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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

10/23 Taste of China @ Zankel Hall

Taste of China

Perhaps the most inspired idea in Wu Man’s first Zankel Hall event last night was opening with the 15-minute documentary entitled Discovering a Musical Heartland—Wu Man’s Return to China, which shows just how far removed Chinese traditions are from the Western concert experience. When you see where the performers come from, you’re already primed to accept their music on different terms.

In the case of the Dong singers from Guizhou, nothing in their demeanor indicated they were anything but village peasants sharing their local customs. Their every second on stage was a combination of awkwardness and naturalness, with little of the professional makeover that comes from being primed for touristic and media performance. The first thing you heard when they came out in traditional dress was a rustling of wind chimes (which was actually the clinking of pure and alloyed silver adornments that represent a good portion of a village girl’s dowry). The second thing was a distinctive sense of musical texture—particularly microtonal to our ears, clearly not “cleaned up” for the masses. (As we learned years ago from Soviet musicologists, a little conservatory training can be dangerous for minority traditions). These Dong villagers were definitely the real thing.

So too is the percussion ensemble Ba Da Chui, though they represent a different take on tradition entirely. Where the Dong are an ethnic minority, as removed from Chinese mainstream culture as Appalachian folk singing is in America, Ba Da Chui (or “Eight Mallets,” as they’re translated on programs in China) is a tightly rehearsed, conservatory-trained, Beijing-based collective who use their virtuosity as a means to connect more deeply with their culture. And like the Dong, their audience is usually their fellow villagers—although in this case, their “village” has some 15 million neighbors. They opened with a brilliantly studied take on dailuzi cymbal playing from the Tujia people, an ethnic minority from Hunan also referenced at Carnegie Hall in Tan Dun’s multimedia concerto, The Map. Too much good stuff followed to summarize adequately here. More on Eight Mallets later after their neighborhood concert this afternoon.

Coming between the two—in philosophy as well as program placement—was the qin player Zhao Jiazhen, a longtime friend of Wu Man from the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Both share a similar approach to their instrument, treating its tradition not as history but as a continuum stretching into the present. And both were confident enough in their roots to carry the tradition in new directions.

The only significant glitch of the evening from the audience’s perspective was that the Dong singers—clearly unfamiliar with the conventions of Western programs—completely reordered their program and rarely paused between songs, making it seem more like an actual village gathering, though impossible to follow from the program notes. Eight Mallets, on the other hand, went on exactly as noted. You could tell that by next Thursday, the Dong women will be back home picking rice in the fields, while the percussionists will be back in Beijing preparing for their next gig.

Posted by Ken Smith

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