Admire the calligraphy

Hearing the traditional music of China is like admiring a piece of calligraphy hanging in a temple. It is beautiful, no question. Clearly, great skill is required in its execution. But it can’t be escaped that this is a minute fragment of a rich and complex culture. The daunting truth: without a lifetime’s study and a gift for languages, you never will fully understand.

512px-Wang_Xianzi_Imitation_by_Tang_Dynasty

Image: Taito Ward Calligraphy Museum, public domain

But still, we can admire.

I visited China with my wife nearly 20 years ago. I remember once, on a street in Xian, stopping and listening to a busker, a young man playing traditional tunes on an instrument, the name of which I do not know, but it’s a distant cousin to the violin. The melodies and rhythms were unfamiliar, but the man played with passion, and there was no denying the beauty of it. Another Chinese man, listening beside me, gave me a nod and a smile. It was one of those wordless moments: he was proud of his people’s culture and pleased that a stranger was appreciating small part of it. If he had been Australian, he might have said: “Not bad, eh?”

This track is similar in style, though with a small orchestra. It from a compilation of folk tunes by various artists. As is often true of Chinese products, the English translation on the sleeve is a bit wobbly. This tune is “10 Miles Fragrant Of Blooming Olea”.

I do not pretend to Chinese scholarship, but I can help a bit. A “Chinese mile”, the li, is only about one-third of the English mile, and is now standardized as equal to 500 metres. “Olea” refers to Sweet Osmanthus, a small tree which grows widely in Asia. As its name suggests, this tree has fragrant flowers. Literally the tune should be called “five kilometers of nice-smelling Osmanthus trees”, which is worse than the original.

So, ignore the name. Close your eyes. It is spring, in the Chinese countryside, and the trees are in blossom. Just listen.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Album title: Kweilin Scenery | Famous Chinese Light Music (Various artists)
  • Track: A4 “10 Miles Fragrant Of Blooming Olea”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Fung Hang Record Ltd
  • Made in: Hong Kong
  • Catalogue: FHLP 201
  • Year: Unknown (1970s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Dorky uncles get down

The cliché about books and covers applies double to recorded music. Some LP sleeves, especially those produced by little independent folk labels, take gauche, add extra gauche, then multiply by the number you first thought of. The music may be brilliant; it’s just that the graphic design was entrusted to the bass player’s second cousin, who is doing Year 8 photography.

Exhibit A

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The pic is like a snap of the dorky uncles gathered at Christmas lunch.  Anything would have been better. A blueprint pinched from an old guide to making banjos, or just the band’s name in nice clean letters.

Ah, but the whole point of Planet Vinyl is to ignore the visual.

I had never heard of the Champion String Band, though I love folk. Their one self-titled LP was released on an obscure provincial English label from Newcastle, 35 years ago. The cover is a shocker. But who cares about that? The only thing which matters: can the dorky uncles actually play? Oh yes they can. Listen to this set of three tunes, and the combination of fiddle and rhythm guitar.

Close your eyes, open your ears.

  • Artist: The Champion String Band
  • LP Title: Champion String Band
  • Track: Side 1, Track 1 “Lady Rothes / General Garibaldi / The Champion Hornpipe”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Black Crow Records, CRO 201
  • Manufactured in: United Kingdom
  • Year: 1981