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The village that learned to sing for its supper

By Xinhua in Kunming | China Daily | Updated: 2017-02-15 07:33

The village that learned to sing for its supper

Li Naluo sings with a guitar in Laodabao, Lancang county in Yunnan province.Lin Yiguang / Xinhua

By performing for visitors, Laodabao's musical residents have managed to double their annual incomes in less than a decade

In days gone by, the villagers of Laodabao in mountainous Lancang county, Yunnan province, would play the guitar and sing to each other as a way to relax. Nowadays, their shared hobby has put them on the path to prosperity.

Laodabao is home to more than 400 members of the Lahu ethnic group. A decade ago, their average annual salary was just 1,700 yuan ($247).

Back then, the villagers would scour the mountains for anything edible in order to survive, eating wild vegetables, flowers and fruits. At night, their only sources of light were the turpentine stoves inside their homes, which were mostly made of thatch or bamboo and would often catch fire.

Such extreme poverty did not stop the villagers from singing and dancing, however, and almost all have learned to play guitar over the years.

It began with Li Shikai, who is now in his 50s. More than 30 years ago, he sold a pig for 60 yuan, which he used to buy a guitar that he brought back to the village. "Gradually more than half the villagers learned to play," he said.

His daughter, Li Naluo, has been playing since she was 13 and started writing songs at age 16. "I write cheerful songs when I am happy and sorrowful songs when upset," she said. "In the past, there were no televisions in the village, so we would sit around the bonfire and sing along with the guitar in the evening."

Such is the locals' love of music that their home became nicknamed "guitar village" - though until recently, this nomenclature brought little benefit as the village did not even have a proper road.

Things gradually began to improve in 2007, when each household received a 10,000 yuan subsidy for renovations and the county government started a campaign to develop cultural tourism.

A concrete road to the village was built in 2010, and a performance stage and three public toilets were also constructed. In 2013, the villagers started a performing company and began composing and rehearsing song-and-dance routines.

"It was normal for villagers to stay up rehearsing until midnight, since we needed to work in the fields during the day," Li Naluo said.

"I never get tired of rehearsing," said Napo, a local soprano. "We really enjoy singing and dancing. It brings us money now. My husband and I can make more than 5,000 yuan every year just by performing."

Zhang Zha'a, chairman of the company, said the village has witnessed increasing numbers of tourists during the past two years, with new businesses opening up to cater for the visitors.

Since it was formed, the company has put on more than 200 performances, which have become the main source of income for the village.

In 2015, the villagers' average annual per capita income reached 3,314 yuan - almost double what it was in 2006 - with about half coming from performing. More than 200 people are directly employed by the company and all the villagers are shareholders, Zhang said.

Yet alongside the benefits, the influx in wealth has also brought about some challenges. "Many of the farmers are undereducated and some cannot even do their own accounts," Zhang said. "I will try my best to send my son to university, because hopefully a well-educated younger generation will come back to make the village a better place."

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