The Traditional Art of Nanyin

Posted by on Feb 9, 2015 in Memento | No Comments

Following the School of the Arts’ (SOTA) showcase of Remembering Rochor, the students under its tutelage have gone above and beyond exploring traditional arts in Singapore. In this next collaboration effort with the Singapore Memory Project, Danielle Ong, a Music graduate from SOTA, re-discovers her roots via a classical music redolent of her ancestral history and tradition.

1. Getting Acquainted with Nanyin

Picture1Low Likie playing the Er Hu

Nanyin (南音), directly translated as “Southern Sounds”, is a unique branch of Chinese classical music stemming from Fujian (福建), a Southern province of China. Fujian is also the ancestral home ofHokkien Singaporeans.

As a Hokkien Singaporean and a musician, I was particularly intrigued in this art form because I can identify with it very much.

Having been musically schooled in European classical piano from a young age, I entered the School of the Arts (SOTA) with the intentions of immersing myself in the wider musical community. In doing so, I became a member of the Chinese Percussion Ensemble and was introduced to the art of Nanyin in May 2013.

Initially, I encountered challenges in trying to transpose my musical understanding of another culture by means of cut-and-dry methods and in trying to find direct equivalents. My main difficulties stemmed from the fact that I was trying to interpret the music by using my knowledge of Western theory. I came to realise that this is fundamentally wrong because Nanyin is a separate entity from anything I have been acquainted with before.

Furthermore, Nanyin was not a type of Chinese music I was familiar with either. From my experience in the Chinese Percussion Ensemble, I had always understood that Chinese percussion is gloriously loud and booming.

However, it surprised me when I was told that Nanyin percussion was meant to aid in the “quieting down of the heart”. It did not occur to me that Chinese percussion could be quiet at all, because I only ever played on drums and cymbals.

In the spectrum of Chinese traditional music, Nanyin incorporates all the programmatic elements of Chinese music that seek to express the beauty of the natural environment that surrounds us. However, the difference in Nanyin is that it is particularly focused on minimalistic concepts of meditating quietude and elegance that was a very new experience for myself, having been only acquainted with Han Chinese music and Beijing Opera. Since Nanyin originates from Fujian, their culture would naturally, be slightly different from Beijing or Suzhou due to the difference in their natural environment.

The hands-on experience of learning Nanyin from experienced practitioners was very memorable to me. More importantly, it made me realise something of great importance, which is the need for the preservation and practice of this traditional musical culture that is often drowned out by pop music youths are inundated with.

 2. Collaboration with Siong Leng Musical Association

Picture2SOTA collaborates with Siong Leng. Musical instruments from left:Er Hu, Temple Chime, Bongos, Wind Bell, ZhongRuan, San Xian, San Xian

Founded in 1941 by Mr. Ding Ma Cheng (丁马成), Siong Leng Musical Association is located in Chinatown. Artistic Director Mr. Lin Shao Ling (林少凌), a veteran practitioner of Nanyin, currently heads the association, along with a team consisting of accomplished pioneers and skilled young artists that have taken up the call to see to the continuation of this cultural art in the next generation.

During the collaboration, the members of the association directly trained us in the art of Nanyin. To me, the association and its members have been an admirable source of inspiration. Not only was the association responsible for the revival of Nanyin in the 1970s, its members are also devoted practitioners of this cultural art.

I originally had the impression that it is the elderly folk that practise the art form. I was therefore surprised to learn that most of the Siong Leng artists we collaborated with are young adults, with the youngest of them being the same age as me.

One of the most impactful memories of this collaboration was the process of learning the Sibao (四宝, translated as “Four Treasures”) for in a piece entitled “Autumn Crickets.” The Sibao is a traditional Nanyin percussion instrument made from four pieces of bamboo measuring twenty-five centimetres in length.

It was the first time I had encountered such a peculiar instrument. It functions like castanets, except that there is no string connector tying the ends of the two pieces, and therefore the player must have a good handle of the instrument and yet hold it loose enough to be able to rattle it together.

I never really understood or deeply considered the musical aspects of how the Sibao was played when I was first introduced to the conventional ways of playing it. Mr. Lin demonstrated how to play the Sibao, and it was very difficult because there were various hand motions that were combined with the clasping and tapping of the bamboo pieces, each resulting in a slightly different effect.

This was very difficult to memorise because the movements were almost dance-like and elegant, but to begin with, it was already difficult to hold the Sibao and make a good sound with it. On top of that, Mr. Lin emphasised that Nanyin was very elegant, gentle and slow, and it was difficult to grasp this new concept of music because I was very used to being showy and dramatic.

Furthermore, Mr. Lin told me that apart from functioning as an additional decoration to an entire piece, the Sibao on its own is capable of mimicking many sounds in nature, if played with the correct technique.

A good example of this is the piece entitled “秋弹”, (Translated as Autumn Playing. This is named as “Autumn Crickets” in the programme synopsis). I found this fact increasingly fascinating as I practised the Sibao because the rattling and clasping started to sound increasingly similar to the singing of crickets in the cold autumn nights in China.

The geographical, cultural and seasonal nature of this piece of music really inspired me to do this performance well and master the rattle technique – the most challenging technique – in order for the audience to believe that the music is inspired by the sounds of nature.

I am very thankful to have the guidance of Siong Leng Musical Association throughout this whole journey. They are much more adept than me in expressing and creating the cultural flavor of the atmosphere, and in bringing forth the essence of the instruments. And yet they are very humble and encouraging while teaching me how to effectively and aesthetically play the music.

3.The Performance

Picture3Five SOTA students playing the Sibao. From left: Danielle Ong, Wang Yulin, Sabrina Lim, Zhu Minying, Grace Leong

On 1 August 2013, music students from SOTA performed together with Siong Leng Musical Association in a concert featuring Nanyin as part of SOTA’s Arts Festival that occurs biennially.

This concert, entitled “When We Walk Together”, is weaved accordantly by rich artistry in terms of culture and folk art. This is because the entire repertoire of the concert features a very suitable and intriguing flow, beginning with a prologue, then meandering into Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and finally, ending with an epilogue – a gentle song that sings of a better and more hopeful future.

This musical imagery can be uncovered better with knowledge of the significance of certain details. In order to fully understand cultural music, one should first learn to appreciate it in context with the customs practised. For example, I learned during rehearsals for the arts festival that it is a traditional practice of the Minnan-Hokkiens to celebrate the season of summer with tea and the preparation of seasonal snacks that are communally enjoyed. This impacted the group’s interpretation of the song “风打梨”, translated as “The Joy of Consuming Sweet, Crisp Pears”. I learned that not only the titular fruit, the pear, is eaten during summer, but it is also enjoyed with tea and almond cookies. The crisp sound of the pipa (Plucked Lute) in the piece is reminiscent of the sharpness and warmth of summer. The intended sounds of the accompanying percussionsare associated with “heartbeats”, “the drop of the water-bamboo clock” and “the wind chime”, explains Mr. Lin Shao Ling. Hence, this contextual understanding expands one’s vocabulary in musical expression.

Here is a recorded excerpt from the performance, along with its synopsis.

The SOTA performers are clad in white and oak colours, while Siong Leng performers are dressed in walnut and aubergine colours.

4. Mr. Ramu Thiruyanam

Picture4Danielle Ong and Mr. Ramu Thiruyanam

Mr. Ramu Thiruyanam of SOTA’s Music Faculty was among the performers.

Prior to the performance, Mr. Ramu had already been well acquainted with the Siong Leng artists and the traditional art of Nanyin. Hence, he played an important role in helping us students better adapt to the changes in percussion style.

When asked about his decision to pick up this art, Mr. Ramu explained that as an artist, he was “very fascinated with the way in which instruments were used in Nanyin because unlike Western percussion, the role of percussionists in Nanyin is very different”.

Elaborating further, Mr. Ramu shares that “the significance of percussionists in Nanyin and Western music is very different because Nanyin gives percussionists the opportunity to be directly involved and engaged in similar interaction as other instrumentalists. We are put on the same level in terms of stage arrangement due to visual aesthetic principles of Nanyin, whereas in Western music, percussionists are usually relegated to the back rows where nobody really pays attention”, he jested. As a musician, I agree with this because I am also able to identify the dichotomization between percussionists and instrumentalists in the realm of Western music. This is a reason why Nanyin brought about new dimensions to my understanding of instrumentation and cultural aesthetics.

Mr. Ramusays that though he faced certain difficulties arising from language barriers, the enthusiasm and persistence of the trainers in communicating with him as well as his basic understanding of Mandarin allowed him to overcome the linguistic obstacles. “They were very accepting ofthe fact that someone who is not Chinese and from a different ethnic background is very open to their ideas, and they were very receptive and happy to have me over,” he recounts.

Mr. Ramu continues to show his support for this musical art form and believes that it should be promoted so as to widen the public’s exposure to traditional Chinese music. “Chinese music entails a large spectrum of sub-genres. This is different from Chinese Orchestra or Beijing Opera. It’s an experience that entreats all the senses and immerses you in their cultural perspective of life,” he advocates.

4. Musical Heritage

Picture5 Curtain Call

When I talked with some of the young artists from Siong Leng Musical Association, I learned that few people would voluntarily pick upNanyin these days. To be honest, my collaboration with the Association was something I was tasked with, but ended up enjoying it nonetheless and learning so many things in the process.

Therefore, I am concerned that the popularity of Nanyin may fade away to obscurity should the movement’s momentum taper off. This is alarming to me because it means that another part of our musical heritage will be lost.

As a Hokkien Singaporean, I am proud to have been able to engage in what I recognise to be my ancestral art form. If more people could embrace this art form, it would bolster Nanyin’s prominence.

My engagement with Nanyin has renewed my interest in culture and traditional art and language. This has truly opened my eyes and shaped my views towards cultural connectedness and art, and indeed, as an aspiring cultural linguist I am glad to have benefited from this experience.

As an artist, I am convinced of the importance of remembering, appreciating and practising one’s own heritage. It is pertinent that we hold close to our hearts the fact that the fruits of today were grown from seeds sown in the past.  After all, the tallest, strongest and healthiest trees are those that possess far-reaching roots that are often not seen.

I hope that through my sharing, others will be made more aware of  Nanyin and better grasp the richness of this traditional practice. More importantly, my wish is that besides keeping this ancient tradition alive, people will come to understand the importance of cultural heritage and be enriched by an appreciation of artistic traditions such as Nanyin.

 Photos and Text by Danielle Ong
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and SOTA

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