Lao Qiang

Everest Theatre, January 22 

Lao Qiang res
Photo: Prudence Upton.

If an international arts festival cannot occasionally provide a little culture shock it is probably not doing its job. Lao Qiang was not the juvenile, faux shock of blood, sex or nudity, however, but the genuine jolt of culture so foreign that it was almost confronting. In an era when we have finally tapped into the wealth of music the world affords, many have become familiar, enthusiastic and even knowledgable about the music of Pakistan or South Africa, Algeria or Indonesia, Bulgaria or Cuba. To encounter sounds, forms and presentation that still challenged one’s aesthetic sense so completely was invigorating.

Lao Qiang loosely translates as “ancient music” or “old tunes”, and the idiom has been maintained in north-west China for over two thousand years. As surtitles revealed, the song lyrics were narratives about the joys, frustrations and pitfalls of peasant life, mingled with humour and homespun philosophy, and carrying an emphasis on the importance of family and of honouring elders.

Most of the 10 players were from the same clan and were leaning on the wrong side of middle age. This was their first appearance in the southern hemisphere. The key instruments were the erhu and banhu (fiddles), the yueqin (an octagonal lute) and assorted simple percussion. The prevailing strident tonal colour varied fairly modestly, and all instruments and singing were unamplified. This left Zhang Ximin’s vocals a little submerged on occasion, although it did not trouble the shrill wailing of the only woman, Zhang Quiya.

Perhaps most confronting was the presentation, which sometimes  seemed like a toothpaste commercial, so unrelenting was the smiling. But a strong current of ritual seemed to be coursing through this music, and the lyrics’ themes were supported by rudimentary acting, not to mention wild exuberance and energy.

Shadow puppetry also made an appearance. If this, too, was fairly elementary, it provided a sneak peek back in time to an art they have been much the same two millennia ago.