The mountainous area of Yunnan Province in southwestern China features more ethnic, cultural, and biological diversity than anywhere else in the country. At the foothills of the Himalayas, this region is home to the Naxi ethnic group, who are known, despite their relatively small population of 325,000, for their distinctive culture and rich folksong heritage.
With many “firsts” to its credit, the new album Songs of the Naxi of Southwest China released by Smithsonian Folkways is a milestone in the transmission and dissemination of Naxi folksong. It is the first commercially produced album to demonstrate the huge geographical and stylistic diversity of folksongs across the Naxi homeland. It is also the first foreign-produced album of Naxi folksong and the first album in which a native Naxi singer, He Jinhua, performs traditional genres entirely in the Naxi language, a Tibeto-Burman language and Jinhua’s mother tongue. Finally, thanks to the cooperative efforts of He Jinhua, Naxi scholar Yang Fuquan, and ethnomusicologist Helen Rees, it is the first album to feature line-by-line transliteration of the Naxi-language lyrics as well as English and Chinese translations, a boon to scholars and Naxi song-learners alike.
Jinhua’s memories of rural life, her nostalgia for her home village, her reinterpretation of the traditional soundscape, the history of the Naxi, and her own life story are interwoven in this album. It provides a contemporary voice for the Naxi as they advocate for the continuity of their tradition in the face of cultural assimilation hastened by urbanization and globalization.
He Jinhua was born in 1971 in Tacheng, a rural township at the northwest tip of Yulong County, bordering Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Here, Naxi, Tibetan, and Lisu ethnic groups live intermingled. The multiethnic environment and rural lifestyle of Jinhua’s youth had a profound influence on the traditional singing techniques and musical style she exemplifies.
Like many children in Naxi mountain villages, Jinhua’s childhood revolved around herding and planting. While working with adults, she heard different Naxi tunes from time to time. The songs of an elderly man and woman particularly fascinated her. She often followed them, doing farm work together while listening to and learning folk songs.
“In the countryside at that time, there was no electricity, no TV or tape recorder,” she recalls, speaking in Mandarin. “My greatest joy was to learn songs by ear from the elderly, and to chat and sing songs with my family while sitting around the fire eating tongguofan (copper pot rice).”
When Jinhua was thirteen, the Lijiang Peasant Literature and Art Show gave her the chance to perform in the county seat for the first time. Her touching performance of a Tibetan marriage lament, “Ggv zzeeq mil bvl bee,” completely changed Jinhua’s future, ultimately leading to an invitation to join the county song and dance troupe. Her success was immediate: shortly thereafter, in 1987, at sixteen, Jinhua was selected to represent the Naxi on a concert tour of Japan.
She has now toured twenty countries in Europe, Asia, and North America, including an appearance at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and has won recognition at home and abroad for her performances. In China, she has achieved the rare distinction as a National First Grade Artist, the highest level for professional artists. Along the way, Jinhua has dedicated herself to the collection, preservation, and transmission of Naxi folksongs, seeking to sustain the tradition as modern media and communications reach the villages that were once its stronghold.
The decline of local traditions and cultures is all too familiar across China. In the 19960s and 1970s, China’s Cultural Revolution prohibited many folk genres. Since the 1980s, economic pressures have forced many young people to leave rural areas for cities in search of work and higher education. The next generations are increasingly pulled to Westernization and global popular culture, further distancing them from their heritage.
“In this era of dazzling modernization, with ever more advanced singing techniques, will young people today remember their ancestors?” Jinhua often asks. “Will they occasionally contemplate the spirit and strength of their own ethnic group?”
For Songs of the Naxi of Southwest China, Jinhua drew from hundreds of songs she has collected and learned. It includes twelve tracks of unaccompanied Naxi folksongs from multiple regions, two Tibetan-language songs (tracks 4 and 10), and two new arrangements with accompaniment by Grammy-winning composer Daniel Ho (18, 19). There are also three jaw harp tunes (15, 16, 17) and an impromptu self-introduction spoken in Naxi (20).
In this diverse repertoire, Jinhua expresses stories from her own life. The story of her career begins with the Tibetan marriage lament she first performed at age thirteen (10).
“It is this song that changed my life completely. It is not only the song that was all around me as I grew up but also the song that brought me new opportunities.”
“Ail jiuq bbv ddaq pil” (Dawn lament) exemplifies the intersection of Naxi religious beliefs and poetic lyrics with real life, textually representing cultural continuity. In this lament, Jinhua ritually mourns her grandmother, improvising the narrative to combine the legend of the red tiger escorting the soul back to the ancestral land with her own experience, sobbing as she calls on the deceased. She recorded the song in Los Angeles in 2018 with great hesitancy, as it is not normally sung outside the funeral context, but her sense of urgency to document the song prevailed. She only felt able to include it on the album, however, after the passing of both her parents in 2020, as doing so otherwise would have been inauspicious. Through this sad loss, the album thus becomes a memorial to her dearly loved parents, as well as a monument to her Naxi heritage.
It took seven years for this album to take shape, from Yang Fuquan’s initial suggestion in 2015 to final publication in March 2022. Jinhua’s entire family enthusiastically supported the project and appear in the photographs taken specially for the album by Helen Rees in March 2019, visibly connecting Jinhua’s love of family to her love of folksong.
“In my forty-year singing career, this is my second solo album, more than twenty years after my first solo tape in 1999,” she says. “The meaning of this album is extraordinary, whether for my personal pursuit or for the inheritance of Naxi culture. It is urgent to preserve the ancient culture I have learned over these years, because the elders still carrying these traditions are gradually leaving us.”
Jinhua still lives in Lijiang and frequently visits villages all over the Naxi region. She will keep singing with the wish that these half-forgotten ballads be learned by a new generation.
Tingting Tang specializes in the arts, culture, and history of southwest China, the culture of cross-border ethnic groups in the region, and Chinese ethnicities policy. She obtained a PhD in ethnology from Central Minzu University in China and is now pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology at UCLA. After six years of intensive field research among the Naxi ethnic minority, she published the Chinese-language book Initial Studies on Naxi Folk Songs in Yunnan (Minzu Publishing House, 2013 and 2016).