A Short Guide to Yunnan Music
World Music Network/Rough Guides
July 29, 2022
Yunnan province in southern China is often marked by tales of diversity. Bordering Myanmar, Laos, Tibet and Vietnam, Yunnan is home to 25 officially recognized ethnic minority groups and a number of different languages. Unsurprisingly, it has attracted more than its fair share of interest from anthropologists and ethnomusicologists intrigued by the region’s range of traditions, especially those that have remained relatively unchanged over the centuries.
A Short Guide to Yunnan Music embraces such continuities, but not at the expense of celebrating change. As is typical of Rough Guides series installations, Yunnan is an eclectic mix of sounds, a collection clearly aimed at conveying not only the diversity of the province but also its relationship to modernity. Overall it succeeds, showcasing a range of styles that illustrate how the many parts of Yunnan relate to each other and to the rest of the world. Pretty much all of the tracks fall under the general category of folk music, albeit in different ways.
Most are simple enough to depict long lines of tradition, and do so with commercially produced clarity. The opening instrument “Bi Lang Dao Gu Diao” is a piece by the late musician Dai Gen Dequan, whose performances on the local hulusi, a reed instrument derived from the cucurbit squash, brought it into international circulation. Nu/Lisu group Wood and Fire follows with “Sixty-Four Generations”, an acoustic song built around catchy strumming and driven by the mouth harp, a more contemporary attempt to bridge the gap between old traditions and trends. current world events with cool, stripped down music. grooves down.
In “Mountain Song of the Hani”, Lai Nu’s vocals resonate clearly over a frenzied lute. A Jiawen follows with handclaps and more strings to the energetic dance tune “Zheng Xian”. Love songs, blessing songs, dances and drums follow in various thrilling permutations, from the melancholic chant of “Love Song of the Nu People” to the rhythmic “Fengtong Drums of Manglai” and beyond. The album draws to a close with “Wu Chu a Ci”, a string flute and vocal tune attributed to anonymous folk artists from Puchun Village that begins sparse and quickly becomes ecstatic, an appropriate ending for the variety of styles folk from the album.
A few cuts shake A Short Guide to Yunnan Music with a bit of cosmopolitanism. Puman’s “Bulang Beauty” opens with a solemn chant over big organs, quickly turning into a folk-reggae fusion that turns the record upside down and overturns all stereotypes of Yunnan as “frozen in time”, as the folks say. liner notes. Later, Mei-Rok’s “As Good As Meat” brings an understated rock edge, with vocals ranging from wordless and airy to subtly gritty like a drum kit and acoustic guitar complementing flutes and clanking percussion. Moqiu’s “Mountain Village” is the best cross-genre kick on the album, a hip hard rock track interwoven with electric fuzz and plucked acoustic strings.
Of all the series dedicated to digging into cases of world music, for better or for worse, the Approximate guides series often comes across as the most self-aware. Its curators seem to understand the impossibility of summarizing a region, a group, or even specific genres in the space of an album. They also understand that many organizations in the business and academic fields have a tendency to try to do this anyway. This includes people involved in Approximate guides. In the liner notes of A Short Guide to Yunnan MusicSam Debell is transparent about his approach and that of co-compiler Neil Record, noting their hopes of building “a bridge of accessibility for non-academics looking for fresh and exciting sounds” even as they describe folk tracks as “strange and wonderful”. .
These are feelings that deserve careful consideration – do they reinforce the exoticism they hope to help others overcome? But listening to the album, the intentions of the curators are clear: this album is designed to fill the gap with sound information. That the earliest traditions are represented through modern recordings is a reminder of the many layers of time and culture that exist simultaneously in Yunnan. Complementing this is the range of popular, more world-oriented sounds that remind us that while Yunnan is a world in its own right, it’s not as alienated from the rest of the globe as listening to just field recordings might. involve him. A Short Guide to Yunnan Music is yet another admirable volume of the venerable Approximate guides series, its embrace of multiple forms of diversity and very catchy melodies is a huge asset to them and a boon to their listeners.