Around the time, I think it was 2003 or 2004, I heard a song called Jí ěr la on cassette. It was from Dao Lang’s early album called Western Ballad (Xī yù qíng gē), comprised folk songs that were popular in the western part of China during the mid to late 20th century. Jí ěr la is a Mandarin song with some Central Asian music vibe. Distinctively, it has a catchy yet unrecognizable part in the lyrics during the riff. At that time, I thought it was just gibberish used as the hook for the song. Nonetheless, once it enters your brain, it’s not easy to get it off. Over the years, I have heard several other songs sharing the similar tune and the hook, although other part of lyrics are very much impromptu, but usually involves guitar, girls, and love. I didn’t understand the name of the song either. Jí ěr la doesn’t sound anything but a foreign name, it is also never mentioned in the lyrics.

Fast forward to a few days ago, a recommendation video of the same tune caught my eyes. It was from Jiang Wen’s movie, The Sun Also Rises. I knew the movie and the main theme composed by Joe Hisaishi for years, but I’ve never bat an eye on other songs on the album. For one, the reason I knew the main theme is simply because Jiang Wen have adapted that song in the next movie he directed, Let the Bullet Fly, which I have watched many times. For two, I have never watched The Sun Also Rises, so I wasn’t interested then about how other pieces sound.

Then, I watched the music video and instantly got hooked up to those two renditions in Uyghur language. The Jí ěr la I heard years ago was a jolly, upbeat, dancing if not nightclubby song. Those two renditions I heard on that day, however, are more moody, they are almost a different song, albeit they all share the same hook. In fact, those two songs in Joe Hisaishi’s soundtracks are named after the hook — it’s in the title, Singanushiga.

I got interested in the origin of the song simply because how remote those two sources where I heard them are — one is from an album from an artist who were famous then, but it came out before his hay-day, another one is from a much Quentin Tarantino-like film director making movies that are controversial to audiences — either love his works or hate to guts. How the soundtracks are composed have also caused some beef between Jiang Wen and Joe Hisaishi.

It didn’t take very long to find out the song Singanushiga has some Russian roots. I have found two theories around this: One says the tune is from a Russian folk song, translated to Chinese as Tsygan Girl (Cí gāng gū niáng), whereas the other theory says the song is also from a Russian song, translated as The Peddlers (Mài huò láng). Now, since Chinese version of the soundtrack translated the song to The Black-Eyed Girl (Hēi yǎn jīng de gū niáng), it made me think if the black-eyed girl is somewhat related to Tsygan Girl. Then, I found the word “Tsygan” (Цыган) in Russian it means Gypsy people. It is unknown how it got transliterated to Chinese from Russian instead of using the existing term for Gypsy in Chinese, Jí pǔ sài.

Having these clues, I found the Russian song. Similar to the Chinese version, it goes by many names: Цыганочка Аза (Tsyganochka Aza), Цыганочка Черноглаза (Tsyganochka Chernoglaza), etc. The word “Цыганочка” (Tsyganochka) means “Gypsy girl”. Those Russian versions I have heard all have different lyrics, except the chorus, which goes like this:

Цыганочка аза, аза
(Tsyganochka aza, aza)
Ah, that Gypsy girl

Цыганочка черноглаза
(Tsyganochka chernoglaza)
The black-eyed Gypsy girl

Цыганочка черноглаза милая моя
(Tsyganochka chernoglaza milaya moya)
My darling, the black-eyed Gypsy girl

This is it! It is as close as it can be between the Russian versions to the Chinese and Uyghur versions I’ve heard before. Granted, mondegreen occurred many times in the history when singers and musicians spread this song to other places. It went from “Tsyganochka” to “Singanushiga”, and embedded in those different depictions in their own way.

As for the two included in the soundtrack of The Sun Also Rises, since I haven’t watched the film yet, I couldn’t tell why they are so distinctive comparing to others. A guess would be what Jiang Wen wants to portray in his film. I guess I will know once I watched it.

The first version, performed by Eizzat Elyas (credited as Yizaiti Yiliyasi) in a solo a cappella fashion throughout the whole song. Whereas the second one, performed by Erzhan Mahefushen and Asqar Mehmet (credited as Ye’erjiang Mahefushi, Asiha’er Maimaiti) is consisted of the duo with a guitar. Even among those two versions, the chorus lyrics are not the same. I would imagine the song is spread via mouths and ears instead of music sheet and written words. Also, could this be the reason of its mysterious origin?

I have put links to The Sun Also Rises Soundtrack at the end (not affiliated) so anyone can hear what I mean. I would love to put the same for Western Ballad there as well, but I couldn’t find it on any reputable music service.

But what about the second theory? I actually have also found something about it. The song, The Peddlers, is more commonly known as Korobeiniki (Коробейники). It may not ring the bell, but I bet most people have heard the most famous piece derived from Korobeiniki, the Tetris Theme. I went ahead and gave Alexandrov Red Army Choir’s version a go. This time, Singanushiga has the same motif as Korobeiniki, but the lyrics are not the same.

The history of Korobeiniki, dated back to the late 19th century. Nikolai Alekseevich Nekrasov (Николай Алексеевич Некрасов) wrote the poem on 1861, but the melody was only completed in late 1890s by Yakov Fedorovich Prigozhiy (Яков Фёдорович Пригожий), allegedly inspired by a motif from Csárdás. As of which Csárdás in question, I tried but couldn’t find any good source I can listen to.

I’m confused again. Dug into some Russian rabbit hole, it turned out the chorus of Singanushiga was added to the original Korobeiniki later and gradually forming a new song. The version without the chorus is then introduced to the outside of USSR as the Tetris Theme. On the other hand, the chorused song known in Russian as Tsyganochka spread through Central Asia and eventually landed in Western China.

Then, as I found, while Jiang Wen was studying in the Central Academy of Drama back in the 1980s, along with his mates, they often sang that song at night in the sports field. It was a song so memorable, that 20 years or so later, he still wanted to make a film with the song in it. When he read a novel called Velvet, he pictured a movie with the story from the novel, with the song played in the background. Few years later, The Sun Also Rises was released with it in the intro. And now, here I am, listening to that song, now known as Singanushiga.

The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Apple Music · Qobuz · Spotify