Performance Arts Among the Là

Along with returning to Rawàng Ata this year, I’d also like to flesh out a little more of the culture of the people who speak it, the Là. And surely the natural place to begin such an account must be with… performance art. OK, so maybe that’s not actually an intuitive starting point, but I guess it’s as good a place as any.

By ‘performance art’, to clarify, I mean any artform based upon perf… OK, I guess what I really mean is those artforms where individuals behave in certain ways and that’s the art, distinct from those artforms (like painting, architecture, etc) where individuals shape the environment around them.

I’ve managed to end up with two different approaches to this topic: one a history, the other an art-by-art overview of the contemporary situation. Either could really stand without the other, and I’ve been going back and forth on which to post first, and whether to post both. In the end, I’ll post both, and I’ll start with the history. Those of you wanting more detail, it’ll follow in the art-by-art half of the series. The history section itself will have I think four posts. Here’s the first of them:


The First and Second Accord Periods (c.200-c.600aH and c.600-994aH)

The primary performative art in these early periods was dance. The function of dance was in turn largely ritual, and dance forms can be divided into solitary shamanic dance and collective communal dance.

Shamanic dances were performed without accompaniment of any kind – the shaman was expected to follow the rhythm in his head. These dances varied with the type of animal being negotiated with, and typically attempted to imitate the animal in rhythm and in distinctive movements. Typically, each dance would be broken into passages, the shaman adopting a frozen posture between passages as he recited shamanic poetry.

Communal dance, on the other hand, had a rich vocal and percussive accompaniment. Percussion was of two kinds: a simple regular beat struck out on wooden slit drums, and a more complicated rhythm created by the dancers themselves stricking together wooden sticks. Vocal accompaniment took the form of monotone, wordless chanting by spectators. Singers were divided into groups on the basis of pitch, and the different groups sung with different rhythms, to create a complicated polyrhythmic texture, the striking of the dancer’s stick representing points of contact between the conflicting rhythms. These dances, which were performed at all significant personal and communal rites of passage, in the open air, typically accelerated in pace over a period of hours, until only the fittest and most skilled dancers remained. Dance at this time was carried out by both sexes and a wide range of ages, with those too old, too young or too infirm relegated to singing (thus, as the dance went on and more dancers dropped out due to tiredness or inability to keep pace, the number of singers increased). These events were strikingly egalitarian, with rich and poor dancing together. These dances are known as manungàng, and would differ in style to match the ritual function of the occasion. During the Second Accord Period, personal ability in the manungàng became increasingly noteworthy, and some individuals began to be sought out by aristocrats for their dancing skill. Aristocrats increasingly favoured more complicated dances.

Poetry was a far less important art. Folk poetry of various kinds existed, often in the form of ritualised taunting, but these poems were never written down and rarely remembered, and were seen as a form of playful speech, rather than as a form of art. Most poetry was instead religious. The most important form of religious poetry was shamanic bargaining-poetry, in which, through words passed down from shaman to shaman, shamans sought to negotiate with animals. The success of these negotiations was often attributed to how correctly remembered the bargaining-poetry had been. Shamans viewed these words as the centre of their power, and guarded them jealously; they varied from shaman to shaman. Other religious traditions also employed ritual words – most prominently, the rituals of praise and appeasement directed at the old Antaremese pantheon of deities, but also chants associated with a variety of religions being imported from Gureha.

In addition to religious words, the Là brought with them and maintained several dozen long poems from their time in Antarem, which will be discussed in more detail later.

Music was primarily a matter of accompaniment to dance. However, a few other forms existed, with low prestige. Trumpets existed, but were not considered musical. The long, thin sarvarung transverse flute was played by a seated psychopomp while her apprentice held up the end by a fabric sling, to guide spirits into the afterlife. Rhythm was more important here than melody – the sarvarung lacks fingerholes, so pitch is determined only overblowing and is limited to the harmonic series. Reed instruments were known, with and without fingerholes, but were not standardised, and were considered a form of idle entertainment. More distinctive was the raò, an instrument formed from internodal sections of the culms of a bamboo-like plant, the ruàma. Pairs of close parallel incisions are made into the culm, creating narrow strips, which are pulled out from the side of the culm, with small wooden bridges inserted under them at each end, so that they may be plucked; in this way, the culm provides both the resonant chamber and the strings. In these periods, the raò, usually with three strings, was played for personal amusement, and by children, although in the later Second Accord Period it had also begun to be used as a teaching instrument to aid the practice of more complicated manungàng.


The Mèngitan and Angonāli Dynasties (994-1066aH), and the Petty Dynasties (1066-1158aH)

During these foundational dynasties, the increasing dichotomy between manungàng forms that had grown over the Second Accord Period developed into a complete schism. Popular dance continued as manungàng without qualifiers, and continued to be much the same as ever, though it increased somewhat in complexity over time. The new kings, however, favoured a form known as rāmayao manungàng, or simply rāmayao, indicating a royal dance. The rāmayao was notable primarily for its complexity, with hundreds of dancers divided into dozens of groups. Large ensembles of slit-drums were required to provide a rhythm; vocal accompaniment came from the dancers themselves, as well as from the audience, assisted (particularly in the later, wilder stages) by reed pipes and trumpets. The main sociological distinction, however, was that the rāmayao was performed by a professional royal troupe. During the Petty Dynasties, the rāmayao was simplified, yet became more common, as more and more nobles sponsored the art.

In this period, the old Antaremese long poems, which had long been remembered through popular retelling, began to be codified. Sometimes this took the form of writing them down – but the more important development was the establishment of bardic schools by the Mèngitan, charged with remembering precisely the classic poems, though the repertoire itself was not yet specified. At this time in history, very few were able to read or write, and writing was considered both alien and divine, unsuitable for the recording of folk tales.

Shamanic poetry and dance continued without change in this era, as largely did music.



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