Caroline Young, artwork and text
Zanha is the name the Dai people give to their singers. At all important occasions, such as weddings or the completion of a house, Zanhas are invited to sing for three days and nights. To celebrate without a Zanha present is ‘like a meal without salt, and even wine loses its flavor’, say the Dai.
In ancient times in Yunnan province there lived a rare and solitary songbird called Nuogeluo. He was said to have the sweetest of singing voices,
“as pure and sweet as spring water flowing through a bamboo forest, and sweet and sticky as rice dipped in honey.”
The villagers all loved listening to the songs of Nuogeluo, but none more than the beautiful village maiden who became lovesick if she missed hearing it’s music for even a day. Each morning, she would go into the forest and lose herself in the songs of Nuogeluo.
The chieftain’s son was very much in love with this girl and wanted her for his bride. He promised her wealth and splendor, but she told him she would rather stay with Nuogeluo than be his wife. Much enraged, the young man hunted down the songbird and killed it with his bow and arrow, thinking he would now have the maiden’s full attention.
Nuogeluo was dead, but not the girl’s love for the special songbird. She cherished its memory, which lived on in her heart, and began to sing, exactly as Nuogeluo had sung, of the joys and sorrows of her people. She became the first Zanha of the Dai people, and taught her sweet songs to others. So now, thanks to the beautiful maiden, every Dai village has its own Zanha, and you can still hear their beautiful voices ringing out all over the countryside.