Naxos World Music continues its series of releases covering the vast and varied folk songs of China. On Volume 11 they present folk songs of two quite different peoples and traditions in the far south of China. The Dai and Hani peoples live in the extreme south of Yunnan Province in what’s known as Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. This prefecture borders the Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar and Laos.
The music of this region could hardly be more different from that presented in Vol. 9, Folk Songs of the Uzbeks & Tatars of China, Turkic peoples in China’s far west, whose culture and music are closer to those of the Central Asian republics than to Han China. You won’t mistake the music on Vol. 11 for anything other than East Asian.
The generous 21 songs here are strictly divided between the two regional styles, with 10 songs of the Dai peoples coming first, followed by 11 Hani selections. The Dai songs come from a village in Jinghong city, where the Zhang Ha narrative singing is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage; the Hani songs were recorded at Nannuo Mountain, an area famous for its traditional Pu’er tea production.
The Dai tradition of music and dance includes folk songs, various dances, instrumental music, narrative singing and the Dai opera. Their language has nine different tonal ranges, which means that when lyrics are sung you have to consider their tonal value for meaning, and a song doesn’t really have a fixed melody but changes depending on the feelings the singer wants to convey. They use as many as 50 instruments including many drums, but the Dai songs on this album appear to use only gourd flutes, a reed wind instrument that sounds like a clarinet, and the ding, a two stringed bowed zither.
I love the sound of one- and two-stringed bowed folk instruments from whatever tradition, so I’m partial to those songs here, which are tracks 5 and 8. Both are Zhang Ha ballads, one each by unaccompanied female and male singers. The Dai Zhang Ha lyrics incorporate Buddhist sutras, folklore, or sometimes just improvisations. The woman who sings on track 5 has a clear voice with a lot of expressiveness in a range we’d call soprano. The man on track 8 has a delightfully reedy tenor that really complements the sound of the ding. A couple of the Zhang Ha songs, including the final track, are accompanied by that reed instrument, and the circular, pentatonic melodies they play could almost be mistaken for klezmer. There are a couple of vocal duets, both of which are unaccompanied – the male and female singers on track 10 both have very high and very animated vocal styles. Most of the songs have a studio effect applied that makes them sound like they were recorded in a big auditorium, temple, or other high-ceilinged building – wherever the recording took place, they’re obviously field recordings, because other villagers’ voices sometimes intrude and an occasional rooster sings along as well. The seventh track, “Song of Gaosheng Fireworks,” is sung communally by some men and a rooster or two. All are clearly enjoying themselves.
For both the Dai and Hani peoples, folk songs are an important way to convey cultural messages. For Hani people, singing is an indispensable skill, the lyrics used to educate their people and maintain their cultures. The Hani also use many drums, cymbals and gongs as well as bamboo and wooden wind instruments. However, all of the 11 tracks on this album are unaccompanied. The singing is very strong and impressive, but also natural and unaffected. Several of the singers clear their throats between verses. The woman singing the tea picking song has a particularly strong and clear technique, the lyrics depicting the traditional work of tea picking in the Pu’er mountains.
The Hani songs also include love songs, lullabies, and one by a man singing to his soon to be daughter-in-law.
As with the others in Naxos World’s China series, this is a superb, vibrant and respectful presentation of folk songs from a region not many outsiders ever get to visit. Now excuse me while I go make a cup of pu’er tea and start this album over from the top. You can listen to samples and find out more about the entire series at the Naxos World site.
(Naxos World Music, 2021)