Back to the lap of luxury

Two full days of translation with Yang and it was done at midnight Wednesday, just in time for my bus to leave at noon on Thursday. I felt extremely lucky it was done though not without ample anxiety. Guessing people’s intention is the hardest thing, even though I finally believe he truly wanted to help, in a world where money paves the road for anything, it’s really difficult not to feel that when he slowed down on our progress, it was a sign of some needs.

On the morning of my last full day in Fugong, I was walking down the road to find some big bamboos to shoot and Ah-Yoo picked me up in his motor-taxi. He is one of the few I don’t have to second guess his niceness, and he has the wisdom to see the importance of keeping what’s unique about themselves. That budding desire to learn will keep me motivated to make that DVD I’ve promised to send him.

A sunny Thursday for my departure. It has been a full month. My overloaded backpacks weigh up to probably 70lbs, plus the Qiben I bought from Ah-Che wrapped in a one yuan nylon bag, plus a few bags of tea and herbs Kang sent through his friend.

Without much fanfare, I left feeling accomplished.

A few hours by the river and the bus stopped by border check point, one last thing to concern about because of my passport, but for whatever reasons, when everybody got off the bus, I seemed invisible to the three guards checking IDs among passengers. They simply missed me.

Full moon on the mountain as the bumpy ride crossed over to the watershed of the second of the Three Parallel Rivers, Lancang, the up stream of the Mekong. The unique position of these three rivers, Nu/Salween, Lancang/Mekong, and the Yangtze can only been seen on maps, but the whole region is so full of varieties in nature and in human culture there is really nothing parallel like it in the world.

Full moon and mountain hold too much emotion in me. Constant landscape contrasts the moving bus, the ever changing thoughts. In such background, the feeling of smallness and how temporary our existence is are so overwhelming one has to take comfort in every single breath. The space between thoughts, perhaps it is how.

By midnight, the bus already reached the highway to Kunming and by dawn, it arrived at the station in the city, a short taxi ride away from the Art Institute where I would meet Prof. Zhang, a professor in ethnomusicology.

I waited until after 8 before calling him and he soon came out to take me to his apartment by the college campus. Even in his late sixties, Prof. Zhang still looks very active and walks like someone half his age. We had a nice chat and I showed him a little bit of my recording. We both agreed that Ah-Che’s playing was good but not the best, but the daily lives of his family, the fact that he actively practice all three traditions important to their culture is well worth recording. I take comfort in knowing that. He insisted on having lunch with me at their faculty cafeteria before sending me to the airport.

After an hour of delay, I flew home in one piece and happy to Beijing on Friday, the 10th of April.

There is no place better than home with parents who have been worrying so much about me but always supported me unconditionally to do such crazy things. I’m the luckiest child in the world.

And that concludes this section of my making-of.

Pushing toward the finish line

Saturday night, Kang introduced his friend, Yang to be my translator. What a savior! That’s one thing I worry the most about. I can’t go home without having all 30 hours of footage translated.

Sunday morning’s planned trip to Ah-Che’s sister’s home didn’t yield anything. The son wasn’t home and I had to come back in the rain. Worked with Yang in the afternoon and made fine progress. He is a bit slower than the son but he is always around and also has good patience. Kang took off at night for the provincial capital to bring his sick brother-in-law back home. He’s been a great help, despite the little free time he can manage.

Monday was my last day of filming. Only a few things to do. The kids were happy because I brought “baba”, some fried bread stick this time to them and Ah-Che’s wife was happy to see pictures of the birthday gathering.

As usual, they waited for me for their morning meal. I made Ah-Che said a few sentences to introduce the rest of the music he played before. At the workshop, I tried to make him listen to part of Symphony No.9, though the reaction wasn’t that great, I should’ve waited until this time instead of letting him do it with A-Ci the other day. Oh well, a lesson learned, you can’t expect the same reaction from your subject if you show them something twice.

While the wife took the kids out for laundry, Ah-Che did some more Qibon polishing, and we went up the hill behind their house for a little bit of short flute and “kou xuan”, an instrument made out of thin bamboo, you blow and use fingers to cause the bamboo to vibrate, hence tunes. He’s only okay at it, though I like the sound playing to a forest background.

Not so much to do after that, I did some shots of the interior. The son came home with some meat and we had an early dinner at 5ish before I said good-bye (hwa hwa) to them. Really glad they opened their door and life for me to be anywhere I need. The process, with low points and high points all together is just amazing. I learnt so much from them and about myself. I even enjoyed the moments of self-doubt and loneliness – once you grasp your feeling and recognize its presence, it’s just a matter of time before it no longer holds power over you.

Before going down the mountain, I stopped by Ah-Yoo’s home and he took me to find another musician, or better put, a used-to-be musician’s home. He used to play much better than Ah-Che because he is older, but once Christianty came back to these villagers’ life, they burnt their Qiben and stopped playing and singing these old songs all together. “I haven’t played for thirty years”, he told me. Another older player he brough in didn’t fare much better, he tried endlessly tuning but couldn’t really get one tune out. If we’ve come to the realization of protecting native species from invasives in the natural world, how about our own world? Can removing drinking habit and all the trouble it causes justify the removing of a native culture?

Ah-Yoo insisted on bringing me down the mountain with his motor-taxi. In his good-heartedness, I still see hopes for their own tradition to continue, but they defintely need some outside stimulus, something to make them realize the importance of what they have.

Worked the rest of the the night with Yang on translation. Much better feeling now seeing I can actually get everything done in a couple of days!

Lay more eggs

Saturday the 3nd of April. Light drizzle.

Felt a bit anxcious because the translation is taking a lot more time than I thought. Texted Kang early in the morning for help. He’s been very busy as well.

The wife was preparing to go down the field, leaving the three little ones home with Ah-Che. They saved some hard boiled eggs for me for breakfast.

I kind of felt tired, not having enough sleep, the city was always too noisy at night. Ah-Che was going to finish the rest of the crossbow. He couldn’t wait for me to do the frames, so just the triggering piece made out of ox-bone. The bow section, if starting from freshly cut wood, takes two, three months to dry above the firepit. To me, the all organic, manual process and materials are just amazing. The cutting, the fitting, and the all simple but effective triggering mechanism is so pure. Ah-Che said he shot two little birds in the morning for the kids, unfortunately I wasn’t in early enough to see that. I don’t think these native people have a strong enough sense of “environmental protection”, feeding the family takes much higher priority, though the simple observation of more people, less birds does trouble them.

After crossbow, we reviewed the music we recorded the other day and give them proper corresponding tune names. If nothing else from the trip, at least, I have a big collection of original Qibon music that once Ah-Che is gone will be gone for good. Even though the instrument is still played at festivals at places by young people, a lot of the essense, the originality have been replaced with commerical mimicry with the form, but lacking the spirit behind.

Just after dinner, the wife called the little boy to bring some corns to feed the chicken at the ground floor of their shed. The boy poured a bow of corn down through a hole on the floor, then started calling: “Lay more eggs! Lay more eggs” – Incredibly cute.

Full Speed

Two days of heavy rain; and then the return of the blue sky.

It was pouring Tuesday morning. I hesitated to go up but did so eventually. Ah-che wasn’t home unfortunately, he went down to have his handicap certificate done, physical exam, pictures, and all that. His left shoulder was broken a few years back and was never operated on, so now he can rise his left arm to just chest height.

The wife stayed in with the three little kids. They can’t be quiet for even one second. The wife did some weaving, which looked rather pretty, the color, the movement. The big, long, all manual weaving machine will be a history soon.

I waited a couple of hours, roasting some root vegetables in the fire together. With still no signs of Ah-Che’s return and rain pouring down even harder, I decided to go down. A short stop at Ah-Yoo, the young guy who wanted to learn QiBon from Ah-Che resulted in some vague information about the tunes of the music. I like the way he talks — he like to use metaphors, like what he said about the world is a big garden, each group of people is one flower, one needs to have its own color and scant. An ethnic group, a country without its own tradition is like a flower without scant. That’s cute. By dark, we rode his moto-taxi down with his wife and sister.

Wednesday, another day of heavy rain. I called Ah-Che’s son earlier to confirm he would be home waiting for me. By the fireplace, we chatted about how to tune the Qibon Ah-Yoo talked about the day before and it opened up more infos. We went together to David the priest’s house and filmed them working on a music writing session, Ah-Che plays, David records.

I sensed a bit of hesitation from Ah-Che to go there, wasn’t quite sure why until the next day.

The session went fine, we recorded the six ways of tuning Qiben and wrote them down in simple notes. They are close enough, but not exactly the same tunes Qiben can make.

Kang made a visit to the musician’s home later in the afternoon and we had dinner together. A nice exchange for some thankful words from both me and Ah-Che. I believe respect has no language barrier. The wife roasted fava beans for us to snack on after dinner while we talked.

It was getting dark when we were about to leave, but a little joke from April Fool, the car won’t start. People in the village came to push-start, Ah-Yoo brought his motorcycle battery out to help jump, but nothing worked until someone accidently bumped the positive connector on the battery – it was all loose.

Thursday, all the jokes and rain stopped. Blue skies with white clouds painted the space in between the mountain tops. I got up early to take some pictures and ordered a birthday cake for the little girl — she’d be three.

It was almost 11 when I got up the village, had to make a trip back because I forgot the tapes I wanted the sister’s son to translate. Ah-Che was working on a new crossbow at the workshop and the house was kids-free. The wife took them to the field.

Another music recording session at his workshop. I wish I know better about field recording to get better sound. The Sanken is a great mic, but to get something studio quality is another matter.

When the sister’s son came, Ah-Che did a little teaching. Every time after a little wine for soothing the bones, Ah-Che gets rather talkative. I really appreciate his openness. Everything he knows about me came only from me, but he trusts me enough to tell his life story. He explained his hesitation; he wasn’t that keen on David and it confirmed a few things I saw I questioned. Religion following and decent moral, not necessarily an equal sign in between.

The sister came later with a new dress for the little girl, though the dress looked a bit like for a little clown. Ah-Che and the wife prepared a full meal with a fresh killed chicken and after dinner, people gathered to sing “happy birthday” to the little one with candles over birthday cake. The spread of birthday cake, another achievement of TV and globalization?

The sun was almost set when I walked a bit by the river on my way back until one of Ah-Che’s half brother’s son drove his van by and picked me up back to Fu Gong.

Friday, cloudy. Rode to the sisiter’s house at another village and got his son to work on translation. He is a good kid with great patience. He worked with me diligently on each sentence. We did hours of footage the whole day–even though he didn’t get up until almost 10. Throughout the tapes, once in a while, some great conversation emerged over the fireplace, something if they know I understand their langauge they won’t bring out. That’s the great thing working in an environment like this, taken as someone who doesn’t understand. So much more work though translating, so much more.

I’ll need another day for translation, some more from Ah-Che’s crossbow making and some other instruments. Less than a week, I should be able to head home.