Building a Bridge: Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Fuses Folk Music with the Present

Classic Arts Features   Building a Bridge: Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Fuses Folk Music with the Present
 
Carnegie Hall's Ancient Paths, Modern Voices is a celebration of Chinese culture through a series of over 30 events presented across NYC Oct. 21-Nov. 10. Here, Stephen Jones discusses the thriving folk music scene in present-day China.


**

In recent years, Wu Man: a graduate of Beijing's Central Conservatory who left China 20 years ago to pursue a career as a pipa player on the international stage: has become curious about the folk traditions in her homeland. "In the conservatories, we were isolated from the local traditions going on all around us in the countryside," she recalls. "It was high time to seek out my musical roots."

Building a bridge between folk music and the wider world, Wu Man began traveling throughout China, visiting poor barren villages in the rural northwest, interacting with puppeteers and roving musicians, and sharing bowls of noodles with Daoists and members of shawm bands. In Taste of China and Ancient Spirits: two events she is curating for Ancient Paths, Modern Voices: Wu Man introduces China's traditional and classical music as both host and pipa performer.

The pipa, which dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618 _906 CE), is a Chinese classical instrument that is similar to the lute. "The music is scholarly, though any notation is really only a rough skeleton," Wu Man explains. "Like the music written for the qin [seven-stringed zither], you can only learn nuances face-to-face with a master teacher: you can't just read and play."

Outside of the cities in remote villages, traditions are still passed down from one generation to the next. The Zhang Family Band, based in a village near Huashan Mountain in Shaanxi province, tours the nearby countryside with its guttural, hoarse singing and instrumental accompaniment. Its shadow-puppet dramas are performed at temple fairs and rituals that promote the well-being of families.

Increasingly, however, family bands like the Zhang and the Li: the latter practitioners of Daoist ritual music: are becoming rare since younger generations are gravitating to urban areas, depleting the village life and culture. "The religious music of the Li family dates back nine generations," says Wu Man, "but the next generation: their children: don't want to learn it."

Regardless of location or generational divides, percussion remains the core of most Chinese music, accompanying storytelling, opera, ritual processions, and even political campaigns. Ba Da Chui, a virtuosic and innovative quartet, highlights the complex rhythms that are central to Peking opera, as well as modern arrangements of local percussion pieces. "Ba Da Chui is very interesting because they're conservatory-trained, yet they're not symphony percussionists because their background is with the local Chinese opera," Wu Man says.

Apart from opera, Chinese vocal music is represented by folk song that spans far-flung regions and numerous ethnic minorities in the country. Solo singing is common, but many ethnic groups like the Dong in the southwestern province of Guizhou also have a distinctive vocal polyphony deeply rooted in nature: Female voices imitating cicadas are matched with drones to create an almost medieval-like sound.

"Traditional music has existed in these villages for hundreds of years," Wu Man explains. "I want to show audiences the other side of China: not just the big cities, but the real China," she says, specifically noting the importance of exposing these musical styles to audiences outside of the Chinese villages. "I also hope the festival shows these musicians that people outside of China appreciate this music: that it's not going to die."

"Traditional music has existed in these villages for hundreds of years," Wu Man explains. "I want to show audiences the other side of China: not just the big cities, but the real China," she says, specifically noting the importance of exposing these musical styles to audiences outside of the Chinese villages. "I also hope the festival shows these musicians that people outside of China appreciate this music: that it's not going to die."

**

Visit Carnegie Hall for more on the Festival.


Stephen Jones has done fieldwork on local musical traditions in China since 1986 through the University of London. He is the author of Folk Music of China, and Ritual and Music of North China.

Today’s Most Popular News: