Naxi Music from Lijiang

Lijiang County, in Yunnan Province in the southwest of China, is inhabited mainly by the Naxi minority. They speak a Tibet-Burman language quite different from Chinese and have their own very distinctive culture. In 1995 a group of Naxi musicians travelled outside China for the first time ever. This recording was made during their visit to the UK. The kind of music they perform - Naxi Dongjing Music - was adapted from Han Chinese music and has been part of local ritual life for hunderds of years. This is the first quality CD recording of an authentic Naxi ensemble.


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This was one of the first discs of Naxi music made available in the Western hemisphere - "the first quality CD recording of an authentic Naxi ensemble", as the Nimbus blurb modestly puts it. It is also available as disc 2 of a Nimbus double CD (NI 7064-5), released in 2000, and coupled with 'Buddhist Music of Tianjin'.
The Naxi (pronounced roughly nah-shee) are an ethnic minority from the Himalayan foothills of south-western China, near Lijiang City - hence the title of the CD. Their culture in general, and music in particular, are a mixture of indigenous, Tibetan and Chinese Han elements. Most of the music on this CD is of a type known as Dongjing, adapted from Han traditions, and nowadays almost exclusively secular. It is melodically pentatonic and texturally heterophonic.
The first ten tracks are all popular Dongjing pieces still regularly performed today, drawn from a small repertory of accompanied songs and instrumental pieces. The song texts are traditional, performed in a highly restrained, almost wordless-sounding manner, like a gentle chant, that blends very well with the instruments. In all the Dongjing music there is a mixture of bowed and plucked string instruments, such as the pipa, sugudu, zheng and erhu; woodwind, such as the dizi and bobo; and percussion - drums and wooden blocks on the one hand and gongs, cymbals and bells on the other.
As a rule, the pieces are musically straightforward, fairly slow-moving, repetitive, self-similar and with a semi-improvised feel. The purely instrumental pieces more or less just keep going until they suddenly fizzle out, whereas the accompanied songs begin in free rhythm and finish with a percussion coda. At the same time, however, the music is extremely evocative - by far the cheapest and most environmentally friendly way for foreigners to travel to China! - and hypnotic nearly to the point of hallucinogenic: repeated audition may lead to addiction!
The last three tracks are solo pieces for the leizi bili, an indigenous recorder, performed by Association member Wang Chaoxin. These three simple folk tunes are typically played to accompany ceremonial circle dancing.
This disc was recorded during a first visit to the UK by the Dayan Ancient Music Association in 1995. The Association, named after members' home town, perform with sparkle and commitment. The recording is realistic and well balanced, sound quality good. The CD booklet is nicely laid out and the essay on Lijiang's music traditions by Helen Rees informative and interesting. Photos and biographical notes on all performers - the oldest of whom was 82 at the time of recording! - are icing on the cake.
Overall, Naxi music, very different from the Western art or folk heritage, may prove a little too exotic for many. Yet for the stay-at-home traveller undaunted by different scales, the chance to dip into Naxi culture for less than the cost of a typical tourist gewgaw may be hard to resist - and this is the disc to have.

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