Jottings from Lisbon 2

In this post I begin to educate myself on the Salazar regime—framed by more on the changing history and image of fado.

Fado 1910

José Malhoa, Fado, 1910.

Back in Lisbon last week after my visit this time last year, I reacquainted myself with the delectable Colete Salva-Vidas and her three daughters, notably the errant Aterragem (see my linguistic fantasy here)—and now, I find, yet another on the way, Proxima Paragem (“next stop”, between you and me). I’m tickled that the door sign for “Pull” is Puxe—putting foreigners off the scent, like changing the signposts in wartime Britain? I would like “pullover” to be puxesobre, “pushover”.

To console me that my visits never seem to coincide with a festival of traditional Alentejan choirs, my friend Nick took me to the wonderful Casa Alentejo. Cunningly disguised as a Western Union office, you’d never guess at the riches inside—a Moorish courtyard, frescos, tiles, and a little double stage: a true gem (if not aterragem).

* * *

While my first loyalty is to the complexity and intensity of flamenco cante jondo, it’s always good to explore fado—and it’s high time for me to understand a bit more about its social and political background. This may be old hat for world music groupies, but perhaps it’s of a certain relevance for my sinophile readers; and quite aside from the tourist angle, there seems a genuine enthusiasm among the current fadistas[1]

The Museo do Fado (including sound archive here, and biographies here) makes a useful introduction. Evoking many other genres (rebetika, tango, and so on), the early history of fado was one of delinquency and transgression (cf. Merriam, ““licence to deviate from behavioural norms”). Indeed, that’s still very much the ethos of shawm bands in rural China. As a useful 2007 article on fado comments:

When a Portuguese writer described the fado in 1926 as “a song of rogues, a hymn to crime, an ode to vice, an encouragement to moral depravity, an unhealthy emanation from the centres of corruption, from the infamous habitations of the scum of society”, he identified a set of associations that a new generation of fadistas wear like a badge of honour.

Musicians often wore bright tattoos, in red on the singer’s chest or between his thumb and fingers, with markings of “anchors, ships, guitars, flowers, animals, pierced or joined hearts, the cross, the five sores of Christ [YAY], other love, religious, fantasy signs or inscriptions”.

Fadistas 1873

Pinheiro, Fadistas, 1873.

But later a political stigma replaced the old social one:

For some, it’s a sound forever tarnished by its association with fascism. After the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, many on the Portuguese left saw the fado as something shameful. It was seen, at best, as a conservative outlet for national misery, at worst as an authorised voice for Catholic fascism.

Salazar himself considered that fado “sapped all energy from the soul and led to inertia” (on which grounds he might have been a big Sex Pistols fan). In 1927 he passed a law regulating it, depriving it of much of its improvisation and spontaneity—which sounds like what the Party has long tried but failed to do in China. Under Salazar fado wasn’t used as propaganda, but it was neutered. Flamenco, while no less commodified, has retained a more earthy aspect.

Fado‘s links with Brazil and Africa are also worth pursuing.

* * *

Following my visits to Sachsenhausen and Stasi memorial sites in Berlin, it seemed suitable to give myself a basic education on the Salazar regime and its sinister PIDE security forces. By contrast with the grim surroundings of the Stasi museum in Berlin, the Aljube museum (Museum of resistance and liberation; also useful introduction here) occupies a picturesque site overlooking the sea, suitably opposite the Sé cathedral—as if to remind us of the role of the church in supporting the regime.

family

Portugal was one of the poorest countries in Europe. In 1920, 66% of the population was illiterate. Infant mortality rates only decreased belatedly:

1926: 45%
1974: 37%
2011:   3%.

kids

The Estado Novo endured for forty years, from 1933 until 1974. It was in this period that Portugal became encapsulated by “the three Fs”: fado, football, and Fátima. Bread and circuses, perhaps: for the opposition, a formula for national alienation. One might add a fourth F: fear.

Lisbon 1939

Lisbon 1939.

The Aljube had a long history as a prison. On the eve of the Estado Novo it held “women of ill repute, and incorrigible women accused of serious crimes”. Indeed, under Salazar, the exhibition mentions the general exploitation of women:

Women like Maria Lamas, Maria Isabel Aboim Inglês, Virginia Moura and Maria Machado initiated a new specific approach to the female condition and especially of the until then “invisible” condition of the women.

In a country where feminism was a late starter, this positioning would fertilize the cultural soil, in which would grow what is considered the first Portuguese feminist manifesto, As Novas Cartas Portuguesas [The new Portuguese charters], the publication (and apprehension) of which would leads its three authors, Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Velho da Costa, and Isabel Barreno, to be criminally persecuted in 1972.

Under the dictatorship the Aljube became a political prison. The museum outlines the use of torture, the role of informers (bufos, “squealers”), the resistance, and the exile of prisoners to penal colonies in the Azores, Madeira, East Timor. Many died of starvation and disease in Tarrafal camp in Cape Verde. The third floor covers the anticolonial struggle, as well as the 1974 Carnation revolution.

The exhibition documents the collaboration of the PIDE with the Italian secret police and the Gestapo—going on to note that the CIA helped train the PIDE from 1957.

One thorn in the flesh of the regime, harrassed by the PIDE, was the musician José “Zeca” Afonso (1929–87):

I’m sure a lot more tourists walk past than enter the Aljube museum, which is sad—but of course it takes a particular mentality to travel the globe in search of atrocity sites. Despite all the evidence of human suffering, not least during my own pampered youth, I’m not here (today, at least) to rant against tourism—the whole image of the Med (sun, sea, and in this case Sé) and idyllic island resorts—or indeed to carp at the human capacity for enjoying life.

Criminal states have operated all over the world, and continue to do so. In places like Germany and Portugal, where regimes have changed, lessons may be learned in the public domain; in China, still very little.

* * *

The new generation of fadistas are said to have shaken off the link with fascism, but it never fitted neatly into the discourses of either right or left. Moreover, it now seems largely rhetorical for fadistas to pride themselves on its history as an “ode to vice, an encouragement to moral depravity from the scum of society”. The clubs have been becoming gentrified for over a century, the atmosphere genteel (or what the Chinese would call “cultured”)—and even I can’t fault it for that.

So what better way of spending the night before Eurovision than to relish fado at a venue I hadn’t visited before: the Associação do Fado Casto in Rua São Mamede. Among all the fado joints in the Alfama, it’s rather off the beaten track, and suitably untrumpeted from the outside. The atmosphere is great, with groups of family and friends enjoying fine food amidst evocative memorabilia.

 

As to the fado, performed in sets of three songs, while the pluckers noodle away whimsically,  the intimate intensity of saudade as the singer enters is immediately touching. I heard fine sets from Matilde Cid, accompanied by Antonio Duarte and João Filipe:

Matilde

Here she is on youtube:

I also just found out about the great Carminho, falling hopelessly in love with this early clip of her singing Fado of the hours in Carlos Saura’s 2007 film (longer sequence here):

I used to cry for not seeing you,
And now that I see you, I cry

Chorava por te não ver,
por te ver eu choro agora,
mas choro só por querer,
querer ver-te a toda a hora.

Passa o tempo de corrida,
quando falas eu te escuto,
nas horas da nossa vida,
cada hora é um minuto.

Deixa-te estar a meu lado,
e não mais te vás embora,
para meu coração coitado
viver na vida uma hora.

This has leapt into my list of all-time Top Ten World Songs—along with Erbarme dich, You’re my thrill, Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen, Back to black, When I am laid in earth, Chet ballads, Härlig är jorden, Eternal source of light divine, and Naturträne. Incidentally, many fados make use of the plangent minor key, but this is a good instance of how saudade can be amply achieved without it.

I’m somewhat resistant to Big Stars (at least in “world music“), but I can hardly sign off without paying homage to the saudade of Amália Rodrigues:

 

[1] While we await a translation of Rui Vieira Nery, Para uma história do fado, for one detailed study in English see Paul Vernon, A history of the Portuguese fado; see also James Patrick Félix, Folk or fake: the notion of authenticity in Portuguese fadohere. For a general introduction to fado in the wider context of Portuguese music, with discography, see The Rough guide to world music, pp.309–23; fado also features regularly in Songlines magazine.

 

Accordion crimes

Proulx
“Germans invented the accordion,” Beutle explained to Messermacher. “A thousand things they invented, but accordions most of all. Because Germans think, Germans have brains. There was this feller, a musician, a German violinist, he ends up playing in the court orchestra in Russia, not Catherine the Great but around that time, he plays the violin. But because he’s a German, Jesus Christ, he notices things, he notices when he hangs up his bow on a nail back in his room she also makes a nice little tone. From this he invents the nail violin, very beautiful tones, I have heard it. A circle of wood with nails sticking out, you run the bow on the nails and ooo aaa ooo aaa, a beautiful tune. One day this feller gets a strange thing from China, somebody gives it to him because interested in things he is—naturally, he is a German—and he sees a round bowl with some bamboo pipes sticking out, and on the bowl a mouthpiece. He blows on it. It’s a fine sound. This thing the Jesus Christ Chinese put reeds inside the pipes, same as in the accordion, little reeds stuck on one end with wax, the other end can vibrate like this.” He trembled his hand at Messermacher. “The German violin player learns the playing of this instrument, die liebliche Chinesenorgel, and from this he passes to other Germans the idea of the accordion—the free reed. That’s how it begins. Later comes the bellows.” (91–2)

By now readers of my blog will know how vital the sheng mouth-organ is to the ensemble accompanying north Chinese Daoist ritual—and I suppose it was the sheng that obscurely reminded to read Annie Proulx’s miraculous 1996 novel Accordion crimes.

The book has long been popular with ethnomusicologists (e.g. this review), despite being a novel—or rather, near the fiction end of the spectrum from non-fiction to fiction; or near the readable end of the academic—engaging spectrum (cf. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s Sardinian chronicles, another engaging classic). Like ethnomusicologists, Proulx focuses on change and social function. In her Acknowledgements she lists an impressive array of sources, experts on their regional genres—it’s amazing that all her detailed research took only two years.

On an epic scale, in the tradition of the Great American Novel, Accordion crimes has all the rich detail of ethnographic thick description. Indeed, it’s timely that I should get round to reading it now, since it discusses the tribulations of poor, ill-fated immigrants. The human cast includes immigrant Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish (cf. the equally poetic Carson), Mexicans, French, and Norwegians—all against a backdrop of xenophobia, misanthropy, brutality. Their sad, tough, gory, gruesome tales are connected by the history of an old two-row button accordion for over a century, with other roles played by

  • a club style accordion
  • a little one-row button accordion
  • a chromatic accordion
  • a piano accordion
  • a bandoneon
  • a concertina
  • a Chemnitzer.

As I observed about that other ethno classic Lives in jazz, the book gives a perfect combo of music and social detail. Hooked on taxonomy, Proulx can never resist long lists; likely to be tedious in academic hands, hers never fail to enthrall. While poetic, her language is never pompous.

The novel opens with compelling detail from 19th-century Sicily:

It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed malocchio, eager to reflect the bitter glance at the glancer.

He had cut the grille with a jeweler’s saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had made all the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kid-skin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sewed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. (17)

As the old accordion-maker arrives in New Orleans in search of fame and fortune,

In and out went Caramele through the scores of dives, tonks and jooks and barrelhouse joints that lined these streets, the accordion maker lurching after him through the musical din of drums and ringing banjos, shouters, pianos clinking away, squealing fiddles and trumpets and other brass snorting and wailing from every interior, and sometimes a string quartet sawing crazily. On the streets children watched and fought for discarded stogie butts, black street musicians and white played for coins, singing improvised songs of insult at those who failed to toss a whirling coin. (42–3)

In “Spider, Bite Me”, Abelardo recalls to his son Baby,

“The accordion was so natural, a little friend. Easy and small to carry, easy to play, and loud, and can play bass rhythm and melody. Just the accordion and nothing else and you’ve got a dance. It’s the best instrument for dancing in the world, the best for the human voice.”
[…] On the weekends [Baby] played for dances with Chris, mostly rancheras and polkas; they sang in the classic two-part harmony, primera y segunda. […] The dances were exhausting, the strain of playing and the lights, the sweat and heat and thirst, the noise like pouring rain.
[…] Though so many turned to the big-band sound and the strange hybrid fusion of jazz, rumba and swing, would rather listen to “Marijuana Boogie,” the Los Angeles Latin sound, than “La Barca del Oro”, there was an audience that liked their music, found value in it. These new ones, many of them veterans back from the Korean War, some of them university students, embraced conjunto, and this music was not for dancing but for listening. It had a meaning beyond itself. (173–4)

The changing tastes lead to a heated argument between Baby and his put-upon sister Félida (191–8):

She passed her arms through the huge straps. […] She stared at the ceiling, said, “por Chencho, Tomás, por Papá Abelardo,” then sang the heart-wrenching “Se fue mi amor,” which Carmen y Laura had recorded in the last year of the war.

Her bellows control technique was extraordinary, with dramatic swells and choking, sforzati explosive effects. She scratched and rubbed and struck the keys, ran the back of her nails across the folds of the bellows. The accordion gave the perfect illusion that a bajo sexto and a bass as well as a highly original percussion player supported the accordion, and from it came the melting harmony of the missing sister’s voice to twine and burn with the sweet, smoldering fire of Félida’s sad voice.

“Hitchhiking in a wheelchair” (199–276) is fascinating too, as Dolor makes a pilgrimage to Canada in search of old-time French music:

The music was stunningly brilliant, joyous with life and vigor. The dancers sprang over the floor and now and then they would draw back and give room to a step dancer whose rigid back, erect head and straight-hanging arms accentuated the clattering, tapping, rapping, knocking, flinging feet whose steps stuttered in and out of the music. He wished Wilf could hear the fiddler, the sound like a flock of birds, a flight of arrows striking all around him, from a growling, clenched-teeth mutter on the G and D strings to harmonic shrieks and stair-tumbling runs—Jean something, a taxi-driver from Montréal.

This leads to “Don’t Let a Dead Man Shake You by the Hand” (277–349) , where Proulx expounds on Cajun and zydeco in Louisiana; and “Hit Hard and Gone Down” on the Polish folk scene (351–426):

The Chez family from Pinsk lived across the street; later they changed their name to Chess, the two boys grew up to work in businesses, a junkyard, bars and nightclubs, finally making phonograph records featuring black singers moaning the blues, and by 1960 the good Polish neighborhood had turned black on all sides. (354)

“There’d always be somebody’s polka band—two violins, you know, the bass fiddle and the clarinet, no accordion at all, they’d just play all afternoon and we’d dance. No music pages, they play from their heads, they were geniuses. You know, the dancers used to sing out a line of a song, or not even sing it, just shout it like, and the musicians they had to catch it, know it and play it back in the same key. Oh, they were so good. Well, your grandfather, he sees after a while there is some money starting to come to the polka band players and there was all kinds of palces that wanted polka bands—Polish Homes, the Polish Club, not the culture evening but the Saturday night dance, little dance halls all over the place, the union halls, bars and Polka Dot restaurant, the Polish League of War Veterans, a lot of restaurants, Polonia Hall—oh, there was plenty of polka dancing, and a lot of fun, and weddings, weddings, weddings, everybody was getting married and you gotta have polkas.” (371)

Hieronim’s wake was something, the last of its kind in the neighborhood, in the old, old Polish style, and nobody would have known how to do it except Old Man Bulas from the Polish Club… He was the leader of the singing and knew the hymns, scores of them all written down in his śpiewnik, a thick, handsome book wrapped in black cloth. (383)

This is soon followed by a memorable wedding:

He told his wife that it was necessary to balance the solemn death rites of Hieronim with as much of the old wesele style as possible… (385)

But again, tastes are changing (404–14). As promoter Mrs Grab warns Joey:

“We don’t want nothing weird or extreme, you know? There’s rules now, the association’s made rules. […] Only one song in Polish. Most people don’t understand it, but one song gives a nice ethnic flavor. That’s what we want to stress, ethnic flavor. Let me tell you something, Joey. Ethnic music is not that old-time stuff anymore. These days everybody is ethnic, might as well make money on it. […] They don’t want that mournful folk music sound no more or those complicated couple dances going into cricles and weaving around and slapping their asses and crossing into the next lane. No more of that Kozaky na Stepie, Cossacks on the Steppe, stuff. Everything gets mixed up unless you got a Ph.D. in Polish clogging. It’s no fun.”

[…] The spare applause had hardly died down when a big guy jumped up, his thin long hair pasted to his sweating forehead, and began to shout at them.
“This is not Polish polka, not Polish music. I am a Pole from Poland and in Poland they would laugh at you as I do now—Ha! Ha!—for saying this garbage you play is Polish.”

Now the bandoneon and tango make an appearance, as Joey meets a migrant from Buenos Aires, who muses:

“Piazzolla, with his little zips like the plastic zipper of a cheap jacket, his plotted silences, the squealing like rubbing two balloons together. That is a serious, unsmiling, hard music; the faces of the dancers frown furiously; and his tempo, the beat is like climbing cement stairs in a skyscraper with fire behind the doors. And there is that quality of a paper comb that sets the sutures of the skull trembling. Those passionate swellings are musical hives…” (416–18, cf. Alexei Sayle, no less).

“The Colors of Horses”, with Basque and Irish musics as well as Appaloosa horses playing a major role, is another too, er, deaf ‘orse. More fantastical lists:

…descendants of the ice-age horses painted on the cave walls of France, of the fabled horses of Ferghana, between the Syrdarya and the Amudarya rivers on the steppes of Central Asia in Uzbekistan, of Rakush, the spotted horse of the warrior hero Rustam, celebrated in Persian miniatures and in Firdousi’s epic poem the Shah Namah, of the Chinese Celestial Horses from the Extreme West, the Blood-Sweating horses, of the galloping mounts of the Mongol Horde and Attila the Hun, of the Andalusian horses of Spain shipped to Mexico for the conquistadors’ savage forays, of a shipload of spotted horses from the Trieste Lippizan herd landed on Vera Cruz around 1620, of the horses abandoned by the terrified Spaniards after the Pueblo revolt of sixty years later and traded north by an agricultural people more interested in sheep, to the Shoshone, Cayuse, Nez, Percé, Blackfeet, Blood, Arikara, Sioux, Cree, Crow, of the North American steppes known as the Great Plains, had been bred down to dog meat. (443–5)

The evocation of Irish song (483–5) is worthy of Cieran Carson. Now we return to the original, battered old green accordion:

The silent reed suffered from a grain of rust jammed between the reed tongue and its vent, and this he eased out with a silk thread from his fly-tying box. The steel reeds were coated with islands of rust and he scraped at them with the blade of his knife but was afraid of lodging more fragments under the reed tongues. He cleaned the reeds with his toothbrush, blowing out the dust until he was dizzy.

He could see it needed everything—new bellows, new reed, new springs, reed plates reset, grille replaced, and more. But it had a wonderful voice, sonorous, plangent, shouting in grief to the mountain slope. (486)

The final section, “Back Home with Reattached Arms”, is moving too, with Norwegian immigrants making an appearance:

His own parents had been obsessed with the prescriptions of a book, The Emigrant’s Guide to Preserving Norwegian Culture, written by a homesick settler in Texas, a book that dwelt on the merits of the Norwegian language, twice-daily prayers, Norwegian hymns, clothes, food, and, after the fortune was made, return to the “elskede Nord” country. Daily they had sung “En Udvandrers Sang,” “O Norges Son” and others. His mother wished to live in a Norwegian community where land was owned in common by all. But Gunnar shouted for independence and his own land, purchased a mighty, star-spangled flag… (496)

 ***

That discussion of the sheng, with which I opened, reminds me of the Li family Daoist band’s concerts in German churches in 2013, the two mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out (my book, p.339).

For a general introduction to the accordion, see here. For yet another wacky illustration of the joys of organology, see the aerophones classified under Sachs-Hornbostel 412.232 here.

Passages like this draw the reader towards archive recordings:

Abelardo had hundreds of records, his own recordings of the 1930s, a few with Decca, then with Stella, then with Bell, then Stella again. “In those days I sang in Spanish; those men with the record company said to me, ‘we can’t tell what you’re singing, so don’t sing anything dirty.’ So of course I sang all the filthy ones.”
[…] He had old recordings of Lydia Mendoza, of the great accordion players, the records of Bruno Villareal, half blind, a little tin cup wired to the side of his accordion, playing in 1928, “the first recording with the accordion as the star”, Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martínez, Los Hermanos San Miguel, dozens of Santiago Jiménez discs.
[…] He would make them listen to all those old labels: Okeh, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca, Ideal, Falcon, Azteca, especially the Ideals made in the garage of Armando Marroquín up in Alice. (148–9)

Of course, like all those books about Daoist ritual, it misses a lot by being silent—it cries out for a good playlist. More stimulating than this one is a Songlines list, but one is drawn back to the great 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. And let’s all explore youtube—here’s a Polish tango from 1931:

But if we have to use words to evoke music, this is just the way to convey its messy exhilaration and flawed humanity.

Calendrical rituals

Easter Passions, Holy Week in Spain and third-moon pilgrimages in China

Stephen Jones: a blog

Further to my thoughts on festivals, today is the focus of the round of Bach Passion performances, now a kind of secular pilgrimage very different from its original liturgical context—not just of Good Friday but the whole calendar. Different too are our ears, bodies, world-views, experiences, sanitation

Mark Padmore, incomparable Evangelist in the Passions, has made some thoughtful points.

One of Bach’s most moving arias is Zerfließe, mein Herze in the John Passion:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:
Dein Jesus ist tot!

Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
to honour the Almighty!
Tell the world and heaven your distress:
your Jesus is dead!

More performative tears—like north Chinese Daoist ritual, the aria is also accompanied by anguished wind ensemble, almost evoking (for modern ears) French film music.

While Protestants do their thing…

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Wind, ethnicity, gender

My time with Chinese shawm bands (most ubiquitous of performers for rural ceremonial) leads me to dabble mildly in studies of early European wind bands. So I’m struck by this detail of a 1520 Portuguese painting:

trombone

The Engagement of Saint Ursula and Prince Etherius,

It makes an alluring image for reviews of Miranda Kaufmann’s new book Black Tudors: the untold story, though it’s familiar to musicologists on the period—leading me to a glimpse of some of the fine work that scholars do for early European organology. See these images—Keith McGowan’s groundbreaking work on wind bands (which we await, um, breathlessly) encompasses social aspects of early European players of ethnic minority backgrounds—who, as in China, were generally low in status. And the painting is included in a survey by Will Kimball on early sackbut grips (and I thought my work was niche…)

That image comes from Portugal, but Kaufmann opens her book with a vivid account of John Blanke, trumpeter at the Tudor court.

John Blanke (rear, centre), from Westminster tournament roll, 1511.

As she notes, African musicians (mostly wind players) had been playing for European monarchs and nobility since the 12th century. More commonly represented in painting are Middle-Eastern shawm bands, as in Carpaccio’s Baptism of the Selenites.

So if the 1520 Portuguese painting is the earliest surviving representation of a black trombonist, then when was the next, eh? Before the 20th century?

Moving laterally (like a trombone slide), here’s Melba Liston:

While we’re about it, any excuse to cite Some like it hot:

And Vermeer’s The art of painting attracts as much interpretation as Las meninas:

***

Now, much as I admire Chinese music historians and the many fine collections of early iconography of Chinese instruments, I wonder if the Confucian habit of merely citing early written sources without discussing them applies in that field too: beyond merely displaying images, we need to interpret them.

While I’m on the subject, citations of early texts by Chinese scholars seem to assume we all know what they mean; they feel no need to translate them into modern Chinese. Yet when I query how to translate such passages, even the best scholars aren’t necessarily clear—and the uncertainty is precisely why we need to discuss them.

***

On a topical note, I caught a glimpse on the news recently of a shawm band playing for a demo in troubled Catalonia. Among the amazing regional variety of folk culture in Spain, folk Catalan double-reed instruments include grallatarota, tible, and tenora.

 

 

Edible, intangible, dodgy

One of the more entertaining excursions of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) project is in the field of cuisine, under whose august portals “Mediterranean diet” has been loftily inscribed.

Among many fun BTL comments there is one from a certain Nickov:

Might have a stab at protecting the Bristol Channel Diet:
Gregg’s pasties, white cider and chlamydia.

I also eagerly await an application from the Glasgow cultural authorities (whoever they might be) to, um, preserve the venerable deep-fried Mars bar.

And what of Spotted Dick, I hear you cry?

I was reminded of all this on my recent trip to Lisbon, whose fine cuisine hardly fits into the Mediterranean gastronomic jigsaw.

While we’re on the topic of transmission, this important corrective doesn’t entirely confound the popular cliché that Bach’s music fell out of use after his death. His sons, and their audiences, might not have taken kindly to being told to continue performing their father’s music—though doubtless ICH funding would have influenced their attitude.

Were one to be at all jocular (surely not?—Ed.), one could query many ancient cultural traditions. Where might UNESCO stand on [1] wife-beating? Or indeed FGM? And whatever happened to child chimney-sweeps? Witch-burning, a tradition eradicated in most parts of the world, is also seriously endangered. Molvania has nice comments on all this kind of flapdoodle.

Thanks to Helen Rees (herself a great authority on the ICH) for alerting me to this article, succinctly broaching such issues:

  • Richard Kurin, “Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the 2003 UNESCO Convention: a critical appraisal”, Museum 56.1 (2004), pp.66–77.

(pp.69–71:)

The definition, as given in the Convention, can encompass a broader range of activity than the framers assumed. Such cultural forms as rap music, Australian cricket, modern dance, post-modernist architectural knowledge, and karaoke bars all symbolize cultural communities (albeit not necessarily ethnically or regionally) and pass on their own traditions (though not usually genealogically). (69–71)

Not all intangible cultural heritage is recognized for the purposes of the Convention. To be recognized, intangible cultural heritage must be consistent with human rights, exhibit
 the need for mutual respect between communities, and be sustainable. This is a very high and one might say unrealistic and imposing standard.

Understandably, UNESCO does not want to support or encourage practices inimical to human rights such as slavery, infanticide, or torture. Yet the standard is not without controversy. Is female genital mutilation a legitimate part of intangible cultural heritage to be recognized by the Convention or not? Is a religious tradition that includes Brahmins, but excludes non-Brahmins disqualified as intangible cultural heritage because of its discriminatory quality? Is a musical tradition where only men play instruments and only women sing inequitable, and thus contrary to human rights accords? Determining what is allowable or not as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention will be a difficult task.

Similarly problematic is the “mutual respect” clause in the Convention. Intangible cultural heritage is by definition something used for community self-definition. Many cultural communities though, define themselves in opposition or resistance to others. Their very identity as a people or community relies on their victory over or defeat by others. Their defining songs and tales may celebrate the glory of empire, victorious kings, religious conversion, or alternatively resistance to perceived injustice, martyrdom and defeat—not the mutual respect of peoples. The Convention’s standard is quite idealistic, seeing culture as generally hopeful and positive, born not of historical struggle and conflict but of a varied flowering of diverse cultural ways. Including the “mutual respect” standard can however disqualify much of the world’s traditional culture from coverage by the Convention.

Kurin goes on to query the problematic standard of “sustainability”:

The whole treaty is about safeguarding heritage thought to be endangered to some degree or other. The very fact that a tradition is endangered means that it is not sustainable in its current form or in its current context—hence the need for national or international intervention. Yet by definition a tradition to be recognized as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention and thus worthy of safeguarding, must itself also be sustainable. The provision, though well meaning, is confusing. Sustainability here is an ideal to be achieved, not an eligibility requirement for action.

(pp.73–5:)

Surely no one rationally envisions the Convention as safeguarding the transmission of intangible cultural heritage through such coercive forms as legally requiring the sons and daughters who practise a tradition to continue in their parents’ footsteps. No cultural treaty should ensure results through the denial of freedom promised under human-rights accords, with the opportunity for social, cultural, and economic mobility.

Culture changes and evolves. Practices of the past are discarded when they cease to be functionally useful or symbolically meaningful to a community. UNESCO and Member States need not guarantee through financial and symbolic rewards the survival of those customs and practices, beliefs and traditions that the community itself wants to discard. Nor should they encourage particularly harmful practices, or “freeze” cultural practices in the guise of preserving cultural diversity or defending against cultural globalization.

The Convention tends to reduce intangible cultural heritage to a list of largely expressive traditions, atomistically recognized and conceived. The actions it proposes miss the larger, holistic aspect of culture—the very characteristic that makes culture intangible. This is the intricate and complex web of meaningful social actions undertaken by individuals, groups, and institutions. Thousands of human cultures today face a myriad of challenges. Whether they survive or flourish depends upon so many things—the freedom and desire of culture bearers, an adequate environment, a sustaining economic system, a political context within which their very existence is at least tolerated. Actions to safeguard “tangibilized” inventoried items of cultural production are unlikely to safeguard adequately the larger, deeper, more diffuse intangible cultural patterns and contexts. Saving songs may not protect the ways of life of their singers, or the appreciation due by listeners. Far greater more holistic and systematic action is likely to be required.

There are many lessons for China here. In the south of Fujian province—alongside the extraordinary Hokkien traditions of Daoist ritual, processions with god statues borne aloft on sedans, and nanguan chamber ballads—vicious chronic inter-village feuds are a hallowed part of the local heritage.

I’m sure theorists have been beavering away at unpacking the prescriptive assumption that all tradition must be “good”. Conversely, ethnography avoids prescription—I prefer to devote my energies to documenting the traditions themselves, as I find them, rather than awarding prizes on questionable aesthetic and theoretical grounds, or leading them down the tortuous path of state institutionalization and commodification.

In China at least, one must observe that the ICH is a state agency to trumpet the grandeur of ancient Chinese culture, rather than a dispassionate body supporting scholarly research; except in the most hackneyed of terms, it can hardly confront the most basic aspect of such cultures—their traumatic fortunes through successive upheavals since the 1940s. And where do spirit mediums (anchors in maintaining local ritual life, among both the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese) and sectarian groups stand here—perhaps fortunately for them, they seem most unlikely to be offered the poisoned chalice of ICH status?

A new book

  • Christina Maags and Marina Svensson (eds), Chinese heritage in the making: experiences, negotiations and contestations (Amsterdam UP, 2018)

contains useful case-studies and references. The Introduction gives some nuanced perspectives:

As several authors have pointed out, the adoption of the intangible heritage discourse means that many cultural practices, including religious rituals that were seen as “superstitious” practices in the past, are now celebrated as heritage. In this heritagization process many of them have been reconstructed and reinterpreted, and some have had their religious aspects downplayed or ignored. (18–19)

Heritage listings and management is not an innocent and non-political celebration of heritage and culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. It can furthermore be used as a tool of governance to control and manage tradition, cultural practices, and religion, and to steer people’s memories, sense of place, and identities in certain ways. Several scholars have pointed out that the use of culture and intangible cultural heritage can be a softer and less visible way of “rendering individuals governable”. The listing, reification, and celebration of certain cultural practices can thus be a tool of governance, especially when individuals and communities are excluded from decision-making but still come to internalize the validation of the selected practices and behaviours. In the context of China, ICH could be seen as a new form of governance and a way to control religious and ethnic communities in particular. (20)

The heritage boom in China is partly driven by the central state and by local governments that are motivated by both ideological and economic considerations. The top-down heritagization process has, however, given rise to new stakeholders who may have their own agendas and express different views. At the same time, the language of heritage has also opened up space for individual citizens and local communities to celebrate and safeguard their own traditions and local history. Individual citizens and communities are experiencing, performing, and documenting heritage in a more bottom-up way, sometimes outside of the state narrative, at the same time as many actors try to capitalize on the official heritage discourse in order to gain legitimacy for their own history and traditions. (28)

While we always need to understand the involvement/intrusion of the state, I’m still concerned that all this attention lavished on a state institution distracts scholars from studying local cultures themselves (of which ICH may or may not be a part). Even those who are sensitive to the flaws of the system may be driven by the agenda of studying it; even noting the way it may be utilized by local agents, it’s still the focus. In a short space of time, it has dominated the discourse. Compare, for instance, the vast bibliography on ICH to the virtually non-existent studies of the numerous local Daoist lineages in Gansu province and their rituals in changing society. Look, here I am myself having to go on about ICH when I could be writing about the Daoists!

Fortunately even the Chinese state seems unable to transform local cultures into one big glossy Disneyland. While the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi are nominally part of the ICH system, their livelihood and activities remain almost solely dependent on providing funerary services for their local clients—those who are still left behind in the villages, that is.

 

[1] As in “Where do you stand on Donald Trump?” “On his windpipe.”

Real and Zidane

After my words of praise for Arsenal and Wenger, the victory of Real Madrid and the gorgeous Zidane in the Champion’s League was even more inspiring.

Sure, we should always remember the artistry of Barcelona and Messi (the latter all the more since he “looks like he works part-time on Saturdays in a video rental shop”).

And Zidane’s headbutt in the final of the 2006 World Cup remains iconic. After all, players like him must be so used to being wound up on the pitch, yet not rising to the bait. With just minutes to go before he could be fêted, canonized, his rash act seems like an even higher form of art, a worthy sacrifice—never mind mundane celebrity, he just had to do it, like in a bullfight.