For those who take the time to do some digging around, it rapidly becomes clear that China's Yunnan Province is a hotbed of traditional folk music. The province's twenty-five officially recognized indigenous ethnic groups have preserved an almost unlimited depth and variety of music, most of it unknown to the outside world.
Yunnan-based folk-rock bands like Shanren and Manhu have been trying to get the word out, with multiple cultural-exchange tours to the US, and appearances at international music festivals, but by-and-large Yunnan folk has little name recognition with world music fans. Four Seasons, Manhu's upcoming October debut album — on World Music Network, released in China on Sea of Wood — could change all that. Highlighting unique traditions with a modest application of modern arranging, this album is Yunnan's best foot forward for gaining international recognition of the province's unique sonic treasures.
All five members of Manhu were raised in the villages of the Stone Forest region of Yunnan, homeland of the Sani people. Steeped from a young age in the music of their people, their unique ethnic identity serves as the focal point of their music and their story. At the same time, Four Seasons tastefully incorporates touches of modern rock, pop, and reggae, granting listeners a deeper understanding of the musical lives of often-marginalized ethnic minorities adapting to an era of globalized music consumption.
Manhu Band has a surprisingly long history for a band who has only just completed their first studio album. The band's male members, Gao Wei, Er Sheng, A Wa, and Wang Tao have been playing together for over a decade. They started out, like many musicians of their generation, playing in cover bands, eager to emulate the likes of Nirvana and Guns 'N' Roses, whose recordings had only entered China proper in the previous decade — and took even longer to reach rural Yunnan.
As their careers progressed, they realized they would be the last generation of Sani people to have spent at least their pre-teen years surrounded by the traditional music of their people. Most young Sani families had moved to the cities for work and educational opportunities, and Sani children would thereafter be raised on Mando-pop and nationally televised variety show acts.
With this realization, the band took a decidedly preservationist turn, creating listener-friendly arrangements of traditional tunes that were well received by local audiences. The band's dedication to promoting their heritage led to further changes. Jin Hongmei, a specialist in the female style of traditional Sani vocals — featured on the first two tracks of the new album — joined the band in 2016.
Additionally, Manhu began to branch out through their own ethnomusicological investigations, incorporating a greater variety of sounds from across the province. While eager to add diversity to their sound, the band wisely decided to maintain a focus on the music of the Yi minority — the ethnic umbrella under which the Chinese government categorizes the Sani. This grouping encompasses nearly six million people from a handful of distinct cultural groups with which the Sani people share a degree of cultural affinity. Within these overlapping dichotomies — local versus regional, traditional versus modern — Manhu found the warp and weft of their appealing and distinctive sound.
The order of tracks on Four Seasons, for the most part, reflects these two axes. Songs of Sani origin are generally found in the first half of the album, while songs from other Yi cultural groups dominate the second half. The distinction between the parts is also reflected in the band's choice of instrumentation. The first half is played almost entirely on traditional instruments, while the second incorporates electric bass guitar and a drum kit, with minor exceptions.
Overall, the first half of the album feels lighter. Sweet vocal harmonies and almost dub-like rhythms convey an islander vibe, which listeners could be forgiven for assuming has origins in the Caribbean or South Pacific instead of southwest China. The second half rocks out in the manner of a boisterous village hoedown — which better fits our stereotypes of reclusive mountain-folk with a taste for home-brewed liquor.
Any discussion of the appeal of Manhu Band's music would be remiss if it didn't highlight the effectiveness of their arrangements, which feature traditional instruments in novel combinations, an innovation that is largely absent in the traditional music of their people. Traditional Sani ensembles are mostly composed of musicians all playing the same instrument. It was Manhu Band's experience playing rock music that led them to view the instruments found in their native culture as an orchestra to be played together. Thus, they began exploiting the characteristics of each instrument to fulfill specific roles within their compositions.
For the most part, Manhu Band sticks to this method of native-instrument orchestration throughout the first half of Four Seasons, yielding an aesthetic that doesn't forsake the appeal of the verse/chorus/bridge arrangements of popular music, but remains firmly rooted in tradition. The second half of the album, however, leans more heavily into a rock component.
A few of the resulting tracks are destined to be crowd-pleasers at any world music festival, provided the crowd has sufficient room to dance. On the first plugged-in track, "Chun Xia" — meaning "Spring and Summer" — the xiao sanxian — a three-string, skin-topped lute that sounds like an old gut-strung banjo — holds its own against the modern rhythm section, employing a catchy chord-melody riff over the chorus, shifting to traditional trills in the dub-inflected verse. It is the poppiest song on Four Seasons, the album's first single, and as cheerful and uplifting as the title suggests.
The darker tones of the following track, "Tiao Cai", introduces the second half of the album — a string of Yi dance tunes whose minor modes provide a distinct contrast to the major harmonies of the Sani material. With heavy stomp rhythms and minor pentatonic melodies, "Tiao Cai" and "He Jiu Hao Wan" will be pleasing to fans of American blues-rock, and the presence of these tracks more than justifies the addition of a rock rhythm section to fully explore their kick-out-the-jams potential.
Listeners, however, need not fear any watering down of the traditional sounds that dominate the first half of the album, as the Yi people are blessed with plenty of native instruments that can match the intensity of amplified instrumentation. Especially noteworthy in this regard are the hulusheng, with its ritualistic raven-squawk, and the full-scream male falsetto employed on "Tiao Cai". Easily interpreted as the harmonica and Robert Plant-esque howl in our blues-rock analogy, both are powered courtesy of the ample lungs of vocalist and woodwind player, Wang Tao.
The second half of the album keeps the intensity high with more sure-fire festival hits like "Da Ge" and "San Yue Hui". The latter is a traditional song from Chuxiong Prefecture, home to the largest Yi population in Yunnan. Coming from a set of dance tunes collectively known as the 'Left Foot Dance', this track features the four-stringed xianzi, and is representative of the kinds of sounds that most Chinese people associate with Yunnan folk music.
Set to a four-on-the-floor disco rhythm, "San Yue Hui" borrows heavily from Shanren's interpretations of Chuxiong Yi tunes — see their album Left Foot Dance of the Yi, also on World Music Network. Manhu Band, however, has taken the concept further, applying disco-influenced rhythms frequently throughout their album, a welcome change from the overuse of rock and reggae rhythms on so much ethnic folk-rock from Yunnan, and China more generally.
Relative to rock and reggae, a straight disco beat seems to apply less genre-specific coloration to the music, keeping the energy high, but also placing the traditional elements more squarely in the foreground. In fact, these beats work so well as a supporting framework that many listeners will hear them as natural complements to the traditional melodies — always a desirable result in roots-based folk-rock.
Of course, all of this is in keeping with Manhu's musical agenda, that is placing their traditions at center stage. To achieve this end, the band tirelessly tweaks arrangements and instrumentation. I had the chance to witness this while working as the band's interpreter on two separate visits to the US, spaced one year apart. For example, if they had decided to replace the bass guitar with the da sanxian on a song, they would rearrange the entire song so it works better with the character of the traditional instrument.
The recording of Four Seasons is a milestone because it will now serve as the definitive arrangements of these songs, which have, until now, been fluid works in progress, ongoing experiments in the successful presentation of traditional music. Hopefully the album will inspire other folk-rock bands to take arranging more seriously, as opposed to repeating that tired formula of grafting traditional melodies onto a generic rock groove.
As successfully as Manhu negotiates tradition and modernity, I do have one criticism to level, namely the simplistic ordering of the songs. Admittedly, the sequence of tracks forefronts Sani culture, allowing listeners the opportunity to dive deeply into the band's roots. The drawback, however, is that most of the album's barnstormers, songs like "Da Ge" and "Tiao Cai", end up piled together in the second half of the album, leading to a somewhat uneven song flow and burying some the band's hardest-hitting material late in the record.
All-in-all, Four Seasons remains a powerful debut, introducing the diverse musical heritage of Yunnan's largest ethnic group to the world, while also serving as a textbook study in how to develop folk-rock arrangements that highlight traditional roots rather than obscure them.
The use of all-native instrumentation on the early tracks comes in for particular praise here, as does the band's decision to avoid folk-rock clichés, like incessantly strumming acoustic guitars. And when called for, the inclusion of drum kit and electric bass on later tracks is always tasteful and respectful. As fun as the music is, one feels the deep seriousness that went into making the album an organic extension the Sani and Yi musical traditions, rather than a violation of them.
Manhu's debut succeeds as an artistic summation of their long process of musical integration, bringing together the old music that nourished them in childhood with the modern influences that helped shape their musical lives.
Interested? In support of their upcoming album release, Manhu will perform at ModernSky Lab on Sunday, July 28 — their first full-length Kunming show in more than a year. The concert, with opening acts, will begin at 8pm, preceded by a showcase of Sani culture — including a Torch Festival — at ModernSky Café in the afternoon.
Author Joshua Dyer is a freelance literary translator and musician who has taken a deep interest in the musical traditions of China's ethnic minorities. His translations of novels by ethnic minority writers Tsering Norbu and Alai will be appearing in 2019 and 2020. His blog about ethnic folk music in China can be found at the website Tea-Horse.