Various artists’ Folk Music of China, Vol. 12 – Folk Songs of the Bai, Nu & Derung Peoples

FolkMusicOfChinaVol12A couple of sweethearts meet in the mountains where both are herding their sheep, in one of the most charming songs in this delightful collection. The two unaccompanied singers call to each other in a type of piercing yodel employing nonsense words as the song opens, and they also imitate the baa-ing of their sheep, in the track called “Song of the Eastern Mountains.” It’s the fifth of 29 tracks in this generous collection, the 12th of 19 volumes of folk songs of the various regions of China being released by Naxos World Music.

This recording features folk songs of the Bai, Nu and Derung peoples of Yunnan province in southwestern China. Here’s what the Naxos World press release says about these three peoples and where they live:

All three minorities live in Yunnan province, located in southwestern China. The majority of Bai people dwell in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, which is situated between the Tibetan and Yungui Plateaus, and after years of development has become a famous tourist attraction. As cross-border minorities, the Derung and the Nu peoples both live on the northwestern border of Yunnan, next to Myanmar. The Nu people live along the Nu River, which is a part of The Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. The Derung people live along the banks of Dulong River, which originates in Tibet, runs through northwestern Yunnan, and finally flows into Myanmar.

The shepherds’ song is one of 11 from the Bai people. Their songs and ditties are often sung unaccompanied or employing a three-string lute. Most of the Bai songs on this album are by solo singers, with some in duets and one, “Sweetheart,” by a trio of women who are accompanied by a three-stringed plucked lute decorated with a carved figure of a dragon’s head. A solo man is accompanied by a similar lute, which sounds a bit like a gut-string banjo, on “Song of Four Seasons,” one of the most popular ditties in the Bai language. The rhythm on this one is marked by a percussion instrument called bawang bian. It is made of long bamboo or wooden sticks, into which copper coins are inserted to make loud clicking sounds when struck.

The songs of the Nu people are a major change from the Bai songs. The male vocals in particular tend to be sung in a lower register, and the musical style of songs sung by men and women both features melodic lines that drop off at the end of each line, the way some Appalachian folk songs and some blues tend to do. The Nu people use the Bai, Lisu, Chinese and Tibetan languages, among which the Lisu language is more popular. The music of the northern Nu region is more influenced by Chinese styles, that in the south more by Tibetan styles. All of the Nu selections here are sung unaccompanied. Some are solo, some feature lovers’ duets, and several feature large groups. The hunting song “Xiang La Zhe” starts with a solo male voice and is joined by several other men in a unison chorus. I find these Nu songs particularly appealing.

The Derung songs also are quite distinct in sound from the other two. These people lived in isolation along the Derung River, so their spoken language retains many unique characteristics although they now use Chinese as their written language. Their folk tradition has shamanistic songs about sacrifices to mountain deities as well as custom songs and complaint ballads. These latter mostly relate to the custom of arranged marriages, and feature one or both sides of such a relationship complaining about a match they’re not happy with. “Gu Lu Du Na,” one of the longer songs on the album, is one of these, sung solo by a woman with a deep alto voice. The Derung selections also include an emphatic recitation of a poem to mountain deities, a plaintive match-making duet, a stately solo called “I Am A Girl,” and some that are solo but include interjections from one or more other voices along the way. All are unaccompanied.

This volume is yet another fascinating offering in the Naxos World series bringing examples of China’s rich and diverse musical heritage to the rest of the world. Learn more and listen to samples on the Naxos World Music site.

(Naxos World Music, 2021)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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