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Harmony from a musical exchange


When J. Lawrence Witzleben went to Shanghai recently to attend an international symposium, he couldn't recognize the city where he studied for two and a half years in the early 1980s.

Though Shanghai has changed radically in the past 30 years, however, Witzleben was still able to see a Silk and Bamboo performance - a form of traditional folk instrumental music from the Yangtze River Delta region - as he did 30 years ago.

"I found that Silk and Bamboo music is still quite active in Shanghai, and every day you can find some place where people play it," says Witzleben, who is a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland. However, the best musicians are older now and "very few people who are 20 years old are playing the music."

Witzleben was in Shanghai to attend the "Traditional Music in the Contemporary Society" international symposium, hosted by Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Scholars from various countries including China, Portugal, Uzbekistan, Canada, Croatia, Brazil and Kenya joined the symposium to discuss the current situation of traditional music.

Topics at the symposium included "The Change of Folk Music Tradition in Shanghai", "Ukulele and Gender in Late-20th-Century Canadian Schools", "Music and the Construction of Nation in 20th-Century Portugal" and "Popular Culture in Afghanistan".

"It would be a great tragedy if a style of music is lost. We should find things that may not last for another generation and try our best to document them," Witzleben says.

"But music is always changing. That is not something good or bad. That's just something we have to try to understand."

Xiao Mei, a professor with the Musicology Department of Shanghai Conservatory of Music and a key organizer of the symposium, believes the relationship between traditional music and contemporary society is a global issue, but it is especially important for China, which is developing fast.

"There are many different voices about how to deal with traditional Chinese music, but what we often hear are voices from the government and academia, not much from the music transmitters themselves," Xiao says. "We should pay more attention to voices from the field."

In her presentation "Production of Heritage within UNESCO: Comparing Croatia and China as Successful State Parties", Croatian scholar Naila Ceribasic analyzed the difference in terms of discourse and practice of intangible cultural heritage in the two countries, and observed that communities are more involved in cultural preservation in Croatia than in China.

This is also what Xiao is concerned about. The efforts of the government and scholars alone cannot safeguard traditional music in contemporary society, and the key lies in helping grassroots communities retain traditional music as an organic part of their lives, according to Xiao.

Six young Chinese scholars spoke at the symposium and talked about topics like "The History and Change of Pingtan (narrative music) Schools in Shanghai", "The Shanghai South Korean Diaspora's Music Life", and "The Ceremonial Music in Huizhou".

"This symposium is a good opportunity for young Chinese scholars to expand their scope and converse with foreign colleagues in the same context," says Wu Fan, a professor with the Central China Normal University who spoke at the symposium. "I find that Chinese and international scholars often have different focuses for the same subjects."

Language is a difficulty for many Chinese scholars at international symposiums, especially the elderly scholars who did not study English at school.

But more young scholars, like Wu, are able to write and present in English, and Xiao hopes that many Chinese scholars will speak in English at the 42nd World Conference of the International Council for Traditional Music, which will be held at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music from July 11 to 17, 2013.

The International Council for Traditional Music is a non-governmental organization in formal consultative relations with UNESCO that has the aim of furthering the study, practice, documentation, preservation and dissemination of traditional music.

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