Throngs of eager students, enthusiasm ratcheted to radioactive levels by packets of sugary snacks, crowd around the narrow door to the school hall. Teachers usher their young children through the mob, while administrators stand aloof to one side, silently watching the brouhaha surrounding this event, a night for which the entire school had been preparing for weeks. The 2012 Huangnan Nationalities Middle School Singing Contest was underway.
After ruthless rounds of elimination in the preliminaries the previous week, only 19 acts were left. I sat down in the front of the audience and the lights dimmed, then abruptly switched off. When they came back on, the school’s hiphop-esque dance group was parading khatag (ceremonial silk scarves) across the stage. Placing the khatag on bouquets of fake flowers, the students receded towards the curtain and, with a percussive explosion of gangsta-rap of unknown origin, the even started.
Seventeen of nineteen acts were students singing Tibetan pop songs, most of which were adaptations of traditional melodies or lyrics. The other two acts were Tibetan pop songs sung in Chinese. The student singers wore their best robes onstage, shimmering in golds and sapphires and reds as they wandered slowly across the stage. Most students were accompanied by backup dancers who wore even more elaborate outfits, often including hairpieces with fake braids and industrial-sized pieces of coral jewelry.
For the students, such song and dance performances – indeed, Tibetan singing and dancing in general – is a way to assert their ethnic identity. For those in power, such manifestations of traditional culture are proof that current centrally-planned development initiatives can be executed successfully in minority areas, and while preserving the unthreatening aspects of the minorities’ cultures. For me, it is such a politically fraught exercise – such a symbolism-laden gesture – that I feel awkward, nervous and out of place nearly the entire time. But at the same time, this gesture nevertheless succeeds at making nearly everyone happy except the most extreme skeptics. For that alone I appreciate the singing and dancing, however out-of-key or off-beat it may be.
Since moving to this part of the world, I’ve really grown to appreciate Tibetan pop music (or most of it, at least). The best songs involve soaring vocals, intense rap interludes, and music videos encompassing motorcycling through endless grasslands, yak herding with nomads, monastery visits and driving through suburban developments in Chengdu. The worst songs involve approximately the same elements.
But strangely, since moving to western China I’ve become increasingly interested in various types of traditionally American music (and modern iterations thereof). I’ve become strangely obsessed with bluegrass and a variety of American folk, and I’ve often wondered what my yearning for the twanging of a banjo or the screech of a fiddle really means. Is this a manifestation of an otherwise subconscious homesickness? A desire to assert my own cultural identity in the face of Chinese (and, locally, Tibetan) cultural dominance? A suppressed wistfulness about my youth, a nostalgia for stringband jam sessions at my hippie-esque summer camp in Vermont and again at college; or is it simply sense of remorse that I never learned to play the violin or banjo? Why do I suddenly feel attached to such music? Is it that I’ve become such a country bumpkin myself, a true 土包子 (dirt dumpling, a Chinese insult for backwards rural people)?
But thinking about it for a minute, my musical roots are not so definite or clear-cut. My parents dutifully raised my on a diet of 60’s-era classics, the best of Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel and Joan Baez, which was often supplemented by popular “ethnic” bands such as the Buena Vista Social Club or Cesaria Evora. At the same time, I was receiving a steady diet of classical piano pieces ranging from Bach to Debussy. At one point in my childhood, I became wildly enamored of playing ragtime piano. In middle school, I had a Weezer phase and, during the 7th-grade year of endless bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, rapidly changed band allegiances with the waxing and waning of their support from my fellow middle-schoolers. In high school, I discovered – after a two-year absence – that classical piano could be much more exciting than I had thought (specifically romantic-era piano pieces, with all the sturm und drang any teenager could want). I absorbed Leonard Bernstein (while serving as the pianist for the school’s production of West Side Story) and began listening to socalled “indie” rock, fancying myself a young hipster. I fell in with the guitar-playing crowd around this time and got myself into more than a few jam sessions. More of the same continued in college, with my musical taste broadening but not significantly changing. Until I came to China.
What is the political significance of my sudden attachment to traditional American music? What, more importantly, does this imply about my mental state? my attachments? my loves and fears and deepest desires?
Who the hell knows. All I know is that, in my sudden attachment to American traditional music, I share something with the kids onstage at last night’s singing competition. For all of us, through music, are simply trying to assert who and what and where and when and why we are.