Is that mere commerce – or cultural mediation?
Whether in China or Greenland – there are dancers and musicians all over the world who entertain tourists with local folklore. Some, who see themselves as the guardians of the culture, take a critical view of this. It can save world heritage from disappearing.
Vdestiny travelers know this: After a full day of sightseeing in a distant country, music is on the program in the evening. Folklore, folk music, something traditional. One drags oneself there out of politeness. However, I have to admit: the more often I hear such musical performances on the road, the more I like them. Children’s choirs in a remote village, exotic drum dances, instruments that have never been heard – all with and by people who are completely absorbed in what they are doing. That’s where my heart breaks.
It was the same that evening in Lijiang in southern China’s Yunnan. Old men in colorful silk smocks with goatees sat on the stage like a Chinese emperor. On their knees they held instruments with strings, gongs and bells as carefully as if they were Ming vases. Their music, that of the Naxi minority, was melodic and rhythmic, taking some getting used to, but quite pleasing to European ears.
And then told Xuan Ke, orchestra leader, almost 80 years old. First he introduced the instruments (a Chinese bell, more than 200 years old, a lute just as old), then he confessed: he loves Paganini. He studied piano, conducted a choir and performed abroad.
Reason enough to lead an orchestra even in old age, one thinks. In China, however, that was more than enough reason to break stones in a labor camp. And so we learn that Xuan Ke spent 21 years in forced labor during the so-called Cultural Revolution – a taunting euphemism since it was designed to eradicate Chinese culture. And those of the minorities anyway.
Although his love of music robbed him of his freedom for two decades, the first thing he did after his release was to found his orchestra, he says: “I had to save this music. Why should it be lost now after it has endured for hundreds of years?” Although much was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, the instruments survived: “The musicians walled them up in remote villages.”
Tourism saved ancient music from China
And now they play here for tourists. A question arises, how often on such evenings. Is it mere commerce to offer cultural assets to strangers for money – or does it serve to convey culture? I heard a discussion like this in Greenland years ago. A traditional drum dance was offered.
Some guardians of the culture protested that shamanic dances should not be shown to strangers. But then young Inuit stood on the stage, their cheeks flushed with concentration, they really struggled and were very happy about the applause of the tourists.
Xuan Ke said something similar. He had saved the tradition with the Cultural Revolution, but after that it almost died out. “Everyone only listened to pop music.” It was only with tourism that the reputation of the orchestra got out into the world. Finally, the old men even went on tour, all the way to Frankfurt. And then played their ancient music every night in Yunnan. In front of strangers, but increasingly also in front of locals who are rediscovering tradition.
I can’t wait to see traditional music in distant countries again soon. World Heritage must be saved, no matter how wrong it sounds.