The southwestern provinces of Guangxi , Guizhou , and Yunnan make up a mountainous region with the greatest cultural diversity in China. The Zhuang people who live in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region enjoy singing shange in pairs or groups of five to six people. While majority of shange are about love between a man and a woman, some narrate epic tales. They can also be improvised in surprising ways to match the situation.
The Miao people, characterized by the unique hairstyles of the women, are scattered around Guangxi Province, Guizhou Province, and other parts of southwestern China. They have a unique singing technique that involves drawing out a single note as long as possible. Using this technique, they sing feige that sounds like flying birds and jiuge . The lusheng music played by men is also worth a listen.
The Kam (Dong) people live in Guizhou and are well known in China as the most vocally gifted tribe. Each village has several singing groups comprised of several dozen people, organized by gender and age. These groups sing dage , which are traditional polyphonic songs. The gulou and dage are such famous symbols of the Kam people and are used in tourism programs as well.
Although there are many ethnic groups in Yunnan province, the Yi people are well known for their singing. Yi women sing songs with extremely high pitches to the accompaniment of yueqin played by the men. The Yi are also famous for their mass dances and singing parties during summer bonfire festival.
Southwestern China Sound
1Shange of the Zhuang 1
Shange means ‘song of the mountains’ and are commonly sung by the people of southwestern China. They sing the songs while working and during breaks between work. The lyrics are usually about love between man and woman.
2Shange of the Zhuang 2
This song not only features a unique technique, the lyrics are also improvised. The lyrics are “Where did the wind blow from today. I must have had a good dream as a valuable guest has come. I have sung many shange, but nothing like this has happened before. As I’m singing to a foreigner, I’m sure shange will now spread to the world.”
3Welcoming song of the Kam (Dong)
The Kam sing many songs during festive season. This is a welcoming song sung by more than ten women welcoming visitors at the village entrance. When the song is finished, each visitor is poured a cup of wine.
4Dage of the Kam (Dong)
The Kam are known to be the best singers among the dozens of ethnic minorities in China. These polyphonic songs are great demonstrations of their singing ability. This particular song was sung by young girls.
5Children’s songs of the Kam (Dong)
A song by three girls dressed up in traditional Kam attire. The Kam children do not hesitate when asked by adults to sing.
6Feige of the Miao
Feige means a song like flying birds. The vocal technique effectively reproduces the feeling of flying birds. This vocal technique is typical of Miao singing.
7Lusheng music of the Miao
Lusheng is an instrument made from thick and thin bamboo tubes, widely played among the ethnic minorities of Southwestern China. in this recording, three lusheng of different sizes create a unique harmony. The musicians were performing a dance with simple steps while playing.
8Flute music of the Yi
This flute music is played by the Yi people when herding sheep. It is an interesting melody reminiscent of the Korean sanjo music.
9Festival songs of the Yi
This was recorded during the huobajie (bonfire festival) of the Yi people. Numerous young men and women come out at night and circle a bonfire in the yard. They sing and dance late into the night.
10Yueqin music of the Yi
The yueqin is a three-stringed instrument with a round full-moon shaped resonance chamber. Although the instrument has a simple structure, its techniques are quite complicated. The yueqin is a key instrument used in the music and dance of the Yi people.
11Haicaiqiang of the Yi, Yuxi County, Yunnan Province
Yi women in certain regions sing beautiful love songs in remarkably high voices. Haicai in the song title refers to the name of a region, while qiang means melody.
Ladakh lies in the high mountains of the Himalayas, in Jammu and Kashmir, northwest India. Although many roads are being built, it still remains one of the most isolated regions in the world. As Ladakh differs greatly from the rest of India in all aspects—history, ethnic makeup, religion, and culture—the people of Ladakh will never say call themselves Indians.
The people of Ladakh farm wheat using water from the melting snowcaps of the high mountains. They lead a simple life, farming and raising livestock in the fields. They sing while working in the fields, just like Korean people used to in the past. In autumn, you can hear songs sung while cutting grass, harvesting wheat, and plowing the fields. In nomadic regions, there are songs sung to call livestock and while processing dairy. Ladakh was where I was able to hear the most work songs during this trip to collect the sounds of Asia.
Most Ladakhis practice Lama Buddhism from Tibet. They are a very pious people, whose faith can be seen not just in the numerous monasteries and stone pagodas but in the songs they sing. Praise of Buddha and revered monks can often be found in their work songs.
On the other hand, the center of the Zanskar Valley, just south of Ladakh, is occupied by Muslims. In this region, folk songs are difficult to come by.
The bells attached to the necks of horses create beautiful harmony as the animals move their heads to graze. As many villages in Ladakh are not yet accessible by car, horses are the main modes of transportation.
13Grass cutting song 1
In autumn, people get busy cutting grass to make enough hay to last their livestock throughout the winter. This is a collective effort by the entire village. This song is not necessarily sung only during grass cutting.
14Grass cutting song 2
This is a work song usually sung when cutting grass or reaping wheat. The lyrics encourage the workers and mourn the death of the plants. They also contain jokes to break the monotony of the work.
15Field plowing song
The field is plowed right after the wheat has been harvested. The plow is attached to two dzos, a hybrid between yaks and cows. The wife leads the animals while the husband holds the plow.
16Milk churning song
In regions where agriculture is difficult, nomads raise livestock in the plains. The milk from the livestock is put into a traditional device operated by two people, which stirs the milk at high speed. While churning, they count from 1 to 200 through song. Through this process, butter is made.
17Wheat stepping song
I chanced upon this scene of wheat harvesting in an agricultural village in the Indus River Basin. The wheat is laid thickly over the circular yard, in the center of which is a pole. Five to six horses or dzos are tied to the pole and made to walk round and round over the wheat to crush the stalks. This is why I named this the wheat stepping song.
18Wheat threshing song, Miru Village, Ladakh
After the wheat has been crushed, it is thrown in the air with a fork. The force of the wind separates the grain from the husk. This is the equivalent of threshing. The farmers whistle so as to create stronger winds.
Roads are being constructed all around Ladakh. Villagers come to work in these construction sites and sing while digging the earth with their spades.
20Wheat harvesting song
Wheat harvesting was also in full swing at the famous tourist destination of Nubra Valley. Men and women reaped wheat together and sang a variety of songs.
Although Mongols are racially similar to Koreans, their folk music is vastly different, due to the difference in history and environment. Surprisingly, the Mongols do not have a wide range of folk songs. This may be because nomads do not often get the chance to hold gatherings, except on special occasions such as weddings. The only song that they do sing at events such as weddings is the urtyn duu, which means ‘long song’. The lyrics of urtyn duu sing of vast grasslands, blue skies, horses roaming grasslands, and nostalgia for the hometown and family that they have left behind.
Although the Mongols do not have many songs, they do have an interesting repertoire of sounds to call their livestock, to coax animals, and to herd cattle. These sounds exist in a pre-song stage and symbolize the coexistence of man and beast in the grasslands of Mongolia.
Mongolian music contains many sounds that resemble the wind blowing in the grassland. This can be found in the overtone singing technique of khoomii that produces whistling sounds in the throat and the tsuur flute played with deliberate wind noises. An instrument called huur played by the Tsaatan tribe who raise reindeer by Khuvsgul Lake also produces the sound of wind.
Mongolian music also contains the epic genre. These epics are accompanied by simple two-stringed instruments and usually discuss the greatness of nature as a theme.
A different call is used for each kind of animal raised in the vast grassland. The first is the call for goats, the second is the call for sheep, and the last is the call for camels.
Humans have to coax their animals when the mother refuses to nurse her young. As numerous animals are raised together, sometimes mothers do not recognize their young. Interestingly, they can be coaxed by humans making these sounds. The first is the sound to coax a sheep, the second is the sound to coax a goat, and the last is the sound to coax a cow.
This is a recording of the famous khoomiichi (khoomii singer) Davaajav. Khoomii is a singing technique that creates a whistling sound by resonating the overtones of low voices in the mouth. Khoomii is well known as a singing tradition that symbolizes Mongolian culture.
The only work song I found in Mongolia was a lullaby to put a child to sleep. However, it is also too simple to be deemed a proper song.
This is a recording of the Mongolian flute tsuur. The player holds what looks like a simple tube in the mouth, half covering the hole, and blows into it while also producing sounds from the throat. This piece was played by a fifteen-year-old boy who learned how to play the tsuur from his late grandfather.
The epic is still practiced as a musical genre in Mongolia. This recording by Enkhbalsang, one of the few remaining epic singers in Mongolia stands out for using a high-pitched feminine voice unlike other singers that sing in very low pitches. The lyrics praise the majestic Altai Mountains in western Mongolia.
The huur is an instrument played by flicking a metallic piece with the mouth half-open. This recording was played by a male of the Tsaatan tribe that raises reindeer by Khuvsgul Lake in the high mountains. One can hear the intentional inclusion of wind-like sounds in the playing.
Weddings are one of the only occasions where Mongolians get to gather and sing all night. The urtyn duu is a song sung on such occasions and means ‘long song’.
This is the gingo song, sung by children riding horses in a circle while training for the Naadam, the largest festival in Mongolia. The song is used to raise morale before the horse riding competition and is also sung while riding the horse.
Uzbekistan in Central Asia is mostly grassland and desert, and much of its population is nomadic. However, there are also several oasis regions where people have settled into agricultural lifestyles. Uzbekistan used to be a strategic point in the Silk Road where the cultures of East and West met. There are several Kazakh and Tajik groups living in Uzbekistan and its borders are open to traders and nomads.
Uzbeks love to sing and dance. Local folk performance groups called ensembles are a long standing tradition in Uzbekistan and lead all festivals and events. They compile and edit traditional folk songs and instrumental music to stage song and dance performances. The Boysun Festival is held annually in Boysun City, Southeastern Uzbekistan, and ensembles from all across the nation participate.
To hear the unadulterated versions of Uzbek folk songs, one has to ride a donkey into remote mountain villages. The mountains offer beautiful scenery and warm hospitality on top of humble folk songs. Boysun district in Uzbekistan is an example of such a mountainous region.
A noteworthy characteristic of Uzbek folk songs is the large number of children’s songs. The children of Uzbekistan still sing as many children’s songs as we used to in the past. Another important genre of Uzbek folk music is the grand epic song sung by professional epic singers called bakhshi.
30Song of love
The town of Pap in the Namangan Region has a local ensemble with over thirty members, including musicians. They used to be paid small monthly salaries during the Soviet era for putting on performances but now have to make a living from other work and perform only when necessary. The song is about love between a man and a woman.
31First birthday song
A child’s first birthday is celebrated with a big party in Uzbekistan. The song describes relatives coming together to bless the mother and child.
32Children’s song—clapping song
A song sung by children playing a clapping game in the yard. Uzbek children sing songs for a variety of games.
Uzbek people wrap their babies in cloth and lay them in cradles for bedtime. This lullaby is sung while rocking the cradle to put the child to sleep. It is a very lyrical and beautiful song.
The milking song is one of the very few work songs involving cattle farming sung by nomads. The lyrics express the hope that milk will flow like fountains from the animal (goat, sheep, or cow) that they are milking.
35Reed flute music
I met a group of nomads leading simple lives in Ushar village of mountainous Boysun. This is a recording of the music shepherds play on reed pipes while herding their sheep.
The people of Ushar village practice strict Islam, and girls would not normally be allowed to sing to strangers. However, they made an exception for us as guests from far away. The lyrics describe the beautiful scenery of the village in spring.
37Epic of Alpamysh
Professional epic singers are called bakhshi. This is a recording of the Alpamysh epic, a legendary Uzbek hero, sung by one of the best bakhshis currently living.
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