Fiddler on the Silk Road

To Gyuri, for his birthday
To Shaxi, one of the most beautiful and most archaic caravanseray town along the tea-horse-road, the millennary caravan road enters through the northern gate, together with the stream running along it, and leaves it through the southern gate, to soon reach Heisu river at the bridge once crossed by Marco Polo. Between the two gates it is flanked by tea houses, and narrow pedestrian alleys branch off it. Some of the wealthy trading houses standing in these alleys have already been converted into guest house, for the wanderers of the modern-age Silk Road. Others are still inhabited by old people, who also cling to the coattail of tourism by renting a room or selling souvenirs on the tables in the front of their houses.

“Today we have room for rent: both standard and with king size bed!”

The door of the house offering room for rent is open, waiting for the guests. Music is heard from inside. We look in. In the middle of the big hall, right opposite the door, an old man with beautiful, lined face is sitting on a chair, and playing erhu, two-string Chinese violin.“May we come in?” “Of course, qing zuo, qing zuo, sit down, please!” We are offered place at the big table, just in front of the old man. The family members are sitting around. To the right, a historical film is running on the large TV screen, but the sound was taken off. The old man plays with closed eyes, looks inwardly, as if he were transmitting to us the music from within, precisely, clearly, with an impressive lightness. Like the fiddler of Okudzhava.

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After about half an hour of continuous playing, the old man takes a break. He does not look at us, he jokes with the family. The European public is unusual for him, but he likes the situation. We call him to listen to the recording. He puts on the earpiece, and listens inwardly with the same devotion as before, as if he were comparing the two sounds inside.

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He starts asking questions, but his strong dialectal accent almost cannot be understood. He takes out a medicine box from his pocket, rips it up, and writes his questions in Chinese characters: where we came from, what we are doing here. We talk in writing for a while. Then he sits back, plays again. The head of the family stands up from his place at the TV, and photographs him so, that we also could be in the picture.

Some fifteen minutes more, and then he shows with his hand, that he is dry, and wants to drink. He puts the instrument in the corner, and he is poured a glass. We also see timely to say farewell. We thank to the old man and the family, we bend. The head of the family accompanies us to the door.

On our first day in Yunnan, in Dali, we were invited by my friend Shi Tanding, one of the most successful Chinese folk music collectors. Since 2006, she has released more than two hundred CDs from the music of Western Chinese ethnic groups. In her lecture finished well after midnight, she demonstrated with several recordings, how vivid hist musical culture is still today, how much it penetrates the life of towns and villages, and what excellent performers still can be traced. This bautiful encounter has now illustrated it.

Photos by Gábor Illés, Dani Kálmán and Tamás Sajó, videos by Dani Kálmán

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