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Two women singers and two male instrumentalists perform in ornate dress, outdoors in a field of tall yellow flowers.

Members of Yandong Grand Singers practice in Yandong. From left: Wu Jinyan, Ou Huaqing, Wu Liangfeng, and Wu Dingkang.

Photo by Yang Wenliang

  • From the Mountain to the World: My Travels with the Chinese Yandong Grand Singers


    Wanp-wanp jangl kap means “everyone, listen close” in the language of the Kam (or Dong) people, a Chinese ethnic minority group well known for its polyphonic songs. Many traditional Kam songs, which are often without formal titles, start with this line.

    Most of the choirs who sing these songs are also nameless, but they are found in every village in the Kam region of mountainous Guizhou Province. Nearly every Kam person sings in a choir at some time in their life, and singing is a community activity here. To me, these songs and singers exemplify the spirit of traditional folk music and musicians—unassuming, collective, and organic.

    In 2019, I recorded and produced a CD of traditional Kam songs and used Wanp-Wanp Jangl Kap as its title. The singers I recorded are based in Yandong township, and their main repertoire is a polyphonic chorus called the Grand Song (al laox), so we decided to call the group the Yandong Grand Singers. Both the lyrics, which depict their mountain lifestyles, and the way they sing, especially the mimicking of natural sounds, are deeply connected to the land where they live.

    None of the singers were professional, and I had never produced an album before. They did nothing more than sing in the everyday way, and I did nothing more than present their voices in an unadorned fashion, just as I was used to hearing them at village parties. As a result, this album was selected by the Transglobal World Music Chart as the Best Asia & Pacific Album of the 2019-2020 season. A dream of mine was coming true: that audiences around the world could now hear the voices of the Kam people in a way that is true to their culture, voices that have fascinated me since I first met these singers over a decade ago.

    I first went to Yandong in 2007. A journalist at the time, I had heard about the music tradition and hoped to write an article. The Kam people, who don’t have a traditional writing system of their own, transmit much of their history, culture, and knowledge orally through the Grand Song, and people often meet their partners through community singing. That’s why the Grand Song is such an important part of the lives of the Kam.

    Yandong holds a special place in the history of the Grand Song. In September 1953, four villagers from here, Wu Peixin, Wu Xihua, Wu Xiumei, and Wu Shanhua, were invited by the central government to perform the Grand Song in Beijing for the first time, at the National Folk Music and Dance Festival. In the same year, Wu Peixin joined a consolation delegation to perform in North Korea for Chinese soldiers fighting in the Korean War, bringing Kam music abroad for the first time. In 1957, she also took part in the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow.

    Although these performances bore the ideological imprints of the era, they were groundbreaking events in the history of Kam music.

    In Yandong, I talked to villagers and listened to them sing every day, making many friends. Wu Jinyan, Wu Xuemei, and Wu Peiyuan, who later sang on the album, were among the singers I met at that time.

    I made some field recordings of the Grand Song in 2007. Listening to them now feels like tasting an old wine that gets better with age. What especially attracts me is the close link between the songs they sing and the lives they lead, something often missing in songs of today’s modernized world.

    In 2009, the Grand Song was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. However, most people know very little about the tradition. I wanted to do something about that.

    Four women singers in ornate dress performing on stage.
    Yandong Grand Singers perform at the World Music Shanghai festival. From left: Wu Bangmei, Wu Xuemei, Wu Jinyan, and Wu Peiyuan.
    Photo by Shi Lei

    An opportunity came in 2013. World Music Shanghai accepted my recommendation and invited the singers to perform at the festival. We gave four concerts in different Shanghai locations, which allowed many to enjoy the beautiful harmonies of the Grand Song for the first time.

    The festival gathered musicians from around the world, and the Yandong Grand Singers performed in the same concert with the Eva Quartet of Bulgaria, made up of members from Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, an internationally renowned group whose album won a 1989 GRAMMY for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Their repertoire of traditional Bulgarian polyphonic songs is sonically similar to the Grand Song. After hearing the Yandong Grand Singers, Dimiter Panev, manager of the Eva Quartet, said he would recommend the group to European festivals.

    We didn’t really expect anything to materialize, but in May 2015, Panev arranged for us to perform at the International Festival for Vocal Music “a cappella” in Leipzig, Germany. The singers gave a full concert at the Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche, where the German composer Mendelssohn was baptized. The group also performed at the closing concert of the festival at the Gewandhaus, a famous classical music venue.

    At the festival, the Yandong Grand Singers shared the stage with such groups as Ladysmith Black Mambazo of South Africa and German classical quintet amarcord. Following the concert, Jinyan, our lead singer, told me how excited she had been to perform the music of her people to an international audience, but that she’d been nervous. Her fear proved unnecessary, as their performance drew louder and longer applause than any other group I heard.

    Four women singers and two male accompanists playing in a large room.
    Yandong Grand Singers perform at the Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche in Leipzig, Germany. From left: Wu Bangmei, Wu Xuemei, Wu Jinyan, Wu Peiyuan, Wu Liangxian, and Wu Zaifeng.
    Photo by Mu Qian

    Since then, I have looked for more opportunities to introduce Kam music to the world. In 2019, I finally returned to Yandong after twelve years. I was there to record the group for an album commissioned by Pan Records of the Netherlands, and to prepare for the group’s fall U.S. tour.

    The Kam region had changed a lot. Yandong, formerly a remote place hidden in the mountains, was now reachable by high-speed train. As the music demanded that I record outdoors, it proved difficult to avoid the noise of construction, cars, and trucks in villages that were once quiet. Urbanization is a challenge to traditional music.

    I had listened to some commercially released CDs of the Grand Song, most recorded in studios by professionals who were not necessarily familiar with the Kam tradition. To my ears, that kind of industrialized working environment had severed the connection between the music and its place. Some recording engineers added artificial reverb which masked the characteristic tension of the Grand Song, making it sound like Western chorus or popular music. For me, these recordings had failed to capture the aesthetics of Kam music. My aim was to enable the audience to experience the soundscape of a village singing party through the recording, and in order to do so we needed to record in an environment where they could sing spontaneously.

    After trying many places, we settled on a “wind and rain” bridge, a kind of covered wooden bridge found above many of the rivers that flow in the Kam region. Such bridges provide shelter from the area’s abundant rainfall and a place for people to gather and rest.

    It was quieter here, and the singers sang in a way closest to their community singing events. We included some natural sounds in the recording sessions, such as rain, river flow, and animal calls. These sounds were kept in the final CD.

    CD cover with photo of four women in ornate dress and two men with stringed instruments. Text reads: Ethnic Series. Everyone Listen Close / Wanp-Wanp Jangl Kap. The Yandong Grand Singers.
    CD back cover with track listing.

    The sounds of nature have a special meaning to the Kam people and are reflected in many Kam songs. 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 chirping of cicadas; to her ears, it sounds like weeping. She sighs at the memory of an old lover.

    A vocal drone provides a base for much of the song. On top of this, two singers take turns delivering the main melody. Their voices meet, then move apart. One can sometimes hear intervals deemed dissonant to Western harmony, but the transitions between dissonance and consonance are one of the most interesting parts of the song, and they are meant to remind one of a similar process in the chirping of cicadas. This points to an important feature of Kam songs: mimesis, or the vocal imitation of natural sounds.

    As this was an international release, we insisted on including Kam lyrics with English translation. Although few people can read the Latinized Kam writing system developed in the 1950s, we hope this album can make a small contribution to the documentation, study, and appreciation of Kam culture.

    In June 2019, I played the recording on the BBC’s Road Trip radio show and received a lot of positive feedback. in September, the group embarked on their U.S. tour, visiting five cities and holding ten concerts and workshops that taught us much about sharing culture.

    The first stop was the World Music Festival Chicago, where they played two concerts. After the first, at the Beverly Arts Center, many stayed to speak with the group, and the Irish band Lankum exchanged CDs with us. The second concert was at Ping Tom Memorial Park. When the singers mimicked the cicadas in “During Daytime, I Go up the Mountain,” the cicadas in the park sang along with us. It was a magical moment.

    On this tour, I took on the role of emcee to introduce the cultural backgrounds and meaning of each song, combining ethnomusicological theory with my personal experience. It seemed that my work proved helpful, especially for songs like “My Friend, You Look Like a Good Cabbage,” which I translated as “My Friend, You Look Really Sexy.”

    One of the women singers interacts with an audience member, who seems to be interested in her tall silver headpiece.
    Yandong Grand Singers chat with the audience in Albuquerque.
    Photo by Yang Wenliang
    One of the women singers, in full costume, speaks to a group of students in a classroom.
    Wu Jinyan teaches students to sing the Grand Song at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
    Photo by Yang Wenliang
    Performers and audience members join in a circle dance on stage.
    Yandong Grand Singers invite audience members to dance with them during their concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
    Photo by Peter Smith
    A merch table full of CDs, textiles, and small crafts.
    Yandong Grand Singers’ merchandise
    Photo by Yang Wenliang
    A crowd of people around the merch table.
    After a concert in Chicago
    Photo by Yang Wenliang
    Painting of the ensemble performing on stage.
    “My Friend, You Look Like a Good Cabbage” painted by an audience member in Albuquerque
    Photo by Yang Wenliang

    At the second stop, Albuquerque, New Mexico, a painter in the audience made a portrait of the singers. He later sent us the painting, which he entitled “My Friend, You Look Like a Good Cabbage.” At the festival we also met Sarah, a woman from the United States who had lived in Guizhou Province for four and a half years and was familiar with the Kam culture. She invited us to her home for dinner and an exchange of songs with local friends. This was just as the Kam do at home. As the Kam saying goes, “Foods feed the body, while songs feed the soul.” What else could we ask for than to have both the body and soul well fed? Although the Grand Song and American folk songs are very different in form, the spirit proved similar.

    At the University of Michigan, our third stop, 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. By working close up, we could give people a deeper understanding of this musical culture so different from their own.

    The fourth stop was in Bloomington, Indiana. As part of the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival, we gave two concerts at the First Christian Church. We also held a workshop at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, where the group was surprised to discover bamboo baskets from Liping, their home county. They remarked that the world is becoming smaller and smaller.

    The last stop was the University of Kentucky. During the concert, I jokingly said that this was our last show, so please buy all our CDs and crafts. Surprisingly, it really happened. After I returned home, I received an email from Professor Han Kuo-Huang, who in 1975 founded the first Chinese orchestra at a U.S. university, Northern Illinois. In his email, Professor Han thanked me for bringing “such a treasure of humankind” to Kentucky. He said that listening to the polyphonic songs of the Yandong Grand Singers was, for him, an immigrant to the United States, an unforgettable experience.

    Thinking of the audience member who painted the singers, the friends who treated us to American folk songs at Sarah’s home, the Irish band who exchanged CDs with us, and the many other people we met on tour, I am reminded that, for the group, this kind of heart-to-heart communication means everything.

    Like Wu Peixin in the 1950s, the Yandong Grand Singers made history by performing their traditional songs to the wider world, and I am honored to have been a part of it.

    Four women singers and two male accompanists with long-necked string instruments perform outdoors on a green, rainy day.
    Mu Qian introduces Yandong Grand Singers to the audience in Bloomington, Indiana. From left: Mu Qian, Wu Peiyuan, Ou Huaqing, Wu Jinyan, Wu Xuemei, Wu Qianchun, and Duan Huabin.
    Photo by Yang Wenliang

    Mu Qian is an ethnomusicologist and music curator. He earned his doctorate in 2019 from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is now an editor at Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale in New York. Mu hosts serial BBC radio shows to introduce regional musics of China and contributes to Songlines magazine. In 2014, as an intern of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, he worked with the Dimen Dong Folk Chorus, another Kam choir from Guizhou. There, for the first time, he met musician Wu Qianchun, now of the Yandong Grand Singers.

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