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Traditional Storytelling in Asia and the Middle East

Storytelling traditions vary all over the world, yet have many things in common. This section is an attempt to gather information on customs of the oral tradition world-wide. Many people today are rediscovering the pleasures of telling stories, after their culture has lost most of its traditional storytelling, yet cannot easily find out much about the countless millennia of oral traditions with all their wisdom and techniques. I hope this site will help you discover and appreciate something of the central role which traditional storytelling has played in most cultures, and in some places still does.

Your help will be welcome if you know or come across any facts or resources to add, current or historical, so if you can offer any details at all send them to me, Tim Sheppard.

Many traditions have spread across neighbouring countries because of old patterns of migration, empires, or religion, so this site is organised by geography. An alphabetical list of countries covered so far is also provided, but for the full picture do read the regional introduction on each page.

Storytelling Traditions in other areas:

Africa
Australasia and Oceania
Europe
North America
South and Central America

On this page:

Asia
Central Asia

Arabia
Armenia
Azerbaijan
Cambodia (Kampuchea)
China
India
Iran
Japan
Kazakhstan
Ladakh
Laos
Sakha Republic (Yakutia)
Syria
Thailand
Tibet
Turkey
Turkmenistan

Asia

Resources

Introduction to Asian Storytelling - Cathy Spagnoli's invaluable survey of the styles and traditions of countries across the continent. Follow the links especially to Styles, and to Props. Also there are profiles of tellers, some tales and riddles, and a bibliography.

Central Asia

The same Turkic term, bakhshi, may be used for both shamans and bards, and both may be called to their trade by spirits to undergo a difficult period of initiation. Indeed a bard is a healer who uses music as a conduit to the world of the Spirit, and there is a magical dimension to reciting the epics. They use a fiddle or lute as accompaniment, and tales may run through several nights of exhaustive performance; one Kyrgyz bard is known to recite 300,000 verses of the Manas, the major Kyrgyz epic.

“The dastan [Turkic epic] is ornate oral history and an important part of the Turkic literature of Central Asia. Traditionally, dastans have been repositories of ethnic identity and history, and some constitute nearly complete value systems for the peoples they embrace. The primary, or "mother", dastans are those composed to commemorate specific liberation struggles. Set mostly in verse by an ozan [bard], more than 50 mother dastans are recited by Central Asians from the Eastern Altai to the Western Ural Mountains and as far south as Bend-e Turkestan in Afghanistan. Most dastans commemorate the struggles of different Turkic peoples against external aggressors, such as the Kalmuks and Chinese. The central figure of the dastan is the alp [hero], who leads his people against the enemy, be they from afar or from within his own tribe. The alp endures many trials and tribulations, which ultimately are shared by a supporting cast. His problems are nearly always aggravated by one or more traitors, who although a problem for the alp, can never stop his ineluctable progress toward victory. His success is celebrated by a toy, or lavish feast. Traitors and enemies are dealt with, frequently paying with their lives for their treachery, but more often left to roam the earth in search of some kind of reconciliation with their consciences and with God.”

H. B. Paksoy, Central Asia's New Dastans

Dastans are jealously guarded against textual change. Not even minor details are allowed to be altered. They are revised under only two conditions: when a major new alp appears and his heroic fight against oppression and for the preservation of his people's traditional life style and customs warrants celebrating; and when the heirs of an existing dastan face oppression by an outsider. Portions of new dastans, however, will almost certainly be borrowed from older dastans. This is not plagiarism: the new alp is being compared to his predecessors, which is intended to reassure the listener of the new alp's prowess, exemplary character and resourcefulness. By borrowing from the old dastans, the new alp is inextricably linked to the existing historical- literary traditions.”

H. B. Paksoy, Central Asia's New Dastans

“The reciter, ozan, accompanied himself with a musical instrument referred to as kobuz or kopuz. A descendant of kopuz is still known and used as saz or baglama in Asia Minor.”

H. B. Paksoy, Dastan Genre in Central Asia

Resources

Traditional Persian Music: Bakhshi - a short but valuable page giving much detail on the customs, training and spiritual role of the bakhshi epic singers who can be found in almost all of Central Asia, among the Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek, and Turkmen people as well as in Afghanistan, Tajik-Arab and in Xinjiang.

Central Asia's New Dastans - a long journal paper about the nature and traditions of dastans (Turkic epics), detailing customs of the bakhshi who sing them, storylines and more. These bardic epic singers are also called Ozan; Bahshi; Akin; Ashik; Kam in various places. This same paper is also available at the Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative, at http://aton.swco.ttu.edu/Central_Asias_New_Dastans.asp.

Dastan Genre in Central Asia - encyclopaedia article by the same author as the paper above, and with some overlap but also extra information.

Alpamysh - an entire online book of and about this primary Turkic dastan, an epic story central to the identity of the Turkic peoples across central Asia, and the struggle to preserve it under Russian rule. Naturally there is much detail on the dastan genre and the cultural traditions around their performance. The epic itself is given in full in chapter 3.

Alpamysh Audio - online audio of a complete Kazak performance of this epic, lasting 99 minutes, available at the Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative. This page also has audio of a nine-hour Tatar dastan, Chora Batir, and the texts of many others.

The Book of Dede Korkut - an important dastan; this website gives seven of the twelve tales from the complete cycle.

See here and here for nice photos of Uzbek bakhshi (epic singers) and their dombras (long-necked two-string lutes).

Arabia & Middle East

"One of the most revered traditions of oral storytelling is the hakawati. As intricate and complex as a weaving pattern, this motif-rich narrative style darts in and out of stories, offering unending drama where the storyteller begins one tale, deftly leaves it mid-way to pick up another and then has a third story emerging from a subplot of the first and so on. All this is done using the tools of allegory, folklore, satire, music and a visual spectacle of grand sweeping gestures and facial expressions to finally create an enthralling experience for his listeners."

"Hekaye in Arabic means the story and haki means to talk. The one who talked and told a story was a hakawati."

Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary, Hakawati: the ancient Arab art of storytelling

In the United Arab Emirates a cultural revival of folklore and other folk arts is under way but Ahmad Yousuf is perhaps the only hakawati storyteller. He doesn't come from the tradition but has been reinventing the form from a theatrical perspective since 2008.

It seems that as well as traditional hakawati Abu Shadi in Damascus (see Syria below), and theatrical revivalist hakawati Ahmad Yousuf in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), there may be instances or visits of some form of hakawati-style storytelling in Cairo, Dubai, and Sharjah.

Resources

Hakawati - the Ancient Arab Art of Storytelling - An article more about a single storyteller trying to revive and reinvent storytelling as theatre than the tradition itself, but interesting.

"The Storyteller" - Rabih Alameddine (also published as "The Hakawati") - This novel by a Lebanese-American painter-writer won critical acclaim, and tells the story of a traditional storyteller and his techniques as well as weaving many fairytales for adults.

Armenia

Ashugs are troubadours who appear also in Turkish and Azerbaijani music (where they're called ashiks). The word comes from Arabic (meaning 'lover') and describes someone who is a musician, poet and storyteller. The most famous of these troubadours was Sayat Nova (1712-1795) who lived in the cosmopolitan world of Tiflis (Tbilisi), the Georgian capital, and became court musician to King Heracles II. Some of the repertoire of Sayat Nova and more recent Ashugs has been recorded by Ocora with traditional ensembles of kamancha (3-stringed fiddle), kanun (zither), tar (lute) and duduk [a reedy woodwind]. All these instruments belong to the world of Turkish and Persian music and Armenia, as a Christian country right on the fringe, is unique in absorbing them so intrinsically into its culture.”

Simon Broughton, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

To clarify the above: ashugs themselves play the saz (see Turkey).

The sound of the duduk is tremendously evocative, plaintive, and beautiful. Its acknowledged master today is Djivan Gasparyan, who often sings an ashug song during his concerts, though he is not an ashug himself. He has various recordings available.

In the fifth century Moses of Khoren (Movsés Khorenats'i) himself had heard of how "the old descendants of Aram (that is Armenians) make mention of these things (epic tales) in the ballads for the lyre and their songs and dances." The Epic Histories attributed to P'awstos Buzand, describe a royal feast of the fourth century, during which an orchestra of drums, flutes, trumpets and lyre players performed their polyphonic music for King Pap.”

The ballad "Mokats' Mirza," the vast national epic David of Sasun, a colorful narrative about the period of Arab occupation of Armenia, and other songs dating back to the Urartian period (ninth to sixth centuries B.C.) are musical documents that represent the ancient branch of the epic-minstrel style of Armenian folk music. The two periods that extend from the fifth to the seventh and from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries mark decisive stages in the evolution of this music.”

Robert Atayan, Arts of Armenia - Musical Notations and Instruments

Resources

Armenian Library and Museum of America - this page has a beautiful picture of the zither mentioned above along with a t'ar and percussion instruments, from their collection. The archives of the library itself have many sound recordings and oral histories, which may well include ashug recordings.

Arts of Armenia - Musical Notations and Instruments - some mention of epics, plus some photos of sazs and various other instruments, and ancient illustrations of troubadours (ashugs).

Azerbaijan

See Armenia and Turkey for details on the ashugs, ashyqs or ashiks that are also part of Azerbaijani tradition. Ashugs are still very popular in Azerbaijan, where they accompany themselves on the kobuz, improvising songs in the bardic way, and presumably reciting the epics.

Jean During, an expert in Iranian and Central Asian traditions, claims that the whole ashik tradition of Turkey comes originally from Azerbaijan.

The main epic is Kitabi-Dada Gorgud (or Dada Qorqud) from the 7th century, which was first written down in the 10th century — original copies exist in the Vatican, and Dresden Museum. With international conferences and other events there seems to be a good deal of national pride in bards and epics. In 2004 the 110th anniversary of the celebrated Ashug Shamshir's birth was a state celebration in Azerbaijan.

Resources

Edalat Nasibov - The Art of the Saz, Ocora C560181 (2004). This CD of the celebrated ashyq Nasibov is instrumental only, but the musical pieces are dramatic and narrative in nature. Such saz-söz (instrumental-vocal) distinction is traditional.

Anthology of World Music: The Music of Azerbaijan, on Rounder 82161-5142-2 (2003). This is a reissue of the best compilation of Azerbaijani traditional music, and has one track of an Ashug song with saz accompaniment. This was recorded in the Soviet era of the '70s or '80s, but I don't know whether or not by a genuine ashug.

The Institute of Folklore Study, under the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, in Baku, organizes international conferences on their folklore and epics.

Ashug Shamshir's 110th jubilee to be celebrated An international scientific conference dedicated to the 110th jubilee of Ashug Shamshir, distinguished figure of Azerbaijani folklore arts, will be held in Baku from November 13-17. Local specialists, as well as 30 music experts from Turkey and Iran, are expected to attend. In addition to Ashug Shamshir's creative activities, the event would focus on common moral values of Turkic nations as well as research and collection of folklore. In accordance with former President Heydar Aliyev's decree, the 110th anniversary of Ashug Shamshir's birth is being celebrated at state level.

AzerNews - this English language news service on arts and culture in Azerbaijan will tell you about any events such as folklore conferences etc. (which seem frequent). Try putting 'folklore' into the search box.

Cambodia (Kampuchea)

The tradition of wandering bards was almost wiped out by the Khmer Rouge regime, but a handful remain today. The best known is Kong Nay, who can now play publicly at festivals. The bard plays the chapay - a large, two-stringed, long-necked lute. The bottom string is used for rhythm and the top for melody. In bard songs the voice and instrument take turns separately. The songs tell local news, folk and moral tales etc. This tradition is related to that of mor lam in Laos and Thailand (though current mor lam is mainly a modernised pop music).

Resources

A Cambodian Bard: Singing and Lute Chapey - CD on Inedit W 260112, released in 2003. Bluesy bardic songs, telling local news, moral tales and more, plus some more lyrical tracks.

China

“Traditionally, the lowest social level was inhabited by those who performed in the streets, in the public marketplace. These were the despised “artists of the bazaar” -- contaminated and contaminating, in constant contact and negotiation with the Other, and often expressing no loyalty to any institution. The highest rank was enjoyed by narrators of history, followed by tellers of ghost and love stories. Among the Tai, the most prestigious stories were the Buddhist epics.”

“...Pingtan is a collective term, denoting two forms of storytelling: pinghua (narration without music); and tanci (narration with music, also known as, prosimetric performance, or chantefable). The prose of pinghua, and sections of tanci, is delivered in a styled form of speaking that is different from everyday speech; it has a recognizable cadence. Both pinghua and tanci allow insertion of commentary, anecdotes, poems, and descriptive set pieces; and both involve long, often serialized, tales. In tanci, the story is told in alternating passages of prose and rhymed metrical verse, plus comic-relief passages, singing, and instrumental accompaniment. In olden days, a story could take three months to tell, with an hour session each day: today, two weeks is usually the limit.

For the performance of tanci, mixed gender couples only became popular in the 1930s, with the general relaxation of social norms that previously had prohibited men and women from appearing together in public. Today, there are many female-female teams, as more women and fewer men are entering the field.”

“Among the minority peoples such as the Hmong (Miao), Zhuang, Yi, Yao, Molao, Dong, Tai, and Tujia, in southwestern China, there are traditions of antiphonal singing and chanting, in which lyrics are sung in turn by two or more singers:

One of the most unusual aspects of the Miao epic tradition is that the stories are related by antiphonal singing... After the song is decided, the narration begins. The challengers sing a section of the story, ending their song with a question. The opposing team then repeats much of what the first side has sung, and carries the story farther until they reach a point where a question is traditionally posed. Then it is the other team’s turn. This continues until the story is finished, or one team cannot answer a question.”

“It seems that in the late 1800s a certain public sphere arose in China which called for the construction of special storytelling recital halls, shu-chang, which typically hold 80-100 people (before then, pingtan and similar genres were performed in teahouses). Tea and snacks are served in these storyhouses. Engagements may last weeks or months: storytellers are paid on a commission basis. The stage area is usually slightly raised. The only set is a table and a few chairs. Behind the teller, at the back of the stage, there is often a painting on a screen: sometimes the painting portrays ladies and gentlemen at court. The essential stage props are two pieces of dry-sounding wood and a fan. The man’s traditional outfit is a long scholarly gown.”

“Beginning in the 1700s, storytellers formed guilds to give members an official status, regulate who would be allowed to perform in their territory, and exert control over fees and conditions in regional teahouses and later storyhouses. These guilds organized annual multi-day gatherings, called hui-shu or shu-hui, at which a number of storytellers told their best episodes. Since many storytellers moved about most of the year, these events gave them a chance to view each other’s performances and evaluate which young performers might qualify for guild membership.

Today, such gatherings are sponsored by state-sponsored storytelling troupes and are overseen by local culture bureaus (the longtime director of the Suzhou cultural bureau is a distinguished scholar of pingtan history). Gatherings are often held at the end of the year and in early spring, or for a variety of special occasions. For example, one recent gathering was organized to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mao’s famous comments about art at Yenan: many older pingtan performers chose not to attend. Another performance context was the tanghua, in which storytellers were invited to perform for a specified amount of time, ranging from one day to several weeks, in a private home or other institution. Storytellers would often be invited to perform at family festivals of the wealthy. There is an ancient tradition among housewives of having a monk come to one’s home to recite a Buddhist story during a day-long fast. Today, there may be special storytelling performances in factories, and at civic and corporate functions.”

“Among the Tai people of Southwest China, performers of the zhangkhap genre of storysinging, the Buddhist context has been particularly strong. Zhangkhap performers traditionally act as consecrators of events. Rituals of praying to the gods and paying respects to one’s teachers permeate the tradition.”

“In pre-1949 China, there were apprenticeships and guilds; now there are (state-run) academies and troupes. In the early 80s, on a wave of enthusiasm over the revival of pingtan, the aforementioned Suzhou Pingtan School reopened. The curriculum entails three years in the classroom, with classes in performance skills (singing, playing pipa [4-stringed lute](see a picture here), sanxian [3-stringed lute/banjo], and ways of speaking) and academics (Chinese literature, history, and politics). Students memorize scripts, then perform portions of them in class during tests. After coursework, students are assigned to study with a master for three to six months, sitting in on performances and gradually being asked to take part.”

“Because it takes a long time to be fully at home with a long story, the repertoire of most tanci performers was limited to one or two long stories, with a few medium-length and short stories, some of which were actually taken from the same long story. Since each master specialized in the telling of one or two long stories, which were regarded as private possession for maintaining his livelihood, the acceptance of an apprentice was, pre-1949, quite a serious matter and was conducted ceremonially.”

“An apprentice would observe his master in performance at every opportunity. There were four stages to the apprenticeship, which could last many years: 1) household duties, 2) learning a story by heart, 3) taking part in public performance, 4) graduation, marked by public performance of the learned story.

A saying went: “To memorize the master’s words a thousand times is not as effective as seeing the master in actual performance, and to see the master’s performance a thousand times is not as effective as performing it yourself.” What tied master and student so closely together was not only the ability to tell the same story, but more importantly, their knowledge that they formed the latest link in a long chain of oral tradition.”

Eric Miller, Continuity and Change in Chinese Storytelling, 2000 (dissertation).

“Suzhou tanci is a local style of professional storytelling popular in Suzhou, Shanghai, and other urban and rural areas of southern Jiangsu province. In its most popular form, a pair of performers sing and tell serial stories, often about the love affairs between gifted young scholars and beautiful, cultivated young women. [...] certain aesthetic principles guide storytellers in their performances. These include Lu Ruiting's famous Five Secrets: 'credibility,' 'intricate description,' 'strangeness,' 'flavor,' and 'compelling interest.' One pervasive concern among storytellers and audience members is the quality of qing or 'feeling' that is produced within the bounds of aesthetic expectations and referentiality in the storytelling process.”

Mark Bender, It's the Feeling: Meaning and Performance in Suzhou Pingtan Storytelling [abstract], paper presented at 'Performance, Ethnicity and Cultural Processes in China' symposium.

Resources

Continuity and Change in Chinese Storytelling. Eric Miller's fascinating 40+ page document gives lots of detail on both traditional and modern storytelling practices in such areas as The Subject Matter of Storytelling; Styles of Storytelling; Contexts and Functions of Storytelling; Training and Lifestyles of Storytellers; Media and Technology of Storytelling; Recent Storytelling-Related Experiments; and more.

Lower Yangzi Storytelling. Mark Bender gives a few more details, a couple of pictures of tancis in Yangzhou and Suzhou, and a couple of printed resources.

Songs and Gongs: Musical Storytelling and Folk Percussion. A short review of traditional performances, giving some useful details and history.

Chinese Storytelling. Very brief but interesting notes by Richard VanNess Simmons. Ignore any nonsense characters mixed into the text - they are your computer failing to display Chinese.

Liuyeqin. Picture, description and audio clip of this relative of the pipa (lute).

India

Indian culture is thoroughly steeped in storytelling, which takes many ritualised forms. Folklorists have traced many of the folktales of Europe back to Indian origins, and the oral tradition is still a vital part of religion and scripture. Here are some of the traditional forms of storytelling and narrative theatre:

Koottu (Chakyar Koottu) : ...performed by Chakyar, a community of performing artistes in Kerala ... In the ancient times these artists used to narrate stories using elaborate abhinaya and dance. The stories were taken from mythology in the form of epics and Puranas. The story is recited in a quasi-dramatic style with emphasis on eloquent declarations with appropriately suggestive facial expressions and hand gestures. The only accompaniments are the cymbals and the drum known as the mizhavu, made of copper with a narrow mouth on which is stretched a piece of parchment. While narrating the story, the narrator Chakyar singly acts out the roles of various characters in the story. This narrative form turned into Koodiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre, during the course of its evolution.”

Pandavani : ...evolved by the tribals of the Chhatisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh... to tell the story of the five Pandava brothers and considered to be of two types - Kapilak and Vedamati. A team of Pandavani performers is composed of one main narrator-singer, one or two co-singers, who also play on musical instruments like tabla and harmonium. The main singer-narrator holds a stringed musical instrument called Tambura which is decorated with small jingling bells and peacock feathers in one hand and a pair of cymbals known as Kartal on the other...”

Theatre of Narration

“Ritu Verma is a stunning singer / narrator of the epic Mahabharata, from Madhya Pradesh, India. Of the many epic singing traditions to miraculously survive in a rapidly modernising world, Central Indian 'Pandvani' is perhaps the most dramatic and accessible. A singer, wielding a single-stringed tambura emblematically adorned with peacock feathers, delivers episodes from the great Hindu epic over the tremendously energised accompaniment of four backing musicians. The telling is in a mixture of prose and song rendered dramatic by a very rich gestural style. One of the musicians takes the role of ragi - a ritualised audience representative - urging the story forwards with interjected questions and supportive vocal approval.

It is clear that the outstanding young star of the tradition is Ritu Verma. She began to perform at the age of six, directly inspired by Jhadu Ram Dewangan, the man whose creative intervention in the 1940s saved and completely revived the tradition. Now she is in her mid twenties she is at the height of her powers, able to command vast audiences with a single gesture or the raising of an eyebrow.

from the programme of Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival 2003

See the Gallery for several pictures (named Pandvani) of Ritu performing at Beyond the Border in 1995.

Tal-maddale : This narrative drama of Karnataka is predecessor of the Yakshagana , a colourful dance-drama of the region. Tal is a kind of cymbal and Maddale is a kind of drum. The chief narrator is called Bhagavata and his associates are called Arthadharis. Tal-maddale is a play without costumes, make-up, dance or acting and is performed in sitting position.”

Burra Katha : This popular narrative form of Andhra Pradesh is the the story narrated on the beat of Burra drum. The traditional performers of the Burra katha believe that they are descendants of Valmiki, the composer of the epic Ramayana.”

Gondhal : In Maharashtra, the dramatic narration of mythological stories, hero-lauds and folk legends form a part of a ritual dedicated to various deities. This interesting ritual with its narrative performance has deeply influenced the dramatic and narrative traditions in Maharashtra and its neighbouring regions.”

Keertan : Keertan is the most popular narrative form which is prevalent in almost all parts of the country under different names such as Katha Kalakshepam, Harikatha etc. Keerta is fame, reputation and its derivative Keertan means to laud, extol, exalt, worshipping of the deity by chanting his praises, celebrating the praises of god with music and singing.”

Powada : In Maharashtra the narrative hero-laud is called Powada. The first available Powada in Marathi was written on the thrilling episode of Shivaji killing his enemy Afzal Khan. The tradition of Powada singing was kept alive by the folk singers of Maharashtra known as Gondhalis and Shahirs. The Powada is presented in a most dramatic manner. High pitch singing and melodramatic acting is its soul.”

Picture Showmen : The Picture Showman in ancient India was known as Mankha, and this art of narrating the story with the help of pictures was known as Mankha Vidha. This art dates back to 6th century B.C.”

Theatre of Narration

There is a tradition in Rajasthan, India, and possibly elsewhere too, called par or pard or pata, which illustrates the story with tapestry-like painted or embroidered cloths which can be very beautiful, and may be uncovered or unrolled progressively with the story. See Resources below for more description, and also the entry on Iran, for the related Pardehdari tradition.

A ... tradition in India is that of rural storytelling associated with ritual paintings. Pabuji’s Phad and Debnarayan Phad, for instance, are large cloth paintings in Rajasthan, wherein tales of heroism are depicted. These are supposed to ward off pestilent diseases. Yam Pat in Bihar is another instance of a pictorial tale, describing life after death, connected with mourning rituals.

Utpal K. Banerjee, Traditional Rituals in Indian Art

“According to Dhriti Bagchi, modern culture has already greatly impacted indigenous artists like those that create pata, traditional scroll paintings that are the basis for storytelling and song. 'The scroll is a script for a folk story,' she explained. 'The scroll painter, or patua, creates a song for the story. It’s a form of oral history. They used to sit and paint and sing under a banyan tree in their village and people would come and watch,' she said. 'It still happens, but now there’s a VCR hanging in the tree. Technology has replaced the patua.'“

Gloria Stravelli, Bengali art finds a home in Monmouth County

Garodas : In Gujarat the art of narrating stories with the help of painted pictures is practised by the members of the Garoda community. It is performed with a paper scroll with pictures painted in water colour one below the other and separated with a thick black line.”

Oja-Pali : ...uses many dramatic techniques to illustrate the narrative and enhance its visual impact. This art form is associated with the Manasa (serpent goddess in Assam) worship. The performers take many days to narrate the story which is divided into three parts - Deva Khanda, Baniya Khanda and Bhatiyali Khanda. The Oja is the main narrator-singer and the Palis are his associates or members of his chorus. There is yet another type of Oja-Pali parties in Assam which is known as the Vyah-Gowa Oja-Pali. They narrate stories from the Assamese version of Puranas and the epics.”

Puppetry : ...The basic four kinds of puppets are glove, string, rod and shadow. The glove puppets are found mainly in Orissa and Kerala, ...called Kundhei Nacha. Kerala glove puppets are more ornate... Their performance is known as Pava Koothu. The stories of this theatre are mainly Radha-Krishna stories and Ramayana.”

Villu Pattu : This form of recitation (using bow-shaped musical instrument) of Tamil Nadu developed in the 15th century. ...Seven to eight persons ... form a chorus that supports the main singer-narrator. The stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata and the puranas are told in this ballad style songs.”

Daskathia and Chhaiti Ghoda : ... flourished in Orissa. ...a devotee narrates a story dramatically to the accompaniment of a wooden musical instrument called kathia. This is a two-narrator-performer show ; Gayaka (chief singer) and Palia (assistant) who is the co-narrator. Chhaiti Ghoda troupe of performers is made up of two players on dhol (drum) and mohuri musical instruments and three characters. A dummy horse is improvised out of bamboo and cloth and the dancer enters into the hollow body and dances, while the main singer with co-singer delivers discourses, mainly from mythology.”

Theatre of Narration

In Bengal, the Bauls (pronounced bowuls) follow an esoteric mystical path of minstrelsy, which combines elements of Sufism, Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism. Their ecstatic songs lean more towards poetry than story, though they are full of parables, but their tradition is closely related to that of European troubadours which likewise concealed a mystical path and a teaching expressed through symbolic songs of Divine love. Like the Sufis, they are known as Holy Fools, deliberately flouting convention. Purna Das Baul is one of the best-known, and has performed widely in the West too, with many top Western music stars.

“Bauls are Indian wandering minstrels of West Bengal whose ecstatic songs and dance reflect their joy, love and longing for mystical union with the Divine. To them the human body is the holiest of holies wherein the Divine is intimately enshrined as the "Moner Manush",the man of the heart. Baul philosophy emphasises love for all human beings as the path leading to the Divine Love. Romantic love to the Baul is the link between the human being and God. In fact, they believe that God is the eternal lover of the eternal woman which is the human soul. The word "Baul" is derived from the Sanskrit word "Batul" which means "mad" [afflicted with the wind] . Bauls are free thinkers who openly declare themselves to be mad for the God who dwells within us all.

Notes on Purna Das Baul, Sedona Creative Life Center

It is worth noting that the above symbolism of the soul, in both men and women, as being a woman, is a teaching also held almost universally in mystical traditions of the Middle East and the West, in Sufism (mystical Islam), Christianity, Judaism and others. It is this symbolism which gives rise to the traditional 'princess' character in Western fairytales. Feminists and others who only see the female figures in such tales as literal women, portraying out-of-date female roles, unfortunately entirely miss the deeper and gender-free truths hidden in the ancient and precise language of symbols.

Resources

Theatre of Narration - a glossary of the many forms of storytelling in India, including dramatised. Follow the link to Folk Theatre also, to learn about the many other forms of dramatic and dance storytelling. The rest of the site has much else of interest about Indian traditional culture and performance.

Traditional Rituals in Indian Art - This expert commentary makes only passing reference to storytelling (halfway down the page), but puts the Indian ritual use of ritual art into perspective.

Tales of Pabuji : a Rajasthani tradition. - Video produced by Bhopo Productions. New York, NY : Filmakers Library, 1996. A documentary of an ancient storytelling tradition which is still ongoing in northwestern India. It tells the epic of Lord Pabuji whose exploits have been recounted for over 600 years in the state of Rajasthan. The storyteller or Bhopo stands in front of an immense brilliantly painted mural called a pard, containing all the characters and events of the legend. He plays on his homemade fiddle, dances, and chants episodes of the epic to his village audience.

The Song of the Holy Fools - long article from the Guardian, giving detailed information and a first-hand portrait of the life and customs of the Bauls, though with little hint of any storytelling aspect.

Bauls of Bengal - More details, especially on the mystical way of life.

Purna Das Baul Academy - Only brief information on Bauls, but with photos and links to explore.

The Bauls of Bengal - A scholarly article, giving more history and interesting detail.

Iran

“Naghali is narrating of a story or an event in verse or prose with special tone, feelings and expression. A naghal (storyteller), playing the roles of different characters by himself, usually narrates epics and mythical stories in coffee houses [Ghahve-khanes]. Naghali still survives and naghal narrate stories taken from Ferdowsi's Shah Nameh and other ancient stories. Naghal are divided into two groups: those narrating all kinds of stories and those just narrating stories from Shah Nameh (Shahnameh khani). Naghali has been common all over Iran since the Safavid dynasty.”

Ms. Laleh Taghian, Center of Dramatic Arts, Tehran

Coffeehouses were the main forums for cultural interactions between people. As a performing artist, Nagal had to possess a good oratorical and singing voice as well as theatrical talent. Above all, the Nagal relied on his imagination a great deal, to improvise according to the audience's feedback and add to the original tales that he was reciting. He would also acquire inspiration from the images and pictures fixed on the walls -pictures of religious leaders, sport heroes, epic characters- and appropriate them into his narrative.”

Shahin Parhami, Iranian Cinema: Before the Revolution

“Pardehdari is a kind of Naghali (story-telling) which is performed [by Pardeh-khani] mostly in the streets and in mobile form. There is a hanging piece of cloth on which some scenes of a story are printed. The pardehdar (story-teller) narrates the story with a demonstration of the scenes. This kind of narration is used for epics as well as religious stories.”

Ms. Laleh Taghian, Center of Dramatic Arts, Tehran

The very popular Pardehdari (also called Pardeh-Khani, narrated by a Pardeh-Khan) occurs in eastern and central Iran. A similar tradition exist in Rajasthan, India, where it is called Par (see the section on India), and possibly elsewhere too. These tapestry-like painted or embroidered cloths can be very beautiful, and may be uncovered or unrolled progressively with the story.

Khorasan

Khorasan occupies the east of Iran, and itself has a diverse culture. In the north, bakhshi (epic singers) narrate and sing dastans (stories in Turkish) accompanying themselves on the dotar (long-necked two-stringed lute), and also sing in Kurdish about the historical deeds of local figures. In the east of Khorasan there are no bakhshi.

Resources

Traditional Persian Music: Bakhshi - a short but valuable page giving much detail on the customs, training and spiritual role of the bakhshi epic singers who can be found in almost all of Central Asia, among the Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek, and Turkmen people as well as in Afghanistan, Tajik-Arab and in Xinjiang.

Naghali - A photo of a current Naghal in a coffeehouse, plus brief information from the Data Bank on Traditional/Folk Performing Arts in Asia and the Pacific.

Pardehdari - Brief information from the Data Bank on Traditional/Folk Performing Arts in Asia and the Pacific. Includes a very indistinct photo of Pardehdari; a clearer photo, of Rajasthani Par, can be seen here.

Center of Dramatic Arts, Vahdat Hall, Ostad shahnar St., Hatez Ave., Tehran, Iran.

Japan

There was a tradition in the 10th - 15th centuries of prophetic, itinerant, blind bards, called biwa-hoshi, playing the biwa to accompany epic narratives, usually about the adventures and battles of the samurai.

Street-storytelling is traditional in various places around Asia. A custom popular in the first half of the twentieth century, though it started three centuries ago and can be traced back to earlier Asian picture-storytelling traditions, was kamishibai ('paper drama') using sets of large printed or painted cards to illustrate the story, which had around 25,000 practitioners by 1950.

“The kamishibai storyteller [gaito kamishibaiya-san] was also a candy seller. Riding a bicycle equipped with a small stage for showing the story cards, he would enter a village or neighborhood, dismount and loudly strike together two wooden clappers [hyoshigi] or allow a lucky child to do so. The sound was a signal for children to run from their homes and gather around him for story time. Those who bought candy got to stand nearest to the stage. Then, in a dramatic manner, he would start to tell 2-3 kamishibai episodes. He would not tell the whole story! The stories were told as continuing serials, that is, he would always stop at an exciting moment, leaving the children impatient for his next visit. With the advent of television in 1953, the itinerant storyteller gradually disappeared from Japan's streets. In recent years, however, kamishibai have enjoyed a renaissance in Japanese schools, libraries and culture centers.”

Kamishibai for Kids

“Street storytellers in China clapped together two pieces of wood to announce their arrival and the start of their story, just as wooden hyoshigi clappers are used in kamishibai. In India, China, and Japan, monks utilized pictures to illustrate their lectures and religious stories.”

Linda Freeman, The History of Kamishibai

Various forms of entertainment take place in yose (small theatres), which are popular enough to draw three million people a year. Rakugo and Kodan are both traditional forms of storytelling which are held in the yose:

Rakugo is a type of comic storytelling that has been termed "sit-down comedy" by some in the West, and it is still practiced today. Like many Japanese traditions it has a tightly defined and ritualised form. The Rakugoka remains sitting (actually kneeling to Western eyes) alone on stage and uses a paper fan and a hand-towel as props, inventively wielded to illustrate scenes in the story. The stories are intricate comedies involving dialogue between characters, and thousands of them can be traced back centuries, many to as early as the 13th century, when Rakugo began to evolve as an entertainment for feudal rulers.

Rakugo has had a resurgence in popularity since 2003, and now young Japanese are attending performances as well as older audiences. The performance group Rokunin-no-Kai led by Shinosuke Tatekawa, and the Daiginza Rakugo Festival in Ginza have been helping create new audiences.

Kodan (historical narrative) is a style of telling military tales and heroic exploits, in an accessible way not unlike a history lecture. The performer is less conversational than in Rakugo, and uses props including a paper fan and a shakudai (small desk).

Also held in the yose are other styles related to storytelling:

Rokyoku (recitation) is the telling of a tale with talk and song, accompanied by the shamisen, a small long-necked three-stringed lute. The stories often tell of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, of quarrels, martial arts, and military adventures, and were popular on records and the radio in the mid-twentieth century. Konto is the recitation of short stories.

Resources

Kamishibai for Kids - A little history and background, and an illustration of the bicycle-stage, from a USA firm selling sets of the large illustrated cards with the stories.

The History of Kamishibai - A short but more detailed history, with large bibliography and various web-links.

Tokyo Tidbits: Kamishibai - A couple of photos of a table-top kamishibai stage in action.

The International Kamishibai Association of Japan - A brief site with basic information in English. Address is International Kamishibai Association of Japan (IKAJA) 1-2-2-604 Hakusan, Asao-ku, Kawasaki, Kanagawa, 215-0014 Japan.

Rakugo (Wikipedia) - A detailed summary of the form and its history. Rakugo in English - a wonderful video demonstration of the tradition and its elements, with commentary in English. It shows the comic precision use of props, facial expressions, and the evoking of movements without ever rising from sitting. See the related videos box for the preceding and following parts of this demonstration.

Popular Performing Arts - Japanese Culture and Art Online - A potted summary of engei - theatrical entertainment styles including storytelling, with links to mainly Japanese-language organisations.

Kazakhstan

Here the epic singers are called jyrau, accompanying themselves on dombra (a two-stringed lute) or ghijak (the four-stringed instrument of poets). Currently Uljan Baïbussynova teaches epic chant and dombra in Almaty, and she is one of the disciples of the first female jyrau, Chamchat Toulepova. Almas Almatov is perhaps the most eminent jyrau - see the Gallery page for his photo.

The jyrau also engage in contests of skill in wit and virtuosity of improvisational inspiration - for more details see entry for Turkey.

Korea

UNESCO recently declared Korean P'Ansori to be 'a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage'.

P'Ansori (Korean “story singing”) A form of sung folk narrative. The form seems to have originated during the reign of Sukchong (1675–1720). Once a narrative performance that incorporated shamanistic chants, p'ansori became a vehicle for treating popular customs and everyday life. Six of the original 12 titles were revised by the master p'ansori writer Sin Chaehyo, of which five are still performed.”

'P'Ansori,' Encyclopædia Britannica, 2004.

[P'Ansori] is performed by a solo singer, either male or female, accompanied by a barrel drummer [the drum is a puk]. The singer presents a dramatic story through songs or sori, narrations or aniri and gestures or pallim using a fan and handkerchief as symbolic props. [See Rakugo tradition, Japan.] Before the start of the p'ansori proper, which may take several hours, or as much as eight to ten, the singer sings an introductory song with a lyrical text or tan'ga as a warm-up exercise. In performance, both the drummer and audience make calls of encouragement or ch'uimsae at appropriate phrase endings. The role of the audience in p'ansori performance is so indispensable that the traditional saying 'First comes the drummer and second the singer' is sometimes rephrased as ‘First comes the audience, second the drummer and third the singer'.”

“The shamanist chant from the southwestern province of Korea is known to be a predecessor of p'ansori, and p'ansori, in its turn, influenced shamanist chants in the late nineteenth century.”

“The new genre kayagûm pyôngch'ang - singing accompanied by a twelve-stringed zither - developed at the beginning of the twentieth century as a result of a ‘marriage' between p'ansori and instrumental music.”

“The theatrical adaptation of p'ansori gave rise to a new genre called ch'anggûk at the beginning of the twentieth century. Whereas p'ansori focuses on a lineal representation of the story delivered by a solo singer, ch'anggûk emphases a realistic representation of the story through a multiple cast of singers, dancers, acting, costumes, and stage settings as well as an elaboration of the musical medium with an orchestral accompaniment and chorus.”

“In the second half of the nineteenth century, upper class patrons, who held the economic and political power, had considerable control over the text and repertoire of p'ansori. Their preoccupation with ‘appropriate' p'ansori texts contributed to the refinement of the literary content of p'ansori, in opposition to the interests of lower class audiences and p'ansori musicians. Unfortunately this process also led to the decrease of the p'ansori repertoire: those pieces of p'ansori with obscene and vulgar texts and themes did not survive Confucian censorship. The main themes of the five remaining traditional p'ansori pieces coincide with the five ethical codes derived from Confucian ideology, namely: ‘loyalty to the King', ‘filial piety to parents', ‘fidelity to husband', ‘brotherhood', and ‘sincerity to friends'.”

Hae-kyung Um, 'Food for body and soul; Measuring the dialectics of performance'. Oideion; Performing arts online, issue 3 (July 1999).

“The rough sounds [of Korean music] reflect the idea, popular to all of East Asia, that musical sounds should be complex, to reflect the complex sounds of nature. In Korean musical sounds, one can often hear a strong breathy sound, similar to the human breath. Another sound quality which is valued is raspiness. One of the best examples of the raspy sound of Korean music is in the art of musical epic storytelling, p’ansori.

These musical storytellers would spend up to eight hours telling a single epic, long into the night. The storytellers were only one type of kwangdae, who were a special outcaste class of poor, wandering entertainers: others were acrobats, musicians, clowns, etc. P’ansori is thought to have originated in the shamanistic religious ceremonies of Southwestern Korea, where priests would tell elaborate stories in speech and song to please the spirits and teach their human followers.

The training for p’ansori is extremely difficult—in old times, some singers had to stand under a waterfall and scream until their voice broke. Performers undergo lengthy and difficult training in order to memorize the long song texts, and to develop a strong, raspy voice, by wearing down their vocal chords. In the course of their training and performance career, they gradually develop a personal style that is distinct from that of their teacher. In order to aid this process, singers have one principle teacher but learn from others as well.”

Traditions of Change, Washington State Arts Commission

Resources

'Food for body and soul' - Sections 3 and 4 of this academic ethnomusicological paper on performance and p'ansori contain useful details and history, as well as three video clips of p'ansori.

P'Ansori (Korea's Epic Vocal Art & Instrumental Music) - Various Artists , Nonesuch, Jan 1995. CD of story singing.

Traditions of Change - P'Ansori - The first of three pages; click the 'next' buttons for the others. Some fascinating details and a photo; the second page gives an excerpt of one of the stories; the third gives several audio clips of the raspy-voiced telling and drumming, plus a picture, and details of drum patterns.

The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts is the successor to Korean court-music intitutes stretching back to at least the eighth century. CDs from their archives have been released on the Musique du Monde label, including some P'Ansori.

Ladakh

The national epic is Kesar's Saga, or Tales of Kesar - known in Tibet as Gesar of Ling (see Tibet for description and resources).

“Bards from the villages recite the Tales of Kesar, and daughters of each household learn the tales and recite them at home in the evenings.”

Guida M. Jackson, Traditional Epics. OUP 1994.

Laos

For information on lamlao - a folk-music form with possibly some storytelling relevance, see Thailand below.

Mongolia

The bardic art of epic-singing is called Tuul' in Mongolia, and üligers are the orally transmitted epic stories in verse.

“The tradition of professional reciting of epic tales is continued to this day in Mongolia. Among the most popular rhapsodists are B. Urtnasan and of the Urianhai; D. Jamyan of the Dorvod; T. Enkhbalsan of the Zahchin; and D. Olzii, H. Tsherenchimed, Z. Chuluunbaatar, Tc. Tcerendorj of the Halh. Mongolian epic tales are performed in three main centers: the Halh and Oirad in the Mongolia, the Buryat and Kalmyk in the Russian Federation, and the Barag-Ordos, Horchin-Zarud and Xinjiang-Gansu in PRC.”

“One of the most ancient epics is that of the four-year-old deer with 24-branch antlers, the story of Huuheldei Mergen Khan, who goes out hunting one day and kills a deer which happens to have antlers with 24 branches. The beauty of the animal he has killed enchants the Khan and, seized by remorse, he carries the head of the deer to the peak of a towering mountain and for three years offers sacrifices. One day, before the very eyes of the Khan, the deer's head soars into the sky, leaving behind a rainbow-like trail. Huuheldei Mergen, charmed by this sight, destroys his weapons, and jumps from a high cliff in an attempt to commit suicide. However, three flying deer-heads appear and carry him up to heaven. "Geser" is a monumental heroic poem, created by the Mongolian people. This is confirmed by the Mongolian, Ordos and Buryat versions of this epic.” [Please note: if Geser is a version of Gesar of Ling, then that epic is originally Tibetan - see Tibet.]

“By its compositional structure and plot, the epic tale is a highly complex work. Hence every epic, usually named after the main hero, may exist in different versions. The 25 songs in the Kalmyk, the more than 30 songs in the Halh and the more than 60 songs in the Torgut versions of the well-known Jangar epic are in essence different interpretations of the same songs and tales.”

Mr. Yundenbat Sonom-Ish, Executive Director, Mongolian National Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage

“Mongols distinguish between different types of rhapsody, depending on the way the epic genre is to be recreated. A specialist in "recitation" of one or more epics is called tuul'c ("he who knows the epic" [tuul']), whereas someone else, who accompanies himself on the fiddle displaying his musical talent, will be called quurc ("he who knows how to play the fiddle" [quur]). In the high Altay mountains, epic songs and songs of praise are performed by the tuul'c bards, in a tessitura restricted to a pentatonic scale. Vocal timbre can be natural (ayalaq style) or deliberately produced (qaylaq style). The rhythm is syllabic and reinforced by the instrumental accompaniment of a lute (tobšuur) with two nylon strings.”

Alain Desjacques, liner notes to CD 'Chants Kazakh et Tradition épique de L’Ouest'

“Epics are a classic genre of Mongolian folklore. They are rooted in epic songs which depict the velour of courageous heroes of the 10th century, and in the 12th and 13th centuries they flourished and large epic songs and long verse epics were created. In this Mongolia was distinguished among Asian countries, and the epics "Geseriada" and "Jangar" were created, ranking with supreme world poetry such as the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" of Greece, and the "Mahabharata" and "Ramayana" of India.

In the development of epics the ideology of the emperor Genghis Khan's state had great impact and played an important part in revealing the powerful and heroic events and aspirations of the steppe nobles.

The inheritance of the Mongolian people's epic has become more and more enriched, and epics such as "Bum Erdene", "Khan Kharankhui", "Daini Khurel" and "Dsul Aldarkhan" which depict the prosperity of the people, were created and handed down to the people of present-day Mongolia by contemporary reciters of epic songs like Jilkher and Parchin. Their successor, epic-teller B. Avirmed, has recited epic literature in our day and for this merit he was awarded the 1991 State Prize of Mongolia.”

D. Shandagdorji, P. Khorloo, N. Zantsannorov, Introduction to Mongolian Art, Folk Tradition, and Music

“As far as we know, having more then 20 cantos of the Jangar epic in his repertoire, singer Arimpil (1923-1994) was the most prominent illiterate singer in the tradition. Using his Hündü Gartai Sabar In Bülüg as a sample (652 lines in verse), we found that Arimpil used incredible number of epithets and other kinds of formulas to compose his poem, though it was a short and simple story (27 minutes in performance). Creating analytical models to match Mongolian versification, we found that epithets cover 173 lines, which occupy 26.5% of the entire poem. Besides epithets, fixed formulas concerning steed, weapon, palace and localities, numerals and directions, and many other things were used in his singing as well. All in all, Arimpil and many other Mongolian epic singers possess traditional skills to compose their poems, and the core of the skills is formulaic diction.”

Chao Gejin, Formulaic Density in Arimpil's Jangar Epic Singing [abstract], Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China

The epic-singers also engage in contests of skill in wit and virtuosity of improvisational inspiration - for more details see entry for Turkey.

Resources

Tuul' - Brief information from the very useful Data Bank on Traditional/Folk Performing Arts in Asia and the Pacific. Includes a photo of an epic singer and his lute. Mentions printed and audio-visual resources.

King Gesar of Ling is the longest epic in the world, collected as a work composed of more than 120 volumes, with more than 1 million verses (25 times the length of the Iliad). It originated in Tibet, but spread also to Mongolia. This excellent site gives much detail on the epic and the Tibetan bards that sing it, with photos.

Mongolian National Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage, Baga toiruu 22, Ulaanbaatar 46, P. O. Box 46/660, Mongolia. This centre's studies include the art and practice of epic.

'Chants Kazakh et Tradition épique de L’Ouest' (Various artists) : Ocora C580051. Collected by Alain Desjacques. Contains five tracks of Mongolian bardic epic singing. This page gives the extensive and informative liner notes. Also visit the site's Vocal Music of Mongolia page for more notes on epic.

Mongolia. Living Music of the Steppes - This page gives a half-minute audio clip of very tuneful epic singing - listen to Audio 1. The page reviews a CD with seven tracks of epic singing.

Introduction to Mongolian Art, Folk Tradition, and Music - a brief overview, including a little on epics.

'JANGAR Epic', compiled by T. Dugersuren, Poligraf Publishing Press, Ulaanbaatar, 2000, 704 pages. US$18.00, ISBN:99929-5-032-2. This book of the epic consists of 35,000 lines, compared to Homer’s Iliad of 15,693 lines.

Mongolian Music, Dance & Oral Narrative, Carole Pegg, University of Washington Press, 2001.

Sakha Republic (Yakutia)

Comprising most of eastern Siberia, Sakha (pronounced sa-HA) is as big as India and as empty and remote as Iceland. This is the largest of the autonomous republics of the Russian Federation and one of the coldest places on earth. The Yakuts descend from Turkic nomads who were related to the Uighurs and the Kyrghyz.

With a culture related to other Turkic people's, heroic epic is important to the Yakuts, and is called Olonkho (pronounced O-lan-HOE). They average 10 - 15 thousand poetic lines, reaching up to 20,000 or more.

Olonkho are performed without accompaniment, there being no native instruments, usually at festivals, over several nights. The monologues of the Olonkho heroes are sung, the rest is recited in a fast singsong voice, always by solo men. In Olonkho songs the roles are distinguished by various timbres and tones: the songs of the heroes by bass, young bogatyrs by tenor, and the abaasy (evil spirit) bogatyrs of the lower world by a deliberately incorrect rough voice.

Both the Yakut and the Dolgan (a reindeer-breeding ethnic group) greatly revere storytellers. They particularly favour animal tales that tell about the origin of the different clans.

“The narration of the Olonkho starts with kidnapping by the evil character - abaasy - of the hero's sister or with Aiyy people requesting to protect a girl from the abaasy. In some others the hero himself departs to look for a wife. On his way he meets all sorts of difficulties. The hero has to defeat the abaasy - terrible monsters, who are often one-eyed and one-legged. The fight occurs in the form of a single combat: when the weapon is not helping, they use their fists. The hero (although just like abaasy) has a talent of turning into different animals and things, and in those appearances he overcomes huge distances, high mountains, fire seas, etc. Having defeated all his enemies, the hero marries. Then new adventures related to their return start. Finally, the hero returns to his homeland. Since then he is not into heroic deeds any more, but lives quietly, takes care of his homestead and brings into the world big posterity.”

Sakha-Yakutia Culture

Resources

Sakha-Yakutia Culture - a fairly detailed introduction, including a little history, mythology, cosmology, and the storyline and content of Olonkho.

Olonkho - a short overview of the subject. The link to the Ysyakh summer solstice festival, where 'uncontrolled happiness' and Olonkho contests take place, shows some beautiful photos of the Yakut people, though none apparently of epic-singing.

Olonkho text here is the full text of just the first song of Olonkho, nevertheless very long.

All About Yakutia - mainly geo-political facts etc. but there's a summary of the creation myth and some details of the Ysyakh festival.

Syria

“Al Hakawati is a Syrian term for poet, actor, comedian, historian and storyteller. Its root is hikayah, a fable or story, or haka, to tell a story. He sits on a stage facing his audience, sometimes reciting from memory, sometimes interjecting poems and jokes and sometimes reading the text. He always performs in coffee houses.”

Zaher Bitar, Steeped In History: A Telling Story

“The tradition of the hakawati (storyteller) thrives in the 200-year-old Nofara (or Al Nafura) Café behind the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus through the year but especially during Ramadan.

Abu Shadi, the last storyteller of Damascus, and one of the last professional hakawatis in the Arab world, says: "I took this job from my father back in the early 1970s. I am now an icon of Damascus. Around the world people know me and come to Nofara to hear my stories of Arab chivalry.”

Sami Moubayed, A revival of tradition

“The hakawati is usually paid by owners of the coffee shop in which he works. It was a popular entertainment in Syria up to the 1920s, when French colonisers introduced the radio. Their popularity began to gradually drop until the art form was taken over by TV in 1960.

The hakawati at Nofara comes to work approximately an hour after iftar and begins to read from an old tome. It is the love story of Abla and Antara Ibn Shaddad, a celebrated 6th-century, pre-Islamic era warrior and poet.”

Sami Moubayed, A revival of tradition

“Facing his audience, book in one hand, sword in another, Abu Shadi recites from his old text and sometimes interjects jokes and commentary.

He often tells short, self-contained excerpts from his stories – the full versions take a year and a half to tell.

He holds the crowd fascinated with exaggerated inflections, outrageous acting and spontaneous non sequiturs. He punctuates his words with shouts and slightly dangerous slashes of a short sword.

He speaks in colloquial Arabic - with an occasional switch to the accent of a character he is voicing.

Aware of the lost tradition he represents, every night he wears the traditional costume of Hakawati – sirwal (Sindbad-style trousers), hizam (sash), shirt, vest and tarboush (fez), the same costume worn by storytellers during the profession's peak at the time of the Ottoman Empire.”

Zaher Bitar, Steeped In History: A Telling Story

Resources

A Revival of Tradition - Article on three traditional professions during Ramadan.

Steeped In History: A Telling Story - A useful and descriptive article about hakawati Abu Shadi.

Derew, Temo, Playasound PS 65272, 2003. Temo is a Syrian Kurd, now living in France, playing on this CD from the Kurdish bardic repertoire, accompanying himself on tembur (saz).

Thailand

The tradition of mor lam or morlam (literally, 'expert song') has spread from the Isaan culture of northeastern Thailand and Laos (where it is called lamlao - Lao song). Much is sung in Thai, but Isaan (Lao) is common too. This is a folk music tradition, with, I suspect, some roots in the song of wandering bards [see Cambodia], but it has driving music, and dancers are an integral part. Mor lam has modernised, and comes in urban and rural varieties, though neither are easy to find. Story is a part of this music, though I'm not sure that it is particularly a storytelling tradition.

Resources

Morlam - A thorough page detailing the current state of mor lam, with descriptions of the form and structure of the songs, music, and dance, plus where to find recordings.

Tibet

The national epic is the great epic Gesar of Ling - about the magical King Gesar which is also known throughout the Himalayas. This vast work is still alive orally today, and at twenty-five times as long as the huge Iliad of Homer it has around a million lines, surely the longest epic in the world. It consists of around 180 episodes, of which thirty are 'long episodes'. Each long episode takes three months to recite. Obviously no one person can know or recite the whole epic, but this is normal with the very longest epics, and indeed in many cultures the bard rarely recites an epic from beginning to end but performs an episode appropriate to the occasion.

The national epic of Ladakh is also Gesar in the form of Kesar's Saga, or Tales of Kesar (see Ladakh).

“There exists also, an ancient tradition of drungpas and drungmas. These are the visionary bards who "discover" Gésar material as terma or spiritual treasure. In 'The Saltmen of Tibet' (the prize-winning film by Ulrike Koch, Zeitgeist Films, 1997) the singer of the epic of Gesar of Ling is a drungma called Yumen. Her version was transmitted to her during a dream she had at a turning point in a serious illness when she was a 16 year-old herder.

Mircea Eliade (Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Bollingen Foundation, 1964) said that in cultures relying on the oral tradition, the myths are recited only during periods of sacred time. 'Among the Turco-Mongols and the Tibetans, the epic songs of the Gesar cycle can be recited only at night and in winter.'

Then, 'Before the recitation begins, a space is prepared by being powdered with roasted barley flour [tsampa.] The audience sit around it. The bard recites the epic for several days. They say that in former times the hoof prints of Gesar's horse appeared in the prepared space.'

In 'The Saltmen of Tibet', Yumen, who is venerated in Tibet and also in China where she has been accorded 'living treasure' status, sings an especially lilting section of the Gesar epic known as The Song of Ma Nene Karmo. This song is used as a device by the director to introduce us to the worldview or spiritual context of the salt collectors.”

Khandro Net, About Gesar of Ling

Resources

About Gesar of Ling - This long and rich page gives much background, history and cultural details. There are also linked pictures of Gesar, pages on Buddhist symbolism, other Tibetan Buddhist tales, and of further resources. Unfortunately the online audio of a radio interview with a contemporary bardic teller of Gesar is no longer available, though the BBC could provide a tape (East Asia Today, 11th Feb 23) to anyone interested.

Turkey

“A very old folk tradition that thrives to this day is ozan, the music of the folk-poets of Anatolia, who are usually referred to as ashiks, meaning 'the ones in love' [with the Divine]. The ashiks have wandered the plains of Anatolia since around the tenth century, putting music to the words of legendary poets like Yunus Emre, Pir Sultan Abdal and Sefil Ali, as well as writing their own songs. Ashiks belong to the Bektasi / Alevi faith, which combines wisdom with warmth, and stresses unity, understanding and equality between men and women. Despite this - or perhaps not surprisingly - many ashiks have been the subject of mistrust and contempt from orthodox Sunni Muslims and secular authority...

Ashiks accompany themselves on the saz, a long-necked lute, with three sets of strings, said to represent the fundamental trinity of the Muslim faith: Allah, Mohammed and Ali. There are flourishing Ashik cafes in Erzurum and Kars, in eastern Turkey where the spontaneity and wit are nourished by appreciative audiences. The ultimate experience... is a contest between two good ashiks where they both play a song and compete with alternating lines, improvising witty jibes and mixing them with sayings from ancient poetry. The audience judges the players on humour, the beauty and aptness of the poetry, and instrumental improvisation. But the judgement is never conclusive.

Today a large number of ashiks make cassettes, and even more play the villages and towns of central Anatolia.” [See the book for specific details and recommendations.]

Ferhat Boratov & David Muddyman, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

“Asiks are Turkish bards, bearers of an ancient tradition of minstrelsy that includes singing, storytelling, poem making and inspired verbal duelling. Traditionally, a youth destined to be an asik would have a dream in which he receives a cup of sweet drink (bade) from the hand of a beautiful girl. From that moment on the young man is an asik and wakes up divinely inspired to make verses and sing songs in praise of the beautiful young lady who is his muse.

Seref Tasliova is one of the leading asiks in Turkey - and one of the last of a rapidly declining number. His name means 'honourable'. An Azeri shepherd from Kars in Eastern Turkey, he has won many gold medals at bardic festival competitions through his skill in spontaneous verse making and story-making contests. He is also hugely respected for his ability to perform sections of the great Turkic epic of Koroglu, accompanying himself of the saz (the traditional long-necked six-stringed lute of Turkey).

As a skilled exponent of atisma (tests) Seref Tasliova frequently takes part in improvised verbal bouts with fellow asik Murat Cobanoglu. These tests involve ritualised verse insulting (flyting) and the spontaneous composition of verses with a needle between the lips.”

from the programme of Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival 2003

I have been present at such a contest between Seref and Murat - they are breathtaking. The purpose of the needle mentioned above is that one has to therefore avoid including any words that contain consonants that make the lips close. Naturally, one's lips close instinctively when they need to and most people could not stop themselves in time to avoid being pierced right through. But the asiks cannot afford to concentrate simply on avoiding those consonants because they are simultaneously composing verses beautiful enough to outdo the other, in strict metre, and on a subject chosen by the challenger. Murat's own name contains such a problem consonant and he must invent other ways to refer to himself.

“Such trials of skill are most notable among the Kyrgyz, Kazaks, and Mongols. The contests follow strict rules of versification, musicality, and procedure. Often the loser must pay a forfeit to the victor, who receives acclaim from the audience and gifts from wealthy patrons; a singer's reputation may be made or broken in a single afternoon. Frequently a contestant will vilify the clan championed by the opposing singer and laud his own faction.”

Encyclopædia Britannica, 2000.

“After the Seljuks, during the Ottoman Period, a court marriage, the birth of a new prince or a circumcision, the ascension of a new ruler, the triumph of a warrior, departure for a new conquest, the arrival of a foreign ambassador or guest provided occasions for public festivities where dramatic and comic shows and dances were performed. The Meddah or Story teller, a clever impersonator reciting a dramatically presented story with appropriate gestures and voice modulation suggesting more than one person, was one of the elements of Folk Theatre.”

Traditional Folk Theatre, Turkish Government website

The Kurds

“Of Turkey's population of some 55 million, around ten million are Kurds. Their folklore and national identity are preserved with the help of the dengbej (bards), stranbej (popular singers) and cirokbej (storytellers). A dengbej is a singer with an exceptional memory, effectively the guardian of the Kurdish national heritage, since he must know hundreds of songs for which there is no written notation. Dengbejs sing the Kurdish myths and legends, sing about the struggle for freedom, and also have in their repertoire love and entertainment songs. Sadly some of the best Kurdish dengbej, like Sivan Perwar and Temo, now live in exile abroad.

The main instruments used in Kurdish music are wind instruments, such as the blur and the düdük, found in the mountainous regions where they take advantage of the echo from the hills, and string instruments such as the tembur and the saz, used in the towns.”

Ferhat Boratov & David Muddyman, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

Tembur is Kurdish for saz, though there may be a slight difference in the instruments too.

[See also Syria for more Kurdish information.]

Resources

Sivan Perwer, Sivan Perwer, Caprice CAP 21614, 2004. Sivan Perwer from south-east Turkey is a leading Kurdish minstrel (presumably a dengbej) and music star but lives in exile in Sweden - Kurdish music was outlawed in Turkey for many years and even now is legally limited to love songs. This CD includes traditional love songs with tembur, accompanied by a four-piece traditional folk band.

Turkmenistan

A country of 4,400,000 people, speaking mainly Turkmen, with a few Russian and Uzbek. The religion is Sunni Muslim.

Epics and their singing are known as dastan, a Persian term, and the performers are called bakhshi.

“In Turkmenistan, the tradition of dastan recitation has survived mainly around Tashauz and in the Yolatan region (Merv province in south-eastern Turkmenistan). The northern and southern styles of dastan recitation differ markedly. In Tashauz, two instruments are essential : the customary dutar and the ghschak In Yolatan the bakhshi sing to the accompaniment of one or two dutar. Tashauz performances, where many features of the ritual narration of myths can be found, also include theatrical aspects (mimicry, gesture, change of place to illustrate the plot, and so on) which are not present in Yolatan performances.

Northern and southern dastan recitations differ, moreover, from the standpoint of their repertories: whereas more recent productions, mainly of a religious kind, are common in Yolatan, in Tashaur numerous narratives are recited, the most popular being the celebrated Köroglu tale, the earliest Turkic heroic epic that has survived.”

“No bakhshi, present or past, has known the entire text of the Köroglu epic. Their repertory contained one, two or, at most, three or four shaha [chapters, literally twigs or branches]. One brilliant exception was Palvan-bakhshi (1890-1939) from Tashauz who performed all the shaha except the final one. The performance of this final shaha has always been strictly banned and is to this day death, symbolized by black, is a sign of impurity and is associated with the spirits of the underworld with which no bakhshi may enter into contact. The ninth chapter of the Köroglu epic, whose subject is Turkmen reverses, is hardly ever performed in Turkmenistan.”

Turkmen Epic Singing / Köroglu - CD liner notes

Resources

Turkmen Epic Singing / Köroglu - a fairly detailed page on Turkmen epic, and on the Köroglu epic in particular, from the notes to a CD. The whole of the CD audio is downloadable here for free - fourteen tracks of excerpts from the epic, recorded by various bakhshi. (Beware the numerous spelling errors - from OCR - on this page.)

Vietnam

There are various forms of epic singing popular in the villages of the highlands of Vietnam. Each ethnic group has its own version: the H'mon of Bahnar, the Khan of Rhade, H'ri of Jo Rai, and Ot N'rong of M'Nong.

“H'mon is a form of epic telling / singing popular in Highland-Central Vietnam and in the Truong Son mountainous area. Each H'mon (or Khan, H'ri, OT N'rong) consists of a poetic story of 1,000 to 10,000 lines. The epic often tells about the heroic great tasks of the mythic heroes lived in ancient times. They are always eminent people with supernatural powers and miraculous capacities. Thanks to their own mythic forces, they saved and liberated their tribes from the domination and exploitation of foreign invaders. The H'mon is often performed on a dark winter night from evening to sunrise. The teller-singer lies in the eastern room of the house sinking into the blackness. The villagers-listeners sit in small groups surrounding a small fire outside the house on the courtyard. From the dark, the voice of the teller-singer resounds and flies into the black space surrounding the house and the people. This "context" increases the mystical features of the performance. The teller-singer uses some musical melodies mixed with a recitative intonation to describe the characteristics of each personage from epic's content. He needs at least three nights to tell the shortest epic; and for the longest epic, he must spend 20 nights. He also has to tell it continuously, night by night.”

Dr. To Ngoc Thanh, Association of Vietnamese Folklorists

Resources

H'mon - Brief notes and resources at the Data Bank on Traditional/Folk Performing Arts in Asia and the Pacific.

Association of Vietnamese Folklorists, E1, Bach Khoa, Hanoi, Viet Nam.

Resources

The World of Storytelling, by Anne Pellowski.

This book is a prime source of information on storytelling traditions around the world, and includes a useful multilingual dictionary of terms. The revised second edition has extra material. The book covers types of storytelling, including bardic, folk, religious, theatrical, library, and campfire; styles of telling, including gesture and voice, musical accompaniment, use of pictures and objects, openings and closings; the training of storytellers, including inherited positions, apprenticeships, and informal training. All these elements are compared and contrasted in cultures around the world, to give an excellent overview with lots of detail.

'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994. [Now available in a new revised edition.]

A very large and thorough celebration, by many experts, of the musical traditions and styles of the world. As noted in the introduction above, storytelling traditions are often intimately bound up with music, so this is also a treasure trove of hard-to-find and up-to-date information on the keepers of the oral tradition worldwide.

'The Singer of Tales', Lord, Albert Bates. 2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00283-0 (paperback). Also Epic Singers and Oral Tradition, Lord, Albert Bates. Cornell University Press 1991. ISBN 0-8014-9717-5 (paperback).

Academic studies of epic-singers, bardic storytellers, and the nature of the oral tradition, covering the Kalevala, South Slavic, Homeric, British, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Central Asiatic and Balkan epics. You can view on-line five video clips of a lecture by Lord on the themes of Performance and Performer: The Role of Tradition in Oral Epic Song, along with detailed text extracts from The Singer of Tales and The Singer Resumes the Tale, here.

'Traditional Epics', Guida M. Jackson. OUP 1994.

A huge book covering 1400 epics from all over the world - definitely the most comprehensive reference available, though the entries are mainly confined to the history and summary of the epics themselves rather than the traditions of telling them. Includes useful geographical, chronological, and genre indices, plus a long bibliography.

See the Cultural Traditions of Storytelling section of my storytelling web-links page for sites giving information on various specific places.

There is one place you can usually see oral tradition-bearers from various cultures around the world. Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival, in south Wales in early July each year, makes an effort to bring such people who are still practising ancient traditions of storytelling. Ashiks, griots and many more have graced the lush green fields of Wales, itself once the home to great Bards.

© Tim Sheppard 2003-12. Last updated 19/10/12.

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