After first coming to China in the year 2000, French musician Djang San has cultivated all of the following with his brand of ‘folk rock’. He mixes elements of traditional Chinese music with his own personal rock and electro influences. His pioneering electrical use of Chinese instruments, such as pipa, Guzheng and zhongruanmade the Bordelais a unique player in the Beijing underground scene, and today, more than 60 releases and countless projects later, he is embarking on a new challenge.
The 41-year-old recently moved from the capital to Kunming in Yunnan province, some 2,500 kilometers away, in 2021. In April this year, the French consulate in Chengdu offered him a rare opportunity to collaborate with the Dayan Naxi Orchestra. from Lijiang (also in Yunnan).
“I didn’t really know what to think about it at first,” says Djang This is. “I had heard of the orchestra because it was very famous in the 80s and 90s. They went to many countries including England, Norway and France. So, knowing that I was in Kunming and needed a new challenge, I said to myself; I will do it! The idea is to create music with them and it’s a challenge because most of them are over 70 years old.
Djang San and the orchestra show off their ancient Chinese instruments.
When we think of orchestras, the image of an impressive symphony hall with musicians reciting classic pieces from the ages is most common. The China NPCA Orchestra in Beijing regularly performs contemporary compositions by Chinese composers as well as better known movements such as Dvorak, Bach and Beethoven. Lijiang actors take a more organic approach, with far less funded resources and a repertoire that particularly resonates with their home region.
Xuan Zhi Lian is the daughter of the founder, Xuan Ke. She explains how the group has found new life since its reformation.
“We call it a living fossil of music. It is a remarkable part of Naxi culture and it not only includes our (the Naxi) own traditional folk tunes, but also has a long history, dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In 1981 it was revived by Mr. Xuan Ke and four years later we had our first public performance. Since then, the orchestra has performed in more than 20 countries.
“If the roots of the tree are deep in the ground, the tree will not fall.” – Old Naxi proverb
For 42 years, this group of 15 has been bringing its music to life. In their 400-seat room, there is no score in sight but a generational knowledge of their profession, which their new collaborator wishes to exploit.
Born Jean-Sébastien Héry, the stage name Djang San has its roots in the way his Chinese teacher pronounced Jean-Sébastien. An endearing debut for a character who has become a fixture on county stages. This latest project would take him away from the buzz of a live audience and instead be an opportunity to delve into an aspect of Chinese music rarely explored by outsiders. Expats will always experience levels of cultural differences no matter how long they stay, but being asked to collaborate with a small ethnic minority is an esoteric level.
“They perform music that has over 400 years of history,” he says. “There are about 20 to 30 tunes that have survived time. So far, I have composed music for the orchestra based on what they know, adding my own perspective.
“They have a theater in Lijiang on one of the main streets. I go there every morning and talk to people. Then I will usually see one of them [the orchestra members] home and play music with them and see what and how they play. Some of them sing and some of them play a few different instruments. I jam with them and see what kind of stuff they’re interested in so I can do something with it.
“Being a foreigner and suddenly finding yourself in this situation was not easy. I went to see them one by one in their homes, filming them, asking them questions about how they started music, all that. I told them asked what Lijiang was like when they were kids, apparently there were no roads, there wasn’t much back then and they were all farmers.
Djang San visits one of the orchestra members at their house.
As a fluent Mandarin speaker, language barriers aren’t much of an obstacle for Djang. Even the locals’ accents when speaking Mandarin and the Naxi dialect didn’t deter any first icebreaking. However, language differences began to surface when it came to music.
“I realized that none of them could read western musical notation. They use a way of writing music using numbers that was invented by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. It never caught on in Europe, nobody used it. But, because it is very similar to the way of writing ancient music in China, people in Japan and China started using this system around the turn of the 20th century. It has spread into Chinese classical music and is part of how the Naxi Orchestra learns music. One of the musicians helped me translate western notation into the genre of orchestral usage, which helped.
A quick internet search will yield clips that showcase the intricate sound of the orchestra with players from, say, a vintage era in traditional attire. It’s a layered approach that brings forth images of storytelling and legacy of a minority eager to preserve their culture in a time when young people have plenty of distractions. Djang’s goal isn’t just to collaborate or expand his own knowledge. It also means producing a more diversified concept that appeals to future generations.
“There was a period in the early 2000s where young people seemed a little disinterested in their culture. Now the theater is trying to bring local and school children to come and study things about their own culture. You now have a new generation of kids starting to get into it again, so that means this culture won’t die.
Djang San and the Naxi Orchestra perform at their theater in Lijiang.
Even for a man with two decades of experience in China, the learning curve was steep and excellent spoken Chinese is a minimum requirement for the sessions, which he films and records each time. It’s a musical residency with a difference as both parties enter uncharted territory. The French Consulate, who specifically wanted a French musician for the project, chained an unprecedented bond and with the reins firmly in the hands of their number one candidate, the music is beginning to take shape in directions no one expected.
“It was very interesting for me. I’m grateful to be able to do this because I think it’s a unique opportunity to be able to do this kind of stuff.
“There are instruments here that they don’t have anywhere else in China. There is one called the sugudu, from Mongolia. You have an old version of the pipa which is from the Tang dynasty which is not used anywhere else. Because the Naxi people were isolated for a very long time, they were able to keep some of these instruments alive. You have a flute that is different from the rest of the country, it’s called a sore. Also, the way they sing, there are different facets. You have local influence and outside influence, creating the idea of the past.
A member of the orchestra performing one of the ancient instruments.
From the orchestra’s point of view, working with the Frenchman was a daunting experience at first. Djang’s stage presence is imposing, yet genuine, and being immersed in a creative environment with him might have evoked feelings of foreboding. The approach of getting to know the people behind the instruments was certainly appreciated by his new ensemble, but for the Naxi people, true appreciation comes from respecting their culture and way of life.
A minority of around 300,000 people, the Naxi origin is made up of Taoism and Dongba, an ancient cult that has its own pictographic writing system still in use today.
In fact, a close examination of Dongba characters will reveal similarities in Maya, Babylonian, and Egyptian hieroglyphs. This ancient prevalence adds another layer of cultural significance for the orchestra, which itself hopes this collaboration can follow tradition and add a more modern touch to its music.
Their game comes with a sense of responsibility, while their performances for tourists are acclaimed and mesmerized. Chinese music is well known for being tied to many years of history, and the group’s significance extends beyond music. Djang’s mission is far from complete with the goal of not only composing something new but also understanding its meaning.
“So far so good. But I want to make it even better. I filmed everything and I want to do a documentary,” he says.
“I have to compromise with them, and I have to understand how they work and where they come from musically and that’s the difficulty that comes with that. But I try to bring them into my world, and they bring me into theirs.
Djang San on stage.
There are plans to release what is filmed and recorded on an unknown date to show the company’s efforts. Djang and the orchestra also hope to incorporate each other’s sounds into their music in the future.
For now, Djang seems relaxed as we speak against the backdrop of the blue sky in the courtyard of his hotel. It’s far from the big city and it certainly takes a slower approach to life and music than before. The high-energy environment of live performance and the exciting feeling of unknown potential upon entering the rehearsal space is something musicians of all skill levels enjoy. What happens in this small theater in Lijiang goes beyond producing sounds, it is building friendships and exchanges that are not only cultural.
The project has an almost contradictory objective; preserving and evolving age-old music, a goal that is sure to encounter challenges along the way. However, as Djang and the orchestra prove, no matter how complex the approach or the outcome, the message is simple; the soul of all art will always be alive with a willingness to adapt, and the message of the past will always be heard with a willingness to listen.
[Images via Djang San]