Interview with Sam Debell, Percussionist for Shanren (Part 1) Posted on 8 Dec 03:28

Tea Horse recently sat down with Sam Debell, percussionist for ethnic folk-rock outfit Shanren 山人乐队, to talk about the politics of performing ethnic music in China and abroad, the band winning reality television show Zhongguo Hao Gequ 中国好歌曲, and the evolution of the Yunnan music scene. You can see footage of Shanren’s performance on the TV show in an earlier Tea Horse blog post. We've also blogged about Shanren's musical expedition to Jinuo Mountain.

Tea Horse: Most people know you as the British guy in Shanren, an ethnically Yunnanese band. But sometimes you appear with the band and sometimes you don't. So what’s your exact role in the band?

Sam Debell: The first time I played with Shanren was in 2002. I was playing in loads of bands in Kunming at that time. So I've always had a relationship with them where I can go do my own thing.

TH: Was that a rule that you set from the beginning or did everybody just understand?

SD: Everyone kind of understood. My role has evolved so I am a non-essential member, and they can gig without me. I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where me not being able to make it to the gig means that they can't play. There's always a rumor going around that "they've fired you for being white," but that's just not true. The band always wants me there, but there is an authenticity issue with the kind of music we play. That normally applies for overseas. Organizers don't want me to appear. They intentionally take photos of the band with me outside the frame.

TH: That's got to feel good.

SD: I've seen the other side of that for ages in China. In China, the organizers say, "Oh we want a white guy!" But actually it's exactly the same in the West. It's still image based. There's the narrative of Shanren being these Chinese guys playing their traditional music, and sometimes the narrative would be thrown off by having me on stage.

TH: Was it your choice not to appear on Zhongguo Hao Gequ, or the producer's choice?

SD: The producer wanted me to be there. I had an excuse because I had to go back to England for Christmas and that's when they filmed the first episode. Once I'd missed the first episode they couldn’t add me in afterwards. I didn’t want it to become about the laowai (foreigner) wearing Yi ethnic clothing playing a melody on a leaf (An ordinary leaf is a common instrument in traditional Yunnanese music. A note is produced by blowing across the edge of the leaf, making it vibrate – Tea Horse). It would immediately take the attention away from the music itself and put it onto this thing the Chinese love so much, namely “foreigners accepting Chinese culture.” You see all these CCTV programs like that (CCTV is the Chinese state broadcasting network. –TH) So this one was kind of a self-censor.

TH: You mentioned that this happens a lot overseas. Was this the first time it happened in China?

SD: Yeah, I'd say so... If it were an article in a magazine where you could explain the situation clearly, it would be different. But with TV you don't have that luxury.

TH: Lately we’ve seen a string of bands with strong ethnic roots doing well on these singing shows. What’s going on?

SD: It's hard to say what CCTV’s policies are. Shanren were quite clear that it was – to their surprise – a pretty open competition. Most of the time [the show has] already decided who wins according to their policy of what kind of music they like. But Zhongguo Hao Gequ wasn't like that, and they’ve had two winners that are in the ethnic rock category (Hanggai 航盖 (Mongolian), and Shanren (Yunnanese)). It seems to me that a band exhibiting Chinese characteristics is more likely to be successful than a band that's imitating Western music. There is this need to feel that China is producing original music.

TH: I think it’s a good thing. Usually in China you see traditional music presented in a very scrubbed-clean way, and dumbed down to be modern entertainment. This is one of the first times I’ve seen a music group with ethnic roots present their music in their own way. No one is telling them, “Chinese culture should look like this.”

SD: I think it's just because of the nature of that TV show that allows the ethnic music to be expressed in a way that can be received successfully. Whereas normally, like you said, it's all song and dance troupes presenting generic ethnic culture, but there is no real original thought behind it. The band has been on a lot of TV shows and they thought Zhongguo Hao Gequ was the best one in terms of tastefully dealing with music – not trying to make monkeys out of the performers – kind of respecting the fact that they are doing their own thing.

J: That's great.

S: Yea. [Shanren were] pretty positive about the show in general. Although they said it was hard work.

TH: It looks intense.

SD: Qu Zihan 瞿子寒, the lead singer, was always saying: "If we lose, whatever." But I knew that he was getting stressed. The main problem was they had to live in the studio for 3-4 weeks, constantly coming up with new music, and all of the back and forth with the producers. "Oh, we want you to play this song." "Oh, no we don't. The lyrics aren't straight-forward." "Oh yes we do, we want you to do it, but we want you to mix it with this song, and we want you to cut it from 7 minutes to 3 minutes." Things like that. At one point the band were like: "We just want to quit." But they managed to get over it and win.

TH: How did the band select their material for the show?

SD: It was a tough question. Do you play your best song first, or do you save it for later? Because you might get voted out without having the chance to play it through. There was a dialogue with the TV people about all of this, and about how the band should present themselves and what their narrative is. This helped reinforce the narrative of them being these Chinese guys that are doing their traditional music and persisting through the years. And it's good for them to have that experience because I've been going on about them needing to promote themselves like that for a long time. And they're like "yea whatever, let's just go and play."

TH: I think this also shows us that Chinese media is really getting a bit more sophisticated, too.

SD: Yea. We haven't really heard about that happening before. It definitely hasn't happened before on other TV shows that we've been on. Normally they just want you to sing to a backing track, and they think it is a huge hassle when you insist on playing live. Now they're realizing that they have to actually let the band play live and do good sound. And audiences want to see that. So that's a good thing. It's pretty positive.

TH: I want to get back to your story. You said you were playing in Kunming in 2002. When did you come to China?

SD: I came to China in '96, and stayed for a year. During that time I traveled to Yunnan and I really liked it, so a year later I relocated here. And that's when I got into the underground rock scene in Yunnan. There were only 7 or 8 bands. It was a real underground, a sort of golden age for underground rock music. No one had a concept of “making it.” Rock music was banned from all mainstream media back then so it was very pure. Everyone just played music because they liked it. And this whole Yunnan musical identity, a lot of it came out of that period. It was rock bands with rock instruments playing Yunnan melodies.

TH: People talk about the fact that Beijing had this punk scene back then, but we don’t often hear about what was going on in Kunming.

SD: The Beijing punk scene got the media attention because it was so flamboyant and colorful and totally went against people’s image of what China was. There was a media agenda, whereas I just thought the music [in Kunming] was cool. We were exposed to the Beijing scene by then. They actually came to Yunnan and kind of crushed the local scene.

TH: The Beijing punks?

SD: Yea. They had a big tour here, and a lot of the [Kunming] rock bands started playing punk music after that. Before that a lot of the bands were doing their own thing in a local Yunnan style – their own weird ethnic rock music. But that got steamrolled by the punk stuff, and that’s persisted to today.

TH: But there was a lot more to the Beijing scene than that. I’m thinking of bands like Wild Children 野孩子 and guys like Song Yuzhe 宋雨哲.

S: The River Bar scene… that was a pretty cool era, and also quite influential for us. We were all fans of Wild Children. Before I was playing with Shanren I played with a band called The People's Rhythm. We also had the concept of taking Yunnan music and putting it with a slightly different rhythm section, and some world music influences. It was a learning period. And actually Qu Zihan was our guitar player. I remember practicing with them and we were listening to Wild Children. That was probably like 2002. We had no idea Zhang Quan 张佺 (singer/instrumentalist with Wild Children – TH) lived in the housing complex opposite us in Kunming. We met him on the street, and we were like "what?!" So we started hanging out with Zhang Quan. He was in Kunming for that period.

TH: I didn't realize he had come down quite that early.

S: Yeah, he’d moved to Yunnan already at that point. And then Xiao Peng 陈志鹏, the drummer, also came down. That was the beginning of this trend of musicians "retiring to Yunnan." We had the Yunnan Mountain Festival in 2002 in Lijiang. That was the first real festival in China. I don't care what people say about MIDI. MIDI was like a little school event. This was like a massive outdoor rock festival. A lot of people came down for that, and they had the Dali/Lijiang experience. A lot of people stayed and didn't go back.

TH: Who were the headliners for that?

SD: Cui Jian 崔健, obviously. Second-hand Rose 二手玫瑰 played, and a lot of bands that are still around today. Shanren played, Wild Children played, Ruins 废墟, Miserable Faith 痛仰, and Brain Failure 脑浊.

TH: Where were you coming from musically when you landed in Yunnan? Did you have a strong interest in ethno-musicology or non-western music at that point?

SD: Yeah. I think basically with percussion you have to. When I first started playing percussion, it was all about making up my own stuff. But after doing that for a while I realized that you have to limit yourself to be able to express yourself more. It's a complex idea, but if you're just making stuff up, if you actually listen to what you've done, you end up playing the same thing all the time. It's like drum circles as opposed to real percussion crews. Drum circles are a cool thing to do but it always ends up more or less the same. Whereas once you've had to really focus and learn Cuban music for example... I went to Cuba in 2000 and stayed there for about 4 months. Cubans are very precise about the way that you have to play. "No you're doing it wrong!" they'll tell you, repeatedly! Coming through that experience gave me a respect for doing traditional music as close as you can to how it should be. And I suppose I came to Yunnan and encountered ethnic music a bit and I had this interest in learning but I never really saw enough of it. It's kind of funny because I was interested in it but I never really found the right stuff. It just goes to show how deeply buried it is if you don't know what you're looking for. You can't just turn up in a village and expect to find stuff. You need to be introduced. So I was travelling around not knowing really where to start. In the cities you can't see it. It was really only really years later that I started to appreciate the depth of it while traveling with Shanren, with the right introductions in the places we wanted to go to. But going back to your original question: I did have the interest back then. I just didn't have the means to find what I was looking for.

Stay tuned for the second installment of this interview, where we will be talking about Sam’s experiences with field recording, Shanren’s musical evolution, and what makes Yunnan so musically interesting.

Shout out to Dylan Cairns for transcribing this interview.

Sign up for the Tea Horse Newsletter at the bottom of the page to receive product updates and the "Best of the Blog" in your inbox.  

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. 

Sign up for the Tea Horse Newsletter at the bottom of the page to receive product updates and the "Best of the Blog" in your inbox. 

An Interview with Liu Xiaojin, Founder of the Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Festival Posted on 12 Nov 20:59

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:

Sign up for the Tea Horse Newsletter at the bottom of the page to receive product updates and the "Best of the Blog" in your inbox.  

Left Foot Dance of the Yi Posted on 22 Oct 04:01

The Yi people are one of the most diverse ethnic groups within China, spread out over three provinces and encompassing at least six mutually unintelligible language groups. The musical practices of the various Yi groups are equally diverse. If you follow the Tea Horse Youtube channel, you’ve already heard the music of the Sani people, a relatively small and isolated Yi sub-group from the Stone Forest region of Yunnan.

 Today we will shift focus to the Yi people of Chuxiong Prefecture. With a total Yi population of over one million, Chuxiong is the one of the largest concentrations of Yi, second only to the Liangshan region of southern Sichuan. As such, the Yi traditions of Chuxiong can be said to be somewhat more representative of the core Yi culture, even though the prefecture still encompasses a wide variety of local traditions.

 One of the best-known musical styles within Chuxiong is the Left Foot Dance of Mouding County. Its lively melodies and relatively easy to learn dance steps have helped to popularize it, particularly in the larger cities of Yunnan Province where it is not uncommon to see people of all ethnicities dancing in public squares to prerecorded versions of these traditional melodies. In Yunnan’s capital of Kunming there are enough transplants from Mouding County to support traditional public dances with live musical accompaniment. You can see one such musical gathering in the video below, taken at Green Lake Park in Kunming.



 In addition to the erhu 二胡 and jinghu 京胡, bowed instruments found throughout China, the Left Foot Dance makes use of one of the most characteristic Yi instruments: the xianzi 弦子 (if you don’t know how to pronounce Mandarin, try saying “shyen-zuh,” stress on the first syllable).

The Mouding xianzi is a short-necked octagonal lute strung with two double courses of nylon strings, tuned in 4ths or 5ths, colorfully decorated, with a dragon’s head adorning the headstock. The xianzi bears obvious resemblance to other Chinese instruments, most notably the yueqin. In fact, in Sichuan Province the yueqin and xianzi are essentially the same instrument. In Yunnan, however, the xianzi has evolved into numerous local variants, almost all of them colorful and fairly distinct from the standard Chinese yueqin. For this reason, I will use the term xianzi to refer to instruments that have a large number of features distinctive to Yunnan’s Yi ethnic communities, even though the terms yueqin and xianzi are sometimes used interchangeably. In addition to the dragon headstock and colorful designs, the xianzi often has a narrower neck and rosette sound holes absent on the yueqin. The xianzi from Mouding is easily recognized from its octagonal shape and bright, almost fluorescent, designs painted on a white background.

Mouding xianzi with the characteristic color-scheme, octagonal body, and dragon head headstock.

The typical yueqin found throughout China.

The xianzi is strummed with a pick. More advanced players will pick the melodies, but often the xianzi is simply used as accompaniment, with the open strings strummed on the downbeats. From a musical perspective, this makes the Left Foot Dance highly inclusive, as a beginning xianzi player is easily integrated into the circle without disrupting the flow of the melody, which is mostly carried by the bowed jinghu and erhu.

The Dance

Throughout Yi culture, music and dance are closely linked. In some areas, nearly every piece of music has specific dance steps that go with it. Within the Left Foot Dance tradition, this proliferation of dances is simplified greatly. Generally speaking, you only see two moves: a side step and a kick. Exactly where the kicks and steps fall is unique to each melody.

Below are two more videos of the Left Foot Dance (recorded on my cell phone, please excuse image and sound quality). By comparing the patterns of steps and kicks you’ll get an idea of how the dance varies from piece to piece.


 Tradition and Contemporary Cultural Relevance

The Left Foot Dance is a living tradition which continues to evolve. New arrangements are written (often for recorded electronic versions), and new instruments enter the tradition – note the kick drum and baritone xianzi in the first video. Even the colorful embroidered clothing worn by dancers is constantly altered by new trends – note the polyester bell-bottoms. Moreover, the tradition seems to remain a relevant part of Yi community life, despite the competition from modern entertainment that is a threat to so much traditional music and dance around the world. As you can see, the weekly dance circle seen in these videos is eagerly attended by young and old alike.

 The staying power of the Left Foot Dance is also attested to by its crossover into guangchang wu (广场舞), eclectic dances to recorded music held in public squares and parks throughout China and primarily attended by urban retirees. The tradition has received further recognition through a folk-rock rendition of some Left Foot Dance melodies recorded by the band Shanren (山人乐队), Yunnan’s best know folk-rock export.

 The diversity of Yi musical traditions makes it impossible to gain an understanding of Yi music by focusing on a single tradition. Nonetheless, we hope these videos can convey the integral relationship between Yi music and dance, and the vitality of Yi musical culture. As we continue our musical explorations in Yunnan, we will gradually stitch together patchwork of musical impressions that will give our viewers an understanding of the rich musical heritage of this region.

Sign up for the Tea Horse Newsletter at the bottom of the page to receive product updates and the "Best of the Blog" in your inbox.  


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.

Sign up for the Tea Horse Newsletter at the bottom of the page to receive product updates and the "Best of the Blog" in your inbox. We promise not to bug you more than twice a month!