Folk singer vows to make ‘mountain songs’ heard worldwide

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Growing up listening to Hua'er, a type of folk song performed by ethnic groups in northwestern China, Sa Lina, 36, used to refer it as being a bit rustic.

"Pop songs were more my style before I actually got a chance to sing Hua'er at the age of 19," said Sa, who has since become a famous singer, devoting herself to this traditional art for almost 20 years.

Hua'er, which literally means flower in Chinese, uses a distinct high pitch and has been exceedingly popular in China's Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang for hundreds of years. The Chinese folk song genre, also known as a type of "mountain songs," was inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

After graduating from a secondary school in 2005, Sa returned to her home county of Haiyuan, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and became a member of a local art troupe.

Soon she was given a chance to sing a duet with Ma Handong, a famous singer of Hua'er.

"I had never sung Hua'er before, so I listened and sang along with the tapes, and to my surprise, I soon fell in love with its fair-sounding melodies," she said.

"What people yearn for in their hearts, can be best expressed by singing a song. Just as the old saying goes, Hua'er reflects one's heart and people can't help but singing it," said Sa.

Since then, Sa has devoted herself to mastering the folk art from mimicking previous performances, studying its origin and history, to learning from Ma the techniques and skills used in performances.

"Maybe because I was born here, Hua'er is in my blood and bones and I learned it quite fast," said Sa.

In 2010, she sang a Hua'er song at a gala on Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve, winning nationwide attention. At the age of 27, she was named an inheritor of Hua'er, becoming the youngest inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage at the regional level at the time.

"I don't just want to be a Hua'er singer, but also a promoter of this folk music. I want to show people the beautiful ballad and teach more people to sing folk songs," said Sa.

Sa set up an art school in 2014, which offers training courses of Hua'er free of charge. She also regularly gives singing lectures in public schools and communities, benefiting tens of thousands of people.

To her pride, a student of her sang a Hua'er song in the popular TV drama series "Minning Town," which has further brought the traditional local folk art to the national stage.

Sa believes that in order to attract young listeners, some pop music elements must be appropriately integrated into traditional folk music.

"Art should not only be inherited, but also innovated. We have also composed some new Hua'er works that are more appealing to young people. I hope that more people can appreciate the beauty of Hua'er," she said, adding that she has opened multiple social media accounts to promote the folk art.

"Hua'er has already become my other half. Wherever I go, Hua'er will follow; Wherever Hua'er is, I will be there," said the artist. 

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