Together in chorus

By ALEXIS HOOI and ZHANG LI in Sanjiang, Guangxi (China Daily Global)

Updated: 2021-08-21

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Members of the Dong ethnic group perform the Grand Song of Dong in Sanjiang Dong autonomous county, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, on April 13. GONG PUKANG/FOR CHINA DAILY

Grand Song tradition gains popularity and continues to unite communities

Editor's note: From arts and crafts to knowledge and skills, China's intangible cultural heritage is invaluably embedded in its ethnic communities. This series looks at the latest efforts to preserve and promote the country's inherited traditions and living expressions.

When Wu Jinyan, a singer of the Dong ethnic group, stepped off the stage from one of her first overseas concerts, she found it hard to mingle at the post-performance party.

"We couldn't speak the language and didn't really know what was going on. But people soon gathered around. They wanted to know more about us and our singing. We became closer through song."

The experience two years ago in a multistop United States tour became a highlight for Wu and fellow practitioners of the Dong ethnic group's traditional "Grand Song", marking its increasing popularity at home and abroad.

"The growing interest is very appropriate, because our songs have always been about the community; the more the merrier," she said.

Wu, 37, is a lead singer in Yandong, Liping county, in southwestern China's Guizhou province.

Her ethnic group is famous for its Grand Song, the folk music-described as polyphonic and a capella-of its members, with UNESCO recognizing the practice as an intangible cultural heritage. The millennia-old tradition is said to derive from the sounds of nature and singers' lives in their natural surroundings, such as the rush of rivers and the call of birds, with each group having as many as 1,000 singers.

Ethnomusicologist and music curator Mu Qian has studied the Dong songs closely and helped promote them worldwide. Mu traveled to the US with Wu's six-member team, taking on the role of emcee to introduce the cultural backgrounds and meaning of the songs of the Dong people, also known as Kam, combining ethnomusicological theory with his experience.

"The sounds of nature have a special meaning to the Kam people and are reflected in many Kam songs," Mu wrote in Folklife, the online magazine of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

"For example, the chirping of cicadas is a constant backdrop in the Kam area, and the imitation of cicadas can be found in many songs. In During Daytime, I Go up the Mountain, a young woman hears the sound of cicadas; to her ears, it sounds like weeping. She sighs at the memory of an old lover," according to Mu, an editor at the nonprofit organization Repertoire International de Litterature Musicale in New York.

During their stop at the University of Michigan, "the group performed a full concert, but we also held workshops. We did this wherever conditions allowed, as workshops seemed the best way to introduce the natural and human environment of the Kam region and to teach the audience to sing," he said.

"By working close up, we could give people a deeper understanding of this musical culture so different from their own."

Wu Jinyan said "the face-to-face interaction and cultural exchange proved to be very important. These are all very valuable experiences for me, helping to increase understanding of treasured aspects of our traditions".

Nurturing tradition

In the Sanjiang Dong autonomous county of Liuzhou in the neighboring Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, more efforts are also being made to preserve and promote the ethnic group's song heritage.

In late April, President Xi Jinping visited the Anthropology Museum of Guangxi in the regional capital, Nanning. Guangxi is a national demonstration area for ethnic unity, and the region should continue to give play to its exemplary and leading role, said Xi, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

To that effect, Sanjiang resident Wu Chunyue, another Grand Song lead singer, regularly practices with at least six team members and runs workshops to nurture young singers.

"The songs are a collective effort, and the more people sing them, the better they sound," said Wu, 40.

"We've known it all our lives and feel a deep responsibility to pass it on to future generations."

Long Xiaoqin, deputy head of Sanjiang's publicity department, said: "Our government attaches great importance to the Dong Grand Song. We believe this is what makes our Dong people special." She added that the songs complement the rich culture and pristine environment of the county, which draw millions of tourists every year.

"So far, we have more than 200 masters here. The government encourages them to pass on their skills to the young to keep the tradition alive," she said.

Pan Ming, general manager of the Guangxi Tourism Development Group, which runs the major Sanjiang scenic area where the ethnic group's Grand Songs are performed and promoted, said nearly 1 billion yuan ($150 million) has been invested in the county in recent years to help preserve and pass on the Dong intangible cultural heritage.

"Local ethnic aspects such as the Grand Song of the Dong are integrated with the cultural and tourism industry to continuously improve the visitor experience, create immersive song and dance programs, and enhance the attractiveness of Dong culture," Pan said.

US ethnomusicologist and Guangxi University for Nationalities music teacher Ben Linde said he first experienced the Grand Song "through the studies, performances and cultural heritage transmission efforts" of Guangxi Arts University's department of ethnic arts in Nanning.

"They do a great job teaching this important genre of folk music to college students from all corners of Guangxi. Obviously, a personal visit to Sanjiang to listen to this music in its most natural setting is a priority for my future field research," he said.

The Grand Song is "unlike any other folk songs I've heard anywhere in the world. Its charming main melody floats over the harmony part, creating a delightful and gentle 'rocking' experience for the ear. Combined with the group nature of performance, often strikingly polished, this folk music genre must be shared, protected and passed to future generations", Linde said.

"As long as people from Sanjiang are supportive, fusions and new presentations" of its Grand Song "are a great way to increase the spread and enjoyment of this great art form", he added.