The second of my back-to-back trips up the Mountain was with three German sisters in search of minority musicians willing to let us record them while performing. The oldest sister (and I mean “the oldest” at the ripe old age of 25) is a friend from JH who is beginning her graduate research in ethnomusicology, and the two younger girls were visiting from Germany during their school break.
Since I was going as their Chinese translator (and also was hoping to understand some of the B dialect wherever we ended up), I felt as if I were somewhat breaking the stereotype of the monolingual American. My pride should be deflated, though, by the fact that I was communicating with the three girls in English, not German. The middle sister kept apologizing to me for her poor English, but I contended that her English is better than my German (which consists of the numbers one to ten and a couple of cuss words).
After staying the night at David and Julie’s house, we headed out to a new village twelve kilometers from MN to visit a musician my teammate had met at a festival last year. Adam’s father went with us as our escort; he knows the B musicians in the village and was willing to spend the day helping us meet them. Before driving out of MN, he suggested we buy some packs of cigarettes to take as gifts. I showed him a container of homemade chocolate cake, oatmeal muffins, and candy I had brought from JH and asked if that would work as a gift instead of cigarettes. “Even better,” he said.
When we arrived in the village, dozens of people were standing along the road, in doorways, and on their balconies, waiting to see the foreigners. I found out later that it was the first time foreigners had come to visit the village. As if four white ladies showing up weren’t enough of a curiosity, I gave them even more of a shock by driving a truck all by myself. I wowed them further by saying a few basic sentences in B language; I’m sure by now the rumor has grown to say I’m fluent in B!
We spent the next few hours listening to the musicians sing and play cymbals, an “elephant leg” drum, traditional guitar, and a bamboo flute. My ethnomusicologist friend had them show her how to play each, and we recorded about twenty of their songs for her to analyze later.
As we expected, the B musicians wanted the foreigners to sing for them as well. The three sisters are all very musically gifted, and they sang several songs in three-part harmony for the crowd.
I couldn’t help but make jokes to myself all day about how surreal the experience was—I felt like I was translator for “The Von Trapps Come to Yunnan Tour.” Back home, the three sisters have five more siblings, and they’re all musically inclined. They’re German, not Austrian—I do recognize the difference, as well as the fact that the real von Trapps might be offended by my comparison, given the history for which they are famous.
All we needed was to end our day by walking over the mountains into the next country, while a group of nuns sang “Climb Every Mountain.” China and Burma, Austria and Switzerland…they’re practically the same.