Various artists’ Folk Music of China, Vol. 20 – Folk Songs of the Hui, Manchu, Xibe, Korean and Gin Peoples

cover art for Folk Music of China, Vol. 20This is the 20th and final album in Naxos World’s sprawling compendium of the folk music of China. In some ways it seems a bit like a grab bag, dealing as it does with five different ethnic groups that live in various different areas of China or in fact scattered throughout the country. Although some of the other albums have included the music of four or five peoples, generally the groups presented were related in some way, either geographically or ethnically. That’s not necessarily the case here; this isn’t a criticism, just a note to present up front.

Perforce then, the music on this 41-song disc is quite varied, and pleasantly so. I was most curious about the music of the two groups at the end of the disc so I started there, with the Korean and Gin peoples.

The Korean songs on this album were performed by people in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, one of the main places where ethnic Koreans live in China; they’re descended from 19 century immigrants from the Korean peninsula, and many of them are Christian. Their folk music includes working songs, lyrical songs, ballads, custom songs and children’s songs, and they tend to favor triple meters, what western music calls 3/4 or 6/8 time. Most of the Korean songs here are lyrical songs, many sung by mixed male and female ensembles. The triple rhythm is very noticeable here because nearly all of the songs include a Korean drum called changgo, a waisted drum with two heads, one of which is struck with a hand and the other with a stick. Many also include end-blown bamboo flutes, which are often paired in duos of one high (danso) and one low (tungso) instrument. There’s one really nice tungso solo piece, accompanied by the changgo, and one lovely Arirang song by a tungso ensemble.

Immediately after the tungso ensemble piece ends, the first of nine selections from the Gin peoples begins with a high thin note from an instrument that sounds like … well, variously an electric guitar, an analog synthesizer, or a theremin! It turns out to be a duxianqin, a single-stringed plucked instrument on which the player controls the pitch by means of a small lever. All of the Gin songs here are accompanied by this instrument, which makes great use of harmonics and quartertones. Combined with the vocal style, which also uses quartertones and, unusually for Chinese music, a type of vibrato, it creates some amazing moments of harmony across all of these songs.

The Gin, also known as Jing, are ethnic Vietnamese, descended from migrants who came to China in the 17th century. (The duxianqin descended from the Vietnamese instrument the đàn bầu.) The Gin people mainly live in Guangxi province, and the songs on this album were recorded on Wanwei Island in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. In addition to a duxianqin solo piece, many of the selections are sea or fishing songs, plus there’s a lovely choral religious festival song called “Lighting Insense for the Buddha,” and a lullaby.

The other three peoples represented by the music on this album are Hui, Manchu and Xibe. The Hui and Manchu are third and fourth largest ethnic groups in China; the Manchu and Xibe live mainly in the North, while the Hui, who are Muslim, are scattered throughout China with about 20 percent in Ningxia Autonomous Region.

The Hui songs here are two types: banquet songs and hua’er, meaning “flowers.” Banquet songs are a genre sung only by the Hui people, while the hua’er is a type of mountain song popular among ethnic groups around the Tao River in Gansu Province. The Hui speak (and sing) Chinese, but these songs have some features that sound distinctly non-Chinese. All are sung by women, either singly or in groups. The track list helpfully tells which are banquet and which hua’er songs.

There’s more variety in the presentation of the Manchu songs, which are sung by solo men, solo women, and mixed ensembles. “You You Che,” a lullaby, sounds like it’s sung by a group of school children. The songs tend to have a classical, refined sound that’s not common in this whole collection of folk song albums. The songs range from drinking songs, to prayers, wedding songs and more. There are three versions of a song titled “Pray for Divinity,” a shamanistic song. The final one is by a mixed ensemble accompanied by drums and bells.

The Xibe songs on this album were performed in Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County, Xinjiang province. The Xibe appear to be related to the Manchus but are a much smaller group, about one-fifth the size of the Manchus.

The Xibe folk songs include secular songs: field songs, ballads, wedding songs, children’s songs and “ditties.” There are also some shamanic songs. Most of the non-shamanic songs here are accompanied by lutes, either the two-string dongbur or a four-string feite kena. One of them, “Xibo Beilun,” is an instrumental dance tune on the feite kena. It’s a very upbeat tune that would fit in the Appalachians – two of the strings carry the tune while the other two produce a percussive chopping tone, all very reminiscent of an Appalachian mandolin style. The sound of the dongbur is closer to a quieter dulcimer.

The shamanic songs include some by a solo male voice in a very expressive manner with lots of growling notes and swooping whoops, and some by mixed groups in a more orderly chanting style.

This 20th volume of the Folk Music of China series is emblematic of the whole: filled with incredible variety in style, substance and performance. It is surprising and gratifying that so many of these highly differentiated regional and ethnic styles of folk song have survived the arrival of radio, television and other electronic media. I don’t know if any of this music is threatened by the rapid modernization and urbanization of China, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. Either way, the documenting of this rich musical heritage is a service to the peoples of China and to all the world’s cultures.

(Naxos World, 2021)

As always, you can learn more about this album on the Naxos World website.

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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