Fiddles and racism


My bold recording of Bach on erhu reminds me of two casual, worrying, yet entertaining reviews from the early 1990s—suggesting that Berlioz‘s failure to appreciate the beauties of world music hasn’t been erased.

First, a blurb for a festival of new Chinese music on BBC Radio 3:

New music for old instruments—such as the er-hu and the gu-quin [sic] (Chinese for “finger-nail-down-the-blackboard” and “moggie-in-the-mangle”), Marvellous ear-scouring stuff.

And this review of a controversial BBC2 Bookmark programme is reminiscent of Molvania:

billed as a celebration of the epic tradition in Serbian poetry and a homage to Dr Radovan Karadzic, described in the subtitles as “poet and psychiatrist”. Many of those who heard Dr Karadzic explaining on Monday morning that Serbian forces were not casually shelling Sarajevo for the hell of it but responding to Muslim artillery fire would have added “mass-murderer” to the list of his qualifications.
It undermined the Serbian case more effectively than a dozen polemics. Karadzic was shown to be a rambling, inconsistent, sentimental bouffanted crook. His countrymen came over as a gang of brutal yokels with a cultural life marginally richer than that of Neanderthal man.  Their favourite musical instrument is a single-string violin, which they scratch interminably while boasting tunelessly about their achievements against the Turks. After they have wiped out the Bosnian Muslims they will doubtless apply for a grant from the BC Cultural Harmonization Fund to put a second string on their wretched instruments.

However well-meaning and colorful the review may be, it’s just as about as racist as the mindset it criticizes; one might wish for a more thorough ethnography. But I digress. Doubtless the gusle singers are heartfelt, but perhaps the best thing that can be said for my erhu performance is that it doesn’t legimitize genocide. So much for music as the universal language of peace and love.

See also fiddles tag.

Amateur musicking in urban Shaanbei

The “little pieces” of Yulin

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Source: Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji. Right, top: the “study group”, 1980.

In modern China we can find plenty of exceptions to the simple dichotomy between rural ritual and urban entertainment, but it’s a useful framework. I’ve written a series of posts on ritual activity around the Shaanbei countryside (starting with this, recently-updated), but here I enter the regional capital Yulin to outline a recreational form of vocal music with ensemble, now moribund.

In chapter 12 of my 2009 book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei (where you can find further leads) I gave an overview of musical activity in Yulin—far short of the thorough treatment of Ruth Finnegan’s 1989 book The hidden musicians, for, um, Milton Keynes.

Once again, as the Maoist era recedes, it still makes an important yet little-explored bridge between earlier history and the reform era.

The regional capital of Yulin
The bustling county-towns, commercial hubs dotted around the barren landscape of Shaanbei, already represent a more modern environment than the chronically poor villages and little district townships remote from the main transport arteries. But entering Yulin, the capital city of the region, one feels frankly in a different world, even if traces of tradition remain.

Yulin, a likely starting point for forays into the countryside, lies towards the far north of Shaanxi province. From the west and north the desert is creeping up year by year. Access was difficult until very recently. The main road going south towards Yan’an, and eventually the provincial capital Xi’an still further south, has been improved since the 1990s; and even by 2000 it was a 20-plus-hour bus ride east to Beijing. A train runs from Shenmu, not far northeast of Yulin, east to Datong in Shanxi province; by 2002 direct train routes all the way from Beijing to Yulin, and from Yulin south to Xi’an, were promised. By 2005 there was a direct flight from Beijing, “Opening up the West” still further.

The city has something of the feel of the wild-west frontier. Main Street (Dagai) retains its old-world charm, though in the evenings bikers rev up at the crossroads. There are four funeral shops along Main Street alone. There are also several bookshops, none of any distinction, and many shops selling CDs and cassettes; even a Buddhist shop selling CDs and cassettes as well as statuettes, incense, scriptures, and so on. Second Street (Ergai) is a kind of Wangfujing or Oxford Street, with pop music blaring from the sound-systems of shops. Away from the centre, the urban sprawl contains both new tower-blocks and rows of single-storey dwellings in traditional cave format. Even the old city walls remain. Coal bricks are piled up in courtyards to protect against the winter cold.

By the 1990s traditional musical activity in the city seemed much impoverished. Yet weddings, funerals, and temple fairs are held here too, all requiring live music. Few of the Yulin city temples have been restored to their former opulence. Vocal liturgy is still performed in the temples, but shengguan instrumental ensemble, once a feature of Yulin funeral ritual, has not been heard since the monks were laicized in the 1950s.


Mother with twin daughters, Yulin 2001.

The state-funded Yulin Region Arts-Work Troupe and several opera troupes perform Qinqiang opera, as usual mainly for temple fairs. Towards the secular end of the continuum, the Yulin Folk Arts Troupe performs conservatoire-style arrangements of local singing and dancing.

In 2001 genial cadre in the troupe had a few young erhu pupils, to whom he taught the standard modern national repertory. There was a School of Arts (Yixiao), teaching national styles of singing and dancing. Yangge dance parades were held by work-units, including schools. But with pop music now dominating the soundscape, karaoke, TV, and VCD-players were doubtless city dwellers’ main exposure to music.

Before Liberation, funerals in Yulin, as in Beijing and other northern cities, were often accompanied not only by shawm bands (chuishou; see here, and for Shaanbei also here), but by temple priests, both Buddhist and Daoist. Shawm bands continued activity in Yulin city under Maoism, but since the 1980s’ reforms their activities have expanded; by 2001 there were at least eight bands, all migrants from the countryside.

But their extrovert style seems to hide a lack of discipline. Young shawm-band boss Feng Xiaoping observed, “Yulin is without order (mei guiju). Yulin people can’t appreciate the shawm—they don’t react even when we play well, and if we play badly, no-one ridicules us.” Both here and in the countryside, in the new undiscriminating get-rich-quick climate, ceremonial ostentation is rampant, while the “old rules” go into further decline.

The Yulin “little pieces”
Throughout China, many rural genres with long traditions have managed to outlive Maoism, thanks largely to the continuing demand for ceremonial. In the Shaanbei countryside, folk opera troupes, itinerant blind bards, shawm bands, folk-singers, and spirit mediums managed to weather political campaigns before reviving more openly in the 1980s for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies. Even in Yulin city, there is demand for occupational chuishou.

The city also had a distinctive amateur vocal music with instrumental ensemble. Like many genres in world music, it barely had a name; like many genres in China, if people needed to call it anything, they might mention “little pieces” (xiaoquzi), “playing little pieces” (shua xiaoqu), or “playing silk strings” (shua sixian). The official title Yulin xiaoqu was casually given in 1958. [1]

As a relatively literate genre, its popularity was largely limited to the city—unlike small-scale vocal and instrumental groups like errentai or daoqing, widely performed throughout the countryside. We saw how the literate elite patronized the music of the lowly chuishou, employing them as a ritual duty. But the Yulin elite supported the “little pieces” as amateur recreation, and might even perform. The elite outside Yulin city, though thin on the ground, sometimes performed it too; in Yangjiagou village, landlord stronghold until the 1940s, young members of landlord families sometimes got together to play string and wind instruments. But in Yulin city by the 20th century, its main clientele was among ordinary citizens, and its main performers were male manual workers.

Imperial and Republican periods
As often with folk traditions, early evidence is inconclusive. By the 15th century regional governors were often posted from the distant Jiangnan–Zhejiang region of east China, and brief passages from the 1670s show musical activity at the Yulin court. Indeed, from the presence of many southern titles in various Shaanxi narrative-singing repertories, and indeed throughout China, one should not underestimate the wider influence of Jiangnan culture in imperial times. Among the themes of the Yulin songs (mainly love and city life), Jiangnan scenery also features; musically too, traces of Jiangnan style may be heard, although the dominance of the so mode appears to be a local modification. Another theory (also said to be supported by musical similarities) is that the style was based on the opera of distant Hunan, which may have been brought to Yulin in the Tongzhi reign-period (1862–74) by a company attached to a division of Zuo Zongtang’s Hunan army on campaign in the region.

The music is said to have been transmitted outside the regional court in the Daoguang era (1821–50) by Li Diankui and his son Li Fang. Oral tradition names musicians since the late 19th century. More pieces were composed in the early 20th century, and pieces arranged by the literatus Wang Jishi. Later Zhu Xiaoyi (1905–88) was a respected musician; a carpenter, he was also a luthier, making zheng zithers, yangqin dulcimers, sanxian plucked lutes, and erhu fiddles, which he sold as far afield as Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.

luo and wang 2001

With Luo Xinmin (left) and Wang Qing, 2001.

Musicians were amateur, and male—mainly artisans (silverworkers, watchmakers, tanners, woodworkers, plasterers, cobblers), as well as doctors and dentists. Apart from getting together for fun, musicians were also invited to perform for life-cycle ceremonies. In 2001 I met musicians Luo Xinmin (b.1925) and Wang Qing (b.1954). Luo recalled:

In the 1940s we took part in weddings, longevity celebrations (for which the piece Rejoice in a Thousand Autumns [Xi qianqiu] was prescribed), and first-full-moon celebrations for babies. We played seated on the host’s kang brick-bed—the chuishou played in the courtyard outside. We played mainly in the evenings, the chuishou mainly in the daytime.

Some children of landlord families might play music similar to the little pieces, on pipa plucked lute or bowed fiddle (as in Yangjiagou), but in Yulin the landlords and merchants didn’t maintain a regular band for the little pieces, though they might have a few instruments for people to play; they just invited musicians when they held a ceremonial.

Sources barely discuss the fortunes of the music during the troubled 1930s and 1940s. It is said—compulsorily—to have suffered in the War against Japan and the civil war, but Luo recalled:

The War of Liberation didn’t affect us—people from the Red and White areas got along quite well, going back and forth.

A popular venue was run by one Wang Yunxiang at the Qingxing silver furnace, by the old Drum Tower.

After Liberation
Typically, the sources stress the Party’s avuncular concern for the Yulin little pieces. Along with state organization came research and control—as an urban genre it was quite susceptible to official supervision.

Still, folk activity continued alongside official initiatives until the Cultural Revolution. Memories of old musicians suggest that in this case the “new life” compulsorily claimed for all genres after Liberation was not so fanciful:

After Liberation there was even more activity than before. In the evenings, because there was no electricity, and no other entertainment, people liked to get together.

I chatted with the musicians about our common friend Qiao Jianzhong, a Yulin native who had become director of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, and whose encouragement had led me to Shaanbei. The oldest of nine brothers brought up in an old house in Main Street, his parents were typical of the city folk who enjoyed the little pieces.

Especially in summer evenings, a lot of people came to listen, they could understand the words—Qiao Jianzhong’s mother used to say “This is much better than a film!” Mostly they invited us by treating us to tea and cakes (chayebing).

In the 1950s we were active in the common hall (jiti tingtang) by the Bell Tower in the city centre. The silverworkers’ shop next door to the Qiao family’s house in Main Street was a venue—instruments were available to play there for anyone who came along. And there was an old Chinese doctor called Lin Maosen [1903–68] who loved to sing—he often invited people to his house to play in the [early] 1960s.

If such recreational activity remained common, the life-cycle celebrations at which they had also participated before Liberation were now drastically reduced.

As to the official side, in 1950 a study group was organized in the Yulin workers’ club, and musicians met three evenings a week, training over forty performers—now including women for the first time. The genre gained a wider profile as musicians took part in festivals and won awards at provincial and national level from 1953 to 1960.

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Top: Beijing 1957 (left to right, Ran Jixian, Wu Chunlan, Hu Futang, Wang Ziying, Bai Baojin). Middle: preparing for Xi’an festival in 1953. Lower: Hu Yingjie and Wu Chunlan, 1979. Source: Yulin xiaoqu (1994).

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Top: female singers consult Hu Yingjie (date unclear). Middle: filming “Music of the Western Regions”, with Hu Yingjie. Lower: filming “Gazing at the Great Wall”. Source: Yulin xiaoqu (1994).

The life of the music through this period, both official and amateur, depended on a group of admired senior musicians. [2] Zhang Yunting (1900–64), a leather worker, was a fine sanxian player as well as singer. From 1950 he was the main teacher for the study group in the Yulin workers’ club. He won awards at festivals in 1956, 1957, and 1960, and recorded for provincial radio. In 1962 fieldworkers from the Shaanxi volume of the folk-song Anthology visited him. Bai Baojin (1914–83) was a tileworker; a zheng player, he also played jinghu and erhu fiddles, as well as singing. He too took part in the festivals of the 1950s.

Hu Yingjie (b.1921 or 1923) was an admired singer. A manual worker, he later worked for the post office.

In the 1950s some young women were recruited to sing, but most gave up after they got married. Most celebrated was Wu Chunlan (b.1930), a senior-secondary graduate, who learnt with Zhang Yunting in the first group after Liberation. Taking part in official festivals from 1953, she went on to win an award in a 1957 national exhibition.

Two vocal styles have been identified, mainly distinguished by enunciation: the Back street (Houjie) style of Zhang Yunting and Wen Ziyi (1911–68), later only represented by Wu Chunlan, and the Front street (Qianjie) style of Lin Maosen and Hu Yingjie.

Through the Cultural Revolution both folk and official contexts were basically silenced. There were occasional sessions on the quiet; once in the early 1970s, a general from the Lanzhou military region came and insisted on hearing the “little pieces”, so the musicians were assembled at the Hall of Culture, the gate was locked, and they performed for him in secret.

ylxq 5

Top row: Wang Jisan, Wang Ziying, Wen Ziyi, Bai Baojin.
Middle row: Lin Maosen, Zhang Yunting, Hu Futang, Ran Jixian.
Lower row: Zhu Xiaoyi, Li Xinghua, Hu Yingjie, Wu Chunlan.
Source: Yulin xiaoqu (1994).

Here as ever, expressive culture is about people’s lives through turbulent social change, about which musicking can offer us a revealing window; but the story needs supplementing. As collectivization was raging in the poor villages, how did artisans and manual workers in a regional city weather successive campaigns (on which the sources are scrupulously taciturn)? Of course, they weren’t vulnerable like “superstitious” ritual practitioners, but how were public and private spaces, and expressive culture, influenced by the changing economic fortunes of urban dwellers? [3] This issue is also relevant to 1950s’ Beijing.

Since the reforms
Official patronage resumed after the end of the Cultural Revolution, but if folk activity revived, it was short-lived; by the 1980s there was little folk counterweight to official modernization.

As early as 1976 a conference on the “little pieces” was organized by the Yulin Hall of Arts for the Masses and the Hall of Culture. In 1977 a team from the Music Research Institute in Beijing came to record. In 1979 a group took part in the folk arts festival for the Yulin region, they recorded for provincial radio, and in 1982 they performed in Beijing. The music was featured in TV documentaries such as “Music of the Western Regions” (Xibu zhi yue) for Shaanxi TV and the CCTV “Gazing at the Great Wall” (Wang changcheng); a Taiwanese TV station broadcasted a programme on the music. An arrangement of the piece Fang fengzheng 放风筝 became part of the touring repertory of the glossy Yulin Folk Arts Troupe.

In 1986, as work on the Anthology progressed, another “study group” was formed to document texts and study the history of the genre, resulting in a useful 1994 volume. A performing group was officially set up, organizing rehearsals twice a week and cultivating new performers—including ten female singers. Hu Yingjie, who had retired in 1980, was a leading member, and even sat on the Yulin city political committee.

Ironically, this period of revival, like that after Liberation, is hailed as another triumph for the Party’s avuncular concern for folk music. But however well-meaning these efforts, since the 1980s there has been virtually no folk activity, and the genre was now performed mainly for visiting dignitaries. Some senior instrumentalists remained, but they rarely got together as there were few singers in the old tradition—and younger people, now mesmerized by pop music, were reluctant to take part.

The polished arrangements of the fewer and shorter pieces played by the official group were increasingly remote from the traditional soundworld. Though the repertory had long been expanding, it was largely after Liberation that pieces were incorporated from other genres, even from outside Shaanbei. As the old vocal dadiao (see below) were rarely performed, and changes were made in instrumentation and technique, the genre was diluted. Luo and Wang found the troupe arrangements incongruous: “The Folk Arts Troupe plays it, but the flavour is all wrong.”

In 2000, students from the composition department of the distant Wuhan conservatoire came for a study-trip. By 2006, keen elderly amateurs in the research association for the little pieces told participants at the CHIME conference at Yulin that they still met informally. Though playing occasionally for life-cycle rituals and temple fairs, they now did so to scrape funds together for the group, and had to meet the tastes of audiences for other less “refined” vocal genres, further diluting the genre. They were gloomy for the future.

The kiss of death
As with other official attempts to “improve” traditional music in China, the change of context from regular amateur entertainment to sporadic cultural showcase on the concert platform naturally led to changes in style. Instruments, technique, and structure were all modified.

Through the 1950s, despite official involvement, instruments had stayed largely immune from modernization. The basic traditional instrumentation is yangqin dulcimer, zheng plucked zither, pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, and jinghu bowed fiddle; the singer beats time by striking a ceramic bowl with chopsticks. Until the 1970s all the melodic instruments were small local versions; apart from the yangqin, the strings were made of silk.

ylxq 2

Left, lower rows: Zhang Yunting, Wang Ziying, Wen Ziyi; Hu Futang, Ran Jixian, Bai Baojin. Right: yangqin, pipa, yueqin, zheng; and Zhu Xiaoyi playing a zheng that he made . Source: Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji.

The yangqin dulcimer was a small instrument with fourteen metal strings, known as “ten-note instrument” (shiyin qin) after its main ten pitches. The pipa plucked lute had four xiang frets and thirteen pin frets. Musicians only used three fingers to stop the strings, sounded by false nails of eagle’s wing-bone. Wang Qing recalled a more simple playing style: his father Wang Ziying, a great pipa player, used few finger-rolls (lunzhi). The sanxian plucked lute was quite large, tuned to the pitches so, la, and mi, and played in only first position, the strings sounded one at a time. Again, Luo and Wang lamented that later the common sanxian used for northern drum-singing was adopted, and that younger conservatoire-trained players used a more virtuosic, “less rhythmical” style.

The zheng zither is often portrayed as a kind of folk equivalent of the qin, but like the pipa it too is quite rare in north (and even south) China. In the 1980s some provincial scholars became excited about reviving the Shaanxi (Qin) style of zheng (秦箏); a “Qin zheng” society was founded in the provincial capital Xi’an (see Sun Zhuo, The Chinese zheng zither: contemporary transformations, ch.4).

The Yulin zheng was perhaps the most convincing candidate. It was a small instrument with fourteen silk strings. A fifteenth string made of ox tendon, tuned very low, was only used as an effect for the piece Jiangjun ling to add to the percussive feel, but later as the piece fell from the repertory they didn’t put the string on any more. Luo and Wang recalled that they still used silk strings for the 1979 Shaanxi Radio recording, and in 1980 the zheng teacher Zhou Yanjia, on a visit from the Xi’an conservatory, encouraged them not to change; but in 1982 the decision was taken—by whom, one wonders?—to adopt a standard national conservatoire zheng with twenty-one metal strings.

False nails, again traditionally of eagle’s wing-bone, were used to pluck the zheng strings. Luo and Wang wistfully contrasted the traditional style with that of the recent official version:

Their playing techniques are different from ours. Our zheng uses no “flowery fingerings” (huazhi)—originally the right-hand glissandos (guluzi, guolengzi) were very innocent (danchun).

Luo Xinmin showed us his old zheng, made before Liberation. It has gongche solfeggio names for the strings on the bridge. The older generation sung gongche but didn’t write it down; Luo had learnt the modern system of cipher notation, but knew the gongche names, like the string tunings.

From the Republican period, erhu fiddle and yueqin plucked lute were often added to the ensemble. But since the 1970s, under official influence—again typically—further instruments were added like dizi flute and, to boost the bass, dihu cello and zhongruan plucked lute, as well as the zhonghu alto fiddle. Call me old-fashioned, but the modern plucked bass in Chinese music is unutterably naff. Also since the 1970s, the traditional instruments themselves were modernized; as well as the zheng, “national” standard versions of the yangqin, pipa, and sanxian were adopted; even the erhu rendered the traditional jinghu marginal.

As to structure, phrases are short and four-square, with instrumental guomen interludes. Before Liberation, in a session of three or four hours, the instrumental ensemble usually played a few pieces before the singing began. [4] Short vocal items in simple strophic form (xiaodiao, “little melodies”, known as yizidiao 一字調) followed, and then, after a break, longer vocal sequences (dadiao, “large melodies”). Dadiao may be either sequences of melodies, or the same melody varied in many verses—or both together. Some melodies may be sung to different texts. Most pieces are sung by one singer, but dadiao may include some duet singing and recitation.

The dadiao are most complex—and, according to elderly musicians, best to listen to. Local scholar Huo Xianggui recorded all the dadiao from 1980 to 1982. By the 1990s, Hu Yingjie was the only one who still knew the dadiao, and he was in his autumn years. The official programme of the Folk Arts Troupe was largely limited to the shorter xiaodiao—the only style the women were taught.

If recordings of the shawm bands are quite hard to track down, at least one still hears them performing for ceremonial. How I hope Huo Xianggui’s precious early recordings of the “little pieces” and other genres will be made available! Online the closest I can find to the traditional Yulin style is something like this.

So for all the riches of musical life in rural Shaanbei, it seemed to me that there was precious little left to study here. It was always instructive to consult ebullient Yulin cultural pundit Meng Haiping—I’ve already cited his comments on the general cultural decline (here, under “The reform era”). He felt the Folk Arts Troupe had basically preserved the regional style at first; but later, finding its “development” unsatisfactory, he rarely went along. As he observed,

If you try to force a cultural form to destruction, you can’t; but some people try to protect it and end up loving it to death.

I still don’t quite understand the dynamics of official involvement. In the 1980s several senior musicians remained, and officials like Huo Xianggui and Meng Haiping clearly had their hearts in the right place. Somewhere along the line, people fall prey to the insidious conformism of modernization and “improvement”. Recently, in Beijing at least, there have been several voices resisting this trend, but they came too late for the Yulin little pieces. The dwindling scene today seems dominated by staged heritage performances on demand, remote from tradition. The Intangible Cultural Heritage project constantly wrings its hands over the crisis of such genres, touting the Party’s embrace while both compounding the problem and refusing to engage with the complex factors involved in the decline.

* * *

In Yulin city after Liberation, the “little pieces” were maintained by amateur enthusiasts even as official efforts were made to publicize and “develop” the music. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, as folk activity failed to revive, official control distorted the traditional features of the music, and by the 1990s it was moribund. So whereas I often discredit “salvage“, and in my work on rural ritual genres I’m keen to document all periods right down to today, in a case like this nostalgia (albeit for Republican and Maoist societies rather than the Tang and Song!) may play a larger role.

Again I’d stress that the main stories in Shaanbei, as throughout China, are to be told in the innumerable poor villages. The ability of cadres to “control” the Yulin little pieces in the regional capital, and the decline of the folk base there, contrast with the independence of the genres in the surrounding countryside.

But again in Yulin we find the conundrum that I broached in my post on the “suite plucking” of old Beijing. Whereas amateur activity in chamber genres along the southeastern coast has remained strong through the reform period, with a spectrum of traditional and official styles, genres like the Yulin little pieces effectively died out.

I surmise that in Yulin since the 1980s, the base of senior amateurs was simply too small to resist the official pressures of modernization. Musicians can typically be found to participate in the official modernizing agenda, but here it’s hard to find anyone who believes it a success.

In both ritual and music studies, received images are misleading. In ritual studies, south China dominates the field, but it’s just as important in the north; in musicology, the apparent dichotomy between southern entertainment and northern ritual groups also needs refining.

Of course, the varied local conditions we find throughout China today are obscure heritages from imperial times, complex amalgams of factors such as ecology, economy, lineage customs, and historical migration, further complicated by local histories in Republican, Maoist, and reform eras (local politics and personalities, Japanese occupation, radical Communist leadership, local protectionism, and so on). It is hard as yet to explain these variations, and we need a far more detailed body of work.


[1] Note Yulin xiaoqu, special edition of Yulin wenshi ziliao vol. 13 (1994), and Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji [Collected Yulin little pieces] (Xi’an: Shaanxi lüyou chubanshe, 2005).
See also the Anthology: (under narrative-singing) Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Shaanxi juan (1995), pp.607–15, 758–9, transcriptions 616–757; (under folk-song) Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan (1994), pp.421–2, 464–81; (under instrumental music) Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan (1992), pp.858–9, 878–83, 899–905.
The genre is not to be confused with the rural errentai music of nearby Fugu and Shenmu, also casually named Yulin xiaoqu since 1953, popularized by Ding Xicai: see Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, p.17 n.31.

[2] For brief biographies, see Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji, pp.311–18.

[3] A starting point might be the Yulin county gazetteer; perhaps studies like 高雨露,近现代榆林城市文化空间形态演变研究 (西安建筑科技大学) are relevant.

[4] For full scores, see Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan, pp.899–905; Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Shaanxi juan, pp.614, 639–44; Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji, pp.269–94. Some pieces may be played solo by zheng, yangqin, or pipa.


Soundscapes of Nordic noir


Nordic noir on screen is all very fine (see Saga and Sofia!); but on Thursday I went to hear an inspiring (rather than bleak) wintry concert, with the spellbinding combo of Barbara Hannigan (see also here, and here) and S-S-Simon Rattle. You can hear it here for the next month (with programme notes here).

At the heart of the concert was Hans Abrahamsen’s magical let me tell you (2013), with lyrics by Paul Griffiths. It has already become a classic among orchestral song cycles—to follow Nuits d’été and Shéhérazade, the Wesendonck and Altenberg lieder, the Rückert liederand the Four last songs.

I don’t need to add to all the praise (reviews here), but as well as the three creators discussing the piece, do also watch Hannigan’s own reflections:

As she suggests, this re-imagining of Ophelia’s monologue is enriched by the following 500 years of female experience. With her utterance at once fragile and resolute, the result is not bleak but luminous. And Hannigan is just mesmerizing on stage, embodying the role—one of the great singers (see also my Playlist of songs).

Let me tell you was sandwiched [Aww, no smorgasbord?—Ed.]* between two challenging symphonies, which S-Simon conducted from memory. He describes Sibelius 7 (1924, one of his last works before he devoted himself more single-mindedly to the bottle) as “almost like a scream” (cf. Mahler 10). (Sibelius makes a flimsy pretext to remind you of this post on Finno–Ugric musicking).


Nielsen aged about 14.

Carl Nielsen’s 4th symphony (“The inextinguishable”, or even Det uudslukkelige) (1916), like his 5th (for whose snare-drum part I hereby nominate Li Manshan), is a battle with chaos. Though Denmark wasn’t directly touched by the war, its echoes are clear. But again, with its incandescent ending in E major (cf. Bruckner 7 and the home key of Chinese ritual wind ensembles!), the overall mood is far from bleak.

To harp (nyckelharpa? Another world fiddle for our list) on the folk angle, whereas other composers like Bartók approached their local traditions as outsiders, Nielsen came from a poor peasant background as a brass player and traditional fiddler on the island of Funen.

Getting to know both the music of Sibelius and Nielsen in my teens thanks to enterprising amateur orchestras, I must have been vaguely aware of Nordic gloom, but in my callow youth I suspect I heard “classical music” as a monolith, hardly discerning regional, temporal, or personal diversity.

The concert made an evening that was both disorienting and inspiring. Live performances by Barbara Hannigan are not to be missed.


* SJ: Not today, but I can offer you “pining for the Fjordiligis”.


Musicking at the Qing court 2: Pedrini and Amiot


pedrini 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Other CDs in the project include

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more excursions in Qing ritual culture, see here.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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


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

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

New tag: fiddles!

At last I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for fiddles, embracing all kinds of bowed lutes (or even, um, friction chordophones) around the world, including folk fiddles, ghijak and satar, sarangi and kamancha, violins in WAM, and so on.

It’s a typically extensive list, and I’m sorry I can’t subhead tags, yet. If I could, the entries might include

and so on.

A stimulating comparative post is

with the amazing Transylvanian fiddling there pursued further in Musical cultures of East Europe.

Do also explore the tags for Irish and the brilliant Ciaran Carson—some highiights include

One quirk of the blog format I use here is that I can only give categories and tags to posts, not pages. So I’d add other pages like

and so on.

For another instrument tag, see trumpet—giving links to many world traditions of wind and brass playing.



Musicking at the Qing court 1: suite plucking

On the folk–art continuum in culture

XS early

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Illustration from the “72 trades of old Beijing”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jixian chengyun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

In the north, most string ensembles with substantial separate repertoires seem to have declined since the 1950s, suffering from a decline in both recreational activities and patronage. As for the south, I introduced some groups briefly in my Folk music of China, and again you can pursue them further in the Anthology—such as in Chengde northeast of Beijing; various types of Shifan 十番 ensemble; Henan bantou 板頭 and Shandong peng baban 碰八板 repertoires. See also my post on the “little pieces” of Yulin city, revised from my 2009 book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei—amateur groups that survived Maoism but became moribund since the reforms, with the kiss of death bestowed by the reforming zeal of cultural officials.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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


[1] Here I’ve expanded modestly on my brief introduction in Folk music of China, pp.208–12.

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

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

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 Kodaly, 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 CD:

For convenient collections of articles, see

  • Bela Bartók, Essays (1976)
  • Zoltán Kodaly, 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. See e.g.

  • Jacek Jackowski, “Folk religious songs sung during the peregrination of Virgin Mary’s icon: an example of traditional Polish peasant piety in Communist times”, in Music traditions in totalitarian systems (2010).

I won’t attempt to cover Polish, Czech, or Slovak traditions here, though they too are a rich topic, with a wealth of material (for Moravia, see here). For an introduction to the perspective from Poland, see Anna Czekanowska in Retuning culture. 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 murdered and deported 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):

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 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, see here.

On a lighter note, far from PC, there’s Molvania