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V/A - Ethnic Minority Music of Southern China

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Artist: V/A

Album: Ethnic Minority Music of Southern China

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: May. 23, 2013

At latest count, China has a population of 1.344 billion people. Ninety-three percent of them are Han, the dominant ethnicity. If you look to official government documents, there are 55 other ethnic groups; if you ask Laurent Jeanneau, the anthropologist whose recordings make up this CD, the number is between 300 and 400, but shrinking fast. Culture dies when you deprive it of its habitat, and minorities in China are subject to particularly intense forces of assimilation and deprivation. Thatís just the way it is if youíve been born into a place claimed by the government that represents the largest ethnic group on earth. The Han have successfully absorbed the impacts of Mongolian and European invasion; what do you expect them to do to less powerful groups?

Jeanneauís task here is quixotic at best. Heís traveled Southeast Asia for years, documenting languages, songs and ceremonies that are in danger of dying out. The same thing happens all over the world. Throughout the developing world, villagers move to the city; people who might once have sung chants in the fields now throw down to Konono No. 1ís junkyard rock. How many native Americans devote themselves full force to keeping the old ways after growing up in the land of hip-hop, Playstation and hamburgers? Some, but they are probably not enough to stem the forces of social erosion. Change, whether or not you believe it constitutes progress, can be pretty seductive. Itís that way within the dominant culture, too. My grandfather was born and raised a bit over a hundred years ago on a farm in Wisconsin, and the first thing he did when he was old enough to make his own decisions was move to a big city and get a job working on cars. Change has its appeal.

So the best Jeanneau can do is show us a bit about what has been, or what is still around for a bit longer. He has 55 CDs of raw recordings, some of which have already been excerpted to make the albums Ethnic Minority Music of Northeast Cambodia and Ethnic Minority Music of Northwest Xinjiang. Like those collections, Ethnic Minority Music of Southern China is good as far as it goes, but feels woefully inadequate in the face of the destruction it defies. When youíve got 55-odd hours to sift through, thereís bound to be something good in there, and Jeanneau has done a pretty good job of explaining each track. Heís also no slouch as a photographer and recordist; heís done an excellent job at capturing the (mostly unaccompanied) singers and players of various lutes heard on 16 of this recordís 17 tracks.

But how well can we really grasp the import of what weíre hearing? To the performers, these recordings may be their one chance to show what was. To us, theyíre neat sounds you can play while you commute or cook dinner. Itís tempting to project an American interpretation onto the vocal expressions heard here; the bent notes, held tones, and occasional background choruses of whooping or sobbing all bring to mind the blues. The stuttering string music likewise reminds me of Appalachian banjos, but also Moorish folk forms. It sounds cool and alien, but not so alien that I canít try to incorporate it into what I already know. The photos and sounds tell me that some might think cool music and vibrant culture is being extinguished as inexorably as the flora that can get out of the way of the glaciers that expand during ice ages or the waters that rise in times like our own. All we can do is listen, and know that we know about a vast body of disappearing knowledge and experience.

But culture isnít just a vehicle for destruction; adaptive practices have a way of living on. The final track on Ethnic Minority Music of Southern China is a repeated loop of a Buddhist prayer, taken from a little loop machine. People might not pray quite the same way these days, but they still pray, and this gadget must be pretty handy if you need to commune with the divine but you donít have the opportunity to take a few months off from the factory job and join a monastery.

By Bill Meyer

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