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 Star Malaysia - Star2 - - R. AGE - By NATASHA PAUL RAJ allther­age@ thes­tar. com. my

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.

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