I talked before about having spent time with the Dong singers. I was co-musical director of a Dong recording that got a bit of attention in the US: It was featured in David Henry Hwang’s Obie Award–winning play Yellow Face and found its way onto WNYC’s New Sounds playlist—rather appropriately, between the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus and Meredith Monk. I also got married in a Dong village in Liping County, Guizhou, near where the women appearing in Zankel Hall also live. So, I’ve seen that context makes a huge difference.
Dong singing is some of the most un-Chinese music I’ve heard in China, even among other migratory peoples who only happen to be Chinese citizens through accidents of geography. It was the sole cultural record of a people who, until the PRC applied its pinyin Romanization to their spoken language, had no written language of their own. And as with many minorities in China, much can be lost in the translation.
Initially, we had Chinese lyrics provided by a highly urbanized group from Guiyang. We were able to follow most of them line by line, until we got to a song called “I Use a Blue Cloth to Hide My Heart,” which they’d translated as:
I am afraid people will know about my love,
So I use a blue cloth to hide it.
When I think of him, my heart is on fire;
Even when we are a thousand miles apart, I feel he is close by.
If we had no love, we would still feel distant even though we are close.
Excerpt from "I Use a Blue Cloth to Hide My Heart"
Used courtesy of Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop
Somehow, it just didn’t fit the music. So we started spending time with our Dong girls, the younger ones being particularly fluent in both Chinese and Dong, talking through each song at length. They offered a less “official” but more direct version:
If I marry someone I don’t love, I’d rather play dumb—
Go up to the mountain looking for indigo, and hide my heart.
A happy couple, even if they till fields far apart, will still try to speak with each other;
A couple that has no love, even if they work side by side, will have no words to say.
When I went back to the song again, I could hear the happy couple speaking to each other across the field. The polyphony became not just a sophisticated choral technique but snapshot of the culture. I play this song a lot now.Posted by Ken Smith