In a truly extraordinary display of musicianship, two Hmong singers played wooden flutes - with their noses.
Their instruments were different from the traditional ones that Miao (Hmong) and Li minority groups from southern China generally play. Nonetheless, the music was both soothing and energetic, and it easily filled the Concert Hall where last week’s convocation took place.
The Baoting Li and Miao Autonomous County Song and Dance Troupe hails from the island of Hai Nan, which is the smallest province of mainland China. Baoting County is tucked away in the mountainside and mostly isolated from the rest of the world, and the eight-piece group performed a mix of song and dance at Carleton College.
This convocation session was a brief excerpt from their full evening set, and included six distinct acts. The first act depicted a traditional celebration by the Li people, who dance, sing, and play a variety of unique ethnic musical instruments; the second consisted of the playing of the nose flute.
Perhaps even more extraordinary than the flute performance was the male solo act by Zhi Lan, who walked on stage with tree leaves.
Carleton’s lecturer in Chinese Music Gao Hong introduced each act and translated on the spot, describing the troupe’s ordeal at the U.S. airport when immigration would not allow Mr. Lan to bring his ‘instruments’ into the country, since they were plants.
Thus the musician had to make do with what he could: a sample of Carleton’s finest yellowing leaves from just outside the Concert Hall.
It was incredible how much sound these native Northfield variants could produce; Mr. Lan drew high-pitched tunes from the delicate leaves, and easily syncopated them with the background music.
The group’s performance at Carleton was their eighth day in the United States, and to them some of America’s most striking features were “the warm, friendly, and down to earth people” they met. Good work Midwesterners!
Three days earlier the group had performed at the University of Minnesota. The Chinese Ministry of Culture recently commissioned the dance troupe to visit many foreign countries, including East Asian locations such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, as well as the European destinations of Sweden, Ireland, Finland, and Germany.
It is definitely unsurprising to hear about the friendliness that the troupe has experienced in the U.S. During their final performance, the eight dancers stepped into the audience and pulled student viewers to their feet, encouraging them to follow the troupe back up onstage and participate in the dance.
Amidst cheerful whooping, swaying, and smiling, the combination of Carls and Miao and Li folk in their multicolored traditional garb was quite a sight. It certainly reaffirmed the purpose behind the troupe’s international travels; more than just touring and performing, their trips illustrate the desire to preserve and protect valuable cultural traditions.
Even though the Miao and Li singers spoke impeccable standard Mandarin, their tone and body language became much more upbeat and energetic when communicating in their native tongue.
In the face of China’s growing global presence, the unique practices of this minority troupe from Hai Nan Island were a pleasure to watch at Carleton, and reinforced the importance of exploring and appreciating all rich forms of culture.