Posted by: Bob Fisher | November 17, 2011

An Evening of Traditional Chinese Music — and Eldership


A serendipitous encounter

The invitation to the concert came from a new friend I had met on Canada Day in a conservation area near both our homes. The meeting occurred shortly after I had returned from China, a trip that had left me exhilarated, and once again cognizant of the fact that travel is the most experiential form of learning whether it be international, national, regional — or just around the corner.

And so on this particular Canada Day, always a very multicultural event in the town in which I live, I had the pleasure of experiencing once again the mosaic of Canadian society.

My new friend Colin is of Chinese heritage — and a musician. The orchestra in which he plays uses traditional Chinese instruments, all of which have histories that go back many centuries. His organization is aptly called CHEERS (Chinese Elders Ensemble for Recreation and Service), a not-for-profit and charitable organization (and musical ensemble) of retired amateur musicians whose mission is to involve as many seniors as possible in its musical activities and programs; and thus to expand the social circle of seniors and to foster friendship and well-being.

And for music lovers or musicologists — amateur or professional — the CHEERS orchestra is a unique opportunity to explore the infinite world of music.

The culture of eldership

Eldership has always been critical to human societies, especially in terms of transferring skills, history, heritage and language especially to the next generations. However, in the 21st century, some of these basic principles can tend to get lost. And along the way, a great deal of collective wisdom and many generations of practical experience can also disappear.

In First Nations communities in Canada, for example, there has always been an emphasis on collective memory, in part so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Furthermore, transferring a strong collective sense of self to succeeding generations is critical. And for First Nations People in Canada (and many other minority populations around the world), this is a lesson that warrants repetition. At its best, true eldership is not paternalistic dominance behaviour nor is it a hierarchical issue of “out with the old, in with the new.” It is instead an emphasis on the transference of knowledge through the collective memory.

In her paper,”Ageing and Cultural Diversity: A Cross-Cultural Approach”, Susan Judith Ship points out the following:

“Traditionally in First Nations, Inuit and most Ethnocultural Minority cultures, Elders are those people, usually older, who are recognized by the community as possessing great wisdom and who are called upon as an authority to advise or act on important family and community matters. The term ‘Elder’ in some cultures, referred to and may still refer to any older person to indicate respect, honour, and special status as aging in many cultures is associated with experience, wisdom, the transmission of cultural heritage and language, leadership roles in the community, and in some cases, spiritual knowledge.”

And on the other side of the world in Australia, the Eldership Project, emphasizes that:

“We believe a person cannot truly progress through life  — passing over thresholds — unless they have been seen and blessed. And that Elders, especially, must be there to bless…. we have also seen Eldership alive and well — sometimes in the conscious, intentional part that older men and women have played in gatherings, rituals, ceremonies or discussions; at other times, in spontaneous eruptions of grace, healing, wisdom or presence.”

The role of music as an inter-generational legacy

Music is brain science; as well as a form of language itself. Musicians, musicologists, and music teachers throughout the world have always known this.

Petr Janata is a cognitive neuroscientist at University of California, Davis. As he has discovered, using brain scans, music is a powerful memory tool.

In his research he has discovered that “The brain region responded quickly to music signature and timescale, but also reacted overall when a tune was autobiographically relevant. Furthermore, music tracking activity in the brain was stronger during more powerful autobiographical memories.”

Extrapolating, it is therefore not difficult to see how memory, which is essentially neurological activity, autobiographical in a collective sense, and most importantly the sounds of a culture, can enhance the collective and individual sense of self.

Audio clips to accompany this story

Although I was privileged to hear traditional instruments during my visit to China, it has only been in retrospect that I have had the opportunity to learn more about them; and about the music of China.

In the following brief medley of pieces from the CHEERS ensemble and other virtuosos, you will hear a variety of pieces that are playful, dramatic, and hauntingly beautiful.

For me, these are mnemonic sounds of China.

 To listen to each of these excerpts from the concert, click on the text below the photograph.

A medley of pieces by the Ensemble

Celine Liu’s Zheng solo

Macie Ho’s Pipa solo

Dora Wang’s Dizi solo

Sandy Lee singing The Mountain Reflected Red

The Auld Lang Syne finale

It may initially seem curious that a Chinese orchestra would end its programme with Robert’s Burns’ Auld Lang Syne. However, this old folk tune is universal in many ways and speaks to people all around the world.

The poem was originally written in 1788 and was set to the music of a traditional folk song in Scotland. It was initially used to celebrate the start of the New Year at the stroke of midnight, and to end a célidh (dance).

The phrase auld lang syne has been translated in a number of ways but in its most universal sense it appeals to the collective memory of many cultures who sing it in order to honour tradition and “for the sake of old times.”

The song, a pentatonic folk melody and sprightly dance (in the original it probably had a much quicker tempo), was also originally sung to celebrate Hogmanay (New Year’s); and became a Scot’s custom that spread to many parts of the world, communicated worldwide in part by Scots who emigrated throughout many parts of the globe. It also has had many curious musical “incarnations” including that of Canadian band leader Guy Lombardo (a native of my home city of London, Ontario) who perpetuated the tradition for many years in Times Square of New York City.

In the most traditional expression of the song (usually performed in a large group), members form a circle by joining hands. During the last verse, the members of the group cross their arms across their breasts so that the right hand is linked with that of their neighbour on the left, and vice versa. At the end of the song, in its most traditional fashion, the members of the group rush to the middle, turn under their own arms, and end up facing outwards hands still joined.

The song is sung, in various forms and ways, in over 20 countries including nations as disparate as Japan, China, the Netherlands, Sudan, Poland, and Zimbabwe. It has also been featured in over 30 films.

One of the more poignant moments in which the song was used was when the body of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau left Parliament Hill in Ottawa for the last time and travelled to Montréal for a state funeral.

And one of the more contemporary expressions of the song was performed by Daniel Cartier on Cape Cod Beach in Massachusetts, USA.

In essence, the lyrics of the song ask the rhetorical question whether old times should be forgotten. But it is also a call to remembering long-standing relationships; and the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things.

And this is the essence of the wisdom inherent in eldership.

To view it as a slideshow, click on “Slideshow” in the upper right-hand corner.
When I was in China, I was fortunate to see how the culture of the “East” and the “West” have been blended, in this case in the form of.
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