Beijing Despatch | International

Rediscovering Xinjiang’s musical roots

Like most international cities, Beijing’s metro trains are packed with commuters during rush hour, mostly fashionable young people heading for work. Despite little elbow room inside the carriages, cell phones are out in a flash. But not everyone is using them to make a call, watch a video or to exchange messages. Many quickly make a final check on their facial appearance by turning on the front camera, before leaving the train. But in the urban jungle of China’s capital, there are islands of relief. These days, subway carriages are advertising an upcoming concert of Wu Man.

Ms. Wu has dug deep into the fast-fading musical traditions of China and Central Asia, and fused them with more contemporary sounds. Her extraordinary exertions, unearthing the region’s composite and unique musical heritage, have now found worldwide acclaim. The Pipa, the four-stringed musical instrument with a pear-shaped wooden body, also called the Chinese lute, is central to Ms. Wu’s music. Write-ups on the musician narrate a compelling story of her musical evolution. At age 9, she began to learn the Pipa, and four years later, enrolled at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. In 1990, the hunger for discovering new sounds and “internationalising” the Pipa led her to the U.S., where she currently lives. It was there that she found success, fusing the sounds of the Pipa with jazz, rock and electronic music. The notes of the Pipa under her stewardship also melded effortlessly in the repertoire of symphony orchestra and theatre productions. Hollywood was not far away, with Ms. Wu providing the musical soundtrack for Ang Lee’s The Wedding Bouquet and DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 3 .

A growing number of Chinese musicians seek their civilisation’s musical roots in central Asia, especially Xinjiang, where cultural traditions combine

Despite accolades in the West, it was the ardent obsession to discover the roots of the Pipa and the music associated with it that regularly brought the musician to China since 2008. The mission took Ms. Wu to the faraway Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region, Shaanxi province and Central Asia, where the instrument originated thousands of years ago. During her research, supported by the Aga Khan Music Initiative in central Asia, Ms. Wu’s musician friends accompanied her on tours. The album Borderlands: Wu Man and Master Musicians from the Silk Route in 2012 is the result of their labour.

Discovering the roots

For next month’s concert, advertised on the train, Ms. Wu will be accompanied by Tajikistan’s tanbur virtuoso Sirojiddin Juraev; Askat Jetigen Uulu, who is based in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek; and Italian percussionist Andrea Piccioni. In a recent interview with China Daily , Ms. Wu said: “I was not only able to discover the roots of the Pipa but also mine as a Chinese musician.”

Ms. Wu is one among a growing list of Chinese musicians and scholars who are seeking their civilisation’s musical roots in central Asia, especially Xinjiang, the vast mountainous zone in western China where cultural traditions of China, south Asia and central Asia combine.

China’s Global Times newspaper has reported the journey of Wang Jiangjiang, once an Opera student in Italy, who has been touring Xinjiang to capture its folk music tradition. This includes the Muqam artistic tradition, which covers songs, dances and poetry, strongly influenced by ancient Persian and Arabic music. Mr. Wang has in his possession seven hard drives, which have provided the material for his radio shows. Besides, he has published a book Assalam Xinjiang ( Hello Xinjiang ), a collection of his personal experience in the region. Mr. Wang’s book includes QR codes, allowing readers to go online to watch videos of Muqam performances.

Atul Aneja writes for The Hindu and is based in Beijing.

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Printable version | May 18, 2022 6:53:48 pm |