Mongolian Bluegrass Mashup! Posted on 4 Jan 16:15

A few months back I blogged about Andy Eversole and Ben Singer coming to China for their wonderful Banjo Earth project.

I've finally posted all the video I took while they were recording the bluegrass classic Reuben's Train in the newly restored old house at Tea Horse headquarters. Turns out those 100-year old houses have good acoustics! The guest musician for the session was Gawa, who hails from Inner Mongolia (a province of China, not the country Mongolia). He brought his horse-head fiddle, and his incredible voice, to make contributions the Banjo Earth: China recordings.

Here we have Gawa demonstrating the horse-head fiddle:

Gawa's throat singing, or khoomei, was a highlight of the session. In this video Ben Singer is taking levels as Gawa demonstrates his throat singing skills:

Next, Andy began teaching the tune to Gawa:

It wasn't long before Gawa got the hang of it and started improvising some nice horse-head fiddle passages:

I hope that after watching these videos you are as excited about the Banjo Earth project as I am. It was a joy to host these guys while they were in Dali, and have a chance to introduce talented musicians like Gawa to an audience outside of China. You can pre-order the Banjo Earth: China album and documentary at the Banjo Earth website.

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The Minimalist Folk Music of Huan Qing Posted on 3 Dec 05:03

Living in Dali is rewarding not only for the rich textile traditions that can be accessed here. As a musician, I also appreciate the unique musical culture that has taken root in the area. This includes traditional music, passed down within the local Bai and Han ethnic groups, as well as innovative folk and world music from recent émigrés who have been drawn here by the beautiful environs, affordable living, and slow pace of life. It is safe to say that outside of Beijing, Dali houses China’s greatest concentration of musicians working in the areas of experimental/underground folk, world music, electro-acoustic, and improvised folk.

With the goal of making this blog a resource for people trying to understand China’s folk and world music scene, I will begin introducing and profiling influential musicians, with a focus on those based in the Dali region. Today’s post is about Huan Qing 欢庆, an experimental world music composer and performer who finds inspiration in little-known instruments, and obscure ethnographic recordings. The ease with which Huan Qing exploits the unique sonic characteristics of obscure folk instruments, and absorbs the structural elements of disparate musical traditions in his compositions is reminiscent of German composer Stephan Micus. Like Micus, Huan Qing has dedicated an impressive amount of time and energy to the study of traditional world music, particularly the music of the ethnic groups of Southwest China. Huan Qing’s compositions that have a decidedly minimalist and experimental bent, but retain strong connections to surviving folk traditions.

Huan Qing hails from Chengdu, Sichuan Province, but has been based in Dali for a number of years. Beginning in 2000, Huan Qing embarked on 8 years of ethnographic recording work in Southwest China, producing nearly a dozen albums worth of material documenting the music of the Yi, Bai, Tibetan, Han, Naxi, Nu, Lisu, and Wa ethnic groups. For many years, you could purchase all of these recordings packed on a single USB thumb drive out of Huan Qing’s music shop in Dali. In a recent conversation, Huan Qing told me he has since sold the copyrights to most of his early ethnographic recordings to a record label which will now distribute them as individual albums.

The influence of Huan Qing’s ethno-musicological fieldwork is evident on his self-produced 2002 album A Piece of Brass 《一块儿铜皮》 (link in Chinese, listen by pressing on the third play button from the top of the page). At this stage in his musical development, there is a clear interest in creating sound collages by layering repetitive figures on ethnic instrumentation, field recordings of urban soundscapes, and abstract vocalizations. By the time of his 2008 album Water, Fire, Sound 《水 火 声》(second play button from the top), Huan Qing’s ambient soundscapes depended more heavily on synthesizers, and were more cohesive and immersive, lacking the contrasting elements of his earlier sound collages. Ethic instrumentation still plays a role in his music at this time, particularly the mouth harp, but the instruments blend seamlessly into the sonic landscape, blurring the line between acoustic and electronic sound production.

2010’s My Lyre Songs 《我的琴歌》 (first play button from the top) brings Huan Qing into his current incarnation as minimalist folk bard. He has developed his singing as a melodic vehicle that emphasizes the lyrics of his songs, rather than weaving his voice into an ambient sonic tapestry. Accompaniment is typically on lyres or thumb pianos which he produces by hand. I recently caught Huan Qing performing at Jielu, a Dali venue which Huan Qing co-manages with two other prominent musicians, Zhou Yunpeng and Yang Yi. I recorded the following video of his performance of “Night Rain on Mount Ba," one of Huan Qing’s signature pieces adapted from a late-Tang dynasty poem by Li Shangyin.

Huan Qing is also known for his collaborations with Chinese-American experimental musician Li Daiguo, another Dali resident. Their work together is modernist in style, and incorporates poly-rhythms and improvisation, with Li Daiguo playing both cello and pipa.

Before beginning to manage Jielu, Huan Qing had a small music store out of which he sold his ethnographic recordings, hand-made instruments, and the CDs of other Chinese folk, world, and folk-rock musicians. You can see a gallery of Huan Qing’s hand-made instruments here.

Tea Horse Trading Co. will soon be selling recordings of the mouth harp music of the Yi ethnic group produced by Huan Qing. You can hear a sample on our product page.


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Adventures in Sourcing, Part 2 Posted on 6 Oct 02:34

In the first installment of this series I wrote about the challenges of discovering exactly where a traditional textile is made. In this post, I will present a case study of the sourcing process drawn from my experiences seeking out the embroidery for our Emerald guitar strap. This is going to ramble a bit, as the sourcing process in this case took a lot of detective work, and many dead ends were encountered along the way. However, if you are willing to follow me down these twists and turns, you’ll get a taste of what an adventure sourcing can be.

When I first fell in love with the embroidery used in our Emerald strap, I had no idea it was produced in Northern Vietnam by the Black Hmong people. Having seen them in the markets in Dali, in SW China, I had assumed they were most likely from China, possibly produced in Guizhou Province, home to a dizzying diversity of embroidery. I was told by traders in Dali that they were variously used to decorate the sleeves or collars of jackets, or as belts, and it was now more common to see them sewn onto hats to sell to tourists. While opinions varied, the Wenshan region of southern Yunnan Province was frequently mentioned in addition to the more common suggestion that the pieces were from Guizhou Province.

Panels of Black Hmong embroidery made into shoulder pads for our Emerald series of guitar straps.

After returning to Beijing with a dozen or so samples I began to have prototypes guitar straps made, and continued to research their origins. There was some risk involved in starting prototyping before I really understood much about this textile. I am committed to using living textile traditions, so that I can support local craftspeople, however, the consensus view of the traders I had talked to was that samples I had bought were no longer being produced. Later consultations with an embroidery expert in Beijing led to the same tentative conclusion: the pieces I had gathered were judged to be between 30 and 40 years old. In other words, based on these opinions, it seemed likely I was dealing with a dead tradition.

Nonetheless, I decided to base my first line of guitar straps on this design, because I had doubts about the opinions I had heard so far. First of all, some of the pieces were in fantastic condition, and I had trouble believing they had survived for 30 or more years in the damp climate of Guizhou province. The embroidery expert I spoke with specialized in the textile arts of NW China, which is bone dry and thus relatively more suited for preserving textiles, so I suspected she might not be able to accurate judge the age of textiles from the southwest. In any case, I was absolutely in love with the design, and felt it would really attract attention to my business if it was part of my first line of products. If it turned out I was wrong, well, I could just make a limited run using the pieces I already had as a way to get my business off the ground, and then keep searching for other living traditions to serve as the basis for future designs.

I received the next clue regarding the origins of these textiles while visiting my sister in Shanghai. She is an entrepreneur, seamstress, weaver, knitter and collector of traditional textiles. I was consulting with her on aspects of strap construction and running an online business (please visit her site Infinite Twist for hand-spun and hand-dyed yarn, and creative kits for knitting projects). She saw the embroidery I was using and immediately pulled a similar piece out of her collection which she had bought in Northern Vietnam. Interesting... the Wenshan region of Yunnan bordered on Northern Vietnam. Could it be that the people who did this style of embroidery straddled the border of China and Vietnam? Or were the pieces strictly from one side of the border, but had been traded across to the other side? Given that I had seen numerous examples of this style in Dali, some 400 km north of Vietnam, I felt it was more likely they would be found in China, with some pieces making their way south to Vietnam, rather than the other way around. This assumption proved to be wrong, and it led me to make some poor decisions about where to look for these textiles, as you shall soon see!

When I finally moved to Yunnan a few months later, the first thing I did was plan a research trip to Wenshan County. From there I could step across the border into Vietnam, which was necessary because the current entry on my China visa was about expire. While in Vietnam it wouldn’t hurt to take a look around and see what I could find.

Views from the bus, Kunming to the Vietnam border.

From Kunming, the capitol of Yunnan Province, I took a bus to Hekou, a town on the border with Vietnam, not quite in Wenshan County, but a convenient crossing point to take care of my visa run. It was a spectacular ride, the latter portion of which followed the Hong He, or Red River. While gazing out over the lush river valley I couldn’t help but think of the American folk song, “The Red River Valley” which I had sung so many times at concerts I in China. The Chinese are quite familiar with the song, and it is always a favorite. Is this because China has its own Red River Valley (and a beautiful one at that)? Months later I heard members of the influential Chinese folk-rock group Wild Children sing a Chinese version of the song at a bar in Dali. I wondered if they the ones who had popularized it? This is a mystery that can be explored in later blog posts, but for now, take a moment to enjoy this clip from their concert.

Godfathers of the Chinese folk-rock scene doing their rendition of Red River Valley.

Now, back to the sourcing adventure... I had very little to go on in my search. The Lonely Planet mentions Dulong, a bustling market town in Wenshan county where a variety of ethnic minorities traded goods. That seemed like a good place to start. I was also eager to visit county-level museums which often display local handicrafts. The county seat, Wenshan City, and the county’s second largest city, Maguan seemed like good places to look for those. But first, the border crossing...

I was able to get across the border late in the afternoon on the day I arrived in Hekou. I had already acquired a Vietnam visa at the Vietnamese embassy in Beijing, which is required for overland crossings (if you arrive by air, Americans can apply for a visa upon arrival). Stepping out of the customs office on the Vietnamese side I was suddenly struck by how unprepared I was for this part of my adventure. My fluency in Mandarin and nearly a decade of living in China had lulled me into believing that travel in Asia is a snap, even when off-the-beaten path. But of course that sense of security was entirely tied to the fact that I had mostly been rambling around in China. Within China’s borders I could easily sniff out a scam, and build trust and rapport with locals, smoothing the way on even the rockiest roads in the most backwater towns. Suddenly my Chinese was near useless, and I was swarmed with touts offering rides to and accommodation in Sapa, the nearest pit-stop on the Vietnam leg of the banana-pancake trail. My head spun as my familiar moorings detached, and I was revolted by the thought of how dependent I would be as a traveler in a completely unfamiliar land. Sure, Sapa was known for ethnic handicrafts, but it was also squarely on the backpacker map, and might turn out to be far too commercialized. Without the my language skills I would lose my primary tool for navigating past the tourist traps and finding the remnants of the original culture.

In contrast, back in China I had a few leads. They were tenuous, but at least they were something, and I was still operating under the assumption that the textiles I was seeking were more likely to be found on the Chinese side of the border. I told myself that if I hurried back across the border before it closed for the day I could wake up tomorrow in Hekou and begin my research bright and early, and with the benefit of my language skills and being away from the tourist hustle and bustle. And who knew? There might be more exciting textiles waiting to be discovered on the Chinese side, and more conveniently located. If my search turned up nothing, I could plan another trip to explore Vietnam, and take the time to make adequate preparations.

In other words, I chickened out. It seems strange to admit it, because I should be over those insecurities by now, after all the solo travelling I’ve done. But after years spent exclusively China, things had gotten easier, and without knowing it, I had lost some of my courage. This was an important and difficult lesson for me. It wasn’t but a few days later that I learned the textiles I was researching were indeed produced in Vietnam, outside of Sapa, not 40 km from where I stood that day as I lost my nerve and decided to hightail it back across the border!

And while my explorations in Wenshan proved to be enjoyable, I learned another hard lesson when I found that all along I had been one Google keyword away from discovering the source of my textiles. Had I only been a little more persistent in my internet research, I might have discovered that my textiles came from the Black Hmong people without ever leaving my home! I’ll explain how this all happened in the next blog post in this series, Adventures in Sourcing, Part 3. I promise I’ll also post photos of the gorgeous landscapes of Wenshan, and photos of some beautiful textiles from a museum in Maguan.


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The Mind-Boggling Diversity of Textiles in SW China Posted on 17 Sep 02:39

I can't make any more promises about upcoming straps because I've already promised too much. Once I finish production on the straps for the Yi and Bai ethnic groups, I will consider working with a few of these beauties from various regions in Guizhou Province. Until then, enjoy the sheer beauty of these hand embroidered textiles which I spied at the street side stalls in Dali.

This last piece, which combines some incredibly fine cross-stitch (十字绣 shizixiu) with bold geometric appliqué ended up in my personal collection. Couldn't resist!


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Adventures in Sourcing, Part 1 Posted on 7 Aug 00:00

The Importance of Sourcing

One of the big challenges for a handicrafts start-up is sourcing materials. You can find some wonderful textiles in the markets of backpacker towns here in Yunnan Province, but a few textile fragments are hardly enough to build full product line. You’ll need to have a consistent supply if you are going to build a sustainable business from up-cycled products. Furthermore, you’ll want to buy your source textiles at below tourist market rates. For these reasons you’ll want to know the exact source of the textiles you are interested in.

A textile market in Dali, Yunnan Province.

Sourcing can also be a key issue in whether a business contributes to the erosion of traditional arts and culture, or their survival. Purchasing directly from the craftspeople who are still practicing their traditional arts can give them a sustainable livelihood. Purchasing from traders and shops you may inadvertently be buying imitations, lower quality pieces, or pieces made specifically for the tourist trade. More of your money goes to middlemen, and less to the craftspeople you actually want to support. All of these erode the incentives for craftspeople to preserve their traditional arts.

Accurate sourcing will also help you answer a very important question: Is anyone still producing the style of textile you are interested in? The markets and shops in Dali are loaded with heirloom textiles that are no longer being produced. While heirloom textiles can make wonderful collectors’ pieces, you will face serious shortages if you base an up-cycled product line around one of these. At some point the existing supply will be depleted and you will have to discontinue your line. Also, there is something I find distasteful about depleting the supply of heirloom pieces to manufacture a product. Best to let families pass them down generation to generation, or leave them to serious collectors and museums who will preserve and document them.

The Challenge

As important as it is to accurately source a textile, it is not necessarily easy to do. By the time a piece of embroidery reaches a shop here in Dali it may have passed through the hands of multiple traders, erasing all knowledge of its origins. Ask questions in the shops and markets, and you’ll get a thousand different answers. Even asking experts at museums and academic institutions often yields educated guesses rather than definite answers.

This is likely due to the fact of the sheer diversity of textiles found in SW China. Even within one ethnic group there is a vast range of styles. Take the embroidery of the Miao people as an example (known as Hmong outside of China) . Below you can see three different styles of Miao embroidery, all from Guizhou Province, but produced in regions roughly 60 miles apart.


Just a small sampling of the incredible diversity of Miao/Hmong embroidery available in Guizhou Province.

Things are further complicated by the veritable babel of languages spoken here in Yunnan Province. The Bai people of Dali have some trouble understanding the speech of the Bai people of Jianchuan, a mere 75 miles away, and these are large towns connected by modern highways. In the mountains, unintelligibility can be just a few villages away, all the more so if they are villages belonging to two distinct ethnic groups. My knowledge of Mandarin, the lingua franca of the urban areas of China, serves to communicate only the most basic information in the mountain villages of ethnic minorities.

Because sourcing can be such an adventure, we have decided to share some of our experiences in this series of blog posts. Our sourcing attempts have all entailed a bit of wandering and bumbling, and the intervention of serendipity is usually required before we succeed. Stay tuned for the follow up posts on sourcing the tie-dye textiles of the Bai people, and the embroidery of the Black Hmong people of Northern Vietnam.

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Ritual Chants of the Bai People Posted on 2 Aug 20:33

By relocating to Shangyincun (上银村), a village about 7 kilometers outside of the ancient city of Dali, I’ve brought myself into closer contact with the minority groups in China that produce some of the spectacular textiles I’ll be making my straps from. Specifically, the Dali region is dominated by the Bai ethnic group, who are masters of traditional tie-dye techniques. In a later blog post I’ll take you inside a tie-dye workshop working to preserve the most traditional dyeing techniques.

For now, however, I’d like to show you another aspect of Bai culture: their ritual music. The Bai have a unique form of local religion called Benzhujiao (本主教) which centers around praying to local gods, or benzhu, who are for the most part unique to each village. The video below shows the ritual chanting in the benzhu temple in my village. The women are most likely part of the Lotus Pond Society, an all female religious group that organizes the rituals for important festival days. The full chant is included for the sake of completeness, but you’ll get the basic idea if you only watch a minute or two.


It is commonly acknowledged that religious boundaries are quite fuzzy in China, and the chanting and rituals seen in the video shows influence from Buddhist ritual. Notice how the women ring a bell and bow at when certain points in the chant? This is done at the names of certain bodhisattvas, a common practice in Buddhist chanting. Notice also that the women are striking miniature versions of the wooden fish drum used to keep time in Buddhist chanting. The final connection is that this Benzhu temple is located directly adjacent to a much larger Buddhist temple in a more traditional Chinese style. From all of this it is clear that while Benzhujiao is a unique feature of Bai religious culture, it has adopted features of more mainstream Chinese Buddhism.

The approach to the Benzhu shrine where the women are chanting.

The adjacent Buddhist temple.

The women were very welcoming and offered me cups of sweet tea with puffed rice floating on top. Cups of the same tea were placed on the altar as offerings. They weren’t at all shy about being filmed, and seemed to quite enjoy seeing the playback after I had finished.

Fancy some rice crispies in your tea?

This was filmed on May 1st, which is in the lead up to one of the biggest festivals of the year, the Third Month Fair (third month of the lunar calendar). The fair itself takes place in Dali, 7 km away, and is marked by a huge trading market, horse races and other contests, and a massive influx of tourists. Fortunately, our little village stayed calm and peaceful throughout.

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The Tea Horse Story Posted on 27 Jul 21:41

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.