Kink Gong - Reconstructing Ethnic Minorities Music

Kink Gong - Reconstructing Ethnic Minorities Music

Written By:

Dragoș Rusu

Published:

March 6, 2018

1. Introduction

In the immense world of music, Laurent Jeanneau is without a doubt a unique character. This is due, partly, to his multidisciplinary DIY approach towards music, and also to his adventurous spirit that has been keeping him - and the Kink Gong project - active for several decades so far.

His large collection of ethnic minority music is made of things that are probably completely foreign to most of us. He spent a considerable amount of time recording it, mostly in South East Asia, and releasing the results on his own CDr label, Kink Gong Recordings, as well as occasionally contributing to Sublime Frequencies compilations.

He also composes electronic music that manipulates, assembles and reconstructs those recordings, in order to create new soundscapes, which often seem ahead of their time. The results can be found in back catalogues from imprints such as Akuphone, ArteTetra, Discrepant or Atavistic.

We recently visited Mr Jeanneau in his cozy apartment in Berlin, for good coffee, and some rather controversial conversation topics.

I maintained a relative freedom of thinking, because I was not transformed by the media, but by my own experience, and experience is not a moral standard.

2. A French Man in Berlin

Laurent Jeanneau in Berlin. Photo by Aurel Minulescu
Laurent Jeanneau in Berlin. Photo by Aurel Minulescu

What are you working on these days?

I am releasing a new double LP this month [March 2018] on Discrepant of what I used to do between 2000 and 2002. I arrived in Shanghai, and I was just destroying CDs. I had a CD player that I would use and make it skip, by violently handling it and record all these improvised sounds of skipping pop Chinese songs. This is back in the past, before doing properly ethnic minorities stuff.

I’ve been working a lot with the santur [Persian instrument]. I composed lots of music with it. I’m still working on this idea of incorporating instruments on live shows. I realized that it makes much more sense to have someone using an instrument, but so far I’ve been using instruments only in privacy, just for myself, to record, because I’m not good enough. Whatever instrument I use, I tend to change the pitch and the tempo very much. This is something I do only on the computer, I’ve never done it live. I did some tracks with the santur where I could play only the santur, purely acoustic and then bring some electronics on top of it.

How did you settle in Berlin, as a French citizen?

It’s not very warm here, not only the climate, but also the social climate. I came here basically for financial reasons, and that’s the case for so many people. You meet young Israeli people here, they are not coming back to the land of the ancestors, they just want to live in Europe, and Berlin is one of the cheapest towns in Europe. I’m always critical towards the hype, the hipsters, whatever fashionable ephemeral movements. I’m always distant, I’m not really part of anything, maybe I’m too old to be part of that. I don’t go out that much, just want to see a few things that really interest me.

When I came here, I didn’t come from France, but from China, and globally the world that I’ve been in contact with was warmer, tropical. It was maybe more ignorant too, people have more knowledge or fake knowledge here, but they are also much more reserved.

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3. Multiculturalism

Laurent Jeanneau in China
Laurent Jeanneau in China

When did you arrive in China for the first time?

I was in China as a tourist in 1992. As a tourist, I went through that phase myself, I know what it is to be a tourist. That means you misunderstand everything. It took me years living in those places to realize all the things I understood wrongly for the first time I came.

I just read an article on Cambodia, all the villages that I’ve known along the Sesan River, all those gong orchestras that I was recording, those entire villages are under water now. Every time I get news from China, where we used to live when my son was born, or the places where I recorded all these great gong orchestras in North East Cambodia, are only stories of destruction. It doesn’t exist anymore, so it wouldn’t make sense for me to go back there, I would not go back to this time. If I would go back there I will not find the same things, I would just be disappointed, it would be terrible. If I’d ever travel, I should travel to new destinations, not carrying all my heavy bag of stories to one country. I’ve known China from 1992 to 2014, so there are 22 years of development. It is a period in history, it’s finished.

What do you have in mind as new destinations?

One of the reasons to move here was that I wanted to be back in Europe, involving the education of my son, who’s going to a French-German school here, in this neighborhood. I have to solve the problem of his education, you know?

If we think about this concept of multiculturalism, it only makes sense for people like my son. He truly understands the two cultures, the two societies. He’s multicultural because he has one foot in China and one in Europe. Me, I can stay as long as I want in Asia, I will never become one of them. I don’t believe in that. The multiculturalism would be just a forced process, but for him is natural, he has these two parts in him. For me, multiculturalism means those people who have truly experienced at least two, or three, or four cultures, and who are part of those two, three or four cultures. Those are the multicultural people. But they are a minority, it cannot be everyone. At the moment where the world is, people want to have just one language and one culture. But it’s ok, we live in a time in history where multicultural people are accepted and not called bastards.

Since you’re speaking about multiculturalism, what are your thoughts on cultural appropriation?

Yes, it is a super tricky issue. I’ve been addressed this question more and more actually, and the question is directed to me. Am I in that situation of stealing their culture for my own purpose?

I had a recent show, in January, it was a lecture about Tibetan shamanism. And this issue came, and at some point a guy in the audience said “Can I say that you monetize their culture?” And I’m like, “If you want. But if an anthropology professor would be here, at this table, earning 5000 dollars from an American University, basing all his knowledge on their culture, would you ask him this question?”.

I have no taboo with the idea that I’m monetizing their culture, but in my case is so small. But would you ask an anthropology professor the same question? Would you ask whatever photographer would publish pictures of tribal people, how much money they give back to the community, since their book have been super famous all over the world? I have no problem, I pay the musicians the way I can. I always used to say that with recording your voices (like you record me right now), you’re not stealing anything from me. When you leave my home, I will still have my voice and I will still be able to talk. Now, when you buy certain objects of rituals, African statues or something like that, you take something away that might not be replaced. This is much more damageable to the culture, the object that has been taken out of their culture. I’m not taking an object, but a recording. And I’m giving away this recording. And then if a person says “Well, I can still sing, I don’t need the recording”, I’m like “I know, I’m really happy you can still sing, but your daughter or granddaughter, or the people in your family would like to hear you, and you’re not going to be there all the time (I don’t want to say that you’re going to die next year, but at some point).” And then he’s like “oh yes”, and he takes the CD and say “thank you”. I think of this idea as what’s positive for them.

Honestly, I think it’s quite unique, in my case. Usually you have people like Muslimgauze, who has based all his musical approach around percussions of the Arab world, more or less. And apparently he became a Muslim, but I don’t know the details. But everybody knows he didn’t go there to do the recordings themselves. With me, I went there to do the recordings myself, I do remix them, but I also try to release the original recording, so I always tell to people that I would never pretend that my so-called remix, recomposed work, or my re-appropriated thing, is better than the original. I encourage you to compare. A lot of material is online, is not even a matter of money anymore. You can compare the original and the remix. That’s at least what I can do in terms of respect. Having two approaches of listening to this music, but the original is probably the best one. I’m summarizing. They are history, if history could be really objective, just based on the reality and not propaganda. And then there are guys like me who do history on one side, and a novel on another side. The latter is not reality anymore, it’s based on historical facts. If a guy only has a novel and distracts you from the original history, that sucks. But if he tells you “ok, this is what I’ve done, but this is the history, you can compare.” This is what matter in my case. You have the original and those people haven’t been recorded before, so it’s great that there’s a trace of them. This is what I do, it doesn’t matter which one you like.

Do you think is necessary to go in one certain place to record something, instead of just taking some parts of music, such as Muslimgauze did? Is it more truthful to go in that certain place, or is actually acceptable only to use parts of their music?

I’m the only one in the Western world who can visualize, when listening to a CD. I know how these people look like, I remember a lot of their kindness. I cannot see it only as a musicologist, for me it’s all part of a story, the time I spent with those people.

4. Recordings

Speaking of Muslimgauze, he was often accused of being anti-Semite.

Well yeah. In his aesthetic, the central story of Muslimgauze is the Palestinian cause. So he was taking the message of the Palestinians who would never have access to the music scene in England.

I don’t believe in good intentions, I believe in interest. In the background of the society is this idea that NGOs are there to do this. NGOs have funds. Some people think I’m a kind of fair trade promoter, like if you buy this, you encourage the coffee plantation to grow, or whatever. There is no such a good intention message with me, I’m not an NGO, I’m sorry. It is a completely misunderstanding nowadays. I’m only a guy who likes adventure, so I lived in places where adventure was still possible, because in Europe is less and less possible. And yes, in Asia, the way I lived, relationships were different, I could have access easily to all kinds of people, record their music, not being rejected, expand, grow, do something in my interest. There is nothing better in the world than when you feel that the world is pleasing you. There is nothing wrong about having this great feeling of a world where I feel good, where those people have some communicative energy. They’ve never met a white guy, and they find it amusing that you like their music.

Tell us about your music collection.

My collection of recordings has 199 CDs. 200 hours of music. I’ve been releasing original recordings to Sublime Frequencies, like 8 hours of recordings. The entire production of an LP is much more expensive, I don’t know anyone who would want to release my 200 CDs on his label, because it is a very small market. So I’m making them one by one, going to the printing shop in the corner, cutting the covers, burning the CDs in my computer. It’s all DYI. This is how I sell it to institutes or whatever; they put it in the computer of their library of the university, like the department of an English university on Chinese minorities who would want to buy only the recordings of minorities in China, according to their interest.

I am also doing some shows, like lectures. This is the time to go deep in the collection and organize them by the theme. The last theme was shamanism and the second theme is love songs, so I’m going to play all kinds of love songs recorded in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China and Thailand, with video, music and stories. I like those shows, because I get to talk about the other parts of their life. Like love songs, why do they have love songs? We have to go into understanding the animist society, the society outside of the big religion, who focus so much attention on being a virgin, for the women. But that doesn’t exist in the animist societies. So you have love songs, why? Because love songs lead to sex. This is the context. I call it pseudo-anthropology, because I’m not an anthropology researcher or whatever. I explain things my way; I’ve met those people, who they are. People see how they look like. I like these kind of shows.

Every CD from the collection has a different story, I cannot answer easily. You pick up one CD and I tell you its story.

5. Xinjiang

Laurent Jeanneau's music collection. Photo by Aurel Minulescu
Laurent Jeanneau's music collection. Photo by Aurel Minulescu

This one is made with my ex-wife. I’ve given up, I moved to Berlin 4 years ago, in 2014, and I’m taking care of our son here. She continues to live in China, she got hired by a big company. So they hired her, with a good budget, and they gave her all the good equipment to do recordings, so she went where she wanted to. She spent 7 month in 2016 and 2017 just recordings the minorities in Xinjiang, the biggest province in North West of China, where you have all these proto-Turkish people - the Uyghurs are the number one group. We were there together in 2009 when we recorded in Xinjiang and we were doing it in a DYI way; that meant going to places, talking to people and finding musicians.

When people ask me how do I find musicians, I always use to say: when you’re obsessed with sex, you arrive in one country and you’re going to find whores. When you’re obsessed with drugs, you’re going to find drugs. When you’re obsessed with music, you’re going to find musicians.

Xinjiang is very problematic because it’s like Tibet, the last big ethnic conflict happening in China. In Southern China where we lived the problem was solved in the 19th century. There has been riots, rebellions, some small Muslim kingdom wanting to establish its own country, it’s been all kind of wars in 19th century and the Han won them. And this is happening now, still in the early 21th century in Xinjiang; didn’t happen in the 19 century, but it’s happening now. So it was very problematic for me to be there, not being Chinese. Xinjiang has a lot of great music, but the memory of being there is really tense. I was arrested many times by the police, asking me for long hours for work permit.

6. Yunnan

Laurent Jeanneau in Berlin. Photo by Aurel Minulescu
Laurent Jeanneau in Berlin. Photo by Aurel Minulescu

This is just above the Vietnamese border. In Yunnan you have the YI people, 8 million people, but they call themselves by different names. A sub group calls itself Nisu – 1 million people. A woman from TV that I have met in 2001, and I met her again in Kunming in 2006, invited me to visit a theatre, as she was organising a show for ethnic minorities. But, as you can expect, she organised a thing really orchestrated, with choreography, like “you don’t hold the instrument like this, or like this”.

So I went to one of the shows and then I thought to exchange phone numbers with the musicians. 6 months later I came to visit one of those guys, Wang Liliang, and the volume 1 it’s only solo, or duo, maximum trio. In the volume 2 it’s the orchestra version. You have all these instruments but played by 10 people. And they all appear, it’s a little bit like in Sun RA or a free jazz orchestra. They have all these instruments, but they don’t constantly play together; some appear, some disappear. It’s very weird, kind of a free-jazz feeling, but with totally typical Nisu Chinese minorities patterns. But the construction is kind of wild. At the beginning you don’t really know; are they trying something? They’re not together, so what’s going on? They haven’t really started? And then you realize every time is like that. It is perfectly normal, there build up, voices appear, and then disappear.

7. A Night Train to Mombasa

Laurent Jeanneau in Berlin. Photo by Aurel Minulescu
Laurent Jeanneau in Berlin. Photo by Aurel Minulescu

How do you see the idea of failure?

Failure is like being sick. It happens and then you get over it. There has been lots of failures. In the past I tried to bring a gong orchestra to festivals in Europe. I was contacting some festivals and I was telling them that using the word tribal, like ritual or shaman, “you just want fake ones, you don’t want the real ones, I would really love that you integrate the real ones. The ones that are still there, that still exist in the tribal world. This is the end! You have the money, they don’t cost more than a rock band”. But it has never worked out. My failure was that I’m not an organiser, I just concentrate on music. At least there I can limit the amount of failure because it’s mostly being involved in my story and how I can convince other people that this is interesting.

The only time I managed to move some musicians was not far away; from the Chinese border in North Vietnam and bring them to the Goethe Institute in Hanoi. It was a 500 euro concert. For the German Cultural Center this was nothing. Each performer got 100 euro, I got the same money like each musician, and for them going back home in their village with 100 euro is incredible. And it’s nothing! You change the life of people just by giving them a little credit like that. But I could not develop that.

Basically, I am seen as a fascist. I don’t follow the bullshit of being decent. I was ranting against the policy of Ausland in Berlin of 2017, where only women could perform. Creating divisions that don't exist. Ausland was never ran by pigs who said you cannot play here because you’re a woman. They were never part of the discrimination, so why do they feel so guilty that now, men have to be excluded? This is ridiculous. Sorry. You are fighting something that doesn’t exist and you were never part of the problem. Every political issue is biased with some wrong ideas.

All these issues are really embarrassing and I realized they are totally taboo in Western Europe: It’s a shock for them to see that I am interested in the same cultural sphere, in the same arty small world, and at the same time I think different than them. They think that if you’re interested in this kind of music, you need to have a certain mindset, and I don’t. In South East Asia you don’t get brainwashed with these ideas, like here, so in a way I maintained a relative freedom of thinking, because I was not transformed by the media, but by my own experience, and experience is not a moral standard. I don’t carry all this leftist baggage of fake equality and fake evaluation of individual freedom and that I come from the privileged world that has to repair from its colonial guilt, I feel zero guilt! Do you hear me?

Most of the world doesn’t give a shit about individual freedom. Let me tell you a story just for the sake of telling you a story, please try to visualize: in December 1999, I’ve just travelled long hours in a plane from Vienna to Nairobi, a night train to Mombasa, 30 hours of cheap bus to Dar es Salaam, and the last ride is to reach town from this bus-station 10 km outside of town. I take a taxi, well, honestly, that car is a complete wreck; there’s no windows left, I am exhausted, sweating dirty, could not get anything to eat because of Ramadan. On the way the car nearly broke down, we reach town, hey, yes, a red-light! We stop, and at the exact same moment, an extraordinary brand new black Mercedes with driver stops at the same height, then about 15 children beggars surround my car, all asking at the same time for money. I am overwhelmed but can’t stop laughing, pointing to the children the car of someone who looks like a true rich man, no! No one dares to go and ask the black businessman in black suit and tie on the backseat of his car, it’s the duty of this dirty white guy to entertain himself with guilt!

Nowadays you are only allowed to unmask the shit of your own people (and believe me, I know a lot about French shit) and are automatically suspicious if you dare to show the shit in other countries, cultures or religions.

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Main photo credits: Andrei Mușat / Kink Gong live at Outernational Days 1

About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and editor in chief of The Attic, as well as artistic director of Outernational Days festival in Bucharest, and allround music adventurer.

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