Howard's Blog

A Maio Messiah!

  • April 30, 2012

The experiences of yesterday are indelibly etched in my memory. Our journey into the mountains north of Kunming to visit a Miao village was an excursion we had anticipated for a long time, and so I must tell you all about it.

For this account, permit me to give you some background. Of China’s 1.3 billion people, roughly 92% belong to the Han ethnic group. The remaining 8% consist of 55 much smaller minorities, many of whom live in southern China, especially Yunnan province. The Miao, who can trace their history back to approximately 1600 BC, number about 9.6 million (that’s considered small in China). Most of them lead an agrarian life in the mountainous regions of southern China.

I have to tell you about our first encounter with these delightful, if desperately poor people. In 1999 I was invited to conduct the Kunming Symphony Orchestra in several concerts as part of the International Festival of the Arts. In compiling a rather lengthy list of repertoire which we might perform at the festival, I, in what was almost a tongue-in-cheek gesture, included Handel’s Messiah, assuming that it wouldn’t even be considered. Well, the orchestra thought this was a capital idea, considering that up to then there had been only 1 previous performance of Messiah in the history of the People’s Republic of China (and that had been in Beijing, a 3+ hr. flight from Kunming). The orchestra had heard of this iconic work, but had never actually played it. Of course there was one big problem, namely the absence of any Chinese choir that could sing it. So Maggie and I set about organizing a 30 voice choir of top-notch Canadian singers, as well as several soloists, and off we went to Kunming. During the months leading up to that altogether remarkable festival, we became aware of the fact that in the mountains not far from Kunming, there lived a tribe of people (Miao) who had been taught extensive excerpts from Handel’s Messiah by visiting English missionaries (likely Methodist or Wesleyan) during the mid 19th century. They continue to sing these choruses and many other Christian hymns in 4 part harmony to this very day. Well, word evidently reached them that a choir from Canada was going to be performing the entire oratorio in Kunming, and so a delegation (15-20) made the arduous journey during the rainy season (first on foot, then by water buffalo drawn cart, and finally bus…6 hours in all) to Kunming to attend the dress rehearsal (the performance had been sold out for weeks). During the course of the rehearsal I could see them off to one side of the concert hall, utterly spellbound by this glorious music. Remember they had never before heard a symphony orchestra. When we got to the Hallelujah Chorus, I stopped the rehearsal and invited them to come up on stage and take their places among my Canadian singers and we sang together. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room! The television crew covering the festival were flabbergasted that these people, living as they do on the margins of Chinese society, could bond so easily with a choir from halfway around the world. Our musical encounter with them resulted in a post-festival mini-documentary which was featured on China’s national TV network.

All that is a prequel to what happensd yesterday. During the past six years, Qiyu Liao (her English name is Lillian – she teaches voice at Yunnan Arts University and has been largely responsible for organizing the La Traviata project which I’ve raved about in these pages on several occasions) has been traveling to this particular village to rehearse with the Miao choir, about 35 singers, mixed voices. She will stay with them for anywhere from 2 to 10 days at a time. Last summer, for example, she spent 20 days with the villagers, teaching them Psalm 42 (As pants the hart) by Mendelssohn. At her own expense, she had 2 upright pianos delivered to the village so interested individuals would have an instrument on which to practice. Early on during our current Kunming sojourn, she asked whether we’d like to visit the village. Well, obviously we jumped at the chance, little anticipating just how incredible this was going to be.

The drive itself was fascinating. We headed north into the mountains, climbing more or less steadily for 2 hours. The road was in good repair, however becoming ever narrower as we ascended. Finally we turned onto a very narrow, bumpy, dusty trail which took us the final km or so into the Miao village. The first sight that greeted us was the church, the newest structure in the village. Built about 10 years ago, it’s the successor to the first church constructed in 1904.

Church in the Miao village

As we approached, we saw this wonderful inter-generational group of greeters…

Ancient costumes - contemporary popsicles!

Two young parishioners


The sanctuary itself is perpetually adorned for Christmas.

Miao church before everyone had arrived

All dressed up for church!


The church was filled almost to capacity, even though a number of people were out harvesting and couldn’t be there. The moment of truth came when the choir members took their places and began to sing!

Miao village choir

There is a piano in the sanctuary, but the choir’s accompanist prefers the piano accordion.

Piano accordionist accompanying Messiah excerpts!

They began with “And the Glory of the Lord” from Messiah. You will recall there are some accidentals in Handel’s score. This choir made short shrift of them. Why bother with a G# when a G natural will do just fine? In this time and place, I thought it to be compellingly authentic. I think Handel would have loved it! Soon I was invited to guest conduct and of course it had to be the Hallelujah Chorus! My oh my oh my, we had that place rocking!

Handel's Messiah in a Miao village in the mountains of China. Notice the honorary choir members Maggie and Mike.

Some day I want you to see the video I shot of their singing. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever heard….strong, vibrant, heart-felt. I was deeply moved! They work in their pathetic little plots of land all day, and in the evening, they gather to sing! And they do this 4 0r 5 times a week. The catholicity of their repertoire is breath-taking…Handel, Mendelssohn, all kinds of hymns (‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ seemed to be a favourite). Lillian, whose musical inspiration seems to emanate from the opera world, told me the other day that she is now beginning to teach them something by Bellini. I wracked my brain trying to think of something choral by this 19th century Italian bel canto master, only to be told that the gem in question was “Casta Diva” from Norma! And make no mistake, they will put religious lyrics to the tune, and sing it in church. As Luther said, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?”

Following this most inspiring musical service, we were given a tour of the village itself, which is carved out of the steep mountainside.

Maggie and our village tour guide

Earthen huts. Don't even think about an earthquake! Notice the satellite dish!

The poverty these people have to endure is almost too much to bear. They live in the most appalling mud huts.

This is a bedroom!

Villagers enjoying a late Sunday morning

The filth is overpowering. Yesterday everything was covered in dust, because of the severe drought that has gripped all of Yunnan province for the past 3 years…I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like when it rains…an admixture of mud and manure that would daunt even the most intrepid adventurer.

The goats are everywhere…very cute!

The village barber at work

If there is one impression of this altogether unforgettable day, it is the indomitable high spirits of the people. They are happy, the children are content and obviously loved, there is a palpable sense of serenity here. We are told that the average annual income of these people  is 600 RMB, equivalent to $100 Cdn. And yet they continue to sing!

Then came lunch! Perhaps it would have been better for the tour to have come after lunch, because after seeing the horrific living conditions of the people, my appetite had pretty much disappeared. But our hosts had gone to great pains to prepare an elaborate feast. I peeked inside the kitchen, and promptly wished I hadn’t!

Be careful which kitchen you choose to inspect!

Our hosts had spared no effort on our behalf! There was corn, deep fried potatoes (you always go for those because they’re likely safe to eat!), cabbage, pig fat (you’ll notice I didn’t say bacon), lots of cooked rice, and a chicken soup which included every tiny anatomical detail of said fowl, right down to the beak, the black feet complete with claws, and organs I didn’t know even existed in chickens. One hopes everything had been cooked for a very long time, because at these altitudes (2300 metres above sea level), water boils at a much lower temperature! However, we gathered our gastronomic courage, wielded our well-worn chopsticks, and set to! The green tea which washed it all down was a welcome elixir!

A Miao feast for visitors from Canada!

Our two charming waitresses

…and our two beaming waiters

The minister, who offered an eloquent, lengthy two-part table grace

These critters strolled by to pick up any morsels that might have fallen off the table

Lunch having been completed, we thanked our guests, visited the WC (I won’t even go there!), and piled into our car for the 2 hour drive back to beautiful, urbane, sophisticated Kunming! Yes indeed, everything is relative! The bougainvillea is in full bloom and seemed especially radiant as we entered the city that has become our home.

Kunming is ablaze with these right now!

As always, we climbed the 80 stairs to our apartment and collapsed, exhausted (both physically and emotionally), overcome by the contrasts we had just witnessed, grateful for the experience but also for the material benefits we all too often take for granted. We turned off the lights and were fast asleep before the room was dark!

This morning we put our dear friend Michael into a taxi, headed for the airport. He’s somewhere over the Pacific as I write these lines. Now it’s back to work for an extended period of time. Three weeks from today I begin rehearsals with the Kunming Symphony Orchestra in preparation for the May 25 concert. The Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Dvorak New World Symphony (both of which I studied last winter) are the main works. Canadian composer Chan Ka Nin’s brand new work “East Meets West” has arrived, thanks to the  internet, and I’m settling in for some serious score study. Oh yes, there’s the university too…almost forgot. That’s actually why I’m here, isn’t it? Mercifully, we have a few holidays right now (May 1 is HUGE in China…everyone gets 3 days off), so I have a chance to really get my feet wet with Ka Nin’s splendid score.

Our heads are swimming with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that define this overwhelmingly exotic part of the planet. Each day seems like a week, with its usual toll of sensory overload. Each day is an adventure to be savoured, weighed, sifted, remembered!  As the stereotypical postcard (remember postcards?) put it, “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.”

Love and Peace!













1 Comment on A Maio Messiah!

  • operajoseph says:
    April 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Dear Howard,

    Thank you so much for the wonderful account of your trip to the Miao people. I found myself deeply moved by their story. When we say “music is the universal language” – it really rings true in a situation like this. I’ll bet this experience will stay with you for the rest of your life. I envy you! I hope we’ll get to hear them singing Hallelujah in the future! All best,


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