Folk Songs of the Hui, Manchu, Xibe, Korean and Gin Peoples of China / A RootsWorld Review

Hhere is the last volume of Chinese folk music series, the first six of which were reviewed in Rootsworld in May 2020.

The fact that this huge country has a central government often gives the impression that there is such a thing as “Chinese music”, and what is usually heard is the highly organized and highly skilled instrumental and vocal music of the conservatory , the concert hall or the opera, rather than the music of the villages and towns of the many disparate peoples within the political unity of China. This series does much to open up an awareness of the variety that is found among these peoples, and the booklet notes are an essential guide to what we listen to.

Despite the general title, as the individual CD titles indicate, all twenty are collections of songs and folksongs, much of them solo, duet or unaccompanied ensemble, with instruments appearing only occasionally. In this volume, however, a variety of instruments feature in the music of the Manchu, Xibe, Korean, and Gin peoples.

“A Banquet Song” (Hui)

The eight pieces of Hui music are all unaccompanied, sung solo or with other female singers by loud-voiced Luo Wenying. and all in the pentatonic scale, which is prevalent in most, but not all, of the music in this volume and indeed in most, but not all, of the music of China.

“Pray for Divinity” (Manchu)

The Manchurian songs, also pentatonic, are performed by a variety of male and female singers and are about gods, war and drink, and a lullaby of what sounds like school children. One of the two versions of the same “prayer for the divinity” is punctuated by the triple drumbeats and the jingles of shamanic music.

“A Wedding Ritual Song” (Xibe)

Xibe’s songs are quite different. The two shaman songs are particularly striking, with wild performances from vocalist Gu Yulin with a guttural voice. The majority of the others are female singers accompanied by the feite kena, a four-stringed lute with a short-sustaining, throaty sound and note-reiterating tremolo technique. There is also a dance music instrumental solo played on a two-string fretless lute with an appealing percussive style, the dongbur, from which the feite kena was developed in the 1980s.

There are also Koreans in China. The recordings here were made in Tumen, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin Province, which borders North Korea. The accompaniment for the mixed vocal ensembles here consists of the two-headed changgo drum and the danso and tungso notch flutes, and there are two instrumentals of a solo tungso and a flute and drum ensemble.

The duxianqin, a single-stringed instrument with a whammy bar, played by touching harmonics along the string while stretching or releasing it, is more or less the same as the Vietnamese dan-bau. It features, accompanying female vocals, in most tracks the Gin people, a small population from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on China’s border with northeast Vietnam, and the album ends with a solo of its interpreter here, Su Chunfa.

Further reading:
Vol.5: Taiwan Aboriginal Folk Songs
Includes a synopsis of volumes 1-6.

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