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Conversations with a loved one : poetry, melody and social change in Hani dialogue songs Wong, Gloria Ngar-Yan


The Hani reside in the Red River region located in China’s southwest province of Yunnan. This study centers on dialogue forms of their oldest extant song tradition—laba. These songs are orally transmitted and composed extemporaneously using melodic and textual formulae. The study begins with an introduction to existing scholarship on laba epics, which provides the basis for an overview of Hani history and religious beliefs. This is followed by a study of the interpretation and structuring of dialogue songs based on recordings made between 2002 and 2006. There are two main types of male-female dialogues: those performed between lovers and those performed between siblings. The varied historical and contemporary social contexts in which these songs are performed give rise to multiple interpretations of song texts and to variations in the structuring of a song’s thematic content. Laba dialogues constitute both a type of verbal art and a form of conversation in which asymmetrical kinship relationships are maintained. The approach to analyzing laba texts as dialogical sites of cultural production is influenced by theories in ethnomusicology, anthropology, folklore and literary studies. This study also examines the relationships between poetic and melodic structure. Since laba is sung in a speech-like manner, its melodic contours are closely tied to the phonological qualities of the text. This study examines how recurring formulae form the basis for variation in both poetry and melody. Parallelism forms the basis of poetic structure, while a recurring phrase contour is the basis of an indigenous concept of melody called teisa. The analysis of laba melody and discussions of an indigenous one-melody concept draws upon perspectives offered by Alan Thrasher and Antoinet Schimmelpenninck on similar regional musics. Finally, this study examines how new contexts of laba performance and reception represent a lens through which the social impact of urbanization and capitalism on Hani village communities can be understood.

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