In an era obsessed with the latest gadgets and technology, few people are passionate about a musical instrument that dates back to 1100 BCE.
Mr Yang Ji Wei is one of them.
The 37-year-old is a dedicated player of the sheng — a traditional Chinese wind instrument that can play multiple notes at the same time, like a pipe or reed organ. He is the co-founder of the TENG Company (a Singaporean non-profit arts company) and Resonance, the first and only sheng ensemble in South-east Asia.
A recipient of the Singapore Youth Award in 2015, Mr Yang is dedicated to raising the profile of traditional music in Singapore. He feels music is an integral part of the nation’s rich culture and heritage that he wants to keep alive.
“As we progress as a nation, it is good for the younger generation to be in touch with their roots,” he says.
The first spark
Mr Yang discovered his passion for traditional Chinese when he was 10. Assigned to the sheng — a lesser-known instrument, often used as an accompaniment — in his primary school Chinese orchestra, he quickly fell in love with it.
“Music has been close to my heart since I was young. It was a good channel to relieve stress, and helped me through some tough times,” he says.
In 2004, he won the first prize in the combined category of the National Chinese Music Competition, and was awarded the Shell-National Arts Council Arts Scholarship a year later to pursue further studies at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
While his parents were initially sceptical of his desire to dedicate his life to music, they eventually warmed to the idea.
“The years I spent in China changed my life completely. I discovered the riches and complexity of Chinese language and culture, and this sparked in me the desire to keep traditional customs and heritage alive,” he says.
Kindling passion into flame
Upon returning to Singapore in 2009, Mr Yang founded the TENG Ensemble with like-minded friends from his secondary school days.
The Ensemble comprised a unique blend of Eastern and Western instruments — apart from Mr Yang’s sheng, there was also a pipa (a four-stringed Chinese instrument), a guitar and a cello, among others.
Starting out with only five musicians, the Ensemble rapidly grew both in numbers and in popularity. In 2012, it performed two sold-out concerts at the Esplanade.
The TENG Company —which manages the TENG Ensemble — received a seed grant from the National Arts Council in 2015 and established itself as a non-profit organisation. Part of the TENG Company’s work involves community performances to raise public awareness of Chinese music.
To that end, it organises regular community performances throughout the year, such as Where the River Always Flows, a public concert held yearly at the Fullerton Heritage, and twice-yearly concerts at VivoCity.
The Ensemble also holds regular performances for patients (about 30 to 40 a year) at various locations such as Assisi Hospice, Dover Park Hospice and the National Kidney Foundation.
Passing on the torch
Apart from raising the profile of traditional Chinese music in the public consciousness, one of Mr Yang’s main aims is to keep heritage alive in the younger generation.
The TENG Company conducts musical programmes for at-risk youth, such as percussion workshops. It also offers The Mapletree-TENG Academy scholarship in partnership with Mapletree Investments to students from low-income families who are interested to pursue Chinese music.
Mr Yang himself is the music director and conductor of the Chinese orchestras in several primary and secondary schools.
“Primary school students are a blank canvas and are easier to work with,” he says.
Secondary and older students, on the other hand, tend to have preconceived notions that Chinese orchestral instruments are obsolete and not worth their time.
To appeal to these students, Mr Yang commissions arrangements of pop songs by contemporary artists like Bruno Mars regularly for his orchestras.
“This demonstrates to them that while the instruments may be ancient, they are still relevant,” he says.
Next year, Mr Yang is looking to publish a book, The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra, with World Scientific Publishing.
It is the first book of its kind — detailing the history of the various instruments and techniques for playing them. It is intended partly as a primer to Western and global audiences, introducing these little-known instruments to the wider world.
As part of Singapore’s bicentennial celebrations next year, the TENG Ensemble will also be presenting a concert inspired by traditional music from different dialect groups in Singapore — the Hakka, Teochew and Cantonese, to name a few.
Thanks to Mr Yang’s endeavours, millennia-old Chinese instruments are still being kept alive and relevant for another generation.
He says: “We constantly challenge ourselves to push the boundaries of Chinese traditional music — all with the aim of preserving, innovating and creating for generations of Singaporeans to come.”