Friday’s Taste of China concert may be the first time that Dong singers have been featured live at Carnegie Hall, but a group of Dong women has appeared here at least once before—on screen as part of Tan Dun’s multimedia concerto, The Map. In a movement toward the end of that piece, which uses field recordings of both Han and minority musical styles from Tan’s native Hunan province as a point of departure, a circle of Dong women sits around singing about cicadas. This is a recurring topic, as the singers have developed a distinctive technique of rapid tongue movements to mimic the sound of that insect.
Of the nine movements in The Map, this one is closest to its roots, the orchestra reduced merely to accompanying the villagers. Having spent a lot of time with Dong singers myself, I can see why. The Dong musical world is so self-contained, so hard to reference or adapt to, that outsiders tend to leave it alone. Even the Chinese government’s regular “happy minority” shows, which think nothing of co-opting Tibetan or Uyghur tunes (ditching the original language in favor of Mandarin, and smoothing out any quirky musical elements), tend to leave Dong music more or less the way you’d hear it in the village on a festival day.Posted by Ken Smith