Sunday, February 19, 2012

AnDa Union

Back in November of last year, a group of Inner Mongolian musicians - AnDa Union - came through Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri on their US tour. The group performed at the Lied Center on the campus of the University of Kansas. In addition to their live show, there was also a screening of a documentary about the group at a library in Kansas City.

I want to share AnDa Union and their music here on my blog. They're awesome.

I'll first talk about their show and then the documentary about the group.

AnDa Union's show was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. They use instruments unique to the grasslands of northern China, belt out "Mongolian throat singing" for their vocals, and select their songs from a catalog of ethnic folk music from the steppes of the Mongolian plateau.

To get a taste of what they're about, here is a YouTube video of the song "Derlcha" from a performance they gave in January, 2011:

Very unique stuff. I'd never seen anything like the bowed instruments most of them are playing. That's not an er hu. It's an instrument native to ethnic Mongolians (that I don't know the name of). I found it interesting that, as you can see from the video, they're not pressing down on the strings when they play that instrument. Instead, they're pushing their fingers onto the fret board next to the string.

Here's a photo of what I'm talking about:

Below is another video of what was probably my favorite song of the show - "Galloping Horses." This song was the finale of the show we saw in Lawrence:

This song, and their whole show really, is so high-energy. In addition to unlike just about anything else in the world, AnDa Union's music is simply a lot of fun. I personally think having a good time is what going to see a music performance is all about and felt very happy after the show had ended.

I regret not getting this post written a few months ago when they were still on tour in the US so others would know about the group. Looking at their website, their next several shows are in Australia and New Zealand and they will be playing in London this summer. Their website also says that they'll have a UK and European tour this summer and autumn. If they're coming near where you live, I'd definitely check them out.

If AnDa Union isn't coming to your area, you should look out for the soon-to-be-released documentary about the group - AnDa Union: From the Steppes to the City.

I was lucky enough to help organize the first North American screening of the film on November 2, 2011 at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Library. Several musicians from the band and the director/producer of the documentary were there to watch the film with us and then answer questions afterwards.

The premise of the film is to introduce you to the band in the city where they all live - Hohhot, Inner Mongolia - and then take you to each one of the band member's home towns/villages. If I remember correctly, all of the members of the group are from the countryside of Inner Mongolia (if they all aren't, most of them are).

Inner Mongolia, traditionally, was a nomadic place where life revolved around raising animals and surviving the harsh seasons. Now, there are big cities are popping up throughout the autonomous region. The growth rate in Inner Mongolia is one of China's highest as the region is flush with an abundance of natural resources. A lot of the traditions and culture native to the region are being lost due to the homogeneousness that comes with economic development.

The footage of going back to each group member's home and meeting their families is a wonderful thing to see. The viewer gets to meet their families, see the food they eat, and see the homes where they live. Seeing all of these things is not something you can experience through too many other mediums.

Between visits to different home villages, there's footage of the musicians in the group practicing their songs, teaching lessons to young Inner Mongolians interested in learning traditional music, fine-tuning their instruments, and performing their songs. The film shows how the music is intimately intertwined with the places that they are from.

I really liked "AnDa Union: From the Steppes to the City." Not only is it great to see the group doing things related to their music, but it's even better getting to see the culture from which their music is derived. Being invited into homes deep in the Inner Mongolian countryside is not something that many will ever get to experience.

The Screenings section of the movie's website gives a number of film festivals that the film is being shown at in the coming months. If I ever see anything about the film's wide-spread release in the future, I will be sure to post it here to my blog.

I got a huge intake of AnDa Union back in early November. It's so cool that they - and a number of other China-related acts - came through Kansas this past year. The only thing I missed seeing during AnDa Union's stay in Kansas was their jam with local Lawrence musicians at a local coffeeshop. I couldn't make it to that night. I'm sure it was a sight to see.

Edit: Thanks to fellow blogger Ramesh for sharing that AnDa Union was featured on the BBC World Service on 2/14/2012. This is a really good interview with the producer of the film and one of the band members.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Red Color New Soldier

Li Zhensheng was a photo journalist during China's cultural revolution in the 1960s and 70s. Li, a young man originally from Shandong Province, was relocated to Harbin, the frigid northern city on the edge of Siberia, to be a photojournalist for the newspaper there.

Although the Chinese Communist Party employed him at the state-run paper to take photos that would glorify the Mao's radical revolution, Li took it upon himself to document more than just the propaganda that his bosses asked him to emphasize.

Li knew that something had gone horribly wrong as Chairman Mao exhorted China's young red guards to bully their teachers, to kill intellectuals, to destroy cultural relics including the "four olds," and to make Mao himself into a god-like figure.

Determined to record all aspects of the chaos going on in Harbin at that time, Li captured the darkest aspects of the decade that China was ruled by a senile madman. He risked his life by shooting what he did and hiding the negatives so that his work would be preserved for history's sake. In 2003, Li published a collection of these photos in his book, Red Color News Soldier.

The book's format is: a short introduction from China historian Jonathan Spence, a few pages of writing from Li, photos from the time period he'd just described, more writing from Li, more photos, and so on for more than 300 pages. There are also a number of newspaper front pages mixed in throughout the book to give the reader a feel for what the official Party mouthpiece was spewing as well.

While the writing in the book is at times illuminating, the reason the book exists is to display Li's extensive photo collection. The photos in this book are not light reading. There are photos of property being destroyed, young children and working people declaring their love for their dear leader, and intellectuals and Party enemies being tortured, humiliated, and killed.

The following few photos aren't necessarily the "best" in the book, but they're ones that I could find on a quick internet search:

These photos speak for themselves. There are a couple hundred more like them in the book.

I'm glad I added Red Color News Soldier to my library. It's difficult to get through. But it is an important perspective on the madness that China descended into less than fifty years ago.