Chinese pipa musician Wu Man explores the roots of China's traditional music

By Zhang Yuchen Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/17 18:13:39

Wu Man Photo: Courtesy of Wang Feiyu

There isn't a music genre called "Silk Road music," which is why Chinese pipa player Wu Man has been working to create one.

A US-based Chinese pipa player, Wu is one of the first musicians to introduce the pipa, a four-stringed lute, to a broad audience in the West. She has carved an impressive music career with numerous concert performances and has been nominated for a Grammy Award seven times.

On May 4, Wu kicked off her Borderlands: Wu Man and Master Musicians from the Silk Route tour in Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, and also the starting point of the ancient Silk Road. On Sunday, she completed the eighth stop on her tour with a performance in Beijing.

The tour sees Wu collaborate with three musicians from countries and regions along the routes of China's Belt and Road initiative: Uyghur singer and songwriter Sanubar Tursun from China, tanbur virtuoso Sirojiddin Juraev from Tajikistan and percussionist Andrea Piccioni from Italy.

"The Borderlands concert is a good example of how music can shorten the distances between us and shows the importance of cultural exchanges between nations," Wu told the Global Times on Sunday.

Musical origins

The pipa is a traditional Chinese instrument whose origins can be traced to Central Asia. It is possibly a derivative of the Persian stringed instrument known as the "barbat." In ancient times, as trade along the Silk Road brought material goods as well as culture in and out the numerous countries along its routes, the pipa was introduced into China, where it gradually became an integral part of the nation's musical culture.

While the pipa reached the height of its popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), according to Wu most modern pipa instruments are made following the pear-shaped style popular during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and are held vertically when playing.

In 2000, Wu had a chance to meet musicians from Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. Listening to them play the folk music of their home countries, she discovered that this music had an amazing resonance and familiarity to the music of the pipa.

"It sounded very close to the traditional music in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China," Wu recalled. "Then I chatted with an Iranian musician. We talked about the history of the pipa and I discovered I didn't know much about its history even though I had played it for many years. I became determined to learn more."

That experience left a huge impression on Wu. Over the next few years, she started laying the groundwork for the Borderlands project. Starting from 2008, she began making regular visits to Xinjiang, Shaanxi Province and Central Asian countries to explore the origin of their traditional instruments while also searching for ways to incorporate contemporary elements into the way these musical instruments are played.

 "The Silk Road is like a rope that ties these traditional instruments together," Wu said.

"I want to introduce them to young Chinese so they can come to fully understand the cultural exchanges that occurred along the Silk Road."

This statue of a woman playing pipa behind her back is modeled after a figure that appears in a mural at the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Northwest China's Gansu Province. Photo: IC

Chinese charm

Solo performances are an essential part of Wu's Borderlands show. She is keen about showing off each instrument's sound and classic songs to audiences.

Impromptu ensemble performances are another part of the show that she values greatly.

"I randomly play a piece of Chinese music and challenge Juraev and Piccioni to join me," Wu said.

Wu told the Global Times that when she first went to the US in 1990, she brought seven ancient Chinese musical instruments, including a pipa, with her. Her original thought was that if Western audiences didn't like the pipa, she had at least six backups to choose from when it came to introducing traditional Chinese music to the West.

"But I discovered there was no need to worry as the pipa was cool enough," Wu explained.

It took years for US audiences to become accustomed to this instrument they had never seen before. Gradually, as Wu gave quite a lot of solo performances or joined ensemble concerts featuring Western instruments, "they finally became used to the pipa."

"Like spicy Chinese food. Some of them didn't like it at first, then they became accepting of it, and finally became addicted to it," Wu noted.

During the more than 20 years Wu has spent to open up the Western market for traditional Chinese music, she has collaborated numerous times with musicians from different cultural backgrounds, while also pushing the boundaries of tradition by trying to infuse other music genres, such as electronica or jazz, into her music.

Among those she has worked with, the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble are some of the more well-known ones.

A founding member of the Silk Road Ensemble, Wu worked on the ensemble's Sing Me Home, which won Best World Music Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards.

Now, some Western composers are even writing pipa music for Wu to perform. While some may find this strange, for her it is as natural as having a Chinese musician write music for the piano or violin.

"No matter what music I play, the pipa's Chinese character is always present," Wu said.

Newspaper headline: Music of the Silk Road

Posted in: MUSIC

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