Folk Songs of the Far East

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Flushed with enthusiasm for Hal Leonard’s just-published African American Folk Songs Collection (reviewed here) I wanted to waste no time looking back at previous publications in this superb and growing series.

In this review I will focus on four collections of intermediate piano arrangements of traditional songs from the Far East:

  • Chinese Folk Songs Collection (arr. Joseph Johnson, 2009)
  • Korean Folk Songs Collection (arr. Lawrence Lee, 2010)
  • Japanese Folk Songs Collection (arr. Mika Goto, 2013)
  • Malay Folk Songs Collection (arr. Charmaine Siagian, 2019)

Traditional Folk Songs Series

Starting with the Chinese Folk Songs Collection in 2009, Hal Leonard’s series of intermediate piano books share a lovely aesthetic, each book including:

  • 24 folk song arrangements for solo piano
  • 48 pages (54 in the case of the Malay Folk Songs Collection)
  • A glossy, hugely appealing cover
  • Spacious and generously sized notation, with ample fingering
  • Beautiful (black and white) illustrations throughout
  • Detailed background notes about every song
  • A map of the regions from which the songs come

The pieces appear roughly in order of difficulty, from Elementary (UK Grade 1+) to Intermediate (Grades 3-4). Each book could this be used alongside other materials over an extended period of time, or as a fast-track book for older players.

Across the series, the arrangers have each done a superb job; the editing, musical quality, embedded pedagogy and stunning presentation are consistent. As mentioned in my review of the African American Folk Songs Collection, the content is child-friendly without being childish. I would happily use any of these books with adult learners.

All that remains, then, is to select where to start. To help, here’s a quick look at each book in turn…

Chinese Folk Songs Collection

Hal Leonard launched the series in 2009 with this collection of 24 traditional Chinese folk songs, arranged for intermediate pianists by distinguished academic, composer and teacher Joseph Johnson, who tells us,

China is a large country inhabited by many people of many different backgrounds and ethnicities. Defined boundaries and peoples are ever changing. These songs represent the Chinese of modern China, of which the Han represent the largest ethnic majority…
Choosing and qualifying folk songs as popular or typical is a daunting task complicated by the many different languages and cultures that make up the country. In this collection I have chosen to arrange songs popular to mainland Chinese with the help and guidance of Wen Guo Yao and her daughter Shen Wen, my wife.”

The songs cover a range of subjects. Many are love songs, songs of human experience, songs about the natural world, and about the challenges of the simple agrarian lifestyle. Here’s the list:

  • Beating The Wild Hog
  • Blue Flower
  • Carrying Song
  • Crescent Moon
  • Darkening Sky
  • Digging For Potatoes
  • Girl’s Lament
  • Great Wall
  • Hand Drum Song
  • Homesick (Theme And Five Variations)
  • Jasmine Flower Song
  • Little Cowherd
  • Love Song Of The Prairie
  • Memorial
  • Mountaintop View
  • Northwest Rains
  • Running Horse Mountain
  • Sad, Rainy Day
  • Song Of The Clown
  • The Sun Came Up Happy
  • Wa-Ha-Ha
  • Wedding Veil
  • White Flower
  • Woven Basket

And an example of the presentation, courtesy of the publisher’s website:

These pieces lack the sophistication of, for example, Bartók’s Slovakian folk song arrangements For Children, but for those who know the melodies or are curious to discover them this is an enjoyable collection. The key to playing the pieces is certainly to consider their background and meaning; the detailed notes on each song are invaluable.

Special mention, too, for the map of China to the rear of the book: a full-page affair showing the many provinces which make up modern China, this has admirable quality and will undoubtedly fascinate all who have the book

Korean Folk Songs Collection

Arranger Lawrence Lee is a Korean American composer, songwriter and jazz pianist. We are told that growing up in both the US and South Korea, he deeply absorbed the two distinct cultures, which have greatly influenced his music. According to the introduction, this together with,

“His experience teaching piano and music theory privately for several years brings a unique blend of culture, composition, and pedagogy to the Korean Folk Songs Collection.”

The 24 included titles are:

  • Arirang
  • Autumn In The City
  • Birdie, Birdie
  • Boat Song
  • Catch The Tail
  • Chestnut
  • Cricket
  • Dance In The Moonlight
  • Five Hundred Years
  • Flowers
  • Fun Is Here
  • The Gate
  • Han River
  • Harvest
  • Jindo Field Song
  • Lullaby
  • The Mill
  • The Palace
  • The Pier
  • Three-Way Junction
  • Waterfall
  • Wild Herbs
  • Yearning
  • You And I

Lee tells us,

“Korea is a country in far east Asia located between China and Japan. A nation of peace-loving people, Korea withstood countless invasions from many countries and preserved its singular national identity for over 4,000 years. Korean art is characterised by its use of space and uncontrived simplicity.
The 24 arrangements presented in this book represent Korea’s storied cultural legacy. Many of them are still sung today. These songs are filled with sincere expressions of love, joy, hope, and hard work, but also sadness and struggle for survival.”

The collection begins with Arirang, a piece much arranged and performed in the West these days, recent versions numbering those of Christopher Norton, Lang Lang and Stephen Hough. Here, the arrangement is lovely indeed, and reveals Lee’s jazz credentials (he studied with Mark Levine at Berkeley).

Playing through this collection, I found the music more accessible than that in the Chinese Folk Songs Collection. I suspect that this has much to do with Lee’s arrangements, and of the two collections I can recommend this more strongly as a first port-of-call to Western players keen to explore the flavour of music from the Far East.

Having said that, the arrangements are more consistently Intermediate, so the book is just a little more difficult in its level.

Japanese Folk Songs Collection

Based in Fukuoka, Japan, Mika Goto is one of her country’s most respected piano teachers and educational composers. According to her biography,

“In her works, the Japanese pentatonic scale is frequently used, which engenders a flavour of Oriental style.”

We couldn’t hope to be in more qualified hands, and for this collection Goto has selected and arranged the following 24 songs:

  • Blooming Flowers
  • Come Here, Fireflies
  • Counting Game
  • The Fisherman’s Song
  • Going to the Shrine
  • Harvest Song
  • Itsuki Lullaby
  • Joyful Doll festival
  • Kimigayo
  • Let’s Sing
  • My Hometown
  • Picking Tea Leaves
  • The Rabbit on the Moon
  • Rain
  • Rain Showers
  • Rock-Paper-Scissors
  • Sakura
  • Seven Baby Crows
  • Takeda Lullaby
  • Time to go Home
  • Village Festival
  • Where are you from?
  • Wish I Could Go
  • You’re It!

Goto tells us in the introduction,

“Japan’s climate experiences all four seasons, and each new season brings unique cultural events to celebrate. It is a small communal land, which may be why the Japanese feel a sense of unity at the turning point of every season. Japanese folk songs … function as a tool to pass down traditions and customs.
In addition to folk songs, this book also includes lullabies, play songs and pop songs that are relatively new, but are sure to remain in the heart of the Japanese.”

This collection includes perhaps the most poignant music of the series so far, the pieces conveying an emotional range from sheer joy to intense sorrow. The colours in the music, too, are superbly evocative of Japanese culture.

This is a very special collection indeed.

Malay Folk Songs Collection

The Malay Folk Songs Collection has the distinction of being longer than the other books in the series, in part due to the complexity of the culture it draws from.

Arranger Charmaine Siagian is of Batak/Dusun heritage and was born and raised on Malaysian Borneo, described by her as “a magical place known for its flora and fauna”. She also lived on the city-island nation of Singapore for several years before moving to the US, where she now lives in Wisconsin and is an editor at Hal Leonard.

Siagian tells us,

“The Malay language is what ties this collection together; but as an identity, being “Malay” can be a challenging notion to a visitor. This is because of the intricate regional history featuring generations of royalty, a devotion to religion, and an intense culture further complicated by geography. Even its music can be contrasting: playful and serious; sensual and puritanical. Most traditional Malay folk songs are based on a pantun (an allusive poem with love as its most common theme) and follows a basic musical form: verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Verses are often improvised.”

The collection includes 20 folk songs, joined by the National Anthems of Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

  • At Dawn (Waktu Fajar)
  • Chan Mali Chan
  • The Cockatoo (Burung Kakak Tua)
  • C’Mon, Mama! (Ayo Mama!)
  • The Curvy Water Spinach Stalk (Lenggang Kangkung)
  • Five Little Chicks (Lima Anak Ayam)
  • God Bless The Sultan (Allah Peliharakan Sultan)
  • The Goodbye Song (Geylang Sipaku Geylang)
  • Great Indonesia (Indonesia Raya)
  • It’s All Good Here (Di Sini Senang)
  • The Jumping Frog (Lompat Si Katak Lompat)
  • Longing (Rasa Sayang)
  • Mak Inang
  • Milk Coffee (Kopi Susu)
  • The Moon Kite (Wau Bulan)
  • Morning Tide (Air Pasang Pagi)
  • My Country (Negaraku)
  • Onward Singapore (Majulah Singapura)
  • Ponyfish (Ikan Kekek)
  • Song For The Ladybugs (Tepuk Amai-Amai)
  • The Stork Song (Bangau Oh Bangau)
  • Suriram
  • Trek Tek Tek
  • Voyage Of The Sampan (Dayung Sampan)

This short promotional video will give you a flavour of the wonderful music that awaits in this collection:

Closing Thoughts

These books are superb – and unique. And the series appears to me to be going from strength to strength.

The collections offer a superb introduction to the culture of the Far East, and any intermediate player or student wishing to add these musical colours to their repertoire need not hesitate in acquiring copies.

Teachers, too, would do well to pick up a complete set: certainly here in the UK with our rich diversity these books are an essential purchase, and belong in every school and piano teaching studio.

Personally, I would love to see a Philippines collection added (not least because I teach a number of Filipino students) but in the meantime go ahead and take your pick; all of these collections are all truly excellent!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.