-by Ernie Diaz
Anyone mind if we bash pop music in general for a bit, and Mando-pop in particular? In an age when everything is manufactured cheap, shiny and disposable, buying into the same kind of music is an act of surrender. At least your average western pop chanteuse makes an effort at sincerity. Oh, a Mando-pop singer will look genuinely pained, warbling through the interchangeable love song some anonymous schlep wrote. But the singer is drawing on the pain of not yet being a movie star, and the yearning to someday be an endorsement-star, for the trifecta. Oh, and while we’re at it – dubstep? Go get a Casio keyboard and a bottle of cheap scotch. You should be performance ready about half-a-liter in.
“So what should we listen to, for the authenticity that begets the true cool of not lying to ourselves?” you wonder. Good question. The answer is folk music. Everything old is new again, now that new iPads become artifacts before the year grows old. Best of all, no one is getting into folk music to sell you something, or to fill with your attention the ravenous void left by bad parents. Folk musicians make their own music, as irrelevant as that may seem to the outsource-dependent. And they draw inspiration from the best of tradition, the tunes and stories that have survived by generational popularity. That it drives twenty-and-unders crazy is an added bonus.
Now, we’re not expecting that the music of the following Chinese folk singers is your thing. It’s just nice to know that, just as in the West, in the East there are still pockets of musicians doing it because they won’t do anything else, money and fame be damned. They’re rich and famous now, alright, but there are plenty more who aren’t.
Ain’t she something? You know Han Hong ain’t in the music game because everyone loves a pretty girl with a pretty song. That heavy duty torso houses pipes that can soar and boom like a spring rainstorm in the mountains of her hometown, Tibet’s Xigaze.
“Is she Tibetan or Chinese?” Please believe that in this case, it really doesn’t matter. Folk from China Sea to the Kunlun Pass have taken Han Hong into their hearts, where there is no patriotic strife, as there isn’t in a truly functioning brain. Her mom was a Tibetan folk singer, but this is no Iglesias-style mantle-passing. She’s been winning prizes and honing her craft hard since she was nine.
The vocal results are impressive enough, yet even better is the fact that she writes her owns songs. She penned six of the songs on her debut album, Rays Over the Snowcapped Plateau. “Hometown” went to number one three months after the album was released. Like Merle Haggard and other American originals, China’s back country singers get worked up about the place of their birth like few others.
Another minority-oriented folk singer, Song was born in Guzhang, a Miao autonomous prefecture in Hunan. Song and dance proficiency are(were) as instilled in Miao kids as cramming skills in Han youth, all the greater distinction that she was chosen from among her many talented peers to study singing and dancing at the Central Institute for Nationalities. If you wanted to keep up the performing arts pre-2000 in China, your best bet was in the military. Song joined the PLA Army-Navy Song and Dance troupe, and now holds the rank of Rear Admiral, so she’ll be on one of the hindmost battleships, singing a martial air, when China attacks the Philippines. We kid, we kid.
Actually, more than any other Chinese folk singer, perhaps Chinese musician of late, Song Zuying is a cultural ambassador, belting her songs from Australia to Canada, and places with culture in between, like Vienna, as both a benediction and a peace offering. Recognition comes in far more commercially favored forms than her work with the China Art Delegation, however. In 2006, her album The Diva Goes to the Movies: A Centennial Celebration of Chinese Film Song was nominated for a Grammy, for Best Classical Crossover Album. It must have been an even sweeter moment than her duet with sweaty old Placido Domingo at the 2008 Summer Olympic closing ceremony.
We’re not usually ones to dish, you know, but this is just too juicy. The rumor about Song Zuying is that she has been romantically involved with former Chinese president and Communist party chief Jiang Zemin. This is Jiang Zemin:
A Vice-Admiral, currently serving life for corruption, introduced the alleged paramours. Call Amnesty International if you don’t hear from us for a while, please? The last scholar to make allegations about the affair, in 2004, was arrested.
We were going to tell you about Sa Dingding, pictured up top, the eclectic half-Mongolian folk songstress who is China’s answer to Bjork. But then you might start thinking that success as a folk singer in China involves being at least part minority. Peng Liyuan is full Han, full-on-talented at folk music, and soon to be the most high-profile singer in China’s history.
She started out humbly enough, as an ordinary soldier in the PLA. Soon, though, her preternatural voice was on demand for boosting morale, and she was redeployed as a song and dance trooper. Years later, studying for a master’s in ethnic music, she was introduced to the son of a famous revolutionary. He went with the nerdy approach, making dates under the pretense of wanting to know more about his nation’s minority tunes.
You would have thought Peng’s parents would be ecstatic at the prospect of having a communist princeling for a son-in-law. Quite the contrary. Even in the 1980s, scions of China’s top cadres were famed for their arrogance and corruption. This one played it modest and patient, though, and after her parents finally consented, Peng married Xi Jinping in 1987.
They’ve lived happily ever after since, using the high-power couple principle of hardly ever seeing each other. He can always catch her on CCTV’s Spring Festival gala. We’ll all be seeing much more of her soon, when, barring some bureaucratic coup, Xi Jinping will be China’s next president, and Peng first lady.