Why the Naxi buried their instruments

It was a beautiful autumnal evening in the absolutely delightful old town of Lijiang, in Yunnan province, South West China not too far from Tibet. In the town square next to the little bridge there was music and dancing. About two dozen old ladies were stepping out in an ancient circle dance. The music was simple but the movements had a cunning little jig in the step which made it even more seductive. It wasn’t long before I had joined in and we hopped and skipped ecstatically around the circle in the square. The music was hypnotic.

A funny thing about the Naxi music…most of Chinese music is pentatonic, five notes in a minor or major scale. But the Naxi music is hexatonic with six notes to the scale. Somewhere in history they evolved an extra melodic note. Geographically Lijiang is quite cut off from the rest of China. The mountains made access sometimes almost impossible, especially in the winter. For hundreds of years the Naxi people just developed their own language, script and musical system in splendid isolation. In recent years of course as the globe shrinks even Yunnan province joins the known world.

Most forms of Naxi music are about 700 years old. The most prevalent one still heard today is called Dongjing. Some of the oldest forms have died out. It is amazing that any Naxi music survived at all after the purges following the establishment of the Peoples Republic in 1949, and especially the brutal ‘Cutural Revolution’ of the 60s. Ancient musical forms and rituals were considered degenerate and not in keeping with the modernist views of Chairman Mao and the red army. Some musicians paid with their lives if they were found to be perpetuating the musical cultures of antiquity. Beatings and imprisonments were common place. Soldiers went through the countryside destroying and burning traditional musical instruments. Strangely, by the time they got to Lijiang there were no old instruments to be found. The local Dongjing orchestra had buried them deep under the ground. And there they remained. For thirty years the musical culture of the Naxi was heard only in the heads of the musicians who feared even to dig up their instruments and practice.

Eventually in the 1980s there was a cultural shift in China and the society became more open, to the west and to themselves. Oppressive laws and rules were relaxed. It was considered only proper that the old orchestras should be allowed to play again. By this time many of the musicians who were the keepers of the flame had died. Most of them were now very old. And what condition would the instruments be in having spent thirty years in the earth? A handful of the old orchestra members took it upon themselves to unearth the instruments and begin the process of painstakingly restoring the unique cultural phenomenon which was the Naxi Orchestra. Many of them were in their seventies, some were infirm and some were blind. They took on younger students, many of them young girls. This was a revolution in Dongjing music which until 1949 had for centuries been a male preserve. In a short space of time they had a fully sized ensemble with all the instruments and a repertoire ready to play. The governors of Lijiang even designated a building in the heart of the town which would be their own concert hall. And so it is that since many years, every evening at 8 o clock the Naxi musicians of Lijiang give a two hour musical performance showing the full spectrum of their wonderful music, songs, thunderous gong rituals, delicate string ensemble pieces. And the world comes to them to witness the spectacle. To think this almost vanished forever.

And so it was with a heart full of light that I left the old ladies dancing in the square and made my way the short distance to the Naxi concert theatre. I entered the space, it was quite small really. Maybe two hundred seats, intimate. It was very ornate, the stage beautifully decorated with dragons, clouds and painted birds. And the instruments themselves stood on the stage, almost like living beings, awaiting the entrance of the orchestra. These were not like other musical instruments which you find all across China. They were from the same musical family as the south China ‘silk strings and bamboo flute’ traditions but within that family they were the black sheep, the distant cousins. The sugudu, crooked-neck pipa, the wooden fish, the inverted bells. Above the stage hung a row of black and white photographs of many of the previous players who had since passed away.

Then the orchestra themselves entered the stage, most of them venerable looking very old men, some of the blind wore dark glasses and were led in by their young pupils. Numbering about thirty and dressed in sumptuous traditional clothes of all colours in fine silk. What followed was an indescribable two hours of music. The hexatonic harmonies came in wave after wave. The giant drums and gongs were incessant and insistent, the bowing of the stringed erhus was lyrical, longing, nostalgic, sometimes shockingly beautiful when they all hit the ancient naxi groove. The percussive pipas in perfect counterpoint. Then a young girl sang unaccompanied. Then an old man played a solo piece for flute. Then the oldest gong player would strike a beat and the whole ensemble would come rushing in like a torrent of sound. And so on it went through the evening. When I finally left the auditorium it was as if under the influence of a magical drug.                                                                                                                foto: peter morgan

The following morning I was strolling through the park in Lijiang. I had with me one of my most trusted musical instruments, a yayli divan, a bowed instrument from the region of Turkmenistan. To my pleasant surprise I saw,sitting on a park bench, two of the very old men who had been playing in the orchestra the previous evening, both string players. After deliberating whether or not i should disturb them I ventured towards them and introduced myself. After congratulating them profusely on the concert I asked them about the instruments which they played and of the provenance of the ensembles instruments in general. They explained to me that the instruments were indeed the same ones which had been buried, that they had not been reconstructed at all but had survived intact thirty years in the earth. These were considered artifacts, cultural relics, even fossils, and that it would be inconceivable and improper to play dongjing music on anything less worthy. I showed them my yayli divan. They asked me to play. Well I was a bit shy with such an audience but i decided to play a very old Tibetan tune called E Ma Ri Khrod. This tune is also hexatonic like most of the Naxi music and of course Tibet and Lijiang are within spitting distance of each other so maybe the two genres are historically bound. Anyway these two old gentlemen were amazed that it sounded so similar to Naxi music. They had never been out of Yunnan province in their long lives. So it was a revelation to them that something could be just so familiar but at the same time very alien. And there in that specific dichotomy is the whole magic of the music of our world.

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About makmedthemiller

multidiscipline artist
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