The Miao people have a holy gong called tonggu. The front of the gong is engraved with a sun emblem, which symbolizes the Miao people. One person strikes the gong while another controls the sound by blocking or releasing it with a wooden barrel from the back.
The Miao are known for their dancing, especially the dances performed by women accompanied by the tonggu. Men also play a wind instrument called lusheng, to which the women dance in concentric circles.
The lusheng is popular among the Miao, Yao, Kam, Zang (Tibetan people), and other ethnic minorities in the Chinese southwest. It used to be played solely by males and only after a harvest. They believed that if one were to play a lusheng while the rice is still growing, the spirit of the rice would leave the stalks to dance to the music, making for a poor harvest. Another theory is that the spirit of the rice would be saddened by the music, stunting the growth of the crop.
In traditional Miao belief, rice spirits are young Miao women. This is why they are so eager to sing and dance with young men. However, this belief has changed with the times and people can play the lusheng and dance anytime. The instrument is popular even among women.
Miao of China Photo
Festival of the Hua Miao, Guizhou Province, China. 1997
Festival of the Hua Miao, Guizhou Province, China. 1997
Tonggu, Guizhou Province, China. 1990
Festival of the Qing Miao, Guizhou Province, China. 1990
Hua Miao Village, Guizhou Province, China. 1990
The mountainous region between Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos is the infamous golden triangle, where opium is produced. However, it is also a region where a large number of tribes live according to their respective cultures.
The Akha people have a tradition of dancing through the night on New Year’s Eve to chase away ground spirits. This is called bor-chong tu er, which means to hit the ground with bamboo instruments. The ritual continues for two days, in which young men and women perform the dance in the homes of those who have lent them the instruments and others who want their homes to be similarly inoculated. They go all around the yard and into the house to hit the floors with bamboo tubes.
The instruments they play include drums, small fiddles, and gongs. However, the most impressive is the bor-chong, a hollowed out bamboo tube measuring about fifteen centimeters in diameter and one meter in length. The tubes make grand and powerful sounds when many are struck simultaneously, making them ideal for mass dancing.
Thai Golden Triangle
Bor-chong used in festivities, Northern Thailand. 1993
Festival of the Akha, Northern Thailand. 1993
Lisu tribal village, Northern Thailand. 1990
Karen tribeswoman, Northern Thailand. 1990
Festival of the Thai, Chiang Rai, Thailand. 1991
At funerals of the Toraja people in Sulawesi Island, visitors are welcomed with traditional songs and dances. One of the dances is the warriors’ dance, which is performed by dancers that shriek, mimicking the sounds made by monkeys. Singing, dancing, and prayers continue day and night during the funeral period. A unique bamboo instrument called pompang is played. The dance is simple but solemn. A song that praises the dead called badong is sung.
A war ritual that mimics fighting with spears is practiced during the Pasola festival in Sumba Island. A dance is performed to pray for their safety. Women dance with raised swords in their hands to the sound of drums and gongs played by young men. They circle a rock under which the beheaded skulls of their enemies are buried. The dancing procession is led by older women followed by girls. After the dance is repeated several times, the men begin to dance. It is a warriors’ dance performed with long spears and shields. They dance into the early morning, taking in the courage and strength of their ancestors and praying for safety throughout the festival.
The Batak people of Sumatra Island play the traditional music of gondang and dance the manortor at funerals. When visitors come to pay their respects, the entire household greets them with dance and the visitors enter dancing. Visitors express their condolences by holding the faces or necks of the bereaved family members in their two hands and touching their heads or cheeks. They give rice, which they have carried on their heads, as a donation to the bereaved family.
Toraja people playing pompang, Sulawesi, Indonesia. 1990
Samosir Batak people, Sumatra, Indonesia. 1990
Beach on Nias Island, Nias, Indonesia. 1994
Sumba festival, Sumba, Indonesia. 1996
The moment you set foot in Bali, you are greeted by the florid music of the gamelan. Each village has one or two professional gamelan groups that are hired to play traditional music at the homes of individuals as well as rituals in temples and clan houses. Large events may sometimes involve many gamelan groups.
Gamelan refers to both the instruments and the name of an instrumental group. A typical group consists of a string section, wooden wind section and percussion section, played by twenty-five to fifty musicians. In some regions, the gamelan is made of bamboo. Each gamelan is organized like an orchestra, with a variety of instruments such as gongs and gangsa, a xylophone-like instrument.
Ceng-ceng is an instrument with an onomatopoeic name. It consists of five pairs of cymbal-like instruments set on the back of a wooden turtle, which is said to hold up the universe in traditional legend. Each musician holds a pair of cymbals and strikes them together to make the “ceng ceng” sound.
Ceng-ceng, Bali, Indonesia. 1996
Transportation of offerings for Odalan, Bali, Indonesia. 1990
Balinese masks, Bali, Indonesia. 1990
Gamelan, Bali, Indonesia. 1990
Warriors’ dance, Bali, Indonesia. 1990
The people of Myanmar build structures shaped like palaces, decorated with silver and gold leaves in roadsides or empty lots near their homes to perform various rituals. Professional MCs and storytellers are hired for the ritual, accompanied by music performed by hsaing waing, a traditional Burmese music ensemble.
King Hsinbyushin of eighteenth century Burma invaded Siam, successfully capturing many Siamese musicians, dancers, composers, and craftsmen and taking them to Burma. Thus, the music and culture of Burma were deeply influenced by Siamese traditions. The traditional hsaing waing ensemble consists of a wide range of instruments, including drum circles, gong circles, bamboo clappers, flutes, and cymbals. The large drum circle contains twenty-one drums while the small drum circle contains nine drums, hanging according to size. In the gong circle are nineteen hanging gongs. There are also larger drums played as independent instruments, not in a circle.
The range of Burmese drums is varied, with each type of drum used in different types of events. The pot-shaped ozi and double-headed dobat are used in village festivals while the large bonzi are used when plowing the fields or during harvest festivals. Steamed rice and wood ash are mixed to form a dough that is stuck to the center of the drum to tune the instrument.
Hsaing-waing ensemble, Mandalay, Myanmar. 1993
Large ritual, Mandalay, Myanmar. 1994
Inta fishermen, Inle Lake, Myanmar. 1993
The Kam (Dong) have long been known as a people of dance and architecture. When entering a Kam village, one is immediately drawn to the drum tower in the center of the village. Although they are made of wood, they resemble Buddhist pagodas. The towers of layered roofs with double-eaves symbolize each clan. If there are two clans in one village, there are two towers; if there are five clans, there are five towers. Usually, these towers are where young couples come to express their love through song.
During lunar new year, the Kam celebrate the caigetang festival with a ritual to worship the mother goddess of Sa Sui and courtship songs and dances among youth.
Girls wear colorful tops and black pleated skirts, spats decorated with red and green tassels, and embroidered leather shoes with pointed toes. They decorate their hair with ornaments shaped like birds, butterflies, and flowers to dance. They are followed by a group of musicians playing the lusheng.
The lusheng produces different sounds according to the sectioning and length of the bamboo. Beautiful sounds are produced by a number of vertical pipes and one horizontal pipe going across. The resonance tube can be made from bamboo stalks up to five meters in length.
Typically, there are six pipes but variants with one, two, five, six, eight, or ten pipes of different sizes can be found. The instrument can be used in solo performances, ensembles, and dance accompaniments. A typical Kam village has a lusheng group, and lusheng competitions are held during various village events and rituals.
Kam (Dong) of China
Kam (Dong) youth playing lusheng, Guizhou Province, China. 1997
Girls singing in front of straw rope charm, Guizhou Province, China. 1997
Kam (Dong) tribal village, Guizhou Province, China. 1997
Sri Lanka is a state comprised of several ethnic groups with different languages, religions and histories. 11 million of its 15 million people are Sinhalese. Sinha means lion while la means blood. Thus ‘Sinhala’ means ‘descendants of lions’. The Sinhalese strictly observe religious rituals and festivals.
The Perahera is the grandest of such religious festivals. The word ‘perahera’ means procession and is carried out by temples in every village. The most famous Perahera is the Kandy Perahera. The city of Kandy was the capital of an ancient kingdom and the center of Sri Lankan culture. It still acts as the center of traditional music, dance, and arts in Sri Lanka. While the music and dance of Kandy forms the core of the Perahera, the music and dance of low-lying coastal regions are central to rituals. Both of these musical traditions place special emphasis on the drum.
Ritual celebrations begin with the invocation of the gods. “Please join us on earth. Enjoy our offerings, music and dance. Bestow upon us health and prosperity.” The song “Magul Bera,” seeks the blessing of the gods. The drummers beat their drums vigorously. The sound of the drums shake the earth and call upon the gods while the villagers stay up all night, intoxicated by the rhythm.
Harvest festival, Ihala Aturaliya, Sri Lanka, 1994
Fishermen on poles, Weligama, Sri Lanka, 1994
Beach, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka, 1994
Lake Sebu is a mountain lake and the center of the T’boli community in Mindanao Island, Philippines. The T’bolis celebrate festivals with a wide range of dance and music. They play an instrument called s’ludoy. Its strings are made from six strips of bamboo cut from one section and placed on a bamboo tube. The strings are fixed to the ends of the bamboo section and float above the middle portion where they are plucked. The Bugkalot people of Luzon Island have a similar instrument, called sembimalo. However, when the Bugkalot play the sembimalo, another player strikes the strings using a thin bamboo stick. Thus, the sembimalo is both a string and a percussion instrument.
August to September in Mindanao is a time of splendor and plenty, with colorful fruits and tropical orchid blooms. This is when the five-day kadayawan festival takes place. Key to this celebration are traditional music and dance performed in the streets. The sight sand sounds are reminiscent of Brazilian samba.
Across the town, women, both young and old, tribesmen in costumes, and girls with navel-baring tops dance to the accompaniment of various instruments such as the guitar-like hegelung, and long percussions made from logs.
Bamboo instrument s’ludoy, Lake Sebu, Mindanao Island, Philippines. 1996
Ifugao tribe, Banaue, Luzon Island, Philippines. 1991
Fishing boat with triangular sails, Mindoro Island, Philippines. 1991
Rituals at monasteries in Ladakh begin with the sounding of a three-meter-long horn. This horn, which produces a deep solemn sound, can be shortened and elongated like a telescope. Other than the horns of various sizes, the rituals feature musical instruments such as drums, gong, flutes, and bells.
The people of Ladakh in the Himalayas practice Tibetan Buddhism. In the gompa, or monastery, the esoteric cham rituals centered around masked dancing are held once a year. While the cham is usually held in the bitter cold of winter, some monasteries such as Hemis gompa practice the ritual during summer and thus are better known to the rest of the world. One of the most famous cham rituals is the Tsechu festival, conducted every twelve years, in the sixth month of the year of the monkey according to the Tibetan calendar.
In winter, the temperature drops to -30 to -40 degrees Celsius. The cold and snow cut off all external transportation, save for light aircrafts. This is an arid area with almost no rain in the summer. Although snow moistens the ground in winter, the snowfall is not heavy by any means. It is during the cold of winter when the people of Ladakh conduct the losar.
Losar can mean New Year or a village ritual to chase out evil spirits and bring in good luck for the New Year. Losar as a ritual refers to the act of blessing the village and discarding the storma, a symbol of evil, outside the village to chase away evil spirits. Losar begins with the village people designated as lama jogis bathing in the river and putting on their special outfits. They hold goats’ horns in their hands, wear wigs made of yak tails and cover their faces in white flour. The villagers take turns each year to take on the role of lama jogi. Young people learn the songs and dances and how to conduct the ritual from the elders.
Horns of Spituk Gompa, Ladakh, India. 1992
Cham dance at Lamayuru Gompa, Ladakh, India. 1992
Zoji Pass, Ladakh, India. 1992
“Shake the bells and strike the drums/ Shake the bells higher than your eyes/ Shake, shake, shake the bells/ If the bells fall below your eyes/ The gods will be angered by your laziness.”
This is an excerpt from an old text describing a shamanistic ritual in Japan. Drums are again mentioned in a different text. “The female shaman’s drum/ is fun to hit up and down/ If we were to join/ Thump thump, let it ring, thump thump, let it ring/ how long should we hit the drum to let it ring on and on.” As can be seen from these texts, instruments such as large drums, small drums, and the flute are key features in Japanese matsuri and kagura.
Many matsuri and kagura live in various regions of Japan. There are kagura that offer music and dance to the gods to please them. There are also matsuri in which water is boiled in a large cauldron, offered to the gods, and splashed onto the officiants and participants to cleanse them. There are also kagura performed by travelling performance troupes that would perform dances such as a lion dance to collect donations from spectators.
Shamanistic village rituals in Okinawa are mostly related to agriculture, although there are also those related to fishing and hunting. Examples of rituals include rituals to pray for the health of children and future generations, the unjyami ritual to welcome the gods of the ocean and pray for safety and success in fishing, and the puri to pray for a good harvest. Unjyami and puri are still being held in many villages.
During the puri, dances are performed on a makeshift stage constructed in the yard of the hall. A variety of dances are performed to musical accompaniment by instruments such as taiko . The songs and dances about farming and labor differed fundamentally from those of Korea, giving me the feeling that I was indeed in a southern land. Once the performance was over and the villagers were gone, the shamans began a musical dance ritual called yukui. They sang a song called “Agaribushi” and danced, making welcoming motions with both arms towards the sky.
The lyrics were about ships carrying rice and millet coming in from sea. This ritual is conducted to pray for prosperity by performing a magical dance that summons the spirit of rice and millet from Nirasku, a fantastical kingdom of prosperity, life, and regeneration that lies across the eastern sea. The men sing and play the gong and drums while female shamans sing and dance fervently.
During the ritual, a mistake was made in the accompanying music. This greatly angered the female shaman Tsukasa, who was astounded to see such carelessness in offering music to the gods. They had to start the ritual over from the beginning. When the yukui is over, the shaman stay up all night in the hall, burning incense.
Puri of Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, Japan. 1988
Unjyami of Iheya Island, Okinawa, Japan. 1988
Naha, Okinawa, Japan. 1988
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