Cai Yayi doesn’t like publicly performing her beloved music. Rather, Cai said, “I play with it and have fun with it”.
“It shouldn’t be deliberately shown on stage,” said Cai, 37.
Instead, Cai has held her nonprofit salon on Nanyin, an ancient music genre from East China’s Fujian province, every week since 2014 in Xiamen. Cai, who learned about Nanyin as a child from her mother, said it also represents an emotional attachment to her homeland.
Nanyin, which translates as “the music in the south”, was listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009 and remains the only entry from Xiamen on the list. Generally considered to date to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) or earlier, Nanyin was first brought to Xiamen by migrants from Central China.
Its lyrics are based on southern Fujian dialects, and its musical instruments and melodies almost remain as they were 1,000 years ago.
Born in Quanzhou, a city near Xiamen, Cai grew up hearing these ancient melodies. Now, she has become a promoter of its musical tradition.
Cai worked for years in Singapore for a charity organization to promote Nanyin.
“Though Singapore has a huge Chinese community, Nanyin still was popular only among a small circle of people there,” she said, explaining her return home.
“However, it used to be part of our everyday life. Other people deserve chances to enjoy our traditional culture, especially for young people.” Cai threw all her savings into the promotion of Nanyin and only made ends meet through money from small-scale concerts. She joked that getting immersed in Nanyin has kept her feeling young.
“Who can be older than this 1,000-year-old music? When playing it, you always feel like a child,” she said.
Traditional art forms do not necessarily help remove a person from modern life.
“Nanyin can be a social communication break for modern people – who are fed up with the fast-paced lifestyle – just like playing golf,” she said. “When you gain a slow mood and inner peace through the music, you can also get more friends sharing your values.”
Nevertheless, a wider horizon is needed to get traditional art revitalized, she said.
She recently expanded her nonprofit program to Fuzhou, capital of Fujian, and Shanghai, to nurture more amateur Nanyin learners.
“It doesn’t matter when people don’t understand the dialect,” Cai said. “Not every opera fan understands Italian, but people always admire something beautiful.”
According to Huang Tianfu, Xiamen’s municipal officer in charge of intangible cultural heritage protection, the city has held an annual competition on Nanyin since 1998, and the traditional music genre has been added into the curriculum of local elementary schools.
Cai also had an open mind mixing Nanyin with other music forms. For instance, some orchestras have cooperated with her to look for a combination of the two music genres spanning East and West.
In the upcoming performance during the BRICS Summit, the China National Symphony Orchestra will include Nanyin in its repertoire.
“The combination doesn’t have to simply put elements of Nanyin and typical Western music together,” Cai said, without disclosing what listeners will hear. “It will be great if a musician can compose a new orchestra, which is inspired by the experiences of hearing Nanyin.”