The brave music of a distant drum

The western world has for long had a tendency to place its great music in a geographical frame. Germany! Italy! and now, our frontiers expanding, a few new centers like Korea.

If you have lived in China under the Sui (589-617) or the T'ang (618-906) dynasties you might well have felt this same inhibition toward Central Asian music and particularly that of Kucha. Kucha was a city-state of the Tarim Basin , more or less halfway between Samarkand and the Chinese capital, on the Silk Road. The Kucheans were so musical that if one heard a particularly notable performance at the Chinese imperial court it was quite natural to assume that the artist came from Kucha or had had at least a Kuchean teacher.

Soon Chinese popular music had fallen so much under the spell of the melodies and rhythms of this distant western city that the old classical repertory of the country, with its bells, stone chimes and zithers, was relegated to traditional and ceremonial occasions. The people were avid for the drumdance songs and tunes of Kucha -- even an emperor played their little lacquered sheepskin drum. They also evolved a hybrid music, enlivening their own heritage with the beat of Serindia.

This continued even after the Chinese had overthrown Kucha, in the middle of the 7th century. The aggressive T'ang, fearing that the independent oasis cities of the desert (Turfan and Karashar as well as Kucha) might, with Turkish backing, endanger the trade and power of the empire, destroyed them. They had been wonderful little kingdoms; here the caravans from China, India and Persia had halted, and with the trade came missioners. Centuries later travelers found on the walls of these old towns, half-buried in sand, frescoes attesting to their heritage of Graeco-Indian, Buddhistic-Iranian art. The fall of Kucha brought an end to the independent cities of the Gobi. It also destroyed a charming and cultivated world which had survived from a dawn of history.

Today, when orchestras are flown all over the world, one sometimes meets musicians who feel rather dashing when they tell you they played Beethoven's Op. 61 in Cairo last week and will be doing some Brahms in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend. It ism dashing, though they achieve this in a matter of hours. The wandering minstrel is no new phenomenon -- the troubadours strolled from the 'Ile de la Cite to the Low Countries or followed the Danube down to the Black Forest.

Yet none of these exploits can hold a candle to the record of the fragile-appearing young ladies of the 8th century whom we see here in their ceramic effigies. A single girl orchestra went nearly 2,000 miles by horse or camel, braving the stinging sandy winds of the Gobi for months. Their instruments and costumes went with them, as well as the secrets of those seductive coiffeurs which became the rage at Ch'ang-an and Lo-yang. The girls, knew, as they endured that journey, that of all the foreign entertainers who played at the Chinese court -- coming from India, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar, Cambodia, Korea, and the Turkish lands, it was they, the Kucheans, who were the best, whose influence would outweigh all the others. This must have heartened them when at last they joined the thousands of artists at Ch'ang-an, in a milieu of lavish festivity.

Of course, there were people who objected.Sumptuary laws were passed, some specifically directed at women players from abroad. There were disparaging comments about the wild beat of the Kuchean drum and its effect on morals -- it sounds not unlike the complaints against Rock and Roll today. But the Chinese were too mad for this music to pay attention to regulations. And the charm even persisted into the burial customs.

At that time it was believed that a person should be able to maintain the same standard of living in the afterlife as he had on earth. If he had enjoyed the services of a private orchestra here, one must accompany him into the tomb to keep him amused. These little hollow figurines served this purpose. Their soft white clay, covered with a creamy glaze, were brilliantly overpainted, though the colors have now faded almost entirely away.

The musicians stand holding their instruments (the drum, the pipes, the lute, the oboe, the flute) with, on the right, a slender, long-armed dancer. Slight, absorbed, elegant, they represent the height of fashion in their high-waisted dresses with long sashes and tight sleeves, so strangely like the Empire gowns which Europe would admire 1,200 or more years later.The gowns shocked and delighted Chinese audiences, used to voluminous embroidered robes, and the hair was an equal sensation, being brushed round the head in a flat bun with a loop on the right, leaving the ears uncovered.

As the Beatles taught us, a spirited hairdo, combined with insistent drumming and exotic songs can wield an extraordinary influence. For the Kuchas also, their exoticism was strong enough to keep their name alive for all these centuries and to include it on our cherished list of singing oases in a dustry world.

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