What do you think is the worst music in the world? The worst genre? The genre that parades itself as music but, in your opinion, isn’t actually music – but noise?
My father called hip-hop the “travesty of music“. Heavy metal doesn’t rock his boat either.
I’d answer that the worst music in the world is Cantonese Opera. There, said it – online even. I’ve been saying it to myself for 18 years now – pretty much the entire duration I’ve lived in Canton / Guangzhou. My parents-in-law love it. I’ve endured it most mornings and feel that it’s time to share this genre with the world.
Music can grow on the listener. Familiarity often breeds approval. Your pal’s taste in jazz may become less irritating once you’ve become accustomed to the jarring, loose rhythmic instrumentation of a late-sixties Miles Davis album (think Bitches Brew). Country music is another grower with its warm melodies and folkish, working-class lyrics.
So, what does Cantonese Opera sound like? There are high pitched feminine squeals, cymbal crashes, wooden tapping, alien instrumentation, climaxes and lulls, artillery fire and lullabies. It’s hard to categorize something that is so very foreign to Western ears. Complicated time structures and banjo-like string instruments, heavy make-up and elaborate costumes, traditional roles, and characters and representations of history. When you consider the included acrobatics, martial arts, and complex footwork performed then one realises Cantonese Opera isn’t as simplistically raucous as it first appears.
One cannot say that it is an idiotic genre or music or that it is appreciated by idiots. The Chinese are an intelligent group of people. They wouldn’t settle for rubbish, surely.
Actors need to learn a range of skills to become well-rounded in this genre. Cantonese Opera was also used as a propaganda vehicle by leaders in earlier times. It was also used to tell audiences stories of good moral and ethical behaviour before formal education became widespread in China.
It is well beyond the scope of this humble blog to explain in detail the inner workings of Cantonese Opera. This really would be the blind leading the blind. There is a lot to explain and the truly interested could consult Google or Wikipedia to learn more. The Wikipedia entry bizarrely mentioned a rift between two famous Cantonese Opera performers. It involved cake.
Lifeinlifts.com is able, however, share some photos from the local Cantonese Opera Museum. Yes, there is a museum dedicated to this traditional Chinese art form. I’ve been here twice and remained as puzzled as ever by Cantonese Opera.
A New Zealand-based friend asked me about the popularity of Cantonese Opera. Who actually likes it? What age group? The over 50s seem to enjoy it though some primary aged students have taken up the artform in recent years. I’ve asked my students many times:
“Who here likes Cantonese Opera?”
The answer is always (yes always) a resounding “NO!”
The museum is actually very well presented, using a mix of open spaces, lighting, technology, and tradition (check out the garden at the entrance – wow!). Cantonese Opera is a royal pain the backside when played at 6am through a distorted transistor radio. Thank my mother-in-law for that. It’s also pretty bad on a Sunday night after a heavy weekend of teaching. That said, even I enjoyed a visit here.
I’ll leave you with an interesting video on display at the museum. It features a man, quite an esteemed actor apparently, playing the role of a villain (or wild boar – take your pick). So enjoyable it was – I watched it three times.
Thanks for your support!