Rāg Malkauns

Malkauns ragamala

Malkauns, ragamala. From The raga guide.

Here’s another post in my series on the wonders of north Indian raga. The story so far:

Also worth consulting is Unpacking “improvisation”.

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


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

Malkauns 1

Malkauns 2

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here he sings another version of Malkauns:

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

And this 1972 recording is wondrous too:

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

This one has a lengthy alap:

Here’s Vilayat Khan in 1985:

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

On sarangi, here’s Abdul Latif Khan:

and Bundu Khan:

On violin, N. Rajam:

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

With many thanks to Morgan Davies

Expressive cultures of the Himalayas

Musique et epopee

To complement my introduction to Tibet: the Golden Age, another volume, focusing on ritual and expressive cultures in the Himalayas and Tibet,

  • Katia Buffetrille and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (eds), Musique et épopée en Haute-Asie: mélanges offerts à Mireille Helffer à l’occasion de son 90e anniversaire (2017; 427 pages),

makes a fine occasion to survey the inspiration of Mireille Helffer’s pioneering studies.


The book opens with a tribute from her long-term colleague Bernard Lortat-Jacob (another doyen of French ethnomusicology, whose own ouevre is the subject of a new volume) and a detailed overview by the editors themselves, followed by a bibliography and discography of Helffer’s work on pp.25–33 (for her audio recordings, see also under https://archives.crem-cnrs.fr).

Though C.K. Yang’s distinction between “institutional” and “diffused” religious practice has been refined, I still find it useful for Tibetan as well as Chinese cultures. While the Tibetan monastic soundscape became a major focus of Helffer’s work (see e.g. her section in the New Grove article on Tibetan music), she always paid attention to folk practice too—a focus continued by scholars in recent years. The chapters further show the relevance of her studies for iconography, historiography, and organology.

Helffer 72

Through the 1960s and 70s, when Chinese-occupied Tibetan regions were inaccessible to outsiders, the base for Helffer’s fieldwork was among the Himalayan peoples in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Ladakh. Since the 1980s her research has inspired younger scholars to address the embattled Tibetan heartland of the TAR, Amdo, and Kham (cf. Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?” and other articles in n.1 here). Here I’ll just mention some chapters that particularly arouse my interest.

Helffer 100

The essays are grouped in three main sections. The first, “Conteurs et épopée”, includes a survey by Gisèle Krauskopff of the early days of ethnology on Nepal, as Helffer’s concern for sung oral literature developed through her fieldwork on the gäine minstrel castes—who are also discussed in the following chapter by Jean Galodé. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine explores a related tradition through an interview with a damāi minstrel. In the first of several contributions addressing the Gesar epic, Roberte Hamayon sets forth from Helffer’s work on the genre to compare its form in Buryatia.

Helffer 222

The second section, “Danse, musique et théâtre”, opens with reflections by Geoffrey Samuel on Tibetan ritual and cham ritual dance, focusing on its use inside the temple. Always keen that we should have an impression of such rituals as performed, rather than mere silent immobile text, I’m glad to learn of the films Tibet: le message des Tibétains by Arnaud Desjardins from the mid-1960s (set mostly in Dharmasala), including this on Tantrism:

Turning to Kham (in the PRC), Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy reports on her 2014–15 fieldwork on Gesar dance in the Dzogchen monastery—one of three ritual dances created under the Fifth Dzogchen (1872–1935).

Helffer 209

Gesar is also the subject of “From Tibet to Bhutan” by Françoise Pommaret and Samten Yeshi. Françoise Robin contributes a translation, with commentary, of “Dream of an itinerant musician”, a novella by Pema Tseden (b.1969), based in Amdo.

The third section, “Études népalaises et tibétaines”, opens with Véronique Boullier reflecting on issues in studying the life of apparently “closed” Hindu temples in India, setting forth from Helffer’s 1995 article “Quand le terrain est un monastère bouddhique tibétain”. Following chapters discuss themes in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism.

The volume ends with an engaging conversation between Samten G. Karmay and Katia Buffetrille (English version here), with astute reflections from Karmay on the culture clash he experienced since making an academic career in the West from 1960—covering topics such as Karmay’s childhood in Amdo, Tibetology in France, Gesar, Bön, and documenting a ritual on his return visit to his natal village in 1985.

Helffer 425

Ample references complement Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s bibliography for the Tibetan performing arts.

Throughout these chapters the influence of Mireille Helffer is clear. Yet again I am struck by the great vitality of Tibetan studies, and the mutual benefit of perspectives from both outside and within the PRC.

See also Recent posts on Tibet.

Four sacred pieces

Alongside the soundscape of popular celebration in Italy, we might think ourselves into the mood of late-19th century Italian Catholicism among the elite with the Quattro pezzi sacri of Jo Green—sorry, I mean Giuseppe Verdi, composed between 1886 and 1898.

In 1992, as early music kept on getting later (cf. The shock of the new), John Eliot Gardiner and the wonderful Monteverdi choir recorded it, with me maintaining a suitably low profile on violin after a summer traipsing around Shanxi in search of, um, sacred pieces (shenqu 神曲, the core of the ritual suites of north Chinese ritual groups):

The whole piece, highly chromatic, demands close listening. Of the two a cappella movements Ave Maria and Laudi alla Vergine Maria, the first is inspired by the “enigmatic scale

Verdi scale

(with five semitones and four whole tones!!!Cf. Unpromising chromaticisms)—though I haven’t yet found it in Indian raga, I’d love to hear a dhrupad version.

For more a cappella, cf. Bruckner’s Locus iste, and The Real Group.

Yaman 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are both brothers in duet:

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

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

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

A stammering musical Bodhisattva?

Prelude to shengguan score, Hanzhuang village,
Xiongxian county, Hebei.

A Buddhist monk called Miaoyin 妙音, “Wondrous Tones”, is associated with transmissions of the grand shengguan suites that have punctuated the vocal liturgy of amateur village ritual associations around Xiongxian county in Hebei since the late 18th century (see also under Local ritual).

Hannibal Taubes, ever on the trail of recondite historical byways, leads me to Gadgadasvara, a minor-league figure among the great Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Since his name literally means “stammering tones”, even if he’s an imaginary being, he may appear to be a promising early Indian candidate to complement my list of great Chinese stammerers—and a musical one, to boot (see also stammering tag). But there are several strands to unravel here, both for ancient India and late-imperial China.

Gadgadasvara, as described in chapter 24 of the Lotus sutra (e.g. here and here),

emits rays of light from his topknot and between his eyebrows and illuminates the world of the Buddha Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña [Kevin for short—Ed. Try saying that with a speech impediment].
Gadgadasvara passes through many worlds, and his beautiful form is described. He arrives at Vulture’s Peak Mountain on the seven-jeweled platform and presents a necklace to Śākyamuni Buddha, inquiring after him on behalf of Buddha [Here we go again—Altogether now] Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña. *
(source here).

Gadgarasvara Nepal

Modern bronze image of Gadgadasvara, Nepal.

Svara is not just “sound” or “voice”, but the comprehensive system of musical pitches as represented by sargam solfeggio (see e.g. here). Sources do indeed allude obliquely to Gadgadasvara’s mastery of music:

In the worlds through which he passed, the land quaked in six ways, seven-jeweled lotus flowers rained everywhere, and hundreds of thousands of heavenly musical instruments sounded spontaneously without being played. 

Still, musical accomplishments play only a minor role in his transcendent CV:

According to T’ien-t’ai’s Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra, this bodhisattva is called Wonderful Sound because he propagates the Lotus Sutra throughout the ten directions with his wondrous voice. Among the many sutras, Bodhisattva Wonderful Sound appears only in the “Wonderful Sound” chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

And he doesn’t seem to be among the numerous cosmological deities who feature in the rich mythology of Indian music.

As to gadgada, the etymology of stammering, faltering, even sobbing, is clear. However, there seems to be no suggestion that the Bodhisattva was ever actually portrayed as a stammerer. Moreover, would any Indian, now or at any earlier point in history, be conscious of the etymology? Instead, the name has long been interpreted as “Wonderful Voice” or “Wonderful Sound”, and that is how it was rendered in Chinese.

So alas, Gadgadasvara is not an ancient mystical precursor of the characters listed here. In short, neither stammering not music make fruitful avenues to explore! Aww.

Conversely, Moses (like Marilyn Monroe) has been widely recognised as a stammerer, although the evidence is open to dispute (see e.g. here and here). The image on the left (from the latter article, p.169) shows the ancient hieroglyph for “stammer”!

* * *

From Lotus sutra scroll. Source: British Library.

In medieval Chinese translation, Gadgadasvara became Miaoyin 妙音 “Wondrous Tones”—which seems a faithful rendition of how the Sanskrit name has been understood.

After that inconsequential excursion to the ancient world of scripture-revelation, let’s return to our musical monk in Qing-dynasty Xiongxian county. It remains to be seen how distinctive it was for a monk to be given the name Miaoyin. For the double-character names chosen for Buddhist and Daoist clerics, either the first or second element was stable within each generation (cf. Customs of naming), and miao 妙 was often adopted for the first; the second character yin 音 seems less common than sheng 聲 (sound)—such as the cohort of young monks at the Guangji an temple in Beijing in the 1930s (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.223).

Anyway, even if Miaoyin received his early ritual training in Beijing before being deputed to staff a rural Hebei temple, such occupational “musical monks” (yiseng 藝僧) performing rituals around the old city were most unlikely to be familiar with the Lotus sutra, which is not among the ritual manuals that they performed—so our musical monk clearly wasn’t named after Gadgadasvara.

Still, while he would have been utterly remote from the abstruse concerns of ancient Buddhist cosmology, the prelude to the Hanzhuang score does indeed describe him as “Chan master Miaoyin, Wang ‘Bodhisattva’ Guanghui” (妙音王菩薩光輝禪師)—the honorific “Bodhisattva” suggesting his local reputation.

Anyway, do get to know the wondrous tones of the shengguan ritual suites attributed to Miaoyin, still being performed by ritual associations in Hebei villages (cf. ##8 and 14 of playlist in sidebar, and for the process from singing the oral gongche to instrumental performance, ## 9 and 10—with commentary here)!

Gongche solfeggio score, Hanzhuang: Hesi pai prelude to Qi Yanhui suite.

Long story short: like “And did those feet in ancient time?“, my title seems to resemble those questions they ask you at airport check-in—to which you’re pretty sure the answers are going to be “No”, but you have to keep on your toes just in case.

* I don’t mean to labour the point à la Stewart Lee, but in search of wisdom, I find this helpful explanation:

The Sanskrit term Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña can be transliterated into English as Kamaladalavimalanaksatrarajasamkusumitabhijna or Kamaladalavimalanakshatrarajasamkusumitabhijna.

Thanks for that.

Bhairav and Bhairavi

Rediscovering my youthful devotion to north Indian raga (for the series so far, click here), I turn to the popular ragas Bhairav and its female partner Bhairavi.

Bhairav, associated with Lord Shiva, uses a flat second and sixth but natural third and seventh degrees (S r G m P d N S). Here’s The raga guide outline:

For a vocal version in dhrupad style, here’s the sublime Uday Bhawalkar again (see under rāg Yaman for more structural clues):

For the extended alap, it’s useful again to anchor ourselves in the main cadences. Exploring the tension between natural Ga and flat re, like that between Ni and flat dha, he builds up to a decorated cadence on Sa from 10.01, and then explores further around Ga, with the “subdominant” ma too featuring quite prominently. Always expanding the combinations of phrases, in a long passage from 14.51 he starts ascending to the flat dha. Still moving upwards, hints of top Sa are confirmed in long sustained cadences from 21.53.

From 25.38 he introduces a firm pulse with mukhṛā cadential refrains, exploring lower and middle registers in turn, eventually building to another sustained cadence on top Sa at 38.52, with excursions up to top Ga. From 43.19 the pulse intensifies further, until the pakhavaj entry at 50.08. As my trusty gurus explain, the two concluding songs are devotional bhajan, the first from 1.05.00 to Lord Shiva in 10-beat jhaptāl (2+3, 2+3), followed from 1.20.43 by a song to Vishnu in 10-beat sūltāl, with five duple units.

Here’s another vocal rendition, by Rashid Khan, with discreet sarangi:

On sitar, I’m charmed as ever by Nikhil Banerjee:

with gats in 7-beat rupak tāl (3+2+2, which I pick up from 41.19) followed by 16-beat tintāl (from around 55.51).

And another version:

All that is more than enough to absorb, so take a break before embarking on

Bhairavi, the “devoted and compassionate consort of Bhairav”, is “usually portrayed in a small shrine worshipping a Shiva linga” (which, like touring, clearly doesn’t count; for some sacred phalluses in Bhutan, see here).

Here’s The raga guide on rāg Bhairavi:

To the ear—as with the whole raga-ragini theoretical system—there is no apparent male-female dichotomy here. Bhairavi is based on flat second, third, sixth, and seventh degrees (S r g m P d n S), but the natural version of Re is often heard as a passing note leading upwards to the flat ga. Now that we have some clues on how to listen, I’ll be more sparing with my comments.

Here’s rāg Bhairavi in dhrupad style sung the senior Dagar brothers Moinnudin and Aminuddin (from a 1968 LP recorded by Alain Daniélou, whose book was my main guide for raga back in the 1970s):

Still with dhrupad, here’s the great Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina:

And his son Bahauddin Dagar:

In thumri style, here’s the female singer Kesarbai Kerkar:

On sitar, here’s Nikhil Banerjee again, always sooo comfortable to listen to (or if you’d like to admire peacocks rather than trees, click here):

As well as contrasting flat and natural versions of re/Re, he flirts with a natural Dha at 10.15 (and from 16.58 as a passing note up to flat ni). The vilambit, with Nikhil Ghosh on tabla (in jhumra tāl, 3+4+3+4 beats), begins at 11.10.

For wider perspectives, see Unpacking “improvisation”.



Tibet: some folk ritual performers

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

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

To remind ourselves of a pertinent comment,

any attempt at (re)presenting Tibetan culture today is inseparable from an implicit ideological and political commentary on the situation of Tibet, through history and at present. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinley performing in Lhasa, 2014.

Some lama mani have also been active in exile—note

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

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

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

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

Ralpa dancers, Dengchen, Chamdo. Source here.

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

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

* * *

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

With thanks as ever to Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy

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

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

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

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

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

Rāg Yaman Kalyan

Left: Kalyan, ragamala (source: The raga guide).
Right: Uday Bhawalkar.

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

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

In my Beatles roundup I observed:

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

See also Analysing world music.

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

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

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

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

It’s worth trying to sing along, anchoring ourselves with the Sa-Pa tonic-dominant drone (in tension with the often-stressed adjacent melodic pitches Ni and sharp Ma), and registering opening and cadential pitches of a phrase. As middle, low, and high registers are covered in turn, short motifs develop into longer ascending and descending phrases.

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

Dhrupad vocal versions make a fine starting-point, with their long, sublime alap, intimate and ecstatic. [1] Let’s focus on two performances by the great Uday Bhawalkar.

Of course, structurally and melodically they have much in common, and it would be instructive to compare them in parallel; but here I’ll content myself with offering a few signposts separately, only reminding you to zoom in on all the detail in between. So my very rough outlines below are based on prominent cadences—including the mukhṛā “refrains” of rhythmic repeated notes in a firm pulse. But the microstructure and ornamental detail is always to be savoured, with gamak embellishments and mīnd glides—as well as techniques (explained by Widdess) such as āghāt, “the onset of a pitch, whether by direct attack, or by indirect approach”, and anuraṇana, “resonance”, its prolongation and/or inflection up or down: [2]

It’s inspiring to see, as well as hear, this live performance from 2016, his expressive hand gestures complementing the contours of the melody:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more from Uday Bhawalkar, see here.

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

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

* * *

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

Turning to instrumental versions, back in dhrupad style, Morgan again led me to a profoundly meditative live performance on rudra vina by the great Zia Mohiuddin Dagar in 1990—his last year: [3]

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

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

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

We can also compare this live performance in 1982:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the related rāg Maru Bihag, see here.

* * *

As a non-specialist, I can only scratch the surface of all this, and that’s kinda the point: if I can begin picking up these clues, then so can you. I’m finding the versions of Uday Balwalkar, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, and Nikhil Banerjee most inspiring models to begin learning from. Anyway, these performances, all very different, make a great introduction to the infinite art of raga.

In the words of a Classic FM announcer,

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

With many thanks to Richard Widdess and Morgan Davies

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

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

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

Musics of Crete

Crete first

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going back further,

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

Here’s the latter CD as a playlist:

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gauhur JanGauhur Jan accompanied by harmonium, 1902.

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

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

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

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

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

The enchanting world of Tibetan opera

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

Tibetan opera is just enthralling.

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

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

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

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

She edited the attractive, instructive volume

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

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

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

As Isabelle observes,

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

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

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

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

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

lhamo 130

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

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

lhamo 111
Norbu Tsering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lhamo 113

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

followed by Parts 23, and 4.

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

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

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

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

lhamo 122

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

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

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

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

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



In 1966, only a year after Rubber soul, the Beatles released Revolver. In a 1996 interview, George found the two albums quite similar: “to me, they could be Volume 1 and Volume 2”. But it is Revolver that is increasingly recognised as one of the greatest and most innovative albums in popular music.

Here it is as a playlist, again in the 2009 remastered version:

Studio technology and psychedelia are coming to the fore; love songs are becoming subsidiary. Yet again I’ll cite Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Mellers opens:

Though Revolver still contains ritual elements, one can no longer discuss it in terms of adolescent ceremonial, nor is it relatable to the conventions of commercialized pop music. Halfway between ritual and art, it’s both verbally and musically an extraordinary breakthrough; and since the songs complement one another without forming a sequence, one cannot avoid some comment on each.

I won’t do so, but some songs most dear to me are;

  • Eleanor Rigby, the polar opposite of the satirical opening Taxman, is accompanied only by string octet—an innovation that one might hardly notice (cf. She’s leaving home on Sgt Pepper). Mellers is in fine form again:

It is about compassion, loneliness, and implicitly about the generation gap—three basic themes of second period Beatle music—and there is no precedent for its musical idiom, which has nothing to do with jazz, but is an amalgam of rural folk and urban music-hall. The tonality is a dorian E minor, though the initial invocation of “all the lonely people” is a rising and falling scale (with sharpened fourth) over a C minor triad, with a rocking and chugging accompaniment. The song proper is narrative ballad, and the words are poetry, evoking with precise economy Eleanor Rigby, the middle-aged spinster who picks up the rice at somebody else’s wedding, lives in a dream, keeps her face “in a jar by the door”; and Father Mackenzie, the priest who lives alone, darns his socks in the empty night, writes the sermon that no-one wants to listen to, wipes off his hands the dirt from the grave where he’s buried Eleanor Rigby after administering the last rites by which “no-one was saved”. The words reverberate through their very plainness; and manage to characterise not only those two lonely people but also (as George Melly has put it) “the big soot-black sandstone Catholic churches with the trams rattling past, the redbrick terraced houses with laced curtains and holy-stoned steps” of the Beatles’ boyhood Liverpool. The tune, lyrically sung by Paul, never modulates but has a tentative, groping tenderness as it stretches up the scale to those modally sharpened sixths, only to droop again, in a flexible rhythm that often overrides the barlines; so when it returns to the choric introductory phrase as a refrain, the scope of the song is marvellously extended. Miss Rigby and Father Mackenzie, the soaring refrain tells us, may be founded on real characters from the Beatles’ childhood, yet none the less represent all the lonely people; and that includes us, and the young Beatles (who were soon to be members of Sgt Pepper’s LONELY HEARTS club band). Yet there is never a suspicion of emotional indulgence in this song; that is belied by the rigidity of the chugging accompaniment, even though it is given to emotive strings. Occasionally (after that dismayed octave leap for “where do they all come from”) the violins wing up scalewise; more often they reinforce the thumping crotchet pulse, or the rocking quavers. In the final phrase of the tune and in the coda the “where do they all come from” query reaches up not through an octave but through a tenth. This makes something like a climax, and the song has an end which is not, however, decisive. The final cadence is the only V I progression in the piece, and even here the dominant chord is in second inversion. All the other cadences reinforce the tonal ambiguity of the submediant introduction, an effect the more disturbing because the C major triads conflict with the sharpened Cs in the modal tune.

Pollack notes:

You can look at this song from at least two angles and try to pull it apart with great clinical precision; the Verismo lyrics and grainy, tintype backing arrangement for strings on the one side, and the more familiar bluesy, syncopated, boxy form on the other. But the truth here is even more elusive than usual, and I dare say that the real irony of this song is to be confronted in the extreme to which the otherwise analytically separable elements within its blend are so well synthesised. Think of it as an amalgam whose elements can no longer be so easily separated ever again once combined.

Having first played sitar for Norwegian wood, George now developed the sound more prominently—the soundscape now augmented by tabla:

  • Love you to was “the Beatles’ first unambiguous exploration of orientalism”. Their use of Indian timbres was influential; indeed, it only strikes me now that this was the beginning of my own youthful fascination with raga. Introduced by the briefest quasi-alap, the song soon launches into a regular metre. Mellers:

The vocal line oscillates around G, moving up to B♭, the flattened seventh, down to F♮; and the music convinces not because it is “like” genuine Indian music (it is by Indian standards rudimentary), but because it is an extension of the anti-Western, anti-materialism, anti-action theme we have seen to be endemic in Beatle music. Though George seems to be singing (as did all the early Beatle songs) of sexual love and presumably of coitus itself, his point is that the act of love can destroy the temporal sense (“make love all day, making love singing songs”) which is what happens in the drone-coda and fade-out.

Pollack comments:

At the time it seemed like many people who, just the week before, had never seen a sitar or heard of Ravi Shankar, were running out, overnight, to buy what we nowadays call “world music” recordings, tickets to rug concerts, and even authentic instruments.

But as he goes on to note, it was a rather fickle fad:

It’s a chutzpah for the Westerner to expect to confront this stuff without sincere and patient preparation.

The only merit of attempts to suggest a specific raga as the basis for the scale of George’s Indian-based songs (such as Within you, without you on Sgt Pepper) is to draw us to the complexities of raga in its native form. Much as Pollack admires the experiment, he’s not entirely convinced by the result here; the connoisseur of raga may be still less convinced by some of these Indian-inspired songs.

And George was still a beginner on sitar; even supposing that he might have played the opening, the player for the rest of the track remains unidentified; it seems most unlikely that it is George that we hear.

As Mellers notes in a later chapter,

The Beatles’ tinkering with oriental metaphysics, even if sincere, as was certainly the case with George, hardly amounts to more than an alleviatory game if contrasted with the late music of John Coltrane, who might genuinely be said to have prayed with and through his horn.

Ravi Shankar liked both Trane and George; but he was perplexed by the disturbed results of the former’s immersion in Indian music and philosophy, whereas he seems to have looked more favourably on George’s experiments (for more, see e.g. here and here).

Love you to is followed by the gorgeous ballad

  • Here, there, and everywhere—as Mellers observes, deceptively simple: love as revelation, with tonal as well as metrical metamorphosis, further unpacked by Pollack.
  • Yellow submarine (cf. Octopus’s garden in Abbey road) is too easily taken for granted. Mellers hits the spot again:

Typically, the Beatles then torpedo this lyrical tenderness… Ringo’s blunt Liverpudlianism brings us back to earth, or anyway to “the town where I was born”, in a rhythm as strictly circumscribed, a diatonicism as plain, as that of the Celebrated Working Man’s Band. Yet the banality is as deceptive as was the simplicity of Here, there, and everywhere. For the song turns out to be a revocation of childhood memory that is also a liberation into dream—an “instant nursery rhyme”, as George Melly has put it, “as unselfconscious as a children’s street song, but true to their own experience… It’s not American comic book heroes who climb aboard the Yellow submarine but Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty and his pals. The departure for the Sea of Dreams is from the Liverpool pierhead.” On might even say that the song’s human triviality sets off the mystery of the “acquatic unknown tongues” we then hear bobbing on and in the waters; in which sense regression is prelude to another rebirth. If there’s nothing in the music that is memorable in itself—except the fact that it’s easy to memorise and so stays in the mind—we’re soon aware that the experience isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, purely musical. A hubbub of friends is heard on the quay, the town band blasts its blatant farewell, and we’re in a mythical world—to be more deeply explored in Sgt Pepper—which cannot be adequately realised in concert hall or on stage. The music has, again, a talismantic function, recalling a Liverpudlian childhood, launching the Beatles on a submarine voyage into the unconscious: out of which their later and greater music was to spring.

As Pollack observes, the musical simplicity

provides the firm platform needed to support the campy-yet-futuristic collage of sampled sound-bites overlaid upon it.

The extraordinary final track

  • Tomorrow never knows is again tinged with the Indian influence. Mellers:

Drums and a tambura drone on C re-establish an oriental atmosphere, while the melody alternates a non-metrical phrase on the triad of C major with a triplet on the fifth, rising to the flat seventh, then to the tonic. “It is not dying, it is shining, it is the end of the beginning”, we’re told, with sundry references to the Tibetan Book of the dead culled from Timothy Leary. […] The singing voice, which is here the mind alone, is gradually engulfed in an electronic hubbub emulating the cries of birds and beasts, the hurly-burly of the natural world. Having begun with adolescent regression, the Beatles conclude the first work of their young maturity with an almost-literal aural synonym for return to the womb. There are parallels to this in avant-garde jazz (the jungle noises possibly derive from Mingus) as well as in “art” music, but this doesn’t weaken the impact of the song.

Listeners may find some of these Indian-inspired songs more successful than others, but here the Beatles create an effective sound-world. Pollack notes that while Tomorrow never knows is a “kitchen sink” of the Beatles’ repertoire at the time, the effect is unified.

* * *

Revolver is indeed a great album. As I reflect in my introduction to this series, Call Me Old-fashioned, but I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road more consistent, and more cohesive as song-cycles—but hey, like Mahler symphonies, rather than making a futile attempt to rank them, let’s just rejoice in them all.

Noor Inayat Khan

Every day of my life I think of her. When I go for a walk, when I feel pain, I think of how much more her pain was, I think of her in chains, I think of her being beaten. When I am cold I think of her, I think of her lying in her cell with hardly any clothes. She is with me every day.

—Inayat Vilayat Khan, 2003

Noor 1

To follow my posts on Les Parisiennes and the wartime SOE, a major character in Sarah Helm’s account of the latter is Noor Inayat Khan (1914–44). Both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by her tragic wartime fate; here I’d also like to explore her earlier life in Paris as heir to a tradition of Indian Sufi music, and as harpist and author.

Basu cover

I’ve been reading

  • Shrabani Basu, Spy princess: the life of Noor Inayat Khan (2006) (cf. her brief article here),

which builds on the work of Sarah Helm and Noor’s friend Jean Overton Fuller, author of the first biography in 1952 (see below).

Early life
Noor’s distinguished father Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927; see here, and wiki), descended from a noble Indian family, was a Sufi mystic and musician who came to the USA in 1910 and went on to found the International Sufi movement. Inayat Khan’s own grandfather Maula Bakhsh (1833–96) had sung at an eleven-day contest in Mysore in 1860. Like Bach and Coltrane, Inayat Khan practised music in the service of God. [1] Here’s a playlist, opening with a sequence of precious recordings from 1909 (for help getting to grips with their musical features, see listings here; for more on raga, see here):

In 1912 he performed with “The Royal Musicians of Hindustan” in Paris, where oriental culture was much in vogue (cf. Berlioz, and chinoiserie); they accompanied Mata Hari, and he met figures like Lucien Guitry, Sarah Bernhardt, Auguste Rodin, Isadora Duncan, and Claude Debussy. Meanwhile Paris audiences were also hearing the premiere of Ravel‘s Daphnis and Chloe; and the following year, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. They didn’t know how lucky they were…

Amina Begum; right, with her daughter Noor.

Inayat Khan had met the American Ora Ray Baker (1892–1949) while he was on a lecture tour in California, and they married in London in 1913; she now took the name Amina Begum. Soon after, The Royal Musicians of Hindustan were invited for a residency in Moscow; Noor was born near the Kremlin [2] on 1st January 1914.

But as the Russian revolution loomed, the family soon emigrated to London. Life was hard, but Inayat Khan would play the vina and sing for Noor daily, though he was busy founding Sufi orders around England. Noor’s brother Vilayat (see below) was born in 1916, followed by Hidayat and Khair-un-Nissa. The house in Gordon square where the family moved in 1917 was always full of visiting Sufis.

However, with Anglo-Indian tensions high, the British government was suspicious of Inayat Khan, and in 1920, when Noor was 6, the family made their home in Paris, where she spent much of her childhood in the modest yet idyllic family home of Fazal Manzil (“House of Blessing”). The children grew up in an Indian atmosphere; Noor learned to sing raga with her father whenever he was home from setting up Sufi orders abroad. At home the children mostly spoke English, only gradually becoming fluent in French too. At school they were clearly different from the local pupils: Noor, mature and serious, retained her name, while her younger sister preferred to be known as Claire.

But in 1926 Inayat Khan, already seriously ill, embarked on a pilgrimage to India, and the following year, when Noor was only 13, he died there. As her distraught mother retreated from the world, Noor took over responsibility for running the household.

Noor playing vina, and harp—from this useful introduction.

From 1931 she attended the École Normale de Musique in Paris for six years, under the supervision of Nadia Boulanger, studying harp with Henriette Renié, as well as piano and composition. Can anyone find her Prelude for harp and Elegy for harp and piano? I’d love to hear them. I wonder if she ever played the Ravel Introduction and Allegro, or the Debussy Trio—or indeed Caplet’s Masque of the Red Death, dedicated to Micheline Kahn, another harp teacher at the École.


Noor’s younger siblings were also WAM musicians: Vilayat played cello and piano, studying with Stravinsky, Hidayat the violin and piano, while Claire, also a pianist, studied with Nadia Boulanger like her sister.

jatakaFrom 1932 Noor also studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. She adopted a more European style of dress. In 1934 she visited Spain with Vilayat, meeting Pablo Casals; the following year they went to Italy, attending operas and concerts in Padua, Venice, and Milan—blissfully unaware of the people’s plight under Mussolini.

By now Noor was becoming known as an author of poetry and fiction for children, her magical style somewhat recalling that of L’enfant et les sortilèges. In 1939 she received an invitation to write Twenty Jakata tales, about the previous incarnations of the Buddha.

Upon the invasion of France in 1940 the family moved to London, with considerable difficulty. Despite their unworldly background, the family realized the necessity of combatting fascism; Vilayat joined the RAF and then the Royal Navy, working as a mine-sweeper, while Noor joined the WAAF, training as a nurse and then radio operator. She willingly reinvented herself: as her friend Jean Overton Fuller observed about her Sufi family background, “there was a lot to look up to, but a lot to get away from”.

For the past six years Noor had been in a relationship with a fellow-student at the École Normale de Musique, suffering from her family’s disapproval of his poor Turkish Jewish background. Only now that the war broke out did she separate with him. By 1943 she was engaged to a man in the War Office, who remains mysterious.

Meanwhile Noor and Vilayat were becoming sympathetic to the Indian Independence movement.

The SOE: occupied France
As Sarah Helm comments, Noor was brought up in an “intensely spiritual way”, seeming “otherworldly” to Vera Atkins and others at the SOE. While she went through the intensive training, her instructors had misgivings about her “lack of ruse”, but they were impressed by her composure, diligence, and strength. She was now known as Nora Baker, and within the SOE as Madeleine.

Vera Atkins took her to the plane in June 1943. She was the first female radio operator to be flown into occupied France; but all four agents who flew that night were doomed. The resistance group to which Nora was attached was soon exposed, and in Paris she soon found herself alone and in great danger. Both Helm and Basu go to great lengths to unravel the networks of spies and double agents.

Responsible for her plight, the SOE tried to recall her, but she refused. She was already captured by October 1943 after being betrayed. While held at Avenue Foch, and later, she made several attempts to escape. At first she was thought to have been killed at the Natzweiler camp, but eventually witnesses came forward to prove that she had been held in Pforzheim prison for ten months, her feet and hands shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the next morning—even as the tide of the war was turning. Only 26 of over 200 captured agents of the two French sections of the SOE survived.

Though the family had known of Noor’s death for some time, the news of her real fate only reached them in 1948. Her mother was especially devastated, dying soon after. Vilayat had brought her back to Paris; Noor’s harp was restored to the family home of Fazal Manzil.

Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the George Cross in 1949.

In 1952 her friend Jean Overton Fuller published a biography, Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine (the updated 2019 edition includes a retrospective by Vilayat Inayat Khan). Indeed, it was partly through her research that Vera Atkins began to lose control of the SOE narrative, as Sarah Helm explains. At first their relationship was affable; Vera approved of the book. But as Fuller began probing more deeply for her next book and revised her biography of Noor, she found that Vera had been editing her account.

In 1972 Hidayat premiered La monotonia in memory of his sister:

In 2012 a statue was unveiled to Noor in Gordon square—making her a neighbour of Gandhi in Tavistock square gardens. In 2014 she graced a Royal Mail stamp, and by 2020 a blue plaque was installed before her Bloomsbury home. She features in Cathy Newman’s 2018 book Bloody brilliant women.

Following early movies about Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo, Noor’s story (on the lines of “Exotic princess sacrifices her life for freedom”) now makes an irresistible subject for a film maker (see here); I await it with some trepidation.

Noor was particularly close to her remarkable brother Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916–2004; see here, and wiki), who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a leading Sufi mystic.


As reports continued to emerge after the war, he went to great lengths to uncover the truth about his sister’s end. Sarah Helm discussed this gradual process in detail in her second meeting with Vilayat at Fazal Manzil (A life in secrets, pp.417–24). Ever grieving for Noor, he recalls his earlier encounters with Vera Atkins: “I think she looked at me and saw the long beard and the clothes. I think she thought, ‘He used to be such a dashing naval officer and now look at him—a phoney guru.’ ” He found Vera cold-blooded.

In 1996, at the age of 80, Vilayat commemorated Noor by conducting Bach’s B minor mass at Dachau (film here; see also this portrait, from 45.07).

How I wonder what would have become of Noor if she had survived the war. She might have continued developing her fiction, poetry, music, and Sufism; her brother Hidayat was convinced that she would have joined the cause for Indian Independence; perhaps, like Vera Brittain, she would have become involved in the international peace movement; and she hoped to have “lots of children”.

* * *

However thoroughly the SOE agents were trained before their missions into occupied France, they soon found themselves caught up in a nightmare. While Noor’s fate seems all the more distressing since she was spiritual, talented, and turned out to be most courageous, that’s not quite the point. While media attention is naturally drawn to the fate of such a “spiritual princess”, we should value all life, commemorating all the countless other innocent, ordinary victims, unable to display heroism, who also met terrible fates. As Timothy Snyder reminds us, terrible as the camps were, only a minority of victims died there: men, women, and children, brutally executed en masse in the Bloodlands by the Einsatzgruppen or the NKVD, remain largely uncommemorated.

Still, the story of Noor Inayat Khan is unbearably moving.

[1] Indeed, Yusef Lateef introduced Coltrane to Inayat Khan’s book The mysticism and sound of music (first published in 1921). I knew nothing of Inayat Khan or his family when in 1978 a mystically-inclined fellow-violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me a copy of the book—during the transition from Boulez to Rozhdestvensky; now I found the connection most satisfying. Indeed, had Noor survived, in 1978 she would still have been younger than I am now.

[2] Not quite in the Kremlin, or even in a monastery near the Kremlin, as you may read online!

The spiritual path of John Coltrane

Coltrane 3

Having written about various jazz greats—Billie Holiday, Chet Baker (here and here), Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and so on (see also jazz tag)—my recent post on Charles Mingus reminded me to explore further the genius of

John Coltrane (1926–67)

Coltrane 2

Like many jazzers, he was dedicated to practice, studying technique and harmony, disciplined and constantly exploring. And while he too went through a heroin phase (managing to get clean in 1957), he seems pure, gentle, mature, without anger—unlike other greats such as Bird, Miles, and Mingus.

On film, Chasing Trane (John Scheinfeld, 2016) makes a good introduction—here’s a trailer:

as well as Ken Burns’s film Jazz (with the book). Also worth watching is the BBC documentary Saint John Coltrane (Alan Yentob, 2004). And among a wealth of biographies, I’ve been re-reading J.C. Thomas, Chasing the trane: the music and mystique of John Coltrane (1975). More importantly, I’ve been listening attentively.

Like so many others, Trane was inspired by Charlie Parker: hearing him for the first time in 1945, “it hit me right between the eyes”. Other major early influences were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young; and he had much in common with Sonny Rollins.

Coltrane 1

Trane with Dizzy.

Before going on to lead his own bands, Trane worked with Dizzy from 1949, and with Miles from 1955. That year he married Juanita Naima Grubbs, who was the inspiration for his intimate ballad Naima, that he often played—such as on Giant steps (1959):

Naima may have become reified for us, but by contrast, here’s an extended, wild version from Live at the Village Vanguard again! (1966—with his second wife Alice on piano):

Miles Davis’s autobiography—one of the great works in the genre—has many insights on his protégé (indeed, on the whole scene). From 1955 Miles brought out Trane’s creativity, but

after he moved to New York his habit got worse, and real quick, too. I didn’t have no moral thing about Trane and all of them shooting heroin, because I had gone through that, and I knew that it was a sickness that was hard to get rid of. So I didn’t give them no grief about doing it. What I did start to get on them about was coming late and nodding up on the bandstand; I told them I couldn’t tolerate that. […]

If it had been some other player I would have fired him again after the first couple of times. But I loved Trane, I really did, although we never did hang out too much like Philly Joe and I did. Trane was a beautiful person, a really sweet kind of guy, spiritual, all of that. So you really couldn’t help loving him and caring about him, too.

Getting sacked by Miles spurred Trane to get clean after four years of addiction. As he said in the notes to A love supreme:

During the year 1957 I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

From 1957 he also worked with Monk, another seminal influence.

Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way—sensually, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would show me the answers by playing them on the piano. He gave me complete freedom in my playing, and no-one ever did that before.

And McCoy Tyner noted:

I once saw John with Monk, and I think he learned an incredible amount of harmonic background from him. Monk opened him up to the point where he was able to compose complex tunes like Giant Steps. I learned a lot myself just by listening to Monk play. His concept of space alone was one of the most important things he taught Coltrane; when to lay out and let someone else fill up that space, or just leave the space open. I think John was already going in that direction, but working with Monk helped him reach his goal that much faster.

Trane was ever studious. Among the books of exercises that he consulted daily was the Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky—whose A lexicon of musical invective is a hilarious reminder of the constant shock of the new (see here, including a documentary on his life). Meanwhile, like many jazzers, Trane listened to Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky. And he constantly sought out saxes and mouthpieces that would better suit his sound ideal.

In 1958 Trane led his own band for Blue train, with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums—the bland opening chorus soon blown away:

Coltrane Miles Kind of Blue

After Miles took him back, he took part in the immortal Kind of blue (1959, virtually unrehearsed!!!)—along with Bill Evans (for the exquisite Ravelian Blue in green, see here), Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb on drums:

Meanwhile Trane was recording Giant steps (1959; see also here). On the album My favorite things (1960) they transform the title song “into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance” (for the live 1965 version, see here). And then came Live at the Village Vanguard (1962),

including Chasin’ the trane and Softly as in a morning sunrise (Paul Berliner analyses a version of the latter in his brilliant Thinking in jazz, pp.689–708).

Like Miles, Trane went on to explore in radical directions. But their paths were very different: while Miles was shrewd alongside his own thirst for innovation, Trane was hardly concerned about commercial potential. The last time they worked together was on a tour of England in March 1960—just as I was learning violin and Chinese villagers were starving… In 1961 Trane led his own quintet on a tour of Europe.

In 1963 he played Alabama in response to the KKK church bombing—reminiscent of an Indian alap:

This playlist has many other fabulous tracks:

Apart from the great horn and bass and piano players that Trane worked with, the drive of drummers—notably Philly Joe Jones, and later Elvin Jones—was crucially important to him.

After parting with Naima, in 1963 he married Alice McLeod, who played piano in his later bands, and herself went on to develop her own style of spiritual jazz. They had three sons together—including Ravi (named after Ravi Shankar), who himself became a fine sax player.

A love supreme
and the late albums
Trane had been drawn to Eastern mysticism (whatever that is) ever since working with tenor player Yusef Lateef in Dizzy’s band in 1949. It was Lateef who directed him to Krishnamurti, and Hazrat Inayat Khan‘s Sufi treatise on the mysticism of sound.

Gradually, by way of the Cool and his 1957 epiphany, he felt able to move away from the frantic vibe of bebop in search of a deeper spirituality.

The towering result of his epiphany was A love supreme (1964), with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums:

In Psalm, the whole of the final section (from 25.59) again reminds me of an alap.

That may well be as far as many people want to follow him. Rather like late Beethoven (just a reminder: I’m not supporting the admission of jazz to the elite club—such genres take their place alongside all human musicking!), as Trane’s quest became more mystical, his style became more extreme; with its squawks, honks and howls, it’s far from the fabled Oriental Tranquillity.

Like many others at the time, Trane was drawn to Indian philosophy and (through the influence of Yusuf Lateef) music (under the Indian tag, note this post); in 1961 he began corresponding with Ravi Shankar. As Shankar recalled after their first meeting in 1965:

Meeting John was a great surprise. Most jazz musicians I have met were not interested in anything outside of their own musical world, but here was a humble and self-effacing man with an interest in other people and their cultures like few I have ever met.

But much as he admired Trane, Shankar found his music perplexing, too full of turmoil.

As he worked with Pharaoh Sanders, Trane’s style began to resemble the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. While developing new melodic styles along with Eric Dolphy and Sun Ra’s saxman John Gilmore, he became more immersed in Sufism, the Kabbala, and the polyrhythms of African drumming, influenced by Nigerian percussionist Olatunji; from 1965 he added Rashied Ali to his line-up on drums. (Again, Miles is worth reading on free jazz, and everything…)

As the early miniaturist bebop style receded, Trane gravitated to longer and longer improvisations. Even in his earlier days with Miles, as the latter questioned the increasing length of his solos, when Trane responded, “I don’t know how to stop”, Miles came back with “Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth.” He wasn’t into Trane’s late style, finding it monotonous. Indeed, maybe it doesn’t always work: as Bill Russo commented,

Coltrane lacks the spirit of the idiom he attempts. He gets stuck, repeating figurations again and again, as if such repetition could somehow improve what little the first two or three times they occur. It doesn’t, obviously.

Anyway, Trane’s late work rewards attention. Here are some examples—Om (recorded 1965):

Ascension (1966) is exhilarating, even if I find the sheet of big-band sound more engaging than the solos that emerge from them:

Meditations (1966) (as a playlist):

On a gruelling tour of Japan in 1966, when he was already terminally ill, he played Peace on earth:

Expression (1967):

Trane’s early death may make such albums seem like a postscript, but tempting as it is to bask in the “classic” albums like Blue train, Kind of blue, and A love supreme, just imagine where he would have gone had he lived longer. If only I had been able to share all these creations with Natasha.

As ever, Miles has perceptive comments (p.384):

One of the reasons I like playing with a lot of young musicians today is because I find that a lot of old jazz musicians are lazy motherfuckers, resisting change and holding on to the old ways because they are too lazy to try something different. They listen to the critics, who tell them to stay where they are because that’s what they like. The critics are lazy, too. They don’t want to try to understand music that’s different. The old musicians stay where they are and become like museum pieces under glass, safe, easy to understand, playing that tired old shit again and again. Then they run around talking about electronic instruments and electronic musical voicing fucking up the music and the tradition. Well, I’m not like that and neither was Bird or Trane or Sonny Rollins or Duke or anybody who wanted to keep on creating. Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn’t about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge.

I needn’t burden you here with yet another lament about how limited our outlets for creativity are in WAM. But awed as I am by the creativity of jazzers generally, I’m all the more astounded by Coltrane—and the horn players, pianists, bass players, and drummers who worked with him. It takes me back to Berliner’s Thinking in jazz to try and understand in more depth what they’re all doing.

John Coltrane died at 40, yet another shooting star in the jazz world of the time, with its high rate of early deaths—such as Bird (34), Billie (44), Fats Navarro (26), Clifford Brown (25), Lee Morgan (33), Eric Dolphy (36). Chinese shawm players (comparable in some ways to jazzers: see also Deviating from behavioural norms) also often died early. Elsewhere, Mozart died at 36, Schubert at 31, and Mahler was only 50; Amy Winehouse only 27.

The changing musical life of north India: social structure, and the sarangi

Neuman cover

The photo shows a gathering of music masters in Nepal, c1900.

While immersing ourselves in the melodic and rhythmic riches of Indian raga [1] we may forget that, like any other musical culture (including WAM), it is an evolving product of a social system, and that “music isn’t a thing, but an activity“. Bruno Nettl’s imaginative citing of the north Indian gharana system in his book on the schools of WAM reminded me to re-read the important early study

  • Daniel M. Neuman, The life of music in north India: the organization of an artistic tradition (1980, with updated preface, 1990).

Nettl ranks Neuman’s work alongside other ethnographic studies of a similar vintage, such as Steven Feld’s work on the Kaluli, Paul Berliner on the mbira, and Lorraine Sakata on Afghan musicians. It also makes a good instance of Nettl’s own taxonomy of responses to change in musical traditions around the world.

Bearing particularly on traditions of “art music”, Neuman’s points may vary significantly for regional folk genres, for India (see under Indian tag, e.g. Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia) and elsewhere around the world (such as flamenco, the festivities of Morocco, or—you guessed it—Chinese shawm bands), where intensity and communication are just as relevant but depend more on constant exposure than on rigorous formal training.

From afar I was absorbed in raga long before I began visiting China. It was a pioneer on the scene later dubbed “world music”, invigorated by the hippy vibe of the 1960s. Raga (at that stage mainly considered as a solo instrumental genre) seemed a pure, spiritual art—and that is indeed part of the story. Like WAM (see links under Society and soundscape) and Chinese music (e.g. Debunking “living fossils”), it may seem timeless, autonomous; and most early studies focused on disembodied musical analysis, notably on the art of improvisation. But change, both social and musical, is a constant theme—a process going on since at least the mid-19th century and still proceeding apace. Neuman’s analysis makes an important corrective to those who still prefer to leave their orientalist fantasies of the Mystic East untrammelled.

In a preface for the 1990 paperback edition, Neuman observes change even over the years since he carried out his original fieldwork, such as the boom in institutions, festivals, and research (both in India and abroad), further technological revolutions, a broadening in class, the increasing importance of pop music—and the scene has continued to transform since. While the general sound of the tradition has proved quite resilient,

as constant as the sound itself is the persistent concern and dismay about the present state of classical music, an ever-present dismay that must be as old as the tradition.

In his Introduction, Neuman asks

how such a characteristic, yet elusive and ephemeral, cultural phenomenon continues to maintain its integrity and autonomy in a world so vastly changed from that which gave it birth.

He reminds us of the 19th-century background of elite private patronage, with musical events taking place in the noble courts and homes of the wealthy, rulers going to great lengths—as in baroque Europe—to sustain a top-ranking musical establishment. And from the 1920s, the scene was partially redefined by the tastes and economic power of the rising middle class and the search for a national identity, with musicking becoming one of the social graces of the bourgeoisie, not least among women—as in 19th-century Europe. From the 1930s new radio stations, and the film industry, played an increasing role in patronage; the culture of art music was becoming urbanized and diversified.

I like Fox Strangways’ comment (1914!):

India has had time to forget more melody than Europe has had time to learn.

Take that, Berlioz!

In Chapter 2, “Becoming a musician”, Neuman focuses on riaz “practice” and the guru–shishya relationship between master and disciple that defines the gharana stylistic “school”. Riaz is a source for many stories of extreme, ascetic devotion to practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”), many of which have taken on a mythic air. Such tales of the moral virtues of perseverance put my tribulations with Ševčík violin studies in the shade.

Neuman gives a nice instance of participant observation:

Often when I met musicians, the very first thing they asked me was whether I had been practicing hard; and while saying this, one would take my left hand and look at my nails and cuticles for the “hard” evidence. If the cuticles were built up into a horny ridge, and if my nails had grooves at the point where the nail meets the cuticle, then the evidence was there.

He discusses the transition from the dedicated discipline of the disciple to maintenance in later years, as “the leisure of the idealized village of the past or the princely patronage system is replaced by the scramble to earn a living”. As Ram Narayan observed, an important stage is learning how to practice correctly. Again, parallels here with WAM.

Exploring the relationship between disciple and master, Neuman cites a venerable ustad on the possible demise of the surbahar bass sitar, with a simile that precisely recalls the Chinese proverb “playing the qin for an ox” 对牛弹琴:

You think that the ustads want to keep the surbahar to themselves. It is wrong to think that way. We want to teach, but who is going to learn? It is such a big science, and if anybody asks for it and we give it then it would be like playing the vīṇā [the bīn] in front of a water-buffalo, so we can only play for those who understand.

Some “secret” ragas, too, are conveyed only to exceptional disciples.

In Chapter 3, “Being a musician”, Neuman discusses music as divine expression. But

although music and God are closely related, music and religion are not.

By “music”, he’s referring to the raga tradition—the soundscape of Indian ritual practice is another subject. He mentions rāg Malkauns, considered especially attractive to jinn spirits. But the move to the concert stage has attenuated such knowledge:

Musicians are, in a sense, twice removed from the sacred and magical. They believe in the power of music, but rarely seem to experience it. Like riaz as a sacred duty and the guru-shishya system as a hallowed relationship, musicians as magical performers are becoming a thing of the past. “It is the common man,” as some musicians are fond of putting it, “who calls the tune”. The piper’s patron which has emerged is a very complex mixture of people, and musicians are now listening carefully so that they know which tune to play.

This leads Neuman to a discussion of the listening public. As audiences have become more diverse, musicians adjust their repertoire. Sometimes they perform in special mehfil gatherings for connoisseurs, including other musicians—the most intimate and satisfying context (I think of the flamenco juerga, or the qin gathering in China).

But usually in recent decades they have to perform on the concert platform for a large, unfamiliar audience, or even (as often in the case of radio) with no listeners present as they play. Neuman gives instances of audiences around India considered more and less discriminating, and discusses amplification. He mentions the verbal reactions of audiences—at prescribed junctures—such as kyā bāt! (“what a thing!”) or javāb nahī (“no answer”), yet again reminding one of the jaleo calls of flamenco (olé, agua, and so on).

The move to the concert stage has made performers tailor their repertoire, calibrating the sequence and length of more highbrow alap and vilambit, and the more virtuosic sections of the raga, including crowd-pleasing sawāl-jawāb question-and-answer exchanges.

The book wisely refrains from discussing the substantial variations in length of the preludial alap in the various vocal and instrumental genres. [2] Rather than a simple modern abbreviation of a once-grandiose form, in some cases it may be the opposite. The advent of recording, with its limited capacity, may have influenced performance practice to some extent, but doesn’t seem to correlate closely with the varying duration of alap in live performance. A major factor may be the performer’s assessment of the changing audience’s discernment.

Neuman discusses musicians’ own evaluations under the headings of competence, appropriateness, and affect. His account doesn’t quite resemble the contrast between an abstract study period and having to make a living in the real world (cf. Training Daoists in Shanghai).

In Chapter 4, “The social organization of specialist knowledge”, Neuman attempts an etic taxonomy, observing hierarchies. As in many cultures, there is no common term for “musician” (and even our term is extremely vague). Neuman unpacks the term “professional musician”—an occupational category that subsumes a variety of performing specialists from various social groups. He discusses performers by ethnic origins (based in Delhi, he found that most musicians came from hereditary Muslim families), community, caste; by gender, residence, and age; by the extent of their musical knowledge; and by the type of music that they performed.

Musicians acknowledge the distinction between soloists and accompanists: a singer with an accompanying instrument (harmonium increasingly replacing sarangi), or a melodic instrumentalist with tabla. Vocal genres (dhrupad, khyal, thumri, ghazal)—ranked on a scale of seriousness—are a constant theme.

Neuman notes that the sarangi player Ram Narayan was rare in making the transition from accompanist to soloist; and he discusses the female vocalists, formerly associated with the courtesan tradition. While most soloists still perform on sitar and sarod, performers of other instruments such as shahnai oboe, bānsrī (bansuri) flute, and violin have occasionally come to achieve celebrity (see also Indian and world fiddles).

He goes on to consider the sarangi and tabla accompanists, mostly belonging to specific occupational groups and “associated by outsiders with dancing girls, tawaifs, and brothels”. The sarangi players are mainly associated with khayal, but never accompany dhrupad. Their knowledge is different from that of soloists (“artists”): while less creativity is expected of them, they are skilled, expert craftsmen (“artisans”). The role of the tabla, previously subsidiary, has grown. Neuman unpacks their basis in the caste system, with historical leads involving rural and urban origins.

In Chapter 5, “Gharanas: the politics of pedigree”, he notes conflicting views about the value of the gharana, yet another fluid system formed with “the introduction of the railway and telegraph system in the 1850s, the great uprising of 1857 with its concomitant social dislocations, and a slow but steady increase in urbanization”.

Chapter 6 concerns adaptive strategies. He returns to the theme of changing patronage; for the former musical parties of the nobility he reminds us of Sayajit Ray’s 1958 film The music room. A fine section follows on the important role of All India Radio, which became a major employer of vocalists and instrumentalists. Neuman discusses the accompanying role of the harmonium, now standard: commonly used in India since the 19th century, it became popular with vocalists themselves. As it came to threaten the livelihood of sarangi players, its use was controversial; All India Radio banned it in the 1950s, but had to recant by the 1970s (cf. the violin in Crete).

An image of Gauhar Jan led me to this 1902 recording—with harmonium:

For another early instance to illustrate that the use of harmonium is not just a modern abomination, listen to Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1909 here.

Neuman then discusses public performances, fixing fees, “foreign returned” artists, contacts, and changing modes of tuition, including educational institutions. Against the broad and superficial teaching of such schools,

professional musicians are often heard to say that it is far better to concentrate on one or a very few rags, exploring each in depth to enable the disciple to extend his understanding of many other rags quickly. “If you practice rag Yaman intensely, and come to really know it, then the knowledge of other rags will come of itself”

Again, this reminds me of the Chinese qin zither: Wu Jinglue, one of many senior masters recruited to the conservatoire yet never wholly absorbed into its ethos, gave me just the same advice. More broadly reminiscent of Chinese music are the decline of elite patronage, and social change since the traumas surrounding independence—though the historical trajectories of China and India are utterly different.

In Chapter 7, “The ecology of Hindustani music culture”, Neuman ponders the perceived constancy amidst social change and a radically altered cultural terrain (again recalling Nettl’s parameters). On producers of music, he further ponders themes such as the increasing diversity of the scene, hereditary and non-hereditary musicians, and the growing participation of women.

Such changes are reflected in repertoires. Returning to rāg Malkauns, he comments:

When rāg Malkauns ceases to be the rāg of jinns and becomes a pentatonic scale, the music becomes something different because it means something different.

As to consumers, Neuman includes advertising and sponsorship in his discussion, as well as the role of the state and audiences for live and recorded music. For modern stage performances, he distinguishes “courtly” and “devotional” models, noting stage presentation and costume. He discusses technologies of production and reproduction and their influence on performance practices—again a popular theme in studies of WAM. He suggests a decrease in the diversity of performance styles along with an increase in the variety of experiments and forms.

Chapter 8, “The cultural structure and social organization of a music tradition”, further unpacks the relationship of musicians and audiences to the imagined past. While there is not always a harmonious equilibrium between social and cultural changes, Neuman suggests that the structure

can adapt to changing social conditions because it is constructed from elements which allow both contradictory intepretations and a continuing potential for revision.

* * *

Among the accompanying instruments, the sarangi has long been prominent, though (as we saw) threatened by the harmonium. The remarkable website of Nicolas Magriel contains a wealth of information on individual players, along with a treasury of precious audio and video field recordings—made just at a time when the system was going into decline. As he comments in this interview,

“One thing that’s really unique is the amount of footage inside very traditional musicians’ homes. No one else has done this with anything in Indian music. I happen to be crazy enough to make 450 hours of video of sarangi players—I met most of them in the 1990s, in 18 cities across India. This is the real life of the musician—people practising and teaching at home, while the women are cooking vegetables, people are wheeling motorbikes in and out of the room, and the kids are going crazy. Even in India the concert-going public has no idea what this traditional life of musicians is; they know music as a packaged item that they see on the stage.” […]
“The sarangi is the black sheep of Indian music. It’s the most difficult instrument and the lowest status. It was a rural folk instrument, and in the 18th century it came into the classical world because courtesans needed it to accompany singing and dance. It was by far the most popular and widespread instrument in 19th-century India, because every brothel had sarangi players. But in the 20th century sarangi players were more and more marginalised; they were excluded from the mainstream of classical music, so they maintained their premodern way of life.”

Magriel’s Sangi Rangi website has both male and female stars—the men are sarangi players and teachers, while the women are courtesans: skilled dancers and singers who employ sarangi players as accompanists and sometimes their agents. “In the words of my dear Ustad Abdul Latif Khan,” he says, “these women kept this music alive for the last 400 years.” The site has films of them at work, and pays tribute to their role, which Magriel feels has been written out of Indian musical history. “That was the core of classical music, and it’s something that’s been whitewashed, both in the West but specially in India. Everyone wants to think of it as a kind of spiritual music that was played in the temples. There was court music, but in many cases the male musicians who were idolised, actually they existed in order to teach the women how to sing. When India moved towards independence there was a feeling that there should be a classical music tradition, and so you needed first to connect it with ancient texts. Secondly they tried to create a pure Hindu art, whereas music had been the domain of muslims in India for 400 years. Ordinances were passed which in effect gradually repressed the courtesan tradition. Muslims were discriminated against, and sarangi players were discriminated against by association.”

Still, while Magriel finds a growing shallowness in the music, along with Indian art music in general, he doesn’t entirely subscribe to the notion that the sarangi is endangered.

sarangi pics

Among the numerous masters covered in depth on Magriel’s site are Sabri Khan and Bundu Khan, who feature in Neuman’s study. The site includes much material on female musicians (such as here), as well as his films for the Growing into Music project.

One of the first sarangi players to attract attention abroad was Ram Narayan, who was largely responsible for elevating the sarangi as a solo instrument on the international concert stage, and who collaborated with Neil Sorrell in Indian music in performance: a practical introduction (1980), just as Neuman was writing. Joep Bor (compiler of the indispensable annotated CD set The raga guide) also paid great attention to sarangi players.

Having featured rāg Marwa in a previous post on Heart of glass (yeah, I know), here’s a version by Ram Narayan:

What I find so attractive about this raga is the challenge of having to struggle to keep track of the scale and its relationship with the tonic. This is always true, actually—just that in this case one is forced to engage with the pitch hierarchies.

While our interests in the diverse ways of musicking around India, and elsewhere, have broadened substantially, the northern raga tradition remains a major topic, for which Neuman’s work was an important early ethnography.

[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, to the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, The Rough Guide to world music, and so on), useful references include Jairazbhoy’s chapters in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993) and Richard Widdess’s lucid introduction in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

[2] For dhrupad, note Richard Widdess, Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004), chapters 5 and 6.

Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia


Shawms of panche baja band, Nepal. For more images, see here.

Just as the common images of instrumental music in China are the conservatoire solos of erhu, pipa, and zheng, for south Asia many may think of solo genres like the sitar. However, in both of these vast regions the social soundscape is dominated by loud shawm and percussion groups, performing for ceremonial contexts in the open air, often on procession.

Alongside my interest in Chinese shawm bands, similar groups are common throughout the Islamic world and Europe. I’ve already featured some traditions—in Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Italy.

And shawm and percussion bands are also common in south Asia; here I’ll give a little introduction to groups in Nepal and Kerala. As in China and elsewhere, one soon finds that they are among a varied cast of performers for ritual events. And not only do temple festivals require ritual specialists, minstrels, and so on, but we need to place the soundscape within the whole fabric of social life.

The Dutch scholar Arnold Bake (1899–1963) (see here, and here) did pioneering fieldwork in the 1930s and 50s—just as Robert van Gulik was exploring Chinese culture. And in 1969 Mireille Helffer released the LP Musician castes in Nepal.

Here I mainly cite the work of Carol Tingey:

  • Heartbeat of Nepal: the pancai baja (1990), and
  • Auspicious music in a changing society: the damāi musicians of Nepal ( 1994).


Citing Felix Hoerburger (1970):

Shawms, wherever they occur, from northwest Africa to the Balkans and down to southern Asia, are always played by outcasts of one sort or another: in the Balkan states and in Turkey only by gypsies; in Arabic countries by negroes; in Afghanistan by Jats (a kind of gypsy) or by the socially low members of the barber profession. Yet very important social tasks are associated with the playing of shawms.

she goes on,

In Ladakh, the shawm is played by an untouchable caste of carpenter-musicians, the mon; in Bihar, Orissa, and west Bengal by the ghasi leatherworkers; in south India by barber-musicians, and there are examples to be found throughout south Asia.

The panche baja ensemble is played by occupational damai tailor musicians for Hindu Nepali castes. Along with blacksmiths, tanners, shoemakers, and itinerant minstrels, they are low-class, outcasts—as in China. But they are indispensable, and serve an auspicious function, performing both for calendrical ceremonies of the devotional and agricultural year and for life-cycle rituals (notably weddings).

Throughout Nepal such bands are common in various versions; Tingey focuses on the west-central Gorkha area. I note that Nepal’s total population of 30 million is merely that of one small Chinese province.

The ensemble comprises shawms (sahanai, like shehnai), kettledrums, cymbals, and natural trumpets karnal and/or curved horns narsingha.


Yet again it’s worth admiring the wonders of the Sachs-Hornbostel taxonomy.


from Geneviève Dournon, “Organology”, in Helen Myers (ed.) Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The new Grove handbooks in music).

The trumpets and horns are played in pairs, or in even numbers, with a far more complex technique than in China. Whereas in China the two shawms play at the octave in heterophony, the south Asian bands tend towards unison. But on a blind tasting, so to speak, one might easily mistake many of the Nepali tracks for Chinese shawm bands.

Tingey gives detailed accounts of instrument-making and techniques. Many other features that she observes remind me of China. The repertoire is varied; and a more flexible use of more popular tunes from folk-song and film has been challenging the stricter sequences of ritual items. Tingey notes that “in the Gorkha area, during the course of a single generation, a whole repertoire has been lost”, giving instances of the rags formerly prescribed for each stage of a wedding. And she finds a growing perception of the bands as providing mere ostentation.

Still, Tingey details the complex observances of the ritual ensembles serving temples, more resilient to change. Meanwhile she pays attention to the varied soundscapes of social events, as in this list of recordings:

Tingey list

Nepal is also one focus in the outstanding research of Richard Widdess, such as his book

  • Dāphā: sacred singing in a south Asian city: music, performance and meaning in Bhaktapur, Nepal (2013).

For the shawm and percussion bands, you can find clips online, such as

and several playlists, such as

South India
In Kerala (again, as in China) percussion ensembles (panchari melam, pandi melam) serving kshetram and kavu rituals, without the melodic component of shawms, are common; but shawms (kuzhal, or the long nadaswaram) and kombu curved horns may play a supplementary role.

South India was another site of Arnold Bake. And his 1938 fieldwork there was the subject of a 1984 restudy. Other notable work includes

  • Laurent Aubert, Les feux de la déesse: rituels villageois du Kerala (Inde du sud) (2004)

and the three films collected in the DVD Sketches of Kerala.

Rolf Killius has produced several CDs, including

  • Drumming and chanting in god’s own country: the temple music of Kerala in south India 
  • Drummers from heaven: panchari melam: the ritual percussion ensemble of Kerala
  • Inde: percussions rituelles du Kerala (2 vols)

as well as a book,

His websites on the ritual and ritual music of Kerala and on the folk, devotional, and ritual musics of India provide much information, with further links—as well as this varied playlist.

For films by Bake, Tingey, Killius et al., see here.

* * *

So this is my latest valiant attempt to embed shawm bands in the public consciousness, whatever that is… It’s also a reminder that musicking in south Asia (and everywhere) is far broader than the so-called “classical” traditions. Adjusting the imbalance in the representation of folk and elite cultures involves exploring both context and class. Just as for China, an initial focus on “music” soon reveals the importance of ritual in local communities, demanding that we broaden our scope to consider the variety of participants who create the “red-hot sociality” of such events.

Mozart for winds, and “genius”

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua band, 2001.

The specialisation of professional training in WAM tends to work as an obstacle to appreciating the broader soundscape. Of course as a fiddle player, taking part in The Rite of Spring, Bach, Mahler, or opera gave me ample opportunity to admire great wind playing and singing; but somehow it seemed impertinent, as if it was none of my business—”just play the dots”, do your job, like a factory worker or a soldier not privy to the grand design (cf. Ecstasy and drudge). Chamber music offers more personal input, but makes a less reliable food-bowl for most performers.

Studying world music inevitably broadens our horizons. However inept, my training in participant observation among Chinese ritual groups and shawm bands helped me focus on the artistry of a range of musicking outside my own expertise.

Returning to WAM, Mozart’s piano concertos are full of exquisite wind parts (see also here, and here). And during our time at Cambridge my ears were opened by Stephen Barlow conducting the astounding Serenade in C minor—here’s an earlier recording:

Such miraculous inspiration is movingly articulated in one of the great scenes from Amadeus (on the Gran partita):

Such wonders are not the exclusive preserve of WAM composers. As always, Bruno Nettl has wise words (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, pp.57–9):

“Musical genius”. It’s the term music lovers in Western culture use to describe their greatest creators of music in classical music and also in jazz (like Louis Armstrong). It is sometimes also used for key figures in the history of popular music (like the Beatles and Elvis Presley).

After unpacking the mythology of Mozart and Beethoven, Nettl compares similar figures in Carnatic music—notably Tyagaraja, also credited with divine inspiration. He goes on:

There certainly are many cultures that share the concept of musical genius on one way or another. Again in my experience, a kind of star system was there in the classical music of Iran in the mid-20th century,  where the line between stars and others was even more pronounced than in Europe, star performers being accorded relatively more status, artistic license, and money. The nonstars were readily ranked from acceptable to incompetent. What distinguishes the “stars” among the most significant creative musicians in Iran, the ones who excel in the improvisiatory section of the performance of a dastgah—the avaz—is their ability to do something new within strict confines.

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

He explores the issue further in Chapter 26 (see here, under “Music and learning”).

Anyway, while we naturally seek out the most outstanding bearers of tradition, yet as Christopher Small observed, musicking is a diverse social activity in which genius and virtuosity play only a limited part. Indeed, in both art and popular traditions they serve as something of a red herring; all kinds of performance events can be meaningful, and moving—from lullabies to a Dolly Parton gig.

Still, to return to inspired wind playing, I always relish Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations of Daoist vocal liturgy, or Hua Yinshan’s searing and soaring shawm playing. See also jazz and trumpet tags—selection here.


Berlioz and the not-so-mystic East


The unflattering views on Chinese music expressed by Berlioz have been much cited. He may have been an iconoclast within his own culture, but it would be asking too much to expect his horizons to transcend the limited aesthetics of his day.

In The Cambridge companion to Ravel, Robert Orledge cites Berlioz’s comments on hearing Chinese musicians at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London in 1851—only a few years after the Opium Wars:

The melody, which was altogether grotesque and atrocious, finished on the tonic, like our most undistinguished sentimental songs [!]; it never moved out of the original tonality or mode. […] Nevertheless, the ludicrous melody was quite discernible, and one could have written it down in case of real need [!].

And as Orledge comments, his conclusion, after listening to a wider range of exotic musicians, was that

Chinese and Indian music would be similar to ours if it existed [WTF]; but that, musically speaking, these nations are still plunged in a state of benighted barbarianism and childish ignorance where only a few vague and feeble instincts are dimly discernible; that, moreover, the Orientals call music what we should style cacophony, and that for them, as for Macbeth’s witches, foul is fair.

Another passage has been translated thus:

As for the Chinaman’s voice, I have never heard anything so strange in my life—hideous snorts, and groans, very much like the sounds dogs make, when they wake up, stretch their paws and yawn with an effort.


More sympathetic is this report from the Illustrated London News:

A PLEASING addition has been made to the Chinese Collection, consisting of a Chinese Lady, named Pwan-ye-Koo, with small lotus-feet only 2½ inches in length, a Chinese professor of music, his two children (a boy and a girl), the femme de chambre of the lady, and an interpreter. The children are gay, lively, and intelligent, the lady herself agreeable and interesting, and the gentleman civil and obliging. A Chinese concert forms part of the entertainment: the lady Pwan-ye-Koo singing a Chinese air or two, accompanied by the professor, who likewise treats the public with an exhibition of his vocal powers. The group is one that has much to commend it: it is picturesque and peculiar, and presents an image in high relief of the native manners of a Chinese family. The conduct of the domestic blended the humble and the familiar in a significant manner; and there was an air of freedom, and a sense of mutual obligation manifested in the whole party, calculated to make a favourable impression on the spectator.

They even had an audience with Queen Victoria at her summer retreat of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Still, if we read the full passage, Berlioz did at least make an effort. Further to A French letter, here’s some more language practice [sections between asterisks translated above]:

A propos de cantatrice, j’ai enfin satisfait le désir que j’avais d’entendre la fameuse Chinoise, the small-footed lady (la dame au petit pied), comme l’appelaient les affiches et les réclames anglaises. L’intérêt de cette audition était pour moi dans la question relative aux divisions de la gamme et à la tonalité des Chinois. Je voulais savoir si, comme tant de gens l’on dit et écrit, elles sont différentes des nôtres. Or, d’après l’expérience assez concluante que je viens de faire, selon moi, il n’en est rien. Voici ce que j’ai entendu. La famille chinoise, composée de deux femmes, deux hommes et deux enfans, était assise immobile sur un petit théâtre dans le salon de la Chinese house, à Albert gate. La séance s’est ouverte par une chanson en dix ou douze couplets, chantée par le maître de musique, avec accompagnement d’un petit instrument à quatre cordes de métal, du genre de nos guitares, et dont il jouait avec un bout de cuir ou de bois, remplaçant le bec de plumes dont on se sert en Europe pour attaquer les cordes de la mandoline. Le manche de l’instrument est divisé en compartimens, marqués par des sillets de plus en plus rapprochés au fur et à mesure qu’ils se rapprochent de la caisse sonore, absolument comme le manche de nos guitares. L’un des derniers sillets, par l’inhabileté du facteur, a été mal posé, et donne un son un peu trop haut, toujours comme sur nos guitares quand elles sont mal faites. Mais cette division n’en produit pas moins des résultats entièrement conformes à ceux de notre gamme. Quant à l’union du chant et de l’accompagnement, elle est de telle nature, qu’on en doit conclure que ce Chinois-là du moins n’a pas la plus légère idée de l’harmonie. *L’air (grotesque et abominable de tout point) finit sur la tonique, ainsi que la plus vulgaire de nos romances, et ne module pas, c’est-à-dire (car ce mot est généralement mal compris des personnes qui ne savent pas la musique) ne sort pas de la tonalité ni du mode indiqués dès le commencement.* L’accompagnement consiste en un dessin rhythmique assez vif et toujours le même, exécuté par la mandoline, et qui s’accorde fort peu ou pas du tout avec les notes de la voix. Le plus atroce de la chose, c’est que la jeune femme (la [small-]footed lady), pour accroître le charme de cet étrange concert, et sans tenir compte le moins du monde de ce que fait entendre son savant maître, s’obstine à gratter avec ses ongles les cordes d’un autre instrument de la même nature, mais au manche plus long, sans jouer quoi que ce soit de mélodieux ou d’harmonieux. Elle imite ainsi un enfant qui, placé dans un salon où l’on exécute un morceau de musique, s’amuserait à frapper à tort et à travers sur le clavier d’un piano sans en savoir jouer. C’est, en un mot, une chanson accompagnée d’un petit charivari instrumental. Pour la voix du chanteur, rien d’aussi étrange n’avait encore frappé mon oreille: *figurez-vous des notes nasales, gutturales, gémissantes, hideuses, que je comparerai, sans trop d’exagération, aux sons que laissent échapper les chiens quand, après un long sommeil, ils bâillent avec effort en étendant leurs membres.* Néanmoins, la burlesque mélodie était fort perceptible, et je porterai un jour du papier réglé chez les Chinois pour la noter et en enrichir votre album. Telle était la première partie du concert.

A la seconde, les rôles ont été intervertis ; la jeune femme a chanté, et son maître l’a accompagnée sur la flûte. Cette fois l’accompagnement ne produisait aucune discordance; la flûte suivait la voix à l’unisson tout simplement. Cette flûte, à peu près semblable à la nôtre, n’en diffère que par sa plus grande longueur, par son bout supérieur qui reste ouvert, et par l’embouchure qui se trouve percée à peu près vers le milieu du tube, au lieu d’être située, comme chez nous, vers le haut de l’instrument. Du reste, le son en est assez doux, passablement juste, c’est-à-dire passablement faux, et l’exécutant n’a rien fait entendre qui n’appartînt entièrement au système tonal et à la gamme que nous employons. La jeune femme est douée d’une voix céleste, si on la compare à celle de son maître. C’est un mezzo soprano, assez semblable par le timbre au contralto d’un jeune garçon dont l’âge approche de l’adolescence et dont la voix va muer. Elle chante assez bien, toujours comparativement. On croit entendre une de nos cuisinières de province chantant: «Pierre! mon ami Pierre», en lavant sa vaisselle. Sa mélodie, dont la tonalité est bien déterminée, je le répète, et ne contient ni quarts ni demi-quarts de ton, mais les plus simples de nos successions diatoniques, est un peu moins extravagante que la romance du chanteur. C’est tellement tricornu néanmoins, d’un rhythme si insaisissable par son étrangeté, qu’elle me donnera sans doute beaucoup de peine à la fixer exactement sur le papier pour vous en faire hommage. Mais j’y mettrai le temps, et, en profitant bien des leçons que me donnera le chien d’un boulanger voisin de ma demeure, je veux, à mon retour à Paris, vous régaler d’un concert chinois de premier ordre. Bien entendu que je ne prends point cette exhibition pour un exemple de l’état réel du chant dans l’Empire Céleste, malgré la qualité de la jeune femme, qualité des plus excellentes, à en croire l’orateur directeur de la troupe, parlant passablement l’anglais. Les dames de qualité de Canton ou de Pékin, qui se contentent de chanter chez elles et ne viennent point chez nous se montrer en public pour un shilling, doivent, je le suppose, être supérieures à celle-ci presque autant que Mme la comtesse Rossi est supérieure à nos Esmeralda de carrefours.

D’autant plus que la jeune lady n’est peut-être point si small-footed qu’elle veut bien le faire croire, et que son pied, marque distinctive des femmes des hautes classes, pourrait bien être un pied naturel, très plébéien, à en juger par le soin qu’elle mettait à n’en laisser voir que la pointe.

Mais je penche fort à regarder cette épreuve comme décisive en ce qui concerne la division de la gamme et le sentiment de la tonalité chez les Orientaux. Je croirai, seulement quand je l’aurai entendu, que des êtres humains puissent, sur une gamme divisée par quarts de ton, produire autre chose que des gémissemens dignes des concerts nocturnes des chats amoureux. Les Arabes y sont parvenus, au dire de quelques savans; ils ont pour cet art inqualifiable une théorie complète. Je parie que les savans qui ont écrit ces belles choses ne savent rien de notre musique, ou du moins n’en ont qu’un sentiment confus et peu développé. Que la théorie des Arabes existe, cela est fort possible, mais elle n’ôte rien à l’horreur de ce qu’ils font en la mettant en pratique.

La musique des Indiens de l’Orient doit fort peu différer de celle des Chinois, si l’on en juge par les instrumens envoyés par l’Inde à l’Exposition universelle de Londres. Cette collection se compose, 10 d’un grand nombre de mandolines à quatre et à trois cordes, quelques unes même n’en ont qu’une; leur manche est divisé par des sillets comme chez les Chinois; les unes sont de petite dimension, d’autres ont une longueur démesurée; 2d’une multitude de gros et de petits tambours en forme de tonnelets, et dont le son ressemble à celui qu’on produit en frappant avec les doigts sur la calotte d’un chapeau; 30 d’un instrument à vent à anche double, de l’espèce de nos hautbois; 40 de flûtes traversières exactement semblables à celles du musicien chinois; 50 d’une trompette énorme et grossièrement exécutée sur un patron qui n’offre avec celui des trompettes européennes que d’insignifiantes différences; 60 de plusieurs petits instrumens à archet, dont le son aigre et faible doit rappeler les petits violons de sapin qu’on fait chez nous pour les enfans; 70 d’une espèce de tympanon dont les cordes tendues sur une longue caisse paraissent devoir être frappées par des baguettes; 80 d’une petite harpe à dix ou douze cordes, assez semblables aux harpes thébaines dont les bas-reliefs égyptiens nous ont fait connaître la forme, et enfin d’une grande roue chargée de gongs ou tamtams de petites dimensions, dont le bruit, quand elle est mise en mouvement, a le même charme que celui des gros grelots attachés sur le cou et la tête des chevaux de routiers. Je conclus, pour finir, que *les Chinois et les Indiens auraient une musique semblable à la nôtre, s’ils en avaient une; mais qu’ils sont encore à cet égard plongés dans les ténèbres les plus profondes de la barbarie ou dans une ignorance enfantine où se décèlent à peine quelques vagues et impuissans instincts.*

Hee Sing

Detail: Hee Sing.

Also part of the Great Exhibition was a Chinese junk moored on the Thames—occasion for the curious case of the “fake Chinese mandarin” Hee Sing, who appears in a painting depicting the retinue of the royal family. In Berlioz’s Les soirées de l’orchestre (21st evening, including a variant of the above) he was even more underwhelmed by the soirées musicales et dansantes given onboard by the sailors:

Maintenant écoutez, messieurs, la description des soirées musicales et dansantes que donnent les matelots chinois sur la jonque qu’ils ont amenée dans la Tamise; et croyez-moi si vous le pouvez.

Ici, après le premier mouvement d’horreur dont on ne peut se défendre, l’hilarité vous gagne, et il faut rire, mais rire à se tordre, à en perdre le sens. J’ai vu les dames anglaises finir par tomber pâmées sur le pont du navire céleste ; telle est la force irrésistible de cet art oriental. L’orchestre se compose d’un grand tam-tam, d’un petit tam-tam, d’une paire de cymbales, d’une espèce de calotte de bois ou de grande sébile placée sur un trépied et que l’on frappe avec deux baguettes, d’un instrument à vent assez semblable à une noix de coco, dans lequel on souffle tout simplement, et qui fait : Hou ! hou ! en hurlant ; et enfin d’un violon chinois. Mais quel violon ! C’est un tube de gros bambou long de six pouces, dans lequel est planté une tige de bois très-mince et long d’un pied et demi à peu près, de manière à figurer assez bien un marteau creux dont le manche serait fiché près de la tête du maillet au lieu de l’être au milieu de sa masse. Deux fines cordes de soie sont tendues, n’importe comment, du bout supérieur du manche à la tête du maillet. Entre ces deux cordes, légèrement tordues l’une sur l’autre, passent les crins d’un fabuleux archet qui est ainsi forcé, quand on le pousse ou le tire, de faire vibrer les deux cordes à la fois [sic]. Ces deux cordes sont discordantes entre elles, et le son qui en résulte est affreux. Néanmoins, le Paganini chinois, avec un sérieux digne du succès qu’il obtient, tenant son instrument appuyé sur le genou, emploie les doigts de la main gauche sur le haut de la double corde à en varier les intonations, ainsi que cela se pratique pour jouer du violoncelle, mais sans observer toutefois aucune division relative aux tons, demi-tons, ou à quelque intervalle que ce soit. Il produit ainsi une série continue de grincements, de miaulements faibles, qui donnent l’idée des vagissements de l’enfant nouveau-né d’une goule et d’un vampire.

Dans les tutti, le charivari des tam-tams, des cymbales, du violon et de la noix de coco est plus ou moins furieux, selon que l’homme à la sébile (qui du reste ferait un excellent timbalier), accélère ou ralentit le roulement de ses baguettes sur la calotte de bois. Quelquefois même, à un signe de ce virtuose remplissant à la fois les fonctions de chef d’orchestre, de timbalier et de chanteur, l’orchestre s’arrête un instant, et, après un court silence, frappe bien d’aplomb un seul coup. Le violon seul vagit toujours. Le chant passe successivement du chef d’orchestre à l’un de ses musiciens, en forme de dialogue; ces deux hommes employant la voix de tête, entremêlée de quelques notes de la voix de poitrine ou plutôt de la voix d’estomac, semblent réciter quelque légende célèbre de leur pays. Peut-être chantent-ils un hymne à leur dieu Bouddah, d’ont la statue aux quatorze bras orne l’intérieur de la grand’chambre du navire.

Je n’essaierai pas de vous dépeindre ces cris de chacal, ces râles d’agonisant, ces gloussements de dindon, au milieu lesquels malgré mon extrême attention, il ne m’a été possible de découvrir que quatre notes appréciables (ré, mi, si, sol). Je dirai seulement qu’il faut reconnaître la supériorité de la small-footed Lady et de son maître de musique. Evidemment les chanteurs de la maison chinoise sont des artistes, et ceux de la jonque ne sont que des mauvais amateurs. Quant à la danse de ces hommes étranges, elle est digne de leur musique. Jamais d’aussi hideuses contorsions n’avaient frappé mes regards. On croit voir une troupe de diables se tordant, grimaçant, bondissant, au sifflement de tous les reptiles, au mugissement de tous les monstres, au fracas métallique de tous les tridents et de toutes les chaudières de l’enfer… On me persuadera difficilement que le peuple chinois ne soit pas fou…
[For a fine English version, see Berlioz, translated Barzun, Evenings with the orchestra (Chicago, 1956/1999 edition), pp.246–250.]

Here the Illustrated London News acquits itself no better:

At the evening performance the queer old craft is lighted up with festoons of coloured lamps—a sort of miniature [missing] hall, and in the midst stands an open orchestra, in which four or five instrumentalists (“barbarians,” not Chinese) prepare the ear for the extraordinary combination of sounds which is to follow. Nothing can exceed the gravity of the “celestials,” as they take their position in the midst of the assembly on the main-deck, and proceed to fright the ear with gong and drum, and cymbal and agonizing cat-gut: the leader beating time with a stake upon a sort of tin saucepan-lid supported on three legs. Then the vocalization! The extraordinary squeaking duet, half plaintive, half comic, between the said leader (who is a sort of Costa and Mario rolled into one) and a younger aspirant in the background—what can possibly exceed its harrowing and ludicrous effect? Nothing except that impromptu feline discourse which we sometimes hear on house-tops at the dead of night.

The concert being concluded amidst the breathless silence of an astonished auditory, the war demonstrations and feats of arms then commence and these are certainly no less extraordinary than what has gone before. The first set consists of a set of grotesque posturing, in which the performers disport themselves severely one after the other, each succeeding one striving to outdo the other in the wildness and extravagance of his gesture—flying and leaping round the deck, thrusting out the arms right and left, threatening, retreating, &c. the musicians all the time keep up a terrific clang.

Next come a series of somewhat similar performances with long poles or lances, this scene closing with a set-to between two performers, which we have endeavored to embody in our engraving. Swords are also introduced and brandished about in the same manner, which, if intended to give any idea of the military science of the Chinese, shows them to be very far behind any other known nation in the world in that respect. One young hero, in the course of his “war demonstrations,” afforded great amusement every now and then, particularly after some very startling efforts at cut and thrust, by throwing himself down, and turning a somersault over his shield. When we left, the “barbarian” orchestra was about to strike up again, and dancing, it was said, was about to commence, but we did not wait for it.

For a recent French recreation, see here. Indeed, both the family and the junk had already appeared for P.T. Barnum’s Chinese museum: see Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface: creating the Chinese in American popular music and performance, 1850s–1920s (2005), pp.62–6. For another portrait of the family, see here.

Berlioz 1851

Hector’s Napoleon impression always brought the house down.

Among composers, a broader view of musicking worldwide would have to wait for figures such as Bartók. Still, even today views like those of Berlioz remain far from obsolete. So much for music as a universal language.

* * *

Ironically, in reviews by Berlioz’s contemporaries of his own new works he was hoist on his own petard—using rather similar vocabulary, as if taking revenge on behalf of the Chinese. Here are just a few among an embarras de richesse, cited in Slominsky’s wonderful Lexicon of musical invective, pp.57–61:


His rare melodies are deprived of meter and rhythm; and his harmony, a bizare assemblage of sounds, not easily blended, does not always merit the name. I believe that what M. Berlioz writes does not belong to the art which I cusomarily regard as music, and I have the complete certainty that he lacks the prerequisites of this art.

Berlioz, musically speaking, is a lunatic; a classical composer only in Paris, the great city of quacks. His music is simply and undisguisedly nonsense.

M. Berlioz is utterly incapable of producing a complete phrase of any kind. When, on rare occasions, some glimpse of a tiune makes its appearance, it is cut off at the edges and twisted about in so unusual and unnatural a fashion as to give one the idea of a mangled and mutilated body, rather than a thing of fair proportions. Moreover, the little tune that seems to exist in M. Berlioz is of so decidely vulgar a character as to exclude the possibility of our supposing him possessed of a shadow of feeling.

I can compare Le Carneval romain by Berlioz to nothing but the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon, over-excited by a dose of alcoholic stimulus.

Dragging the icon to the trash, eh. For some Messiaen reviews that escaped Slonimsky, see here; and for astounding Saint-Saëns on the violon chinois, here.

For Berlioz’s prophetic word-painting of a 1960s’ curry-house menu, cliquez ici; and for his evocation of furniture removal, ici.

And for Mahler’s vision of the mystic East, see here.

Analysing world music


My writings on Chinese ritual may seem to privilege ethnography and social change. But I do also like to relate all this to the nuts and bolts of the language of sound, as with my Dissolving boundaries (comparing qin and shawm pieces!), and for the liturgy of the Li family Daoists, clues in my book, chs. 14 to 16.

Having just made a plea for soundscape to be considered an intrinsic component of ritual studies, these analyses are highly technical, so I may now be shooting myself in the foot, but hey.

Once upon a time, analysis was the bread-and-butter of world music studies, often following Western Art Music musicology in taking reified “works of art” as its object. Recently the online journal Analytical approaches to world music takes a valuable step forward—enriching silent text by embedded audio examples. And while the analyses are dense, they always take note of changing social and performance contexts.

Some highlights that appeal to my own tastes—starting with flamenco, since I’m always grappling with the palmas hand-clapping patterns:

And a perspective on chant:

Anyway, none of this should dissuade the ethnographer with a less technical grasp of musical elements from paying attention to the soundscape of ritual and the lives of performers and their patrons!


Learning the lingo


I’ve noted the unlikely connection between Li Manshan and David Sedaris.  Both are fine humorists, but the latter takes language-learning to the cleaners with his essay “Easy, Tiger” in Let’s explore diabetes with owls. As with Daoist ritual or any text expressed through performance, Sedaris’s literary ouevre works best if you read it in his endearingly whiny voice (for more on public speaking, see here, here, and here).

On trips to Japan, rather than adopting the sinister Teach yourself Japanese (which would be right up his street) he makes progress with the aid of the Pimsleur language program [sic]. But

instead of being provided with building blocks that would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you’re left with using the hundreds and thousands of sentences that you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it; either that, or becoming one of those weird non-sequitur people, the kind who, when asked a question about paint color, answer, “There is a bank in front of the train station,” or “Mrs Yamada Ito has been playing tennis for fifteen years.”

BTW, the ability to adapt by using building blocks is just what Indian musical training provides. In WAM we don’t even memorize hundreds and thousands of sentences, we depend on reading them out of the score. FFS…

One of the things I like about Tokyo is the constant reinforcement everyone gets for trying. “You are very skilled at Japanese,” everyone keeps telling me. I know people are just being polite, but it spurs me on, just as I hoped to be spurred on in Germany. To this end, I’ve added a second audio program, one by a man named Michael Thomas, who works with a couple of students, male and female. At the start, he explains that German and English are closely related and thus have a lot in common. In one language the verb is “to come”, and in the other it’s “kommen“. English “to give” is German “geben“. Boston’s “That is good” is Berlin’s “Das ist gut“. It’s an excellent way to start and leaves the listener thinking, Hey, ich kann do dis.

My own German vocabulary extends only as far as the Matthew Passion, blut, ellenbogen [Wozzeck], and plötzlich—none of which are very handy when you’re trying to buy toothpaste—but I know it will expand exponentially once I get to grips with Nina Hagen and Ute Lemper. Evoking my own inept flailings, Sedaris comments,

People taught me all sorts of words, but the only ones that stuck were “Kaiserschnitt” which means “ceserean section”, and “Lebenabschnittspartner“. This doesn’t translate to “lover” or “life partner” but rather, to “the person I am with today”, the implication being that things change, and you are keeping your options open.
There’s no discord in Pimsleur’s Japan, but its Germany is a moody and often savage place. […] It’s a program [still sic] full of odd sentence combinations. “We don’t live here. We want mineral water” implies that if the couple did live in this particular town they’d be getting drunk like everyone else. Another standout is “Der Wein ist zu teuer und Sie sprechen zu schnell” (“The wine is too expensive and you talk too fast”). The response to this would be “”Anything else, Herr Asshole?” But of course they don’t teach you that.

For a trip to China he reaches the “Romance” and “Getting closer” sections of the Lonely planet phrasebook:

A line that might have been written especially for me: “Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself.”
Oddly, the writers haven’t included “Leave the light on,” a must if you want to actually say any of these things.

Sedaris doesn’t see politeness in foreign languages as much of a problem, recalling the phrasebooks of his youth,

where the Ugly American was still alive and kicking people. “I didn’t order this!” he raged in Greek and Spanish. “Think you can cheat me, do you?” “Go away or I’ll call the police”.

In my own ancient German phrasebook I’m still very taken by the script suggested by the sequence

“The chambermaid never comes when I ring.”
“Are you the chambermaid?”

And while we’re about it, don’t miss the classic “Look!” story.

I also look forward to a phrasebook of Yanggao dialect—for me, better late than never. For impressionistically-translated Italian guidebooks, see Towers and wells.

* * *

Doubtless I will chortle further over David Sedaris on this blog, but meanwhile (still in Let’s explore diabetes with owls) I note an intriguing parallel with the choristers’ famous kangaroo story (in “Laugh Kookaburra”):

It was around this time that we finally entered the bush. Hugh pointed out the window at a still lump of dirty fur lying beside a fallen tree, and Pat caroled, “Roadkill!” Then she pulled over so we could take a closer look. […] We walked toward the body and saw that it was a… what, exactly? “A teenage kangaroo?”
“A wallaby,” Pat corrected me. […]
“Hugh,” I called, “come here and look at the wallaby.”
It’s his belief that in marveling at a dead animal on the roadside, you may as well have killed it yourself—not accidentally but on purpose, cackling, most likely, as you ran it down. Therefore he stayed in the car.
“It’s your loss,” I called.

A selection of recent posts


To help navigate through a plethora of recent posts, this is just a selection of some of the more substantial ones:

For more, click on MY BLOG in the top menu and scroll down…

Indian singing at the BM


Ragamala for rag Bihag. Yale University Art Gallery.

After some time immersed in the rich harmonies of Mahler 10, it made a nice contrast for me to bask in the purity of monophonic Hindustani music in the Indian gallery of the British Museum. With the arhat at the other (Chinese) end of the gallery gazing on serenely from afar, Kaushiki Chakraborty sang with the lucidity and intensity characteristic of the style, accompanied by tabla and harmonium (the latter, alas, only intermittently suggestive of the bandoneon—call me old-fashioned, but you still can’t beat the sarangi).

She began with a khayal in the late-evening rāg Maru Bihag—whose relation with rāg Yaman (and Yaman Kalyan) is a subtlety to be explored by the aficionado. But even for the less attuned ear it’s worth homing in on the basic vocabulary of raga: the pitch relationships, always expounded most clearly in the opening alap.

To simplify absurdly the ascending and descending scales, and the choices of phrases within them (NB upper-case letters denote higher degrees, lower-case their lower degrees; S and P, do and so, are invariable), Ms Chakraborty’s version of the rāg featured N and M prominently, using an ascending scale of

N  R  G  M  D  N—

as in many ragas, feeding on the tension with the tonic drone of S. The natural-fourth degree m is introduced as a subsidiary theme (N G m, or S m, and G m G), and later a sustained P also features. Here’s a version she sang in 2017:

Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of solfeggio is a good way of listening to Chinese ritual melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organizing sound.

Some would date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, and even the invention of graphic notation… Comes in jolly handy for Mahler 10, though.

Back to black

For the anniversary of Amy’s death

Sure, for me to write about Amy is like a football journalist discussing ballet. But she was one singer I was entranced by at the time, rather than decades too late—her music forming a soundtrack while I was getting to grips with the rituals of the Li family Daoists. I continue to listen to her songs in awe.

I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would,
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good.

A song full of brilliant lines like

And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.

The comparison with Billie Holiday is inevitable. If Billie isn’t considered a blues singer, Amy isn’t necessarily linked with jazz. Pop, like WAM (at least since the 19th century!), is at the narrow end of the spectrum of variation in world music (instances of the broader end perhaps including Indian raga or Aboriginal dream songs)—whereas Amy sang with the freedom of a jazz instrumentalist. To listen to all her different versions of the same song with the aid of YouTube, no matter how strung-out she was, you can hear how she couldn’t help exploring constantly: she couldn’t bear to sing anything the same way twice. So I guess the commercial pressure to churn out the same old standards “note-perfect” contributed to her decline.

Back to black is one of the all-time great songs:**

Sifting through different versions of her songs is instructive (more so, for instance, than comparing recordings of Zerfließe):

The whole album is a masterpiece. This BBC film by Jeremy Marre in the Classic albums series is a fascinating insight into the process of creation and recording—great contributions from producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, instrumentalists, friends, with Amy always a moving presence.

For all the craft that went into perfecting the studio album, Mark Ronson comments,

Sometimes I’d even go to her shows and I found it a little maddening, cos I was like, “We worked so hard and these are the songs and people wanna hear it this way, but everything is slightly improvisational. She would never sing a melody the same way twice, because it’s almost like, “Why would you do that? I already did it that way.”

She was at her best (and this may be a universal truth) in small-scale informal sessions.

Please excuse the BBC bias here (“Typical!“), but her 2007 session for them makes a good compromise, where she is on her best behaviour yet comfortable in the personal setting of Porchester Hall, with her home crowd:

Her late work with Tony Bennett is moving:

A definitive film is Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) (update, June 2020: currently on Channel 4 for a month only!). A recent programme in the Soul music series on Radio 4 also shows how much she moved people.

I’d love to be reincarnated as one of her backing singers, though this seems unlikely. I would have settled for her staying alive, and happy.

**  “The all-time great songs” is generally used in the limited sense of “favourites of Anglo-American pop since the 1960s”, but here I am indeed happy to rank her oeuvre alongside the likes of Orpheus, Hildegard von Bingen, or Niña de los Peines. See also my playlist here.

In memory of Natasha

Natasha 2

This week is the fourth anniversary of the loss of my friend Natasha at the age of 34—younger than Mozart, and just less than two years after Amy Winehouse’s death.

Unable to do anything at all for months after, I thought I’d better not cancel my planned stay with Li Manshan in September, and indeed he and the other Daoists were understanding, easing me back to life. The Li family had themselves suffered a family tragedy at just the same time. The funeral rituals they perform are always moving, but now, as the sounds of shengguan blending with the vocal liturgy soared above the kowtowing kin, I felt their grief more personally.

Natasha left barely a trace on the world apart from her wonderful kids. I dearly want to write a book on her, but since I now find I know nothing about her, this tribute will have to suffice.

Natasha smile

“Troubled genius” doesn’t do Natasha justice. She deeply touched all who met her; irresistible, she could be impossible. She was the incarnation of Elena Ferrante’s Lila.

Her wild and prodigious early life was spent in Ternopil in west Ukraine. She made her home in London aged 18. Painter and composer, with her icons and Tarot, electronica, Bach, and Arvo Pärt, earth mother and sophisticated cook, femme fatale with her look of heroin chic, chunky jewelry and slinky outfits, finally holding down a mundane job for the sake of surviving as a single mum after teaching and playing in a rock band, childlike and severe, intoxicating and intoxicated, insatiable and hallucinatory, her thirst for knowledge reflected in her multi-coloured notebooks full of sketches and musings, she was on another planet. Hearing TurangalîlaragaMozart, or Naturträne through her ears, deep in her soul, was overwhelmingly intense.

Natasha painting

Natasha’s paintings were both radiant and disturbed—her later works were yet darker. Klimt and Schiele would have lapped her up (and she them). It wasn’t easy for her inhabiting a world of Parajanov:

We were supposed to be going to Mahler 5 at the Proms when she had her first heart attack. This is a perfect version of her song, with Magdalena Kožená and Claudio Abbado:

Thriving on impermanence, that I get. But Natasha, you have to keep living…

More Messiaen

Yay! Messiaen was BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the week!


With its biographical vignettes, the series is always a good way to explore pieces that may have escaped us. I tend to immerse myself in the works for orchestra, piano, and organ, but how wonderful is his vocal writing—like Harawi, Cinq rechants, or indeed the ravishing Poèmes pour Mi (a fine complement to Berlioz’s Nuits d’été and Ravel’s Shéhérazade). Good to hear Messiaen’s last work too, Concert à quatre.

His Catholic faith was, um, catholic—he made a natural mentor for the budding world music movement. Apart from his beloved birdsong, both his music and teaching were permeated with genres like raga, gamelan, and gagaku. If only I could have introduced him to the Li family Daoist band in Paris!

For yet more Messiaen, see here.

Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up doing a gig at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty (cf. Rāg Malkauns):

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi—click here for a fine website.

I outline some of the diverse bowed lutes of China here; the erhu is the least traditional of them, but you must hear this astounding playing. See also here.

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands (see mainly here):

Poland has some fine fiddle traditions too—here’s Stanisław Klejnas, from a village near Łódź:

From Iran, here’s Mohammad Reza Lotfi on kamancheh:

Kamancha playing from Azerbaijan is amazing too. I used to have a clip here of an Azeri party—complete with mobile phones, naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and no fancy fakelore costumes. But it’s disappeared, so we’ll have to settle for a reified official concert version:

And here’s a stellar gathering of players, all with their own distinctive styles (with thanks to Jeffrey Werbock, himself a fine exponent of Azeri music):

For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar (featured in a wonderful muqaddime prelude here), but they use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:

Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s a start. I leave jazz fiddling to another post… For yet more, see fiddles tag in the sidebar, introduced here.

Rag Kafi Zila


From the late 60s, at a time when it was hardly possible to be amazed by the riches of Chinese traditional music, I was devoted to Indian music—which then meant mainly the solo “classical” traditions, as it mainly still does in the popular image.

If Heart of Glass reminded me fleetingly, impertinently, of rāg Marwa and Nikhil Banerjee, I still treasure his lyrical rendition of rāg Kafi Zila, which appeared magically on BBC Radio 3 in the early 1970s.

It’s an entrancing raga, for the second quarter of the night. Within its basic minor scale with flat 3rd and 7th, it sometimes features the major 3rd degree. Here’s the introduction to rag Kafi in The raga guide:

Kafi RG 1

Kafi RG 2

The suave BBC announcer’s introduction (citing Alain Daniélou) remains etched in my heart:

Of shining whiteness,
Kafi, who inspires lust,
tenderly sits on the lap of her playmate in the royal palace.
Fond of parrots,
she is dressed in blue
and decked with jewels.
She is the image of sensuousness.
In the Lotus of my heart
I cherish her,
lovelier than Lakshmi
the goddess of Fortune.

Of course, as with Bach, I’m just reporting my own infatuation, which is merely a product of a particular place, social milieu, and time—far from the responses of indigenous audiences of various types.

Here’s one of several exquisite versions by Banerjee, with Anindo Chaterjee on tabla:

As I observed here, training in Indian sargam solfeggio is a basic grounding in monophonic musics—far from a mere conceptual exercise, it draws us towards the heart of the music.

For more raga, and a fine study of its changing social context, see here; for a roundup of posts on individual ragas, here.

Heart of glass, and Rag Marwa

Heart of glass is yet another masterpiece from the late 70s—just after Naturträne.

Apart from its spacey vibe, there’s one detail of Debbie Harry’s song that Yer Average fan will experience instinctively, but the tedious analytical bent of the musicologist may home in on: the hallucinatory temporary modulation at the end of the third line (find/blind), fleetingly sketching a major triad on la—all the more ironic for the deflation expressed by the lyric.

That harmonic shift reminds me of rag Marwa, with its implied major scale on Dha/la (A major, one might say) over the Sa–Pa/do–so/C–G drone, the flat re (C♯) clashing with the tonic. Sure, Heart of glass hardly compares with the complexities of the ascending and descending scales of the rag, worked through over a long period, but hey.

Most transcendental is Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina, in his last year:

Or Nikhil Banerjee on sitar:

Here’s a sarangi version from Sultan Khan:

For another rendition on sarangi by Ram Narayan, see here.

The iceberg

For Chinese culture (ritual, music) I always use the image of the iceberg—

to contrast the tiny little chunk that protrudes above the water (the conservatoire concert solos, and so on) with the vast unseen mass of popular culture below the surface—like temple fairs, shawm bands, household Daoists, spirit mediums

Of course it applies widely to world cultures (cf. Italy). Even under the umbrella of WAM, there’s a fluid canon changing over time, with many outer rings; socially too, it’s not just the professional symphony orchestras. And Indian music is far more than sitar solos.

As to Daoism, it’s far more than the Daoist Canon and the White Cloud Temple; and far more than wise southeastern Daoists doing their mystical sublimation in the course of a jiao Offering. And Daoist ritual—over China, north China, Shanxi, north Shanxi, and even in the north-eastern central area of Yanggao county, is far more than the Li band!

Speech therapists too consider “the iceberg of fear“.


Spring, not String.

Discussing ritual activity around Houshan in Yixian county, I mentioned the fine ritual specialist Li Yongshu in Baoquan village. After my little detour in Festivals, here the word for “village” is cun.

And Baoquan means Panther Spring—“spring” as in wellspring, not as in

with all the coiled sexual energy of a panther about to spring,

applied satirically to John Major.

Another nice John Major quote comes from a BBC correspondent reporting on the Prime Minister’s visit to an Indian mela:

He brought a splash of grey to an otherwise colourful scene.

Festivals: the official—folk continuum

The upcoming CHIME conference in LA (29 March to 2 April), presided over by the excellent Helen Rees, looks like a fine event, though I can’t make it. The theme this time is festivals.

Gansu miaohui FKTemple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. [1]
Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Of course, festivals and pilgrimages all over the world are a major theme of ethnography: not just Uyghur meshreps and mazar, and Tibetan monastery festivals, but Indian melas, Sufi festivals, the Mediterranean (Andalucian fiestas, south Italy…), Moroccan ahouach, you name it. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s 1994 book Musiques en fête is charmant, with wise and vivid words about Morocco, Sardinia, and Romania (¡¿BTW, why do French books put the list of contents at the back?! ¡¿Typical Gallic contrariness?!)

To adopt the metaphor of “the whole dragon” again, there is a long continuum between folk festivals, based on ritual (often calendrical) observances, and secular events for a largely urban audience.

So I too am going to link up diverse themes like temple fairs, ritual, famine, village names, Eurovision, and propaganda. It does make sense, though—trust me, I’m a doctor.

Traditional events in China`
Funeral rituals have been my main topic in China for thirty years, but of course it’s not easy to plan visits much in advance. The calendrical dates of temple fairs (often known as miaohui) may seem easier to anticipate. Again, scholars of religion tend to home in on their specifically religious elements, as in the great jiao Offering—though note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven. But like funerals they are multivalent, embracing all kinds of activity: ritual, opera, folk-song, pop, commerce, “hosting” and “red-hot sociality” (Chau!)…

Apart from my 2007 and 2009 books, names like Zhao Shiyu, Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Yue Yongyi, Stephan FeuchtwangAdam Chau, and Wu Fan spring to mind. The knack is to detail both sacred and secular aspects of temple fairs.

But the dates of calendrical rituals, like temple fairs, may not be easily vouchsafed to the outsider either. The temple fairs on the Houshan mountains in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, mainly in the 3rd and 7th moons, are much less well known than those of Miaofengshan, but they also draw huge crowds, both local and from further afield.

To work all this out you have to spend time around the villages of Liujing and Matou in the foothills around Houshan, and then observe who goes where when and does what. Although Chinese villagers are a rich source of ritual and musical information (far more than any silent library), they often speak prescriptively rather than descriptively, telling us on what occasions a jiao Offering ritual should be performed, whether or not is has been performed since the 1940s. They don’t necessarily volunteer information on change, preferring (like some officials and scholars) to present their traditions as constant, eternal—even if contexts and repertoires have evidently changed in their lifetime. On our first visit to Liujing we rather assumed that villagers’ descriptions of ritual pilgrimages related to “the past”— but we soon found that they were very much alive.

The Songs-for-winds associations: propaganda and catastrophe
What got me “thinking” (I use the word loosely) about all this was that 1950 visit to Tianjin of the “Songs-for-winds” band from Ziwei village, in what later became Dingxian county.

The Central Conservatoire (as it was then) was then still based at Tianjin, of course. The work of Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe on the Songs-for-winds may be considered a prelude to that on the more solemn ritual style of the Beijing temples that Yang undertook from 1952, a topic that was to expand vastly after 1986. But the Songs-for-winds groups, more popular than the ritual style that is my main focus, are worth a little detour here.

We should bear in mind that such wind ensembles were quite unfamiliar to southerners like Yang and Cao. Having invited the Ziwei band to the conservatoire, they recorded their repertoire on a Webster wire recorder. The band went back some six generations, and under the leadership of the celebrated Wang Chengkui, they had invited the great wind player Yang Yuanheng  to teach them in the winters of 1945 and 1946. Yang Yuanheng, a former Daoist priest in a little temple in Anping county, was himself appointed professor of guanzi oboe at the conservatoire in 1950. [2] Yang Yuanheng, like the Buddhist monk Haibo, was a major influence on many shengguan ritual associations in the area: we would hear their names from many village associations.

Yang and Cao’s monograph on the Ziwei band, published in 1952,  consists mainly of transcriptions, with little of the social detail that they covered for the Wuxi Daoists or Yang’s 1956 Hunan fieldtrip. Ziwei would go on to supply wind players to many state troupes for decades to come.

Langfang huahui 1991

Secular New Year’s huahui parade, Langfang city, 1991.

Adapted from my Folk music of China (p.196):

During the 1958 Great Leap Forward (or Backward, as it’s known), Dingxian and particularly Xushui counties became model counties for the relentless drive to full communization. [3] At the height of the Leap back in August 1958, Chairman Mao visited communes there. In Dasigexiang district just southeast of Xushui county-town, Dasigezhuang village was now renamed the 4th August brigade. Notable for its revolutionary fervour at this time was the “Great Leap Forward Songs-for winds association” of Qianminzhuang brigade in Xushui, which performed for this visit.

The propaganda of the Leap makes a stark contrast with the grim realities of the period, with villages throughout the area suffering from crop failure, famine, and social disruption.

Our visit to Qianminzhuang in 1993 was the only time I’ve ever had a police escort—to take me there for a change, not to drag me away! Predictably, such an effusive welcome for me as a “foreign guest” indicated close supervision and censorship of our fieldwork.

QMZ band 1993

QMZ pose 1993

Striking a pose with the leaders, Qianminzhuang 1993

In 1995 we visited some of the senior musicians independently, with much more useful results.

Xushui’s favoured status did nothing to prevent many starving to death there in 1960—but just near Qianminzhuang, the Gaozhuang ritual association still managed to restart in 1961. Religion revived in China precisely at moments of political crisis such as the famines of 1960 and the Cultural Revolution, albeit with great difficulty. It may provide solace, or a focus for resistance—both against Maoism and later against the insecurities ensuing its demise.

The Gaozhuang ritual association was one of many in Xushui villages that used, and use, the older more solemn shengguan style. Ritual associations throughout the area commonly claim transmission from either Buddhist monks (heshangjing 和尚經) or Daoist priests (laodaojing 老道經)—the Gaozhuang association is Buddhist-transmitted. In another common taxonomy, the association divides into “front altar” (qiantan, the shengguan instrumental ensemble, and “rear altar” (houtan, vocal liturgy).

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religion, notably the cult of the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu. Associations there commonly hang out ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings (Shiwang) or Water and Land (Shuilu) series, and they use “precious scrolls” and other ritual manuals. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the pilgrimage to Houshan. Even the revolutionary Qianminzhuang band told us that their former tradition was to recite the scriptures, performing only as a social duty for funerals, not for weddings. And certainly not to accompany mendacious parades to report a bumper harvest…

In 1994 the Gaozhuang association built an Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother (Laomu citang), occupying about one mu, stylish and grand. It cost around 60,000 kuai to build; the stele lists 132 donors, who gave from 50 up to 3,000 kuai. The altar has Wusheng laomu in the centre, Wangmu niangniang and Songzi niangniang to the right, Cangu niangniang and Houtu niangniang to the left.

Gaozhuang citang

The village Party Secretary told us that sources of support included incense money from the Great Tent Association (Dapeng hui, a common term in the area for a ritual association) and from the temple, and money from fortune-telling and curing illness. He reflected, “A dozen or so women kept on coming to see me about building a temple. I had no choice—the brigade couldn’t refuse, so I gave them a plot of land. Believing in the gods and having a temple is no bad thing, it’s not as if you stop production if you believe in it!”

In all, the flamboyant (and readily secularized) Songs-for-winds style remains a common image of wind bands on the Hebei plain, but since all our fieldwork through the 1990s it is clear that ritual practice, with its more solemn shengguan instrumental style, is both older and more common. It is resilient too. This persistence of tradition, both in religious and musical practice, is all the more striking in such a once-revolutionary county as Xushui.

Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972:

“I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking.”  [4]

But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it. Still, disruption was severe. For more on Xushui, see here.

Official festivals in the 1950s
Meanwhile, the new government, in its own way, was promoting local culture through the medium of regional folk festivals (diaoyan, huiyan). First, local festivals were held to select representatives for major performances in the regional capitals. Some laicized priests were even assembled to perform as “troupes“, sometimes for the first time in many years—such as Baiyunshan Daoists (1955), Wudangshan Daoists (1956 and 1957), Wutaishan Buddhists (1958). For such performances, inevitably, their shengguan instrumental music was plucked out of its ritual context. I haven’t heard stories as distressing as the fate that befell kobzari blind minstrels in Ukraine when summoned for an official festival in the early 1930s; but folk ritual specialists were still anxious about performing for officials around 1980.

These festivals served partly as auditions for the state song-and-dance troupes then expanding all over China. Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists had a deserved reputation as outstanding instrumentalists. Many, like our very own Li Qing (my book pp.113–25), were recruited as musicians to state troupes around 1958—and then sent home again as the state apparatus collapsed in 1962.

While such festivals stimulated the collection and documentation of folk music, we must balance this with the ongoing assaults on its traditional context. The background ( beginning from the 1940s) was campaigns against “feudal superstition”, terrifying public executions of sectarians, and the destruction of temple life.

The reform era
Urban festivals featuring rural groups—perhaps related to a conference—make a convenient recourse for busy academics into whose holidays they fit nicely. From the 1980s, the secular arts festivals of the Maoist era were remoulded into more glossy events. In 1990 the Li family Daoists took part in a festival of religious music in Beijing.

By the 21st century the new ideology was confirmed in the regular staged “living fossil” presentations of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The latter project, with its whole bureaucratic workings, has now become a major research topic on its own, at the expense of studies of the local traditions that it is supposed to assist (my book pp.331–3). Note also the Qujiaying bandwagon.

I tend to steer clear of conferences, but in May 2016, as a pretext for going to hang out yet again with Li Manshan in Shanxi for a couple of weeks, I accepted an invitation to take part in a conference celebrating the 80th birthday of my esteemed teacher Yuan Jingfang in Beijing (for the resulting volume, see here).

It was a déjà-vu experience. Apart from a sequence of eulogies, the event also featured staged performances from three representatives of Yuan Jingfang’s long-term research areas: the Hanzhuang ritual association from Xiongxian in Hebei (near Xushui), the Zhihua temple group, and a ritual band from near Xi’an.

Hanzhuang 1993

Filming the Hanzhuang association in their ritual tent, 1993 (photo: Xue Yibing). Rear centre: two frames of ten-gong yunluo.

It made me feel my age, reminding me of all our visits to these very groups between 1986 and 2001. Taking time out of the conference to chat with the Hanzhuang group outside by the lake, we recalled their kindly association leader Xie Yongxiang 解永祥, father of the present leader, and another of those wise sheng masters. We had learned a lot from him in 1993 and 1995.

Xie Yongxiang 1995

Xie Yongxiang, 1995

But returning to the conference—the object of admiration, inevitably, was their “music”, detached from its enduring social context. I already missed hanging out with Li Manshan in the scripture hall.

All the glossy stage presentation has many Western parallels—flamenco on the Terry Wogan show, WOMAD, Songlines, prizes, urbane discourse explaining its “cultural value” to outsiders… The fancy costumes and dry ice of many Chinese events are reminiscent of Eurovision; they may seem like a Disneyland version of the Chinese heritage.

That photo comes from a recent ICH “performance” of the Baiyunshan Daoists, no less.

Now, I adore opportunities to present the Li family Daoist band on the concert platform (see this post and a whole related series of vignettes from May 2017), but while it is of course a compromise, we take care not to tart them up—we can hardly do otherwise, so solemn is their demeanour. The ambience and acoustic of churches makes a fine setting,  the Daoists’ sheng mouth-organs filling the Peterskirche in Heidelberg (cf. Buildings and music):

Hberg 2012

The Li family Daoist band in concert, Heidelberg April 2013.

Still, their regular “rice-bowl”—day in, day out—is always performing funerals for their local, not global, clientele.

What is dodgy is when people begin mistaking the staged events for the Real Thing, or some kind of ideal. Urbanites may do so, but villagers know better. Of course those staged events are themselves a legitimate, and popular, object of scholarly analysis. But I worry that it creates a fait accompli, like the way that in old-school WAM musicology the Great Composers were the main story (as deconstructed by McClary, Small, Nettl)—“this is what we find, so it must reflect the real picture, and so this is the object of study”. As always, “modern” secular performance doesn’t replace traditional activity: they co-exist.

The CHIME conference in LA will doubtless turn up many instances of what I’m struggling not to call “contested negotiation”. Anyway, staged events can give us a lead, rather like using the photos in the Anthology, otherwise flawed, to draw us towards folk activity.


[1] For more, see Frank Kouwenhoven, “Love songs and temple festivals in northwest China: musical laughter in the face of adversity”, in Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen eds., Music, dance and the art of seduction.
[2] For this whole section, see my Folk music of China, pp.48–52, 195–203; “Chinese ritual music under Mao and Deng”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 8 (1999): 27–66; “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003): 287–337. See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.166–7, 183–4, 188–90.
[3] As correctives to all the Xushui propaganda, see e.g. the brilliant works of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China—describing a commune not far from Xushui. Note Chinese village, socialist state, pp.215–20; Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, pp.40, 47–9, 68–70; and estimable analysis online in Chinese, e.g. http://mjlsh.usc.cuhk.edu.hk/book.aspx?cid=6&tid=184&pid=2269. For the model commune of Greater Quanshan in Shanxi, precursor of Dazhai, and temporary “home” to the Li family Daoists, see my book, pp.122–3, and here, under “Famine in China”.
[4] Also reported by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek, 3rd March 1997, p.31.

The meaninglessness of ritual


The work of Frits Staal on Indian ritual contains much from which scholars of Daoist ritual (not least I) might benefit, confronting issues that I encounter in working with Li Manshan. Staal’s ideas about orthopraxy seem to go beyond the discussions following those of James Watson for China. There’s a lot more to Staal’s work than that, but this is a start.

In “The meaninglessness of ritual”, [1] Staal eschewed “the dewy-eyed romanticism that is pernicious to any serious study of cultures and people.”

A widespread but erroneous assumption about ritual is that it consists in symbolic activities which refer to something else. It is characteristic of a ritual performance, however, that it is self-contained and self-absorbed. The performers are totally immersed in the proper execution of their complex tasks. Isolated in their sacred enclosure, they concentrate on correctness of act, recitation and chant. Their primary concern, if not obsession, is with rules. There are no symbolic meanings going through their minds when they are engaged in performing ritual.
Such absorption, by itself, does not show that ritual cannot have a symbolic meaning. However, also when we ask a brahmin explicitly why the rituals are performed, we never receive an answer which refers to symbolic activity. There are numerous different answers, such as: we do it because our ancestors did it; because we are eligible to do it; because it is good for society; because it is good; because it is our duty; because it is said to lead to immortality; because it leads to immortality. A visitor will furthermore observe that a person who has performed a Vedic ritual acquires social and religious status, which involves other benefits, some of them economic. Beyond such generalities one gets involved in individual case histories. Some boys have never been given much of a choice, and have been taught recitations and rites as a matter of fact; by the time they have mastered these, there is little else they are competent or motivated to do. Others are inspired by a spirit of competition. The majority would not be able to come up with an adequate answer to the question why they engage in ritual. But neither would I, if someone were to ask me why I am writing about it.
Most questions concerning ritual detail involve numerous complex rules, and no participant could provide an answer or elucidation with which he would himself be satisfied. Outsiders and bystanders may volunteer their ideas about religion and philosophy generally—without reference to any specific question. In most cases such people are Hindus who do not know anything about Vedic ritual. There is only one answer which the best and most reliable among the ritualists themselves give consistently and with more than average frequency: we act according to the rules because this is our tradition (parampara). The effective part of the answer seems to be: look and listen, these are our activities! To performing ritualists, rituals are to a large extent like dance, of which Isadora Duncan said: “If I could tell you what it meant there would be no point in dancing it.”
Ritual, then, is primarily activity. It is an activity governed by explicit rules. The important thing is what you do, not what you think, believe or say.

This echoes Catherine Bell’s comment that I cited in my post on Bach and Daoist ritual. Indeed, she pursued the theme further in her books Ritual: perspectives and dimensions and Ritual theory, ritual practice .

Poul Andersen offers caveats to Staal in a review of volumes on Shanghai Daoist ritual (Daniel Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.263–83). He highlights the interpretations of the participants (including the liturgists themselves), which “in many ways influence the actual performance. They are relevant for the way in which performances take shape, develop, and are modified over time.” Such interpretations, while important, rarely offer a detailed critique, so such a view refines rather than refutes Staal’s point.

I pursue the theme under Navajo culture.


[1] Numen 26.1 (1979): 2–22. See also Ritual and mantras: rules without meaning (Motilal Banarsidass, 1996), and (source of my quote here) S.N.Balagangadhara, “Review of Staal’s Rules Without Meaning”, Cultural dynamics 4.1 (1991), pp.98–106.


An aspiring singer on a TV talent show decided to perform Doh a deer, and rashly decided to go out, too literally, on a high note:


Which reminds me—the traditional gongche notation for the melodic skeleton of ritual shengguan ensemble translates nicely into solfeggio (and indeed into modern Chinese cipher notation)…


Da Zouma score, written for me by Li Qing, 1992 (playlist #4, commentary here).

“But that’s not important right now”. I allude, of course, to Airplane:

The Chinese gongche system, like those of Europe and India, is heptatonic:

cipher notation:  1     2     3       4     5       6       7
solfeggio:              do  re   mi     fa    so     la      si
Indian sargam:   Sa  Re   Ga    Ma   Pa   Dha  Ni
gongche:               he  si    yi  shang  che gong  fan
with liu and wu as upper octave notes for he/do and si/re respectively (taking the older system with he, rather than shangas do! Call Me Old-fashioned).

For those who can’t fathom the British propensity for punning, the only line of Doh a Deer that makes any sense is La, a note to follow so—precisely the only line where the author reveals a touching fallibility. Such literal audiences would be happier if it were all like that:

Re, a note to follow do
Mi, a note to follow re
Fa, a note to follow mi
and so on…

It only remains to overhaul the opening line. The original version “La, a note to follow so—if you’re moving upwards in conjunct motion that is” was overruled as too pedantic, of course.

Another fun exercise is to sing the phrases in reverse order, descending instead of ascending from Doh:

Doh, a deer…
Ti, a drink with jam and bread
La, a note to follow ti!
So, a needle pulling thread

Given how well we know the song, it seems a bit weird how crap we Brits are at solfeggio. Another fun game would be to try singing the whole thing only in solfeggio:

Do, re mi, do mi do mi,
Re, mi fafa mire fa

and so on.

Then we can use the tune to familiarise ourselves with Indian and Chinese solfeggio:

Sa, Re Ga, Sa Ga Sa Ga,
Re, Ga MaMa GaRe Ma…

he, si yi, he yi he yi,
si, yi shangshang yisi shang

We can also sing the song to the many scales of Indian raga in turn, with their varying flat or sharp pitches—a simple example: in rāg Yaman, try singing a sharp fourth for fa, a long long way to run

And here’s a fascinating medley of versions in French, German, Italian, Spanish (x3), Japanese, and Persian:

For a brilliant pun on the Mary Poppins song, see here.