Posts Tagged ‘Chinese music’


About four years ago, when I was rooting around for Chinese music videos, I was sent a charming animation from a band called Shanren. The song “30 Years” was about the trials and tribulations of moving from the country to the big city to look for work. This is a motif that resonates with all working folks, and I won’t even go into the hundreds of great songs dealing with this from the West’s Industrial Revolution right through to today. “30 Years” describes what is going on in China currently, as its rapid industrialization is causing a vast shift in population from rural to urban centers. I was therefor already interested when I was contacted by the band’s publicist, informing me that they would be playing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at Pianos.

The band comes from Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, with members from the Wa and Buyi minorities. The name Shanren means “mountain men.” During a chat with James Pang, the band’s Chinese manager, he mentioned that the people of these minorities live up in the mountains, are kind of wild living, like to brew their own liquor, and dance. Being a lover of country music and bluegrass, I could not help but start drawing parallels between some of the characteristics of our own folk heritage and what I was about to see and hear. I was not let down. Listen to this music and tell me that you don’t hear something that sounds remarkably like our own “Old Timey” music, with its trance-like repetitions. People like banjoist Abigail Washburn have been mining these parallels for years, and you can hear why. (The band even uses something that looks mighty like a banjo!)

The song is called “Left Foot Dance of the Yi”
The Yi people, as I mentioned before, are one of the ethnic minorities of southwestern China. There’s a family of songs called left foot dance songs (“kind of Yi party music” their manager Sam Debell writes). This is the band’s own arrangement of a very well known left foot dance song. It’s usually a circle dance, but the band adapted it, so they do it in a line (in a circle it must look positively Balkan….but I’m not going to get into that, at least not here).

A sample of the lyrics (xianzi is a stringed instrument)–

-Brother play the xianzi.
-Sister sing the song.
-The moon is already risen.
-And we’re waiting to dance.

And something from our own repertoire:

“Late in the evening about sundown
High on a hill and above the town
Uncle Pen played the fiddle, lordy how it would ring,
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing.”

To contact the band:
Sam Debell (Asia) at and +86 152-1027-0868.

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This is the last installment on Taiwanese music, and it seems very fitting. On a chilly and rainy day I visited the mountaintop home of the Guqin Society, where after a bit of a steep climb, Yuan Jung-ping was waiting for me with hot tea and sweets. He proceeded to play a calming and lovely song about bidding goodbye at a station. The guqin (pronounced “chin”– I HATE the Pinyin spellings!) is an instrument that may date to 4000 years ago. Playing it is as much about meditation as music. The song is from the 12th century, with Jung-ping’s arrangement, and it is spare but beautiful. Like my first posting of Nanguan music, it rewards the person who really listens to it, bringing them into a still place.

The music was punctuated with the now light, now heavy sound of rain falling on the roof. Farewell, Taiwan.
Farewell to the hospitality, cold rainy season, warm people, amazing food and wonderful music.

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I recently returned from a trip to Taiwan, where I checked out the local music scene. Taiwan has a very layered cultural history; when I was growing up the country was called Formosa, a name given to it hundreds of years ago by Portuguese sailors. Taiwan was colonized by the Japanese, who left a profound mark, and most obviously, there is a huge Han Chinese population there that migrated in two major waves, one early, beginning in the 1600s, and another later during the 1940s and 50s under Chiang Kai-shek. There is also an aboriginal population, and although they have been marginalized like many of the aboriginals of the world, their music is increasingly being sold and enjoyed.

For my first installment, I’m going for the throat — with an à cappella performance by a Nanguan singer. (Usually this music is performed with an ensemble of string, wind and percussion.) I had been told that there was a very adventurous Nanguan singer named Wu Hsin-fei who was doing all kinds of collaborations with western and aboriginal musicians. When I set up my appointment to videotape her, she requested that it be in the studio of a master ceramist, so we drove up into the mountains (Taipei is surrounded on three sides by mountains, the fourth side being a harbor) and I found myself in another world.  I hope you will see and hear what I mean. So much of how we perceive music is learned, so you may need to “reset your brain” when you listen to this.  But I also think that her performance is so riveting, and I was able to get so close up, that you will be drawn into this very special experience. Personally, I find that it calms me immensely.

One of the artists I interviewed said that Taiwanese (or in this case, Chinese in Taiwan) music is about time and space. I tend to agree with that, and will go one step further: it has been so refined over the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years, that it has retained only the most abstract essence of music. For me, it was akin to listening to a Western minimalist piece. And all you singers out there — check out her tone production!

Here is some background information about the artist:
“Ms. Wu Hsin-fei has had formal training in Nanguan music and has performed with traditional Nanguan ensembles. Over the past few years however, she has started to sing some of the most famous ballads of the repertoire à cappella. More recently, for her new CD, she has chosen to sing Tang dynasty poetry – till now not part of the Nanguan repertoire, together with solo instruments such as pi’pa, flute, guqin and Arabic oud.”

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Here’s where you’ll find my weekly original world music video blogs that appear on Huffington Post, as well as an archive starting in April of 2009.

This is also the place where you will find video that is exclusive to my site. I’ve traveled to places like Uzbekistan, Morocco, and Taiwan and no matter where I go I have found amazingly talented and creative people working in every genre from the deepest traditions to the cutting edge.

It’s been incredibly rewarding to interview them and to capture some of what they do on video. Enjoy what you see and hear, and let me know what you think. I welcome your feedback.