emancipation.

In June the Supremes, “in a bubble of fame, increasingly out of touch with the new militancy in the black community and the rising fury of their hometown”, made an ill-judged appearance in LA for a beleaguered President Johnson.

The July riots, including the appalling Algiers Motel incident (on which see John Hersey’s book), were a flashpoint—and again there’s plenty of youtube footage. As with the violence in towns throughout China at that very time, the turmoil had deep social roots.

As Motown abandoned Detroit for LA, African-American music kept moving.

Detroit’s wooden-porch image as the home of soul music had been damaged to the core, and the family image that had been so crucial to the Motown story was brutally displaced by darker visions of a charred city under martial law. […] The nightclubs, the bars and the independent studios that had been the foundations of Detroit’s soul scene had been burned to the ground, ransacked, or destroyed. […] The generation that had shaped one of the greatest periods in the history of popular music had seen its city devastated. For the Supremes and others within Motown, the riots were to become a metaphor for ruined harmonies and wrecked friendships. In a broader sense, the disturbances were also a requiem for Detroit’s great industrial achievements and its declining manufacturing base.

Meanwhile John Sinclair and MC5 feature regularly, and there are cameos from Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther King. The latter observed:

Perhaps the most tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population… So we have repeatedly been faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

It was his assassination in 1968 that would mark a definitive turning point for both society and music.

Singers, songs, music
The Motown sound emerged from the background of the incredibly rich talents brought up in gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, and so on. Cosgrove explores the nuances of changing style, documenting the host of composer-arrangers, choreographers, backing groups, instrumentalists, recording execs, and lawyers.

And decorum coaches—the Motown Finishing School (great scenes in #2 of the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. film)! Some of the singers took readily to Miss Maxine Powell’s training, while one of the Temptations complained “I don’t want to learn how to be white”.

To some, Motown resembled a hit machine, an assembly-line like the city’s car plants, producing polished feel-good tracks—a saccharine soundtrack to a convulsive era. It was “predicated on a compromise”. Gordy had

softened the rough edges of R&B, draped the music in the familiar cadences of teenage love, and his girl groups […] pioneered a highly addictive from of “bubblegum soul” that lent itself perfectly to the still-segregated radio stations of America.
It was in every respect an art of repetition: familiar backing tracks were refashioned, everyday phrases repackaged and the anxieties of young love were played out as memorable drama.

I may be the last person qualified to offer a playlist, but it hasn’t stopped me before (e.g. Amyfeminist punk)…

In fact even I heard The Supremes on Top of the Pops in the mid-60s, though they felt alien to me. Of course, they were—but countless other British kids were hooked.

Cosgrove also weaves in the stories of

  • Martha and the Vandellas, Dancing in the street—“an otherwise innocent piece of teenage pop [that] became inextricably linked to social unrest”:

  • Marvin GayeAin’t no mountain high enough, with Tammi Terrell:

And the roots of What’s going on were firmly in 1967: “masterpiece of the inner city, echoing the events of the Algiers Motel killings, the ‘trigger-happy policemen’, the lives of returning Vietnam vets, the emotionally devastated mothers who had placed their faith in the benevolence of God, and the scattered fragments of a war-torn city”:

  • Aretha Franklin (R.I.P.) came from Detroit, but wasn’t part of the Motown stable, getting snapped up by other labels. And she was also more readily recruited to the civil rights movement. Respect, her version of an Otis Redding song:

I say a little prayer was originally written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick, but Aretha, along with the Sweet Inspirations, transforms it. Not so homely as the dreamy opening suggests (it’s about the singer’s anxieties for her man serving in Vietnam), it’s both ecstatic and defiant, with a real gospel call-and-response feel:

This live version from 1970 is just amazing too:

(Talking of how naturally performers learn the complex rhythms of flamenco clapping, I guess no-one even had to think about the triple-time bar inserted into the chorus here (you’ll stay in my heart we never will part—see also here; and for additive metres, here)… Actually, why did Bacharach write it thus? It’d work perfectly well to maintain the duple beat throughout—but in Aretha’s version it creates greater urgency and a feeling of spontaneity. I am in awe of everything about this song.)

Her 1972 church performance of Amazing Grace is legendary. Just the audio, with its lengthy alap, is spine-tingling:

I’ve now done a separate post on the complete footage, a *MUST WATCH!*—here’s a brief trailer:

  • Otis Redding (one of many sadly short-lived artists in the story) also features in the book, though his story belongs with that of southern soul. And James Brown was leading the way forward with that common blend of musical brilliance and unsavoury personal relations.

Behind the glossy stars and glamorous hype lie gruelling touring schedules (indeed, The Supremes were rarely in Detroit), drug habits, internal disputes, and personal breakdowns—like a New York orchestra, a Chinese shawm band, or indeed any group.

Tedious legal wrangles invariably take up considerable space in such books on the popular music business. Motown seemed like a cosy family, yet

the close-knit relationships forged in postwar Detroit were destined to be dismantled as success and dysfunction tore the surrogate family apart.

Here the style and lyrics of such love songs seem quite detached from the realities of personal and social life. That’s common in music worldwide, though anguish is often paraded too, in genres like flamenco deep song, Bach Passions, or Daoist funeral liturgy

In many world genres, links between culture and politics may be opaque. The book’s social context is compelling, but the commercial pressures that drove the music seem estranged from social change. In the end the music inevitably, suitably, takes a back seat, though the songs remain intoxicating.

I had remarkably little idea of any of this, either then or later. Better late than never, eh. Detroit 67 is just the kind of in-depth study of social and musical tensions to which ethnographers aspire in documenting any genre—whether “art”, “folk”, or “popular”.

See also Stuart Cosgrove’s paean to northern soul.

Feminine endings: Madonna and McClary


Left: I found this postcard in Ireland in the mid-1990s; though still drôle, it no longer seems quite so fantastical.
Right: Susan McClary—less futuristically.

Since the party for Madonna’s 60th birthday [I know…] has already begun (see e.g. here), it may seem a tad cerebral to celebrate by revisiting the work of the great Susan McClary (notably her classic 1991 book Feminine endings: music, gender, and sexuality). But given that academics are mostly lumbered with writing, she does at least rejoice in the physical.

Of course, many female performers have continued exploring the trail that Madonna blazed, and she no longer has such power to shock. Similarly, while many critics (not least feminist authors) have disputed and refined McClary’s work, the thrust [sic: her own writings are full of such ludic language, matching her theme] of her argument has practically become mainstream—but her thoughts remain most perceptive.

Fem endings

So far I’ve mainly written about Susan McClary in the context of her provocative analysis of the extraordinary harpsichord solo of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg concerto. Her insights also get a mention in my post on Ute Lemper.

It would be quite wrong to reduce her oeuvre to soundbites—but hey, here goes! With her early research based in baroque music, she notes the historical contingency, mutability, of musical signifiers. Inspired by Greenblatt on Shakespeare (“once science discovered that female arousal served no reproductive purpose, cultural forms silenced not only the necessity but even the possibility of sexual desire in the ‘normal’ female”), she revels in the (pre-watershed) erotic friction of the 17th-century trio texture from Monteverdi through Corelli:

in which two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that achingly resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions. This interactive texture (and its attendant metaphors) is largely displaced in music after the 17th century by individualistic, narrative monologues.

Aww, shucks. A review goes on:

The narrative structure of 19th-century instrumental music becomes for her
“a prolonged sexual encounter of intense foreplay that results inevitably in a cataclysmic metaphorical ejaculation. Beethoven becomes the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music, whose recapitulation of the first movement of the 9th symphony “unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music”.

McClary was a pioneer in broadening our concepts of cross-genre “music” studies, encompassing both WAM from a wide period and notably pop music—all with a focus on gender. Feminine endings also covers Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, and Laurie Anderson—and such breadth is just what makes her so great. She’s a real genre-bender. As she writes in Conventional wisdom: the content of musical form (2000),

If I tend to reread the European past in my own Postmodern image, if I frequently write about Bach and Beethoven in the same ways in which I discuss the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and John Zorn, it is not to denigrate the canon but rather to show the power of music all throughout its history as a signifying practice. For this is how culture always works—always grounded in codes and social contracts, always open to fusions, extensions, transformations. To me, music never seems so trivial as in its “purely musical” readings. If there was at one time a rationale for adopting such an intellectual position, that time has long since past. And if the belief in the 19th-century notion of aesthetic autonomy continues to be an issue when we study cultural history, it can no longer be privileged as somehow true.

In the final chapter of Feminine endings,

  • “Living to tell: Madonna’s resurrection of the fleshly”,

McClary notes the conflicting strands of interpretation between viewing Madonna as mere commodified sexuality or as a feminist in control. And even while she rails against the denial of the body, what most reactions share (as she comments) is an automatic dismissal of Madonna’s music as irrelevant. Visual appearance and image seems primary, yet the music in music videos is also powerful. Hilary Mantel’s 1992 review doesn’t even bother with any of these features (and an apt riposte there draws attention to McClary’s work); perhaps Madonna might herself respond by reviewing Mantel’s significance without referring to her literary output?

As McClary comments, Madonna’s pieces

explore—sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously—various ways of constituting identities that refuse stability, that remain fluid, that resist definition.

Citing the historical demeaning by sexualization of composer–performers Barbara Strozzi (as featured on the wonderful T-shirt) and Clara Schumann, and continuing to unpack the sexual politics of opera, she observes:

One of Madonna’s principal accomplishments is that she brings this hypocrisy to the surface and problematizes it. […]
The fear of female sexuality and anxiety over the body are inscribed in the Western music tradition. […]
Like Carmen or Lulu, she invokes the body and female sexuality; but unlike them, she refuses to be framed by a structure that will push her back into submission or annihilation.

McClary reiterates the historical trivializing of dance by (male) critics. Madonna’s

engagement with traditional signs of childish vulnerability projects her knowledge that this is what the patriarchy expects of her and also her awareness that this fantasy is ludicrous.

No matter what genre she discusses, McClary’s work is always detailed in musical analysis. She repeats her thesis of tonal structures, with the exploration and subduing of “Other” keys—the “desire–dread–purge sequence”, returning to her much-cited portrayal of the violence of Beethoven.

In her analysis of Live to tell McClary shows in detail how such assumptions are subverted:

and she validates the contradictions of Open your heart:

She takes Like a prayer seriously, its ancient virgin–whore cliché mingling with an exploration of religion and race, sexuality and spirituality—

about the possibility of creating musical and visual narratives that celebrate multiple rather than unitary identities, that are concerned with ecstatic continuation rather than with purging and containment.

Her footnotes (endnotes, actually) are always wonderful too. McClary’s, not Madonna’s.

* * *

Whether or not you concur with all of McClary’s conclusions (apart from a host of critiques, do read her thoughtful introduction “Feminine endings in retrospect” to the more recent edition), it’s a throughly stimulating way of reflecting on culture. (For another lead suggested by the book, see here.)

All my own gadding about from century to century, culture to culture, is partly inspired by her work. But that’s not her fault. As ethnomusicology shows, if elites invariably try to prescribe and control the prestige of genres across the world, in studying them a level playing field is essential (for a cross-class analysis of Chinese music, see here).

Among numerous YouTube clips, albeit less physically engaging than those of Madonna, here’s a sample of McClary’s wisdom:

I used to delight in Bach without stopping to think about Leipzig society of his time; flamenco, without noticing gender and social issues; and it took me some time to unpack gendered aspects of Chinese ritual. Such a mindset is basic to ethnomusicology, to which McClary’s work is a major stimulus.

In the 1990s, for what it’s worth (and not for what it’s not worth), on returning from village funerals in Hebei to regroup at Matt’s place in Beijing, I would regularly bask in Holiday:


In their different spheres, Madonna and Susan McClary are both iconic and iconoclasts!



Sardinian chronicles

Bernard Irgoli 1995

Bernard Lortat-Jacob entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.

I’ve already mentioned some of the more accessible bibles of ethnomusicology, like the works of Bruno Nettl, Susan McClary, Ruth Finnegan, Christopher Small, Paul Berliner, and Ciaran Carson. Another justly popular one is the slim tome by

How I envy Bernard his fields of study—apart from Sardinia, also Morocco, Romania, Albania…! As with flamenco (first of three posts here), he explores the riches of regional folk cultures around the Mediterranean, integrating changing musical and social practices into everyday life—which is precisely what fieldwork should be about (see also fieldwork tag).

His publications are enough to make anyone want to become an ethnographer. He also blazed a trail in making audio and visual anthropology an indispensable part of our oeuvre.

* * *

I’ve introduced the riches of the regional folk cultures of Italy here. The concept of “Italy” is rather recent anyway, and there’s still a huge amount to explore in its regional traditions. So taxonomy falls short again: to subsume the folk culture of Sardinia under Italy is no more suitable than discussing Tibetan or Uyghur cultures under China (ha). And it’s another illustration how very blinkered is our search for sun and sea (cf. fado, football, and Fátima).

Sardinian chronicles is popular not only by virtue of its brevity and its engaging style, akin to travel writing, but from its rich ethnographic observation and its musical, social, and indeed psychological detail, with a series of encounters with individual musicians and their families—musicking as part of social interaction within changing local communities.

Like the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck for China, Bernard is gifted with a natural rapport. And as he unpacks his own involvement, his delights and tribulations form part of the picture. Sardinian chronicles has become a model for later texts—certainly mine (not least my latest film and book).

Despite the luxury tourist enclaves of latter years, the poverty of Sardinia is striking, far from the glamorous life of Tuscany or north Italy. Vendettas remains chronic among Sardinian shepherds—like the feuds of rival clans in south Fujian, and child chimney-sweeps, among the traditional heritages that UNESCO won’t be supporting…

Complementing his book, this beautiful 1989 film by Bernard (with Georges Luneau) makes a fine introduction to various kinds of musicking in Sardinian life:

Here one truly feels the “red-hot sociality” attributed to Chinese temple fairs.

Canto a tenores
This style of a cappella vocal quartet (see e.g. from 16.40 in the film above) is one of the most entrancing vocal sounds anywhere in the world, let alone in Europe. Its sound ideal makes a fascinating contrast with that of the Swedish psalm—more for Lomax’s Cantometrics to explore. Though recently, inevitably, sucked into the heritage razzmatazz (nowhere is safe!) and a regular guest on the world-music circuit, commodification can’t hijack its presence in local society.

On Lunissanti Holy Week in Castelsardo in northwest Sardinia (cf. calendrical rituals, or Athos), Bernard Lortat-Jacob has another gorgeous book

  • Canti di passione (1996; French edition 1998),

with photos by Bachisio Masia—a brilliant innovation of a scholarly work on folk liturgy which doubles as a coffee-table book!

Like Berliner’s Lives in jazz, it is just as detailed in musical as in social analysis—and as with Indian music, or indeed Madonna, a basic grasp of musical features can only enhance a more physical and intuitive response. Apart from the wonderful scenes in Bernard’s film (from 28.26), some video from 1992:

and 2011:

Here the magical canto a cuncordu vocal style evokes that of the secular tenores.

The launeddas (Sachs–Hornbostel #422.3!!!) is another microcosm, with its locally renowned players and makers. With three pipes (one drone, two melodic), it’s a very distant cousin of the Chinese sheng mouth-organ. Again, Bernard’s film has some insightful scenes (from 46.14).

An early pioneer of launeddas studies was Andreas Bentzon (1936–71):

The minimalists would love the constant imperceptible transformations in these riffs!


Prominent among the masters with whom Bentzon studied were Efisio Melis and Antonio Lara (yet more rivals who made a tactical truce!). Their recordings from 1930 and 1961 are featured on a fine CD.

I haven’t yet caught the launeddas in situ, but I was delighted to hear the great Luigi Lai at the City of London festival in 1998, to which I had invited the equally distinguished qin master Lin Youren.

The manic melodic quality of the style is the basis for that of the organetto—one accordion type that Annie Proulx doesn’t quite cover (and to lower the tone, Captain Pugwash perhaps sowed the seed for my generation in Britain). A brief appreciation (of the organetto, not Captain Pugwash, as Nina Stibbe would explain) features below.

* * *

By contrast, to show the limitations of casual visits by an outsider like me, here are some vignettes from a holiday I spent there with my partner from Mantua in the summer of 1998, when Bernard affably introduced us to his adopted village of Irgoli—his chapter about which in Sardinian chronicles is itself a kind of love song, with beautiful insights on guitar song (another major genre) in the bar.

Writing up my notes mainly on the beach, the contrast with my fieldwork in China was extreme—I was deep in my studies of Gaoluo and the Hebei ritual associations at the time.

And despite the ethnographic riches of, um, Chiswick, it’s ironic that I should be writing all this stuck here, sweltering (insert suitable headline here)—I should be there! I guess it’s called work­–life balance.

Our hosts Totore Vacca and Doloretta are friendly—warm and natural. There are lots of musos around. We get by with speaking Italian, though of course they all speak Sardinian together.

On our first evening we go along to a festa for children’s singing, meeting the breezy, nay manic, organetto star Totore Chessa (see e.g. here and here; also featured in Bernard’s film above, and on the Sardinian chronicles CD). Totore uses his big fisarmonica (rather than his organetto) to accompany our hosts’ daughter Francesca. To conclude, the local priest makes a speech that reminds me of a Chinese cadre: family, pride, culture, blah blah.

One evening Totore drives us, manically, to the festa of Santa Margherita Bultei. The gig on a stage in the piazza is furnished with loud amplification. Several groups of dancers perform, one of which Salvatore accompanies, with singers and guitar. The other dance groups have their own organetto accompanists; and there are three groups of tenores, including the fine group from Orgosolo. An old codger goes round liberally dispensing local wine. This sure beats the Nether Wallop church fête.

The costumes seem rather fabricated to me, but it doesn’t affect the authenticity of the performances. The parameters of the music seem simple, narrow, but it’s still hard to grasp.

After the festa ends at 2.15am, the local organetto player Mario Bande invites Totore back to his place for a drink—which turns into an all-nighter. We’re tired enough after the long festa, unprepared for this further private party, but given that Totore is our lift, we tag along with some of the dancers. Their animated talk is incomprehensible, even to my Italian partner; yet if we had managed to understand more, it would have been a wonderful insight into local musical values. Story of my life…

The two of them are subtly sounding each other out. Mario’s uncle and grandfather were great players, and the latter collected many folk pieces, some of which Salvatore is said to have ripped off.

First Mario brings out various instruments for Totore to try out and appraise, then they have a protracted argument about the uniqueness of local dance styles. Totore, defending himself against the taint of plagiarism, makes the point that there can be no evidence that such pieces originated in this one village alone.

They’re not just arguing passionately about aesthetics (the local dancers are also vocal in support of the Bultei faction), with all the loving exploration of craftsmanship of instrument-making that Annie Proulx describes, but they also have a deep and insatiable need to keep playing and dancing. As soon as anyone even tries out a phrase, the dancers can’t help gyrating—a contagious kind of dancing mania. Everyone (except us!) gets involved. Eventually the party winds down, with diplomatic decorum apparently maintained, though we’re not privy to the nuances of their probings.

Totore is pure, other-wordly, childlike, living only for the organetto. He talks just the way he plays, in quickfire bursts and abrupt cadences, always upbeat, hectic, alert to the spark of the moment. People know he’s different.

Here he is with Luigi Lai in 2011:

Back to my notes, covered in wine and suntan lotion:

Totore drives just like he plays too. Still chattering away, he navigates the mountain roads at breakneck speed as the sun rises. He clearly know the roads as well as he knows his keyboard—like Daoist Li Bin as he chases round doing funerals in Yanggao. We get back to Irgoli by 7am. Only later that day do we learn that a shepherd had been shot dead at the edge of the village at 5am—another victim of local vendettas.

Another evening we take our hosts for a pizza in Orosei. They’re keen to go to a screening of Titanic. We make excuses—another of those moral dilemmas of the fieldworker. Solidarity (“Becoming at One with the People”) suggests that we try and share their world, but hey, we’re on holiday… Instead we find Totore Chessa propping up the bar. He drops in next day to invite us to another festa, but we’ve agreed to go to a gara poetica poetry joust in Orosei—which is no longer quite like this:

(As often I tend to cite older clips because they hint at change—more recent footage is easily found!)

On a visit to the museum at Nuoro we get a glimpse of how very much life has changed in Sardinia. Then Bernard and Maria arrive; after a trip to the beach we go to the wedding of their friends, where the tenores di Bitti and a group from Castelsardo are singing. As in China, this is how to experience folk music, rather than in sanitized stage renditions. Sure, it’s all a continuum

tenores 1998

And of course this is yet another instance of the diversity of all the cultures of Europe (like those of China, or Africa) from which Some Brits now seek to isolate themselves…

See also Musics of Crete.

Flamenco, 3: the soul of cante jondo

*Following Part 1 and (you guessed it) Part 2!*

As we saw in my previous posts, the soul of flamenco is cante jondo (“deep singing”). It may be nourished by the toques of the guitar, and may lead into dancing; but at its heart is anguished solo singing and palmas. Besides Washabaugh’s social analysis, I’m also much taken by

  • Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song (1994).

While recognizing the power of cante jondo, Mitchell takes a refreshingly detached, even jaundiced view:

A decoding of flamenco from a psychohistorical perspective will reveal self-pity, posturing machismo, hypersensitive adolescent egos, and a defensive flight into narcissistic ethnicity.

Again, as a counterpoint to the wholesome family revamp subtly promoted in the Rito series, Mitchell shows that the moods and musical techniques of cante jondo

are inseparable from alcohol abuse. […] Flamenco creativity sought to recover Catholicism’s lost catharsis in saloons, bordellos, and prisons. At the behest of playboy-philanthropists, the haunting cries and brash guitars of a stigmatized underclass were harnessed to explore every aspect of co-dependency. To be worthy of deep song, male performers needed to get their hearts trampled by some dark-skinned dancer; female singers needed to be abandoned or battered by their men. Flamenco artistry as we know it today makes sublime psychodrama out of alcoholism, fatalism, masochism, and ethnic rivalry.

Music can convey the most profound expressions of anguish, from the arias of the Bach Passions to the hymns of mourning of the Li family DaoistsCante jondo has long entranced outsiders, from Lorca and Falla’s 1922 festival to the films of Carlos Saura. But Mitchell confronts the crucial question:

Why does flamenco deep song appeal to people who never shared the traumas that precipitated its birth?

—one that we might ask about our esteem for the ravings of mad women and men in WAM opera, for that matter.

He reflects (evoking jazz, and reminding me of China—I plead guilty on all counts),

All forms of human expressive culture may be intrinsically or potentially artistic. In practice only a small range of creative endeavors come to be designated as Art with a capital A. […] A given expressive behavior becomes art because the right people rally to redefine it as such in accordance with their needs at a given historical moment and usually in conscious opposition to some other group’s standards. Forms of creativity that originated with the “wrong” people can always be redeemed (and thereby transformed) by talking or writing about them in ways associated with established genres.

He is critical of scholars like Demófilo in the 1880s:

With his selective compassion, unabashed elitism, neoromantic primitivism, spurious notions of purity and contamination, classificatory compulsion, lack of sociological acumen, nostalgia, and racialist aesthetics, he paved the way for numerous 20th-century flamencologists.

As Mitchell observes, the performance style

can strike even the most open-minded as brazen, overwrought, tortured, or histrionic.
Male-female relationships […] contained considerable amounts of codependency, sado-masochism, self-destruction, and (in compensation) large amounts of transgressive ecstasy.

He gives a nice parallel with reactions to the waltz from an 1816 article in the Times:

So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now it is attempted to be forced on respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing their daughter to so fatal a contagion.

Still, he concludes:

The flamenco style is not only about trauma but about the quest to recover from trauma; it is about distress and discharge too; it is about taking pain, expressing it, playing with it, and possibly working through it.

* * *


Near the base of the flamenco treetrunk (for full tree, see here), the cluster of tonás (cantes a palo seco, solo songs without guitar, often even without palmas) includes the unaccompanied saeta ritual songs, as well as no-less-intense secular deblas (“goddess”), carceleras (jailhouse songs; there were even penitential jailhouse saeta), martinetes, and seguiriyas (¿are the latter shown on the right side of the trunk?).

Melodically, in their narrow range and in the frequent cadences on do, most of these songs show a contrast with the common minor descending phrygian tetrachord of other flamenco palos.

I’ve already featured the solo saeta ritual singing in honour of the Virgin as her statue passes—alternating with percussion, and wind ensemble with piercing trumpets. Mitchell’s discussion is illuminating as ever (pp.100–103, 137–42).

Here are some more examples, starting with Niña de los Peines in 1920:

This early programme in the Rito series, clearly explained as ever, includes searing instances of martinetes, as well as rare deblas and carceleras, from Juan Talega, Antonio Mairena, Aguejetas with Tio BorricoTia Anica de la Piriñaca, Rafael Romero, and José Menese:

These stark searing solo songs are literally forged—in forges, with hammer and anvil. Here’s Agujetas el viejo:

And his son:

Ian Biddle (ch.2, pp.31–6, and ch.3, pp.16–18) analyses in detail the martinete “A la puertecita de la fragua” sung by Pepe El Culata:

A la puertecita de la fragua            At the little door of the forge
tú a mí no me vengas a buscar       don’t come looking for me
con el fango a las roillas                  with the mud on your hem,
y las enagüitas remangás.               rolling up your petticoat.

Vinieron y me dijeron                       They came and told me
che tú habías hablao                         that you had been saying
muy mal de mí                                    
bad things about me
y mira mi buen pensamiento:          and look at my good thoughts:
yo siempre pensando en ti.               I am always thinking about you.

Ma fin tenga la persona                    May that person have a bad end
que anda llevando y trayendo          who goes about gossiping,
poniéndole mal corazón                    giving a bad heart
a aquel que lo tiene bueno.                to the one who is good.

La maresita de toítos los gitanos,   The mother of all the gitanos,
toítos venian al tren.                          they were all coming by train.
La mía como estaba malita              Mine, being so bad
no me ha poio venir a ver.                could not come to see me.

La lunita crece y mengua                  The moon waxes and wanes
y yo me mantengo en mi ser,            and I remain in my own being
yo soy un cuadro de triste                 I am a picture of sadness
pegaíto a la paré.                                I will stop being stuck to her.

Most often heard among the intense solo tonasseguiriyas—like soleares and bulerías— have an underlying 12-beat metre, though it can take some concentration to detect it; as ever, the studioflamenco site is useful.

Especially in these more intense slow songs, non-lexical sounds are important, like the opening “ay“—”a knife-at-the-throat sound, a chain, a parched throat, a wound”, as Hecht describes it. Another integral aspect of the flamenco event is the jaleo—of which palmas are part—exclamations of encouragement, way beyond the familiar “¡Olé!” (cf. Indian raga).

The Rito series dedicates two programmes to seguiriyasFramed as ever by perceptive comments, this first programme (based around Cádiz) opens with a precious sequence from Tia Anica de la Piriñaca, and concludes with brilliant seguiriyas from Aguejeta and Terremoto de Jerez:

The second programme is centred on Seville. Again it opens with the venerable cantaor Juan Talega, leading on to Chocolate, Louis de Cabellero, and Antonio Mairena:

Oh all right then, here’s the programme dedicated to Terremoto (with soleares from 8.00, a fantastic bulerías from 17.14, and siguiriyas from 24.20):

And more from Agujeta, father and son—with soleares (4.59), romance y alboreá (10.05), bulerías por soleá (21.07), culminating in a mesmerizing seguiriya (27.28)—how intently they listen!

And a complete concert from 1996:

And we just have to include a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:

The Rito series captured Camarón’s early career. Two excerpts:

Near the beginning of the second excerpt (from 1.37) is a wonderful bulería in which Camarón follows his mother:

Along with Pohren’s A way of life,

  • Paul Hecht, The wind cried: an American discovery of the world of flamenco (1993)

is a fine ethnography of flamenco social life in the 1960s; and it also contains plentiful translations of coplas verses (or letras, lyrics).

Just a few examples:

A las rejas de la cárcel            Don’t come and weep
no me vengas a llorar             at the jailhouse gate;
ya que no me quitas pena       since you can’t ease my sorrow,
no me la vengas a dar.            don’t darken my fate.

Cuando yo me muera              When I die,
te pido encargo                         in you I confide:
que con las trenzas                  with the braids
de tu pelo negro                        of your black hair
me amarren las manos.          let my hands be tied.

The ¿Y a quién le voy a contar yo mis peñas? genre includes some intense gems of oedipal Catholic masochism (maudlin Andalucian haiku?)—one from Agujetas ticks all the boxes:

Que a nadie se las puedo contar   I’ve got no-one to tell my woes
Yo tengo a mi mare loca                 My mother is crazy
La llevan pa un hospital                 They’re taking her to a hospital.

* * *

There’s a whole treasury of videos to explore on YouTube. The depth and artistry of flamenco never cease to amaze me—if we think we know European culture, or even flamenco, all this makes an ear-scouring awakening.


*Cf. the more stoic Chinese genre “On visiting a hermit and not finding him in“.

Flamenco, 2: gender, politics, wine, deviance



As I try to get to grips with the wonderfully varied palmas patterns of flamenco, I’m going to keep updating my introductory post—an aural, rhythmical equivalent of the blind leading the blind (cf. my “Turning a blind ear”), perhaps useful for those (like me) hampered by a WAM (or even simply “Western”) background…

In that post I featured both female and male performers—but gender and power relations in genres like flamenco are complex. I’ll begin by outlining the study of flamenco politics.

Though flamenco and fado (for the latter see here, and here) are remarkably different musically, their social history has some similarities—with shared underworld origins, an early commercial strand alongside popular activity in a still very poor society, misleading associations with regressive political conservatism, and then the fascist state gradually forced to open out, partly through tourism.


From site here.

  •  William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics, and popular culture (1996)

is worth reading whole, but here I’ll focus on his chapters on Women and on a major documentary series.

In Franco’s Spain between 1939 and 1975, following the physical devastation and lasting psychological scars from the civil war,

the diverse traditions, customs, practices and, of course, musics of different regions were represented as elements of the integral body of Spain, analogous to the “Mystical Body” of the Roman Church.

Indeed, the reactionary role of the church recalls that in Salazar’s Portugal (see also The struggle against Mussolini).

This motto (Washabaugh, p.viii) might be inscribed above the portals of Daoist and Chinese music studies:

As Michael Bakhtin and his colleagues have noted, something is wrong with any interpretative method that reifies genres and objectifies abstractions to the point that events in the present are reduced to reflections of the past.

In 1959 a law was enacted requiring bars in Andalucia to close by 12.30am, just as flamenco events would have been just beginning—a thinly-veiled attempt “to silence musical events that would normally have bred local loyalty and stimulated political debate” (see also Don Pohren’s A way of life, pp.16–17). At the same time, staged flamenco was becoming a tool of propaganda.

But just as in China, the commodified spectacles are merely the tip of the iceberg of activity among local folk communities. And dissident artists and scholars expressed their opposition to Franco’s nacionalflamenquismo—“the promotion of meretricious spectacles that celebrated the richness of Spanish art while hiding both the poverty and the regional allegiances of the artists” [again, shades of China and the whole heritage flapdoodle!].

Flamenco clearly survived under Franco, even before tourism—not merely in the form of the peña spectacles instituted in the 1950s, but “among the people”. And nostalgia for the regime still lives on.

Washabaugh has a stimulating chapter discussing the important documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante flamencoone hundred half-hour programmes made from 1971 to 1973 in the declining years of franquismo, at once representing and resisting the images of the flamenco scene of the time: “a political statement rather than a nostalgic review”. He even unpacks the concepts underlying the title sequence (150–57). While expressing reservations about the “realism”of the series, he is full of admiration for its subtle juxtaposition of the “front” and (more “authentic”) “back” regions of flamenco.

Reminding me of Guo Yuhua‘s Narratives of the sufferers, Washabaugh comments:

The fact that the filmmakers made liberal use of selective emphases in presenting these remembrances should not render the series particularly liable to claims that it is unfaithful as a document of history. On the contrary, these Rito films embody the principle only lately popularized among social scientists, that documents of memory often make inventive uses of the past for the purposes of “willing backward” the future.

Citing Horkheimer and Adorno’s motto “All reification is forgetting”, Washabaugh observes the process whereby the sounds of daily life came to acquire fixed genre names in flamenco, detached from their the social relations in which they arose—like the way that songs for selling wares (Rito #72) evolved into pregones (#79).

Some scenes from the “back region”:

  • The potter Oliver de Triana:

  • MarÍa Sabina from Cadiz—who with her blacksmith son Santiago Donday, “if there were ever a pair who would qualify as puro, that pair would be certainly be Sabina and son”:

  • Some fascinating ethnographic scenes from Extremadura bordering Portugal, including tangos, jaleos, and alboreá wedding song:

As if tourism wasn’t bad enough, later, inevitably, the Intangible Cultural Heritage came along to muscle in on the act; but as in China, it hardly affects the beating heart of local traditions. Rather like nanyin in south Fujian, flamenco has long experience of commodification, though this will only be a minor aspect of its life; indeed, their whole history is one of utilizing commodification while maintaining grassroots social practice.

Still, below we’ll see how Washabaugh warns against the fiction of “authentic” flamenco (cf. the musos’ touring game).

Gender studies, and power relations, are a major and growing theme of ethnomusicology (so far on this blog I’ve subheaded the gender tag under the basic themes of China, music, and other). Just a little selection of some of the major works:

  • Ellen Koskoff (ed.) Women and music in cross-cultural perspective (1987), and her
  • A feminist ethnomusicology: writings on music and gender (2014);
  • Susan Cusick, “Gender, musicology, and feminism” , in Cooke and Everist, Rethinking music (1999);
  • Pirkko Moisala and Beverley Diamond, Music and gender (2000), including Marcia Herndon’s Epilogue there, and others by her;
  • Ruth Hellier (ed.), Women singers in global contexts: music, biography, identity (2013).

Among many studies of women’s musicking in particular cultures, I love

For a typically articulate and reader-friendly  overview of the field, see

  • Bruno Nettl, “I’m a stranger here myself: women’s music, women in music”, ch.27 of his canonical The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions.

As always, he also reflects with insight on gender relations in WAM (for which there’s a parallel field of study—one might start with Susan McClary, also featured in my post on Ute Lemper in discussing the diva–femme fatale–prima donna complex).

In my post on a wonderful Swedish psalm (just about as far as one could get from flamenco) I cited a relevant observation on gender and vocal timbre from Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics project.

There’s a fine collection of essays on Mediterranean musics:

  • Tullia Magrini (ed.), Music and gender: perspectives from the Mediterranean (2003).

Gender in flamenco
Among fine essays on Corsica, Calabria, Eastern Europe, Greece, and the Maghreb, the latter volume contains a useful article on flamenco:

  • Joaquina Labajo, “Body and voice: the construction of gender in flamenco” (variant here),

analyzing the most basic elements of staging, including role distribution, the actual nature of the interacting voices, and the resources of the protagonists’ corporal expression; and exploring the demystification of images laden with exotic and romantic references that have come down to us through the years, confronting them with other social, political, religious and economic realities and strategies of both the past and the present.

Articles elsewhere include

I must read the book

  • Loren Chuse, The cantaoras: music, gender and identity in flamenco song (2003).

But here, again, here I’ll mainly cite Washabaugh’s chapter on “Women” in his Flamenco: passion, politics, and popular culture. He observes that the Rito compilers’ resistance to nacionalflamenquismo

could consist of nothing more spectacular than disturbing the overly neat franquista portrayal of men as public, women as detached, confined, and, except in the absolute privacy of the family, untouchable.

He notes the widespread, and early, “Manichean” dichotomy of madonna and whore, and the “male-dominated music of the streets”, “a noise that made it possible for people to deal with the confusions of urban life”, “the music of the brawling popular religiosity of men, the music of boisterous binges carried on in the name of the Virgin”. Citing Christopher Small, he notes.

Such music inevitably included the component of percussion that had been banished from the reasoned music of the 17th century because percussive tones elude rational control—”It was not until late in the 17th century that the first percussion instruments were readmitted, the timpani,* which could be tuned to a pitch”.

Urban spaces became increasingly associated with images of “pleasure, excitement, the carnivalesque and disorder”.

While I have reservations about any such portrayal of popular culture through the prism of the educated elite, flamenco artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries “lived in a lowbrow [sic] underworld dominated by males, a flamenco bar-and-party circuit”, with flamenco song riding on “waves of alcohol to reach peaks of dubious ecstasy”.

Such ecstatic catharsis mediated by sodden singers may have been acceptable for men, but women were singled out and inevitably relegated to the category of the shameless and the whore. Proper women were said to be out of place in a juerga— an all-night binge of song and drink.

Washabaugh notes the exception of the feria, seasonal celebrations of the fair and the carnival providing “occasions for women to flaunt their culturally defined wildness, their seductive physicality, their passion”.

Men were, and are, in the driver’s seat, and they typically use their power to marginalize, exclude, and subordinate women.
In Andalucia, as elsewhere, men control popular culture regardless of the significance of women’s contributions.

Moving on to the Franco regime, Washabaugh comments:

More than merely discriminating against women, franquista practices virtually annihilated women. In public affairs, the identity of women was systematically denied.

Catholic traditionalism, underwritten by the state, severely limited the place of women, relegating them to a sphere defined as narrowly, and perhaps more so, than the women’s sphere of the 19th century. Women could aspire to marriage and motherhood but little more. The Franco regime literally [sic] turned back the clock on the legal position of women.
Flamenco bars were nudged out of existence. […] The peña fraternities [sic] [now a welcome relief from the touristy tablau] came into being in the 1950s—formalized, licenced, and, one must suppose, subjected to surveillance, […] a forum in which flamenco aesthetes could pursue issues of artistic purity wholly detached from any practical public interests. Such sterile estheticism in flamenco circles was passively complicit with franquismo. On the other hand, franquista policies encouraged the development of flamenco spectacles that presented women as examples of detached femininity and untouchable beauty, and in these respects, women became powerful magnets for tourist dollars.

Discussing the image of women in the Rito series of the early 70s, Washabaugh observes how the compilers

picked up on some of the tentative and largely unnoticed innovations in both content and style made by female artists in flamenco circles during the Franco years, [… advancing] a picture of women deeply involved in flamenco while still consummately honorable. The documentarians produced this effect by emphasizing the family as a common and fertile site for musical activity, an emphasis that weakened the longstanding association of flamenco with “booze-bars-and-babes” while strengthening associations of flamenco with women, wine, and Andalucian family life.

While many of the films do show tablaos and peñas where women are absent or subordinate, or “caught somewhere between participant, witness, and decoration”, “nevertheless they never venture into that often parodied domain that includes shameless women”. The films deliberately refrain from showing juergas (“notorious occasions for excessive drinking and shameless womanizing”).

(In a lapse from ethnographic empathy, Washabaugh seems to concur with the elite view of the “ugliness, the grotesque vulgarity, the lewdness, and the obscenity of the debauched juergas of the past?!)

Instead, women are presented a pivotal figures, as matriarchs of song. Some examples:

  • The Pinini family:

  • and the Perrate family:

  • Tia Anica la Piriñaca:

  • MarÍa Vargas:

  • Cristobalina Suarez—note the seguiriyas from 12.05, and tangos from 16.01! In her introduction to the latter she refers to the bulerías featured in my first post:

Washabaugh observes,

Paradoxically, the shrewdness of this resistant response lay in its complicity with so many other aspects of Franco’s cultural politics. […] By using family to cloak their revisionary images of flamenco, the Rito filmmakers managed to oppose franquismo while seeming to comply.

  • Having admired Bernarda and Fernanda de Utrera in my previous post, here’s a wonderful soleares from them in their youth, from the 1952 Duende y Misterio del Flamenco (punctuated by the great torero Juan Belmonte):

  • From the same film is a gorgeous bulerías showing the familial basis of flamenco, yet tinged by tragedy—the singer Pastora Amaya, first wife of the great Farrucco, died in a car crash later that year, aged 15:

And here’s a stunning clip of La Negra (born in Algeria) and her daughter Lole Montaya singing an Umm Kulthum song as a tangos (duple rhythm!), partly in Arabic (see the comments to the video)!

Deviant behaviour
Leading on from his discussion of the role of women, Washabaugh notes the somewhat sanitized treatment of alcohol in the Rito series’ :

Wine […] never suggested debauchery, nor did it operate as a component of a “drinking subculture”. Instead, quite to the contrary, wine symbolized home and family.

Wine drinking was discussed in the soberest of terms, as a stimulant to song, as a catalyst to artistry, and as a lubricant for performances.
Transformed in the Rito films, wine became a rite (a rito) of Andalucian family life rather than a stain left over from Andalucian bar life.

Programme 97 is devoted to wine and flamenco:

Conversely, in the “Triana” programme Washabaugh notes the scene (from 26.47) filmed in the Morapio bar in a housing project outside Seville, the women’s dance subverting the traditional image:

Her antics as a dancer mocked the traditionally conceived “flamenco woman”, the beautiful but inactive, unthinking, and untouchable totally self-possessed woman.

Indeed, somewhat at odds with the Rito‘s mission to embed flamenco in respectable family life are the many stories of musicians’ deviant behaviour, evoking Merriam’s classic “license to deviate from behavioural norms”.


Any romanticizing tendencies are well corrected by reading Don Pohren‘s classic A way of life, a candid grassroots account based on his stay in Andalucia in the 1950s and 60s, a constant orgy of juerga.

As he makes the finishing touches to his flamenco bar in March 1966,

the town of Morón was absolutely sure of one thing: the finca was slated to be a cabaret featuring prostitutes and flamenco.

His vignettes on the “impish” Diego del Gastor (pp.103–21) are wonderful—such as his disciples’ ill-fated gift of a fine Santos guitar (WAM musos have similar stories!):

Diego was like a child with a new toy, and played and played and accompanied us like never before. Finally, late at night, he grew tired of playing and wanted to rest, but couldn’t find a safe place to put his guitar, as none of us had thought of buying a case for it. Diego solved the problem by locking it in the cab outside. He rejoined the gathering jubilantly, and amidst the ensuing drinks and merry-making completely forgot the existence of the guitar. At juerga’s end, still unusually exuberant for some reason he could not quite recall, Diego danced out to the car, hurled himself drunkenly into the back seat, lit atop his beloved Santos and smashed it into pieces.

Timothy Mitchell unpacks the myths of flamencology in his fine 1994 book Flamenco deep song:

A decoding of cante jondo from a psychohistorical perspective will reveal self-pity, posturing machismo, hypersensitive adolescent egos, and a defensive flight into narcissistic ethnicity.

Washabaugh encapsulates Mitchell’s approach to flamenco:

“maudlin music that lubricates the wheels of an essentially bipolar society and a culture of victimage”!

Mitchell notes the importance of alcohol, and gives telling instances of the mania for pranking (pp.182–8, cf. Pohren pp.41–3):

Flamencologists are thus presented with a difficult choice indeed. Whom are they to prefer, amoral señorito-pranksters or the humorless mystagogues who gathered in Granada in 1922?

For more on cante jondo, see the third post in this series!

* * *

The study of the Rito series is a worthy reminder that even filmed representations of which we may approve are just that—representations. The authors’ “realism” in filming the “authenticity” of the “back region”, and the back region itself, are also constructions. Authentic flamenco is a fiction:

The danger posed [by the Rito series] is that we will canonize this version of flamenco, and use it as a fixed standard for assaying contemporary performances, thereby surrendering ourselves to the very ideology that the Rito series so vigorously opposed, and, in the end, bailing out of our human responsibility to struggle with our own noise.

All this is very fine, but as in China,** what I miss is a diachronic grass-roots account of family milieux less subject to state control, and more free from academic representation; beyond Pohren’s A way of life, perhaps such accounts exist in Spanish or even English. Meanwhile the performers interviewed in the Rito series, both women and men, are articulate and perceptive.

Alongside the Rito‘s fine social documentation, it provides wonderful material to immerse ourselves in all the diverse song genres—so while I gradually begin to absorb the melodic contours of singing, the coplas lyrics, and the toques de guitarra, I’ll keep updating my original post on palmas.

At all events, whatever the class background of flamenco, there’s nothing “lowbrow” about this music. I just don’t get this false dichotomy between art and folk music (cf. China): the prestige that the elite claims for its own culture is notional (see What is serious music?!).

And call me old-fashioned, but while I have no choice but to concede to listening to WAM in the sterile concert-hall, these videos illustrate perfect settings for musicking, don’t you agree…


* I just have to direct you to two classic timpani stories, here and here.

** Another echo of Maoism: “if it isn’t prohibited, it is compulsory” (Washabaugh 161).


Flamenco, 1: palmas—soleares, bulerías

*Revised, with some sections moved to Part 3! Part 2 is here.*


Tony and Two-Jags explore the intricacies of flamenco palmas.

Coinciding with the thrilling Portugal–Spain match the other day was a flamenco gig in Chiswick with the splendid Ramon Ruiz.

Unlike the football, it’s not a competition, but much as I love fado (and you just have to listen to the Carminho song there; see also here), I’ve long been enchanted by flamenco. One benefit of the life of a touring WAM muso: how blessed to have had the chance to wind down from performing Bach Passions in Andalucia in time for late-night sessions in flamenco bars.


The rustic Andalucian charm of Ramon’s courtyard. Photo: Ramon Ruiz.

Recently my passion has been reinvigorated by occasional palmas sessions with Ramon. Flamenco is yet another illustration of the wonders of all the diverse regional cultures throughout Europe (e.g. east Europe, or Italy). And despite the efforts of those who would float off into an imperial ocean idyll of tweed and Morris dancing, London is still a wonderful microcosm of world music! You can find everything…

YouTube opens up a rich world of flamenco, not least the fantastic documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante. [1] Here’s a briefer introduction to flamenco as part of social life:

This is just a preliminary reccy—more to follow.

* * *

Flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that. Like tango or rebetika, its life is “among the folk”, as the Chinese would say: at lineage gatherings, at informal fiestas and local peña clubs; and it’s rooted in the exorcizing of suffering. Rather than the commodified tablau shows, one lives in hope of sitting in on a juerga among aficionados (cf. the touring musos’ game). [2]

* * *

Like Lorca [name-dropper—Ed.], my taste draws me to the intensity of cante jondo “deep singing”, with genres like seguiriyas and martinetes. But my Spanish is rudimentary, I don’t play guitar, and No Way am I going to dance (like, ever)—so a great way of learning is to get a basic grasp of the wonderful palmas hand-clapping that accompanies singing, guitar, and dancing. Not to mention foot stamping, and the cajón box.

Come to that, palmas is a great way for British kids to become musically competent, growing into music—as Ramon finds in his school workshops.

Like the human voice, our hands, our bodies, are the most elemental musical instruments. Hand-clapping, relegated in northern societies to children’s games, is a captivating art in some Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. And it’s belatedly come into its own with so-called minimalism—Steve Reich’s Clapping music,

and Anna Meredith’s exhilarating Hands free.

* * *

Complementing my explorations of YouTube clips, I’m finding some practical sites useful, like this and this; also instructive are Ian Biddle’s chapter on cante and the Appendix “Cante, definition and classification” of Paul Hecht’s The wind cried.

As usual, we need an overview of the genres: this tree suggests the riches of all the various palos styles.

And then, within all these palos are the compas rhythmic patterns—embodied by specific (hands-on!) palmas. Not to mention all the local styles of towns throughout Andalucia—Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Morón de la Frontera, Granada…

For a sophisticated model of metrical analysis, see here.

Palmas seems like a relatively easy way of getting a basic grip on flamenco. But focusing narrowly on the rhythms, it still takes me a lot of time to absorb the important clues from the guitar and voice that are equally basic.

Ramon suggests I begin with soleares (linguistic note: associated with soledad, like saudade in fado!) and buleríasthe latter faster, difficult but much prized.

Here’s a soleares from Perrate de Utrera, with the ever-quirky Diego del Gastor:

And bulerías by the de Utrera sisters, with Diego del Gastor:

I start by internalising the basic 12-beat cycle while swimming, taking breaths before the accents:

       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

or rather (beginning on 12)

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So it’s a recurring hemiola* pattern; that should be simple enough, but at first, for pedantic hidebound WAMmies like me it feels as if it begins on the “wrong” beat. (¿¡Surely this is as wacky as the Spanish upside-down question and exclamation marks?!). One soon learns to bounce off the 12, but I find it harder to internalize the varying patterns in the second half of the cycle.

Anyway, you can already hear just how complex the rhythmic variations are. As always, if you’re hampered by a classical education like wat I is (innit), or if you don’t happen to come from a long lineage of Andalucian blacksmiths, then you have to unlearn any ingrained assumptions from WAM and just immerse yourself in the whole style through the experience of the body.

I think of Indian tala; or even the way that household Daoists in Yanggao pick up, largely by ear, their ritual percussion items—seemingly simple but endlessly varied, with large cymbals and drum interacting. Indeed, the way that the clappers often leave the main beat empty reminds me somewhat of Li Manshan “calling the beat” with a busy drum pattern just before the down-beat on the small cymbals.

It’s no good just going oom-pa-pa like a waltz—in one video, Ramon spots some old ladies at the back doing just that! And then there’s the nuance of fuertes hard and sordas soft dynamics, and all the contra-tiempo cross-accents between multiple clappers.

As Ramon explains, it’s a series of questions and answers. I’ll have a better handle on this once I’ve learned to latch onto the guitar, with its chord change on 3, and the extra cadential flourish ending on 10—though the beginner may find few landmarks in between those points. The YouTube option of slowing down playback can come in handy.

Here’s yet another fine programme in the Rito series, with a series of bulérias (featuring, after Camaron, Cristobalina Suarez with young sleeping child from 23.20—see also my Part 2):

This is seriously complex funky stuff. No sooner have you learned a basic pattern than you find how variable it is—like sonata form. Given its considerable theorization (as if that mattered), that theory is orally transmitted, and the brilliant exponents are often semi-literate. But while insisting that flamenco should absolutely be admissible to the ranks of “serious music” (whatever that means), the only important point is that it’s extraordinarily life-enhancing.

For more bulérias, see here.

* * *

I also love it when all extraneous elements are stripped away: when everyone just claps their complex patterns in counterpoint with the dancer’s feet. Or the cantes a palo seco, when the singer dispenses entirely with guitar and even palmas, just howling in solitary pain… I’ll pursue these songs in my third post.

Talking of the Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series, with all its precious archive footage, the programmes on the Utrera sisters illustrate the compilers’ fine ethnography of lineages, changing society and music, the amateur–professional continuum, and all the subtle distinctions that folk musicians always make:

All this wealth of musicking on our doorstep! I’ll keep studying and updating this post. The next post in this series outlines gender, politics, wine, and deviance!

As an aperitivo for the third post we just have to have a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:


*BTW, lutenist Paul O’Dette told me this story on a long tour of the USA:
Summer school in Utah on baroque music. A professor from England solemnly writes “HEMIOLA” on the board and begins to explain the occasional use of three groups of two within a triple metre. One of the local students guffaws,
“HEY! We don’t have no hee-my-olas in Utaww!”
For another vignette from that tour, see here.


[1] In a nice illustration of how the concepts of “singing” and “music” are culturally conditioned (see also Is music a universal language?), the word flamenco doesn’t appear in the series title!

[2] Among a wealth of sources, in English one might start with the flamenco chapter of The Rough Guide to world music; William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics and popular culture; ethnographies like  D.E. Pohren, A way of life and Paul Hecht, The wind cried; and for cante jondo, see e.g. Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song. Some of these are cited in Parts 2 and 3 of this series.



Nearly ready to try out using the bow.

We should celebrate the wonderful regional diversity of European folk cultures, notably their musics—Ireland, Romania, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and so on. But styles are just as varied within WAM (Biber, Nielsen, Janáček…).

Even among the great composers born in the 1680s, apart from Bach and Handel, let’s not forget Rameau—an early flowering of the distinctive voice of French music, leading on to Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy, and Messiaen (not to mention Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger). If we’re conditioned by some notional one-size-fits-all baroque style, it’s most rewarding to immerse oneself in Rameau’s whole sound world—the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodic contours and ornaments, the instrumental timbres…

Perhaps we can hear “Tristes apprêts” from Castor et Pollux as a French companion to the Buxtehude Klaglied or When I am laid in earth—not to mention the hymns of mourning of the Li family Daoists. Among several fine renditions, here’s Sabine Devieilhe, backed by soulful bassoons:

Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux,
Jour plus affreux que les ténèbres,
Astres lugubres des tombeaux,
Non, je ne verrai plus que vos clartés funèbres.
Toi, qui vois mon cœur éperdu,
Père du Jour! ô Soleil! ô mon Père!
Je ne veux plus d’un bien que Castor a perdu,
Et je renonce à ta lumière.

Rameau Athens

Rameau in Athens, 1981-ish.

In my early days as a barocker I did some Rameau opera for Lina Lalandi, but alas I began working with John Eliot Gardiner just too late to take part in his ground-breaking performances.

Rameau dance

His 2007 Prom was enchanting (pre-echoes of Ravel?). The very first piece I had heard him conducting live (those funky bassoons again!) was the Entrée pour les Muses of Les Boréades (from 18.09)—further enriched here by magical (suspended!) staging, wonderfully at ease with modernity in HIP performance:

Rameau’s operas alone are a rich canon to explore.

Accordion crimes

“Germans invented the accordion,” Beutle explained to Messermacher. “A thousand things they invented, but accordions most of all. Because Germans think, Germans have brains. There was this feller, a musician, a German violinist, he ends up playing in the court orchestra in Russia, not Catherine the Great but around that time, he plays the violin. But because he’s a German, Jesus Christ, he notices things, he notices when he hangs up his bow on a nail back in his room she also makes a nice little tone. From this he invents the nail violin, very beautiful tones, I have heard it. A circle of wood with nails sticking out, you run the bow on the nails and ooo aaa ooo aaa, a beautiful tune. One day this feller gets a strange thing from China, somebody gives it to him because interested in things he is—naturally, he is a German—and he sees a round bowl with some bamboo pipes sticking out, and on the bowl a mouthpiece. He blows on it. It’s a fine sound. This thing the Jesus Christ Chinese put reeds inside the pipes, same as in the accordion, little reeds stuck on one end with wax, the other end can vibrate like this.” He trembled his hand at Messermacher. “The German violin player learns the playing of this instrument, die liebliche Chinesenorgel, and from this he passes to other Germans the idea of the accordion—the free reed. That’s how it begins. Later comes the bellows.” (91–2)

By now readers of my blog will know how vital the sheng mouth-organ is to the ensemble accompanying north Chinese Daoist ritual—and I suppose it was the sheng that obscurely reminded to read Annie Proulx’s miraculous 1996 novel Accordion crimes.

The book has long been popular with ethnomusicologists (e.g. this review), despite being a novel—or rather, near the fiction end of the spectrum from non-fiction to fiction; or near the readable end of the academic—engaging spectrum (cf. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s Sardinian chronicles, another engaging classic). Like ethnomusicologists, Proulx focuses on change and social function. In her Acknowledgements she lists an impressive array of sources, experts on their regional genres—it’s amazing that all her detailed research took only two years.

On an epic scale, in the tradition of the Great American Novel, Accordion crimes has all the rich detail of ethnographic thick description. Indeed, it’s timely that I should get round to reading it now, since it discusses the tribulations of poor, ill-fated immigrants. The human cast includes immigrant Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish (cf. the equally poetic Carson), Mexicans, French, and Norwegians—all against a backdrop of xenophobia, misanthropy, brutality. Their sad, tough, gory, gruesome tales are connected by the history of an old two-row button accordion for over a century, with other roles played by

  • a club style accordion
  • a little one-row button accordion
  • a chromatic accordion
  • a piano accordion
  • a bandoneon
  • a concertina
  • a Chemnitzer.

As I observed about that other ethno classic Lives in jazz, the book gives a perfect combo of music and social detail. Hooked on taxonomy, Proulx can never resist long lists; likely to be tedious in academic hands, hers never fail to enthrall. While poetic, her language is never pompous.

The novel opens with compelling detail from 19th-century Sicily:

It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed malocchio, eager to reflect the bitter glance at the glancer.

He had cut the grille with a jeweler’s saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had made all the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kid-skin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sewed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. (17)

As the old accordion-maker arrives in New Orleans in search of fame and fortune,

In and out went Caramele through the scores of dives, tonks and jooks and barrelhouse joints that lined these streets, the accordion maker lurching after him through the musical din of drums and ringing banjos, shouters, pianos clinking away, squealing fiddles and trumpets and other brass snorting and wailing from every interior, and sometimes a string quartet sawing crazily. On the streets children watched and fought for discarded stogie butts, black street musicians and white played for coins, singing improvised songs of insult at those who failed to toss a whirling coin. (42–3)

In “Spider, Bite Me”, Abelardo recalls to his son Baby,

“The accordion was so natural, a little friend. Easy and small to carry, easy to play, and loud, and can play bass rhythm and melody. Just the accordion and nothing else and you’ve got a dance. It’s the best instrument for dancing in the world, the best for the human voice.”
[…] On the weekends [Baby] played for dances with Chris, mostly rancheras and polkas; they sang in the classic two-part harmony, primera y segunda. […] The dances were exhausting, the strain of playing and the lights, the sweat and heat and thirst, the noise like pouring rain.
[…] Though so many turned to the big-band sound and the strange hybrid fusion of jazz, rumba and swing, would rather listen to “Marijuana Boogie,” the Los Angeles Latin sound, than “La Barca del Oro”, there was an audience that liked their music, found value in it. These new ones, many of them veterans back from the Korean War, some of them university students, embraced conjunto, and this music was not for dancing but for listening. It had a meaning beyond itself. (173–4)

The changing tastes lead to a heated argument between Baby and his put-upon sister Félida (191–8):

She passed her arms through the huge straps. […] She stared at the ceiling, said, “por Chencho, Tomás, por Papá Abelardo,” then sang the heart-wrenching “Se fue mi amor,” which Carmen y Laura had recorded in the last year of the war.

Her bellows control technique was extraordinary, with dramatic swells and choking, sforzati explosive effects. She scratched and rubbed and struck the keys, ran the back of her nails across the folds of the bellows. The accordion gave the perfect illusion that a bajo sexto and a bass as well as a highly original percussion player supported the accordion, and from it came the melting harmony of the missing sister’s voice to twine and burn with the sweet, smoldering fire of Félida’s sad voice.

“Hitchhiking in a wheelchair” (199–276) is fascinating too, as Dolor makes a pilgrimage to Canada in search of old-time French music:

The music was stunningly brilliant, joyous with life and vigor. The dancers sprang over the floor and now and then they would draw back and give room to a step dancer whose rigid back, erect head and straight-hanging arms accentuated the clattering, tapping, rapping, knocking, flinging feet whose steps stuttered in and out of the music. He wished Wilf could hear the fiddler, the sound like a flock of birds, a flight of arrows striking all around him, from a growling, clenched-teeth mutter on the G and D strings to harmonic shrieks and stair-tumbling runs—Jean something, a taxi-driver from Montréal.

This leads to “Don’t Let a Dead Man Shake You by the Hand” (277–349) , where Proulx expounds on Cajun and zydeco in Louisiana; and “Hit Hard and Gone Down” on the Polish folk scene (351–426):

The Chez family from Pinsk lived across the street; later they changed their name to Chess, the two boys grew up to work in businesses, a junkyard, bars and nightclubs, finally making phonograph records featuring black singers moaning the blues, and by 1960 the good Polish neighborhood had turned black on all sides. (354)

“There’d always be somebody’s polka band—two violins, you know, the bass fiddle and the clarinet, no accordion at all, they’d just play all afternoon and we’d dance. No music pages, they play from their heads, they were geniuses. You know, the dancers used to sing out a line of a song, or not even sing it, just shout it like, and the musicians they had to catch it, know it and play it back in the same key. Oh, they were so good. Well, your grandfather, he sees after a while there is some money starting to come to the polka band players and there was all kinds of places that wanted polka bands—Polish Homes, the Polish Club, not the culture evening but the Saturday night dance, little dance halls all over the place, the union halls, bars and Polka Dot restaurant, the Polish League of War Veterans, a lot of restaurants, Polonia Hall—oh, there was plenty of polka dancing, and a lot of fun, and weddings, weddings, weddings, everybody was getting married and you gotta have polkas.” (371)

Hieronim’s wake was something, the last of its kind in the neighborhood, in the old, old Polish style, and nobody would have known how to do it except Old Man Bulas from the Polish Club… He was the leader of the singing and knew the hymns, scores of them all written down in his śpiewnik, a thick, handsome book wrapped in black cloth. (383)

This is soon followed by a memorable wedding:

He told his wife that it was necessary to balance the solemn death rites of Hieronim with as much of the old wesele style as possible… (385)

But again, tastes are changing (404–14). As promoter Mrs Grab warns Joey:

“We don’t want nothing weird or extreme, you know? There’s rules now, the association’s made rules. […] Only one song in Polish. Most people don’t understand it, but one song gives a nice ethnic flavor. That’s what we want to stress, ethnic flavor. Let me tell you something, Joey. Ethnic music is not that old-time stuff anymore. These days everybody is ethnic, might as well make money on it. […] They don’t want that mournful folk music sound no more or those complicated couple dances going into cricles and weaving around and slapping their asses and crossing into the next lane. No more of that Kozaky na Stepie, Cossacks on the Steppe, stuff. Everything gets mixed up unless you got a Ph.D. in Polish clogging. It’s no fun.”

[…] The spare applause had hardly died down when a big guy jumped up, his thin long hair pasted to his sweating forehead, and began to shout at them.
“This is not Polish polka, not Polish music. I am a Pole from Poland and in Poland they would laugh at you as I do now—Ha! Ha!—for saying this garbage you play is Polish.”

Now the bandoneon and tango make an appearance, as Joey meets a migrant from Buenos Aires, who muses:

“Piazzolla, with his little zips like the plastic zipper of a cheap jacket, his plotted silences, the squealing like rubbing two balloons together. That is a serious, unsmiling, hard music; the faces of the dancers frown furiously; and his tempo, the beat is like climbing cement stairs in a skyscraper with fire behind the doors. And there is that quality of a paper comb that sets the sutures of the skull trembling. Those passionate swellings are musical hives…” (416–18, cf. Alexei Sayle, no less).

“The Colors of Horses”, with Basque and Irish musics as well as Appaloosa horses playing a major role, is another too, er, deaf ‘orse. More fantastical lists:

…descendants of the ice-age horses painted on the cave walls of France, of the fabled horses of Ferghana, between the Syrdarya and the Amudarya rivers on the steppes of Central Asia in Uzbekistan, of Rakush, the spotted horse of the warrior hero Rustam, celebrated in Persian miniatures and in Firdousi’s epic poem the Shah Namah, of the Chinese Celestial Horses from the Extreme West, the Blood-Sweating horses, of the galloping mounts of the Mongol Horde and Attila the Hun, of the Andalusian horses of Spain shipped to Mexico for the conquistadors’ savage forays, of a shipload of spotted horses from the Trieste Lippizan herd landed on Vera Cruz around 1620, of the horses abandoned by the terrified Spaniards after the Pueblo revolt of sixty years later and traded north by an agricultural people more interested in sheep, to the Shoshone, Cayuse, Nez, Percé, Blackfeet, Blood, Arikara, Sioux, Cree, Crow, of the North American steppes known as the Great Plains, had been bred down to dog meat. (443–5)

The evocation of Irish song (483–5) is worthy of Ciaran Carson. Now we return to the original, battered old green accordion:

The silent reed suffered from a grain of rust jammed between the reed tongue and its vent, and this he eased out with a silk thread from his fly-tying box. The steel reeds were coated with islands of rust and he scraped at them with the blade of his knife but was afraid of lodging more fragments under the reed tongues. He cleaned the reeds with his toothbrush, blowing out the dust until he was dizzy.

He could see it needed everything—new bellows, new reed, new springs, reed plates reset, grille replaced, and more. But it had a wonderful voice, sonorous, plangent, shouting in grief to the mountain slope. (486)

The final section, “Back Home with Reattached Arms”, is moving too, with Norwegian immigrants making an appearance:

His own parents had been obsessed with the prescriptions of a book, The Emigrant’s Guide to Preserving Norwegian Culture, written by a homesick settler in Texas, a book that dwelt on the merits of the Norwegian language, twice-daily prayers, Norwegian hymns, clothes, food, and, after the fortune was made, return to the “elskede Nord” country. Daily they had sung “En Udvandrers Sang,” “O Norges Son” and others. His mother wished to live in a Norwegian community where land was owned in common by all. But Gunnar shouted for independence and his own land, purchased a mighty, star-spangled flag… (496)

 * * *

That discussion of the sheng, with which I opened, reminds me of the Li family Daoist band’s concerts in German churches in 2013, the two mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out (my book, p.339).

For a general introduction to the accordion, see here. For yet another wacky illustration of the joys of organology, see the aerophones classified under Sachs-Hornbostel 412.232 here. And to explore these genres in more depth, note The Garland encyclopedia of world music: the United States and Canada (1998), Part 3 Section 2c.

Passages like this draw the reader towards archive recordings:

Abelardo had hundreds of records, his own recordings of the 1930s, a few with Decca, then with Stella, then with Bell, then Stella again. “In those days I sang in Spanish; those men with the record company said to me, ‘we can’t tell what you’re singing, so don’t sing anything dirty.’ So of course I sang all the filthy ones.”
[…] He had old recordings of Lydia Mendoza, of the great accordion players, the records of Bruno Villareal, half blind, a little tin cup wired to the side of his accordion, playing in 1928, “the first recording with the accordion as the star”, Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martínez, Los Hermanos San Miguel, dozens of Santiago Jiménez discs.
[…] He would make them listen to all those old labels: Okeh, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca, Ideal, Falcon, Azteca, especially the Ideals made in the garage of Armando Marroquín up in Alice. (148–9)

Of course, like all those books about Daoist ritual, it misses a lot by being silent—it cries out for a good playlist. One is drawn back to the great 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, and we can find further clues among articles in The Rough Guide to world music.

And let’s all explore YouTube—here’s a Polish tango from 1931:

See also Polish folk and jazz.

If we have to use words to evoke music, Accordion crimes is just the way to convey its messy exhilaration and flawed humanity.

Alexei Sayle

Alexei Sayle‘s memoir Stalin ate my homework, on his, um, unusual upbringing, is at once heartfelt, perceptive, and hilarious. And the sequel Thatcher stole my trousers* has insights on the alternative comedy scene, his early standup, and The Young ones.

Born in 1952 to idealistic left-wing atheist Jewish working-class parents—genial Joe and the brilliantly indiscreet Molly—he evokes the conditions of post-war Anfield with wry detail.

Though not universal, it was instinctual among a great many British Communists to be noisily unpatriotic. […] To my parents and their friends it was as if by cheering on the English football team, the cricket team, or Britain’s runners you were somehow revelling in slavery, the Amritsar Massacre, the suppression of the Irish, or the Opium Wars.

At primary school:

At break-time in the first week our teacher, Miss Wilson, said to the assembled class, “All right, class, now let’s bow our heads in prayer and thank God for this milk we’re drinking.” At which point I stood up and said, “No, Miss Wilson, I think you’ll find that the milk comes to us via the Milk Marketing Board, a public body set up in 1933 to control the production, pricing, and distribution of milk and other dairy products within the UK. It has nothing to do with the intervention of some questionable divine entity.”

Echoes of Irene Handl’s line in Morgan: a suitable case for treatment: “I mean, we brought you up to respect Lenin, Marx, Harry Pollitt…” (a line that I think is even funnier if you don’t know who Harry Pollitt was).

Profiting from [!] the free rail travel available to the family with his father’s position in the National Union of Railwaymen [sic], the family often took holidays abroad: “by the age of five I must have been the most travelled child in Anfield.” They soon began making trips behind the Iron curtainAt A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, I note. To pursue the latest results of my interest in east Europe (e.g. here, and here), it’s these vignettes that I’d like to cite here.

For all his parent’s aspirations, Alexei casts a rather more detached view on their holidays. Of course, they could hardly imagine the tribulations of the working people with whom they identified, or even the apparatchiks who hosted them. But with his own background, he does more than merely getting a cheap laugh out of state socialism. These passages are interesting mainly for his own story, in which idealism and cynicism evolved hand in hand, a surreal training that would bear fruit in his later career.

Joe and Molly had taken the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising in their stride; welcoming it as a test of faith, they scorned British Communists who

didn’t understand that the march towards liberty, peace, and freedom couldn’t be held up by a load of people demanding liberty, peace, and freedom.

Enthralled by a visit to the Czechoslovak pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, with its marionettes, Magic Lantern Theatre, and colourful avant-garde design, in August 1959 visited the country for the first time. Somehow their trip begins at a campsite in the sleepy spa-town of Karlovy Vary. After an interlude at a union-owned miners’ sanitorium, the wheels of diplomacy click into gear and they are rescued by a fleet of black Tatra limousines which takes them on to Prague, where they are chaperoned lavishly.

Next year they organized a group of like-minded comrades for another visit. This time the authorities

had decided what the first delegation of British railwaymen to Czechoslovakia would like to see more than anything else were sights, locations, and exhibitis connected with the wartime assassination of Reinhard Heidrich, the butcher of Prague.

They were among early foreign visitors to see Lidice, scene of one of the most appalling Nazi massacres. On a brighter note, they were taken to the Švejk pub in Prague, and when they got back home his parents bought him a copy of Hašek’s novel. When he eventually read it aged 12 or 13, he

wondered if the Czech authorities knew what they were doing promoting with Švejk, letting a pub be opened in his name and selling cuddly toys in his likeness, since the message of the book, while it might have been anti-authoritarian, is certainly not one supportive of the ideals of socialist conformity.

Indeed, The good soldier Švejk soon became very popular in China, where its message must also have concerned the authorities.

Anyway, back in Anfield, by the age of eight Alexei was able to report proudly to an eager young vicar,

“I am a Comrade Cadet, Grade One, Young Pioneers, fourth battalion, based at Locomotive Factory Number One, town of Trutnow, People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia!”

And one already feels a hint of the irony that would later inhabit Alexei’s stage persona (see here), with a substantial ingredient of Švejk.

For their summer holidays in 1961 they visited Hungary, lavishly accommodated in a grand baroque hotel in keeping with their incongruous status as VIPs. On a trip to Lake Balaton Alexei discovers salad, in a passage that will strike a chord with those of our generation:

Back in Anfield we had thought with a certain amount of pride that on Sundays we had been eating salad, but really all we had been eating was lettuce and tomatoes in a bowl, sometimes with a hard-boiled egg on the top and no dressing except perhaps the industrial solvent known as “salad cream”. Now I saw what a salad really could be under socialism. There were red, green, and yellow peppers, corn on the cob, huge tomatoes stuffed with Russian salad, artichokes, celery, lentils, okra, and fresh herbs, all of them covered in rich oils or mayonnaise.

(For Nina Stibbe’s candid assessment of tarragon, see here.)

He accumulates yet more pennants and badges to accompany his hoard of Bohemian glass, dolls, and “folklorique woven things” that he didn’t know what to do with—

It was hard to stop people in Communist countries giving you things [an idea taken further by Elif Batuman].

In 1962 they took their third trip to Czechoslovakia, and in 1963 Joe led a delegation of railwaymen to Hungary. This time Alexei’s feelings are more conflicted:

Sadly, if you are beginning to feel unsettled about people’s motivation then visiting a country in which some six hundred thousand citizens were deported to Soviet labour camps after the Second World War, where they spoke a weird Finno-Ugric language completely unrelated to those around it, where there were great tensions between the various ethnic groupings, Hungarian, Romanian, and gypsy, and where a revolution had been brutally suppressed only seven years before, probably wasn’t a good idea.

Joe and Molly make elaborate preparations for a tour of the northwest by a dance troupe from Czechoslovakia, but it falls through. In summer 1966 they flew to Bulgaria under the auspices of that new bourgeois creation, a package holiday. Meeting some local teenagers in search of Beatles records, he realizes that

up until then we had only ever mixed with people who were part of the system, who were loyal to the party and its allied organizations. […] Clearly there were tensions, but you didn’t get to be a Communist without learning to ignore what was in front of your face.

With his affinity with both railways and Czechoslovakia, he was always going to love Closely observed trains (Jiří Menzel, 1966)—another of those films that also left a deep impression on my student years. For Pachelbel on rubber chicken, and Czech trains, see here; and for Alexei’s penchant for Polish cinema, here.

Following Kruschev’s reforms,

though slightly assuaged by the crushing of revolts in Hungary and East Germany, many in the West’s Communist movements were uneasy with this liberalisation. They didn’t like the idea of a Communist society allowing its citizens to express their opinions freely or have a choice of more than one type of hat. Yet they had nowhere to take their disaffection until the Sino-Soviet split offered these puritan characters a choice of an extra-dour kind of socialism more in keeping with their sententious inclinations.

So, going from frying-pan to fire in a remarkable lapse of judgement, Alexei became a Maoist. You can continue reading his later story for yourself, moving on to his perceptive account of his bohemian life at art school in London, his role in alternative comedy—and Molly’s blooming [see what I did there?] as a foul-mouthed lollipop lady. For more (not least his critique of ballroom dancing), see here.

So while Alexei didn’t get to play the Matthew passion or hang out with Li Manshan (though both are charming fantasies), I regard his upbringing, not to mention his later career, with a certain envy.

For other excellent memoirs in what can be a dodgy field, I think of George Melly and Arthur Smith. And this chat with Stewart Lee is a match made in heaven:


* Sinology could do with some titles like these (for a somewhat less appetizing one, see under Jarring here).

Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glued to Strictly come dancing every week. Oh yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse of popular culture all right [adjusts monocle, grappling ineptly with concept of the high-five]. I was mortified in 2015 when Georgia and Giovanni (aka Joe Varney) didn’t win:

Or indeed Alexandra in 2017… But hey, “It’s not winning but taking part”, eh [zzzzz].

And now the brilliant Stacey Dooley—who did win, YAY!!! (See also Moon river.) Here’s another Charleston. Now let’s all watch her fine documentaries.

The thing about Strictly is, as with Handel opera, or a Moroccan wedding, you just have to suspend your disbelief. The dancers don’t want to go home, but for some reason they do want to go to Blackpool, which is unlikely to feature even on the itinerary of perfectly innocent Russian tourists. Li Manshan hadn’t even heard of the Carnegie Hall, let alone Blackpool, but it’s clearly more appealing than doing a Messiah in Scunthorpe.

Sure, as Barbara Ellen notes in a fine reviewStrictly proved yet again

that it understood its own winning formula—drown the contestants in a vat of fake tan and what a cynic might term even faker bonhomie, and let the controversy and sequins fly. […] A sugar-rush of schmaltz combined with a brawl on the entertainment deck of a cruise ship…

But for me it’s classic BBC “educate, inform and entertain” stuff—inculcating diligence, expression, and appreciation of historical style (!), with the pros and the judges vouchsafing us little dollops of technical advice. For all the fatuous clichés of the competitive format (see also Alexei Sayle‘s pertinent critique), Strictly can be inspiring and deeply moving. So there. And for 2020, Bill Bailey reaffirms our belief!

Still, my question is this:

However were we all conned into thinking that a genre that seemed pathetically antiquated even in the early 1960s could possibly achieve such wild popular success in the 21st century?

This baffling device of prefixing an unlikely and outmoded format with an utterly random adverb gives me an idea whose time has surely come:

Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual

After all, Daoist bands have long been used to ritual competition, “facing platforms”. In my film (from 24.08) my use of karaoke captions for the percussion mnemonics makes an instructive innovation that draws us into a crucial element of ritual performance. And we’ve just had “The Reverend Richard Coles” on Strictly, so hey. My new programme concept has got everything from the original—a grand ritual arena, movement, costumes, music… And since, as Heidi Stephens notes in her drôle Guardian commentaries, what viewers really need is a Journey, what better than Pacing the Void?

Admittedly, even with a minimum of six ritual bands contesting, each performing a different ritual segment for each programme (Presenting Offerings, the InvitationBeholding the Lanterns, and so on), the weekly programme would require at least four hours—and the nocturnal yankou ritual alone takes longer than that. Still, BBC ratings will doubtless soar.

Coming up next—we’ve got Du Zhimin’s band all the way from Guangling, performing the Ambulating Incense ritual!!!

I’ll be delighted if the drôle Claudia Winkleman will host the new show. As to


the fragrant Darcey Bussell [surely an anagram, e.g. “Recall Debussy”—cf. Gran visits York and Maidstone] is always welcome. How can anyone be so elegant and savvy and still be English? Her only tiny flaw seems to be that she can’t get the hang of clapping (watch her as she applauds couples just voted off). And now that the great Li Manshan is ceding much of his ritual work to his son Li Bin, he seems the ideal choice as chair of the judges.

Some quotes from the panel:

Darcey [purring]: “Oh MY! I have to say, just make sure you grade that accelerando in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms its Body just a tiny bit more carefully.”

Bruno [does pirouette]: “Bellissimo! But you still need to work on your posture, dahlingg.”

Li Manshan [dragging on fag], in unison with Craig: “That was chaotic!”

And the scores are in

I look forward eagerly to discussions with the BBC. [1]

See also Fantasy Daoist ritual.

* * *

Another Daoist-ritual spin-off might be to adapt the brilliant “One song to the tune of another” from I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. One recent fave was Jan Ravens singing the words of I can’t get no satisfaction to the tune of Wouldn’t it be loverly—and here’s Barry Cryer with Anarchy in the UK to the tune of Singing in the Rain:

The Daoist version might go something like this:

 [Jack Dee, or indeed Li Manshan, lugubriously:] “Now I’d like you to sing words of The Song of the Skeleton to the tune of Diverse and Nameless are the Bitter Roots…”*

*Tedious footnote: at least in Yanggao vocal liturgy, these two items are in fact quite closely related (my book, pp.267–8, 274–5)—so less than suitable here. Scope for exploration, though.

Such impertinent fantasies, if not for purists, are at least more frankly ironic than the kitsch commodifications from the Intangible Cultural Heritage (see under “The reform era” here).

For Groucho and Anna Mahler, click here.


[1] Inexplicably, I still await a reply from the BBC  to my initial pitch, Strictly Albanian Dentistry—where peasants attired in colourful traditional costumes have just a week to learn a series of intricate procedures such as implants and root-canal treatments (cf. Alan Partridge). But following the public verdict on the moral morass of the Strictly dance/snog of shame—a quandary that will be mercifully obviated by Strictly north Chinese Daoist ritual—there’s (allegedly) a letter in the post from the Beeb about my new concept:


For another money-spinner of mine, see here.

One belt, one road

In the CCP’s latest claim to end poverty, the title of the enigmatically-named One Belt, One Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) policy may sound to some more like a critique of Maoism—perhaps a succinct postcard home from Shaanbei written by an Educated Youth sent down in the Cultural Revolution:

One belt [per family], one road [in the whole county].

And it wasn’t a Gucci belt, either.

Stories are common of families who only had one pair of trousers between them, to be worn by whoever had to go out. Like the traveller’s tale of fieldworkers finding villagers who hadn’t even heard of Chairman Mao, this sounds far-fetched. There’s a celebrated critique of such inflated poverty stories in At last the 1948 show  (“You try telling that to the young people of today—will they believe you?!”):

But in this case there’s plenty of evidence. Among many such accounts, the story of Wang Xiangrong (b.1952), “king of Shaanbei folk-song”, is interesting. He fought his way up from grinding poverty to become a major folk-song star, and his story has become part of the romantic official myth of Shaanbei (note also Levi Gibbs, Song king: connecting people, places, and past in contemporary China, 2018). For 1953 fieldwork documenting the folk-song repertoire just east in Hequ, see here.

You can see that in this documentary, but it’s still a good ethnography of his changing life, with some precious old footage, and relatively free of the usual hagiographic style of such programmes:

Of course, such superstars are merely the glossy tip of the iceberg, but I enjoyed hanging out with Wang Xiangrong in Yulin in 2001, finding him engaging and unpretentious. I did a little sketch of him in my Shaanbei book (pp.210–12) [1] —a rare excursion for me into the world of both folk singing and mediated urban performance (for the former, do read the works of the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck):

Wang Xiangrong was brought up in a poor desert village with a population of only a few dozen, 45 kilometres from Fugu county-town to the northeast of Yulin. He recalls, I fear not fancifully, that he had no clothes of his own till going to school at the age of 8. The youngest of four surviving children out of nine, he was 13 when his father died. In the Cultural Revolution he managed to graduate from senior secondary. From 1971 he worked as a schoolteacher; in 1975 he toured Inner Mongolia with a band performing errentai. In 1977 he took part in the county band, in 1979 he was spotted by Yulin cultural cadres at a training session in Fugu county, winning a prize in a festival in 1980 and joining the Yulin Folk Arts Troupe by 1983. He has recorded for many films an