Wu Man: Chi­nese Music on the World Stage

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Li Yiqi

Atra­di­tional Chi­nese four-stringed lute, the pipa orig­i­nated in Cen­tral Asia. Af­ter evolv­ing for thou­sands of years, it be­came a mys­te­ri­ously ex­otic in­stru­ment, es­pe­cially in the eyes of Western­ers. Wu Man, a Chi­nese woman liv­ing in Amer­ica, plays the pipa. She was one of the orig­i­nal mem­bers of Yo-yo Ma’s music team called the Silk Road Ensem­ble, and once per­formed at the White House for for­mer U.S. Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton and his wife. She earned seven Grammy nom­i­na­tions in Best Per­for­mance and Best World Music Al­bum cat­e­gories. In Fe­bru­ary of this year, the Silk Road Ensem­ble won Best World Music Al­bum at the 58th Gram­mys for Sing My Home. Wu in­tro­duced the pipa to the world, mak­ing it a house­hold name for many around the world.

Open­ing For­eign Doors with the Pipa

“Why don’t tra­di­tional in­stru­ment learn­ers go abroad?”

In the 1990s, when study­ing abroad first be­came all the rage in China, many of Wu Man’s school­mates who ma­jored in Western in­stru­ments went to Europe and Amer­ica to fur­ther study. Wu be­gan pon­der­ing why not her. The vast world out­side deeply at­tracted her. At that time, Wu had al­ready be­come the first to ob­tain a mas­ter’s de­gree in pipa per­for­mance at the Cen­tral Con­ser­va­tory of Music, and was able to stay to be a teacher there. But ul­ti­mately, she passed up the chance there to go to Amer­ica with her pipa.

Many peo­ple asked why she chose to go abroad con­sid­er­ing all ex­tant knowl­edge of this in­stru­ment re­mained at home. “Who is go­ing to teach you about this in­stru­ment? Who will you learn from there?” some asked. Wu res­o­lutely be­lieved that the more tra­di­tional de­mands even more ex­ter­nal in­for­ma­tion. Only by un­der­stand­ing the op­po­site can one truly un­der­stand a tra­di­tional essence.

At first, Wu had lit­tle knowl­edge of English. She wanted to com­mu­ni­cate through music, but Western­ers were not fa­mil­iar with the pipa or her cul­ture, which left Wu feel­ing miles away from them. “Giv­ing up wasn’t an op­tion,” she stresses. “As a mu­si­cian with an ex­otic in­stru­ment in my hand, cater­ing to Western au­di­ences be­came a huge chal­lenge.”

Wu con­sid­ers her first few years in the United States “shame­less.” Lack­ing any role mod­els, she sac­ri­ficed her per­sonal life to ded­i­cate ev­ery wak­ing hour to her craft and suc­ceeded with per­sis­tence. What­ever the oc­ca­sion, whether it was paid or not, Wu seized on ev­ery chance to per­form with her pipa. Tens of thou­sands of per­for­mances made Wu the mu­si­cian she is to­day, and each one re­mains like a pre­cious pos­ses­sion.

“I wasn’t think­ing about num­bers back then,” Wu re­calls. “I just wanted to learn and in­tro­duce such a cool in­stru­ment to as many peo­ple as I could. Only much later on did Western me­dia and spec­ta­tors start talk­ing about dis­sem­i­na­tion of Chi­nese music and cul­ture. My face and my pipa have al­ways been sym­bols of the East.”

World Music as a Fam­ily

“I pre­fer to be re­mem­bered as a mu­si­cian more than just a pipa player,” Wu says, “be­cause mu­si­cians think a lot more about music and cul­ture.”

In 1992, Wu per­formed with the U.S.based Kronos Quar­tet, which turned out to be a turn­ing point of her mu­si­cal ca­reer. The Amer­i­can au­di­ence’s stand­ing ova­tion made her re­al­ize that pipa play­ing didn’t have to be con­fined to the tra­di­tional field of the past, but could co­op­er­ate with dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments and con­duct di­a­logue with music of var­i­ous coun­tries.

In 1998, fa­mous Chi­nese-amer­i­can cel­list Yo-yo Ma in­vited Wu to join his Silk Road Ensem­ble, which worked with many artists from coun­tries along the an­cient Silk Road to cre­ate new mu­si­cal lan­guage. As a key found­ing mem­ber of the group, Wu was thus able to con­nect bet­ter with the music of the world and spread Chi­nese music to an even wider au­di­ence, so it was a match made in heaven.

In 2000, she con­tacted mu­si­cians from Iran, Mon­go­lia, In­dia, Ta­jik­istan and Azer­bai­jan and met with them to play faceto-face. The jam ses­sion felt both strange and fa­mil­iar. “So many re­minded me of the music from China’s Xin­jiang Uygur Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion,” she re­calls. “It re­ally was a won­der­ful experience.”

The more she col­lab­o­rated with for­eign mu­si­cians, the more Wu be­lieved that all in­stru­ments are con­nected. Ev­ery in­stru­ment is linked af­ter so many cen­turies of mu­si­cal evo­lu­tion, but the lengthy

time makes peo­ple for­get. As Wu says, “Such co­op­er­a­tion in music is also a kind of di­a­logue on cul­ture. It’s com­mu­ni­cat­ing, shar­ing and re­mind­ing. We have to be re­minded that we are, in fact, one fam­ily.”

“I re­ally didn’t think much about re­spon­si­bil­ity—i was just fu­eled by pas­sion for music,” she ad­mits. “When I look back now, I see I re­ally did a lot.”

Sto­ries Be­hind the Pipa

“I’ve played the pipa for more than 20 years. I want to dig deeper into the cul­tural and artis­tic as­pects to learn the sto­ries be­hind the in­stru­ment.”

Wu be­gan to con­sciously trace the his­tory of the pipa. She trav­eled to Azer­bai­jan, Ta­jik­istan, Kaza­khstan and other coun­tries as well as north­west­ern China to study ru­ral Taoist cer­e­monies, shadow plays and the orig­i­nal music in lo­cal op­eras and folk songs. She spent a good deal of time in China ev­ery year to gather the in­spi­ra­tion to bring more East­ern tra­di­tions to the Western stage.

Study­ing the ge­neal­ogy of the pipa only thrust Wu deeper into Chi­nese cul­ture and her own her­itage. Even­tu­ally she found her­self delv­ing into the cul­tural her­itage of the Chi­nese peo­ple.

Af­ter chat­ting with Ira­nian mu­si­cians, Wu learned about Iran’s an­cient bal­bata, which was a pre­de­ces­sor of the pipa. This dis­cov­ery gave her the idea of look­ing for pipa rel­a­tives through­out Cen­tral Asia through con­certs.

In May of this year, Wu re­turned to China and sched­uled a 12-city con­cert tour named “Fron­tier—wu Man and the Silk Road Mu­si­cians.” Apart from Wu, the group in­cludes a du­tar player from Ta­jik­istan, an Ital­ian tam­bourine player and a Uygur singer ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing an­cient and mod­ern music across na­tional board­ers and into spec­ta­tors’ hearts.

Wu re­marks that al­though Cen­tral Asian coun­tries are neigh­bors of China, they haven’t found many op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­mu­ni­cate in ar­eas like art and music. Before this tour, Wu worked with Cen­tral Asian mu­si­cians on al­bums, in doc­u­men­taries and to­gether in con­certs. The stage was set for her to in­tro­duce this tra­di­tional and novel method of co­op­er­a­tion to China and share the music with the do­mes­tic au­di­ence. “I wanted to show Chi­nese peo­ple that there are other ways the pipa can be per­formed, and that it can ‘speak’ other lan­guages of music,” she ex­plains. “I wanted to show them the mul­ti­cul­tural feel­ing of world music.”

In the fu­ture, Wu hopes to con­tinue work­ing on the Silk Road Music Project and co­op­er­at­ing with mu­si­cians from all over the world. She hopes that Chi­nese in­stru­ments will find more space on the world stage and that peo­ple will learn more about the pipa. She wants the pipa to be­come an in­stru­ment for the whole world as well as a part of world music. “Just stay true to your mis­sion,” she con­cludes. “I have al­ways wanted to spread Chi­nese music and cul­ture through this in­stru­ment.”

Wu Man and her stun­ning pipa music have amazed the world and re­freshed Chi­nese peo­ple's per­cep­tion of this in­stru­ment. courtesy of Wu Man

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