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Grand song of the Dong ethnic group

The Grand Song of the Dong Ethnic Minority – or the Grand Chorus, as we will call it here, though the Dong themselves call it Ga Lao ("Grand Tradition") – is the generally accepted title used by outsiders to describe the folk-song traditions of China's Dong ethnic minority. The Grand Chorus is performed entirely without the aid of musical instruments; it is what one would call a cappella in the West, to use the now popular Italian term, whose root is of course "chapel", but in a very particular sense: the small, semi-secluded room in a church, or at royal court, where the performing choir was located. In addition, the Grand Chorus is performed – sometimes even in groups that number the hundreds – without the benefit of a conductor, which is all the more impressive given the complex structure and the rapid changes in cadence of the Grand Chorus.

Singing Grand Song

All Villagers Singing Grand Song Together

But the Dong people's Grand Chorus is much more than just an a cappella performance of folk songs – the songs of the Grand Chorus are intimately linked to all aspects of Dong culture, from the loftiest to the most mundane. The Grand Chorus, which also rests entirely on an oral tradition (indeed, the language of the Dong lacks its own orthography, or method of representing language sounds in written form*), has traditionally been the Dong people's sole method of transmitting their culture down the ages; all of the "stories" of Dong culture, from creation stories to stories of kindness, sincerity, friendship, love, social harmony, respect for nature, respect for one's ancestors – in short, all of the stories deemed worthy of being remembered (not surprisingly the Grand Chorus has been called 'An Encyclopedia of Dong Social Customs') – are preserved in the songs of the Grand Chorus. As might be expected, elderly Dong singers are revered in much the same way that prize-winning writers and historians are revered in Western culture, for they are truly the guardians of Dong culture.

Curiously, jealousy, distrust, strong feelings of dislike and dishonesty – in all its forms, from lying to cheating to stealing – seem to have been chastised from Dong social life, judging from the songs of the Grand Chorus, as if the aim of Dong social organization has been one of instilling a sense of communality in the group rather than one of celebrating the capriciousness of the individual.

To better appreciate the Grand Chorus, one needs to examine how it is structured musically, what its themes, or styles, are and how this unique tradition has served as the glue that has held Dong culture together down through the ages. But first, a few introductory words on the Dong people as an ethnic group.

Dong Origins

The Dong are a subgroup of the Liao folk that splintered off from the Bai ("Hundred") Yue folk during the Southern and Northern (CE 420-588) Dynasties period. The Yue folk, whose most famous leader, according to legend, was Yu the Great, are believed to be the forefathers of the Han Chinese people. It was during the Tang (CE 618-907) and Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasties that the Liao divided into further subgroups, one of which subgroups are the Dong (who usually call themselves Kam, though they pronounce it more like "Gam"). The Yue tribe that would produce the Liao and eventually the Dong ethnic group are related to the Tai (alternatively, Dai) ethnic group that inhabit present-day Thailand; there is also a large contingent of Dong people residing in present-day Vietnam.

The Chinese Dong ethnic group settled principally in the southern part of China in the nexus of Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi (Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region) Provinces of present-day China. To learn more about the history and customs of the Dong ethnic group, click here.

The Structure of the Grand Chorus

The songs of the Grand Chorus are polyphonic, i.e., they are "an artistic form of auditory communication incorporating instrumental or vocal tones in a structured and continuous manner", as the term is described in the thefreedictionary.com. And more from the same source: "having two or more independent but harmonically related melodic parts sounding together". In addition, Grand Chorus plays on the apposition of male versus female voices, or young versus elderly voices, to create a sort of dialogue (aka an antistrophe, or the alternating stanzas in, for example, a Greek poem or play, which can also be described as a form of counterpoint), not too dissimilar from the chanting of scripture by a priest, followed by the chanted response of the parishioners in a Catholic mass (or the singing of a verse of scripture by a member of the choir, to which the parishioners respond with the appropriate verse).

Within the contrapunctual framework of the Grand Chorus, the voices of either group – male versus female, young versus elderly – are highly polyphonic, with a greater range of polyphony on the female and/or young side. The songs may be composed of long, lyrical flights of seeming vocal fantasy (though the voice is very much controlled) interspersed with short, chant-like passages, with an overall dramatic effect that can be likened to the near-hypnotic effect of a Riverdance performance (cf. the Irish tap-dancing musical group), especially if the Dong choir is a large one. Perhaps for this reason, when the Grand Chorus is performed abroad, the choir can easily consist of fifty to a hundred members, sometimes more. A Grand Chorus performance exhudes passion, grace and harmony.

In a Dong village, the Grand Chorus is peformed at the village's drum tower (the Dong have other types of song where they make use of both a reed instrument (the lusheng**) and drums – in fact, the drum tower is one of Dong culture's 'holy trinities', as it were, the other two being their grand songs/Grand Chorus and the so-called roofed bridge, or bridge with a house-like structure built atop it). The songs are typically sung in three different types of choral voices: bass, alto and soprano, but sometimes as many as six different choral voices are employed, such as the relevant addition of several of the following choral voices: mezzo-soprano and contralto, on the female side; and tenor, countertenor and baritone, on the male side.

The bass part, sung, naturally, by a male, is the main, or base, part, with departures from this low-key, lingering sound – which the Dong themselves consider as representative of a murmuring brook – being in the form of creative solos performed by the alto and soprano parts. The alto solo is considered by the Dong to be representative of birdsong, and thus is imitative of hundreds of small birds twittering simultaneously, creating a veritable symphony of melodious birdsong. However, the soprano voice is the most common part after the main bass part. Or put slightly differently, the soprano is the fanciful thread that is woven against the more somber background of the bass.

The Themes, or Styles, of the Grand Chorus

The songs of the Grand Chorus can be divided into numerous themes, or styles, the most common of which are the Lyrical Style, the Moralilty Style, the Narrative Style, and the Vocality Style. The Lyrical Style concerns itself with matters of romantic love and courtship, while the Morality Style concerns itself with religious and moral questions. The Narrative Style, which is arguably the main style in the sense that it covers the greatest range and number of "stories", concerns itself with the narration of more conventional "stories", from history to mythology to stories of valor, kindness, friendship, social cohesion, an appreciation of unspoiled nature and a deep respect for the long line of ancestors who went before. The Vocality Style concerns itself, not surprisingly, with the sublime beauty of musical melody.

The Lyrical Style songs occupy a great deal of space in the lives of young people especially. There are countless variations on the love theme, such as the first-encounter song, the parting song, the reunion song and the marriage song, as well as songs that describe other important moments in a courtship and marriage.

Besides these main styles there are other types of Dong songs that are sung on special occasions and which involve age-old customs. Two of these special custom-related song categories are the Tangcai Songs where villagers form a hand-in-hand circle, singing and dancing in rhythm, and the two-part, Way-Blocking-and-Path Song which, as the name suggests, is related to blocking the approaching outsider's access to the village until the outsider has performed an appropriate song of hommage to the village – called the Path song, since it unblocks the path to the village.

From Humble Beginnings to Fame to a Perhaps Uncertain Future

The Grand Song of the Dong Ethnic Minority was formally recognized as a national Chinese ethnic-minority musical tradition in the early 1980s, albeit, on a much less grand scale than the Grand Chorus is known and performed today. Indeed, the word "grand" would have been a jarring contrast to the humble beginnings of the Grand Chorus, whose first international performance was as a 9-member choral group that performed at the Paris Autumn Festival in 1986.

Earlier, during the late 1950s, the Chinese musicologist, Zheng Lucheng, stumbled over the choral traditions of the Dong and was first of all amazed to discover that the music of the Dong is polyphonic, the first – and perhaps only – example of polyphonic music in Chinese culture. Zheng was also amazed to learn that the Dong handed down their history as well as their cultural traditions not only orally, but via song. Zheng worked thereafter closely with the Dong, helping them to make their music known to a wider Chinese audience. It was as a result of these efforts that the French musician, Louis Dandelaire, learned about the amazing choral traditions of the Dong, and arranged for a small group of Dong women, under the booking title, The Guizhou Glee Club, to perform at the annual Paris Autumn Festival in 1986.

The success of the event was so overwhelming – it took France by storm, while rumors of the group's success spread across the rest of Europe – that it catapulted the small glee club of Guizhou into what is known today as the Grand Chorus. In 2009, the UNESCO World Heritage Commission formally recognized the Grand Song of the Dong Ethnic Minority as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Despite this invaluable international recognition, the future for the Dong choral-song tradition is threatened – in fact, it is threatened by the very worldwide attention that it has attracted, since the result of this attention will inevitably bring prosperity to the Dong, and with prosperity, modernity. So the question is whether the Dong people can keep their oral tradition alive in the face of modernity, or whether it will buckle under and disappear within a single generation, as so often happens when a quaint, vulnerable cultural tradition meets the modern world head-on, for young people tend to want what their counterparts elsewhere want, and this is a very powerful engine of change; when Dong youth begin to hanker after the education, good jobs, better housing, cars, televisions, and all of the other modern gadgetry that their mainstream Chinese counterparts enjoy, it will be hard for Dong elders to stem the tide of change.

But perhaps this is too pessimistic a scenario, even if the Dong oral tradition will likely have to give way to a written language. One optimistic ending for the Grand Chorus might be that the wonderfully uniting force of the Grand Chorus can not only be preserved for the Dong, but can also be employed as a medium for fostering international brotherhood. For example, if choral groups in North American and European cities – to take the example of the prime movers – begin to form special "Grand Chorus" performing groups consisting partly of Dong and partly of North American or European singers, as the case may be, then the Grand Chorus will become yet another Chinese-inspired international cultural movement – or Chinese cultural export item, if you will – alongside Acupuncture, Fengshui, Kung Fu and Wushu (see below).

Medical experts say that the breathing patterns required to produce the rapidly-changing polyphonic notes of the Grand Chorus is good for the lungs, as it develops the lungs and keeps them healthy – it "exercises" the lungs down to their tiniest components – in ways that are matched only by the best of physical exercise regimens or competition cycling and swimming. Of course, the Dong have a distinct adavantage in this regard, for they learn to sing the moment they are born; instead of the "goo-goo", "ga-ga" baby talk that Western mothers shower on their newborn, Dong mothers sing the Dong equivalent of "goo-goo" and "ga-ga" to their babies.

* Note that a written language, with an orthography based on the Latin alphabet, was developed for the Dong in 1958 by government researchers, but it has never achieved widespread popularity, perhaps because the Dong feel that it would threaten their precious oral tradition, which, as we have seen in the above, also serves as the glue that keeps Dong society harmoniously united.

** A lusheng, as indicted, is a reed instrument. It is made of bamboo and can measure up to 3 meters or as little as 1/3 meter. Most lusheng consist of multiple reeds, but some have only 1 or 2 reeds. The most popular number of reeds for a lusheng among experienced lusheng musicians is 6, which provides an adequate range of tones, from a deep bass to a clear and melodious treble, while maintaining forcefulness. The music of the lusheng has over time been played for more than just the traditional courtship ceremony – the lusheng has developed into an all-purpose musical instrument in its own right, an instrument used to accompany all manner of dance, acrobatics, and even Wushu, a special aerobics-like Chinese form of physical workout. Because of its versatility, the lusheng is gradually being adopted by other Chinese minority cultures than the Miao, such as those of the Buyi, the Dong, the Shui, the Yao and the Yi, and it is perhaps only a matter of time before it makes its way into Western culture.

Note also that the Dong, as do many other ethnic minorities in China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, make use of the leaves of certain trees and plants as musical instruments (the edge of the leaf is held to the lips, then air is blown around the leaf, producing music, in much the same way that kids blow on paper to produce "musical" sounds) . The Dong, for example, make use of the leaves of the Qinggang oak (Oriental white oak, Cyclobalanopsis glauca) and the Camellia plant (family Theaceae), to name the two most common, for this purpose. To see a video recording of an amazing performance by a Malaysian "leaf blower" (perhaps of Chinese Dong descent?) who produces some very beautiful, Chinese-sounding melodies via this simple method, click here).

There are even Dong tunes designed specifically to be performed on leaves. Most of these tunes belong to the broad topic of romantic love & courtship. They typically consists of 4, 8 or 12 lines, each line consisting of 6 to 8 words. They are played spontaneously by young people, especially during late spring and early summer – about the same time that birds begin their mating (courting and nest-building) activities :).

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