Guizhou Province, Southwest China
November 28th – 30th, 2011
While the Dong are most famous for their architecture and unique style of dress, few outsiders realize how much music is the social and cultural heart of the Dong people. After seeing the tiered drum towers, wind and rain bridges, and talking to local Dong girls in beautiful costumes, you may think you know the essence of Dong culture, but until your ears are treated to the sound of their Grand Choirs (侗族大歌), you have yet to truly experience the beauty and cultural wealth of the Dong.
While on a WildChina music-themed tour, we were lucky enough to hear the best of these Grand Choirs, which was surprisingly comprised of local villagers who simply gathered at the end of the working day. Not a single member in our group remained stoic once the unbelievably beautiful voices of young boys and girls rose and fell like magic. Some pieces they performed were pure song, while others were accompanied by dances and cute re-enacted love stories.
“The body is supported by rice, but the spirit is supported by song” is a Dong saying that means “rice” and “song” are regarded as equally important in Dong culture and to their sense of self. They sing to express feelings, to relay passion, and to color their world. To the Dong, songs are a treasure capable of refining the mind and one’s emotions. In traditional Dong villages, only the wise and the knowledgeable—usually the most respected village elder—can compose new songs to pass down to descendants. Inseparable from the Dong’s daily life, their folk songs are the true historical record of the Dong Nationality.
The most amazing part of these Grand Choirs is that the songs and music are passed on orally from generation to generation and so the children coming up require no rehearsal when it comes time for them to join in a sing. Their ability to complement each other in perfect harmony appears instinctual and one feels honored to be in their presence. It is an artistic form of lead singing with a chorus comprised of high and bass counterpoint singing. It’s origins are polyphonic—an extremely rare style in classic Chinese and foreign folk music.
We reluctantly left the Dong villages still hearing the choir music flitting sweetly in our minds. When would we ever have another opportunity to experience such authentic and emotional music? The ever-welcoming Dong have the answer: come join us at our Grand Choirs Festival in Congjiang from November 28th-30th, where the best songs are to be found!
–Gloria Guo, WildChina Travel Consultant