“Cantonizing” the Violin, Hawaiian Slide Guitar, and Banjo: The Adaptation of Western Instruments in the Cantonese Opera Ensemble

Project: Research

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This project examines how Western instruments are introduced and adapted in Cantonese operatic music in the twentieth century. It is well known among professional Cantonese operatic musicians and researchers that from the 1920s on, a number of western instruments, namely, violin, xylophone, mandolin, saxophone, banjo, Hawaiian slide guitar, and cello, have been used side by side with their Chinese counterparts in the instrumental ensemble accompanying Cantonese opera troupes. Among these western instruments, violin is the most noteworthy as it plays the lead melody in Cantonese opera ensembles similar to the high-pitched gaohu. By contrast, both Hawaiian slide guitars and banjos play merely a supportive role rhythmically and harmonically. But both are favourites among Cantonese string musicians as the former produce a sonic effect which local players cherish, most likely due to its ability to bend pitches and produce tonal glides which imitate the linguistic intonation of the Cantonese language while the latter are a favorite among blind singers and expand the range and timbral capabilities of the qinqin, its Chinese counterpart among the traditional Cantonese musical instruments. Both historical and ethnomusicological approaches will be adopted in this research. Preliminary studies show that these instruments were introduced to such port-cities as Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong, and Macau in the early twentieth century, presumably from the US West Coast via the Pacific. This coincided with the large scale movement of labourers and traders from south China to Hawaii and California between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century. It was the time when banjos and Hawaiian slide guitars were fashioned in the United States and shaped the folk and country music there. It was also the time when Cantonese opera troupes thrived in North America. To establish evidential relationships between various movements and trends, a systematic documentation of primary source materials is needed. Alongside documentation, an ethnomusicological approach will be applied in order to determine how these instruments had been adapted and are used by practitioners. Through the collection of oral histories, ethnographic interviews and first-hand observation of actual contexts in which Cantonese opera music is often performed as well as planned music performance workshops, this project will not only record the personal experiences and the instrumental music practices of current practitioners, but will also collect their opinions regarding why they think “Western” instruments are able to express “Chinese” regional character. 


Project number9043080
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/21 → …