Back in June 2022, That's spoke to longtime China-based musician Djang San about a project he was undertaking with the Dayan Naxi Orchestra of Lijiang. Through the French consulate in Chengdu, he was presented with a rare opportunity to collaborate and perform with one of China's oldest and most traditional musical outfits. He went on to carve out personal connections with the players, write and record some truly unique compositions and begin to understand the history of a group that has been through so much, but opened their creative doors to so few. Following the project, the 42-year-old has released a documentary about the process that gets to the very core of what he was trying to achieve.
"It's important to document a process like this," Djang tells That's. "It's historical and artistic testimony. This specific form of Naxi music is in danger of disappearing and the culture might also disappear completely in the future. If anybody researches anything about them, my documentary will serve as a testimony of a moment in time and proof of this culture's (existence)."
In our first chat (see link below) we mainly got to grips with the history of the Naxi orchestra and how Djang's creative processes were able to produce something that represents both styles in this ambitious performative combination. The Frenchman, who was born Jean-Sébastien Héry in Bordeaux, has a talent for traditional Chinese instruments pipa, guzheng and zhongruan and can speak fluent Mandarin. There aren't many people capable of undertaking a task such as this and in filming the inner workings, he's highlighted the importance of the group's historical preservation, not that it was his original intention.
"When I first arrived in Lijiang and then at the Dayan orchestra, it was difficult to communicate with the old musicians. Some of them were more than 80-years-old and speaking a mix of Mandarin, Lijiang and Naxi dialects," he explains.
"In order to create music for them and to understand where they were coming from, I decided to interview them one by one at their homes. The camera became an excuse to ask questions and gather information. At the beginning, my objective was more to find a way to understand them than to make a documentary. But after filming a few of them, I realized there were a lot of interesting things that could make a good film."
Those interesting aspects are there to be seen in the film which is entitled Ears Immersed and Eyes Dyed. The stories told serve as a heartwarming reminder that everyone's connection to music is meaningful, personal and in the case of the Naxi, cultural.
"In order to compose music for them I had to learn their music first. What I learnt was that there were specific ways of playing those instruments and I learned about how the instruments were made. Further than that was the challenge of working and writing for an orchestra that plays music which is hundreds of years old."
"Over the course of a few months we became friends, and it became easier to talk about everything musical and about things beyond music. I learned about the hardships of their youth, about their passion for music and discovered that Naxi culture was much deeper than I thought."
At one point we see an exchange with an elderly player who explains that in modern times women are now allowed in the orchestra. Naxi culture in the past saw only men play music, write literature, paint and even play chess. Although those steps to equality should be taken for granted in modern times, its candid conversations like this that make us understand Djang's curiosity and the orchestra's willingness towards collaboration.
Throughout we see members of the historical troupe give insights into their inspirations and aspirations along with demonstrations. To the layman, grasping the level of expertise needed to navigate the old instruments is difficult, but watching Djang strum along during jamming sessions with a wye smile gives us that purest sense of what collaborating is all about; no matter the angle you approach it from, there is a common ground that can be reached.
"After the collaboration I was able to make four albums out of everything I had recorded. The first album, Naxi-Live, is the recording of the final concert we did in June last year and it features all the compositions I did for the orchestra as well as some of the Naxi classics."
"The second, Naxi-Revisited, is a re-interpretation of Naxi classics using western instruments such as the oboe and the violin. It features Cornelius Finke and Ivanna Voroshyliuk, two excellent musicians who were playing with the Kunming Philharmonic Orchestra at that time."
What can't be understated is moments in the film with the whole orchestra. Djang has gone on to perform a mix of the created material live, and the shows have been well received. Towards the end of Ears Immersed and Eyes Dyed we can see why the project had the ability to evolve and be showcased to a wider audience. It all comes down to respect and trust.
China's long and diverse cultural history makes those who are tasked with maintaining it protective of its future, but in Djang's composition Lijiang Liushui (Lijiang's Water) there is an overwhelming sense of confidence between the two parties when it's played nearing the film’s conclusion. The piece has a traditional Naxi structure but is interspersed with hints of heavy rock and the French artist says growing the music into something more contemporary was always a goal.
"I've re-arranged the music to give it a modern feeling. The third album, Naxi-inspirations gathers different compositions and experimental tracks I've made when in Lijiang, it shows the process of some of the compositions I made for the orchestra too. The fourth album, Naxi-tronic, is an electronic album based on field recordings made in and around Lijiang as well as recordings of the singers in the orchestra."
As a seasoned performer on China's stages, pleasing an audience is not a daunting measure for Djang. For years he has taken his brand of traditional music on the road and made a name for himself with Mainland audiences. Whether his genre is something you like or not, perusing a profession that is firmly based outside one's comfort zone is admirable, as is the meaning of his film.
"The message (of the film) is, don't be afraid of doing things you haven't done before even if they seem impossible to achieve at the beginning. The whole purpose of living experiences like this is the process, don't be afraid to experience cultures unknown to you and embrace the idea of discovery and knowledge. Though I'm still in contact with the orchestra we haven't played again after this because of COVID and some other reasons, but we have kept in touch and might play again in the future. It felt quite strange to realize I'd made a film, I never thought I would do that in my life, but now I hope I do more."
Ears Immersed and Eyes Dyed (which is available on YouTube and most Chinese streaming platforms) is rough round the edges. It's fair to say the production quality doesn't match that of the music on display. But for a solo project undertaken by a first-time documentarian, it's a fantastic attempt at capturing the sights, sounds and stories of a culture that has a lot to tell. The men and women interviewed have devoted their lives to the Naxi culture, and all Djang is asking in return is to give them one hour and 47 minutes of your time.
[All images provided to That's]