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A Musical Trip Back
By: Mateo Arango López, 12th
Music is a great way to look into the history of cultures and connect with it. Hence, I want to take a look into Chinese and Colombian artistic expressions taking music into focus. This way, understanding how history affected and influenced their musical expressions. Diving further into how these influences marked their music, and point at genres which hold historical value in the eyes of future generations. This, doubling as an invitation into the cultures.
These days we stand on a land of a thousand rhythms, but we are rarely aware of this. In the past, our country’s vast, varied, native population owned several musical expressions — to this day, tracking them down is tough but at least 1025 rhythm’s origins have been identified. Our musical folklore, in fact, has dance as its main focus on its instrumentation. Voice came with Spain. When all of these met, our own set of spirituals was developed; our own tradition that, through time, we have forgotten.
In general, music developed after the colonial period in the west can be found with a similar, twelve-tone system; there is, though, a heavier use of pentatonic scales. Less is much more when it comes to melody here — the big focus is rhythm. With a mall variety of instruments and a big influence coming from Africa, those living in especially Colombia’s coasts developed a wide variety of rhythms to go with their dances. One of their most notorious elements was syncopation, with the beat focus in on times different than those considered a standard. Rhythm was predominantly written in 6/8, time signature in which they could add more variety to this technique. Some of the most notorious instruments were the drums, which came from the African culture; maracas and flutes, from Indigenous origin; and the voice, plus the accordion coming from Europe (this doesn’t mean that singing was a new idea, but rather reinforced). To keep it short, music in this part of the west developed from the mix of cultures, and countless instruments either came from other places or were developed here; they all played an important part regardless.
Music is deeply influenced - depending on the region - by either life or spirituals. The flatlands feature genres such as Joropo, which focuses on two elements — the cuatro, a regional four-string instrument, and lyrics about life as plainsmen. The Andes region holds true to these ideas, but goes further as they include new instruments with the likes of violin and flutes. The coastal regions share a love for percussion (with and without determined sounds). Vallenato stands out from other musical expressions of the Atlantic coast. A perfect example of where both dance and voice meet. Accompanied by the sounds of an accordion, the lyrics to the songs do not have a single focus, but rather vary from singer to singer. Deep into the Pacific region we can find one that comes from abroad, yet was molded in a unique way; Salsa. This expression is close not only with the likes of Vallenato and similar, but with Jazz. Its structure is just as tight for the musical as it is for its dancing purposes, featuring a wide range of instruments, especially a brass section. In essence, all these musical expressions have their unique characteristics that can let the listener into the story of the country and how these genres came to be.
In the distant past a desirable, peaceful state of affairs, and the superposition of different notes were the same thing — harmony. When the ideas derived from Confucianism ruled over China, music was held to a high standard where it calmed the deeper, darkest desires, generating a general harmony not only in the individual, but for the community. It was far from just a way of public entertainment. Music went together with politics and morality; melody helped a balanced state grow, and solidarity between citizens to bloom. Chinese culture was able to achieve this through good manners and, most importantly, music.
To understand eastern musical expressions, the listener must also understand the differences from the east. Traditional Chinese music stands out because of its rhythm, meter, and tones. While western music uses a twelve-tone system, the Chinese uses an average of five tones, sometimes seven — which means fewer ways of expressing their musical ideas. While in the west these twelve tones take the names of do, re mi, fa, sol, la, and si; the Chinese have different names for their five tones - gōng, shāng, jué, zhǐ, and yǔ. One of the aspects that go hand in hand with this is their focus on articulation of notes, adding an emphasis on the feel of the notes rather than the number of these. Even with fewer notes, the variety of colors and melodies they pull off keep true to their focus. Western meter is usually 4/4 and with varying syncopation, Chinese is divided into ban and yan - main and weak beats. Common meters varied between a ban followed by three yan, and a ban followed by one yan (the latter is, in fact, our common 4/4 meter). With this in mind, understanding what makes of traditional Chinese music is a matter of understanding their culture.
Music, yuè (乐), is deeply influenced and inspired by the idea of spirituality and what it consists on (from the balance within to the revitalization of energy). In fact, their music’s main focus is storytelling, and more than lyrical it was made through classic, stringed instruments. Qin is one of the best, and oldest, known instruments this culture has to offer. This instrument presents a low, soft sound. It has an average of seven strings and, because of its pentatonic nature, music has been compared to the likes of American Blues. Traditional Qin pieces feature the instrument in solo, as it is too soft to compete with others. Pieces such as High Mountains and Flowing Waters illustrates, through its instrumental, the friendship between the composer and a companion; Qin pieces usually present stories such as this to show the atmosphere Confucius had proposed between people. Vocal pieces can be considered a type of opera, whose songs are based on old tales of heroes and regional myths.
As it is observed, our culture and one on the other side of the world share big musical differences and subtle similarities. Structures, notes, rhythm, and purpose all differ; but sometimes both tell stories. Projected into a bigger idea, cultural preservation is important and should not be taken lightly. If we look away from what is inherently ours, we are looking away from enriching ideas and stories. In short, I invite you to look into these two cultures, and appreciate what they have; appreciate them instead of letting them be forgotten.