On the Tuesday 2nd July, in the beautiful hutong courtyard setting of the Institute for Provocation, Shi Tanding, one of the two members of Kink Gong record label, presented beautiful film and sound recordings to an eager city audience. Kink Gong is a record label which sees as its purpose the recording and preservation of the unique and endangered minority music of South East Asia and South West China, the region known to some as ‘Zomia’. The other member, and founder, of Kink Gong is Laurent Jeaunneau, a Parisian who has, in amateur ethnographic fashion, spent most of the last 20 years wandering around and taking field recordings from the obscure mountain valleys of Zomia.
The music slotted in everywhere on the scale from transcendental to ribald; trance like mutterings and polyphonic choral layering, bawdy duets and epic tales of ancestral deeds. The rich diversity of this area of SE Asia and SW China, named Zomia by the Dutch historian Willem van Schendel, offers many unique aesthetics. Zomia is an area which has long been multi-peripheral and poly-marginalised. It sits between competing states and their narratives of history, and on the boundary between recognised ‘global areas’ of SE Asia and East Asia. With perhaps the exception of Laos, all parts of Zomia form the peripheries of their respective nation states. This, according to anthropologist James Scott has led to Zomia’s myriad minority communities’ strong feeling of autonomy. Scott even analysed the region as a paradigm of anti-statism and anarchism.
But now, in the 21st century, these once resistant and autonomous regions are being dragged abruptly into the ever-expanding system of global capital. With this comes new forms of society and new meanings to life. Much of the music which Laurent Jeaunneau and Shi Tanding have been recording over the decades is music which, as much as it may be entertaining and aesthetically beautiful, plays a social function which has traditionally helped bind the community together. The music may be a component of key rituals, a form of education, a means of ending disputes within the community or a way of appeasing deities. But as Zomia’s societies change in accordance with the demands of locally nascent, globally rampant capital, traditional music is losing its societal function. No longer considered a necessary element of the social fabric of these societies, the knowledge of this music, almost always reliant on oral transmission, is fast dying out. Laurent regards himself as in a race against time to record as much of this music as he possibly can before its inevitable death comes.
He emphasises, however, that he does not regard this as some grand ‘preserving the diversity of humanity’ mission which the likes of UNESCO promote. He knows that his role can only be a small intervention in the corpus of Zomian music’s coming death. But from this small intervention, a record of just some of humankind’s ability to create such diverse and beautiful music will exist for future generations. This will not save the music, which must be understood in terms of both its sound and its social function—as something lived—but it will preserve some of the magic of the creations of human societies.
Despite this humility, however, Laurent and Shi Tanding have been prolific in their recordings. Museums across East and South East Asia have used their sound and film recordings, and their record label Kink Gong has released hundreds of CDs from Zomia, the western Chinese/Central Asian regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as a handful from eastern Africa. Some samples of music from the record label and CDs and DVDs for sale can be found here. And individual songs and albums can be purchased here.
Finishing up the evening’s screenings and discussions, Shi Tanding made clear her and her husband’s decision to focus on their race against time and continue the recording of traditional music from across China. They will not be back in town for some time. I wish them all the best. Laurent’s unpretentious reasoning for his project (his calling?) is humble and right. The couple are not saviours—who can be?—but their recordings will contribute a lot to our future human society’s knowledge of the human past, human diversity and the possibilities of human creation. And this is a big contribution.