World Heritage: Ox Horn Instrument on Snow-covered Plateau
   2013-09-12 19:26:10      Web Editor: Guo Jing

Kalsang Tenpa plays Niujiaoqin on August 28, 2013. [Photo:]

Strings of notes flow tranquilly from the ox horn instrument and linger in the air.

"When I play this melody, wild and untamed yaks calm down, enabling us to milk them easily."

The musician's name is Kalsang Tenpa. Influenced by his father, he has been learning Niujiaoqin, a two-stringed bowed instrument made of ox horn, for nearly a decade. He moved from his hometown Qihama to Maqu County in the 1970s when he began to speak mandarin Chinese with friends of Han nationality. He can now speak some basic mandarin.

Located on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, Maqu County in Gansu province is blessed with snow hills, grasslands, mountains and valleys, and has preserved the remnants of its culture from ancient to modern times well. The Niujiaoqin, a local traditional Tibetan string instrument with a 500-year history, has a unique appearance. The instrument has undergone very few changes and maintains its ancient charm to this day. The Niujiaoqin in Kalsang Tenpa's hand was made by his father and features an ox-head carved at the top, strings made from fine horse tail hairs, a sandalwood neck; the sound box and top of neck are made by rare wild ox horns.

Kalsang's father is a famous Niujiaoqin player in Maqu County. His melodies are known for being deeply moving, touching the souls of the listeners and bringing to mind moving memories. Kalsang Tenpa initially resisted his parent's attempts to get him to learn the Niujiaoqin when he was around 7 or 8 years old, having disliked the instrument and bearing the childhood dream of running a business like his mother.

However, his father's persistent dedication to ethnic culture eventually moved him. In 2004, the then 22-year-old Kalsang started to learn the ox horn. Kalsang's father emphasized the significance of learning the Niujiaoqin to him:

"I hope you can learn the Niujiaoqin well. You must learn it with your heart. I have many apprentices, but none of them can master it. Its melody differs from other instruments; it is passed on mouth to mouth and heart to soul, so is difficult to grasp. You must learn it well, or its music will be lost. Within the whole Tibetan region, there are only a few Niujiaoqin players."

The importance of carrying on the cultural heritage of the ox horn changed Kalsang's attitude. He is now determined to carry on the heritage and prevent it from fading.

Undoubtedly, Kalsang's father is the greatest man in his eyes. Highly talented at playing music, his father had studied Niujiaoqin from a respected monk for about 4 years when he was young. When there was no instrument available, he would practice with two sticks. His passion and tenacity made him a well-known artist. Kalsang's father, who is now 67 years old, remains fond of music and a highly versatile musician, able to play the electronic organ, cucurbit flute, flute, guitar and accordion, in addition to the ox horn. Whenever Kalsang has a free moment, he sits down with his father to discuss the Niujiaoqin and search for ways of sharing its legacy.

The people of Maqu County are keenly interested in the ox horn instrument and want to learn it; however, they lack the necessary patience. Kalsang has spent much time learning it. His father told him, "You differ from others. If you want to learn, you will certainly be able to master it.
Because I've played the melody around you since you were very young, you have become very familiar with it, and so you will be able to grasp it."

After learning it for three to four years, Kalsang felt depressed because he still couldn't play the melody. The thought of giving up crossed his mind, but his father encouraged him, "As a man, what can you do if you cannot overcome such a small frustration?"

His father's words really worked on Kalsang. In the past, his father played Niujiaoqin alone, but now Kalsang can join in and play as part of an ensemble.

In 2012, Kalsang and his father were invited to perform at the 60th anniversary gala of Qinghai Tibetan Radio and TV Station and they performed with other folk artists, fulfilling each ensemble successfully. After the performance, they talked with other artists about how to protect and inherit ancient musical instruments such as the dragon head instrument, ox horn instrument and eagle flute.

Kalsang can now play three Niujiaoqin melodies, the same as his father. Kalsang said, "All people living in ancient times can play the ox horn instrument, gradually, people abandoned it and became unfamiliar with it, and some have even never heard about it."

Without a single note having been written down, Niujiaoqin melodies have been passed on mouth to mouth and hand to hand across generations. Kalsang's father is anxious about the fading out of the Niujiaoqin, and Kalsang also feels the pressure to inherit it.

Where will the Niujiaoqin go if no one is willing to inherit it besides Kalsang? Kalsang has a one-and-half-year-old daughter, he said that he will teach his daughter if she enjoys Niujiaoqin. He plans to take several other apprentices; because all his former apprentices gave up learning due to the great difficulties. At present, he intends to record the melody once again based on the original one combining it with modern styles to meet current tastes. To support the Tibetan folk heritage, Maqu County government established the Ox Horn Instrument Performing Company. Kalsang works in the company; he commits more time to inheriting ox horn harp culture outside performances.

Besides the responsibility to inherit Niujiaoqin, Kalsang also operates a small hotel and a cordyceps sinensis shop. These incomes support him to study and teach the ox horn instrument. Kalsang is now seeking high quality raw materials to make a new Niujiaoqin, for the old one in his hands is so old that the tone is unsteady.

Every time Kalsang feels uneasy, he plays Niujiaoqin alone on the grasslands to feel the melody. Maybe the greatest pleasure that Niujiaoqin brings is to forget secular troubles. Amid the boundless sky and endless grasslands, a person and an instrument form a wonderful picture of the snow-covered plateau.

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