This is the penultimate release in this superb series documenting the diversity of folk songs of China. It has the more variety than many of the albums in the series, both in the number of ethnic groups whose music it contains as well as sheer sonic variety. Its 36 tracks contain samples of the music of four tribes or “peoples,” the Lahu, Jingpo, Jino and Achang.
It includes ballads and love songs of the Lahu, some featuring a gourd mouth organ and a Jew’s harp as well as guitars; the most famous working song of the Jingpo people, the husking rice tune “Yue Lu”; mountain and hunting songs of the Jino people played on bamboo ideophones; and excerpts from the Achang Opera of Spring Lantern.
All four of these peoples live primarily in the province of Yunnan in southeastern China that borders Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar to the south.
The Lahu live in the mountainous tea-growing regions of Yunnan, and many of them also reside in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Many Lahu, descendants of the ancient Qiang peoples, are semi-nomadic. Their folk songs include ballads, love songs, custom songs and children’s songs.
The album begins with six selections from the Lahu, all of them strikingly different. Of great interest is an excerpt of an ancient ballad called “Du Pa Mi Pa,” which tells about the creation of the world by the Lahu goddess Esha. A full performance of “Du Pa Mi Pa” takes several days, but excerpts like this one are sung on various special occasions such as welcoming guests, at weddings, or when building a house. The ballad typically is sung with no accompaniment by elder singers; this excerpt features two men alternating verses, and the melody has many long droning notes at the end of phrases.
There are also mixed choral groups singing call and response type songs, and a song for the new rice festival with a single male and female voice alternating, which sounds almost like a prayer.
The sixth track is a medley of love songs, some of which feature Jew’s harps and flutes. And there are a couple of examples of new folk songs that have been incorporated into the traditional repertoire, such as “Happy Lahus,” which is accompanied by a guitar, and the “Song of Hunting” that sounds like shape note singing. The Lahu are primarily Buddhist but there are some Christians among them, and some of this music has been influenced by missionaries and Western music.
The Jingpo people of China, who are animists, live on the mountainous border of Myanmar. Members of this ethnic group also live in Myanmar and India. This disc has eight songs of the Jingpo, the best known of which is a working song called “Yue Lu,” sung during the husking of rice. It’s usually sung by women, but it and all of the Jingpo songs here are performed by the same male singer, without accompaniment. There’s not a lot of variety among them to an outsider’s ear.
The Jino people are also mountain dwellers, known for hunting and their use of bamboo for many things including musical instruments. Their folk songs include mountain songs, sacrificial songs, custom songs, children’s songs and hunting songs. The free rhythm mountain songs are the most popular, and four of the eight Jino songs on this disc are mountain songs. They’re generally sung unaccompanied by a woman with a fairly high pitched voice, and a lot of mountain style echo applied to the recording. There’s also a song called “A Duet,” which consists of two male voices and two female voices singing alternate stanzas; we’re not told what type of song it is but if I had to guess I’d say it’s a children’s song. There’s also a short but charming proposal song in which a man and woman trade stanzas. “Inseparable” features a couple of female voices made to sound like more through reverb; the Jino use two different pentatonic scales in their folk songs, one with semitones and one without. This song sounds like it employs the semitones. The work song here definitely sounds like one, employing the kind of pronounced rhythm you find in work songs the world over, such as sea shanties.
The final ethnic group covered in this disc is the Achang. There’s as much variety across just the Achang music included here as there is in the selections of the Lahu, Jingpo and Jino combined! The Achang live mainly in western Yunnan province, largely in Longchuan and Lianghe counties, and the music is quite different between the two counties. All of the selections here are from Lianghe.
The Achangs’ literature and myths are orally transmitted. The epic song “Zhepama and Zhemima” that describes the creation of the world, is the most important. A brief excerpt opens the Achang section. Interestingly, Achang words usually consist of two syllables, which is highlighted in this song in particular
Three of the Achang songs are in Chinese. “Song of Spring,” “Song of Spring Ox” and “Song of Tea Harvest” all are excerpts from the Achang Opera of Spring Lantern (Chun Deng Xi), which was developed from the music brought in by Han migrants about three hundred years ago. “Spring” is by a solo male voice in one octave; “Spring Ox” by a man within a bigger range; and the tea harvest songs feature a man sometimes singing in a high female range.
There are a couple of passionate “ma lang” songs, sacrificial songs for the deceased in which each phrase begins with the syllables “ma lang,” the meaning of which is no longer known. One is by a solo woman, the other by a women’s chorus. And there are three tracks with excerpts of “Song of Shu Wei,” sung by a man in a powerful falsetto. The disc finishes with three songs of the Woluo Festival, one by a male in natural voice, one in falsetto, and one by a women’s chorus. Here’s what the liner notes say about these songs:
Woluo is thought to be the excited sounds of the Achang ancestors when they were celebrating a successful hunt. The modern Woluo Festival is an occasion for remembering and sacrificing to their ancestors and the two gods in the epic ‘Zhepama and Zhemima’. Woluo music and dance is also performed at various celebrations.
It’s difficult to do justice to such a panoply of diverse music on one disc, even in 36 tracks, and just as difficult in a review. This 19th and penultimate volume of the Folk Music of China series feels like a whirlwind sonic tour of Yunnan province, best experienced with a hot cup of tea, perhaps pu-erh.
(Naxos World, 2021)
Learn more on the Naxos World website.