The heart of the Grand Song of Dong

Early yesterday morning, my host Kerun and I met to take a train on China’s brand new hi-speed rail network, built less than ten years ago and now one of the fastest in the world. Guiyang’s station was wide and futuristic. It was exciting to experience the transport which, along with the new road network, has revolutionised the lives of so many people across the province. Before these transport networks existed, it took 14 hours to get from Guiyang to the county of Cong Jiang. Our journey would take less than a quarter of that time.

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We were headed to a village called Xiao Huang, widely considered to be the heart of the UNESCO-recognised Grand Song tradition of the Dong ethnic minority. Driving from the train station to the village an hour away, we passed many of the beautiful rice paddy tiers carved into the mountainsides that are so characteristic of the region.

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After an early lunch, we explored the village, seeing all the Dong villagers at work- weaving baskets, drying embroidery threads, preparing rice grain, herding animals. Rice farming is the main farming style in the area, and it’s done the traditional way, with fish and ducks introduced into the paddies to eat the insects.

Like in the city of Guiyang, development was obvious in the village and lots of new houses were being built. Our guide, Mr Wang, the local county’s party official for publicity, told us about the importance for the village of the new road network. He noted the wisdom of the old propaganda slogan ‘If you want to get rich, build a road’.

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Recording sounds around this village was fun, especially as I got finally to get my hands on a few local instruments, including a violin-type instrument called a niu tui qin which is in the shape of goose leg. Lots of inspiration for my final piece! And good to get the local workman in on the action with a bit of ‘saw-playing’.

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A local singing group agreed to sing for us. As we walked to the performance space, one of the group sang and another (the man pictured above) played his niu tui qin. The traditional dress of the women incorporates elaborate silver jewellery- necklaces and headdresses which tinkle as they dance and sing. In the recording below you can hear it. It was really very beautiful.

Seated in one of the village’s many ‘drum towers’ or ‘gu lou’- hallowed community spaces where villagers come to sing and engage in ritual customs- we listened finally to some of the renowned Dong Song. And it was awesome! I sat really close to the singers, and at many points, the all-enveloping power of their incredible voices nearly brought me to tears.

The song below is customarily sung in praise of nature and features the women emulating cicadas in the trees through a kind of tongue-yodelling.

As well as songs honouring their natural environment and the moon above, the Dong sing many love songs. Here’s one played and sung by the niu tui qin player. It’s about a lost love, whose role is played by one of the female singers in the group, who calls out a comforting echo to her former lover towards the end of the song.

After this wonderful performance, we went to visit an old woman in her 70s who is the keeper and chief interpreter of Dong Song. She was tiny and smiley, and had just been for a barbecue with her friends. She huffed and puffed up the stone steps to her wooden house, and brought us in with her. She talked to us about how she teaches all of the children in the village the many hundreds of songs she knows by heart. She is passionate that the tradition should not die out. Before long, she’d invited all her friends over to sing for us. There was something very touching about this older group, informally assembling to sing for visitors, purely because they loved so much to sing.

And- a little footnote (excuse the pun)… I noticed that many of the villagers I saw were wearing green pumps on their feet. I asked Kerun about it, and he explained that these were the grandly-named Shoes of Liberation distributed amongst the peasants during Maoist times. This kind of shoe was usually worn by the People’s Liberation Army of China, and was to symbolise the peasants’ liberation from the imperial and feudal past. These kinds of apparently simple things remind me how complex and sometimes turbulent China’s recent past has been, and how much people must still carry with them.

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