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Lar in focus: Living Sound

05 March 2021

Lar in Focus: An ongoing series of blogposts exploring and demystifying some of the processes undertaken by artists developing works for commissions.


Ariel Chan (Linyuying Chen)

Hani women preparing to weave, Qielongzhongzhai, Puchun Village, Azahe Township, Honghe County (Image by Ariel Chan)


Curator and researcher, Irene Wang (Qingdao, China) talks to Ariel Chan about the significance of the songs and sounds found in her home province of Yunnan. How can we appreciate songs in a language very few understand? And what should be done to protect music and cultures that are ever assimilated into the dominant and homogeneous mainstream?

Irene Wang (IW): What first attracted you to the commission?

Ariel Chan (AC): I was so curious. I used to read a book called ‘Living with the GODS on Beliefs and Peoples’ by Neil Macgregor. This is where I encountered the ‘Lar’ figurine for the first time. In that book I also read about Lares and Panates and their role in protecting the family. Romans would take these figurines with them wherever they went. The significance of these object interested me a lot. I also thought it would be pretty cool to be able to create a soundtrack for gods and idols.

(IW): Are music, songs and spirituality an important part of your everyday life?

(AC): Yes. I believe so. I think music is a very vital part of everyone’s everyday life. However, as for me, sometimes, I feel that music is more like a job – especially in relation to its role within society, religion and philosophy. As these are my research objects, I need to treat music in a professional way, which sometimes makes me unable to enjoy it. I find I tend to over analyse it.

(IW): Could you tell me a little about yourself and your background?

(AC): I live in Yunnan Province located in the southwest of China. In Yunnan there are 26 national minorities, including Hani, Miao, Yi and Dai, etc. In general (in China at least) it seems people from national minorities are expected to be good at dancing and singing and each minority has its own unique system. I began to learn music when I was quite young, and I studied Opera during university. Unfortunately, I have to admit, I am not that good at it. Then, I began to realise I should examine the music local to me, and that was the moment I made up my mind to research this special kind of music. I mainly focus on the music of the Miao and Hani minorities, because both of them have multi-voice music – with Hani music involving up to eight voices. My current doctoral thesis at Hochschule fur Musik Franz Liszt Weimar is a study of the contrast between Hani multi-voice music and Bach’s polyphonic music, which is very interesting both in terms of musical forms and philosophical contents.

Yi-Che branch of Hani Nationality (Image by Mr Keli)

(IW): What is the title of your track?

(AC): It’s called “Gal Wu Yol Liq Noq Hhaq Zeq”, which is an ancient phrase of the Hani which roughly translates to “an ancient song of thanks to the gods”. Actually, there is not much Hani language we know about in Hani, because they only have predominantly linguistic communication. All songs are passed down throughout generations – and without any interpretations and recordings. No one, including Hani people themselves would know the exact meaning of the lyrics. Although some songs will contain fixed Hani ancient words during the opening and the ending, the middle part can be changed at will. The improvisation is regarded as a way for people to express feeling spontaneously, while the words they use can be anything – including made up words and sounds.

(IW): How did you come about creating the work for the commission?

(AC): The first time I encountered Hani music was when I participated in the “Hani eight-part Singing Talent Training Program” sponsored by China National Art Fund in 2018. At that time, we went to the most remote Hani village to do field research, and managed to meet many musicians and obtain a lot of recording material. They are very precious items. During the busy farming seasons, musicians in Hani have to help with the field work and only sing when there are ceremonies, sacrifices or performances. I would like to say that all Hani people are musicians because every person can sing domestic songs perfectly. For them, this may not be the inheritance of traditional music, but the responsibility given by their ancestors. When the project finished, I still went back to Hani village to do some field research. I owe a great deal of thanks to a man called Keli, who is an expert in terms of the customs of China. I lived with him and his apprentices who dedicate their time to protect traditional ethnic and folk culture in China. Keli was so helpful that he shared his records of Hani music and interpreted every detail for me. Also, he invited musicians from different villages to his house (and because I cannot speak the local language he translated and communicated for me) and we would join in on some of the Hani religious rituals as well.

In regards to my recording process, I never ask musicians questions, or to Sing. Instead, I also aim to integrate with them. We talk and become friends. During periods of chatting songs would often be performed spontaneously. Personally, I would never treat people as “others”, with deliberate arrangements. The more recordings I made, the type of music I wanted to explore became more obvious. Through the process of gathering segments and materials, I figured out how to classify different melodies as well as re-create some of the music.

(IW): How well do you feel this music communicates its message, considering most people cannot understand the language that these songs are sung in?

(AC): In my opinion, this way of communication is like the so-called “intentionality” in terms of traditional music. In Chinese art we always highlight “Xie Yi” or “freehand brushwork” (artists ignore the external verisimilitude of the objects, while emphasize its internal spiritual essence in terms of artistic creativity). “Yi” refers to’ no boundary’, ‘no entity’, and focuses on a correspondence to the heart, while the image created is to illustrate its ideology. Taoist Lao Zi (philosopher in the Spring and Autumn Period, founder of Taoism) raised the idea of “Da Yin Xi Sheng” i.e ‘The most beautiful and loudest sound is no sound’. From his perspective, we should pursue natural, simple and quiet sounds. Without specific characters, music will not be limited by language, or will not hinder the imagination inspired by music. We do not need to think about music rationally, it is deep inside your heart – a direct feeling to your soul.

(IW): As the songs include elements of improvisation, would the performance (and recordings) be different each time?

(AC): Yes. For sure. Every version is different, and unique. It really depends on the environment and the mood of the musicians – a bit like the occasional music of John Cage. My creation was based on the “Ci Ran”(singing love songs using small voice). That was my first thought regarding melody when I first saw the “Lar” figurine. The Ci Ran is usually sung by women. I was the thinking about the ancient Roman people’s believe in Vesta (who is a virgin in charge of fire) and I wanted to use female voices to express my feeling. However, when it came to a realistic creation of Hani music, I was surprised by its diversity. As I mentioned, “Ci Ran” was sung by female musicians primarily. But in the Hani village, I heard a totally different version with both male and female voices. Although it is still controversial for the Hani multi-part songs, I was shocked by the acoustics and atmosphere of eight-voices. It happened that in September 2020, when I went to Hani village for research, I recorded the multi-part “Ci Ran” version of mixed male and female singing. I was so lucky! Normally the Ci Ran is a mono-part, pure female voice song, and the version I managed to experience was very rare. So I began to spread from the first “Zi Ran”, from monophonic parts, to three-parts, to eight-parts, which was imitating a religious ceremony, from the call of the gods to the voice of the masses. Increasing parts of course can also be regarded as imitating ancient beliefs of ancient Roman, who can accept gods from defeated nations to participate in the ceremony and stay in the temple.

(IW): You mentioned previously that the Miao and Hani believe “all things have a spirit”. How does this manifest itself in everyday?  

(AC): Many minorities hold ceremonies for their gods, and they would communicate with the gods by means of music, and as if they could hear back from gods at the same time. It is more than that also. For example, Hani people believe  everything, including tables and chairs, flowers and grasses, animals, all of nature, has a spirit. Singing is also used as an effective means of influencing things such as the harvest.

(IW): Could you tell us something about the various instruments we can hear in your work?

(AC): There are four main types of instruments that we can hear from this song: pabi; meipa; lahe; labi. Pabi, which is leaves (ordinary leaves are fine) do not need special processing but picked leaves must be smooth and soft. When playing pabi, you can use your hands to hold both sides gently, with the upper lip touching the leaf, you should vibrate the leaf to pronounce sounds. Its timbre is very bright and tactful, and as long as you keep practicing, everyone can play pabi.

The Meipa is made by ginger leaves or plantain leaves. They are rolled into the shape of a trumpet. The palm of one hand is placed on the end of the leaf to control opening and closing it in order to change the pitch. I would like to call it a “mysterious” instrument due to it being unknown and because if it’s a low pitch, musicians would sing low pitch that day. By comparison, if it is a high pitch, the song would be a high pitch. It is seen as a divine sound. Instruments like pabi and meipa both come from nature, and the use of natural plants as musical instruments is regarded as the purest state of music.

As for lahe, it is the most common instrument heard in Yunnan music and has three strings. The Labi is a horizontal flute and a straight flute. I call these two instruments the Chinese Lyre and Avros, which are used to make a comparison with the instruments of ancient Greece.

(IW): Why are these songs, sounds, and recordings of such significance to you?

(AC): My works are recording the process of the demise of traditional culture, but they cannot prevent it from avoiding extinction. Of course, with the development of a growing recognition of intangible cultural heritage in the world it has made many young generations devote themselves to the protection of cultural heritage. For the Hani people themselves, there are also a lot of singers who add traditional Hani music elements to pop songs, which has caused great repercussion. The existence of such ancient cultural works, of course, can arouse people’s understanding and respect for the ancient culture, but it can not avoid the impact of modernization. The Hani have temporarily retained their ancient culture because of the villages remoteness, but we should not selfishly think that preserving the original appearance of the ancient culture can prevent the village from modernizing. They have the right to live a life of their choosing.

Hani man with hookah, Qielongzhongzhai, Azahe Township, Honghe County (Image by Ariel Chan)

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