The Smoking Guitar

The valleys are so narrow that they are usually in shadow even when the sun is scorching on the red cliffs above. Then, the sun moves into the right position, and suddenly the moisture bakes off the wooden roof slats in clouds of steam, as if the building has caught fire.

The Lisu derive their surnames from their former tribal designations, which were moieties of Snakes, Lions and sundry other animals. Which is how I come to spend the morning with Mr Pheasant, who is here to teach me how to make a crossbow, and who arrives wearing a goatskin that makes him look like a troll doll. He starts with a log, and whittles it swiftly down into the shape of the body with an axe and a machete. Any wood will do for the body, but the bow has to be wild mulberry – domestic mulberry is never flexible enough. The string is made from hemp bark, and is sharp enough that I cut my fingers trying to draw it back. The quarrels, or darts really, are bamboo dowels the size and shape of a chopstick, fletched with a twist of bamboo leaf.

Mr Pheasant only speaks Lisu, so is not a whole lot of fun as an interviewee, but he has been well briefed by the Naxi town tourist adviser, arriving not only with all his raw materials, but with “one he prepared earlier”, so that we can leapfrog ahead in the tiresome sanding scene to get everything done before lunch.

There are so many comedy opportunities for the target. A Chairman Mao poster? A picture of Jason Statham (inexplicably found on the front of a giveaway sexual health magazine). The camera assistant suggests a plastic bottle of water, which might entertainingly spurt out its contents if shot. But in the end we plump for a boring mat with a target daubed on in charcoal. Both Mr Pheasant and I hit it with ease, while the director of photography cowers behind his camera, worried about the likelihood of me shooting him in the head.

At lunch, the tourist officer observes with astonishment that “the Foreigner” is able to use chopsticks, rather ignoring the fact that (a) everybody else around the table is also a foreigner, from Singapore, and (b) I have been eating Chinese food since before he was born. Nothing puts things in perspective after your third academic degree like some hayseed expressing surprise that you can use cutlery.

After lunch we are dragged back to the same courtyard in the hills. The tourist office has plainly decided it is convenient, as indeed it is, but it creates headaches for our director of photography as he tries to shoot it so that half the episode is not spent looking around the same shed. This also involves a log, from which the neck and body of the si xian qing are carved in a single piece. Mr Bee, however, is persuaded to hurry things along after a few axe blows, by lighting up his smoke-billowing chain saw, and making swift work of the difficult bits. He hollows out the base, and sands it down, before fixing the front to it using bamboo pins that turn out to be the remnants of the morning’s crossbow darts.

I don’t seem to be doing a lot today, but I don’t know if that’s because the director has lost the will to live, or if I am just getting better at this. Certainly, I haven’t had to take 20 takes to get something right this week. Instead, I pop up my head, do a piece to camera in one or two takes, and then go back to the sidelines for another twenty minutes until some other stage in the process is reached. It feels like I am not doing enough, but I counted back through my appearances on camera today, and I am still saying plenty of stuff.

Mr Bee ties guitar strings to the body by looping them through a bent piece of fence wire, and then makes a bridge out of a spare piece of wood. Then he heats a poker in a fire and starts burning through the balsa-like wood of the front, tuning and strumming, then poking another hole, and repeat. Moment by moment, the sound becomes fuller and the resonations stronger. Suddenly, he drops the poker and begins to play a tune, and the guitar is finished, smoke still curling up from the newly-bored holes.

Our sound man is ready with his boom mike to pick up clean audio of the new instrument’s first tune, as the alien Lisu melody fills the courtyard, wisps of smoke rising from the guitar along with the music. This gives us a segment from our Lisu episode complete, but hopefully something that will lead into the dance ceremony shooting tomorrow, and also a music track that we don’t have to pay for.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E04 (2017).

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