Paika is a rural community of the Miao ethnic minority in the hilly Guizhou Province, in southwestern China. In the local language this name refers to this mountain village that produces the Lusheng, a reed instrument.
The village with no more than one hundred houses has been known around the province for its Lusheng production over the past five generations. Mo Yanxue, 62, is from a Lusheng producing family in Paika. He started to learn Lusheng making with his father when he was 17 years old, and has stayed in the business since. He said to us: “At the beginning it was difficult to understand why I had to continue this tradition of my family, when I had other opportunities. But little by little I learned to love and respect this antique instrument”. Over his long career Mo Yanxu has not only honed his skills in traditional processes, but also developed new designs of the instrument that produce better quality of sound and a greater range.
Lusheng consists of a blowing tube, pipes, reeds and resonance tubes.
It is very popular among ethnic minorities in southwestern China such as the Miao, Yno and Dong ethnic groups. The Miao people especially adore it and its music is inseparable from their lives. It is played during courtship, weddings, festivals and other big events in Miao life. It is also the vehicle of their history, which is passed down from generation to generation through songs. This is why there is the saying that every Miao man carries a Lisheng
Walking through this mountain village which is crossed by a bridge over a crystal clear river we can hear intermittent Lusheng strains drift in the air. These are the Lusheng makers testing and making adjustments to their latest creations.
We stop at Wu Yan’s craftshop. He invites us to enter and explains: “Making a Lusheng involves time and is a consuming process. This process consists of more than 60 steps, the most tiring being polishing bamboo, and the most essential technique that of making reeds”. With Wu Yan there are two sons and a daughter who are responsible for making the bamboo pipes and blowing the tubes, while Wu Yan handles the core part of the process, making and, above all, tuning reeds. Wu Yan is very careful in choosing the raw material to use for his reeds. He collect brass gongs, breaking them up, smelting and remolding them into strips. He said: “A good reed should vibrate 50 times with a single flick. If it falls short of this it has to be remade”.
Each day, Wu Yan sits besides the window, looking at the mountain and polishes every reed in the traditional way. He explains: “Even what seems a simple task, like chopping the bamboo, is not that easy as every cut has to be made with the right amount of force. Making reeds is trickier as they are very thin and easily broken”.
Out of the region
The traditional Lusheng has six long unwieldy pipes and features relatively rough handiwork. Thanks to recent innovations and improvements, one can also find models with 15, 20 or even 26 pipes. With more pitches and notes, these Lusheng can be used for playing more complicated melodies. Mo Yanxue explains: “Passing from six pipes to 15 or 26, we have a bigger range and produce a more sonorous tone”.
About the future. Mo Yanxue smiles to us and says: “In this moment I am teaching 10 apprentices, who in turn will soon open their own workcraft. Some of them will go out of our region, others will go abroad. Recently, the department of culture of Macao bought some Lusheng with the intention of teaching local students how to play it”. As his instruments are increasingly heard outside their origins, people still catch the tones of Lusheng being played as they pass through the Paika village. People in the village feel, like Mo Yanxue, the need to pass down Miaos’s Lusheng to future generations.