About this Recording
NXW76094-2 - CHINA - Folk Music of China, Vol. 7 - Folk Songs of the Yi and Qiang tribes in Sichuan and Yunnan



A brief introduction to the regions and peoples

This album features songs from the Qiang and the Yi tribes, who both mainly live in the mountainous regions of southwestern China, specifically in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Many of the Yi folk songs make reference to the mountains in this region, especially in love songs and group dance songs, as heard in tracks  19  and  23 . The music of both of these two minority groups includes lively short dance songs in duple metre and long melodious labour or love songs that employ a free rhythm.

At first, you may not be able to distinguish between the music of these two minority groups; in fact, the two tribes are closely related and the Yi are thought to be descendants of ancient Qiang tribes. The languages of the Qiang and Yi both belong to the Sino-Tibetan language phylum. Yet the music of each tribe has its own distinct characteristics. Although both of them often prefer high pitches, the songs of the Yi tribe use a broader vocal range. The dance songs of the Qiang have lively rhythms and are structured with repetitions of a few musical phrases. The dance songs of the Yi incorporate more melodic and rhythmic variations and long, resounding cries. The cries also appear in other types of Yi songs, for example, the middle of track  23 , and the beginning and end of track  24 .

It is noteworthy that the songs featured here have distinct local characteristics, which may differentiate them from the songs of the Qiang and Yi minority groups living in other parts of China. The Qiang songs in this album come from Xin Beichuan County, the only Qiang autonomous county in China. This entire community was relocated to the north of Sichuan province, after the Wenchuan earthquake devastated the original Beichuan County in 2008. The earthquake caused considerable fatalities of the Qiang population and had a profound impact on their culture.

The songs of the Yi tribe featured in this album were recorded in Nanjian County, one of more than twenty Yi autonomous areas. Dozens of Yi branches have developed distinct musical styles, which employ lyrics either in Yi languages or Chinese. The Yi songs in this album illustrate the Yi musical features from Yunnan province. For instance, track  15  is one of the ‘seaweed songs’ that are popular among the Yi in Yunnan, yet are unfamiliar to the ears of the Yi in Sichuan.

Key Musical Styles

Shalang and Da Ge: Songs for Circle Dances

Both tribes have songs for circle dances, the Shalang from the Qiang and Da Ge from the Yi. These are variants of an ancient form of secular stepping dance. The stepping dance represents an old tradition that is often depicted in Chinese poems and paintings. Its primary features include singing in a circle and stepping rhythmically. Several minorities still perform stepping dances with different names. For example, the Tibetans also have a collective circle dance named Guozhuang.

The Qiang hold Shalang dances at celebrations and at funerals. The dance expresses their happiness or sorrow. The Shalang songs for celebrations are cheerful and fast, while those for funerals use low voices and slow tempos. The celebration songs are usually monophonic, and most of them employ relatively plain melodies within one octave. When you listen to the Shalang songs, try to imagine dancers moving counterclockwise from slow to fast after forming two circles, one with men and the other with women. The Qiang people twist their waists, wriggle their knees, and shake their shoulders in the celebratory Shalang dances. They also drink wine whilst dancing. Tracks  1 ,  4  and  8  all belong to this type.

Da Ge, literally meaning ‘hitting the song’, is popular among the Yi branches living in the west and southwest of Yunnan province. The Yi perform Da Ge at festivals and weddings. When a Da Ge starts, people hold each other’s hands and dance in a circle with stepping as the main movement. Sonorous and vigorous cries sometimes intersperse in rhythmic melodies, such as tracks  11  and  23 . A Da Ge usually lasts for a long time. During a wedding, Da Ge starts when it gets dark and lasts until the dawn. The name of track  14 Perform Da Ge until Dawn’ and track  23 Perform Da Ge until Mountains Move’ both present this feature and the passions of the Yi. Although in this album the Da Ge songs are unaccompanied, usually Da Ge employ instruments such as the bamboo flute, cucurbit flute, and the sanxian, a three-stringed Chinese lute. The employment of instruments in Da Ge varies in different regions. The players also join in the dance circle, sometimes leading the team and controlling the rhythm. Nowadays, people also play recorded music as an accompaniment for Da Ge.

Ritual Songs

The traditional life of the Qiang intertwines with their religious beliefs. The religious leaders of the Qiang perform their classics in a narrative singing form during sacred or secular rituals. All the melodies and classics are transmitted in an oral tradition. The tunes are often of aged simplicity. Track  2  features a ritual song, which is a melodious duet.

Labour Songs

Farming is the main livelihood of the Qiang; some of them also herd. They are known to sing labour songs whilst they work in the fields or pastures, and their melodious voices resonate through the mountains. Sung in free rhythm, the labour songs that can be heard on tracks  3  and  5  are sung in high pitches of long duration. Track  5  is a duet that the Qiang sing when they harvest wheat in the fields. As the only pastoral song included in this album, track  9  starts with a lingering note and ends with astonishing cries. The tuneful labour songs bring to mind an open and beautiful environment where the singers work with relaxed feelings.

Love Songs

Yi music has developed a rich tradition of love songs dividing into short songs of solos or duets, and long suites that are mostly sung in unison. These are usually sung outdoors. Some of these are affectionate and express their subtle lovesickness; others are more immediately visceral and deal with themes such as deep longing and innermost desires for love and happiness. The love songs depicting the yearning between lovers are freer in rhythm and are full of melodic ups and downs. For example, the repetitive appearance of a descending melodic contour in track  19  vividly imitates the feeling of longing between lovers. The songs telling of enthusiastic love are in duple metre, some in strongly accented rhythm. The singing of lovesickness presents a melismatic tendency. The songs themed with love confession show a syllabic trend. The Yi songs often include repeated added-lyrics, some of which are nonsense words. For example, the three syllables ‘ah su sei’ as typical added-lyrics frequently appear in tracks  16 ,  18  and  22 .

Seaweed Songs

Seaweed songs are one of the four grand suites of the Yi love songs in Yunnan. The four suites of love songs are named after the features of their origins. The seaweed songs originate in the Yilong Lake region which is rich in seaweed. The Yi people there sing the seaweed tunes while picking this aquatic plant. The grand suite of love songs is not only a melodic pool, but also includes a group of singing techniques. The three parts of seaweed songs require the lead singer and the choir to use the chest voice and head voice alternatively. In track  15 , the leading female voice starts first, then the choir joins and sings in unison. In Chinese popular culture, the singer Gong Linna brought the head voice from seaweed songs to public view with a new interpretation of Yunnan folk song A Little Stream.

Wine Songs

Both the Yi and the Qiang are famous for wine brewing and consumption. Wine is considered a necessary part of various celebrations, sacrificial rituals, weddings, or funerals. Both minority groups have their systems of drinking rites. The hosts and guests all toast with wine songs. Tracks  7 ,  10 ,  12  and  24  all feature this style.

Jasmine Zhou

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