The most endearing quality of music is that it can transport its audience to other places. Clichéd as this may sound, the way in which a song can incite minds to take their respective owners to idyllic renditions of faraway lands is not to be underestimated, as even other art forms would be hard-pressed to replicate this experience.
Even between music styles, some genres prove better at evoking fantastical imagery than others. Contemporary folk is definitely in the upper echelons of styles that possess this ability as it allows for the artist to imbue a familiar template with their genus loci; by using well-known musical devices and covering universal themes in a way that is unique to their respective culture, the artist can open for their audience a gateway to other places, other times, and other realities.
It is therefore frustrating to witness folk artists clinging to Germanic or Nordic stereotypes when their own culture is so far removed from the glaciers, gods, and battles alluded to in such music. Similar to Greek black metal artists delivering homages to Vikings, there is just something insincere about such cultural tourism, especially when many more authentic reference points lie readily at hand.
Said perspective is the reason why Raflum‘s 2014 album, Returning Boat (original title: Guī zhào) brought me such joy. On what is supposed to be its last record, this solo project from Sichuan, China offers listeners across the globe a pathway to its home soil. The album’s six compositions are mainly centred around the acoustic guitar, which reduces the cultural shock that might have emerged had a more traditional instrument—say, the guqin—stood in the limelight. The use of some familiar Western folk tropes (such as choral singing akin to that of Ulver‘s Kveldssanger or Lönndom‘s Viddernas tolv kapitel) further contribute towards bridging the gap with the Western listener.
Regardless of Raflum’s accessibility—which manifests itself most emphatically across the first two songs—the cultural roots gradually crack through the generic ground layer as more of the running time transpires. Particularly, songs such as ‘A Night Far Away’ and ‘Wandering Clouds’ display an Eastern flair, with guitar melodies adhering less to Western conventions in regard to rhythm and structure. These tracks also see the introduction of a new instrument: the bamboo flute, whose presence persists until the end of the album and pulls the timbre even more into an oriental orbit. On one song, ‘Drifting Boat’, the bamboo flute even acts as the sole performer.
It is, however, the singing which poses the biggest challenge to the unconditioned listener. Chinese vocal traditions, as a whole, divert greatly from Western ideals of tune and melody. With Raflum, this is no less apparent. On ‘Wandering Clouds’ and ‘Song of Homesick’, the singing dances like a wave between the melodies, adhering to patterns of rhythm and key that act more independently than would be considered desirable in most contemporary Western music, let alone when juxtaposed against the traditionally sing-along-proof strum-and-hum sound that permeates European folk. While Raflum’s singing (which is delivered by different individual performers) still has been considerably Westernised and will therefore not make the European ear recoil as extremely as such notoriously unwelcoming traditional styles as Chinese opera, it is still distinct enough to pose a challenge to the unsuspecting listener.
Fortunately, once the few peculiarities of this music have been overcome, a fascinating journey to the China of Raflum awaits, as their dreamlike tunes, tragic but never depressing, reverberate the immense cultural heritage of one of the oldest civilisations on Earth. And by offering us a few handles that make it easier to familiarise ourselves with a musical tradition that is so profoundly different from our own, we are able to let our imagination run wild with beautiful visions of the Middle Kingdom without yet having to delve into the near-impenetrable world of un-Westernised Chinese traditional music.
01) 長空 Pt. I
02) 長空 Pt. II