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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

Finding Harmony in Nature

Dong Singers

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

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