Dali China urges you to forget about category for a moment, and just listen.
While it seems to invoke the surrealist painter, the title of Dali China has a more prosaic origin. The album is named for the city of Dali in the Yunnan province of Southwestern China. Yet the colorful, swirling cover art with its psychedelic flower print suggests a vivid poetry, and the inadvertent namesake is an apt fit for a collaboration that bends culture and tradition into something vital, living and respectful.
The participating artists come from wildly different backgrounds. Ethnologist-musician Laurent Jeanneau, who goes by Kink Gong, is a French citizen living in Berlin and has released field recordings of Southeast Asian music like the Akuphone two-fer Music of Southern Laos/Music of Northern Laos. Li Daiguo was born in Oklahoma to Chinese and Taiwanese parents, and grew up listening to Western classical music and bluegrass. Since 2004 he has been living in mainland China, where he has become a staple of an avant-garde music scene. His 2017 release Li Shurui is a showcase for solo pipa, a four-stringed instrument used to create a mesmerizing sound that’s both forward-looking and accessible. What might the byproduct of these two experimentalists possibly sound like?
Opener “Cello Zheng Pacoh” starts things off with Daiguo’s steady drone and plucked strings before Gong adds voices taken from field recordings made in Yunnan province. While Jeanneau’s Laos project released music as-recorded, his imprint is much more evident here as he adds sonic layers to Daiguo’s already challenging music. The prickly “Modul Pipa Viola” relies solely on Daiguo’s strings for its anxious mood, shifting from a flurry of rapid notes to a more patient drone, while “Lacan Pipa” adds the voice of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to Daiguo’s playing. The lecture is untranslated, but it adds a gravitas and a gravelly timbre to the delicate strings.
If you’ll forgive the Eurocentric comparison, some of this comes off a little like Derek Bailey in its spare, dry string timbres. The shifts from field recordings to avant-folk can seem like a less abrupt version of John Zorn’s Cobra game pieces, Gong more gently careening from source to source. Akuphone compares the project to Jon Hassell, but it doesn’t exactly sound like anything else, its textures all its own. “Pipa Jingpaw” features, over the layered sounds of the pipa, haunting female voices taken from Jeanneau’s field recordings of ethnic minorities in Southern China. You can listen to the unaltered recording for comparison here, and you may well prefer them to what the duo has done on this track.
Jeanneau, who has made extensive visits to China for nearly 30 years, met Daiguo at a music venue in Chengdu and later became neighbors in a village near Dali. Daiguo basic tracks were recorded in 2011, while Gong “recomposed” between 2011-2018. Yet despite that wide timeframe, Dali China coheres, and that’s likely due to the individual artist’s focus.
If you’re worried this smells like cultural appropriation, Jeanneau explained to The Attic in 2018 that, “I would never pretend that my so-called remix, recomposed work, or my re-appropriated thing, is better than the original. I encourage you to compare.” Dali China urges you to forget about category for a moment, and just listen. It works a subtle trance, but its most significant accomplishment may occur after you’ve finished listening, having opened up your ears enough to the possibilities of sound that even the rattling of a keyboard and the steady footsteps clicking on a marble floor may suddenly be imbued with musical import.