Issue 33–34 / 2018

Forgotten Kingdom – Yasuhiro Morinaga from Field Recordings Concrete Interviewed

Piotr Tkacz, Yasuhiro Morinaga 森永泰弘 , transl. Piotr Tkacz

Concrete is a Tokyo-based record label founded by Yasuhiro Morinaga, focused on field recording. Its releases include not only modern sounds recorded by the aforementioned (in China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Italy, to name a few), but also archival materials collected by such renowned researchers as Ludwig Karl Koch (a true pioneer in the field of recording nature) and José Maceda (famous for preserving and promoting traditional music of The Philippines). The interview focuses on this aspect of Morinaga’s activity, but it is worth mentioning that as a sound designer he has also worked for a number of contemporary dances, new media installations and feature films (e.g collaborated with Ho Tzu Nyen and Sion Sono).

Piotr Tkacz: When and why did you first visit China and what areas did you explore?

Yasuhiro Morinaga 森永泰弘: I went to China in 2013 for the first time when I received an artistic research grant from the Asian Cultural Council (ACC). The majority of grant recipients go to New York usually, as the headquarter of ACC is in New York. However, for me, I wanted to go to China, exploring different places, meeting different ethnic groups, documenting music cultures. So, I decided to be in Yunnan, the southern part of China where a large number of ethnic minorities live. However, Yunnan province is still big and I wanted to find certain people who could coordinate or host my stay. Then, I met a curator who directs a number of residency programs in Lijiang, named Jay Brown. The residency is called Lijiang Studio based in Lashihai, a little outside of Lijiang’s Old City. I had a chance to stay at this place and Jay and his peers helped me a lot to connect to the local Nàxī ethic group. Although a friend whose name is Kink Gongs (aka Laurent Jeanneau), a sonic ethnographer who documented tremendous recording of ethnic minority in China, helped me to connect to a local coordinator. However, throughout my stays in China, I was deeply interested in the Nàxī culture, especially the shamanistic culture of Dongba. Through the introduction by Jay, I met with one of the youngest Dongba shaman, He Xiu Dong who has been treated a special Dongba shaman. I was very interested in his unique character and decided to record his chants and make an ethnographic film about him.

In field recording, there are certain purposes to document the music of an ethnic minority. One can be traveling from one place to another, asking or seeking specific people to play music or sing a song, and record them. Then, another one can be more committed to the one region or area. In my case, although I had dream of moving from one place to another and recording as many different music by different ethnic groups as possible, I decided to follow one dongba shaman in Lijiang and follow him and learn bit more about dongba culture.

Why did you want to go to China in the first place? For instance, why not record in your homeland?

Every time I visited to Southeast Asia, I had a chance to explore the music culture such as ritual and ceremonial contexts.  I went different places to record different music and felt that the music culture in Southeast Asia is linked to each other, regarding the way people perform, the instruments they use, and the way they conduct rituals etc. So, eventually, I start to feel that the music culture of Southeast Asia is really connected somehow, and I wanted to know how this music culture of Southeast Asia has spread into and how the music culture can be linked. Southeast Asia was a huge continent called Sundaland before. Then,due to the geographic changes, the land has been separated into many different islands. Later, different people or ethnic groups migrated into these islands and the music culture has also grown on their own. So, the many cultures across the Southeast Asian countries should be similar for this reason. If you look into the cultural route of Southeast Asian music, I always think that there are three different routes, such as 1) the Chinese route, 2) the Indian route, and 3) the Western route. So, when it comes to China, there was an important period called Dong Son era. The area extended from a region in South China called Yunnan province to Northern Vietnam, and I see this period as a very important part of the relation to the history of Southeast Asian music. From the archaeological perspective, there is evidence that people used the bronze drum, the gong, and the mouth organ too. So, I felt that Yunnan can be one of the oldest music cultures of Southeast Asia. Thus I wanted to go there and explore the sounding and music culture around these areas more. So, I had a big ambition that exploring Yunnan province, perhaps I could see the cultural links between regions, ethnicities, or the societies. So, that was one of the reasons I decided to go to China.

Another reason was that China has over 50 ethnic minority groups living within its borders. Throughout the number of field-work studies I conducted, I noticed that each different ethnic group has different music culture. So, I thought I could see a different music culture by ethnic minorities in Yunnan. Based on this idea, there is a friend of mine, Lauren Jeanneau (aka Kink Gong), who already conducted many recordings of ethnic minorities in South China and the mainland Southeast Asia. He introduced me so many different music and I found it fascinating. So, that was one of the reasons for me to be in Yunnan too.

Third, I am always interested in the archipelago. Japan consists of different islands and it extends from Hokkaido, the northern island next to Russia, to Okinawa, the southern part of islands, where is close to Taiwan. And If you look at the world map centered on Japan, the archipelago continues to the Philippines, Malaysia (Borneo), and Indonesia. I could see this vertical line of different islands which can be treated as one geo-cultural line. Because, throughout my field work experience, there are rituals in Okinawa which is very similar to those in Vietnam and Java. These similarities can be seen in many places along this line.

However, with this idea, I am only looking at the map from the sky, as the world map shows from high up. I wondered how I see these archipelagos from different angles on a world map. I questioned myself how this cultural line can be seen from the mainland Asia. So, I naturally thought I wanted to go to one of the mainland Southeast Asian countries. And thus I went to Southern China. Although I often conduct a field work in Japan, my perspectives about the world is not only Japanese. The archipelagic cultural line from Japan to indonesia is my main interest.

What were the most surprising things you heard in China? Were there any musical similarities with other countries like those you mentioned before?

I have a place in Tokyo. Tokyo is a massive cosmopolitan city and the people there are there more to pursue their career and try to be as professional as possible. The meaning of professionalism does not really exist in a place like Southern China or Indigenous societies. People like ethnic minorities from the Southern part of China, they have daily life which is agricultural work and they gather sometimes and play music altogether. Most of local people there can play music or dance or sing very well like in a way that they can play like professional musician. However, for them, this kind of professionalism does not really work. Because many can play music very well already and for them, the music has already been at the center of the culture. So, it does not need to be a professional.

However, a number of tourists come to Lijiang or other parts of the indigenous regions, they started to play music for the tourists and they started to understand how to earn money somehow from this and it becomes civilized and somehow becomes professional. So, what I found surprising was that there are no boundaries between professional and non-professional for Nàxī people, in terms of music, dance, and any other cultural forms, because these cultural forms have been already centered in their daily life.  But now, I must question myself what is professionalism? For me, professionalism can be replaced by the value of money. The money can be equivalent to the meaning of time commitment. So, this kind of time commitment to be replaced by money started a long time ago in Europe and throughout that civilization’s history, our idea of life has been changed.

But, people like Nàxī or any other ethnic minority has been excluded from this due by isolation. For them, people work when the sun rises and stop working when the sun sets. So the way they do business is actually to eat or to exchange the things which they can not produce. I think that the idea of this professionalism is not functional. Rather, those people got out of the big community on purpose and tried to be isolated because they don’t want to care about what the government or local administration does. But the expansion of globalism and post-exoticism including the exchange of generations, the idea of isolation will vanish in the community of ethnic minorities in both China and any other outland places. So, again, it was surprising to see this cultural shift for the Nàxī people who play music in the community for recreational purposes, to the professional musician for the tourists.

The place I stayed in Lijiang where the local family (of the Nàxī ethnic group) live was a part of the artist-in-residence program. The founder of this artist-in-residency, Jay, has spent many years building a relationship of trust among the community. So, the local people were very open to the foreigners. I had enough energy and time to observe this host family and also the Nàxī neighborhood.  For example, I see that a Nàxī lady cultivates the field and plants a tree of fruit by hand. This is how we perhaps imagine the rural lifestyle of indigenous people. However, she uses chemicals or pesticide excessively just because it grows the tree faster or the tree will not be damaged. For me, this was quite shocking, because the lifestyle of Nàxī people or my neighborhood is kind of indigenous. But, the fact that the life of Nàxī people is perhaps relatively more developed or civilized than I originally thought. I felt that civilization has also infiltrated into the Nàxī local culture. Rather, the technology has more or less coexisted in the life of Nàxī people as even the local people have smartphones. Maybe this kind of incident happened only in my neighborhood but I was little bit surprised.

Another thought, more of a cultural perspective. I had chances to see a number of Nàxī people holding hands and formalize a circule to perform a traditional folk dance. It seems that they do this for festive or recreation purpose such as praying for a good harvest. But, what I found very fascinating was more like a formation of how they dance. They dance against counter-clockwise which I see many different countries in Asia such as Japan, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Since then, I ask myself: why do the people of Asia dance counter-clockwise? Even in Japan, there is a folk dance called Bon dance, in which most of people form a circular position and turn counter-clockwise, for festive or recreational purpose. In addition, the mountain province of Sulawesi Island, called Toraja, when they conduct a funeral ceremony, Rambu Solo, they sing altogether and hold hands and move counter-clockwise. They call it “Ma’badong.” This funeral ceremony in Toraja society, the funeral is actually a festive occasion, based on their animistic belief called “Arukutodoro.”

So, I see similarities most of the places I visited around Asia. And this was very fascinating for me to see Nàxī people doing this circular arrangement and performing counter-clockwise like other places. I don’t know how people in European countries, Middle Eastern countries or Latin America are, but once I was reading an interview of Italian historian, Umberto Eco, he was also wondering why the writing system always move from left to right. And he said that if you look at how local people cultivates their farm, we might find some hints for this. So I was looking at people who farm, every time I visit different countries, but I still don’t find any single hint for this but rather, people look at me strange! Anyway, the performative movement for the folk dance in Southeast Asia is almost the same as every other place and I found this very surprising and fascinating. Maybe it is related to the historical path in western timescale such as GMT. I am not sure but it was very surprising and fascinating somehow.

Lastly, as I mentioned you earlier, I was following the Dongba shaman, He Xiu Dong. It seems that Dongba religion, the Nàxī shamanic belief, most likely came from Tibetan Bon belief1. He Xiu Dong showed me a number of Dongba scripts, which is a pictographic script, written about many things related to the rituals, religion, nature, life, animals, etc., and the Dongba shamen sing or chant based on this script. Understanding this particular script seems very hard, but He Xiu Dong can tell what these pictographic glyphs say. There are many of these scripts which he can understand while other young Dongba shamen can not read so much. According to my friend, there were many scripts that existed before the cultural revolution but most of them were banned. However, He Xiu Dong keeps many scripts of this type because his grandfather, back then, was also a Dongba shaman and hid the scripts during the revolution. Afterwards, he let He Xiu Dong keep and follow his grandfather’s path when he was a young child. So, luckily he received the number of Dongba scripts and became shaman. So, for me, He Xiu Dong is probably one of the youngest Dongba shamen and possibly the last real Dongba shaman for Nàxī group. I am not sure if he knows or does not know about this but he drinks a lot and smokes a lot and every one get annoyed by his behavior eventually, but local people still respect him as the Dongba belief is a really strong Nàxī tradition and he could be the last one.

There are musical similarities in many ways. Nàxī music has been influenced a lot by the Han people. So, Nàxī traditional music is something related to traditional Han Chinese music. However, there are certain singing styles and instruments that are more strongly connected to other places. I had a chance to visit a village located on the mountain (middle of nowhere!) in Lijiang and I recorded a song by elderly Nàxī. They sang about welcoming guest in a call and response style. The way they sang was fascinating, because the lyric came out as totally improvised and spontaneous.

I did not know this until I asked my friend about what song was about. In general, the call and response style can be heard throughout the indigenous Asian music culture, it is about welcoming guest, a love song, appreciation for nature, etc. These kinds of song for welcoming a guest can be heard from many other countries in Southeast Asia or even in Japan. It usually consists of man and woman singing from one to the another and they do it spontaneously as improvisation. This kind of call and response style can be arranged for instruments in other countries. When I visited a village where the Co-Ho group live in the central highland of Vietnam, people use a Gong to do a call and response. So, in relation to our current music culture, it is more like a rap battle in Hiphop music but they do it more about happy subjects, and of appreciation for the Earth. Regarding this call and response song for Nàxī people, they sing a song followed by a melody of Nàxī traditional folk music.

Another interesting is about bowed string instruments. There are numbers of Nàxī people using bowed string instruments. The one which I found interesting to connect to other places was two-string bowed instrument. I see this instrument in other parts of China and mainland Southeast Asia a lot and I must say that this instrument is one of the most common instruments of mainland China and Southeast Asia. The way people play it is same though the music style is different. There can be solo or ensemble. The subject of songs, such as for festive occasions, can be similar. Throughout this, I assume that this kind of instrument is relatively small, so that people can carry it when they climb on the mountain to migrate into different places. Historically speaking, I think that the cultural migration methods for mainland travel versus maritime, in terms of musical instruments, are somehow different. If you live in the mountain, to migrate you really need to select what you want to bring and I guess for the whole family to migrate, it is difficult as they have to climb and walk along the extreme jungle and mountain and across the rivers which are physically tiring. So, the selection of musical instrument has to be relatively small and light ones. Also, one of the common instruments in mainland China and Southeast Asia is a drum that can be quite big, that is replaced based on the memories of those who migrated, because they cannot carry it around. But I see many similar drums in mainland China and Southeast Asia, using different animal skins based on what kind of animals can be hunted. The structure of making drum is not so difficult that people can use their memories to make them.

I must say that the song can be carried many different places for both mainland and maritime, as it does not require any instruments. So, the singing style can be easily integrated into the different places. That is why I see many similarities. On the contrary, the musical migration into the island through the sea via maritime routes is different because they have to use boat which entire family may fit into and they could possibly bring more and heavy stuff to their destinations. So the choice of instruments maybe little more and the weight can be heavier.

The interview was conducted via mail, in April 2018. Special thanks from Yasuhiro Morinaga to Jay Brown and Frog Wang (Lijiang Studio) and Asian Cultural Council for all the support. 

1 An indigenous religious tradition of Tibet arisen in the 11th century.