The Free-Reed Review
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CD Review: Yunnan Instrumental Music
The Chinese Ensemble of Yunnan Song and Dance Troupe

LI Bing-cheng and ZHANG Si-yuan, conductors


Scoop the Loach Up
The Blooming Masu Flowers
Golden Peacock and Fengwei Bamboo
Dance of the Jing Nationality
Love Songs of the Lahu Tribe
Rush for Bai
Folk Song of Hani Tribe
Deep Emotions for the Bamboo House
In the Recesses of the Bamboo
See the Bride Off
The Spring of Yi Mountain Village
Songs at Munao Festival
Nine Pistils and Eighteen Petals
Joyous Water Festival

Total time: 68:19
Released June, 2000
Review Date: September, 2000

Label: HUGO Productions Order from: The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. Online Gift Store

Review by Gregory A. Vozar

Anyone who loves listening to world music knows what a disappointing experience it can be when corporate indifference or marketing hyperbole dictates the quality of a recording. For many large companies, "ethnic" music is only marginally profitable, and there is a tendency to treat the artistic output of other cultures as though it belonged in quarantine or under a microscope. Nothing more quickly insulates listeners from the emotional content of thematic material than such a sterile approach. Another recent and disturbing trend capitalizes on world music as a trendy, New Age commodity. This kind of retailing ultimately trivializes art and reduces the significance of the artist.

What a joy it was to have found Yunnan Instrumental Music by the Chinese Ensemble of Yunnan Song and Dance Troupe, recently released by HUGO Productions, Ltd. of Hong Kong. If the goal of music is communication, then this recording is a wellspring of auditory information. It draws listeners into a dialog with the artists rather than forcing us to peer at them through a lens. I cannot think of a finer example of how world music, properly understood and presented, offers an intimate glimpse into living cultures and makes a truth of the adage that music is humankind's universal language.

The focus of this album is Yunnan, a province situated in southern China, bordering the northern reaches of Myanmar (Burma) and Vietnam. This region is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in all Asia and possibly in the entire world. Within its borders live twenty-six distinct groups of people, each of whom has its separate customs, language and music. From this diversity, the musicians of the Song and Dance Troupe have woven nothing less than a richly colored musical tapestry, which is served up here with an unusually lush depth of sound. Recording the ensemble in a state-of-the-art, digital studio has assured that every nuance and detail would be finely etched into this compact disc.

The album features several Asian reed instruments (as well as a plethora of plucked and bowed string instruments and percussion instruments), including the Hulusheng (also known as the naw), a free-reed mouth organ and relative of the larger Chinese Sheng. Heard in many selections in a purely accompaniment role, the artist Shang Ze-san, has ample opportunity prove his soloist's mettle in "Love Songs of the Lahu Tribe." In this medley, he makes expressive use of portamento and demonstrates the polyphonic capabilities of his instrument, accompanying himself with rhythmic chords. To see a photograph of the naw, or hulusheng, see Henry Doktorski's article, The Chinese Sheng.

The Bawu, another free-reed pipe, makes its appearance in "Folk Songs of the Hani Tribe." The Bawu, held transversely like a flute, possesses only a single metal reed in a narrow rectangular mouthpiece. The performer's fingers open and close holes down the length of its long, flute-like body, and the qualifying length of the tube causes the reed to generate various pitches, similar to the sound production of a clarinet. Although possessing only a narrow alto compass, SHANG Yun-lu, the Bawu player, produced some ravishing sounds, from a veiled, flutey upper register to a round clarinet-like middle to reedy bottom notes. The instrument's warm, expressive timbre is especially effective in this folk setting.

To the credit of all concerned, most of these performances effortlessly transcend cultural barriers. Without being an especial fan of Asian music, I found myself totally absorbed by the melodies and sounds. Each selection features a solo by one of an array of dulcimers, gongs, flutes, bowed and plucked strings, single, double and free-reed instruments.

However, for me the most arresting performance was the simplest of the lot. As is explained in the program notes, a suitor of the Yi people will express his interest in a young lady by serenading her with love songs played on a leaf, yes, you heard me correctly, a LEAF, held between the lips! To my lasting amazement, artist Tao Zhi-hua draws an amazing range of notes and expression from this most elementary of instruments, which is called bilu. According to Arthur W. J. G. Ord-Hume, author of Harmonium: The History of The Reed Organ and Its Makers, the grass reed, depending on the shape of the cavity created between the thumbs of the player, can be proved to both beating and free reed, or neither! For more information about the leaf instrument, see Taxonomy of Musical Instruments.

The colorful accompanying booklet in Chinese and English is one of the best I have seen in the world music genre. Its graphics and text are both pleasing to the eye and offer twenty-two pages of non-intimidating information. The first section is devoted to a picture of each instrument and a brief description of its construction and how it is played. Biographical information and photos of the artists make up the middle portion, and the closing pages are devoted to the musical selections themselves.

HUGO Productions, their engineers and the Chinese Ensemble of Yunnan Song and Dance Troupe deserve a round of applause for bringing forth this fine recording. Piqued by its quality, I explored HUGO's website and found it was only one item from a comprehensive Chinese and world music catalogue. If the balance of this company's output matches the quality of Yunnan Instrumental Music, their other discs bear serious investigation by anyone who loves Asian and world music.

In conclusion, let me quote Josef Bomback, executive vice president and chief operating officer of HUGO Productions, who wrote,

I agree, and I think you will too!

(*) From a letter to Thomas Fabinski, June 26, 2000.

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