Modern twist to traditional folk art

Pipa player Wu Man (left) and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band.
Pipa player Wu Man (left) and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band. PHOTO: DAVID BAZERMORE

World-renowned pipa virtuoso Wu Man is known for bringing traditional Chinese music to modern audiences around the world.

But real tradition, she says, is what she found when she travelled to a remote village in Huayin county in Shaanxi, China, and heard laoqiang for the first time.

One of the oldest forms of traditional folk art in China, laoqiang originated about 2,000 years ago during the Western Han dynasty where the Yellow River and Weihe River met.

There, boatmen would sing to signal and synchronise their movements and beat pieces of wood together in rhythm, thus giving rise to the rousing, raucous style of laoqiang.

The music, which is accompanied by shadow puppetry, has been passed down through generations of the Zhang family clan. Known today as the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band, the artists will be performing with Wu at Moonfest.

"Their music is so real, so honest," says Wu, 53, over the telephone from where she lives in San Diego. "It's not like where I come from - I was trained in a conservatory to play on a stage. They play outdoors, in the fields, at weddings and at parties - they play anywhere. It is their life."

The Singapore show is the South-east Asian premiere of the concert, which has been performed to acclaim on a 12-city United States tour.

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There are challenges in bringing the band, whose members are in their 60s and 70s, on tour. Given their thick northern accent, Wu had trouble communicating with them at first. It was also difficult to find them the noodles they craved in the depths of Idaho or Utah.

But the connection through music was instant. Their leader plays the yueqin, which to Wu sounded a lot like her pipa. "It was just like going back to the roots of my instrument, colour-wise."

The Grammy-nominated Wu, who was born in Hangzhou and is married with a son, is considered one of the world's best pipa players.


  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Sept 22, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $38 to $68 from Sistic

She says she began playing the instrument at the age of nine or 10 and that it is like "a marriage - I love it and I hate it, it is like a human being to me".

She was trained in Pudong-style pipa playing at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and moved to the US in her 20s to explore how she could take her instrument beyond the traditional repertoire.

She has played as a principal musician in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project and, in 2013, became the first player of a non-Western instrument to be named Instrumentalist of the Year by classical music magazine Musical America.

In 2016, she performed at the Singapore International Festival of Arts alongside seven masters of Uighur music.

"I always want to try to do something meaningful, to get people to think deeply about culture, history and art," she says.

"Audiences come to the concert to enjoy, but when they walk out, something else stays with them."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2018, with the headline Modern twist to traditional folk art. Subscribe