The southern Chinese province of Yunnan is often marked with narratives of diversity. Bordering Myanmar, Laos, Tibet, and Vietnam, Yunnan is home to 25 officially recognized ethnic minority groups and a number of different languages. Unsurprisingly, it’s drawn more than its fair share of interest from anthropologists and ethnomusicologists intrigued by the region’s array of traditions, particularly those that have remained relatively unchanged over the centuries.
The Rough Guide to the Music of Yunnan embraces such continuities, but not at the expense of celebrating change. As is typical of installations of the Rough Guides series, Yunnan is an eclectic mix of sounds, a collection clearly aiming to convey not only the province’s diversity but its relationship to modernity. Overall, it succeeds, showcasing a range of styles that illustrate how Yunnan’s many pieces are connected to each other and the rest of the world. Just about every track falls somewhere under the general umbrella of folk music, albeit in many different ways.
Most are pretty straightforward in representing long lineages of tradition and do so with commercially produced clarity. The opening instrumental “Bi Lang Dao Gu Diao” is a piece by late Dai musician Gen Dequan, whose performances on the local hulusi, a reed instrument derived from the cucurbit gourd, brought it into international circulation. Nu/Lisu band Wood and Fire follows with “Sixty-Four Generations”, an acoustic song built around catchy strumming and enlivened further by mouth harp, a more contemporary attempt to bridge the gap between old traditions and current global trends with cool, stripped-down grooves.
In “Mountain Song of the Hani”, Lai Nu’s voice rings out clear over a frenetic lute. A Jiawen follows with handclaps and more strings on the energetic dance tune “Zheng Xian”. Love songs, blessing songs, dances, and drums follow in various exciting permutations, from the wistful crooning of “Love Song of the Nu People” to the rhythmic “Fengtong Drums of Manglai” and beyond. The album reaches its end with “Wu Chu a Ci”, a string-flute-and-voice tune attributed to unnamed folk artists of Puchun Village that starts sparse and quickly becomes ecstatic, a fitting end to the album’s variety of folk styles.
A few cuts shake up The Rough Guide to the Music of Yunnan with a bit of cosmopolitanism. “Bulang Beauty” by Puman opens with solemn singing over hefty organs, soon shifting into a folk-reggae fusion that turns the record on its head and subverts any stereotypes of Yunnan as “frozen in time”, as the liner notes put it. Later, Mei-Rok’s “As Good As Meat” brings a low-key rock edge, vocals ranging from wordless and airy to subtly gritty as drum kit and acoustic guitar supplement flutes and jangling percussion. Moqiu’s “Mountain Village” is the album’s best cross-genre kick, a plugged-in piece of hard rock, bracing electric fuzz interweaving with plucked acoustic strings.
Of all the series that dedicate themselves to world music crate-digging, for better or worse, the Rough Guides series often comes across as the most self-aware. Its curators seem to understand the impossibility of summing up a region, group, or even specific genres in the space of an album. They also understand that many bodies in commercial and academic realms alike have an unfortunate tendency to try and do so anyway. That includes those involved in Rough Guides. In the liner notes for The Rough Guide to the Music of Yunnan, Sam Debell is transparent about his and co-compiler Neil Record’s approach, noting their hopes of building “a bridge of accessibility for the non-academics looking for fresh and exciting sounds” even as they frame the folk pieces as “weird and wonderful”.
These are sentiments worth reflecting upon in-depth–do they reinforce the exoticism they hope to help others overcome? But listening to the album, the curators’ intentions are clear: this album is one designed to close the gap through sonic information. That the oldest traditions are represented through modern recordings is a reminder of the many layers of time and culture that exist simultaneously in Yunnan. Complementing this is the range of more globally-oriented popular sounds that remind us that while Yunnan is a whole world unto itself, it’s not so alienated from the rest of the globe as listening only to field recordings might imply. The Rough Guide to the Music of Yunnan is yet another admirable volume of the venerable Rough Guides series, its embrace of many forms of diversity and of very catchy tunes is a huge asset for them and a boon for their listeners.