Dispatches From Xinjiang: Cultural Appropriation And The Singer Luo Lin, a.k.a. “Dao Lang”

I first heard of “Dao Lang” from an economics professor on the way to a fancy dinner at a four-star hotel on the northwest corner of the People’s Square in downtown Urumqi.1 We had been discussing taste in cars as we slowly careened across three lanes of traffic and walkers. The professor said she found the American Hummer to be the best car, and then turning, as though catalyzed by the brawn and force of a combination of army machine and Michigan muscle, she asked if I had ever heard of Dao Lang. She said he was the best Xinjiang singer.

Later during the dinner with an investment banker who commuted between Urumqi and Beijing, she brought him up again. The banker too attested to his fondness of Dao Lang’s musical stylings. He said that, after coming to Xinjiang, listening to Dao Lang just made sense. He liked his “flavor.”

As I mentioned last week, one of the reasons the recent red song “Harmonious Xinjiang” does not resonate with marginalized people is because it is seen as a direct derivation of Dao Lang’s 2009 song “One Family” (Yi Jia Ren), which was produced shortly after the major trauma in the summer of that year. While the tag-team performance of unity sung by a multiethnic ensemble of Mandarin-trained army opera stars in that video resonated strongly with Xinjiang’s Han population, it caused many Uyghur listeners to think only of the long duration of loss catalyzed by that horrific violence.

However, both repulsion and attraction to Dao Lang go deeper than this. In a two-part discussion of Dao Lang’s call and response from the Northwest, I will first describe his arrival in Xinjiang, his appropriation of local ways of life, and the way he speaks in the place of minorities. Next week, I will describe some of the reasons why he is immensely popular among Han settlers.

1.“Dao Lang,” whose given name is Luo Lin, was born in 1971 in a small town in Sichuan province to a “common family” (putong de jiating). He began playing music at a young age and, after dropping out of high school, began touring the country performing in nightclubs. In 1995 his life took a dramatic turn when he met his future wife while touring in Hainan. She persuaded him to follow her back to her hometown in Xinjiang. After working in music production teams in Urumqi for five years, Luo Lin produced his first album. Disappointed with the sales of the record, he traveled to Southern Xinjiang, where he found himself inspired by the cultural differences he encountered. According to Luo Lin’s BaiKe, what came out of this journey of discovery was more than 1,000 songs – many of which deal with Northwest themes such as the “Western Love Song” and “Silk Road Spirit.” Inspired by the musical traditions of the Dolan (Ch: Daolang) people – a name which is used by the Uyghur people living in the Mekit, Maralbeshi, and Yarken area on the rim of the Taklimakan desert who are famous for their ecstatic Sufi dance and singing traditions — Luo Lin renamed himself Dao Lang.

The life trajectory I have just described is analogous to that of a high school dropout from Missouri moving to Flagstaff, renaming himself Apache (or some other group of “noble savages”), and coming to be known as the King of the Southwest. Interestingly, in a 2004 interview, a CCTV host accused the Uyghur musician Erkin of stealing the name of his 2002 album “A Dolan from Out of the Desert” from Luo Lin. Erkin had to patiently explain to the host that “Dolan” is the name of a group of people and that his album, which features Dolan music from near his hometown in Kashgar, was released before Luo Lin emerged on the scene in 2004. Given this history of outside appropriation, what do long-term Xinjiang residents hear in his music?

2. In his first “Dao Lang” album titled “The First Snow of 2002” (2004), Luo Lin focused primarily on unrequited desires for exotic Uyghur and Kazakh beauties. Utilizing his distinctive hoarse voice, a Uyghur, Tibetan “Folk,” blues guitar instrumental fusion, and a precise deployment of the power ballad, Luo Lin announced himself a distinctive presence on the Xinjiang stage.2 Drawing on his experiences in Uyghur oasis cities, he delivered songs from the Uyghur position – describing the ideal minority subject for Chinese-speaking audiences. In his version of the Red Song “Salam Chairman Mao,” Luo Lin spoke from the position of Uncle Kurban, the Uyghur peasant who traveled to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong in the 1950s.

Kurban Tulum (or Uncle Kurban) was said to have planned to ride a donkey to Beijing to meet with Mao in order to thank him for the great life Mao gave him after liberation. But he ended up being transported on a train because of his love for Mao. Luo Lin seemed to be unaware that in the local Uyghur rendition of the folktale, Uncle Kurban is ridiculed as an opportunist and slovenly worker. Whenever his village head came to ask him to go to the commune to work along with other peasants, he would say he was busy preparing for a trip to Beijing to meet Chairman Mao – so that the village officials would leave him alone. Nevertheless, sighting an icon in the making, Kurban’s handshake with Mao has been turned into the huge statue that dominates Unity Square in downtown Hotan.

Luo Lin not only misinterpreted Uyghur imagery, but utilizing language skills which mark his authenticity as a cultural interpreter for minorities, he revitalized a 1950s classic in 2005 when he sang in pidgin Uyghur of the goodness of the army guarding the Chinese borderland, protecting locals from harm. The song, called Yakexi, is embedded above (Youku version below). The lyrics:

The Ili river’s tumbling currents,
Water the grasslands and villages.
The soldiers guarding the frontier from the banks of the river,
Interact with the people beaming with joy.
The soldiers guarding the frontier from the banks of the river,
Interact with the people beaming with joy.
Ya-ke, Ya-ke-xi-ye (Uy: yax, yaxshi-ye — En: goo, good-ye)
What is ya-ke-xi-ye?
The people’s way of life is ya-ke-xi-ye
Ya-ke, Ya-ke-xi-ye
What is good?
The people’s way of life is ya-ke-xi-ye
Having the beloved Communist Party,
In constructing the frontier region.
We all have the beloved frontier troops,
Safeguarding our happy way of life.
We all have the beloved frontier troops,
Safeguarding our happy way of life.

3. Not only does the early 2004-05 music from Luo Lin stand in for Uyghurs and misrecognize their perspective, but he also bastardizes their language and music. While we hear the Uyghur two-stringed dutar and seven-string rawap in many of his songs, his melodies and voice have very little resemblance to the music of his namesake, the Dolans.

In a 2005 interview where the Uyghur musician Erkin discussed the way he was accused of “misappropriating” Daolang’s name in his album title, Erkin said he would never use the name Dolan to refer to himself since it is something sacred which represents an ecstatic form of dance and spirituality. Luo Lin has in effect claimed ownership over a whole group of people, a sacred landscape and spiritual practice. As one Uyghur listener put it, “That bastard, Luo Lin, even caused a stir in the media by saying that he might take a legal action against anyone who used this name.” Paraphrasing Erkin’s comments to China Cultural Daily in 2012, “What would you think of an American who calls himself Jingju (Peking Opera) and does things completely unrelated to Jingju? Would you accept it?”

Yet, as I will discuss next week, for the vast majority of recent migrant-settlers in Xinjiang, Luo Lin’s shifting howl is exactly what they want to hear. His raw energy and catchy hooks seem to blare from the stereo of every long-distance transport truck, every shopping-mall elevator and cell phone ring tone in the development zones of Northwest China. Even dancing grannies in the park are doing the “Ya-ke, Ya-ke-xi ye.”

Read: Part 2 of this series on Luo Lin / Dao Lang

1 The epicenter of protest and, later, violence, in the trauma of the summer of 2009.

2 His image was supplemented dramatically by his inclusion on the soundtrack of Zhang Yimou’s international blockbuster House of Flying Daggers.

Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asiawhich attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.

|Dispatches from Xinjiang Archives|

11 Responses to “Dispatches From Xinjiang: Cultural Appropriation And The Singer Luo Lin, a.k.a. “Dao Lang””

  1. rageMeh

    I know very little of Xinjiang, but this was an insightful piece. It really speaks to the disconnect between the local peoples and migrant-settlers. I look forward to next week’s follow-up.

    Reply
  2. Bag-o-dripping-pussies

    The recent settlers seem to all be Sichuan scum, so no surprise this prize tit hails from that corner of the country. The strange thing is the settlers tend to be oddly unattractive for Sichuanese, but I guess every gene pool has a bottom.

    Reply
      • Bag-o-dripping-pussies

        I think you’ll find I weigh in at far more than ‘fifty cents’ you micro-cocked Chinaman!

        Also, just to clarify, I have no problem with Sichuanese – especially now they have shipped their undesirables off to Central Asia.

        Reply
          • RhZ

            Wow so fucking clever. Glad you are impressed by yourself. Still, the point that you are a tiny little human raging against those you don’t like is…pretty much confirmed. Enjoy the bile! You do deserve it, richly so. I am out.

          • Bag-o-dripping-pussies

            Let me guess.

            A white American female. A little chunky perhaps? The original pink heifer maybe?

            OMG! These wholemeal donuts taste so good!

    • Scribble

      Tibet’s the same. I always assumed it was a combination of the Sichuaners proximity and povity.

      As an aside, I thought this was a really good piece, the ridicule for the interviewees both suble and effective.

      Reply
  3. Jess

    What is this strange trend in Chinese music where the musical introduction to a song can actually sound pretty good, but once the vocals kick in, it completely slows down and becomes bland and almost non-musical? 一家人 is a perfect example of that.

    Reply
  4. pdriver

    What a condescending and self-righteous piece. When I saw the line “However, both repulsion and attraction to Dao Lang go deeper than this,” I was actually expecting something more insightful and subtle, other than the litany of usual suspects. The responses the article has gotten so far confirm trite preconceptions (sometimes smugly) rather than display a gain of new insights. That shows what this article is really about. Maybe the author is also offended by Mumford & Sons? Oh maybe not, since there’s no disfranchised, CCP-oppressed group involved in their musical appropriation. I’m no fan of Dao Lang, nor of the propaganda shit done to the minority groups, but Dao Lang’s popularity or not among a certain group of people should have more than a political side, as the author described it, to it. I should say, jealousy of his popularity is no small factor in the controversies. Anyway, I find the author’s opinion lacking.

    Reply

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