Cantonese music nowadays can refer to various styles including but not limited to Cantopop, Cantonese opera, and narrative singing traditions like Nammyam (tune of the South) and Mukjyu (wooden fish, name of a wooden percussion instrument crucial to the singing tradition). Unfortunately, the rise of Cantopop and the (perhaps eager to appear international by) switching to western music have ushered a decline in the more traditional art forms.
Many foreigners and perhaps even young Cantonese speakers have reduced Cantonese opera to nothing more than piercing screeches, but what the tradition offers is way more than random screaming. A score for Cantonese opera usually have only the lyrics and section titles, with minor Kung-Che musical notation if any. The music is organic because it is interpreted based on performers’ understanding of the language and opera formats.
Naamyam is a kind of narrative singing traditions in Cantonese dialect that can be traced back to the early 20th Century, when it was performed mostly in homes, restaurants, streets, and even brothels. While there were prostitutes who learned the tradition to appease their patrons, most of the Naamyam singers were blind artists; male singers were called Gu-si (Blind teacher), where as female singers were called Gu-gei (Blind lady) or Si-noeng (Mistress). This style of Naamyam is also called Dei-seoi Naamyam. While some scholars believe the name comes from I-Ching’s hexagram because many blind artists were also fortune tellers, some argue it only refers to the landscape of the coastal Cantonese region. This kind of Naamyam was later adopted into Cantonese opera music, and is still performed in Cantonese opera regularly. The original form performed by blind singers, however, has almost become extinct.
While blind artists from decades ago performed alone most of the time, singing while playing clapper with the left hand and Zheng, the Chinese zither, with the right hand, modern Naamyam is frequently accompanied by a variety of instruments, including Zheng, Xiao, Yehu, Qin Qin, Dulcimer, Pipa, and clappers. The total number of musical accompaniment is usually not more than five.
I have started accompanying Ms. Tang Siu-yin, the only Gu-gei who still performs Naamyam professionally in Hong Kong, since 2014.
Below is an interview of Ms. Tang with the South China Morning Post, published on 21 June 2015.