Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Young Priest

Another person from the folklife festival that I’d like to profile is He Xiudong. Mr. He is a Dongba, which is sort of like a priest for the Naxi People in northwest Yunnan Province. “Dongba” can be translated as “wise one”, as these people are more than priests, they are the carriers of their culture.

The duties, rituals and knowledge of the Dongba are passed from father to son, and at one time there were many active lineages of these priests. The rituals they perform are animistic in nature, making offerings to various gods and the spirits of nature. As the story goes, man and shv (spirits of nature) were half brothers, with man given domain over all domestic life, and shv given domain over all of nature. They used to live in harmony, but the shv became angered by man’s constant intrusions into the natural realm, and the wanton destruction of their property (ie trees, waterways etc). The chief role of the Dongba is to mediate between the people and the shv, so that angry shv will not cause earthquakes, storms, avalanches and other forms of natural mayhem.

The other role of the Dongba is as the carrier of the Naxi People’s cultural knowledge. Their main tool in this role is the Dongba pictographic script, which is the only such script still in use today. Many of the Dongba scriptures write out the numerous steps of each Dongba ritual, but there are many other types of scriptures as well. Some contain medicinal knowledge, while others contain histories, myths and stories of the Naxi people. Traditionally, only the Dongba would learn the pictographic script. Thousands of the scriptures found their way to the library of Congress, where they are being digitally catalogued. You can view them here

And now, back to He Xiudong. Mr. He comes from a long line of Dongbas in a village in Tacheng, along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. He is the 24th generation Dongba in his family, though he says this only traces back to the family’s arrival in the area, and it is impossible to say how long his family carried the tradition before that. The tradition skipped a generation with his father because of the Cultural Revolution. This happened to a lot of lineages, and many more had ceased for other reasons. There are only a handful of practicing Dongbas today.

He Xiudong learned the traditions of the Dongba from his grandfather and other family members of that generation. His family was once a very large clan of important Dongba, but now only he remains. His training was incomplete, as there wasn’t enough time, but he spends much of his time these days scouring the countryside for Dongba scriptures and practicing Dongbas. He also collaborates with the Dongba Research Institute, a government supported organization dedicated to the preservation of this tradition.

These days there are only a handful of Dongbas left, and almost all of them are in their seventies and eighties. One of the most striking things about He Xiudong is that he is only 27.

He came with us to the folklife festival to represent Naxi culture. He is not a performer, though we got him on stage a few times to sing a traditional drinking song. His main role was to perform a ritual offering at the festival, which he did several times.

There’s an interesting story here. The original plan was for him to perform an ablution ceremony, where he blessed and ritually cleansed an area including a gate made of woven bamboo, through which onlookers could walk to become blessed. He sent a detailed list of the things he needed and instructions on how to prepare the area, but much of it was lost along the way. On the first day of the festival, we scrambled all over the place looking for everything he needed. When we were getting close, he looked at me and said, “where’s my chicken?” He figured it was common knowledge that a chicken had to be sacrificed for the ceremony. Anyone who is familiar with the state of affairs in America today knows that there’s no way the Smithsonian could get away with ritually sacrificing an animal on the mall every day for two weeks, respect for religion be damned. It took Mr. He quite a while to find a ritual that didn’t call for ritual slaughter, but he eventually settled for an offering to the shv, which could be done with rice and fruits.

On and off-site, He Xiudong’s charisma quickly became the stuff of legend among festival participants and staff. He can’t speak a word of English, and even his Chinese is pretty shaky, but he made friends and fans everywhere he went. Sulking around in his robes, beads and black hat with a three-foot-long bamboo pipe hanging out of his mouth, people began to gather around him wherever he went. I did my best to translate for him as he interacted with the other people around him, but I also made an effort to make myself scarce whenever possible. He turned out to have an uncanny capacity for wordless communication, and everyone seemed to have more fun when I was gone.

By the end of the festival, people were lining up to wish him well and bestow him with gifts of beads, feathers, homegrown tobacco and the like. One guy even pinned a dollar to his robe in old-school New Orleans Mardi Gras style. There was a general consensus among everyone: this guy’s the shit!

I was touched by his ability to reach out, but even more so by his dedication to the traditions of his people. At a time when many Naxi youth are either diving into modern consumer culture or assisting in the commoditization of their own cultural heritage (I’ve actually seen a Budweiser poster with Dongba pictographs in Lijiang), he is staying the course, and reviving the spirit of a people against impossible odds

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Folklife: the Shangri-La Boys

Probably the best profile to start with is the Shangri-La boys, because so much of what happened at the festival started with them. The Shangri-La boys are a singing quartet from Diqing Prefecture, home to the recently dubbed “Shangri-La County”, the beautiful Tibetan area in northwest Yunnan that is hoping to attract more tourists by masquerading as the mythical land of Lost Horizon.

The quartet is made up of two Tibetans, Lurong Nongbu and Damo Luzhuo, as well as two Lisu men, Feng Yuehong and Yu Minghui. They sing, dance and play their fiddles to the traditional sounds of their hometown. They also harmonize really well in a fashion that led us to dub them the “barbershop quartet”.

They do a lot of great traditional stuff, especially paired off by ethnic group, but when you get the four of them together they’ve got this crazy, syncopated song and dance thing that is at once so funny and so cool that it steals the crowd.

These four long-haired guys in Tibetan robes and hemp vests were the center of attention on-stage, off-stage and at the afterparty, among other places. They loved having a good time, drinking and carrying on by the hotel swimming pool, pounding out beats on the table as they belted out drinking songs, and handing out beer and cigarettes to any bystanders who lingered for more than a minute.

This was the scene late one night early in the festival when the first true cultural exchange of our trip began. The boys had been singing a soft drinking song when three people approached our table, the usual one next to the pool. They asked me to translate, saying “we are from the Virginian tribes; we love your music, and my friend here would like to honor you with a drum song.” “Hao!” was the answer. Yunnan folks are always down for a good time and always happy to make a friend. Then one of the three stepped forward with his hand drum, and belted out a beautiful song from his people. Thus began a nightly exchange of stories, histories and especially music and dance, between the indigenous peoples of Yunnan and the Powhatan nation of Virginia. That was one of the coolest things to happen at the festival, but a deeper description of it will have to wait until a later installment.

What you need to know is that this was the formation of our icebreaking ‘cool circle’ that hung out every night and welcomed various festival participants and staff to come out and party with us every night. At that table, we communed with musicians, storytellers, craftsmen and professional organizers from all over the place, and that’s what made the festival so cool. The daytime performances and audience interactions were of course wonderful, but it was the nightly hotel social with its two dollar beers that we looked forward to every day. Some of us joked that the festival on the mall was just a fa├žade get funding for the true festival, which was the behind-the-scenes party among folklorists from around the world.

The Shangri-La boys, with their scraggly charisma, became an anchor for these parties. The parties were held by the cool people at the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, who brought their guitars, basses and banjos to jam out with the festival participants every night. That was really cool, listening to old-time mixing with the sounds of Northern Ireland, but after a few drinks, the Yunnan crew would always steal the show, belting out Yunnan mountain songs that filled the room. Of course we started out simply for our own entertainment, but soon the whole room was applauding the Shangri-La boys, and the old-timey musicians were grimacing from the other side of the crowd.

The Shangri-La boys are already big stars in their hometown. They are the unofficial mascots of Shangri-La, performing at every cultural event in town. They also travel a lot, performing in China’s major cities and various countries on the outside. I have a lot of respect for these guys. Not just because we made friends and had such a blast, but because of what they are all about. These young men are from traditional cultures that have been fading away in the face of modernization and tourism. They never made a conscious decision to pursue a profession in music, they just lived the life. Here they were, young men from their communities carrying on the musical traditions of their people, and even making it look cool as they’re heaped with acclaim from the outside world. If they party back home like they did in DC, which I’m sure they do, then you can safely bet that there is a whole generation of young kids in their community who want to be just like them. That is how culture thrives.

Back in the Jing

So now I’m back in Beijing after a few weeks in the motherland. It was good to be back. I enjoyed the hot but otherwise beautiful weather, staring at the clear blue skies, and being surrounded by trees. I came to enjoy the civility of things, what with people waiting in line and opening doors for each other. I loved the fast, unblocked internet and the tasty, fattening American pastries. To say the very least, I made the most of my trip back.

The funny thing is, it didn’t really hit me until I got off the plane. Though traveling always sucks, my escape was one of the smoothest ever, everything neatly laid out before me and proceeding in an orderly fashion. I even managed to score a whole row of empty seats in economy plus. I spent the better part of my thirteen hour journey horizontal, and the last time I did that was just after 911, when no one in their right minds would want to fly (except me).

It all began as we started getting off the plane. I could see the overseas Chinese around me going through a mental transition, steeling themselves for the ordeal lying ahead. We were all doing it, reawakening our China selves, the personas that are discomforting to think about in the aura of happy-go-lucky America.

Ahead of us lay the long sweaty customs lines, the long wait at baggage, and then the gateway. Once you get to the gateway, there’s no turning back. The people, bags in hand, flow together towards the claim exit and face the massive. Even before the line reaches it, people are beginning to complete their transformation, beginning to jostle for a strategic position ahead. Out there you can already hear the massive, the throngs of people swarming around the exit, waiting for loved ones, clients and tour groups. Their numbers are so strong that we have to fight our way past them.

And there I am, tensely steering my overloaded baggage cart between clusters of people stopping to stand in the most inopportune places, and playing chicken with other oncoming travelers. The crowd there, the likes of which are only seen in America during big summer gatherings like Independence Day, is just business as usual at the Beijing airport.

The next step in the back-in-Beijing ritual is to park the cart by the door and grab a smoke. It’s not nearly as hot as I expected it to be, but the dirty humid air gives me a sticky embrace right away. It’s mid-afternoon, but the sky looks like evening in winter. Everything is gray and dim, the sun blotted out by clouds and smog.

After my dose of nicotine, I’m ready for the next part of the ordeal. I get in line behind a few hundred people to wait for a taxi. I swerve my cart side to side as the line progresses to cut off the people wanting to sneak ahead of me. I hold my elbows out as far as I can to let everyone know that I’ve played this game before. We all move forward in tense staccato steps to hold formation and finally I’m assigned a cab. Now the rest of my journey becomes passive, as it’s the driver’s job to deal with identical conditions on the roads.

My driver’s good at that, though scary as hell. He zips around buses and into the emergency shoulder (which is just as packed as all the other lanes), blaring his fancy reverb-effect horn as he fights his way to the fourth ring road. Of course, I’m already back into China-self, and I hardly take notice of the chaos outside as I glance up from my book (High Fidelity by Nick Hornby today).

Last night, or at least the last time it was dark for me, about 36 hours ago, I had a bunch of my friends out to a local bar. I was psyched to have them all together before leaving, and many of them, all old friends, had never met each other before. One question they asked a few times was whether I was excited to go back ‘home’. I drew a blank at first, because the last two weeks had so utterly ripped me from the China setting that the whole China thing seemed like a dream. Even though I was about to leave in a few hours, I hadn’t really put any direct thought into it. One of the few perks about running all over the place is that you can slip into a new setting right away, and let your consciousness get absorbed in the surrounding reality. I knew that I’d have to get back to China to know what I thought about going back to China. And now here I am.

The Beijing welcome was so typical and complete that I’m right back in the zone. It’s nothing to be excited or nonplussed about, it just is. It’s going back to my life, picking up what I put on pause and continuing like nothing ever happened. Besides, I was only gone for two weeks.

The Beijing welcome, as harrying as it was, is just a part of what makes Beijing whole. You can’t just take the most enjoyable and stimulating things about it in isolation. None of it would be complete without the blunt force that its reality applies to your head at every turn. Though I often have feelings like “if I have to live in a big city, why can’t it be a nice clean one with lots of trees”, I want to keep riding this Beijing thing for a while and see where it takes me. I still have lots of fun to have yet, and this last trip once again affirmed for me that I haven’t become utterly dislocated from the US.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Life After Folklife

After two weeks of living in a hotel, pulling fifteen hour days, answering endless questions and untangling countless snafu, I have lived to see the end of the 41st Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It was challenging, exhausting, unending and one of the most fun and interesting experiences of my life. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but I never wanted it to end.

Now, decompressing in the comfort of my family home, I feel conflicted in exactly the same way. I am elated to be relieved of my flock of fifty-plus performers, craftsmen, presenters, officials and a few shamans, but I’m really sad to see them go.

Over the past two weeks I have met some of the most amazing and interesting people out there, from cultural carriers of the four compass points to the people who’ve kept this amazing festival going on for years. I witnessed and helped facilitate a friendly clash of cultures from the Appalachians to the Himalayas, from the British Isles to the islets of the Mekong Delta. The whole process has left my brain in a funk.

I was hoping to make constant reports during the festival, but I was too busy, too tired and too cheap for the ten-dollar internet connection. But while the story is still fresh in my head, I hope to write a few pieces about this great thing that we all took part in. Hopefully I’ll be able to crank out a few decent episodes and people profiles before I run off to my next big messy busy thing, whatever that may be.

So stay tuned. Also, I plan in the future to bring you updates on many of our Yunnan artists. If you stick around, you’ll be among the first to know when the Shangri-La Boys and Rongba Xinna finally press their first albums, or when any of them get a chance to come stateside again. A lot of things were started at the festival, so let’s keep them going…

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