Saturday, November 22, 2008

Traditional Orquestra

Wandering through Xi'an's Muslim Quarter we happened upon this Traditional Orquestra rehearsal. There were half a dozen 'sheng' players so I was able to see how the instrument is held. Alice observed that, like a harmonica, the players produce tones by inhaling as well as exhaling. There were a couple people playing 'dizi,' the Chinese horizontal bamboo flute, and a percussion section consisting of a big bass drum, cymbals, and wood blocks as the time keeper. There was also a 'Guanzi,' a double reeded oboe that originated in Kucha. It is sometimes called 'belili,' or 'sad oboe' because of its melancholy sound and scale. It is often used as the lead instrument that carries the melody. The music was full and splendid and the musicians made us feel welcome to listen in as they rehearsed.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Za ji tuan (acrobat troupe)

Today we had the pleasure of seeing a young troupe of street acrobats. These kids were out of control! Their rag-tag team performed amazing stunts including feats of balance and contortionism. We gave them a big tip then Alice had the excellent idea of printing up pictures of the performance to give to them. They loved it! One girl was looking through the pictures as she balanced on a board placed over a rolling cylinder on top of a table. It may well have been the first time they've owned pictures of themselves as most poorer people in China can't afford cameras. In America you might spend $40 to see the kind of show that these kids put on for tips and small change. We could tell that they enjoyed having an enthusiastic audience as Kalila hollered 'Wow!' and clapped for them.


Instead of ink and paper this man practices his calligraphy using water on dusty tiles. Calligraphy is a highly respected artform in China. I like the obvious impermanence of his practice. Like many Eastern artforms the emphasis is on the process rather than the end result. His deep focus radiated an atmosphere of calm all around him.

xin de xie zi (new shoes)

Kalila took a liking to this woman and her tiger-striped shoes. Many of the Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslim) women make beautiful hand-sewn baby shoes. They can often be seen setting up shop on the sidewalk with a wide selection of soles and colorful fabrics to choose from. This 'Ayi' (auntie) had a warm smile and contagious laugh that made Kalila just crack up.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Zhong Yao

Zhong Yao (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is an ancient and sophisticated science used to promote wellness as well as prevent and cure disease. Chinese medicine is based on the idea that humans are composed of and governed by the Five Elements in varying proportions. Herbs, roots, and animal products are used to remedy elemental imbalances that may disrupt homeostasis and lead to illness. We came to this medicinal market looking for Huang Qi (Astragalus), which can be added to soup or taken as a tea to improve the immune system. I was also in the market for Guan Ye Lian Qiao (St. John's Wort), a good mood stabilizer for countering the effects of reduced light exposure. Sunny days in Xi'an are few and far between and the grey skies make me want to hibernate! A block from the market we could already begin to smell the pungent herbs and roots. Entering the various stalls Kalila was most interested in the array of dried snakes, pearls, turtle shells, millipedes, skewered lizards, ants and other insects. The dried lizards (pictured above) can be made into a soup to cure a soar throat. We stocked up on dried longyan fruit (dragon eyes), goji berries, ginseng, astragalus, and a shell-like substance used for treating cuts. Although we only scratched the surface, it was fascinating to talk with the merchants about the properties and uses of their medicines.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Full-Time Fiddler

When this old troubador noticed that we were interested he invited us to sit down beside him to listen to his song. His fingers were wrapped in tape and his fiddle was completely caked in rossin dust which made me think that music must be his full-time occupation. His two stringed fiddle is called a 'ban hu' and is a regional instrument of Shaanxi. It is smaller than the 'Erhu' and its sound box is bowl shaped rather than cylindrical. He sang in the raspy, guttural style common to Shaanxi Opera (Qin Qiang). Variations of throat singing can also be found in Tibet, Mongolia, and the Circumpolar regions. As he improvised lyrics I could pick out enough words to know that he was singing about a girl's beautiful hair.

Kong Zhu

Kong Zhu (literally 'hollow bamboo') is known in the West as the Chinese yo-yo. Alice had been wanting to learn to play for some time when she finally met a group of women that practice outside the old city walls. They helped her find a kong zhu and showed her some basic techniques to get started. There are a couple different kinds of kong zhu - one is symmetrical (pictured above) and the other is more like a spinning top that makes a whirring sound when it gets up to speed.

Ancestor of the Accordion

I am a big fan of accordions and was surprised to find that my favorite instrument evolved from the Chinese 'sheng,' which was one of the world's first free reed instruments. In the 18th century a couple of European travellers brought a few traditional shengs back with them to Europe. The introduction of the instrument inspired the invention of the harmonica and the accordion. The popularity of the harmonica and accordion spread quickly because the instruments are so versatile and easy to transport. Variations of the accordion play a central role in many musical styles including tango, forro, cumbia, vallenato, merengue, and norteno just to name a few. The next time you hear a smoking merengue or a refined tango remember that it all started with this strange instrument from China.