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Wu Man’s Music Aims to Bridge East and West

November 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Whether playing folk music with villagers in China, or performing scores written just for her by top classical composers, musician Wu Man has emerged as one of the world's foremost musical ambassadors. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Her name is Wu Man. And, at age 45, she is today one of the world’s leading musical ambassadors, a master of the pipa, a four- stringed lute with ancient roots in Central Asia and China, who is bridging East and West, old and new, whether playing traditional folk music with Chinese villagers, or performing contemporary music written just for her by some of today’s leading Western classical composers.

Wu Man took up the instrument as a young girl in Hangzhou, China, for a very old-fashioned reason: Her parents wanted her to.

WU MAN: Basically, they — OK, they pushed me.

JEFFREY BROWN: They pushed you?

WU MAN: They picked the instrument for me, and they pushed me to learn.

JEFFREY BROWN: I heard that your father wanted you to play the pipa because he thought a girl looks so elegant playing that instrument.

WU MAN: Yes, that’s — that’s what my father said, said, well, pipa is Chinese classical, very classical Chinese tradition. You can see a lot of old paintings with a beautiful woman holding pipa. You sit down, very elegant, you know, hold, half — you have sort of half the face show, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the curve of the instrument.

WU MAN: Yes, the curved body of the instrument.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, he was — they were right.

WU MAN: So, I had no choices. I said, OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pipa is played by plucking outward with the nails, as opposed to a guitar. The strings, once made of silk, are now steel to create a louder sound. Musicians wear false fingernails and practice technique for years to develop tremendous speed and touch.

WU MAN: You have to practice everyday.

WU MAN: Just that took me two years.

Discovering diversity in the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: A young star in China, studying at Beijing's prestigious Central Conservatory of Music, Wu had a performing and teaching career laid out before her. Instead, at age 26, she decided that China's musical life and the pipa's traditional repertoire were too limited. Wu came to the U.S. in 1990 with her husband and started over.

WU MAN: I first came to the States, I don't speak English, and nobody knows what is pipa. Even, nobody know what is Chinese music.

JEFFREY BROWN: The couple lived in New Haven, but Wu began to come into New York, to Chinatown, to find musicians to play with.

WU MAN: I was in culture shock. Wow, how diversity in this country, the culture, everything. I, first time, went to Cantonese opera. I had never been when I was in China.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

WU MAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Soon enough, she was part of the diversity herself. Yo-Yo Ma was just one of the prominent American musicians who heard Wu play and realized her extraordinary talent. Contemporary composers, including Philip Glass, wrote new pieces for her. And Wu herself was on a mission.

WU MAN: To basically expand this instrument more possibility, not only, OK, this is Chinese folk. We don't know about that. We don't know how to touch. But, no, come on, see it. We can do a lot of things.

JEFFREY BROWN: See the pipa as part of contemporary music.

WU MAN: Yes. Yes, sounds very contemporary, especially if I do a lot of percussion.

WU MAN: It's very dramatic.

WU MAN: Composer always surprised. They say, wow, sounds so modern.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wu also discovered folk music in this country, and has performed and recorded with bluegrass musicians.

WU MAN: After they listen pipa, they will say, sounds like a banjo, sounds like a banjo. Yes, yes, like...

Preserving tradition through music

JEFFREY BROWN: At the same time, she realized that, as a conservatory-trained performer, she really knew little about folk music in her own country. Asked to curate part of a Chinese festival for Carnegie Hall, Wu returned to China two years ago to seek out musicians from small villages who play at weddings, funerals, festivals, and other local events.

JEFFREY BROWN: She presented and performed with the musicians at two recent concerts. The festival, called Ancient Paths, Modern Voices, was headed by Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall's executive director.

CLIVE GILLINSON: One of her central dedications is to preserving some of the -- the really wonderful traditional culture. And many of the things that one will see in this festival that she's bringing over are different ethnic groups from little villages. So, in fact, most of them won't have been seen throughout China, let alone anywhere else.

JEFFREY BROWN: One musician, Zhang Ximin, had never been far from his village in central China until a few weeks ago, when he traveled to New York.

WU MAN: "We're very excited. It's like a dream, and because teacher Wu..."

JEFFREY BROWN: Teacher Wu.

WU MAN: Teacher Wu. Teacher Wu here. So...

JEFFREY BROWN: Master Wu.

WU MAN: And Master Wu, that's what -- and, so, that: "She invite us. That's why we're all here. We're so happy."

JEFFREY BROWN: At the new Museum of Chinese in America, Zhang joined teacher Wu for what he told us was a bawdy folk song.

JEFFREY BROWN: For her part, Wu Man now says that her journey back to China was transforming.

WU MAN: I never know when I was in China that Chinese music could be such powerful and such real. The life -- the life of those musicians, they lived in the countryside and how the passion of their music. I want to be with them, I feel. I want to be real.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wu Man plans to spread that passion for traditional and new music as she continues her musical travels around the world.