"The music of different peoples has different ways of expression. We can look at all types of music as a language system, and Chinese folk music is one of the dialects." Wu Man, an American pipa player and a distinguished professor at Zhejiang Conservatory of Music, said.
Recently, Wu Man won the "2022-2023 Impact on the Chinese World Award" and the "National Traditional Arts Heritage Award" in the United States. This is a testimony to Wu Man's use of music to promote cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries over the years.
First arrival in a foreign country
More than 30 years ago, Wu Man came to the United States with seven folk instruments. Wu Man believes that Chinese rhythmic aesthetics should be heard by the world. But the American public at that time knew very little about China, let alone traditional Chinese music.
"When I first arrived in the United States, I was anxious and lonely." Wu Man said that at first, she went to communities and schools to hold recitals, and the results were not ideal. At that time, most overseas listeners were curious about traditional Chinese Musical Instruments such as pipa and guzheng, but few were willing to learn more about them. "The audience is excited when they play, and no one cares after the concert" is the norm.
How can the audience sustain their passion for Chinese folk music? Wu Man's first thought was cooperation. In Wu Man's opinion, pipa performance can be delicate and subtle, but also passionate and changeable, with dramatic conflict. If the pipa is combined with the plucked instruments of other nationalities to jointly interpret the adapted version of classic works, it may bring different experience to the audience.
Try to cooperate
With this idea in mind, Wu Man began the road of cross-border cooperation. After communicating with Ugandan harpist James Makubuya, Wu discovered that African folk music also uses pentatonic scales, but with more complex rhythms. The melody of the Chinese pipa and the dynamic rhythm of the African harp complement each other, making the music rich in layers. The duo's improvisational ensemble made Wu Man realize more "gameplay" of the pipa.
In 2006, Wu Man collaborated with four musicians who used plucked instruments and pipa from Africa, America and Europe to release the album Wu Man and Friends. Through their respective sound characteristics, these Musical Instruments representing different regional cultures interpret folk stories in a unique way of emotional expression, and let more people experience the charm of traditional Chinese Musical Instruments in an innovative way.
"Sitting together and exploring the language of music gives people a new desire to explore foreign cultures." Taking "Tea Garden Song" as an example, Wu said that she and musicians from other countries made regional adaptations of the song in multiple versions. It has been played on the oud of Syria, the Dutal of Tajikistan, and the tabla of Italy.
In the process of cooperating with others, Wu Man constantly thinks about how to preserve the essence of Chinese folk music and highlight the characteristics of Chinese Musical Instruments. Wu Man said that Chinese folk music pays attention to the blank space, creating a kind of aura between the tones. In the aspect of music adaptation, the role of the pipa and other instruments should be considered. The expression of qi rhyme has higher requirements for the performer's skills and details. Musicians need to constantly hone their skills, deepen their understanding of different cultures, and try to merge Chinese expressions with the musical languages of other nationalities.
"We don't need to worry about whether people of other ethnic groups can understand Chinese folk music. The emotions in music are universal. The characteristic expression of folk Musical Instruments can draw the audience into the context of Chinese landscape." Wu Man hopes that the young generation of Chinese musicians can have the courage to try, while carrying forward the tradition, strengthen exchanges and cooperation with musicians from all over the world, and create more sparks.