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Music Exhibition - Splendid Kam Songs

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Author: Dr. Mu Qian (PhD in Ethnomusicology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK)


Image After watching the above trailer, you are welcome to explore more about Kam songs through the illustrations and text below!




The Kam people (or known as Dong people in China) are good at singing. As early as the Song dynasty (~ 960 - 1279), Lu You wrote in his Lao Xue’an Biji (Notes from the Place of Old Learning) that the Geling people (the autonym of the ancestors of the Kam people) “would sing in groups of one or two hundreds during free time, hand in hand”. The music culture of the Kam people has a unique status in China and even abroad, especially after the Grand Song of the Kam people became known by the world in the 1950s, changing the traditional perceptions about no polyphonic music in China. In 2009, the Grand Song was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity under the title of “Grand Song of the Dong Ethnic Group”.

The Kam People

Population and Language

The Kam people are the twelfth largest ethnic group in China, living mainly in the border areas of Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi provinces, with a population of about 3.5 million (2021 census). A small number of Kam people live in Vietnam and Laos.

The Kam language belongs to the Kam-Sui branch of the Kra-Dai language under the Sino-Tibetan language family, and is divided into two major dialects: northern Kam and southern Kam. The Kam language is cognate with the languages of the Zhuang and Dai (Thai) people in China and Southeast Asian countries. The most famous musical form of the Kam people, the Grand Song, comes from the southern Kam dialect area, especially the Liping, Congjiang and Rongjiang counties in the Qiandongnan Autonomous Prefecture of Guizhou Province. Due to the mountainous terrain and the inconvenience of transportation in the past, there was little communication between the Kam people and the outside world. Many traditional cultures have thus been preserved.

Scenery of a Kam village
[Image 1]

Scenery of a Kam village

Architecture and Music
Kam-style architectures have distinctive traditional features as well as a close connection with music.
1. Drum tower
Drum tower is a landmark of every Kam village. Combining the architecture of pagoda and pavilion, it is the most important public space in a Kam village. The Kam people not only meet to discuss public affairs in the drum tower, but also sing there.
2. Wind-and-rain bridge
In the Kam region, there are many rivers and abundant rainfall. Many roofed-bridges called “wind-and-rain bridges” have been built to provide shelter for people. Such bridges at the borders of a Kam village are the places where villagers sing “way-blocking songs” as a courtesy to outsiders who are required to sing in return before entering the village.
3. Theatre stage
Every Kam village has a theatre stage for performances of Kam opera during festivals. Music is an essential element of such performances.

Drum tower (left), wind-and-rain bridge (top right), theatre stage (bottom right)
[Image 2]
Drum tower (left), wind-and-rain bridge (top right), theatre stage (bottom right)

Beliefs and Festivals
The Kam people are polytheistic and worship their ancestors, especially the female ancestor Sax. Also called Sax Siip or Sax Mags, Sax is the ancestral grandmother in Kam mythology who oversees life and death and eliminates disasters.

Every New Year Festival, all villagers gather together to pray for the blessing of Sax in the coming year through men’s lenc playing as well as women’s singing and dancing. In the south Kam region, lenc music and dance are an essential part of the Sax-worshipping events. As the leader of the ritual procession, members of the lenc ensemble play music and dance to set the atmosphere for the Sax-worshipping ceremony.
A close-up of Playing the Qin Under the Trees
[Image 3]
Different sizes of lenc

[Video 1]
Lenc Ensemble and Dance
This video features a lenc tutti rehearsal by a group of Kam villagers. The lenc is a mouth organ made up of several bamboo pipes and produces sound through the vibration of reeds. The pipes of dangc dih (bass lenc) are particularly thick and long such that the instrument has to be placed on the ground when played. Lenc players often incorporate dance movements into their performances, and other villagers like to join them and dance to the music.
The Kam people have many festivals, such as the Firecracker Festival (the 3rd day of the third lunar month), Young Women’s Day (the 8th day of the fourth lunar month), New Rice Tasting Festival, Spring Festival, and more. Music is essential for all kinds of festive events. It accompanies the Kam people in their different stages of life, and is passed on from generation to generation.

Grand Songs

The Grand Song (kgal laox) is a traditional polyphonic choral form of the Kam people, usually sung without accompaniment (though sometimes accompanied by a lute) and conductor. Most Grand Songs are sung in two parts. The intervals between the two are most often a major third or minor third, and occasionally a perfect fourth, perfect fifth and major second. Featuring a heterophonic texture, different voices perform the same melodic line at the same time, but may include different variations.

Grand Songs can be classified into different genres according to style, melody, content, etc. Below are some common genres:
1. Drum Tower Grand Song (kgal deeng louc)
  • The most basic genre of the Grand Song. A Drum Tower Grand Song is usually named after the place where it originated.
  • The same song will be sung differently in different villages in terms of melody and accent. There are also subtle differences in interpretation among the choirs of different drum towers within a large village.
  • Drum Tower Grand Songs are mostly sung in drum towers during festivals and free time of farmers. Songs are exchanged, in a solemn manner, between a female choir and a visiting male choir from another village. The choir members sit in a circle on different sides around a fire and take turns to sing. Exchanging songs in a drum tower is also an important social occasion for young people. Female singers would dress in beautiful costumes and wear silver ornaments.
  • The lyrics are usually about love, legends, rituals, etc. Drum Tower Grand Songs can be categorised into short-phrase songs and long-phrase songs. Long-phrase songs often have dozens or even more than a hundred stanzas, lasting from a few dozen minutes to over an hour.
Young Kam men and women exchanging songs in a drum tower
[Image 4]
Young Kam men and women exchanging songs in a drum tower

[Video 2]
Exchanging Songs in a Drum Tower
The video shows a scene of Grand Song exchange in a drum tower during the Spring Festival. The Kam people have been participating in song exchanges since a young age. Different songs are mastered through continuous practice. During a song exchange, male and female singers sing back and forth as if they were having a dialogue. Great importance is attached to choosing the right songs to respond to each other.
2. Onomatopoeic Grand Song (kgal soh)
  • Higher musicality than Drum Tower Grand Song in a virtuosic sense.
  • Compared with Drum Tower Grand Song, Onomatopoeic Grand Song is shorter in terms of length with only three to five stanzas in general. After each stanza, there is usually a long melismatic line.
  • The sounds of nature such as the chirping of cicadas are often imitated in the melismatic line. The lower part usually sings a drone to support the melody of the upper part.
Female Kam singers performing an Onomatopoeic Grand Song
[Image 5]
Female Kam singers performing an Onomatopoeic Grand Song

[Video 3]
Onomatopoeic Grand Song
The video contains excerpts from two famous Onomatopoeic Grand Songs. The first song, During Daytime, I Go up the Mountain, is about a young Kam woman who hears cicadas chirping on the mountain and sadly thinks of her old lover. The second song, Cuckoos Calling for the Spring, depicts farmers busy planting rice seedlings in the fields, with cuckoos chirping everywhere in early spring. The two songs vividly imitate the sounds of cicadas and cuckoos respectively.
3. Children’s Grand Song (kgal lagx nguns)
  • Sung by children’s choirs.
  • Relatively simple and short with lively and imaginative contents, Children’s Grand Songs are mostly used for imparting knowledge and playing games.
A girls’ choir performing a Children’s Grand Song
[Image 6]
A girls’ choir performing a Children’s Grand Song
4. Mixed Grand Song (kgal laox)
  • A new genre performed by a mixed choir was developed after the 1950s to meet the requirements of staged performances.
A modern staged performance of Grand Song
[Image 7]
A modern staged performance of Grand Song
Opera Grand Song and Narrative Grand Song (kgal jibl and kgal jenh) are also genres of the Grand Songs. The former is often sung in scenes with many actors or at the end of a Kam Opera performance, while the latter is usually about myths, legends and historical stories, with a strong educational function.

Other Forms of Kam Songs

In addition to the Grand Song, there are many other forms of Kam songs. Although they are not as complex as the Grand Song, they also have ethnic characteristics and closely related to the life of the Kam people.


1. Bic Bac Song (kgal bic bac)
  • Named after the accompanying instrument, the bic bac. Unlike the Chinese Han pipa, the bic bac comes into three different sizes (large, medium and small) and its number of strings varies from three to five. Bic Bac Songs are mainly accompanied by the medium or small bic bac.
  • The song is mainly about love. In the Kam region, young men from the same clan often go to other villages, at night, with their musical instruments and sing with young women from other clans. This social activity is called nyaoh wungh (meaning “ballad singing under the moon”) in which Bic Bac Songs are sung most. At the beginning of this activity, both parties sing some solo songs to show modesty. Then they exchange songs about astronomy, geography, history, famous people, and so on to acquire a better understanding of each other’s characters and hobbies. Congenial couples will leave quietly and go somewhere to begin an affectionate dialogue.
  • Traditionally, during nyaoh wungh, women do needlework while men play the bic bac. In the Kam region, those men who are not good at playing the bic bac would often encounter difficulty in finding a partner.
  A medium bic bac
[Image 8]
A medium bic bac

[Video 4]
Bic Bac and Singing
The video features three different sizes of bic bac. The medium bic bac, usually with five strings, is suitable for expressing feelings of love or longing; the small bic bac, with three strings, has high and bright tones, and is mainly used for accompanying Bic Bac Songs from Hongzhou Village of Guizhou Province sung in falsetto by both male and female singers; the large bic bac, with four strings and a darker and more full-bodied timbre, is particularly suitable for accompanying narrative songs.


2. Kgoh Kgis Song (kgal kgoh kgis)
  • Named after the accompanying instrument, the kgoh kgis (ox-leg fiddle). The kgoh kgis is a bowed, two-stringed instrument, and is named because of its shape.
  • The songs are slow and soft. Love is not the only theme of the content, but also narrative.
  The kgoh kgis
[Image 9]
Kgoh kgis
A colourful and poetic painting from a wind-and-rain bridge depicting a young man playing the kgoh kgis for a young woman
[Image 10]
A colourful and poetic painting from a wind-and-rain bridge depicting a young man playing the kgoh kgis for a young woman

[Video 5]
Kgoh Kgis Songs
The video consists of two excerpts: the first excerpt shows a typical Kgoh Kgis Song sung by a young couple; the second excerpt shows elderly villagers visiting other villages and singing Kgoh Kgis Songs during a delightful festival.
3. River Song (kgal nyal)
  • Gentle, free-rhythm songs in mixed antiphonal form with four verses in a stanza.
  • Usually without accompaniment of musical instruments. Sung spontaneously, the soft melodies sound like the flow of a river.

[Video 6]
River Song
In the video, young men and women sing a River Song during a nyaoh wungh social event. The Kam people adopt monogamy in their marriage system. Although liberal courtship practices like nyaoh wungh still exist, most Kam people tend to follow the old custom of having their marriage arranged by parents and wed a partner well-matched in social status.
4. Stamping Song (dos yeeh)
  • A form of simultaneous group song and dance. Stamping Song is a part of the Sax-worshipping ceremony usually held in the largest square or drum tower of the village, participated by people of all ages.
  • A Stamping Song starts with the song master’s lead singing, followed by everybody. The crowd join hands to form a big circle and dance as they sing “yeeh, yeeh, yeeh, yeeh”. (audio clip)
  • In many Kam villages, people from other villages are invited to come to celebrate the New Year together. They would also sing Stamping Songs on this occasion.
A convivial scene of singing Stamping Song
[Image 11]
A convivial scene of singing Stamping Song
A painting of Stamping Song in a drum tower
[Image 12]
A painting of Stamping Song in a drum tower

[Video 7]
The Sax-worshipping ceremony is an event of paramount importance for all Kam people in the new year. They pray to Sax for the protection of the village and the health of domestic animals. The ritual starts with firecrackers amid the sound of gongs and drums as well as the lenc. After circling around the Sax altar, the Kam people sing inside and outside of the drum tower with a joyful ambience.
5. Kam Opera (yik gaeml)
  • Every Kam village has a theatre stage where Kam operas are performed during festivals.
  • The Kam opera is accompanied by the erhu and sung in the Kam language, with dialogues and theatrical performances.

[Video 8]
Kam Opera
Kam opera has a history of about 200 years. Its forerunner, Wu Wencai (1798-1845), was a songwriter at a young age. He was later inspired by other genres of Chinese opera to create the regional opera for the Kam people – Kam opera. In 2006, Kam opera was inscribed onto the First National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China. This video shows a live performance of Kam opera. Despite the unsophisticated stage, members of the audience are all eager and enthusiastic.

Inheritance and Dissemination

Traditionally, the Kam people did not have a written language. Most of their culture, history and customs are passed down through songs. The Kam people learn to sing some simple tunes with their parents from the time they learn to speak. At the age of 5 or 6, children join village choirs together with peers of the same age and sex, and go to the drum tower every night to learn singing Grand Songs from the song master.

[Video 9]
The Inheritance of Kam Songs
For centuries, singing has been a part of the life of Kam people. Before the advent of Kam writing system, singing was an important channel of knowledge transmission. Even today, Kam parents still teach moral norms to their children through songs, and the younger generations express their respect for the elderly through songs. As the Kam people generally regard songs as knowledge and culture, song masters are well respected. Many of them devote all their lives to teaching and creating songs. Apart from family, school has become another integral place for the Kam people to learn Kam songs.
Young Kam people learning Kam songs under song masters
[Image 13]
Young Kam people learning Kam songs under song masters
As the Kam village centre, every drum tower has its own youth and children’s choirs. Big villages may have more than one drum tower, each having choirs separately. The number of singers in a choir ranges from five or six to more than 10. The song master usually teaches the lyrics first and the melody later, and identifies lead singers based on their voices. Each choir has at least one lead singer, with three or four members singing the upper part and the remaining singing the lower part. Teenagers aged 12 or 13 will be transferred to youth choirs and attend different social events to listen to the singing of others. At 16, they start visiting other villages to participate in song exchange activities. Youth choirs comprise unmarried young people normally aged from 13 to 18. A main purpose of song exchange is to develop romantic relationships. Thus, once a member gets married, he/she will leave the choir and stop participating in song exchange activities so as to focus on family life.

Only those middle-aged or elderly people with good musical knowledge and singing techniques would be revered as song masters. Taking choirs to drum towers for song exchange events, song masters would sit behind a choir and provide guidance to the choir members on how to respond to the opposing choir with songs. After the Grand Song became an intangible cultural heritage, many schools in the Kam area have introduced Grand Song and Kam instrumental classes into the school curriculum.
The Grand Song was performed at the opening ceremony of “Genesis and Spirit: A Showcase of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China”, a large-scale cultural event presented in Hong Kong in 2011.
[Image 14]
The Grand Song was performed at the opening ceremony of “Genesis and Spirit: A Showcase of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China”, a large-scale cultural event presented in Hong Kong in 2011.
Yandong Village in Lingping County of Guizhou Province occupies a distinctive position in the history of the Grand Song. In 1953, four Yandong villagers (Wu Peixin, Wu Shanhua, Wu Xihua and Wu Xiumei) visited Beijing and performed at the First National Folk Music and Dance Gala, taking the Grand Song out of the Kam region. In 1953 and 1957, Wu Peixin performed in North Korea and Moscow, enabling non-local audiences to hear Kam songs for the first time.

Today, Yandong is still an important base for the international spread of the Grand Song. The Yandong Grand Singers, formed by Wu Jinyan, Wu Xuemei, Wu Peiyuan and others, has been featured in many famous music festivals in China and around the world in recent years. The troupe has also held various workshops at overseas universities and released a CD album, demonstrating the unique charm of Kam songs to the world.

A CD album released by the Yandong Grand Singers for promoting Kam music worldwide
[Image 16]
A CD album released by the Yandong Grand Singers for promoting Kam music worldwide
A medium bic bac
[Image 15]
The Yandong Grand Singers performing at the International Festival for Vocal Music “a cappella” in Leipzig, Germany

[Video 10]
Kam Songs Going Abroad
The Yandong Dong Grand Singers toured Germany and the USA in 2015 and 2019 respectively. The video captures some scenes from the troupe’s performances and workshops.

Final Words

A popular Kam saying goes, “rice nourishes the body and songs nourish the soul”. The expression reflects the importance of singing to the Kam people. Singing is indispensable to the Kam people and is closely related to their identity, marriage and transmission of culture. In recent years, Kam music has played the role of cultural ambassador and made appearances in different parts of the world, thereby contributing to cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world.

Supplementary information on images and videos