- Ritual and Music of North China: Shawm Bands in Shanxi
For a slender volume of 132 pages with annoyingly small font, this book packs a wealth of fascinating information on the lives and art of village musicians in a remote region of North China. Stephen Jones, ethnomusicologist and a professional Western early music violinist, has done extensive fieldwork on Chinese instrumental music since 1991 up to the present. He has previously published two books on Chinese folk instrumental ensembles, namely Folk Music of China: Living Instrumental Traditions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) and Plucking the Winds: Lives of Village Musicians, in Old and New China (Leiden, Netherlands: CHIME Foundation, 2004). This is his third book, an ethnography documenting the lives of rustic musicians and music making in the village life of Yanggao County, Shanxi Province. Yanggao County, a farming settlement in the northeastern tip of the province bordering Inner Mongolia, is one of the poorest farming regions of the North China plain. Unpaved, rutted, and earthen roadways (seen in the accompanying DVD) attest to its lack of advanced infrastructure. Today, the region is no longer threatened by famine, but it has seen none of the prosperity of coastal industrial and commercial regions except for the epidemic spread of television, mobile phones, and motorbikes.
The author succinctly summarizes the contents of the book in the foreword:
Part One explains the social and historical background by outlining the lives of shawm band musicians in modern times. Part Two looks at their main performing contexts: funerals and temple fairs. Part Three discusses musical features such as instruments, scales, and repertories.(p. viii)
Part 1 is divided into six sections in which a variety of interconnected topics are introduced. The first is a short introduction of the different musical genres of the region and the people's livelihood, mostly farming and coal mining—the dangerous, back-breaking, pick-and-shovel kind, prone to lethal mining accidents. At the same time, precisely because of the area's relative isolation, religious rituals and musical traditions associated with these rituals from pre-liberation times have survived the numerous political campaigns, including the Cultural Revolution (1968-1978), and are alive and well here. Also the classless society promised by Communism has not erased the lowly caste-like social position of ritual specialists and ritual musicians.
As the book's title indicates, the shawm and its performers, including other instrumentalists and ritual practitioners centered on its use, are the focus of this book. The shawm, called suona in Chinese, is similar in structure to the Euro- Central Asian version, namely an end blown, double-reed instrument with a slender, tapered, cylindrical body made of wood, and a removable flared metal bell at the far end. The double reed attached to a metal mouth piece produces a plaintive and strident sound capable of penetrating far and wide when played during a ceremonial procession through streets and lanes. Suonas used in Yanggao County come in three pitch sizes: the lowest pitches (when all pitch holes are closed) E, F, [End Page 247] and G, respectively (p. 90). Curiously, the author omits any mention of the number of finger holes on the shawms that generate the notes, range, and mode/scales of the instruments. Shawms used in urban Chinese orchestras have eight finger holes along the tube, seven in front and one in back, but folk instruments may have different numbers. I am not able to ascertain the number of holes from the photographs in the book.
Two other melodic instruments used by band members are the mouth organ—sheng, a miniature organ-like instrument with a bowl-shaped body and a ring of pipes of different lengths protruding from it—and the guanzi. The sheng is similar to the organ: Reeds are fixed onto the pipes rather than the mouthpiece. Guanzi, literally "tube," has...