From creating a supercomputer to preserving some of China's most endangered musical traditions. Chinese pop star Dadawa is behind an ambitious new project, working with musicians from the country's many ethnic minorities.

As NPR's Louisa Lim reports, it's an effort to foster pride in dying ethnic music, in all its strange and wonderful diversity.

LOUISA LIM: It's a chilly Beijing afternoon, and I'm outside with musician Guo Yong. We're rooting through some bushes, choosing an instrument for him because he is a master of, believe it or not, the leaf.

He's just picked a leaf from a bush, and he's trying it out now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: And that sound that you hear is made from him blowing on the surface of an ordinary common or garden leaf.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: And that's how Guo Yong, who's a member of the Buyi minority from the southwest province of Guizhou, ended up on stage in the National Theatre in Beijing blowing on a leaf.

Mr. GUO YONG (Musician): (Through translator) In Guizhou, it's very mountainous. Sometimes it's boring to walk by myself. So you grab a leaf and blow on it and copy the birds. Sometimes you use leaves to call to people, to talk to them, since with leaves the sound goes further.

LIM: He was classically educated at a music conservatory, and he admits it took him years to see the value of his own culture.

Mr. GUO: (Through translator) At college I studied orchestral composition, but then I slowly learned that the things I removed myself from are the most precious. Our way of thought is not the same, our religion.

Maybe it's because Westerners believe in Christianity. They think of grand works. Growing up in the mountains, we couldn't imagine big orchestras. We think of natural things: bamboo banging, cows mooing. These sounds are also music.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Here he performs on stage with a number of ethnic music masters, gathered together by Dadawa, who's both a Chinese pop star and an ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme.

She's on a mission to help preserve minority music. She's donating profits from her CD and tour to help 400 ethnic music masters take on students. Last year she went on a road trip to find masters of vanishing musical traditions. She describes her methods.

Ms. DADAWA (Musician): Oh, your ear will leading you to the right place. It's like a trip, you know, full of discovery. And we are just following the sound. Any possibility to listen to special music, we went there.

LIM: Her ears took her to six provinces, and they led her to musician Aalatengwula from Alashan in Inner Mongolia. This is the sound of him playing the modentsuur. He's one of the last people in China able to coax music from this extraordinary instrument. It's a conical tube you blow into at the same time as throat-singing to produce two noises at once.

Mr. AALATENGWULA (Musician): (Through translator) Lots of people can make a sound with this instrument, but very few people can actually create a whole melody. In Xinjiang, my teacher used it to create the sound of the waves in Kanas Lake(ph) and the hoof beats of a horse.

LIM: When Aalatengwula decided to learn to play the modentsurr, he found it had already died out in Inner Mongolia. So he first went to Outer Mongolia, then to the Altai Mountains in Xinjiang to find a teacher.

The elderly master who taught him has since died. Aalatengwula's mother herself an expert in Mongolian long-tone folk songs. He says it's a vital but endangered part of the culture.

Mr. AALATENGWULA: (Through translator) My mother is illiterate, but she knows every word to 156 folk songs. Mongolian people don't have many written historical records. Everything is in our songs. But now, lots of Mongolian kids go to Chinese schools, and they can hardly speak or write their own language.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: One virtuoso performance is from Ku'ermanjiang Zhikeriya, a Kazakh from Xinjiang who plays a dongbula, a two-stringed guitar with a bowl-shaped body. He describes it as the soul of the Kazakh people and says most Kazakhs can still play it. But many other traditional instruments are already completely lost, even to his professional music troupe.

Mr. KU'ERMANJIANG ZHIKERIYA (Musician): (Through translator) We play about 20 instruments in our troupe, but there are 30 other traditional instruments we've already lost. We don't even have them anymore.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Those performers are careful not to blame Chinese government policies. In some cases, they say the government has helped support traditional culture. Rather, they blame a complex mix of modernization, Westernization and new technology.

I used to think my own culture was crude and backward, one performer says, but now I've sung our mountain songs in our national theater. That gives me self-confidence to pass down our music to others.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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