Shanren Tackle the Qike Hunting Song: Repaying Cultural Debts on Jinuo Mountain Posted on 20 Nov 06:42

The relationship between traditional folk music and modern hybrids like folk-rock and world music is a subtle one. Just a few weeks ago I conducted an interview with Liu Xiaojin 刘晓津 of the Yuansheng Foundation. In the interview Liu made the case that modern hybrids tend to dilute traditional culture, hastening its demise. On the other hand, cultural history is inherently a process of borrowing, adaptation, and evolution. Denying traditional culture the right to adapt and change is like caging a wild animal that ought to roam free. How do we resolve this paradox of saving valuable traditions while also encouraging them to thrive in a connected world?

Jiebulu (L), a recognized bearer of intangible cultural heritage for the Jinuo people, working with members of folk-rock band Shanren to develop new forms of Jinuo music. Members of Shanren, L to R: Sam Debell, Xiaobudian 小不点, and Ala 阿拉.

At Tea Horse, our approach to this paradox is to clarify the relationships between cultural roots and their hybrid manifestations, while respecting and encouraging the artists that work on all points on the spectrum of tradition. Clearly many of the oldest surviving traditions in Yunnan are in danger of disappearing, so the work of groups like Yuansheng is essential if we are to preserve an understanding of where we are coming from. At the same time, highlighting the work of modern adapters of those traditions can vitalize dying traditions and help introduce them to new audiences. The key, as I see it, is laying bare the network of influences that come together in an artist’s work. This enables listeners to dig deeper into the tradition, should they so desire, and gives credit and dignity to the bearers of the source tradition.

One folk-rock group in China that is doing a particularly good job of exposing their own cultural borrowings is Shanren 山人乐队. I mentioned these standard-bearers of Yunnanese folk-rock in a recent blog post covering their success on a reality TV music show. Earlier this year the band invited me on a trip to Jinuo Mountain 基诺山 in southern Yunnan, to accomplish just this sort of exposé of their musical influences. You see, the band has been playing a song that originates from the Jinuo people, but because of some miscommunication, the band had been introducing the song on stage as a folk song of the Achang ethnic group. Once they realized their error, the band decided reparations were in order.

After an initial scouting mission to find suitable teachers of traditional music, the band was returning to Jinuo Mountain to study the music intensively, and write a new composition based on Jinuo sources. The entire process would be documented by a film crew, and then cut into a mini-documentary about the creation of the new song. Hopefully, the film would not only debut a new song for the band, but also clarify the relationship between the band’s song and the source material, drawing attention to the depth of the original Jinuo music. Shanren hoped that this positive coverage of Jinuo culture would compensate the Jinuo people for the band’s earlier misattribution.

The completed mini-documentary on Shanren's expedition to Jinuo Mountain. For viewing inside China, try this link. Read to the end for an explanation of why my scraggly mug is the first shot in the video.

The earlier scouting mission successfully located Jiebulu 杰布鲁, a provincially recognized bearer of intangible cultural heritage, and his teacher, Zi Qie 资切, a master of traditional music who heads a cultural center that plays a major role in transmitting Jinuo culture. The scouting mission also helped focus the band’s interest on a particular Jinuo instrument, the qike – bamboo tubes cut to various lengths that are struck with dowels. Traditionally, a Jinuo hunting party would play the qike and sing on the way back to the village to announce a successful hunt. Different songs were sung depending on the nature of their catch. One of the distinctive characteristics of the music is that each member of the hunting party holds only own or two qike, meaning an individual can only create one or two notes. The result is that melodies have to be created collaboratively by the entire ensemble, much in the manner of hocketing, or in the interlocking melodies of the deconstructed gamelans found in Indonesia.

Jibulu's teacher, Zi Qie, explaining the use of an ingenious Jinuo whistle.

I was excited to join the trip, not only for the chance to learn about Jinuo music, but also to see how the cultural dynamics would play out. As folk-rock celebrities in China, Shanren would undoubtedly be given the royal treatment visiting a small town. But would they get the cooperation they needed to make the project a success? Local government offices will always be involved in any cultural undertaking of this nature in China, and they are often unwilling to take risks that might lead to bad publicity. And what about the Jinuo tradition bearers? Would they have any concerns about how their culture would be represented to the world?

In the first days of the trip, these issues were discussed at length with representatives of the local Intangible Cultural Heritage Office and Zi Qie and Jiebulu, our Jinuo music masters. Consensus was quickly reached. From an artistic point of view, the main concern was that the final product be distinctively Jinuo. Thus, it was agreed that the creation of the song would be a collaborative process between Shanren and the Jinuo musicians, but Zi Qie and Jiebulu had the final say to ensure the song used in the film was an accurate representation of their culture. If the band needed another version of the song that was more suitable for their performances, they could arrange this version at a later time.

Members of Shanren, Xiao Ou 小欧 and Xiaobudian trying out traditional Jinuo attire.

What interested me most about these discussions was the degree of cultural savvy displayed by Zi Qie and Jiebulu. They clearly understood both the necessity for broader recognition of their culture, and also the danger of creating misperceptions. Jiebulu clearly expresses these sentiments in the film, but I will also add that he repeatedly emphasized the need to make Jinuo music more accessible to young people, otherwise the tradition might be lost. He valued the insight provided by Shanren regarding what would be appealing to young music fans, but was cautious about watering down the tradition to the point that it lost its distinctive qualities. Both Jiebulu and Zi Qie felt that the final product should use the intro-body-bridge-climax-outro format of popular music, since without these aural cues, young listeners tend to find traditional music redundant. The lead singer of Shanren, Qu Zihan 瞿子寒 summarizes the outcomes of these discussions quite well in the film, so I won’t belabor the point, except to say I was impressed by the high degree of sensitivity and self-awareness displayed by Zi Qie and Jiebulu with regard to their traditional music.

The real “meat” of the trip was the process of studying and selecting traditional qike songs, and coming up with a suitable arrangement. I thoroughly enjoyed being a witness to this highly creative endeavour, and I have to say the whole thing went fairly smoothly considering how many creative voices were involved. The hitches were primarily logistical. Many of the traditional musicians participating in the project also worked at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Office so they needed time off for rehearsing and recording. While the office was clearly in favor of making the project happen, they still had to justify to their superiors the large investment of time and personnel, and it wasn't always easy to get everyone in the same place at the same time.

Xiao Ou and Ala in rehearsal with Jiebulu.

Our talented camera crew found the location for the final video shoot in a remote village about one hour’s drive up into the jungles. The hope was to shoot in a traditional Jinuo village, but there just aren’t many left, so everyone settled for a village of another ethnic group whose architecture resembles traditional Jinuo architecture. I regret to say I don’t remember the name of the ethnic group. They were an essentially undocumented people whose members occupy only a handful of mountain villages in the area. As surprising as this sounds, it is not uncommon to find “stranded” ethnicities in southern Yunnan who were either too small to be officially recognized as an ethnic group, or were folded into a related ethnic group when government anthropologists were surveying and classifying ethnicities within China in the 50’s and 60’s.

Lead singer of Shanren, Qu Zihan 瞿子寒, goes over the Jinuo language lyrics with Zi Qie just before the shoot.

Shooting the performance of Qike Ami, Shanren's new not-quite-Jinuo song, in front of a traditional not-quite-Jinuo house.


 I’ve already written far too much about an experience that is already well documented in the video above. My only wish is to add some nuance and highlight some themes that repeatedly crop up in the work we are doing at Tea Horse. To wrap up I will just point out that I was simply a guest on this trip, coming along to enjoy the experience and hopefully get a good blog post out of it. At best I hoped some of the footage I took on my new camera would make it into the film (which it did), but I was completely bowled over when I watched the final cut and saw that my face is the first thing to appear on screen! Everyone on the trip did a short interview on camera, and somehow my interview segment was deemed to be a suitable introduction to the project. Truly, it is my honor to speak on behalf this project, both in the film and here in the blog, and help Shanren bring attention to the unique qike music of the Jinuo people. It was an immensely satisfying trip to take part in due to the fun-loving nature of the Shanren crew, and the incredible generosity and patience of our Jinuo hosts. 

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