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Making Music out of Darkness

Famous musicologist Tian Qing said that it is difficult for him now, a person whose profession is music, to be moved by music. However, one night in August this year, Tian found himself in tears when he listened to several visually impaired musicians.


That was in a yard with a dilapidated outdoor stage in Zuoquan, a poor county in the Taihang Mountains area of north China's Shanxi Province.


"I know why I cried," said Tian. "It was because of the truthfulness of the music."


The musicians had no eye contact with the audience, and thus there was no artificial expression of any kind.


"They don't notice whether you are listening or not," said Tian. "They seem to be singing to the sky, not only with their voices, but with their hearts, their souls and their life."


Troupe's history


The group of musicians that Tian saw were with the Zuoquan Blind Men's Publicity Team. The team was founded in 1938 in Zuoquan, where the Eighth Route Army fighting against the invading Japanese army set up and maintained a headquarters base for about five years into the early 1940s. The troupe's name is still marked with the character of the time and place.


According to the Annals of Culture in Zuoquan County, blind musicians of the Taihang Mountains area used to busk alone in an earlier period of time. When he arrived at the gate of a wealthy family, a blind musician would sit on a bench that he carried with him, and sing some benedictory words. If the family rewarded him with a meal, the busker would begin his formal performance.


Later some blind musicians formed groups to busk together. A small group would consist of three or four people, and a bigger one of six or seven people. The percussionist would sit in the middle, with the huqin (two-stringed bowed instrument) on one side and the sanxian (three-stringed plucked instrument) and bamboo flute on the other.


In 1938, the then Taihang Anti-Japanese Democratic Government, set up by the Chinese Communist Party, formed the Blind Men's Publicity Team. Continuing to tour in the countryside, they performed both traditional music and new works about the anti-Japanese war.


After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Zuoquan Blind Men's Publicity Team developed into a 38-member troupe with five sub-groups. They were rewarded for their tour performances by the government, first with rice and later with money.


Now the troupe has to survive on their own. Normally traveling in the villages of Zuoquan, they give regularly over 200 performances a year.


"Most of the year, people can see them walking at the foothills of Taihang Mountains, quilts on their back, each member putting one hand on the shoulder of the person before him," said Tian. "Everywhere they go they bring the music of the earth."


Tian decided to let people in Beijing hear this truthful music that is born in darkness. With the sponsorship of Chinese Academy of Arts and the Music School of Capital Normal University, he organized a tour for the troupe in Beijing.


On October 8, 11 members of the troupe arrived in Beijing. Between October 10 and 15, they gave three concerts, one at the Capital Normal University, another at the Central Conservatory of Music and a final performance at Renmin University of China.


Moving songs


It was unfamiliar circumstances for most of them, as they are used to performing in yards or elementary school classrooms to groups of farmers.


"We were a little nervous about performing here," said one of the musicians, Liu Hongquan, after one of the concerts. "But since we couldn't see, it was about the same for us."


It was Liu who first moved Tian to tears in Zuoquan, when he sang Guanggun Ku (A Single Man's Bitterness), a folk song about the hardships of men who have no families.


The song is made up of 12 repetitions of a simple and sad melody, which is a variation of the widespread Northern Shaanxi folk song Xiu Jinbian (Embroidering the Golden Banner). The 12 verses of the song employ the yuelingti form, a traditional form in Chinese folk songs that organizes the lyrics in the order of the 12 months of a year.


"In January the plum blossoms flower / Everybody loves the plum blossoms / The single man wants to pick a flower / But there's no one to wear it at home.


"In February the spring wind blows / The single man feels so sad and alone / His worn-out clothes are covered with holes / The single man has to ask others to sew and mend them / The single man doesn't want to ask others to sew and mend / But the spring wind is hurting his waist and legs.


"In March comes the Pure Brightness Festival / All the families go to visit their ancestors' graves / Those who have wives go in groups / The single man goes by himself / Those who have wives are followed by their children / The single man can only watch in tears..."


In a tone close to crying, Liu sang 12 sad stories of a single man covering 12 months of his life. Again, he moved some of the audience into tears with his untrained voice.


Liu truly knows what the lyrics are about, for, like most of the members of the troupe, he has to live a single life himself.


Now 34, Liu was born blind. He liked music when he was a child, and learned to play the erhu (two-stringed bowed instrument) and suona (type of horn) by himself.


Liu's father did not want him to become a folk musician, living a wayward life performing on the road. Therefore, after graduation in 1992 from the Blind People's School in Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, Liu became a masseur.


However, his love for music never stopped. After his father passed away in 1995, he quit his massage job and joined the Zuoquan Blind Men's Publicity Team.


"I will continue to play music," said Liu. "Nothing will change my love for music."


Special musicians


Six of the 11 musicians were born blind, while the others lost their sight because of accidents or illness.


Head of the troupe, 50-year-old Wang Yuzhong was the victim of an explosion 30 years ago. He lost not only one eye, but also his left hand and the first part of his right middle finger. With glasses, he has partial sight with his left eye.


"The accident brought me terrible pain, both physically and mentally" said Wang. "I lost my way in life."


Wang had never studied any instrument before the accident. He had attended performances of the Zuoquan Blind Men's Publicity Team, but did not know much about the troupe.


The accident pushed him to become a member of the troupe. He joined it at the age of 24, and began to learn the erhu from old musicians in the troupe.


Because of his crippled hands, he could not play wind instruments such as the sheng (reed pipe wind instrument) or the suona. But he could play the erhu with the bow tied to his left wrist.


With his weak eyesight, Wang always leads the way for others, his good hand holding the stick of the man behind him, when they journey from village to village.


Every blind musician has a story to tell. They have tasted too much bitterness in their life. This is perhaps the reason why their music has the power to touch listeners.


"For the first time in my life, I listened to a concert in tears," said Zhang Dalong, a professor of composition from the Capital Normal University. "From their music I felt the strength of Chinese folk culture."


In the history of Chinese music, blind people have a particular place. The first musician whose name appears in Chinese historical books was Shi Kuang, a blind musician who lived in the 6th century BC.


Erquan Yingyue (Moon Reflected in the Second Spring), one of the most well-known Chinese music works, was composed by Hua Yanjun (1893-1950), a blind musician who is better known as "Blind Ah Bing."


Carrying on the tradition of Chinese blind musicians, the members of Zuoquan Blind Men's Publicity Team are preserving traditional Chinese music through their performances. At the concert in Capital Normal University, they performed folk songs, qinshu, a kind of traditional narrative music performance, and instrumental ensemble works.


Zuoquan is well-known for its rich resources of folk songs. The program of the concert included traditional Zuoquan folk songs such as Taohua Hong, Xinghua Bai (Peach Blossoms Are Red and Almond Blossoms Are White) and Taonan (Fleeing the Calamity).


The qinshu work Da Shihua (The Truth) reflects the pessimism of the people. Borrowing the tune of the yangko dance from central Shanxi Province, The Truth conveyed aspects of daily life to the audience in a humorous tone.


The two ensemble instrumental works, Listening to Huaxi Opera and Ten Scenes displayed the blind musicians' skills in playing together. Without a conductor and eye contact between them, the musicians get their beat from the bangzi (wood blocks) or the drum.


Playing the gong, cymbals, bangzi, drum, suona, sheng, sanxian (three-stringed plucked instrument), erhu and banhu (bowed instrument similar to erhu but with a higher pitch), the band produced a rich and indigenous sound.


"Although the windows to see the outside world are forever closed for them, within their hearts there is healthy and pure music that sighted people can hardly make," said Tian.


(China Daily October 20, 2003)


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