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China Daily Global / 2020-01 / 17 / Page005

Online folk singer gives a voice to migrant workers

China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-01-17 00:00

YINCHUAN-It was getting dark and Ma Ruifeng, a 46-year-old farmer, put his cellphone on a stand, steadied the microphone and began to sing. Thumbs-up and flower icons and words of praise popped up on his phone screen. His voice swelled and he sang even more passionately.

He was singing a hua'er or "flower ballad", a high-pitched traditional folk song genre popular in Northwest China. It was included on the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.

Ma was born in Tongxin county, Ningxia Hui autonomous region, where hua'er is widely appreciated among locals. There are more than 500 hua'er singers from all walks of life in Tongxin.

He learned hua'er from his father and grandfather when they were tilling land or herding cattle. "We often say that hua'er grows on our land and flows in our blood," he said.

Ma became a migrant worker at 18, traveling to do manual laboring jobs in 10 provinces over the years. Whenever he had spare time after work, he sang hua'er to entertain his fellow workers and ease their homesickness.

To hone his singing skills, Ma resorted to the internet and visited professionals. He practiced a lot, no matter how busy he was. Deep down he yearned for a stage to show off his skills. At the end of 2018, he registered a livestreaming account.

"It was just for fun at the beginning. After work or supper, I usually livestreamed for at least an hour on the construction site or in my dorm, sometimes even asking my workmates to join me. I felt so relaxed when singing, and all the fatigue and pain seemed to go away," he said.

To help people understand the folk song, he sang in Mandarin instead of his local dialect and wrote original melodies with lyrics about work and life.

One of his songs goes: "Daring not to go down the street without money in my pocket… But as long as we are safe and sound, we will pull through together in the end."

Ma wrote the song on the eve of Lunar New Year, when he could not sleep on the train heading home. The joy of the family reunion he was anticipating was diluted by disappointment about his poor earnings that year. To his surprise, he received nearly 150,000 views when the song was livestreamed.

"I wrote it for migrant workers just like me. Life can be difficult, but the support and understanding from family can keep us going. As long as you work hard, things will get better," he said. "I do this only to bring joy to my 40,000 online followers, not for economic gain."

To protect and promote the music, the regional government spends 600,000 yuan ($86,000) every year on teaching and performing centers for the folk music. It also subsidizes over 40 inheritors of the tradition across Ningxia, including Ma.

Xu Juanmei, from the Ningxia Folk Artists Association, said Ma's livestreaming room has become an online hua'er hub, which attracts young people. Ma was invited to teach hua'er in a local middle school several times last autumn. He even appeared on national television to perform in front of a live audience.

"Some viewers befriended me on WeChat, which inspired me a lot. As long as someone is listening, I will keep singing," Ma said.

People gather to enjoy hua'er singers performing at a folk festival in Hezhen county, Ningxia Hui autonomous region, on June 1. SHI YOUDONG/XINHUA

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