Various artists’ Folk Music of China, Vol. 13: Songs of the Tibetan Plateau

cover art, songs of the tibetan plateauThis is the 13th of Naxos World’s fine series exploring the vast diversity of traditional and folk songs of the many regions of China. It’s a bit different from those I’ve reviewed so far, in that its selections include some pop songs based on traditional and folk music, as well as pop instrumentation on most of the tracks, which purport to be traditional songs.

Recorded in Tibet and Qinghai, this album covers music from throughout the Tibetan Plateau, which extends from Tibetan Autonomous Region to Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces. Traditional Tibetan music includes folk, religious and court music. As with others in the series, this album focuses only on folk music, and mainly from the Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Yushu County in Qinghai Province, and the Linzhi Prefecture in Tibet Autonomous Region. The regions all have their own styles, even for songs that are on similar subjects or for similar purposes; so for instance, the four toasting songs here all have quite different styles.

Though they’re folk songs, performed by several different singers in different styles, the first 12 of the 18 selections all are produced in what I’d term New Age settings. The vocals are backed by lots of ethereal synthesizers plus thudding, echo-laden percussion, and deep reverb in the recording chamber. The album’s liner notes state that the Tibetan people play more than 30 wind, stringed, and percussion instruments, but very few are in evidence here, or they’re overwhelmed by pop and electronic trappings. That said, all of the vocal performances are impressive, and many of the melodies are engaging. Of note is “Three Birds,” sung by a skilled and pleasant tenor accompanied by a lute of some kind with a very guitar-like sound played with a plectrum, and some skillfully played hand percussion. Another song simply titled “Love Song” is a fine male-female duet sung unaccompanied in its first section, and the production on the remaining verses is relatively subdued.

From Track 13 on are several very strongly and beautifully sung unaccompanied songs that feature some of the unique vocal stylings of the region, mostly by female voices, and no synthesizers. And the final two tracks, “A Good Place” and “Celebrating Harvest,” are accompanied by another traditional Tibetan instrument named zha nian, whose name simply means “pleasant sound.” Zha nian, a six-stringed fretless lute, makes a pleasant sound indeed, and these songs by a man with a strong baritone voice, are captivating.

I’m trying not to fall into the trap here of demanding as an outsider that other peoples perform their folk art in ways that I deem acceptably “authentic.” Without knowing anything about this music other that what is relayed by the record label, I can only note that the music on this offering in the series is a departure from the other volumes I’ve heard so far.

Listen to samples and learn more at the Naxos World Music website.

(Naxos World, 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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