Various Artists: Rough Guide to the Music of China

[10 February 2004]

By Barbara Flaska

One of the nicest things about Rough Guide compilations is that for at least one hour the listener can be transported musically through time and across the world, in this instance to far away China. While this presentation’s broad scope may have been daunting for the compilers, their labor translates only into aural fascination for the listener. Ultra-current pop is represented by the big-selling contemporary Chinese artists like Cui Jian, described as a “one-man rock ‘n’ roll revolution”. His grandiose, more than a little self-indulgent, and very long rock song “Nothing to My Name” opens the album and even though it’s not my bag, with this tune any stereotyped thoughts about Chinese music seemed to go straight out the window. And nothing is more ultra-current than Hang on the Box, China’s only all-girl punk band shrieking out their oi oi oi’s over distorted bass guitar on “Yellow Banana”. Hang on the Box are awfully cute just to hear, yet it’s the folk-pop of Ai Jing’s “My 1997” that is the most genuinely charming, even without knowing this song contains dread “political content” relating to freedom and the return of Hong Kong to China.

I just lied. They’re all genuinely charming, every single one of the 17 tracks. From music from ‘30s movies starring the saucy Bai Hong and her captivating voice over clip-clop percussion and swinging big band sound on “Wo Yao Hui Jia” (“I Want to Go Home”) to the ‘20s “decadent” Shanghai pop of Gong Chio Xia with cowboy-style guitar and fiddle that all sounds unbelievably bright and happy. Then there’s the springy, echoey gongs sounding the start of the Chinese opera where Zheng Jun Mian & Li Hong emote their ancient drama-drenched verses over fiddles and flutes.

The oldest and most traditional sounding tunes to these ears are the instrumentals, such as “Jiu Kuang” (“The Drinking Song”). Yao Gongbai weaves his way around up and down the 2,000-year old song on all 7-strings of the qin (pronounced “chin”), which sounds like a gut-stringed zither. There are a large range of moods just in the instrumentals, from the quiet meditation of “Stone Forest Nocturne” (featuring the virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen on her pipa, a lute-like instrument) to the lush new age sound of “Noctural Light” by Kin Taii featuring synthesizer and erhu, the Chinese fiddle.

A unique sophisticated blend of Chinese classical music with modern musical forms is created by ensemble Wu Xing. Singer Gong Linna carries her angelic voice over the Bavarian zither of Robert Zollitsch, who also composed the music for the most ethereal “Bo”.

There’s the strange wildness expressed by the music from the remote Sinkiang region, where mosques replace temples and the music is distinct to the province. This is a Turkish or Arabic sounding music played on the dutar, a two-stringed lute and sung by a soulful throaty voice in full flow and sounding awfully Arabic on “Tirik Bostan”. This unique piece, difficult to imagine as emanating from anywhere in China, is credited to the Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous Region Song & Dance Ensemble.

A woman of mystery, Li Xiang Lan lends her sweet high voice to “Lan Guei Ji Ji”. Famous in Shanghai until the Communist Party took over in 1949, Li Xiang Lin was a top singer during the shidaiqu era when Mandarin songs were popular. She sings over fiddle, lute, flute, and percussion. Born Yoshiko Yamaguchi in Manchuria, after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria she adopted the Chinese name, Li Xiang Lan. She went on to change her name a number of times during her adventurous life in entertainment. She appeared in propaganda films and other movies produced by the Japanese and after the end of World War II she avoided execution by revealing her Japanese name and identity. Then she left to make a career in Hollywood as Shirley Yamaguchi during the ‘50s and also made films in Hong Kong. Ever the entertainer, she moved back to Japan and became a television reporter, before marrying a Japanese diplomat and becoming Yoshiko Otaka. “Lan Guei Ji Ji” is still a popular song in both China and Japan and Li Xiang Lan remains a well-known figure in both countries. And you thought the music of the Sinkiang region was wild …

But there can be no overlooking the spectacular instrumental closer that just burns down the house. Liu Fang on pipa& Farhan Sabbagh on mazhar, an open framed drum, take off on a supercharged dance blast called “Night of the Bonfire” that will burn the soles straight off your shoes. Dare I recommend this collection to the adventurous or curious? That’s an astounding loud yes! You can disappear into this delightful music for so long your friends will think you’ve gone off to China. This introduction to the music of China easily counts as one of the ten best offerings released by Rough Guide in 2003, and like their equally exquisite Rough Guide to the Music of Thailand was compiled by the magic hands of Paul Fisher.

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