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China: Ethnic minority music finds an advocate

Laurent Jeanneau roams the ethnic minority villages of China recording the 'unofficial' music.

By Mike IvesContributor / September 12, 2011

Laurent Jeanneau plays a dong pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument, on the roof of his home in Dali, China. Mr. Jeanneau travels across Southeast Asia to record ethnic minority singers and musicians.

Mike Ives

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Dali, China

For the past decade, Laurent Jeanneau has roamed the villages of Southwest China and Southeast Asia, microphones in hand, waiting for chances to record the songs of ethnic minority singers and musicians.

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If you visit the French expatriate in Dali, the touristy city in China's Yunnan Province where he lives, he will sell you one of the 80-odd albums he has recorded in ethnic minority villages and self-produced on Kink Gong, his home-grown record label.

Government officials in China and Southeast Asia have "bastardized" traditional folk arts under the banner of promoting ethnic diversity, Mr. Jeanneau charges, and the albums he sells to tourists are "acts of resistance" to state-directed cultural paradigms.

"When I look for music, my rule is, 'Look for the less obvious,' " Jeanneau said in English on a recent afternoon in Dali. "The cliché is the tip of the iceberg. I want to go underwater."

Jeanneau's grass-roots recording project, though unknown to most music fans in China and beyond, illustrates some of the nuances that accompany and impede attempts to document folk arts in a region where millions of ethnic minority vil-lagers still sing and play ancient – or at least ancient-sounding – melodies.

The project is a race against time, Jeanneau says, because it is increasingly difficult to find older singers and musicians who know and perform the traditional songs they learned as children.

In China, scholars say, the ruling Communist Party promotes hyperstylized – you might say kitschy – versions of the folk arts traditionally practiced by the country's 55 designated ethnic minority groups, or "nationalities," as they are called in Chinese.

The groups, which account for more than 8 percent of China's 1.3 billion people, include Tibetans and Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group. Both Tibetans and Uighurs have staged recent protests in China, challenging the central government's authority.

China's Communist Party – which turned 90 on July 1 – cultivates ethnic performing arts as a way to "spread state propaganda" and make amends for "damage" inflicted on minority cultures during Mao Zedong's infamous Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, writes Helen Rees, an ethnomusicologist.

Dr. Rees, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who conducted fieldwork in Yunnan Province for her 2000 book, "Echoes of History: Naxi Music in Modern China," writes that state-sanctioned folk music in China smacks of what a foreign observer might call "domestic orientalism." China, she says, promotes ethnic minority artists as an "exotic alternative" to the Han, the ethnic group accounting for more than 90 percent of China's population.

Jeanneau says he is wary of government influences on traditional music in China and Southeast Asia. When he travels to villages in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, he asks people to sing and play the tunes they would perform for each other, rather than for tourists.

Jeanneau "records real folk music," attests Stevan Harrell, an anthropologist at the University of Washington.

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