About a month ago, I had never heard of the Dong Minority 侗族大歌 nor did i have a clue about their musical proficiency, the uniqueness of their delivery or the imminent danger of extinction facing their folklore… Now, thank to a series of shows they did in Beijing over the past few weeks, it’s all changed. It’s not the first time that they get a bit of attention as Amy Tan had already covered this highly musical ethnic for NPR Music.
I caught them at 2 Kolegas on a thursday night, 2 weeks ago, hoping to enjoy the show in an intimate setting with what promised to be a fantastic bill: Dong Chorus and Happy Avenue. At least one of them would deliver the goods.
Things kicked off quite early, 8:00 pm, which is quite an exception to the norm over at the Drive-in. Sure, the band didn’t come on til 8:30 but there was a decent sizable crowd considering it was a Thursday and the the entrance fee was CNY80.
The setup was quite simple and the evening moved pretty much at the same pace: Wu Hongfei, incivilian clothing, would read and explain what the next song would be about immediately followed by the band delivering said song. There was a beautiful variety displayed.. Some of the songs were love songs, others just nature praise, there were a few sad soppy ones as well.
The girls’ sole instrument was their voice and they made it count in beautiful ways that are just too hard to describe.. the harmonies were so well put together yet organic and effortless. It felt like each one of them knew which range to hit and what notes to emphasize. There were also 2 guys on the side, using 2 different traditional pipas ( Chinese Lute) that were characteristic of their region. While they did do a bit of singing, they mostly kept themselves busy plucking strings while the girls handled the vocals.
I really enoyed their delivery and even more so their final number when they dropped the microphones, came off the stage, and proceeded to lead the audience through impromptu song n dance number for a few minutes.. it was a beautiful way for everyone to connect with and feel part of the music.
Video extract from Yugong Yishan gig:
One thing i found quite fascinating was the similarities between their harmonies and those of some Amazigh (Berber) regions of Morocco. The similarities even extended to some of the dress styles. That’s really worth exploring.
The limitations of my chinese were such that i did miss out on a few explanations but one thing was clear: Wu Hongfei was going to battle for her people, trying to keep the singing traditions of the Dong Chorus alive. She’s a bit on the loony loopy side but one gotta give her some rock n roll cred for doing the things she does, especially this series of events. That said, I can’t help but feel disappointed by her as far as that evening: The bill clearly listed Dong Chorus + Wu Hongfei/Happy Avenue and everyone that came it, bought a ticket and went into 2 Kolegas had claims to see that show, especially since wu hongfei was there and was not sick. I would put in at least 15mn of acoustic songs! Apparently, there were problems with lower than expected pre-sales and other non-acceptable excuses.. and it’s these kind of excuses that undermine and poison the development of the music scene in this country. As an artist, a professional, you are held liable for you performances, especially when you are there. If you can’t warn ticket buyers before they buy their ticket.
Looking at pictures from their other gigs, it looks like the turnout at 2 Kolegas was definitely the lowest but I guess that was to be expected since they had played 3 gigs on the leadup. That said, it definitely provided for an opportunity to enjoy the music without interruptions from constant chatter. I wish the Dong Chorus best of luck with their other shows but I can’t say i’ll go out of my way again to watch anything Wu Hongfei organizes. It’s not the first time she skips on the audience, and that’s the biggest sin of all in my book!