The first gulag


Prisoners of the Solovki camps. Source here.

With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness

—slogan at gate of Solovki prison camp.

Prompted by the troubled memory of abuses under Maoism in China, and the ongoing sensitivity of the topic (cf. my posts on the Nazi camps of Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen), and following my reviews of Orlando Figes’s The whisperers and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (for a roundup, see here), I’m gradually, and belatedly, reading up on the Soviet gulag system. A suitable starting point is the Solovki prison camp in the White Sea, prototype for the whole gulag network.

Even during the early years of the camp, some quite frank descriptions of Solovki were published, such as S.A. Malsagov, An island hell (1926) and Raymond Duguet, Un bagne en Russie (1927).

But it was only much later that more thorough accounts would emerge. After the chapter devoted to Solovki in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s seminal The gulag archipelago (1973), Anne Applebaum gives an incisive account of the camp’s history in chapter 2 of Gulag: a history (2003). [1]

The inhospitable Solovetsky islands had been home to a fortified monastery complex since the 15th century, and a remote place of exile under Tsarist rule. After the revolution, the prison camp was constructed from 1923, as the monastery property was confiscated and monks murdered or deported to other camps. The number of prisoners soon grew rapidly. Solovki was itself a network of camps, both on the main island and the yet more lawless outlying islands, becoming a major site for forced labourers constructing the Baltic–White sea canal, all under the brutal direction of the OGPU state security apparatus.

Over the sixteen years of the network’s sorry existence (1923–39), the harsh conditions and the brutal labour regime alone gave rise to endemic, often fatal, disease; but sadism, torture, and executions too were soon routine. As the system was refined, notably under the leadership of Naftaly Aranovich Frenkel—a former prisoner—Solovki became a model for the gruesome system of “corrective” slave labour for profit, such as we see even now in a sinister modern incarnation in Xinjiang. The notion of “re-educating” inmates to create model citizens was always a figleaf.

After a serious incident in 1923, the socialist politicals (who had at first been privileged) were downgraded in status, becoming lower in the hierarchy than common criminals. In its isolation Solovki was virtually impregnable, and only a tiny handful of prisoners somehow managed to escape in 1925, 1928, and 1934 (Gulag: a history, p.358).

Here’s a remarkable silent 79-minute propaganda documentary filmed in 1927–8 (also here; a 5-minute cut, with translated captions, is here):

Cultural life and religion
Like Nazi camps, Solovki had its own concert band, theatrical performances, a library, a printing press, and a Society for Local Lore. [2] But under Frenkel such cultural activities were curtailed.

Remarkably, even religious services were observed in the early years (cf. Famine: Ukraine and China). A former prisoner recalled the “grandiose” Easter of 1926:

Not long before the holiday, the new boss of the division demanded that all who wanted to go to church should present him with a declaration. Almost no one did so at first—people were afraid of the consequences. But just before Easter, a huge number made their declarations. … Along the road to Onufrievskaya church, the cemetery chapel, marched a great procession, people walked in several rows. Of course we didn’t all fit into the chapel. People stood outside, and those who came late couldn’t even hear the service.

Applebaum goes on:

Along with religious holidays, a small handful of the original monks also continued to survive, to the amazement of many prisoners, well into the latter half of the decade. […] The monks were joined, over the years, by dozens more Soviet priests and members of the Church hierarchy, both Orthodox and Catholic, who had opposed the confiscation of Church wealth, or who had violated the “decree on separation of Church and state”. The clergy, somewhat like the socialist politicals, were allowed to live separately, in one particular barrack of the kremlin, and were also allowed to hold services in the small chapel of the former cemetery right up until 1930–31—a luxury forbidden to other prisoners except on special occasions.

Meanwhile, catacomb services were held in secret (for more accounts of the Solovki martyrs, see e.g. here):

As Applebaum relates,

Solzhenitsyn tells the story, repeated in various forms by others, of a group of religious sectarians who were brought to Solovetsky in 1930. They rejected anything that came from the “Anti-Christ”, refusing to handle Soviet passports or money. As punishment, they were sent to a small island on the Solovetsky archipelago, where they were told that they would receive food only if they agreed to sign for it. They refused. Within two months they had all starved to death. The next boat to the island, remembered one eyewitness, “found only corpses which had been picked by the birds”.

Gorky’s visit, and the final days


Maxim Gorky (centre) visiting Solovki, 1929.

In June 1929, to counteract foreign criticism, Maxim Gorky, “the Bolsheviks’ much-lauded and much-celebrated prodigal son”, returned to the USSR for an elaboratedly-choreographed visit that included a three-day visit to Solovki (Gulag: a history, pp.59–62). Though he was not entirely credulous, seeing through part of the official smoke-screen, his report in published form for the international media inevitably put a benign spin on conditions at the camp. As Applebaum observes, “We do not know whether he wrote what he did out of naivety, out of a calculated desire to deceive, or because the censors made him do it”.

Elsewhere too, foreign visitors were easily misled, whether out of enthusiasm for the new social experiment or out of expediency during the struggle against Nazism—such as journalist Walter Duranty for the Ukraine famine, and USA Vice-President Henry Wallace on his 1944 visit to the Kolyma camp in Siberia (Gulag: a history, pp.398–401).

1929 marked “the great turning point”. As Stalin further consolidated his power, the regime becoming ever more draconian, with more systematic persecution of its perceived opponents.

Throughout the Solovki camp’s history countless prisoners were executed, culminating in the Great Terror of 1937–8. As war loomed—with the site lying too near to the border with Finland, and as its main industry of logging was depleted with the deforestation of the area—the camp was closed in 1939, amidst further executions. Meanwhile the gulag system persisted throughout other parts of the USSR right through into the late 1950s, even after the death of Stalin.

The legacy since perestroika
In the 1980s, as memoirs of the period began to be published more widely, intrepid researchers like Yuri Brodsky set about unearthing the dark secrets of Solovki. I’m keen to see Marina Goldovskaya’s 1988 documentary Solovki power (some footage here). But within Russia—even since the collapse of the Soviet Union—the history of the gulags has remained contested (see e.g. here).

As early as 1967, while the Solovetsky monastery was still inactive, a museum had been opened there; by 1989 a new permanent exhibition became the first to commemorate the gulag system. In 1992 the monastery was re-established, and the inscription of the complex on the UNESCO World Heritage list thoroughly downplayed the dark history of the camp.

With official repression of memory continuing to grow in an unholy pact between church and state orthodoxy, by 2015 human rights activists were deploring the removal of all traces of the Solovki camp (see this NYT article from 2015). This article shows how pilgrims from Ukraine have also been obstructed from visiting in recent years.


[1] Both works feature in this New Yorker review. Online there are many sites about Solovki, such as herehere, and (an early exposé from 1953) here. For more work by Applebaum, see here, as well as her major study of the famine in Ukraine.

[2] Note the virtual exhibition Beauty in hell: culture in the Gulag (introduced here), with some fine photos—product of the research of Andrea Gullotta (e.g. here; see also this TLS article from 2018).

Nostalgia: Beijing yogurt

In the Good Old Days before the customs of Beijing were neatly swept up into commodified, sanitized heritage flapdoodle, it was always a pleasure to stop off at a street stall for a fix of Beijing yogurt.

The ritual involved paying a deposit on the beautiful ceramic bottle, piercing the paper covering with a straw and sipping as one watched the passers-by, before placing it back in its crate and redeeming one’s dog-eared mao and flimsy fen.

Like most hallowed traditions, it may not be so old: the bottles seem to go back only to around 1981. OK, it’s not exactly Ming-dynasty blue-and-white, but those bottles that bore characters in blue afforded a further aesthetic frisson. I’m sure I’m not the only laowai unable to resist plundering the Chinese heritage to adorn my London home.

Indeed, the ceramic bottles aren’t quite yet museum pieces—you can still find emporiums that stock them. But These Days it’s all “Old Beijing” this, “Authentic” that; following glass bottles and cardboard cartons, most customers now go for disposable plastic containers in supermarkets, paying with their phones, and the whole rhythm of street life has changed.

File under “Call Me Old-Fashioned…”. Please feel free to read this in the style of Rowley Birkin QC:

Cf. the celebrated Four Yorkshiremen sketch from At last the 1948 show  (“You try telling that to the young people of today—will they believe you?!”), and Faux nostalgia.

Heritage: a roundup


This recent Guardian headline encapsulates my feelings about the whole heritage shtick. The heritage tag on this blog is voluminous, covering many local genres in China and elsewhere.


The starter, citing thoughtful research on the Intangible Cultural Heritage system around the world, is

John Butt offers useful perspectives in

Also basic is this page on the Li family Daoists:

Another relevant post is

More broadly, I list some posts on the friction between traditional and conservatoire styles here. The ICH also crops up in several field reports under local ritual, including

While some scholars observe how local dwellers mould the state programme to their own agendas, I often note that its effects are either negative or inconsequential. And I’m not alone.



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’ 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.

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

Suzhou Daoists, England 1994


With Zhou Zufu at my house, almost getting Rowan Pease into the picture.

Having unpacked the red herring of “Daoist music”, my post hinting at the complexities of ritual life around Suzhou puts into context my modest ventures into presenting ritual on the concert stage.

Hot on the heels of hosting UK visits by Buddhist groups from Wutaishan (1992) and Tianjin (1993), in March 1994 I was delighted to invite the great Zhou Zufu to lead a group of Daoists from the Xuanmiao guan temple in Suzhou to perform on a tour of south England.

At the advanced age of 80, Zhou Zufu was wonderful. Adopted into a hereditary Daoist tradition, he had taken part in the numinous 1956 Offering project, and performed in Venice as early as 1984 as part of a mixed group showcasing various genres from Suzhou, invited by Raffella Gallio (see here, under “Lives”).

Having met them at a festival in Beijing in 1993, I worked on a project with the Asian Music Circuit, assisted by Rowan Pease (later my partner-in-crime in our Chinese Bach recording!). We liaised with the Suzhou Daoist Association, who chose a fine group to come to England. They were already experienced in presenting “Suzhou Daoist music” on the concert platform.

tape cover Nishang yayun cassette (n.d., late 1980s)

And do enjoy the fine collection of Chinese music clichés in the sleeve notes, with “takes the shape of the exotic flower of the unique of national culture” taking first prize:

tape notes

At least no-one suggested we call them the Suzhou Taoist Music Philosophy Philharmonic Orchestra (cf. the Sistine Chapel Choral Society).

Besides Zhou Zufu (b.1915), the Daoists that we met at Heathrow included the distinguished Mao Liangshan (b.1927), Xue Jianfeng (b.1925), and Jiang Jierong (b.1926); as well as the (then-) junior Daoists Lu Jianzhong (b.1966), Xie Jianming (b.1971), and Han Xiaodong (b.1972), who were also already becoming fine liturgists—I introduced them in my post on Suzhou Daoism. They performed at tasteful venues in Oxford, Taunton, Hastings, London, Kingsbridge, and Farnham. Alongside my duties as roadie and stage manager I spent some educative time with them.

One free evening in London I took the younger Daoists to a session in an Irish pub, which after all has features in common with their own “silk and-bamboo” style (see several posts under the “Carson” tag), though they were somewhat nonplussed—another hint that music may not be such a universal language.


At the wonderful Pitt Rivers museum.

I was working within the flawed modern Chinese tradition of “religious music”, so while these Daoists regularly perform complex liturgical rituals, I wasn’t so ambitious (or naïve) as to suggest they perform a jiao Offering—which, after all, would take a whole day. Indeed, it might be hard to promote a tour of Daoist ritual, whereas “Daoist music” has a certain cachet.

So the touring programme chosen from their rituals was based on the instrumental ensemble repertoire—which indeed was now being showcased within China by the temple itself. Apart from suites from both Shifan gu and Shifan luogu styles, with their sequences of melodies punctuated by drum interludes, we included some shawm-and-percussion items, and a couple of items of vocal liturgy. For me, having studied the work of the great Yang Yinliu on the Shifan suites in nearby Wuxi, along with early recordings, it was a delight to hear this music live. So even this made a remarkable feast for English audiences, otherwise mainly exposed to the romantic modern solos of the conservatoires.

Zhou Zufu on tiqin and banhu.

As instrumentalists, Daoists are versatile. Apart from leading the group on drum, Zhou Zufu also played tiqin and banhu fiddles; Mao Liangshan also led a suite on drum, as well as playing sanxian plucked lute and shawm.

Mao Liangshan on drum and sanxian. We may consider the fire extinguisher as a subtle allusion to the huojiao 火醮 Offering ritual for protection against fire.

Jiang Jierong and Mao Liangshan on shawms.

So “Suzhou Daoist music” may have become A Thing, but it’s not The Thing.

On tours since 2005 in the USA and throughout Europe with the Li family Daoists from Shanxi, I’ve made a certain progress in presenting “ritual music” on stage—especially when we can preface the concert with a screening of my film. But of course such events are always a compromise: nothing can supplant the experience of attending Daoist ritual in situ.


Opening of Lingbao xianweng jilian fake ritual manual,
which Zhou Zufu brought to England.

Training Daoists in Shanghai

for what?

Daoists 87

Revisiting material on Daoism around Shanghai and Suzhou reminded me of two astute articles by Yang Der-ruey 楊德睿, a fine sociologist trained under the great Stephan Feuchtwang at the LSE. Following his PhD, his writings from the standpoint of contemporary ethnography contain lessons for scholars of ritual, suggesting parallels with other metropolitan centres—including Suzhou and Beijing.

In a fascinating article on how Daoists learn to make their way in the real world of the ritual market:

Yang explores the ramifications of the training programme established by the Shanghai Daoist College, founded in 1986 under the Shanghai Daoist Association, and subordinate to state and Party authorities—the Ministry of Education and the Bureau of Religious Affairs. He shows how the economic behavioural patterns and intellectual concerns shaped by their life in the College are challenged soon after they graduate by the rather traditional local religious economy in which they now have to make their living:

They soon had to learn to discern the structure and change of the local religious economy, to recognize their assets, to envision their niche in the changing economic landscape, and to adjust themselves accordingly, manoeuvring among diverse economic patterns and selectively integrating them into a distinctive, viable niche.

On one hand they learn to accommodate with the secular state apparatus and economic order upon which these young priests’ living depends:

This order can best be named a “socialist public-supply economy” since it is at once “socialist” in terms of the internal redistribution system of the Shanghai Daoist Association and is “public-supply” in terms of the style in which the SDA deals with the clients. The morality it claims to embody is egalitarianism and unselfish devotion for common causes, but in reality this economy encourages hierarchical exploitation, sloth, and apathy.

Temple priests soon began working with the unlicensed freelance household priests. At the same time both learn to collaborate with spirit mediums (daxian 大仙 or xiangtou 香头), the main sponsors of ritual life, and to imitate their approach: [1]

Their economy is an integrated system of a gift economy in the private/individual domain and a tributary economy in the public/communal domain. In the private domain, they provide individual devotees or families with magical or non-magical healing, spiritual protection, divination, psychological consultation, and so on. In the public domain, they take the initiative to organize communal religious activities.

Temple priests began to provide facilities for patrons to create god statues, spirit tablets, and amulets, and to offer divination services. And to satisfy the taste of clients, temple priests began to expand the range and style of their rituals. He cites the remarkable case of Xiao Wang and the “Maoist shaman” whom he replaced as temple leader; thus temple priests learn to act as both “immortal magistrates” and cadres.

Daoist temples came to be considered as a crucial means for revitalizing the economy of old, run-down neighbourhoods to boost the motivation of the local population for pursuing economic development. And temple priests have gradually developed a distinctive synthesis of all the economic patterns they can learn from bureaucrats, freelance priests, and mediums.

* * *

So what Chinese sources often portray as a seamless transition is actually beset by conflict. I’ve already given instances of the different values of the traditional ethos of folk musicking and the new style of the conservatoires and state troupes, including a wise insight from the great Yang Yinliu. In

  • From ritual skills to discursive knowledge: changing styles of Daoist transmission in Shanghai”, in Adam Yuet Chau (ed.), Religion in contemporary China: revitalization and innovation (2008), pp.81–107.

Yang Der-ruey shows how modern schooling for training novice Daoist priests has produced a new style of learning and a new type of knowledge among the younger generation of Daoist priests. He argues that the curriculum instituted by the Shanghai Daoist College

is actually an attempt to reset the priority attached to different ways of learning and different kinds of knowledge. In sharp contrast to their predecessors who prioritized rote learning and repetitive bodily exercise, and who attached the highest value to the ability to exert up efficacious power while achieving the highest aesthetic qualities in representing tradition, the College-trained younger Daoist priests are taught to prioritize understanding, explanation, argumentation, and to accord the highest value to the ability to compose awe-inspiring discourse embroidered with references to many books. In short, the College’s curriculum functions, purposefully or inadvertently, to instigate an intellectual revolution among younger Daoist priests by replacing “ritual skills” with “discursive knowledge” as the new ideal model for Daoist knowledge.

This “paradigm shift” of Daoist knowledge/learning style is not directly imposed by state authority or enforced by the official ideology of atheism but derives from an acute sense of a crisis of legitimacy, or even survival, of Daoism that is now widely shared among the Daoist clergy. This sense of crisis was actually cultivated by the State in the first place through forcing Daoism to engage in a peculiar Chinese-styled inter-religious competition that is arguably biased against Daoism as a tradition of “mere” ritual skills. However, the inflictor role of the state tends to be ignored, as it also functions as the enlightening pedagogue that shows Daoist clergy the way toward emancipation: modern priestly schooling modeled after the state-run public schooling system.
The story may sound quite upbeat for preservationists and revivalists of the Daoist tradition in China, but the reality is just the opposite. Many senior priests in Shanghai, who were once the most passionate supporters of the endeavor, became its bitterest critics, and did not hesitate to voice their disillusionment publicly. Although their disaffection towards their pupils may have been caused by many other reasons, including the generation gap, unfair rates of salary and benefits that discriminates the aged priests, and so on, it is nevertheless based on an apparent fact: the training of young priests today is very different from that in their own youth. Many senior priests considered the College to be an appalling failure, putting the blame either on the personal qualities of the students and the leadership of the College, or on the very idea of setting up a modern priest training school.

The disaffection and accusations of those senior priests surely have certain grounds, and it is unquestionably true that the general qualities of the youngsters’ ritual skills are much lower than that of the elders. However, it should also be acknowledged that, while many aged priests are illiterate or barely literate, all the younger priests are literate and some are actually quite well versed in history, philosophy, and even IT skills, as they all have gone through nine to twelve years of public schooling. Therefore, it would be unfair to conclude that the younger generation priests are inferior to their predecessors and that the College is a failure. So, where do all the squabbles come from? The real problem here is a huge gap between the majority of senior priests and the leadership/faculty of the College on what should be taught to novice priests or what they should be learning through the College. Learning and teaching activities are embedded in, and structured by, the surrounding social and/or institutional contexts; to thoroughly explain the above-mentioned gap would require us to examine not just the knowledge to be taught/learnt but also the context in which the transmission of knowledge takes place.

Yang discusses in detail the types of knowledge transmitted through the local apprenticeship tradition and through the College, highlighting the contrast between them.

Before Liberation mastery of ritual practice was central to the local apprenticeship tradition, and was structurally embedded within the kinship network. Daoists commonly have mottos for the various kinds of ritual skills to be learned, like “blowing, beating, writing, reciting, and looking” chui da xie nian kan 吹打寫念看) in Yanggao (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.15). In Shanghai the list comprises eight skills:

  • chui qiao xie nian pu pai zha zhuo 吹敲寫念鋪排紮著
    wind playing, percussion, writing ritual documents, vocal liturgy, setting up altars (pu and pai), making paper artefacts, decoration.

But further, the more advanced ritual masters are expected to acquire magical power (fali 法力) by mastery of fu 符 (talismans), zhou 咒 (incantations), jue 訣 (mudras), and bu 步 (magical steps). Yang describes the cunxiang 存想 (“indulge in contemplation”) and chushen 出神(“bringing out the gods”) esoteric techniques of such masters.

Table 1

Table 2

He contrasts the degree certificates granted by modern educational institutions (merely an abstract confirmation of a past reality—“X has studied X subject for X years and passed the final examination”) with the Daoist lu 籙 registers, which contain much more information. Although both modern degree certificate and lu registers empower the holders, the “efficacy” of the former depends finally upon its being recognized by the secular establishment and/or the general public, whereas the latter is supposed to be efficacious in its own right because it is warranted by the heavenly bureaucracy.

A nice story from a young graduate of the College, about an encounter at an exhibition on the “religious sector”, shows both the delusion of the modern secular mindset and students’ own awareness of the conflict:

The head of the Bureau of Religious Affairs came to our stands accompanied by a load of bigshots. At first, they seemed surprised that Daoism had also founded a college. Then one of them started to tease me: “What have you learned in this Daoist College, then? Drawing talismans? Reciting spells? Being a medium? Dancing as a shaman?” While he was asking, some onlookers burst into laughter. I did my best to suppress my anger and calmly told the bastard what kind of curriculum we have in the Daoist College. In the end, I really felt I was going to blow my top if I couldn’t put up a bit of a counter-attack, because there was always someone sniggering at me when I was talking to the bastard. So I concluded my explanation like this: “If someone wants to learn Daoist magic like drawing talismans or casting spells, they must have a certain talent and then spend many years on strictly disciplined practices and meditation. It’s not a simple job like reading books. So, a “good student” valued by normal standards, even a PhD, is probably not qualified for learning Daoist magic.” Those who had laughed at me shut their mouths immediately. They could sense that there was a sting in my words.


* * *

Whereas a conservatoire education is broadly in line with later careers in state music troupes, official Daoist training programmes are soon rendered irrelevant when graduates have to make their way in the ritual market.

Of course, conservatoires and state programmes are the tip of the iceberg: most folk musicians, and the majority of household Daoists in rural China, never set foot within the state educational apparatus for either music or ritual. Even in cases where the Intangible Cultural Heritage authorities seek to impose such procedures on household Daoists, the attempt is incongruous and impotent, as with the Li family.

But whereas the ritual market in south Jiangsu continues to thrive along with its population, in rural north China both are dwindling.


[1] For more on the Shanghai mediums, and their relations with temples and Daoists, see e.g. Long Feijun龙飞俊, “Shanghai Longwangmiaode ‘taitai’ men: dangdai Shanghai Longwang miao daojiao difang jisi tixi diaocha” 上海龙王庙的“太太”们——当代上海龙王庙道教地方祭祀体系调查, Zongjiaoxue yanjiu 2014.3, and her ongoing work.




Yet more Chinese clichés: music


To follow Chinese art clichés, for this list of Chinese music clichés I revert to the Catechism format immortalized by the great Flann O’Brien (for my previous essays in the genre, see here and here).

Seriously Though Folks: since we need to study expressive culture in the context of changing society, it’s important to unpack the language of propaganda, in this as in other fields!

What kind of history does Chinese music have?
An ancient 悠久 one.

And how many years of history does any genre you care to mention have?
Two thousand.

And what kind of fossils are these genres?
Living ones, of course.

To what do they belong?
The glorious heritage of the Chinese peoples.

What is the folk culture of, well, anywhere you care to mention?
Unique and vibrant.

What kind of colourings did such music often have before Liberation?
Feudal superstitious ones.

How did the government treat folk music after Liberation?
They esteemed it while systematically dismantling its entire social basis.

And what kind of foliage did folk artists turn over then?
A new leaf.

What does folk-song express?
The sentiments of the labouring masses.

In praise of whom did folk-singers create new songs?
Um, Chairman Mao.

How did they present their art 献艺 to the Party?

So they weren’t malnourished and desperate, then?
Oh no.

What are they keen to do with what?
To preserve and develop their precious heritage.

Now (here’s an easy one) what are the ethnic minorities jolly good at?
Um, singing and dancing 能歌善舞。

And how are their relations with the Han Chinese?
Brotherly, of course.

What kind of scale does Chinese music use?
A heptatonic scale based on anhemitonic pentatonic melodies, with occasional temporary modulation up or down a fifth creating a new anhemitonic pentatonic set.

[consulting script anxiously] WHA-A-T???
Oh all right then—pentatonic.

How might we characterize southern music?

And northern music?
Rugged and angular.

For what irresistible yet cumbersome title does one scurry to get nominated, nay inscribed, these days?
The umpteenth batch of China’s National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage zzzzz

Whereupon what means of perambulation will the genre in question adopt in what ubiquitous direction?
Marching towards the world 走向世界。*

Such is the flapdoodle we have to plough through, reading between the lines… Plenty more where that came from under the heritage tag. And for illustrations of different mindsets, see here. For a veritable masterpiece of international cliché, see Away from it all.

And with what should we treat such platitudes?
The contempt they deserve.

Yangjiagou band, 1999

Yangjiagou shawm band, funeral 1999.

As to the “Golden Age” of the Tang, how about this.


* Ironically, “Marching towards the world” is the title of ch.18 of my Daoist priests of the Li family, on the foreign tours of the band—but all is explained:

You may be thinking, “Aha, so now we’re going to see how local ritual goes global and gets adapted for the concert stage!” Well, forget it—the basic context for their performance remains the local funerary business that I describe throughout the book.

For Bach marching towards the world, see here.