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Old sweet songs

Chen Nan
Updated: Nov 3,2014 7:01 AM     China Daily

Artists from the Lisu ethnic groups performed at the Beijing Music Festival on Oct 17. The program, Walking on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, brought art forms from eight ethnic groups of Yunnan province to audiences.[Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily]

Performances by indigenous musicians from Yunnan give a new flavor to the Beijing Music Festival.

At 52, A Benzhi can still clearly recall images of his father getting up before sunrise to work on the farm and returning home after sunset every day over four decades ago.

Beyond that diligence, what lingers in A’s memory is his father’s singing of Meng Hua Diao, or Menghua melody, the oldest music of the Yi ethnic group performed in local dialect. Menghua is the old name of Nanjian county, where A Benzhi lives.

“My father sang those songs all the time. He was a good man and he loved those songs. Even in his last days, he murmured the melodies lightly until he passed away at 70,” recalls A Benzhi, who was born in a small village of Nanjian Yi autonomous county in the Dali area of Yunnan province. The Yi people have lived there for generations.

He followed in his father’s footsteps to learn the art form of Menghua. He also started collecting traditional Yi music after he graduated from high school in 1978.

As the most educated man in his village then, A Benzhi worked as a clerk in a cultural center before he began devoting all his time to protecting Yi music in 1984.

Artists from the Blang ethnic groups performed at the Beijing Music Festival on Oct 17. The program, Walking on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, brought art forms from eight ethnic groups of Yunnan province to audiences.[Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily]

In a recent concert held at Taikoo Li Sanlitun, a trendy shopping area in downtown Beijing, he performed Menghua songs.

“This place is wonderful, this road is crowded, I wish to marry a girl from here and make her part of my family,” he sang in Yi dialect with videos of his village scenery displayed on the screens behind. The bearded and bald man wore a long sleeveless jacket made of sheepskin, open to show his bare chest, and a pair of loose black pants. His handmade embroidered belt was tied around his big belly.

Most of the audience didn’t understand Yi dialect, so they listened to the songs as if hearing a foreign language. But they cheered and applauded the vibrant rhythm and the singer’s powerful voice. His performance included songs for wedding ceremonies that were accompanied by bamboo flutes, reed pipes and lutes.

As one of the programs of the Beijing Music Festival, the concert, titled Walking on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, also brought artists from eight other ethnic groups of Yunnan province, including the Blang, Va and Bai.

Artists from the Lahu ethnic groups performed at the Beijing Music Festival on Oct 17. The program, Walking on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, brought art forms from eight ethnic groups of Yunnan province to audiences.[Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily]

The event was a part of an effort by Hou Dudu, 40, who worked as a violist in the symphony orchestra of the National Ballet of China for seven years after his graduation from the Central Conservatory of Music. In 2009, Hou quit his job and started traveling around the country, collecting music from China’s ethnic groups. By early this year, he finished the project, successfully visiting all 56 ethnic groups of China.

His goal is to put that music together in an online library to share with music lovers. But getting it recorded has not been easy: Many old songs and singing techniques can only be performed by elderly people scattered in remote villages, since youth today seem more interested in karaoke than learning their ancestor’s legacy. Traveling alone with his recording and video equipment, Hou got help from local governments, which connected him with those old artists.

Hou met A Benzhi five years ago, who took him to visit his village and interview singers who were more than 90 years old.

“Some of the music has been passed down orally through the generations, so we aren’t sure how old it is,” says A Benzhi. “The oral tradition, when the musicians die, they take along with them the knowledge and memory before it can be passed on, and then it’s gone.”

Artists from the Va ethnic groups performed at the Beijing Music Festival on Oct 17. The program, Walking on the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, brought art forms from eight ethnic groups of Yunnan province to audiences.[Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily]

Lu Guohua, a 32-year-old singer, says that it has taken years for her to learn and memorize old ethnic tunes. “Young people today are easily distracted,” says Lu, whose singing talent was discovered by A more than 15 years ago. “Some have left the village and work at bigger cities, like Kunming. They won’t even return anymore, let alone learn the old songs,” says Lu.

Yan Sangong, 40, a farmer from the Blang ethnic group who lives near the border between China and Myanmar, came to Beijing to perform at the concert. The shy singer couldn’t speak fluent Mandarin, but listeners found his guitar-like three-string instrument to be very expressive.

According to Hou, the Blang people are good at performing vigorous melodies with improvised lyrics. The Blang ballad was listed as one of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008, and Yan is an official inheritor.

“We have to keep that music alive onstage,” says Hou.

Besides online sharing, Hou plans to launch a concert series, letting audiences experience ethnic cultures through their ancient music and film documentaries of their daily lives. Soon he will invite indigenous artists from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, the Inner Mongolia autonomous region and Taiwan.

“Chinese audiences rarely get a chance to watch performances from real ethnic singers,” says Yu Long, the Beijing Music Festival’s founder and music director, noting that this year’s ethnic music performances were a first for the festival.

“But as President Xi Jinping said at a symposium in Beijing recently, it’s necessary to preserve such ethnic music and dance by offering more platforms for those artists,” says Yu.

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