When the pipa makes music with the gambus

Pipa player Chua Yew Kok and gambus musician Azrin Abdullah will present eight pieces at Sunday’s DY-Logue concert, including Of Passion & Expression, which Azrin originally wrote for the gambus and percussion.
Pipa player Chua Yew Kok and gambus musician Azrin Abdullah will present eight pieces at Sunday’s DY-Logue concert, including Of Passion & Expression, which Azrin originally wrote for the gambus and percussion. ST PHOTO: KELLY HUI

As part of a new concert series by Ding Yi Music Company, its pipa player Chua Yew Kok will play with gambus musician Azrin Abdullah

A musical dialogue between the pipa and gambus will weave different traditions together in the black box of the Stamford Arts Centre in Waterloo Street.

The intimate concert is part of DY-Logue, a new annual series by Ding Yi Music Company where a musician from the ensemble – known for its contemporary spin on classic chamber orchestra music – works closely with someone from a different musical tradition and presents a concert with them.

Sunday’s show will shine a spotlight on Ding Yi Music Company’s pipa player Chua Yew Kok, 41, and gambus musician Azrin Abdullah, 43.

The gambus – found in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – and the Chinese pipa are both plucked string instruments that belong to the lute family.

The upcoming DY-Logue concert will feature eight pieces, ranging from the ancient tune King Chu Doffs His Armour, a highly virtuosic piece of pipa music, to Of Passion & Expression, which Azrin originally wrote for the gambus and percussion in the early 2000s.

A new arrangement to be performed on Sunday features the gambus with a Chinese chamber ensemble.

Azrin, who has never worked with Chinese instrumentalists or arranged music for them before, says: “It will be interesting to hear how the erhu, double bass and zhonghu work together.”

The two musicians say that working together has been illuminating.

“The gambus sometimes reminds me of the Chinese zhongruan because of its mellow sound,” says Chua.

“The fretless finger board allows for much more freedom in creating musical nuances. Some of the traditional gambus pieces – for example, Lil Ruh Hadith in our performance – remind me of Western music from the Renaissance period.”

Azrin says of Chua’s playing: “The ornamentations and embellishments he uses have been quite eyeopening. The way we execute them is different.”

He adds: “It’s like we are trying to learn each other’s ‘language’.”

Ding Yi Music Company’s principal conductor Quek Ling Kiong says the series aims to foster close collaboration between musicians from different traditions.

“What I want to see is more in-depth collaborations, rather than (simply) having musicians from other cultures or disciplines perform with the ensemble, or us perform with them.”

• For a preview of Chua and Azrin’s rendition of the ancient tune Song On The Frontier, go to str.sg/JUZj

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2019, with the headline 'When the pipa makes music with the gambus'. Print Edition | Subscribe