The Chinese province of Yunnan has long been a treasure trove for ethnomusicologists, however its totally unique musical heritage has largely remained a mystery to the wider world. This Rough Guide uncovers both the ancient and the innovative sounds from this magical land.
When the first Western explorers set foot in what is now known as the Chinese province of Yunnan more than a hundred and fifty years ago, they described a strikingly diverse land of mysterious kingdoms, fierce and proud tribes and hidden secrets - a wild land untouched by modernity. High mountains, deep canyons and dense forests had, for hundreds of years, provided the setting for a hardy collection of ancient peoples to play hide and seek with the great empires of the region. Their diversity often represents segments of long migrations away from control and assimilation, frozen in time by geographical barriers.
The ‘frozen in time’ languages, customs and musical styles of the region have long continued to prove a treasure trove for anthropologists, linguists and ethnomusicologists alike, providing a looking glass into the history of music, language and even human society itself. However, aside from the academic papers, the music of Yunnan has remained largely inaccessible and little known to music fans in general. More often it is clumsily marked by the big red brush of ‘Chinese music’ or ‘Asian oddities’. This unique Rough Guide aims to draw attention to this area. Rather than being a blank in the map, it deserves be known as a source of some of the most unique and varied folk sounds ever created.
Often the lack of written language amongst Yunnan’s staggering 187 recognised ethno-subdivisions (comprising of 25 official Chinese ethnic minority groups) means that much of the highly complex histories of many of them will never be fully known. The folk songs and dances, however, continue to pass on snippets and memories of their ancient survivor consciousness. Yunnan is a place where music permeates all facets of traditional life, underscoring identity, binding related populations and passing down traditional knowledge and history. It is home to hundreds of instruments and singing styles, mostly found nowhere else in the world.
Over the last decades, the modern digital age, the highways, railways and airports have turned Yunnan from a ‘frozen in time’ backwater to a fully integrated part of a global superpower. Progress has chipped away at the conditions that allowed Yunnan’s great diversity to exist in the first place. At times this weight of what is being lost sometimes blinds us to the new and exciting developments emerging from the ruins. Whilst the traditional heritage of the region provides a huge reservoir of inspiration, Yunnan’s musical baton is slowly being passed from the traditional to the innovators, musicians that still have living relatives who remember the old ways while themselves being irreversibly part of the new.
These conditions for unique musical fusion have already given rise to internationally recognized artists such as Shanren, Manhu and Puman (all featured on this CD), but the truth is that no one artist can truly represent a region like this. This Rough Guide aims to take the listener on a journey from the weird and wonderful ancient sounds of Yunnan to the cutting-edge productions of the modern generation. The result could be, finally, a coherent musical identity and hopefully a bridge of accessibility for the non-academics looking for fresh and exciting sounds. Those who cross this bridge will surely feel like those first explorers, a hundred & fifty years ago, entering a truly magical land for the first time.