Thank you for the music
Neil Chua, a young musician dedicated to culturally preserving the ruan, has big plans for this ancient Chinese instrument.
THE ruan, an ancient Chinese instrument, was lost to history y twice – completelyp y wipedp out from Chinese culture until it was later rediscovered. Malaysian Neil Chua is doing his part to make sure that never happens again.
Chua is the first and only Malaysian to have earned a Master’s Degree specialising in ruan at the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
“I have a responsibility to promote the ruan and bring it back to the music scene. It is my job to ensure it never gets lost again,” he said.
“I have to constantly y innovate and challenge myself to promote ruan not just in Asia, but around the world.”
It’s a daunting task, but Chua has made some serious progress. In July last year, he performed his first concert at the Esplande in Singapore, where he is now based.
There, he founded Ruanatworkz Musical Arts, a collective of young traditional instrumentalists that hopes to keep these art forms alive through performances, workshops, conferences and other events.
But a huge turning point for him was being selected for the OneBeat music fellowship in 2014, organised the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. OneBeat brings musicians from around the world ( aged 19- 35) to the US every year to collaboratively write, perform and produce music, and develop strateg gies for arts- based social engagement.
“I learnt a gr reat deal from OneBeat. It changed my w whole perception of what it is to be a musician.
“In the past, I thought it was just about composing and d performing. Now, being a musician to me e is about responsibility. We have an impor rtant role to play. If music is a bridge that con nnects people, then musicians are the bridge- builders,” he said.
Rather typic cally, Chua grew up being told his interest in r ruan wouldn’t get him anywhere. He was sn’t just picking a career in music, he was picking a traditional instrument as his fo orte - and a pretty obscure one at that. The ruan n is a lute with four strings, and acco ording to Chua, it has always been a veryv uncommon instrument, only ava ailable to royalty and high court offi icials throughout much of its 2,000- year history. “I was me esmerised by the sweet, mellow sound, so I started researching the ruan,” he e said.
“It orig ginated in China, and yet instrumen nts like the pipa and guzheng - which were not originally from China - are more po opular. But the more I learnt about the ruan n, the more I fell in love with it.”
There were some other more unique challenges to learn ning the ruan. Because the instrument wa as lost to history - twice - Chua said there has been very little knowledge or material passe ed down over the generations.
As for the in nstrument itself, ruans cost between RM50 00 to RM30,000, and it’s not something any y musician can just pick up because the tec chnique required to play one can be very dif fficult compared to other string instrum ents.
For Chua, lea arning to play ruan in China required more than just refining his technique. “I had to adjust every aspect of my life, from the way I sit to the way I hold the instrument. I have to constantly keep an open mind, because China is the birthplace of my instrument. What I learnt back in Malaysia may not be applicable in China.”
Even though he was educated for seven years in such a traditional environment, Chua is eager to experiment with the ruan, and he believes it can work well with modern electronic music.
“I have been fusing different cultures into my music as I strongly believe music needs to evolve with time. By fusing traditional instruments with electronic music, we not only give a new lease of life to our tradition, but we also get to attract the younger generation,” he said.
It has been almost two years since he attended the OneBeat programme ( which he says is the highlight of his career), but Chua is still actively collaborating with the musicians he met at OneBeat.
In July, he will be performing an original opera, Sesaji Segoro, in Japan with an Indonesian OneBeat fellow. The opera will be a fusion of Javanese and Chinese traditions.
Then in 2017, he will be spearheading LISTEN! To South China Sea with three OneBeat fellows from Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia. They will be touring Southeast Asia to “build a strong Asean social core to unite Asean in the face of the disputes in the South China Sea”.
As for the future of traditional music in Malaysia, Chua believes the country is heading in the right direction. There are several grants available, handed out by associations that are very supportive of traditional cultures.
“There is no lack of talent in Malaysia. They are all just waiting to be groomed.”
The ruan, which was only played by royalty and high court officials, disappeared from Chinese culture twice in its 2,000- year- old history, and Chua is determined to preserve it now.
In July, Chua will be performing sesaji segoro, an original fusion opera with Javanese and Chinese traditions.