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Cantonese Musical Instruments

Updated:2008-08-18 12:00:26 Source: lifeofguangzhou.com

PRE Westernization instruments consisted mainly of "GoWu" a 2 stringed bow hi pitched instruments exclusively used by the Head Musician or "Tau Gar", "Jong Wu" a string bow instrument one octave below the "GoWu", "Yanquin" or (Chinese hammered dulcimer), Pipa pear shaped string plucking instrument, Large or middle "Ruan", also known as moon guitar, a pluck string instrument providing bass notes, plus an assortment of "Dizi's" (Flutes) and "Sor Lap" wind instruments and traditional chinese percussion instruments. Percussion wise a head percussionist would lead two to three other percussionist playing an assortment of oriental wooden blocks, cymbals, gongs, clappers, bells, wind gongs and drums.


With the westernization of Cantonese opera starting in the 1930's and peaking in the mid 50’s in Hong Kong. The head musician began using the violin, which remains the instrument of choice for today's top Tau Gars. The second in command would then be the saxophone, follow by slide guitar or the chinese wooden xylophone. Other instruments used varied according to the needs and taste of the Tau Gar, he or she may prefer a more robust bass sound and would incorporate a cello, double bass, or second saxophone, or they would bolster their mid range with both xylophone and an electric slide guitar, it all depended on the needs or feel of a specific band, some band would be very heavy on percussion, using full set of jazz drums, plus a full latin percussion ensemble, replace traditional chinese percussion instruments completely, and others will have a mix of both eastern and western on stage, but with the western instruments being dominant.

The size of these western bands remain very small, under ten musicians total in this period, where the second or third string musicians would play different instruments with in a Cantonese opera piece according to needs of the piece. It is just very recently the the Cantonese Opera musical troupe began growing in size, to twenty or thirty members for major performances. Some recent performances have utilized a full chinese orchestra, membering over a hundred.

In the 60's with the demise of westernizing of Cantonese opera music, chinese instruments moved back into the lime light, the Yanquin or Pipa became the second support to the Tau Gar's Violin and more and more chinese instruments were reintroduced. Which give us the strange mix that we have today.

As Cantonese opera has always been a melting pot for eastern and western cultures, the use of instruments in Cantonese opera also exemplifies this. Instrument use in Cantonese opera today is a mix of western and traditional chinese instruments. This may have been that Canton (GuangZhou) was one of the earliest provinces to have contact and trade with western countries and Hong Kong being a british colony surely contributed to the westernization of Cantonese opera. The use of musical instruments in Cantonese opera ranges from traditional chinese instruments like the erwu (two string bowed fiddle) to the use of saxophones, country western slide guitars and even Latin American percussion instruments like the congas! This far ranging mix of western, latin, african and chinese instruments is really quit a long and complicated history of adaptation and adjustment for the Cantonese people and their art form. With factors like the chaotic changing times of Canton (GuangZhou) province for the last hundred years, from trade with the west, development and prosperity, to opium introduction to the masses, social chaos to repeated invasions from the the west and Imperial Japan, to the financial and cultural development of Macao (Portuguese) and Hong Kong (British) making these two cities the definitive places to be in cantonese opera world from nineteen thirties to the late sixties, and additional factors like the return of chinese migrant workers from overseas places like Singapore (British), Malaysia (British), Vietnam (French), Cuba, Jamaica, South America and the United States, bringing back with them, their exposure to different and varying notions on how, and what instruments to use, all contributed to the shape of Cantonese opera music today.

Cantonese opera music and performance can generally be classified into two forms, Theatrical and (歌坛) "Gor Tarn" or singing stage and within the theatrical form which is a more traditional style, it is split into two sections: Western Music "Saih Ngok" and Chinese Music "Jung Ngok" , with "Gor Tarn" having only the western music or "Saih Ngok" section. The "Saih Ngok" section refers to the strings, woodwinds, brass plus electrified instruments and the "Jung Ngok" section refers to the traditional chinese percussion instruments.

Gor Tarn (歌坛) or Singing stage, is a lesser known form of cantonese opera, comprising mainly of cantonese opera singing performances in tea houses and night clubs. This style of cantonese opera music differed from the theatrical form, where the emphasis was mainly on solo singing and singing to accompany night club style dancing, no operatic movements or attire were involved here.

The work of the (四大平喉) Four Great Male Vocals would be the best example of Gor Tarn, this style of music dominate all forms of Cantonese opera from the nineteen thirty till its demise in the early seventies. It would not be surprising to find forty or fifty years ago that not even single chinese instrument was used in Cantonese opera, it was somewhat considered unfit to be used on stage, only western instruments were exclusively used and this was the case for Gor Tarn or Theatrical Cantonese Opera performances back then. A Cantonese opera musical troupe would more likely resemble a western Big Band orchestra heavy on latin percussion then a envisioned chinese musical troupe! You can still catch a glimpse of this style on Temple Street, in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

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