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When Worlds Collide

The Chieftains In China

Janet Angus reports on what happened when Irish folk group The Chieftains took up an offer to do a concert tour of China and decided to record the event.

Janet Angus reports on what happened when Irish folk group The Chieftains took up an offer to do a concert tour of China and decided to record the event.

The Chinese cultural revolution over, and arms tentatively being opened to the Western world and its cultures, Communist China began to receive artists of all kinds with wide-eyed curiosity, enthusiasm and bewilderment. The results were sometimes sheer shock, sometimes sheer pleasure as two seemingly different worlds found a common voice in their musics.

In 1983, Irish folk band The Chieftains were one of the first Western bands to venture into China, where a wealth of art and artistry was opened up before them. A series of six concerts - two each in Beijing (Peking), Suzhow and Shanghai - were followed with a two concert stop-over in Hong Kong on the way home. Brian Masterson, a director of the world renowned Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin as well as a much respected engineer and producer in his own right, accompanied the band to record a journey of a lifetime. The excitement of discovery will never be repeated as China inevitably becomes more familiar with the musical traditions and cultures of the West.

Masterson is somewhat of a specialist in recording Irish folk music and was the obvious choice for the trip. The entourage also included a film crew making a television documentary of the event. The whole thing was instigated by an invitation from the Chinese Embassy in London after the ambassador went to a Chieftains concert and discovered a certain affinity between the two countries' musics. The Chieftains also discovered this affinity when a group of Chinese musicians played in Dublin.

Ireland has always enjoyed strong trading relationships with China and their own Chinese Embassy was very helpful in setting the whole thing up, as well as preparing the band for what was to come with films and information.

Complicating matters even further, as well as providing a richer experience, was the fact that in each city The Chieftains were to be joined by a different group of Chinese musicians to play on five of the numbers. Not only had the bands never met before, but The Chieftains were not even told what instruments to expect. It was decided in advance which numbers would be played, arrangements sketched, and it was only on the day of the first concert that specific arrangements and rehearsals could be executed. Pretty hairy for the musicians, and pretty nerve-wracking for the sound engineer who was also contending with problems like 'Why hasn't the equipment arrived?' and a humidity count which rendered instruments out of tune and equipment unreliable.


Masterson's album project was intended to be a digital recording on one of the very first Sony PCM F1 digital recorders. In addition, he decided it would be safer to take along a small multitrack set-up, and in the event this proved to be a lifesaver. The recording gear comprised a Soundcraft 1" 8-track recorder with Dolby 361 noise reduction fed through an Amek mixing console. "All of which were dropped somewhere between London and Beijing," recalled Masterson, "so that the day before the first concert we had to do a fair rebuild of the equipment to actually get it working." Nothing like a good start to inspire you with confidence.

A small PA system was operated by regular Chieftains soundman Mick O'Gorman, who bravely relied on the Chinese to provide all the equipment bar a small Electro-Voice mixing desk of his own.

"The amazing thing," O'Gorman explained, "was that we have all these innate prejudices about China being Third World and backward, and we expected to find very antiquated equipment. But although we didn't recognise any brand names and the equipment looked very home-made, it actually performed very well. They had valve power amps and things like that; Chinese Nagras and Chinese Revoxes - I don't know if they are licensed or not, but the Chinese recording industry had obviously looked at what was best in the Western products and decided to do their own versions. The theatres themselves were very good acoustically too."

An honoured backstage visit to the Beijing (Peking) Opera even revealed sophisticated and successful use of radio microphones and the like.

"In some things they are very Chinese and very old fashioned, but then in others they are very modern. They've now got SSL consoles over there and so they are catching up very quickly."

Brian Masterson's job was further complicated by the fact that the film crew's sound recordist went down with an infection in Peking and so he also had to record their soundtrack for those concerts. His dream of capturing the whole thing straight to digital stereo was shattered when the humidity rose to 98/99%, making tuning absolutely impossible.

"I did record everything on F1 but the tuning problems were so great that there had to be a fair amount of overdubbing when we got home."


"I can't remember all the details of the various Chinese folk orchestras who joined in, but in Beijing there were no wind instruments. There was a Chinese cymbalum, which is bigger than Derek's and with a bigger range; and from what I gathered this played the role of first violin in the orchestra in that he was the leader. There were about eleven players of string instruments, apart from this cymbalum, playing mostly Chinese fiddles called 'erhus'. It is an amazing instrument which looks like a walking stick with a concertina stuck on the front of it! It sounds like a violin without the resonance because the cavity is very small. The extraordinary thing about it is that the bow is captive because the two strings, rather than being side by side, are actually forward and behind and the bow is attached between them. So you hold it in your lap and push to get one string and pull in to get the other."

"They use an incredible amount of exaggerated vibrato (very slow Eastern sounding vibrato). There was also a Chinese cello and double bass, much more like conventional orchestral instruments. There were about four firsts, four seconds (like violins and violas in 'erhu' terms), two cellos, one double bass and the cymbalum player."

"Everyone was anxious about what would be the common musical language but it turned out that the Chinese were all happy to work in 'tonic solfa', which is the way Paddy and a lot of Irish musicians notate their music - if they notate it at all."

This also presumably meant that they were familiar with the major and minor scales on which our Western music is based. At the Peking Opera, Masterson witnessed an altogether different tonality ("It was completely atonal and much more what you would expect with funny instruments and a mish-mash of sounds."), and it seems that the two types exist side by side.

"Paddy did the arrangements on the basis of there being everything and then changed them during rehearsal according to what instruments were available. The leader of the Chinese musicians took Paddy's lead and that is how the ensemble worked. They were meticulous in their tuning, producing electronic tuners would you believe - one of those odd things you don't expect! The Chinese sat at right angles to The Chieftains, who were positioned to one side of the stage in their normal semi-circle, so that the cymbalum player could see and Paddy could always see him."


"Because I didn't know what to expect with the Chinese musicians and because I had only eight tracks and there were six Chieftains, I arranged the recording so that I had a Chieftain on each of six tracks and just simply put up a stereo pair over the Chinese group. As most of the concert was The Chieftains playing anyway, and I didn't feel competent to start balancing levels of a group of Chinese traditional instruments I had never heard before, I decided that whatever balance they arrived at themselves would do very well."

"AKG very kindly provided me with a complete set of microphones for the tour- model 414s and 451s. Unfortunately, with the humidity problems we did experience a certain amount of trouble, but in all fairness it's to their credit that they worked at all! Literally, it was almost raining in the theatre. I have never experienced anything like it. There was water everywhere. You would step on the ground and the very act of stepping on it would form a puddle immediately. As the concerts progressed the microphones started to break down - only now and again, and only a few of them - but it was definitely something I hadn't thought of. In a couple of cases we went over to dynamic microphones, which we borrowed from Mick O'Gorman."

"We played 2,000 seater venues - big theatres - not what we would call concert halls because they had to accommodate all sorts of things; they were very spartan but actually sounded very good. I didn't have a mobile; the equipment was packed in flightcases and I would assemble it at the side of the stage before each concert; check it and just hope for the best."


Whilst in Beijing the band and its entourage struggled through the heat and crowds of holidaying Chinese on the Great Wall to give an outdoor concert - not quite the Queen's visit!

"Beijing was fine," Masterson recalled. "There was a lot to see, like the Terracota Army and the Palace - incredible sights. But the city itself I can only describe as fairly boring - all built basically on a grid system and not very inspiring as a place to live."

From there the party flew to Shanghai and then travelled by train to Suzhow: "Probably one of the most beautiful places in all China. Some call it the Venice of China because it is built on canals and most of the transportation is by water on barges and boats. It was a completely different environment to Peking. Everything about it was beautiful and if you didn't go by boat it was bicycle - I have never seen so many bicycles in my life (Brian obviously hasn't been to Cambridge lately! - Ed.) - thousands of them!"

"It was in Suzhow that we had our first panic because the Chinese officials said it would be very expensive to take all the equipment (my sound equipment was small compared with all the film equipment) by plane, and said we should send it down by train. Obviously, we were worried that it wouldn't arrive in time, but they said, 'Oh yes, no problem.' We had two days in Suzhow before the concert and, of course, the gear didn't arrive until a couple of hours before the concert was due to start. You just can't do these things without a panic it seems."

"We booked into the hotel and while The Chieftains were rehearsing with the Chinese (it was quite heavily wind instrument oriented this time), I was trying to make phone calls to Beijing to find out where the equipment was... It arrived at the last minute and was, in fact, intact which was the most important thing."

"There were a lot of Chinese flute players - a fairly simple flute, more like a tin whistle with a little reed across the aperture; it makes a really strange sound like some of these African instruments. It was a different sound, which gave a different colour to the Chieftains' music."


Back to Shanghai on the train again for the last two Chinese concerts.

"This is the most Westernised of all the Chinese cities because of its history of French and English occupation. You can immediately recognise the closeness to Western civilisation, for example, in the hotels; there was even a steak house - which gave us the first chance since we arrived to consume any Western food. Some of the Chieftains, Marlin in particular, were moaning all the way about not being able to get pints of Guinness and he immediately took to the steak house!"

"Shanghai is a beautiful port on the Yangzi river and we really enjoyed ourselves. There is nothing in particular to say about the concerts but we did visit the Shanghai music factory - which is huge - where they make all the Chinese instruments. It was fascinating. Everything is more or less hand-made; not for the reasons we would, ie. a handmade instrument is bound to be better than a factory produced one, but just because the country is so over-populated that they have many pairs of hands - who needs machines? We were shown a bewildering range of instruments."


The choice of music for the various concerts consisted of a mixture of Chinese and Irish folk songs.

"It was a bit of everything; the songs were the same at every concert but the arrangements depended on who was I here. They performed a couple of Chinese pieces which The Chieftains had learned to play. They are all post-revolution songs written in the traditional idiom, although they were actually composed in the late 1970s."

Margaret Thatcher once said after her visit in 1977 that everything in China is "political" - something the Irish party certainly found to be true.

"There's always a propaganda element to it: 'let's get to it and make the country work' kind of thing."

Final port of call was Hong Kong and here they came back to earth with a bang.

"It was completely different. There were no Chinese musicians at all for The Chieftains concerts, which took place in the Royal Naval Club overlooking the harbour. It was one of the most picturesque venues for a concert I could ever imagine but as far as 'East meets West' it was nothing like that; it was 'West meets West'. The difference was so extreme. Anything that happened in China didn't relate to Hong Kong at all."

Looking back on the tour now with the album mixed and released (The Chieftains In China, no less), Masterson still retains the feeling of excitement generated by the whole experience.

"The thing we came to recognise as the tour progressed was that the similarities between the two musical cultures were greater than the differences; the more Chinese traditional music we heard the more it became obvious that the musics are, in fact, very very similar in lots of ways."

"The thing about traditional music is that it provides a key, a passport to go to different parts of the world with more than a tourist's point of view and actually try to get involved in the cultures and the background. I couldn't begin to tell you a tenth of the things that happened in China - conversations, the food..."

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Apr 1987



Feature by Janet Angus

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