From the moment Laurent Jeanneau’s collage work reached my susceptible ears a couple of years back on the Touch Records podcast series that my attitude to traditional ‘world’ music was to be changed forever. His soundscape approach to so-called ‘world’ music emitted something so unique and captivating that I couldn’t stop myself going back to it for months to come.
By taking the listener to unknown remote regions of our planet and mixing it with contemporary electronic sounds, Laurent’s work as a collage artist becomes highly engaging, presenting an old world, an unknown world, and a place so far away from our cultural references that one has difficulty describing the sounds that they hear. Repeated listens only re-enforced the deep hypnotic vibes that, in my opinion, are unequalled in the so-called genre of ‘globe trotting psychedelia’.
By googling his name, I quickly found out that besides his work as a DJ and occasional contributions to Sublime Frequencies compilations, most of his free time is spent recording Ethnic minorities in South Asia- with remote villages of China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos being the main focus of his work. Once back to his base in Yunnan, South China, Laurent meticulously compiles the recordings into several CD’s to be eventually released by his own label, Kink Gong records. From recordings of religious ceremonies, gong rituals and compilations of loops coming from Buddha Machines, Laurent Jeanneau’s work represents unique records of the most remote people and tribes of our planet.
A lot can be learned about a culture by the way it sounds. Languages, instruments, melodies, all become indelibly part of our lives, whether we notice it or not, they shape our past, present and future. For this reason, Laurent’s work should be considered as a testament of highly cultural and historical importance. Some of the sounds and instruments recorded are often played by a very small and segregated group of people. Its unique approach and insight into these esoteric sounds is up there with works such Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music or Alan Lomax’s ethnological studies. In other words, if governments have any interest in keeping records of their own cultures they should be sponsoring individuals like Laurent Jeanneau. Our planet is way too rich to be neglected.
DISCREPANT: How long have you been recording Ethnic Minorities and how did you come to it?
LAURENT JEANNEAU: It s been a long process, I only came to be active in the field in my 30ies and became a professional at it in my 40s, but I’ve taken interest in real world music in early 80s as a teenager, then started to travel to far away places in 1990, then did my first recordings in India in 96/97 mostly in Chennai, former Madras, with the exclusive purpose of remixing it my way, destroying the rigid musical Indian rules. The performers were horrified by the result and it never got anywhere. Then in 99/2000 in Tanzania a double CD of the Hadzas bushmen got released on French label ‘Musiques du Monde’. I eventually moved to Cambodia, and never stopped since, going through a lot of music in Cambodia , Laos, Vietnam and China.
DSCR: Do you see your role as a field recording/documentarian, keeping other people records to posterity, or more of a musician?
LJ: I guess those recordings, now 86 CDs will go through posterity, but let me remind you that the very first and essential impulse is not to pretend to do that work for preserving, but rather for the discovery of an incredible diversity of structures and textures in those unknown music fields that are fast disappearing. That to me has connexions to all kinds of different music created in western contemporary culture, like the first abstract painters of early 20th century had been influenced by African art like pygmies drawings as an example. It’s about giving a different aesthetic codification of music a chance to be heard, and in the first place influence me, for my ongoing process of being fed with new things.
DSCR: Name a few of your favourite places/people you’ve recorded over the years and why?
LJ: In north east Cambodia and southern Laos I became the specialist of gong ensembles, orchestras of tuned metallic percussions, hardly nothing has been done in terms of recordings, the Unesco can claim to add this musical culture as one of the master pieces of intangible patrimony to their list,but they do nothing at all to preserve it. Most gongs ensembles are a socio-musical interaction, one gong of different size per person, including nipple gongs, flat gongs, a pair of thick flat gong hit with long mallets, a single one hit by one fist, 3 or 5 nipple gong orchestra, 5 nipple gong + 3, 5 or 8 flat gongs, up to 13 gongs, hit different ways (fist, mallets, green wood) different techniques, different tunes, and different occasions totalize a great diversity of gong playing. Otherwise 2 other major musical expressions attract me very much, the various vocal polyphonies, the Hani of Southern Yunnan in China are an outstanding example, and different mouth organs that I’ve recorded in Northern Vietnam, Northern Laos and Southern China.
DSCR: How difficult it is to locate and approach the different musicians all over the World?
LJ: Every recording has a different story, according to the country’s loose or rigid access, my ability to communicate, the time I spend there, who I’m working with, and lots of other parameters, but usually I know what community I’m targeting, so I get informations from locals mostly and read all kind of semi-anthropological content about it if they exist. Ask me one specific example out the 86 CDs and I’ll tell how I met them.
DSCR: Your work seems to be mostly based in South Asia with some spells in Africa? Have you got projects to record in other continents?
LJ: No, I just wish to continue in the same area, would be nice to extend further south west in Myanmar and more Eastern parts of India and Northern Bangladesh to find about non-Buddhist, non-Muslims and non-Hindus.
DSCR: Finally, are there any places/people you must record before it’s too late?
LJ: Different ideas, one is based on 2 unfruitful meetings with a French anthropologist in Northern Laos- I missed him in June last year and met him in Oudomxai, North Laos last November when he just got Dengue fever, so he could not move from bed. However, we’re supposed to get together again to finally reach villages of the small uncategorized ethnic groups of Phongsaly in North Laos. Basically there are 4 big ethno-linguistic families in South east Asia, in the north (Southern China, Laos, Myanmar, North Vietnam, North Thailand) the Tibetan-Burmese, the Tai, Thai Kadai, the Hmong- Mien (Southern China, Laos, North Thailand, North Vietnam) and the Mon ( Cambodia, Laos, Central Vietnam, Myanmar, India), so some guys are still not belonging to any category, not that I care, those classifications are actually meaningless to me, but it’s just the idea that those outsiders from the 4 categories are found in one area where those 4 ethnic categories all live: Phongsaly. That’s pretty unique! And like I’ve mentioned above, I wish to go to the very northern part of Myanmar, where there’s absolutely no information available but it’s a dangerous country home of all kind of ethnic military oppositions and drug mafias, not to forget a terrible military dictature that’s not going to allow me to hang with minorities. At the moment going there would mean to limit myself to Buddhist temples further south…
For Laurent’s Discrepant works click here
All pictures owned by China Life Magazine