Cantonese music is a kind of folk instrumental music popular in the Pearl River Delta. Despite a short history of over one hundred years, it has been well-received for its freshness, beauty, brightness, and boldness. The genre has been crowned as “transparent music” and “a pearl in the sea of oriental folk music.” Unlike other Guangdong Province art forms, Cantonese music originated mainly from alien cultures. Admittedly, compared with the cultures of the Yellow River Basin and the Yangtze River Basin, the Guangdong culture was relatively backward in ancient times. Historical records show that Guangdong did not have its own opera or any other folk art until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 ). However, the economy in the culturally backward Guangdong region was highly developed.
In the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911), as the economy in Guangdong witnessed rapid development, a large number of opera troupes including Kunqu, Yiyang, Qinqiang, Huidiao, Han Opera, and Qiyang from Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Shanxi, Anhui, Hubei, and Hunan provinces respectively swarmed to Guangdong to stage performances, bringing in the ancient music of central China, the operas and melodies of south China, Kunqu Opera, and many other rhythmic styles from other provinces.
Particularly, the Yiyang Opera and Kunqu Opera were quite popular in the Pearl River Delta, especially among intellectuals. In the 17th century, local Kunqu Opera singers emerged and became well known. For example, Mr. Chen Zisheng, a renowned poet in the Lingnan region and Nanhai-born patriot, was also known as a famous musician and Kunqu Opera composer. He not only had a gift for playing the Guqin (Chinese lyre) , but was also familiar with the flute and chime strike. His compositions included “Kuang Cao”, “Han Shan Cao”, and “Shui Dong You”. The former two are no longer played, but “Shui Dong You” has been included into Chen Zisheng’s “Zhongzhou Cottage Heritage Collection”. Subject to the impact of local language and customs, the varied music and cultural forms from other provinces gradually integrated with local folk songs and eventually became a unique instrumental form that could be put on stage individually.
Guangdong has always been far away from China’s political center and has kept in close contact with the outside world, so during its formation Cantonese music tends to be more folk like and liberal. From the mid-Qing Dynasty onward, people in big cities and rural areas of Guangdong Province established a variety of amateur musical societies. Many well-known Cantonese performers and composers started from these amateur musical societies and later became professional folk artists. All the while these budding innovators learned and borrowed from other musical forms. For instance, the masterpiece “Xiao Tao Hong” ( A Little Peach in Red ) derived from the ancient music of Central China. According to records, the song’s “slow melody and sad tune, was originally played at funerals in ancient times.” The song has long been played in the Pearl River Delta among local troubadours. After repeated transformation and modification, it has lost the sorrowful and slow elements and evolved into an authentic piece of Cantonese music, with a beautiful and lyrical melody.
In the 1860s, Cantonese music began to acquire its unique style after more than 300 years of evolution. A great number of versatile performers and composers such as Yan Laolie, Qiu Hechou, and He Bozhong emerged, who produced a series of outstanding compositions with strong local flavor, including “The Thunder in a Dry Season,” “A Chain of Rings,” “This Merry Life,” and “Raindrops On Bananas.” These works set Cantonese music apart as a genre all its own.
In the 1920s Cantonese music matured, demonstrating strong vitality and unique folk features. Many talents emerged during this era, including the renowned “four kings”, namely Lii Wencheng, Yin Zizhong, He Dasha, and He Langping, the widely-known “three Hes,” namely He Liutang, He Yunian, and He Shaoxia, and other famous artists like Yi Jianquan, Chen Deju, Chen Wenda, Tan Boye, and Liang Yizhong. These people made tremendous contributions to the development of Cantonese music. Their creations prospered during this period, and the genre garnered acclaim for its unique rustic qualities. The number of compositions with scores recorded soon amounted to over 1000 pieces, presenting a varied repertoire for performance. That, in turn, allowed Cantonese music to adopt many innovative creations and absorb nutrients from brother arts. By bringing in the fine elements and techniques of Western music, Cantonese music grew to be diverse in form, mode, and tonality, novel and fluent in melody, and rich in the flavor of the era.
Until now, Cantonese music still sounds cordial to “ordinary people.” You can hear these joyous and festive songs during New Year celebrations, spring-welcoming flower fairs, festivals, or wedding ceremonies in Guangdong. This transparent “sound of nature” can be found everywhere in Cantonese people's life.
The representative works of Cantonese music include “The Thunder in a Dry Season,” “Clouds Chase the Moon, ” “Raindrops on Bananas,” “Dragon Boat Racing,” “Hungry Horse Rings its Bell,” “Autumn Moon over a Placid Lake,” “Each Step Higher,” “Birds Returning to the Forest,” and “Temple Chime.”
Cantonese music, full of local flavor, usually depicts small scenes in ordinary life. The melody is smooth, bright, and vigorous. With varied techniques of expression, Cantonese music often reveals the fun and amenity of life in southern China.
There are a variety of instrument combinations in Cantonese music ensembles, including wind and percussion combinations, and “hard bow” and “soft bow” combinations. The most common combination consists of a gaohu (a two-stringed fiddle that can reach a higher pitch than erhu ) as the leading instrument, a dulcimer, a horizontal flute, and some other instruments. Usually, a combination is composed of five instruments, commonly known as “Five Heads.”
Cantonese Music, also called Guangdong Music, is an instrumental music form that originated from the Cantonese-speaking area of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province and began to take shape in the Pearl River Delta in late Qing Dynasty and early Ming Dynasty. “Cantonese Music,” in general, does not include Chao, Han, and Qiong styles.