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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