Dali’s Old Town in rural Yunnan province is a refuge for wayward musicians, a bastion of ethnic folk traditions, and a quiet haven for avant-garde Chinese music.
YUNNAN, Southwest China — Nestled between the expansive Erhai Lake to the east and the picturesque Cang Mountains to the west, Dali Old Town is best known as a must-see destination on the Yunnan tourism map. From near and far, tourists flock to Dali for a glimpse of its scenic beauty and its rich cultural heritage, characterized by the high concentration of Bai and Yi ethnic minorities.
But beyond and beneath the waves of people swept up in the region’s ethnic tourism industry, Dali is quietly making a name for itself as a center of musical innovation. In recent years, Dali Old Town — which sits 15 kilometers from the 650,000-strong Dali city proper — has attracted an inordinate number of musicians from both within and outside of China, many of whom are eager to document the region’s musical traditions and repurpose them for new audiences.
Dali has held a special place in the cultural imagination of young artists from across China for more than a decade, and Renmin Lu, one of its main arteries and home to more than 20 bars offering live music on any given evening, is where many of these musicians ply their trade. Though Dali has been increasingly swept up in the wave of urbanization spreading across the nation, it retains a unique sonic culture that meshes traditional, experimental, and folk music into a rustic soundscape distinct from that of China’s megacities.
A view of a thoroughfare in Dali Old Town, Yunnan province, Oct. 4, 2014. Liu Jianping for Sixth Tone
The desire to escape toxic city life and embrace traditional folk music led Chongqing-born experimental musician Wu Huanqing — who records and performs using just his given name, Huanqing — to Dali in 2003. His musical awakening had come 10 years earlier, when he came across MTV in a hotel room. “That was my introduction to foreign music,” he says. “At that moment, I saw a different existence.”
The 48-year-old’s musical journey led him to form a rock band in Chengdu, in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, and — near the turn of the millennium — engage with musicians around the country who were making and writing about experimental music. But for all his forays into new territory, Wu decided that the most meaningful inspiration lay in the environment and musical heritage of rural China. “I realized that if you want to seriously learn music, it’s necessary to learn it in reverse,” he tells Sixth Tone at Jielu, a music venue and recording studio that he co-runs in Dali. “For me, this meant studying the traditional folk music of my country.”
Since he arrived in Dali in 2003, Wu has recorded the music of the Bai, Yi, and other ethnic minority groups as something of a part-time hobby, and he has even studied the languages in which the music is performed. His most recent recordings of kouxian — a kind of jaw harp — tunes by seven different ethnic minority groups were commissioned by Beijing record label Modern Sky.
Most notably, Dali has proven a fertile source of inspiration for Wu’s own music, influencing not only his compositions but also the building of his own instruments. From his base of operations, Jielu, he crafts his own musical language around the timbres of his homemade arsenal: mainly five-, seven-, and nine-stringed lyres. His music ranges from ambient soundscapes incorporating environmental field recordings to delicate vocal and lyre compositions, evoking the textures of traditional folk music while remaining something entirely his own.
Wu’s latest album, a collaboration with acclaimed Chinese-American multi-instrumentalist Li Daiguo, is an evocative reflection of the environment in which it was made. Li, 35, also lives in Dali, with his spacious apartment near Erhai Lake home to a large, sparely adorned studio for practicing his three chief instruments: the cello; the four-stringed, lute-like pipa; and the mbira, an African instrument also known as the thumb piano.
It was in his home studio in Dali that Li composed all of the parts for the duo’s album, “Zhi Hua Feng Ying,” which was recently released by Chinese pop label Xing Wai Xing along with a video of the two playing outdoors, featuring sweeping shots of the region’s mountains and waters. For Li, the idyll of Dali is a boon for musical creation: “When the natural surroundings are very comfortable,” he says, “or you can overwhelmingly feel them there and it puts you at ease, that alters everything you do.”
Like Wu, Li is a connoisseur of Dali’s rich minority music, which makes heavy use of instruments like the three-stringed sanxian and the kouxian. “I like hearing what they do, and it influences me, but I’m not analyzing or studying their stuff,” he says. “I’m influenced in an indefinable or unintentional way.”
But Dali has attracted other outsiders who engage more directly with the region’s ethnic music traditions. The French musician Laurent Jeanneau — also known as Kink Gong — lived in Dali from 2007 to 2013, recording more than 40 CDs of traditional music from the region and other parts of Yunnan, and incorporating elements of his fieldwork into his own musical repertoire.
Jeanneau believes that the rapid development of Dali’s tourism industry in recent years has had mixed results for local music tradition, simultaneously bringing it to a larger audience and leading to the homogenization of distinct musical practices. With the country’s economic opening-up in the ’80s, ethnic groups like the Bai, who had largely been assimilated into the Han majority during the Mao years, suddenly had incentive to rediscover their musical traditions as a means to stimulate interest in the region. This process led to the commercialization of minority music, Jeanneau tells Sixth Tone, “[giving] the tourists something they can relate to, songs in a language that can be understood,” and leaving more local, non-Mandarin portions of the tradition in the hands of older community members.
“People spend good money for good musicians,” says American musician Joshua Dyer, who has lived in Dali since 2014. According to Dyer, who has spent the last few years engaging ethnic minority musicians and documenting examples of their music on his blog, performances by Bai music groups at local weddings and funerals can fetch up to 20,000 yuan (around $2,900). Unlike ethnic music adapted for Han audiences, these groups are hired specifically to play tunes that resonate on a local community level.
A Bai-style three-stringed ‘sanxian’ made by Li Deng, Dali, Yunnan province. Courtesy of Li Deng
One musician at the interface between the promotion of local traditions and the tourism-driven commodification of ethnic music is Li Deng, a 27-year-old ethnic Yi from southern Yunnan who has lived in Dali since 2009. The longtime musician — of no relation to Li Daiguo — began studying Yi tunes for traditional wind, reed, and stringed instruments at age 12, and believes that all minority music traditions in the area have seen significant development over the last few years. His personal musical journey involved joining a traveling song and dance troupe as a teenager, through which he learned a canon of pan-minority songs packaged together to appeal to Han audiences. The circuit has taken him as far afield as southern China’s Guangdong province, where he met his wife, a Bai dancer, during a performance at a hotel.
The performance circuit is a marketable venture, but Li Deng remains devoted to the exploration and continuation of Dali’s musical heritage. Though he is ethnically Yi, he reserves his greatest praise for Bai instruments, which he says are made to a higher standard. “Especially for certain festival tunes for the suona [a double-reeded horn], other minorities can’t compare to Bai music,” he says. Now, Li Deng spends much of his time building the three-stringed sanxian in the Bai style, playing the instrument himself to back up older Bai musicians in the region, and selling spares to supplement his income.
Another musician who is keen to bring elements of his musical heritage to new audiences is Zhang Jingbo, a Bai musician born in Dali in 1990. His target listeners, however, are not hotel guests or wedding attendees, but fans with a more modern sonic palate. After a period of listening to metal in high school, Zhang later gravitated toward break dancing and hip-hop, and now produces music under the name BeatStay.
Though grounded in a modern hip-hop aesthetic, Zhang’s productions take cues from the sounds of his own heritage, and samples of traditional Bai music punctuate his work. There is common ground between the two musical worlds, he says, likening the area’s duige genre — a form of vocal duet — to hip-hop’s rap battles.
Zhang Jingbo poses for a photo on Midu Mountain, Dali, Yunnan province. Courtesy of Zhang Jingbo
“These days, most young people actually aren’t that interested in our own traditional music culture, and very few people are studying it,” says Zhang, who has set his sights on studying the sanxian under the tutelage of a Bai elder.
But as Zhang and Li Deng pursue separate paths toward preserving their musical heritage, and Wu Huanqing and Li Daiguo incubate a more experimental strain of alternative instrumental music, they all face increasing competition with tunes that detract from Dali’s particular sonic character. The dozens of music bars that line Renmin Lu today are dominated by artists covering songs by Western bands and Mandarin pop-rock standards like Wang Feng’s “Beijing, Beijing,” staples of any Chinese city’s nightlife soundscape. Attempts at localization don’t go much further than folk melodies bolted onto techno backing tracks.
Outside the bars, the sound of construction is an ever-present addition to Dali’s soundscape, with heavy machines ripping apart buildings and roads, literally paving the way for future waves of tourists. Street sweepers trundle down cobbled roads, hungrily gobbling tourist waste and blaring a high-pitched jingle that couldn’t be more globalized if it tried: “It’s a Small World,” Disney’s anthem of world peace. As with the rest of China, Dali is recalibrating its old traditions with the loud and forceful influx of the new.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Li Deng sells spare sanxian parts. He sells whole instruments.
Contributions: Sun Xiaoming and Dai Jiahang; editor: Owen Churchill.