The 2016 Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Festival will be held in Kunming Nov 28 - Dec 2, bringing together over 200 rarely seen traditional performers to celebrate the beauty and diversity of Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures.With the festival nearly upon us, Tea Horse decided to sit down with Yuansheng founder Liu Xiaojin刘晓津 and learn more about the activities of the Yuansheng Foundation, and what to expect from the festival.
Tea Horse: What inspired you to found Yuansheng? When did it get started?
Liu Xiao Jin: The Yuansheng Foudation 源生坊 was formed to continue the work of its predecessor, a rural folk arts school called the Yunnan Ethnic Minority Institute 云南民族文化传习馆, founded by the classical composer Tian Feng 田丰. Even by the late 80’s Tian Feng realized that entire categories of folk music and dance were being lost with the passing of old masters who never had to opportunity to teach their art to younger generations. Thus he founded the Minority lnstitute in 1994, using private funding to provide stipends to teachers and students from the Yi, Hani, Naxi, Tibetan ethnic groups.
I first became involved in the school in 1997 because I was shooting a documentary film about Tian Feng and his work. I documented the progress of the school through 7 years of shooting, eventually releasing the completed film the Chronicle of the Minority Institute 传习馆春秋. Later, the school ran into legal and financial problems and had to shut down in 2000, and Tian Feng died shortly thereafter. At that point, I founded Yuansheng to continue his work, but in a different format. Rather than run a school with a single campus, I used donor funding, initially from the Ford Foundation, to pay traditional master artists to run classes in the villages where they live. Starting with the dozen artists that taught at the Minority Institute, we slowly expanded to our current roster of over 200 artists.
TH: Tell us about your artists support program? What do the artists do in exchange for support?
LXJ: We fund our artists with a stipend so they can run classes in their home villages, often divided by age groups. We work with our artists to develop a curriculum so we can assess student progress, and provide cash rewards to students who succeed in mastering the most critical components of the tradition, whether it be music or dance. Our sponsored artists also participate in performance tours, and in the Yuansheng Festival, which gives them recognition beyond their home villages.
TH: Has the program been effective at preserving traditional arts?
LXJ: All of these elements of the program were developed to address particular problems that were interfering with the successful transmission of these arts. It is not just a matter of supporting artists, they also need respect, and they need to exist within a community that values their art. For example, the artists themselves asked us to find performance opportunities for them outside their communities, which gives them a sense of being respected as artists, and provides a sense of pride in their traditions. The local communities also take pride in their traditional artists when they see how well they are received by the outside world. This in turn attracts more young people to study the tradition and take an interest in their culture. We are pleased that young people have now successfully mastered dozens of traditions that were once in danger of dying out.
TH: What can the audience expect from this year’s Yuansheng Festival in Kunming? How is it different than other ethnic minority performances the audience might have seen?
LXJ: First of all, there is simply no other way to see these diverse traditions in one single place, over the span of a few days. It has taken us over twenty years to develop this roster of artists. They are not performers you would simply run into if you went travelling in Yunnan. Secondly, the Yuansheng Festival represents the most traditional music and dance from the most remote mountain villages. We only support artists who were taught in the traditional manner, and who have not absorbed or introduced modern influences into their work. Audiences should expect music and dance that transports them hundreds of years back in time, if not thousands. They will witness ritual music, love and courting songs, work songs, and community dances that were part of the fabric of ethnic minority societies before the modern era. Thirdly, we require our artists to wear clothing that is true to the roots of their cultures. Many of their costumes are hand-produced heirlooms that you are unlikely to see outside of museums. That alone would be worth the price of admission!
The ethnic song and dance troupes you normally find in China have made alterations to the music, the dance, and the costumes, all in hopes of attracting contemporary audiences. Often they have commercialized traditional culture in a way that destroys the inherent beauty of these traditions. We prefer to let the distinctive beauty of traditional culture speak for itself. It is a quiet beauty, but it is there, if people are willing to listen.
TH: With your focus on the most unadulterated traditional arts, how do you feel about evolution, artistic innovation, and absorption of outside influences within these traditions?
LXJ: This is what we fear the most. There is already so much of this happening, so we choose to stand on the other side of things, and fight for the preservation of the most traditional art forms. As long as artists are clear about their influences, it shouldn’t be a problem if they borrow from or adapt ancient artistic traditions, but that is not what generally happens. Instead many things are presented as traditional when in fact they are not. This leads to the dilution and eventual destruction of humanity's artistic heritage. At Yuansheng we try to counter this trend by identifying and supporting artist and tradition bearers who have minimal influence from modern cultural forms.
Tickets for the 2016 Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Festival can be purchased through the Kunming Theater ticket office: 0871-63169950
A full English schedule of events will be available soon on the Tea Horse Blog. For a Chinese schedule of events, and future updates, please subscribe to the Yuansheng Weixin account: 云南源生坊民族文化发展中心
Please enjoy the pictures below (courtesy of Yuansheng Foundation) from the 2015 Yuansheng Festival for a taste of what this unique event brings to Kunming:
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Lately there’s been a lot of doom and gloom in coverage of the Chinese underground music scene. Read this LA Times piece and you’d be justified to think the Beijing punks are on the verge of getting packed off to re-education through labor camps. Others are skeptical of the political-crackdown hype. Blogger, venue owner, and musical impresario Badr Benjelloun instead characterizes Beijing's malaise as an overdue hangover after a binge of easy money, easy gigs, and relatively cheap rents. Ask about China’s other major cities and the answers vary from mildly optimistic to downright grim. It is not uncommon to hear insiders complain it’s harder to organize festivals, harder to bring in international acts, and harder to run venues.
However, one bright spot can be found in the surprisingly well-received appearances by underground bands on reality TV shows like The Voice of China (中国好声音), Sing My Song (中国好歌曲), and The Star of China (中国之星).
Sing My Song in particular has been a boon for underground folk-rock. Hanggai (航盖) and Shanren (山人乐队) won two of the show’s three seasons, representing the folk traditions of Inner Mongolia and Yunnan Province. Other underground folk artists, like Moxi Zishi (莫西子诗) and Xi Ban (戏班), have received significant boosts in popularity when mainstream artists covered their compositions on these shows.
Why folk rock bands with strong ethnic minority roots seem to dominate Sing My Song remains an open question. It could be that producers and/or judges are eager to score political points for promoting bands that are distinctively Chinese. Alternatively, the format of the show, which showcases original music, might inherently favor acts with traditional roots, because rock, rap, and pop music are still considered Western derivatives, and thus less original.
Hanggai have been a significant force on the international world music circuit for years, but their Mongolian inflected rock had a tough time catching on with mainstream audiences at home. Winning the second season of Sing My Song in 2014 changed all of that. Here they are performing their self-titled song in the first round of competition.
In the first round of the 2016 season, Shanren played a relatively unadorned version of 30 Years 三十年, a composition that now stands as a modern Yunnan folk classic. For the 48-hour songwriting challenge in the final round, they created Up and Down the Mountain 上山下, which was performed with the assistance of a celebrity guest, distorted guitar riffs courtesy of the house band, and generous amounts of hair spray.
By the time of the songwriting challenge, the bands have already been brought into the stable of one of the judges. Members of Shanren told me that there was a lot of back and forth between the band and their mentor. Diehard fans will notice that part of their self-titled rock epic “Shanren” gets recycled as a bridge, an addition made at their mentor's suggestion. Overall the band felt that their creative freedom was respected to a surprising degree given this is a CCTV show.
Haggai and Shanren have undoubtedly gained a lot of momentum since their big wins on Sing My Song, but you don’t have to win the crown in order to win legions of new fans, as Moxi Zishi demonstrated on the first season of Sing My Song in 2014. An underground singer/songwriter from the Yi ethnic group, Moxi already understood the power of television because a cover of his Yi-language song Fear Not 不要怕／阿姐撸 propeled pop singer Jike Junyi (seen performing with Shanren above) to the top of the heap in the first season of The Voice of China in 2012. When Moxi personally appeared as a competitor in the 2014 season of Sing My Song, his hopelessly romantic If I Must Die, Let It Be In Your Hands 要死就一定死在你手里 won the hearts of just about every woman in China, if not those of the judges. This enviable feat garnered him a career as a pop songwriter and singer of saccharin duets, but the folk underground has been far more interested in the meanderings of his improvisational folk-jazz outfit, the Moxi Zishi Band. The large and eclectic band was recently trimmed down to 5 members, and the sound was tightened up, yielding an alt-rock act that appears ready to take stadiums across China by storm. For now, since we’re focusing on the roots music of China’s ethnic minorities, let’s enjoy Moxi at his folky best singing Fear Not. While this song is arguably becoming a pop standard in China, the Yi-language lyrics and Moxi’s distinctive vocal inflections reveal its traditional roots.
Another underground band that was covered on a mainstream singing show was Xi Ban (戏班). While not a folk band per se, this experimental percussion ensemble borrows elements from traditional Chinese opera and narrative folk songs. The vast range and inherent strangeness of their repertoire made it all the more unlikely that would ever receive mainstream attention, until up-and-coming pop singer Tan Weiwei (谭维维) covered them on the 2016 season of Star of China (中国之星). In the video below we see that the judges and audience once again seem to respond to music that harkens back to Chinese roots.
So far Xi Ban has yet to enjoy the surge of interest enjoyed by the other artists above. This may be because they had a less of a fan base to begin with, or it might be that merely having a song covered doesn't bring any lasting momentum. Or perhaps it is their mercurial nature. The band have veered between genres as diverse as experimental dub, traditional folk and jazz-funk, while continuously reshuffling personnel. Fans have every right to wonder exactly which Xi Ban they should be supporting.
While underground bands are always sceptical of working with mainstream media, it is clear that Sing My Song presents a unique opportunity for Chinese acts with traditional roots. Underground folk-rock artists now routinely debate the merits of appearing on the show. Are they selling out? Is it a valid option for increased exposure? How long can the party last? At a time when most of the Chinese underground is complaining about dismal prospects, the folk-rock contingent seem to have discovered Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket, with all of the mystery, fortune, and temptation that entails.
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The Tea Horse dream is about bringing together all the things I love in one place: traditional world music, hand-crafted textiles, the preservation of traditional and local culture in rural China, socially responsible and sustainable business practices, and off-the-beaten path travel.