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.

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