“Ethnic Music Tests Limits in China”

A common refrain that comes up from various minorities here is that they only way they’re allowed to express their identity is by singing and dancing. Even that has a limit, because Beijing only wants them to sing and dance about how happy they are to live in China. What happens when they go off script? New York Times explores:

At the forefront of state-sponsored minority representation are the “song and dance troupes” that appear regularly on television. These shows portray minorities as exotic and unthreatening — with bright clothes and wide smiles and who are fanatical about singing and dancing. Many disparate minority groups often perform on stage together to symbolize ethnic harmony. Songs are often performed in Mandarin.

The lyrics are frequently apolitical paeans to the rugged allure of China’s borderlands. In 2009, the Mongolian singer Wulan Tuoya had a major hit with the crisp, karaoke-friendly “I Want to Go to Tibet.” The song’s music video looks like a public relations campaign for Tibetan tourism, juxtaposing government-financed group dances with video clips of the Beijing-Lhasa express train.

The status quo poses a challenge to those who wish to perform traditional songs as they are, with lyrics often describing less salubrious aspects of minority life.

“About 80 percent of my songs are about hardship,” said Aojie a Ge, a Beijing-based musician from the Yi minority of southwest China. “But can I perform these songs? Of course not. I still need to survive.”

While Mr. Aojie enjoys the stability and prestige associated with his position, he is aware of the artistic limits imposed by the authorities. The government, for example, ultimately decides where he can perform, as well as the language of his songs.

“Of course, I have objections,” Mr. Aojie said. “In other countries, you can raise them. Here, you can’t.”

Last month, a few hundred foreigners and young Chinese packed a popular bar to see [ethnically Mongolian band] Hanggai play a final set in Beijing before embarking on a national tour. Projectors washed the stage with glimpses of lush grass hills, blue skies and galloping horse — a subtle reminder of what many Mongolians say is being destroyed by a coal boom orchestrated by Han mining companies.

After each song, fans from the band members’ hometowns in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region climbed on stage to present multicolored silk scarves to the band, a traditional gesture of respect. When Huricha, one of the band’s vocalists, growled, “We will bring you to the grasslands,” the audience burst into applause.

But such flourishes of ethnic pride are counterbalanced by moments of uncertainty. At a Hanggai show in Shanghai the following week, one night after Shanren played on the same stage to a sold-out crowd, the police stopped the show after the opening act, saying there had been complaints about the noise.

The band was disappointed but forbearing. “They don’t need to control everything the way they do,” Ilchi, the band’s leader, said later. “Rock concerts are very safe. It’s only music after all.”

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Filed under art, China, ethnic conflict

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