Song is in their hearts: Ethnic music of the Dong is lionized

The Dong Project, which started at the beginning of 2016, will conclude with an exhibition, two music albums and a journal of limited editions.
Ti Gong

Dong musicians perform at a ceremony with traditional instruments.

When Shanghai musician 33 EMYBW — born Wu Shanmin — first experienced the life, culture and music of the Dong ethnic minority in the village of Xiaohuang in southwest China’s Guizhou Province, she was inspired and started composing her own songs from Day 3. 

It would take her the next three years to continue revising the songs for Dong 2, an album inspired by the ethnic music and part of the Dong project, which is intended to introduce the culture to a wider audience and explore its relevance in modern society.

The Dong Project, which started at the beginning of 2016, is collaboration involving musicians Wu and Han Han, a social organization called SounDate that focuses on traditional music and its modern relevance, and local fashion brand Zuc Zug.

The project will conclude with an exhibition, two music albums and a journal of limited editions.

The Dong ethnic group is most noted for its grand songs, which pass on cultural knowledge, appreciation for nature and origins of ancestry that has no tradition of written language. Over the centuries, the musical tradition has also been deeply woven into the fabric of daily life and social structure of the Dong, with some modern tweaks.

“I’m not worried about their losing the traditions, at least not for the next 10 years,” Cheng Qiaoqiao, founder of SounDate, told Shanghai Daily.

She explained that every person in the village belongs to a choral group since childhood. Often times, the mothers of one choral group will have their children form a new group, and so the tradition passes on. 

“Singing is such a generic part of their daily life that we, as outsiders, sometimes don’t even realize they are doing it,” Cheng explained. “They may be eating breakfast and suddenly someone starts singing a few lines, and others then respond with music. Even the younger generation, who mostly go off to work in cities, are naturally attached to the old traditions and ways of life.”

She added: “They sing in WeChat groups when they are apart from one another. And almost all of them return to the village for Spring Festival, which starts with a group wedding every year. It is one of the most important times of the year in the village.”

For music producer Han, making an album that integrates ethnic music with his own style is a new experiment, though he has always been fond of fusing different musical genres. 

“From the very beginning, I knew I didn’t want to do a so-called ‘world music’ album, which often is just field recording and a sampling of ethnic music,” Han explained. “I was most attracted by the beat of the grand songs of the Dong, which is rather different from Western-style choral music. It’s not just a distinct musical style, but it also expresses social value.”

Han noted that in Western-style choruses, each singer is asked to get as close to the standard note as possible, moving to a center. It is quite the opposite in the decentralized Dong chorus, where individuals influence each other, creating a constantly moving and floating effect. Han calls it “a totality of constantly changing individual distinction.” 

“It’s a different kind of esthetics,” he said. “I want to keep it that way, rather than polishing it to meet the standards of the industry.”

He programed the music so that the digitized melodies move to match the floating chorus rather than the other way around.

The exhibition will open on April 29, with Wu, Han and SounDate introducing their respective parts in the project. The exhibition will include photos, music albums and a documentary about the village and its heritage.

The Dong Project 

Venue: Klee Klee, 322 Anfu Road

Date: April 29 to May 9

Hours: 10am to 10pm

Admission: Free

Special Reports