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Music of China and Nepal

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Look here for more music of Asia. Some reviews were contributed by many authors. Read the masthead to see who they are. All are copyright 1996, 1997, 1998 by the authors.
There are always more recent reviews in our general review section

Feature Reviews
China, A Time To Listen
The Voice of Traditional China


Rao Ningxin, Luo Dezai, Luo Lian
Above The Clouds: Chinese Han Music- Zheng Melodies
Interra/Subharmonic

Here's a truly beautiful set of Chinese music centered on the 13 string zither, the zheng and the songs of the Han people. It is accompanied by other strings and flutes, in a simple, sublime series of tunes from the ancient tradition. Rao Ningzin is a fine player, evocative yet careful to stay within the tradition.

This is one of a series of releases on the new Interra imprint from the Subharmonic label. The series includes two recordings each from Bali and Sunda that come in colorful packaging with absolutely NO info about the artists, the instruments or the people who's music is played. - CF


Dadawa
Voices from the Sky
Sire /Warner

With Mao's death in 1976, what remained in Chinese music was a cultural wasteland. Mao called it a Cultural Revolution. For ten years under Mao, music production effectively ceased. What was permitted by the state was the performance of a handful of model operas and ballets. All other music, dances, gatherings and cultural festivals were shut down. Artists and intellectuals were shot or put to work in the fields. When Mao died, the Cultural Revolution ended. Deng Xiao Ping, dismissed by Mao's government, came to power and eased many of the cultural restrictions. What filled the musical void was a sickly sweet Westernized ballad style currently popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong. To this day-with the exception of the rock music of Cui Jen and his recent influences-these escapist love songs can be heard on every bus, taxi and streetcar throughout the major cities, and well into the countryside.

Dadawa, born Zhu Zhe Qin, is one of these popular music singers. In 1992, she began working with He Xuntian, a music professor in Shanghai, on creating popular style music based on Tibetan ideals, unheard of in contemporary Chinese music. The result was Sister Drum, an album saturated with MIDI sequencing, that became widely popular among Mainland China and Taiwan, and embraced by Western music media. The sound was not new. But its concept was revolutionary. Zhu's chanting and He's florid use of synthetic sound created a sense of "Tibetaness" without necessarily being Tibetan. Voices from the Sky continues on that theme.

In addition to He Xuntian's writing, Voices has included music to poetry by the sixth Dalai Lama, considered to be the most outstanding love poet in Tibetan literature.

"I often think of the living Buddha's feature
But it never appears before my eyes
I never think of the face of my lover
But it always reflects on my heart."
As before, Dadawa provides an aesthetic front to He's work. She is the exotic siren that guilds a shroud of mystery. She is the beautiful peasant girl dancing among "her people" of Lhasa (she is, in fact, from Shanghai), a voice as innocent and sweet as liqueur. But it is the old man He who is at the controls. This time producing a work a little less naive, more homogenized, less inspired.

From a Westerner's point of view, Voices from the Sky is probably one of the most accessible popular Chinese music albums to come out. While its message may be spiritual, its spirit has been rather honed down. What is seen reflects on the attitudes of the Chinese, or at least the attitudes of He and Zhu, who view the Tibetans as "mysterious" and "exotic." The music is ripe with symbolism, but ultimately takes us nowhere. If indeed we are filled with the spirit of wanderlust, it is with as much adventure as a box of take-out moo goo gai pan. We're still hungry the next day. - Wayne Whitwam


Asiabeat
Monsoon
Domo Records (lugop@domo.com)

Asiabeat's mix of Asian traditional instruments with modern reflects a trend in World Music to combine portions of traditional rhythm and instruments such as the er hu, pipa, yang chen with modern song structures to produce an easy to listen to hybrid.

Master musicians Ottmar Liebert on flamenco guitar, Samuel Dass on sitar and Lewis Pragasam on drums and percussion push the songs along surrounded by a host of other instruments. I was always a fan of Asiabeat's mix of traditional and modern music because they know how to do both without sacrificing either. Yes - tabla, sitar, electric bass and flute can flow together without sacrificing the special sounds of any one.

Unfortunately, the album is skimpy on driving rhythms and does not have enough surprises to let the musicians out of their 4/4 nests. So, like bands such as Shadowfax, the music circles dependably back on major chords and simple melodies. Even in "Taman Negara," when the band breaks into a great riff, the keyboards take over with a monotonous 1- 1 - 2 - 1 song cycle. "Mangroove" sounds more like Asiabeat's earlier album, which was more adventurous, but Monsoon is still a fine choice for an introduction to the sounds of Asia. Just don't expect to get wet. - Brain Grosjean


Celestial
Spirit House
Domo Records (www.domo.com)

Spirit House is an easy to listen to album on this small but lively independent label specializing in music of Tibet and the east. The album is mostly the work of Peter Millward who arranges and, I suspect, plays most of the keyboards on this album Although packaged and marketed as music of Vietnam and Nepal (the beautiful cover graphic images evoke the east), it is actually very Western in its influences and overtones. Chot Kit Yee on the zheng zither, Hsin Hsiao Hung on Chinese Erhu, and Nelson Hiu on flute are backed with synthesizer washes and mostly 4/4 rhythms on congas, tabla, and drum machines. Some of the sounds were collected in "a little village outside Hue in Vietnam" and sound very true, but the repetitious nature of some of the songs reminded me more of New Age music, circa Kitaro 1977.

There might be more here than meets the ear, though. The easiness of the music and its predictability may be part of the plan. Chinese philosophy notes that music is not really for the mind or body, but is a food for the soul. In that way, Spirit House may have soul sweeteners as an extra ingredient. The sweeteners help the music be more appetizing to the average (Western) listener. It does feel good for the soul. Once I put away my preconceptions of music as challenging or a learning experience, I began to enjoy this album much more. So I recommend this album to your soul, and remember to brush afterwards! - Brian Grosjean


SUR SUDHA
Images of Nepal
Domo Records (lugop@domo.com)

There's little a reviewer can say about Images of Nepal. It is a simple, beautiful album of instrumental music from the classical tradition of Nepal. A trio of flute, tabla and sitar (with tanpura on some tracks), Sur Sudha play the music pretty straight, with few traces of cultural crossover. They are playing music from the various traditions of Nepal, each one stands alone from the others, and each piece is an exercise in elegance and musicianship. - CF


Shri Amanda Ma Divine Bliss
Sounds True (800- 333-9185)

Shri Amanda Ma is deeply devoted to the Hindu gods and to her guru. In her album Divine Bliss she expresses her yearning to be close to god. Shri Amanda Ma (whose name means "Bringer of Divine Bliss") was considered a saint at a very early age. She composed these simple, repetitious songs to accompany her own yearning. This album collects eight of her devotional songs, most running 8 to 12 minutes, out of the hundreds she has composed. Although the beauty of these songs cannot be fully appreciated this side of the cultural barrier, anyone can appreciate her marvelous voice, accompanied by dholak drums, tala bells, the tamboura for the necessary drone, and harmonium for melody.

Devotion is one of the higher states of being for humanity. Beyond care, beyond allegiance, beyond dedication is the devotion of one to an ideal, another human, or to a god. The expression of one's devotion can take many forms. Prayer, work, and attention to a shrine or certain place are one of humanity's oldest urges. And very often, the devotion is accompanied by music. Music specifically written for devotion time is usually repetitious and trance-like, enabling the disciple to concentrate on the devotional. In the west, Gregorian Chants and Native American powwow songs lead to trance-like states of being. In the east, a long tradition of chanting includes Qawwali music in Pakistan, the drumming of Islamic Dirvishes, Tibetan prayer chants, and the bhajans and dhuns of India presented in this album. (For a good sampler of trance music, pick up Trance (Ellipsis Arts)).

But devotional music is connected to the soul. It lifts the listener up. In the right frame of mind, it can lead toward one's own exploration and yearning to be close to the maker. Scaling the cultural boundaries is easier that it appears. All that is required is an open mind, no foregone conclusions, and a willingness to build a bridge and cross over to a new culture. This album affords the chance to expand and explore your own devotions – no matter what it is you are devoted to. - Brian Grosjean


JIANG JIAN HUA The Earth
JVC

Jiang Jian Hua plays the erhu, a traditional fiddle of ancient origin from the northwest of China. You will be struck immediately by the complexity of the playing, the range of voicing it delivers, and more so when you find that this is all coming from a simple two-stringed instrument. Her playing is moving, evocative and passionate. On these tracks she shares the stage with two ensembles, a Chinese radio orchestra and a smaller youth ensemble from a Chinese conservatory. Both are impressive, but I have a natural tendency towards the smaller youth ensemble, as it allows more of the music of the erhu to find the fore, and gives you a glimpse at the potency of this player. - CF


KRONOS QUARTET AND WU MAN
Tan Dun: Ghost Opera
Nonesuch

Kronos have teamed up with a remarkable composer and a talented instrumentalist in their latest collaborative effort, Ghost Opera. Chinese composer Tan Dun is known for his spacial, ambient work and this piece is as spacial as it can get. The piece is composed for string quartet, pipa (the Chinese lute played by Wu Man), water, stones, paper and metal (often in the guise of bells, bowls and cymbals) and human voices. A "ghost opera" is a conversation with the past and the future lives of the performer, an eerie concept conveyed through the collective work of the performers, who are just as often rattling sheets of paper, clicking rocks together and making utterances as they are bowing and plucking strings. When they are doing their more traditional instruments, it is as likely they are playing bach as the original compositions or the ancient Chinese folks songs that are their root.

All this said, this is a complex, complicated and subtle work, one that is going to be hard to excerpt for radio. It needs to be taken as a whole, and few radio programs will allow for such an exercise. But having done it myself, the rewards are enormous. This single work gathered as many phone calls as anything I have every broadcast, and even those listeners who had to move in and out of the piece found it exhilarating. If you have to try a shorter segment, make it "Earth Dance," a seven minute section that highlights the melodies of the work, and the energy and skill of the performers. - CF


White Elephants and Golden Ducks
(Shanachie)

Here is a thoughtful, sometimes clever look at the modern, living traditions of Burma. Burma, now called Myanmar, is a country bordering India, China, Laos and Thailand. It has been a country of great myth in the west, with cities like Mandalay and Rangoon being the scene for many movies and novels seeking "exotic" locale, and also used as a pawn in many an international political scheme. But like most places that are just dots on the map to most of us, this is a unique and vital culture, one that has been only lightly explored in this century.

What this recording presents is an interesting and contemporary look at the musical nation. The performers here are neither classical court musicians, westernized pop artists or folk revivalists and preservationists. Rather, what we get here is a collection of music by a music scene that has assimilated and co-opted influences and instruments from its neighbors and invaders and made them their own. Two tracks point out this amazing ability to conquer the cultural invasion. "Mya Man Giri" is sung by a duo of male and female vocalists, accompanied by small hand cymbals and an electric piano. The effect of the local music on the piano playing is quite stunning, leaving an impression of ancient melodies, but at the same time giving an almost avant garde approach. "Sabe" brings together bamboo flute, tuned drums and siwa with violin and slide guitar. It's a remarkable tune, gentle and yet challenging the ear, hinting at Indonesian string music, Thai folk and even a touch of what could be called blues.

Throughout the record are further proofs of the vitality of the Burmese musical landscape, a reminder that no folk tradition should go untouched and preserved, but nurtured, revitalized and given lots of room for growth. - CF


THE ILYAS MALAYEV ENSEMBLE performs ancient central Asian music At The Bazaar Of Love (Shanachie). A NYC emigrant from Uzbekistan, malayev was well known in the former Soviet satellite as a vaudevillian singer and comedian, but his secret life as an amateur singer of the Persian maqam flourished along side of it. These excellent recordings, made at WNYC radio studios in New York, feature a traditional unadorned band of tanbur, percussion and voices, with a violin added in a bow to post Soviet modernism. - CF


CHOYING DROLMA AND STEVE TIBBETTS Chö
Hannibal/Ryko
Steve Tibbetts has never been one to avoid the precipice. He has been pushing the limits of the guitar for a long time, and as a composer has done some daring work. To take on a project like Chö is certainly one of the bigger risks. Most musicians enter into these "cultural exchanges" with egos the size of Nebraska or some happy-flappy new age goals of "harmony and peace" (the cereal box kind). Most fail miserably. Choying Drolma and the nuns of Nagi Gompa, a Tibetan nunnery in the Himalayan foothills have entered into a unique pact with a foreign artist here. They neither abused or altered their music for Tibbetts, nor did he demand or concede to concessions their music might have demanded. Instead, Tibbetts recorded the sacred singing of the nuns, then went home and created a soundtrack of sorts, incorporating his ideas and musicians into a very subtle sub-flooring for the singing. I honestly don't know how to describe what they have done here. At times it is so subtle as to be almost missed by the conscious ear, at others so obvious that it just seems like it belongs there already. There's only one way to describe this record, and that is to tell you to listen. Closely. There is a wealth of minute detail, surprising musical turns, and above all, the beauty of tradition unbound and untouched.


YUNGCHEN LHAMO
Tibet, Tibet
Realworld
There are always more aspects of a culture than reach your ears through the usual channels of distribution. From Tibet, and the monasteries in India where the Tibetan monks have fled, we have all heard the transcendental, deep chanting and bells music. Not much else (cultural or otherwise) has made it from Tibet to the ears of the world, so this album comes as a much needed addition to the library, and Yungchen Lhamo (her name means "Goddess of Song") has given us this opportunity.

Tibet, Tibet is mostly pure vocal music, not the religious music of the monks, but a more secular music, songs that relate daily life and human struggles; folk songs both traditional and original. Some of the songs are simply accompanied by small percussion instruments and strings from traditional sources with one unfortunate track where someone is credited with "special accompaniment" (read: electronic and acoustic noodling and trinkets). No matter, that, because the entire album is overwhelmed by the beauty of her voice and the deep rooted grace of the songs. In Real World tradition, there are some cross-cultural moments, like "Lhasa Pumo," which mixes her voice with Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota and Brit mandolinist Richard Evans to beautiful effect. Simple in its beauty, sublime in its delivery, Tibet, Tibet is near perfect. - Cliff Furnald


JADE BRIDGE
Ambush On All Sides
Henry Street, via Rounder

Jade Bridge is a four piece ensemble from New York's Chinese community. Each is a master of their craft, and some have already made their mark's as soloists. Sisi Chen plays yangqin, a hammered zither (dulcimer), and was the focus of an earlier Henry Street release last year. Tang Liangxing is an award winning pipa (lute) player. Chen Dao contributes his mastery on the dizi flute and Zhang Bao-Li adds erhu fiddle.

The repertoire is all from Chinese tradition, but if all you know of this music is the stiff official recordings by Chinese folkloric orchestras you may not be prepared for the potency of these performances. Each musician offers innovative and eclectic approaches to their instruments, and each sets a fire under the tune they are playing. This is not un-traditional, but its rarely heard and much welcomed.

Two songs act as good guides to the rest of the album. The amazing pacing of "Ambushed From Ten Sides" offers the pipa as a solo instrument. It moves from slow flowing melodic lines to violent, percussive plucking and you can't help but see each of the enemies lurking around the central figure of the song as Tang creates distinct characters from his flurry of notes. Sisi's performance on "The Plow Is Coming" offers another view of the performer as creator. Her instrument of fixed strings would seem to offer only small chances at coloration, but in the one and a quarter minutes the piece lasts she pulls emotional subtlety from each note. It is this emotional talent that comes through on each of the eleven solo and ensemble works on this album and makes it a revelation. The songs and tools may be ancient, but the performances are fresh and compelling. - CF


JIE-BING CHEN, V.M. BHATT, BELA FLECK Tabula Rasa
Water Lily Acoustics
The pluck of the banjo, the scrape of the bow, the slide of steel on a guitar string; sounds like a bluegrass band coming down the line, right? Well, on this train there's also a bansuri flute (Ronu Majumdar), an hour glass drum called the mridangam (Poovalur Srinivasan), the guitar is actually modified to play like the Indian vina (Bhatt) and the bow is scraping an erh-hu (Jie-Bing Chen) and Indian violinist Sangeeta Shankar. Poet-producer Kavi Alexander has pulled off another coup with his latest east-west jam session, Tabula Rasa. The west is ably represented by Bela Fleck, the bluegrass having long been hybridized by his many excursions into pop, jazz, rock and eastern music over the last decade or two. These six musicians joined together for a few nights of unrehearsed recording at a church in Santa Barbara, and they found in each other the magic that is at the core of all good improvisation, an open ear to each others music that led them into new territory. Both original compositions and traditional material spanned the globe from Chinese understatement to Tennessee flash. Perhaps the title cut is a good place to focus, because it's gentle mix of erh-hu, minimalist banjo and melodic yet minimal drum is exquisite. For fun there's a smooth version of the American classic "John Hardy" and for Flecktone fans there are some marvelous new Bela tunes. Once again a Water Lily team has created something new-old, muted-bright and altogether original. Highly recommended!


Music Of Chinese Minorities
King World Music Library (via Koch International)

Music Of Chinese Minorities explores the music of some of the lesser known regions of China; the predominantly Korean people of Jiln; the Kirgiz of western China; Mongolian, Uighur, Miao, and Tibetan. The music presented is mostly solo instruments; the rewab (zither), komuz (lute), morin huur and haegum (fiddles) and lu-sheng, a mouth organ similar to the Thai kaen. A good way to sample the record is to listen to these three tracks together: "Thousands of Horses Rush and Rush" by Mongolian fiddler Dawut Awut, the lu-sheng solo "Horse Race" and Mahmet Tolomush's komuz performance of "A Swift Horse." Each takes a similar theme and transforms it into a unique statement, the komuz a rushing of chords, the lu-sheng elegant and swift, the morin huur dramatic and hyper. Like most of the series, these are not "folk" artists, but formal players. There is a bit of gloss to the performances (Dawut Awat adds flourishes from Copeland-ish horse hooves to cheesey Beethoven finish!) and the recording technique (a little less EQ and reverb, please) but the music is strong, unusual and hard to find elsewhere. - CF


The two disk compilation Asia Music (Celestial Harmonies) cuts a wide swath through the continent, from solo koto through new acoustic fusion and into large electric pop and electronic experiments. All tracks are from labels affiliated with Celestial Harmonies, and prove to be excellent references for what the catalog has to offer. A large number of the traditional works are from the three volume Hugo Masters series, featuring "Plucked Strings" like pipa (zither), "Wind Instruments" like the elegant hsiao flute, and erh-hu and other "Bowed Strings." Some of the most interesting work comes from Asiabeat, whose album Spirit Of The People tries not only to bring modern technology into play, but creates a pan-Asian music that incorporates Malay, Indonesian, Chinese and Indian roots with a clear interest in American pop and rock. Formed by Malaysian artist Lewis Pragasam, they manage to avoid the dance-hit pitfalls so common to this sort of thing, and convey a sense of place while being thoroughly innovative. On the other hand, David Parsons, one of the few non-Asians in the set, offers an electronic version of Tibetan monks overlayed with the real thing, not particularly exciting or enlightening. Better to go to the first track of the set, the monks of Dharmasala playing their incredible long horns in a throbbing chant that devours the listener. There couldn't be a broader palette offered, and the notes are interesting and informative about the roots of the music.


Tang Liangxing
High Mountain, Flowing Water
Shanachie

Here is a record that sums up the goals of all music in a single musician with a solitary instrument (the Chinese pipa). Here is creativity matched by consummate skill. Here is beauty that is never overwhelmed by prodigious technique. Two hands, four strings and one man make music that evokes the sunset, the stars, the wind and the rain, without samples, overdubs, or even a band. It is the Chinese ethic personified, and it is what all honest music, no matter where it's from, strives to be. It is incredibly complex and yet, when you listen, miraculously simple. - CF

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