Su Yang says all the local kids can sing along to the tune, though no one's sure about the lyrics. He then tried to complete the lyrics but found it no easy job, especially as the language has been evolving over time. Thus he started to learn and mimic the old style. In Su Yang's mind, language is key to music: the way people speak is reflected in all aspects of their lives, and music is no exception.
Here is the song "The Plain of Ningxia".
After this first effort, Su Yang immersed himself in local folk music, creating further adaptations of traditional songs in 2002 and 2003.
Su Yang says the lives of people in China's western cities have changed dramatically in his lifetime. The modern era suffers from a surfeit of information, he believes, leaving people confused about the world they live in. His anecdote, therefore, was to blend modern music with traditional Chinese tunes, and he went on to adapt eight songs, mostly from the Ningxia folk repertoire and the Hua'er music style.
Curious to know whether his native people would like the result, Su Yang gave a performance at a local venue. The speechless yet clearly excited response gave him much confidence to press on and reinvigorate the familiar songs that were deeply embedded in the consciousness of the Chinese people yet fading from memory.
Su Yang started to tour various stages and music events in China, during which he caught the ears of the Beijing-based music label, Thirteenth Month. Then came Su Yang's debut recording, meaning "able and virtuous".
Here, then, is the song, Xian Liang, by Su Yang.
That's the song Xian Liang, lyrics by Su Yang, with the tune adapted from a folk song of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
Su Yang believes folk songs of every nation are much more powerful than popular music styles. They evolved from communities, over time, rather than from individuals. As such, they are more the work of instinct than of intelligence or skill.
Su Yang's mission to rediscover the value of Chinese folk culture means finding those places where folk songs are still a means for people to communicate thought and emotions, and adapting them to the concerns of modern life now.
But instead of forging new pieces continuously, he says he waits for the essence of music to come to him and prompt him to write without much preparation or forethought. Su Yang says he's not qualified to create music but, by respecting the accumulated national musical culture and grasping the music's incarnation in his mind, he can embody its spirit and convey it to others. He insists that humans feel the spirit of music and record it, but that it does not originate in themselves.
The song we're hearing now is called Work and Love. In the context of folk music, Work is the culmination of a group effort, with the rhythm reflecting the ineffable connections between individuals, according to some natural law. When they sing, they express their heart in an implicit, subconscious, yet beautiful way. And this credo lies at the heart of Su Yang, a diligent yet humble man of music.
Still, he has rewritten and altered his songs many times since first setting them down, as he aligns them with his own singing style. He says this is a process of communication -- a communication between the singer and the music. And he is so intimate with the material now, that even the songs of his first album have become programmed into his body like a kind of 'muscle memory.'
Su Yang says, while chatting with me, that he's not as talented as many of his fellows. But to my mind, he is charting a course of the highest musical integrity; he is not so much a man who makes music, as one who lives life and musically chronicles the journey. Through a personal and musical humility, both the person and the music shine all the brighter for that.
Here is a live-recorded version of the song, Phoenix, by Su Yang and his band. Thanks for listening to this edition of China Beat on China Radio International. I'm Xu Jue, wishing you all the best; catch you next week.