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Sounds of ancient bone flute brought back to life

XINHUA | Updated: 2019-12-19 09:01
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A bone flute unearthed at Jiahu in Wuyang county, Henan province. CHINA DAILY

ZHENGZHOU-More than 8,000 years ago, a red-crowned crane died, leaving behind a bone from its wing to be claimed by primitive men. They drilled holes in the skeletal remains, and there was music.

From 1986 to 2013, more than 40 of the bone flutes, most with seven sound holes, were unearthed at Jiahu, the site of a neolithic settlement, in Wuyang county, Henan province. They were all made of the ulna bones of cranes.

"The discovery of the Jiahu bone flute dates China's music history back more than 8,000 years," said Zhang Juzhong, the former head of the archaeological excavation team at the Jiahu site.

But what does a prehistoric instrument made from a crane bone sound like? An ensemble in Henan has successfully made replicas of the Jiahu bone flute-believed to be the earliest wind instrument ever found by Chinese archaeologists-to reproduce the ancient sound.

"The sound of a bone flute is resonant and unadorned. Every time I blow into the flute, it takes me back to the mysterious ancient times," said He Xiaoshuai, a 33-year-old bone flute player of the Huaxia Ancient Music Ensemble at the Henan Museum.

When He joined the ensemble in 2006, the musicians used replicas of the Jiahu bone flutes, but the appearance, texture and tone of the replicas were nothing like the original instrument.

This problem troubled Huo Kun, head of the ensemble. He decided to restore the original features of the Jiahu bone flute and allow people to hear the echoes of ancient times.

Yet it proved more difficult than he expected. The Jiahu bone flute was made from the ulna bone of a red-crowned crane, which may have been widely available to primitive man. However, the bird is now under State protection.

The idea of finding alternative bone sources stuck with Huo. He racked his brains, seeking solutions in restaurant kitchens, on river banks and with private collectors.

In 2016, a craftsman who makes Tibetan eagle flutes gave several bones from eagles and vultures that had died of natural causes to the ensemble. One of the bones was similar to the Jiahu bone flute in shape and size.

Huo decided to give it a try. He spent another two years looking for master flute makers and found one in Nanjing, Jiangsu province.

The craftsman had never made a musical instrument out of bone. He removed the bone marrow and drilled holes based on the musical parameters of the Jiahu bone flute.

"It only took three to four hours to make a replica. But we spent over 10 years in preparation. The pitch and tone were very close to the original flute," said He, who witnessed the whole flute making process.

In addition to the Jiahu bone flute, the ensemble has also restored and produced replicas of more than 300 musical artifacts including a 5,000-year-old clay flute called taoxu, 3,000-year-old bronze bells, and an ancient stringed instrument known as konghou.

The team has compiled and created over 100 pieces of music based on ancient music scores and literature.

Established in 2000, the ensemble has performed in more than 20 countries and regions, such as the United States, South Korea and Italy.

Li Hong, former leader of the Huaxia Ancient Music Ensemble said: "Static displays are not enough to let the public better understand ancient musical instruments such as the Jiahu bone flute. By making replicas, we can reproduce the sound of the past and help the music revive and prosper."

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