China: Ethnic minority music finds an advocate
Laurent Jeanneau roams the ethnic minority villages of China recording the 'unofficial' music.
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But Jeanneau's recordings, Harrell says, feature singers and musicians who, refreshingly, are not as influenced by party propaganda. Contemporary Chinese ethnomusicologists are attempting to record more authentically folksy music, Harrell says, but they "are not recording with as much breadth and dedication as Laurent."Skip to next paragraph
Zhang Xing Rong, an ethnomusicology professor at the Yunnan Art Institute in Kunming, says that Jeanneau's recordings of ethnic minority musicians in southwest China are "superior" to the recordings that Mr. Zhang and his colleagues produce.
Jeanneau invests time living among ethnic minority villagers, Zhang says in an interview at his Kunming apartment. As a result, the Frenchman – who speaks fluent Chinese and Khmer – is present to record impromptu performances.
Chinese ethnomusicologists don't have as much time for fieldwork, "so we usually approach local officials and say, 'Hey, can you ask some of the better singers from around this area to come over and perform?' " recalls Zhang, who has documented ethnic minority music in Yunnan Province since 1984.
"What ends up happening is that we hear the local 'greatest hits,' " he says. "We're supposed to observe things objectively, but a lot of the music we record is removed from its context."
Jeanneau's recordings may challenge government-approved notions of folk music in China and Southeast Asia. But is the act of recording that music in its natural setting really, as Jeanneau contends, an "act of resistance" to the status quo?
Not exactly, says anthropologist Harrell. China's Soviet-influenced campaign to identify ethnic minorities, Harrell wrote in his 2001 book, "Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China," "is not a one-way thing, imposed top-down on passive local peoples," but rather a "two-way process of co-optation."
Many of the government officials who promote ethnic minority music in China are themselves members of ethnic minority communities, Harrell explains, and they celebrate their ethnic identity partly as a way of promoting "ethnic tourism."
Culturally diverse Yunnan, one of the provinces where Jeanneau has recorded performers, is an epicenter of China's ethnic-tourism industry.
Jeanneau acknowledges that his "resistance" to government-sanctioned performing arts is fraught with cultural nuances. He is not an "authority" on ethnic minority culture, he says, but rather a guy who likes to record talented musicians who naturally express their emotions in song.
"Singers who are trying to impress you too much are missing the point," he says. Jeanneau, whose scraggly ponytail conveys a bohemian vibe, is quick to distance himself from the Western scholars who also conduct fieldwork here.
"I'm not part of the university world," he insists, a little combatively. "I'm a totally independent person."
Western scholars are typically concerned with the ethical implications of their fieldwork. Asked whether he is similarly concerned, Jeanneau demurs: Being a foreigner in ethnic minority villages presents challenges and misunderstandings, he says, but his recordings benefit the communities he visits.
If he made more money selling his self-produced albums, Jeanneau says, he could afford to pay the performers more than five to 10 euros per session – a rate he says is comparable to that paid by university-funded scholars. Jeanneau himself lives modestly with his wife and son in a no-frills concrete home. He edits his recordings on a battered laptop computer.
Although he lives a hand-to-mouth existence, he vows he will never compromise the integrity of his albums by altering them to suit popular tastes.
"You might have a few crying children, and chickens, and bugs from the jungle in there," he says. "But that's the way I capture sounds."
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