Tracing roots of pipa in journey of discovery



Wu Man (pipa) & Master Musicians from the Silk Route

Singapore International Festival of Arts

Sota Theatre Studio


In Borderlands, world-renowned pipa virtuosa Wu Man traced the roots of her instrument all the way to Central Asia, to a time of antiquity when cross-fertilisation of cultures was a way of life. For this concert, she was joined by five Uighur musicians and a dancer from Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China's far west.

A contemplative pipa solo, Gobi Desert At Sunset, by Wu ushered in Chebiyat Muqam, the first of several excerpts from muqams to be performed. A muqam is the traditional Uighur suite of pieces involving poetry, singing, instrumental music and dance. Typically, each would take several hours to complete and the full set of 12 could last the best part of a day.

For the purpose of this evening, Chebiyat Muqam, essentially an extended love song with erotic undertones, breezed through 25 minutes of sensuous and often exuberant music. The chief protagonist was vocalist Sanubar Tursun who also strummed on a dutar (a long- necked lute), whose pristine voice and haunting inflexions recalled an ancient age and exotic locales.

She was joined in the feverish climaxes by Mijiti Younusi (on tambur, another plucked lute), Rexiati Abudureheman (satar, bowed lute), Adili Abudukelimu (kalun, a dulcimer struck by sticks) and Alifu Saideke (hand drum), who added their male voices to the fray. Time stood still for this unlikely entertainment, which had the drawing power of a muezzin's call to prayer, heady aroma of freshly burnt incense and earthly pleasures of a seraglio.

All the singing was in Uighur, a Turkic language spoken in Xinjiang alongside Han Chinese putonghua, or Mandarin.

An added visual element was the colourful presence of dancer Delare Maimaitiyiming, whose nodding head movements and swirling revolutions were spectacular in Mountain Spring. At one point, she balanced six bowls on the top of her head without spilling a drop of water.

It was back to Wu, who assimilated her journey of discovery of Central Asian music in Song Of The Kazakh, a virtuoso showpiece far removed from Chinese pipa music which unveiled Western harmonies and hints of polyphony.

In Hanleyun, two songs were joined. The first was about life experiences, of how a nightingale that has not suffered winter would not know the joys of spring, and the second on a homeland that resembled the Garden of Eden.

For the final muqam excerpts, dulcimer-player Abudukelimu displayed his throaty baritone-like vocals (Dolan Muqam) and joined dancer Maimaitiyiming in an animated "pas de deux" (Nawa Muqam), relating the plaints of a desert hermit and sage.

The 90-minute concert ended like how it started, in near total darkness, with Wu in pipa solo Night Thoughts - a study in solitude.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2016, with the headline Tracing roots of pipa in journey of discovery. Subscribe