Cultural Imperatives

02/20/2017 01:07 pm ET

Just as a string of DNA can help to identify the various physical characteristics which define a person, a series of cultural identifiers help to describe where a person came from, how they grew up, and how they will interact with others.

One would be quick to include music, costumes, and art among such cultural identifiers. But with the increased impact of globalization, assimilating one society's cultural markers into the larger global populace can lead to a diminution in what makes one culture different from another. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the vanishing languages of indigenous peoples.

  • In 1896, English was made the language of instruction in all of Hawaii's public and private schools. Within five years, native children were being punished for speaking their native language at school. By 1997, the number of native-born Hawaiians who spoke Hawaiian had dropped to approximately 1,000 people. However, in recent decades, there has been a strong push for native-born Hawaiians to enroll their children in immersion schools which teach both English and Hawaiian.
  • During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Native American children were sent to government-run boarding schools that separated them from their families and subjected them to severe punishment for speaking their tribal language. Although Albert White Hat only spoke Lakota as a child, as an adult he became a fierce activist for preserving his tribal language and traditions. After publishing a Lakota textbook and glossary, he died in 2013.

As is so often the case, the Internet has been a blessing and a curse when it comes to preserving fading cultures. Lauren Young recently published a fascinating article on the Atlas Obscura website entitled Remembering Nüshu, the 19th-Century Chinese Script Only Women Could Write. These two clips help explain what is necessary to keep a language alive and what happens when the last known speaker of an indigenous language dies.

Few success stories in cultural restoration can match the work of Aaron Lansky, who wrote about his efforts to preserve Yiddish literature. First published in 2004, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books ended on a note of previously unimaginable hope. A new technology (digital scanning) made it possible for Lansky and his colleagues to start republishing many Yiddish books that had been destroyed by the Nazis in the 1940s. Today, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, is "a nonprofit organization that works to tell the whole Jewish story by rescuing, translating, and disseminating Yiddish books and presenting innovative educational programs that broaden understanding of modern Jewish identity."

In recent decades there has been a growing trend among documentary filmmakers to capture and preserve certain aspects of the arts (dance, visual art, song, opera, etc.) on film. According to Wikipedia:

"Music from around the world exerts wide cross-cultural influence as styles naturally influence one another. In recent years world music has also been marketed as a successful genre in itself. Academic study of world music (as well as the musical genres and individual artists associated with it) appears in such disciplines as anthropology, folkloristics, performance studies, and ethnomusicology. The term was popularized in the 1980s as a marketing category for non-Western traditional music. World music may incorporate distinctive non-Western scales, modes and/or musical inflections, and often features distinctive traditional ethnic instruments, such as the kora (West African harp), the steel drum, the sitar, or the didgeridoo."

This year's CAAMFest includes two music documentaries of particular interest. Both examine the impact a particular song or style of singing has had on its culture. One shows an art form struggling to stay alive while the other tells the story of how a hit song was created and rose in popularity to help a native population reclaim its place in its country's history and ethnic heritage.

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Tearepa Kahi's delightful documentary, Poi E: The Story of Our Song, examines the career of New Zealand native Dalvanius Prime and the impact one of his songs had on restoring Māori culture to its rightful place in New Zealand's history. What makes Prime's story so interesting is that, during the early stages of his career, he displayed no particular interest in his Māori heritage.

Born on January 16, 1948, Prime (the sixth of 11 children) had a bloodline that traveled back to such Māori iwis (tribal confederations) as the Pakakohi, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Ngapuhi, Tainui, Ngai Tahu, Ngati Ruanui, and Nga Rauru. After moving to Wellington, he joined forces with the three Māori women from Porirua who comprised the singing trio known as The Shevelles (originally known as The Gaynotes).

A musician with an international R&B career, Prime performed at the October 20, 1973 opening of the Sydney Opera House and spent much of the 1970s on the Australian and South-East Asian nightclub circuit. In the early 1980s, when he returned to Patea, Taranaki to nurse his ailing mother, Prime became acutely aware of his inadequacy in Te Reo Māori when he was unable to understand his mother’s dying words. That event is often cited as the motivating factor which pushed Prime toward wanting young Māori to learn Te Reo through music that they could relate to.

Dalvanius Prime with members of the original Patea Māori Club
Dalvanius Prime with members of the original Patea Māori Club

In 1983, Prime formed his own production company (Maui Records) and became more deeply involved with Māori music. He co-composed Poi E with Māori language composer Ngoi Pēwhairangi and persuaded his family, the Patea Māori Club, to perform the song. In 1984, after Prime recorded Poi E with the Patea Māori Club, the album sold extremely well in New Zealand (attaining platinum certification). The rest, as they say, is history.

Ngoi Pēwhairangi with Dalvanius Prime
Ngoi Pēwhairangi with Dalvanius Prime

Not only did the group perform Poi E around in the world, in 1985 they were invited to sing it at a Royal Gala for Queen Elizabeth II. Following the 1982 closure of the local meat processing factory (the employer of the majority of Māoris living in Prime's home town of Patea), Poi E was often credited with helping to boost the morale of locals facing an economic crisis.

Cover art by Maui Records for the album of <strong><em>Poi E</em></strong>
Cover art by Maui Records for the album of Poi E

A blend of 1980s pop music, traditional Māori waiata, and bop dancing, Poi E reached first place on New Zealand’s pop music charts and remained in the lead for 34 weeks, outselling such megahits as "Thriller" and "I Just Called to Say I Love You." Not only was it the first "Number One song' written and released entirely in Te Reo Māori, in the decades since its release, Poi E has often placed in New Zealand’s Top 10 and been hailed as the nation’s unofficial national anthem. As the documentary's director, Tearepa Kahi, explains:

“This story is about a person who is going through a huge identity shift, dealing with the passing of his mother and adjusting to returning home from the bright lights overseas. And it’s these people who are suffering economically and wondering what’s the next step because the job that their families have done for the last 40 years is over. If these people had been any different, if Dalvanius had gone with another kapa haka group, this song wouldn’t be the same. If these lyrics didn’t come from Ngoi Pēwhairangi from Tokomaru Bay, this song wouldn’t be the same. So for me, it’s been getting to understand each of these places and all of the people involved that gives this song its place.”
Poster art for <em><strong>Poi E: The Story of Our Song</strong></em>
Poster art for Poi E: The Story of Our Song
“The song Poi E is significant because it was the first pop song that used a drum machine, spacey noises, sound effects, and put Te Reo Māori to that music. It was the first time you saw modern and traditional come together. When that fusion happened, a huge feeling just leaped across the country. That song represents a really important time marker for when Māori and Pākehā started doing the bop together. This song wasn’t manufactured like a lot of today’s music is. It actually came from a real place and from real people. It’s not just a story about a chart-topper, the first Te Reo Māori song that hit number one. It’s actually a story about what happened when all those people came together to create some magic.”
A scene from <strong><em>Poi E: The Story of Our Song</em></strong>
A scene from Poi E: The Story of Our Song

Kahi's documentary includes lots of archival footage of Dalvanius Prime during his childhood and early career days as well as a recreation of the 1984 video that was recorded with bop dancer Joe Moana (reputedly the only man in New Zealand at the time who could perform Michael Jackson's popular moonwalk). As the filmmaker recalls,

“I grew up in Papanui in Christchurch, where there wasn't a huge Māori presence. When I used to visit the whānau in Pukekohe, that's where I felt strong and confident, but in Christchurch it was a different feeling altogether. I must have been seven years old when Poi E came out. I saw this young boy dressed in his maro, standing with his whānau doing those actions and he looked so awesome! I felt like I saw myself. And then, as the video clip played on, I saw who I wanted to be: Joe Moana on top of the waka doing the bop. In this one video clip, I saw myself as I was and I saw who I wanted to be."
A scene from <strong><em>Poi E: The Story of Our Song</em></strong>
A scene from Poi E: The Story of Our Song

For much of the film it's difficult to cut through the thick New Zealand accent in order to understand what is actually being said. In the long run, however, that's not a major obstacle. From home movies to television footage of the excitement surrounding the song's success, the demonstrations of revived pride in Māori culture are intoxicating to watch. Here's the trailer:

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In his documentary entitled My Next Step, Cheuk Cheung digs further into his exploration of how traditional Chinese opera impacts modern society. Unlike his first documentary (My Way), which focused on male performers who portray female characters (Dan) in Cantonese opera, this new documentary looks at a different segment of male performers: the wusheng in Kunqu opera who specialize in martial characters.

Kunqu (which evolved from Kunshan melody) is one of the oldest continuing forms of Chinese opera. Having dominated Chinese theatre from the 16th to 18th centuries, it even survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution (classic Chinese plays such as The Peony Pavilion and The Peach Blossom Fan were originally written for the Kunqu stage).

A scene from the Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre's production of <strong><em>The Peony Pavilion</em></strong>
A scene from the Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre's production of The Peony Pavilion

With singing techniques supposedly developed during the Ming Dynasty and passed down from generation to generation, Kunqu has been listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 2001.

Commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, My Next Step focuses on the limited performance opportunities facing today's Kunqu performers, many of whom can't afford to stick around in the hopes of building a career or devoting their time to keeping the art form alive. Some leave for family and economic reasons; others simply give up trying.

Yang Yang's family sits down to dinner in a scene from <em><strong>My Next Step</strong></em>
Yang Yang's family sits down to dinner in a scene from My Next Step

The film's protagonist is Yang Yang, a wusheng performer on the verge of calling it quits and seeking more lucrative employment. Although his parents don't charge him rent (and are more than happy to feed him), he sees a limited future for himself in Kunqu.

A wusheng performer in costume for Kunqu opera
A wusheng performer in costume for Kunqu opera

Filled with rehearsal and performance footage, the documentary offers an intimate look into the world of Kunqu and the challenges facing a young man struggling to find a place for himself in a fading art form. Even when a revered veteran Kunqu performer offers to mentor him in the lead classic roles, Yang Yang asks for time to consider the offer.

Yang Yang gets coached by his mentor in a scene from <strong><em>My Next Step</em></strong>
Yang Yang gets coached by his mentor in a scene from My Next Step

Rather than a traditional documentary about a rising star hoping for a big break at a vocal competition, My Next Step focuses on what happens in the long periods between performance opportunities. As Yang Yang struggles to find a way to move from being a performer who is perpetually on call to redefining himself as a creative artist who can direct his own productions and manage a theatrical company, the viewer watches Yang Yang and his colleagues rehearsing in bulky winter clothing in order to keep warm.

Yang Yang and a friend rehearse in a scene from <strong><em>My Next Step</em></strong>
Yang Yang and a friend rehearse in a scene from My Next Step

As always, the costumes and makeup used in Chinese opera are fascinating to see up close. However, the opportunity to witness Yang Yang's rehearsal process on a new, modern interpretation of one of the classic plays helps viewers get a better understanding of the preparation required to succeed in Chinese opera. Many will be surprised at the sheer athleticism and stamina required by wusheng artists, as well as the nuance which must be applied to their interpretations.

Poster art for <strong><em>My Next Step</em></strong>
Poster art for My Next Step

What I love about this documentary is the way it takes the viewer into not just performance mode, but so many other facets of backstage life. From scenes in dressing rooms and during tech rehearsals to those facing out from the stage into a near-empty auditorium as Yang Yang works on mounting his new, modern dress production, My Next Step offers a sobering view of what it takes to transform the basic tools of theatre into theatrical magic.

Yang Yang rehearses in a scene from <strong><em>My Next Step</em></strong>
Yang Yang rehearses in a scene from My Next Step

If you're looking for a typical behind-the-scenes story filled with temper tantrums, professional rivalries, and emotional meltdowns, this film is not for you. It's difficult to keep pace with My Next Step's surtitles and (unless you're fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese) you'll find yourself facing a formidable language barrier. If, on the other hand, you want to learn how artists struggle with the challenges of keeping an ancient art form alive while worrying if they still have a professional career ahead of them, you'll find this film extremely poignant and consistently arresting. Theatre nerds will love it!

Poster art for <strong><em>My Next Step</em></strong>
Poster art for My Next Step
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