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Chinese instruments take Western turn – Kanye names album ‘Life of Pablo’ – but who’s Pablo?

Pipa player Jiaju Shen (left), composer and pianist Li Zong (center), and huqin player Feifei Yang (right), pose for a picture before a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The young Chinese-born, New York-based artists are trying to explore new musical frontiers through modern compositions on traditional Chinese instruments. (AFP)
Pipa player Jiaju Shen (left), composer and pianist Li Zong (center), and huqin player Feifei Yang (right), pose for a picture before a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The young Chinese-born, New York-based artists are trying to explore new musical frontiers through modern compositions on traditional Chinese instruments. (AFP)

NEW YORK, Feb 11, (AFP): If jazz is about free-flowing expression, do the instruments have to be Western?

In a cross-cultural experiment, a group of young Chinese artists musicians based in New York is testing the possibilities of fusion by bringing jazz and other Western forms to performances on traditional instruments.

With a concert at Carnegie Hall last week timed for the Chinese New Year, the artists delved into quintessentially Chinese subject matter but through a markedly modern lens.

On “Vermilion Bird,” a composition named for the creature of Chinese mythology that represents fire, composer Li Zong offered jazzy progressions building into fierce glissandi.

Feifei Yang added a more Chinese touch on the huqin, the two-stringed bowed fiddle, while also complementing the jazz feel by playing pizzicato.

The music turned bleaker on “1966,” also composed by Zong, a reference to the start of the Cultural Revolution.

Advances

With Zong on piano and Jiaju Shen on the pipa, a plucked lute, “1966” opens minimally but advances with a sense of dread.

Incorporating a musical allusion to a tune from the era, “1966” crescendos into violent territory as Shen hits the body of the pipa.

Zong, a 27-year-old graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, said he was driven to write “1966” after moving to New York and learning about the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, the bloody 10-year campaign by Mao Zedong to transform China from its roots.

“I was shocked when I first saw the images and videos, so I wanted to express that feeling to the audience,” he said.

“Most of the audience my age didn’t see these images and videos. We hardly get this information in detail. So I hope the music can express that emotion and that mood,” he said.

Fusion is hardly rare for jazz, with legendary saxophonist John Coltrane experimenting with Indian ragas.

Genres

For the Carnegie Hall show, the artists played different genres while building off Chinese musical scales. Other compositions incorporated the yangqin, a form of dulcimer, and guzheng, which is a zither, as well as an array of Western instruments and the human voice.

Zong again showed the influence of jazz on “Potalaka,” a reference to the mountain protected by the Buddha, as Yang and Shen jammed on huqin and pipa, alternating between senses of darkness and light.

Yang, who was also the artistic director of the concert, said that the music reflected the dual education of Chinese artists living in the cultural melting pot of New York.

“We thought, why don’t we do something fusion, to let Westerners understand more about Chinese instruments. Then they might become interested in the culture and traditional stuff instead of us just saying that we will never change,” she said.

“Now is the time for Chinese instruments to get out of their comfort zone,” she said.

Yet she acknowledged that her two-stringed instrument was unlikely to become commonplace in Western music.

“I think Chinese instruments like this one have their limitations. You only have two strings and you have to play four or five octaves. But the thinking has no limitations,” she said.

Shen, who was the producer of the show, hoped to put on more concerts to test musical possibilities.

“Lots of people think that with Chinese instruments you can just play Chinese music,” she said.

“Right now this is a niche market, but we want to see what we can do.”

Also:

NEW YORK: Kanye West has finally explained the title of his long-awaited album on the eve of its release — for the most part.

The rap superstar, who is expected to unveil the album at a fashion show at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Thursday, wrote on Twitter that the album is called “The Life of Pablo.”

West had repeatedly given different titles for his seventh studio album including “Swish” and “Waves” before announcing that he had settled on “T.L.O.P.” without saying what it stood for.

But the immediate question is — who is Pablo?

Many social media users immediately speculated that West was talking about Pablo Picasso.

The 38-year-old rapper, who styles himself as a Renaissance man with interests in music, art and fashion, last year spoke at Oxford University where he said: “My goal, if I was going to do art — fine art — would have been to become Picasso or greater.”

West has also compared himself to Michelangelo and said he plans to run for the US presidency in 2020.

Other social media users wondered if West was referring to the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, Chilean literary great Pablo Neruda or an entirely fictional Pablo.

West also revealed a track list for the album which notably does not include “No More Parties in LA,” a song he recently released for free that features acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar.

West, a master of staying in the spotlight, holds a show on Thursday at Madison Square Garden for the latest season of his Yeezy clothing line, during which he is due to present the album.

His wife, reality television star Kim Kardashian, posted Wednesday on Twitter a shiny boot with a tall heel that she said was part of the upcoming Yeezy collection.

With 21 Grammys, West is tied with fellow rapper Jay Z as the 10th most accoladed artist of all time.

His last album, “Yeezus,” came out in 2013 and featured a harder sound inspired by the drill scene in his native Chicago.

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