Preserving China's Traditional Ethnic Music

In Shanghai's super-modern Grand Theater, a fashionable, mainly young audience applauds enthusiastically as Guo Yong takes center stage. He acknowledges the semicircle of musicians around him and prepares to play a solo. But Guo does not raise a flute, trombone, or oboe to his lips; instead, he proudly holds aloft a large bushy tree branch covered in leaves. Blowing on one of the leaves, he produces a sound that mimics the twittering of birds as he plays a traditional Buyi folk song. The other musicians on the stage include a Mongolian throat singer, an ethnic Kazakh from northwestern Xinjiang playing a two-stringed banjo, and a four-member Miao minority singing troupe from a village in southwestern Guizhou.

It's the first time such music has ever been performed in the Grand Theater, a formal venue more accustomed to large Western symphonies playing Beethoven. But these musicians are all playing traditional songs from their various ethnic groups. The songs are interspersed with new, specially composed pieces inspired by these traditions, sung in lilting, ethereal tones by Zhu Zheqin, the Cantonese-born singer whose vision this concert embodies. Zhu, better known abroad as Dadawa, has always stood out in China's contemporary music scene; in the 1990s she became the first Chinese musician to win international acceptance in the "world music" field with her Tibetan-inspired albums Sister Drum and Voices From the Sky. Now she has made it her mission to help preserve China's traditional ethnic music.

In 2009, after being appointed a United Nations Development Program ambassador, Zhu traveled through some of China's remotest regions—accompanied by a film crew, photographer, and writer—in an attempt to document the traditional music of various minority groups. In the course of their four-month odyssey, they recorded more than a thousand songs. In Miao areas, Zhu watched young people singing love songs on the mountainsides—a traditional courting ritual for an ethnic group that has no written language. She heard hundreds of people of the Dong minority singing complicated, multipart music without a conductor. And in Tibet, she discovered a historic form of religious music played only in one village. But Zhu realized that many of the best musicians were old, and some of the music was at risk of dying out. "I was shocked by the beauty of what I heard—it was so good," she says. "But it needed support. I hope to let people see the beauty of these things in the contemporary era."

So Zhu decided to introduce some of the musicians she encountered to a wider audience, devising a concert tour of prestigious venues that included Beijing's National Grand Theater and Hong Kong's Cultural Center. She is also planning an album combining original folk-song recordings with new works inspired by them. Zhu aims to use a significant portion of the proceeds from the tour and 10 percent of the album royalties to fund 400 veteran musicians to pass on their musical heritage by taking on five young students in their home areas.

Inner Mongolian musician Aalatengwula loves the idea. He plays the modentsuur, which combines the sounds of a wind instrument with traditional Mongolian throat singing. It had actually died out in his home region, but in his early 30s, he traveled across the border to Mongolia proper to learn the basics, then made a two-day journey on horseback to study with the last master in the neighboring region of Xinjiang. The following year, the master died. And though Aalatengwula's performance troupe in Inner Mongolia receives state funding, its performances attract mainly "middle-aged and older people," he says. "Young people don't like this music much; they prefer pop music and love songs." Thus he fears that the folk songs, often the only record of historical events and traditions in mainly oral cultures like his, could soon fade away.

By bringing this folk music into the mainstream, Zhu hopes to rekindle the interest of the younger generation. "If you treat something like an ancient artifact in a museum, it will gradually fade away," says the project's French-trained, ethnic Mongolian producer, Lü Jiajia. "Young people think these songs are something their grandma sings. This kind of repackaging gives young people a new door into their heritage: they'll say, 'Hey, we didn't know it could be so cool.' "

Udo Hoffmann, a German promoter who founded a series of influential music festivals in Beijing, says the project's value lies in the respect it pays to the ethnic musicians. It's a far cry from what he calls the "sanitized" versions of minority music and dance often included in officially sponsored performances in China. "These musicians have a real spirit, which comes from real life," he says. "And they're fascinated by each other's ideas, and are all learning from each other. They could create a new fusion music, a kind of free improvising ethnic orchestra."

It's certainly one of the first times musicians from so many diverse ethnic groups have collaborated in China—not least because of the political tensions surrounding minorities in certain fringe regions, like Tibet and Xinjiang. But Zhu believes mixing ethnic heritages is part of China's tradition. "We have so many ethnic groups, we're a multicultural country, but in our academic study we've excluded a lot of other traditions and focused on Han Chinese culture." In fact, she notes, the traditional dress known as qipao or cheongsam comes from the Manchus; Buddhism from over the Himalayas; and the traditional stringed instrument known as the erhu from Central Asia. "So it's actually a question of protecting our own culture."

Zhu believes China needs to look afresh at its own roots. "China today is basically all Western art; in our conservatories Western classical music is the top," she says. "But we can't only be a copy of Western things. For China to really contribute to the world, we need to go on our own path. So what can represent China today?" The answer, she suggests, is to move from "made in China" to "created in China"—and to draw on China's diverse roots "to make sure our cultural transmission does not stop." Zhu is also seeking to promote traditional craft skills in minority regions, to help these areas economically as well as to preserve traditional ways of life. It's a blueprint for a more diverse, tolerant Chinese culture—one she believes many young people are increasingly willing to accept.