Manhu: Voices of the Sani

September 8, 2020

Forest and Trees

Listening Post 269. The Sani people are part of China’s ethnic landscape but the fine detail of their culture is often obscured behind mythology and rock. The rock is from the Stone Forest: Sani villages dot the area around its spectacular limestone pillars, densely clustered like trees across 500 km² (200 mi²) of Yunnan province. The myth surrounds Ashima, a folk heroine who escaped a forced marriage, only to drown and turn into the forest’s most prominent monolith. At the crossroads of tradition and modernity, Manhu’s five members, schooled in rock music but also steeped in village customs, opted for preservation—and one survival tactic is etching contemporary rock and world notes into the pillars of their musical heritage. Voices of the Sani, the group’s first album, highlights community, embodied in songs about food and drink, marriage and family, dance and seasonal observances. The artists sing in Sani and Laluo (both dialects of Yi), in standard Yi and Mandarin Chinese; they play mostly traditional instruments, some virtually unknown to the outside world. Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of the album is Ashima, an extract of the legend that became a symbol of rebellion against arranged marriages (video 1). The band’s global inclination is garbed in Sani instrumentation with Brothers and Sisters, based on an old-time American mountain song (video 2). Moon reflects the shyness that leads boys and girls to express feelings through instruments rather than words (video 3). The Sani Drinking Song (video 4) offers a short recipe, “three cups of liquor for a deep sense of well-being”; while Banquet Dance (video 5) is typically sung as performers enter a dining hall with food balanced on their heads. Balance well describes Manhu, an ensemble that puts the few pieces outsiders know of their culture into rich context and understands that past and present can both be expressed with a touch of rock. (Riverboat Records)

Manhu: Voices of the Sani / 蛮虎乐队: 四季
Jin Jin Hongmei: Lead vocals
Wang Tao: Lead vocals, flutes, lusheng (gourd pipes), leaf
Gao Helin: Xianzi (lute), adiza (small three-string lute), backing vocals
Gao Xuehui: Electric bass guitar, moon lute, sanxian yama (bass lute), mouth harp, backing vocals
He Yanxiang: Drums, Sani big drum, backing vocals
Sam Debell: Percussion, lusheng (gourd pipes)

Notes. Manhu means “Fierce Tigers.” The Chinese title of the group’s album translates as “Four Seasons.”
In 2007 the Stone Forest in eastern Yunnan was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Though they have preserved their distinct identity and language for centuries, the Sani are also part of the broader Yi ethnic grouping, comprising more than 40 related cultures.


Ashima / 阿诗玛
Traditional Sani folk classic

From the album notes: According to popular legend, a beautiful Sani maiden named Ashima was kidnapped by the son of an evil landlord and forced to marry him. Her lover went to save her and dueled with the kidnapper for three days and nights before finally prevailing. On the way home, however, Ashima drowned in a flood and was transformed into Ashima Rock at entrance of the Stone Forest. In traditional Yi culture marriages are arranged, but there is also a recurrent theme in romantic stories and songs of rebelling against this tradition. Ashima is a symbol of hope for those who wish to choose their own partners.


Brothers And Sisters
Sani lyrics by Manhu/Music based on Old Time American tune Five Miles of Ellum Wood


Sani lyrics and Melody: Luobo Kemu

Album notes: In Sani culture lovers are shy and do not directly talk about feelings to one another. Instead they use musical instruments and codes within the melodies to express themselves. The chazi, or “moon lute”, is often played by girls, while the adiza, or “small three string lute,” is played by boys. Dance events go on the late into the night with the rising of the moon marking the real start of the festivities. The song asks the moon to “Give light to the dancers… give light to the Sani people.”


Sani Drinking Song
Sani lyrics and music: Huang Wenshu

Album notes: A modern drinking song that can be heard throughout the Stone Forest Region, describes three cups of liquor, the completion of which brings a deep sense of well-being


Banquet Dance
Lyrics & music: Traditional, sung in Laluo and Mandarin Chinese

Album notes: A song from the Laluo Yi people of Weishan, Dali region, traditionally sung to honor guests as food is served. The food would be brought into the room balanced on the heads of the performers. The lyrics encourage listeners to “Drink wherever there is wine … Sleep wherever there’s a bed.”




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