If music is the universal language then why do we listen to just one genre of music? It’s a serious question, whether you are a casual listener or a studied musician or consider yourself a knowledgeable and serious fan. Smithsonian Folkways is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States. They are dedicated to to supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of music. Additionally, they seek out and record some of the worlds best music and then present it in audiophile quality albums.
Now, during the Olympics when athletes from all over the world become, if only for a few weeks, household names, is a perfect time to treat yourself to a musical journey to exotic and mysterious music.
On this wonderfully spirited offering they have brought together world renown pipa player Wu Man, and other master musicians from the Silk Route. The pipa is a four string Chinese instrument often called the Chinese lute. You could equate the pipa to the guitar in the western world, not because of the sound it makes but because of its popularity in China and other Central Asian countries. It has been played for almost two thousand years in China. Additionally, throughout east and south east Asia other cultures have modeled other instruments after it; the Japanese biwa, the Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà, and the Korean bipa.
Wu Man herself is not only praised as a master of the pipa but has almost single handedly introduced pipa music and Chinese musical culture to audiences in the West. She has been involved in creating many cross-cultural projects by blending the pipa with variety of western and non-western instruments and art forms. The idea has been to introduce the pipa to audiences by presenting the instrument and the sounds it makes in a context with which they are familiar.
Wu Man’s quest to understand the history of the pipa brought her to the Chinese borderlands of the Silk Route, a region of vast expanses of desert, mountains, and grasslands that for millennia have both linked and divided Chinese and Central Asian civilizations. The Silk Route is the road Marco Polo travelled and historically brought back to Europe the knowledge, culture, foods and tales of the music and the peoples of Central and Eastern Asia. At the heart of Borderlands are the musical traditions of the Uyghurs, whose homeland is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the far northwest of China.
On Borderlands, introduces three outstanding Uyghur musicians–Abdulla Majnun, Sanubar Tursun, and Hesenjan Tursun. Borderlands also features Hui singer Ma Ersa from China’s Northwest Gansu province, and Tajik musicians Abduvali Abdurashidov and Sirojiddin Juraev. As Wu Man says, “The collaborations made my musical fantasy come true. Together with these musicians, we created a new musical voice.”
Born in Hangzhou, China, and since 1990 residing in California, Wu Man studied with Lin Shicheng, Kuang Yuzhong, Chen Zemin, and Liu Dehai at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa. Wu Man’s first exposure to western classical music came in 1979 when she saw Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing in Beijing. In 1980 she participated in an open master class with violinist Isaac Stern and in 1985 she made her first visit to the United States as a member of the China Youth Arts Troupe. a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University. In 1999 Wu Man was selected by Yo-Yo Ma as the winner of the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize in music and communication. She is also the first artist from China to have performed at the White House.
The album itself is a treasure even before you peel off the cellophane. It consists of 14 tracks and runs 72 minutes. There is a wonderful 48-page color booklet that is both informative and interesting. It gives an overview of Central Asian music, historically and into modern times. There’s also a DVD that contains a series introduction, 2 documentary films, interactive glossary, and map.
Not only a cultural enlightenment, but musically the music is in turn exciting, playful and exuberant. Then calming, peaceful and in an eerie way familiar. It is of course performed by master musicians one and all, and they do not disappoint.
Wu Man has played with Yo-Yo Ma, The Kronos Quartet, Henry Threadgill, Liu Sola, Martin Simpson. She has had original pieces composed for her by the likes of Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, and Gabriela Lena Frank to mention just a few.
There is a tune on the album called “Ademler Ulugh” that translates to People Are Glorious. I think that is a wonderful theme to any music.
At Smithsonian Folkways they still carry out the mission of founder Moses Asch who founded the label in 1948. To document "people's music," spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. They still believe that musical and cultural diversity contributes to the vitality and quality of life throughout the world. Through the dissemination of audio recordings and educational materials they seek to strengthen people's engagement with their own cultural heritage and to enhance their awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of others. To see what other recordings they have to act as a road map as you explore other musical cultures…an your own, go to their website. You may get lost in the music, but you’ll find yourself at home in the world.
Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved