Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Getting to Know Wu Man

Wu Man is one of the world’s leading advocates and virtuosos of the pipa, the spiky, ancient Chinese lute which has enjoyed a renaissance over the last fifty years. Last night at Symphony Space presented an opportunity to get to know her a little and hear a little music as well. She hails from the city of Hangzhou, where she was born into a family of traditional music fans who encouraged her to pursue her passion: as she told it, by the time she was eleven, she’d envisioned a professional life as a pipa player. In a coolly melodious voice, she took her time contemplating the challenges and rewards of someone playing an instrument and a repertoire that are both vastly different from what they were a thousand or even two thousand years ago when Iranian traders first introduced an early version of the tar lute to China.

As one would expect from such a fiery, technically skilled player, Wu Man is a gearhead. She took care to emphasize how the instrument – once limited to the range commonly employed by the viola or even the cello – expanded upwards, particularly since the 1930s, along with its repertoire. She’s very particular about craftsmanship: her pipa has ivory – recycled, she took care to note – on the lower frets and bamboo in the upper regions. Depending on the repertoire and the tuning involved (as with the guitar, there’ve been plenty of pipa tunings over the centuries), she’ll vary her choice of strings. This time out, she was using nylon, rather than steel or gut, to match the downstairs theatre’s intimate sonics.

Though she’s an expat, politics weren’t discussed – although she did admit to being hassled by Chinese cops while trying to film her recent crowd-funded half-hour documentary, Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China, which explores a handful of the nation’s rapidly vanishing folk styles. Looking back, there’s no doubt that like many conservatory students throughout the world, she felt cloistered: her recent immersion in ancient folk traditions seems to be an attempt to make up for lost time. That theme comes to the forefront on her most recent album, the starkly beautiful, eclectic Borderlands, released earlier this year by Traditional Crossroads.

Much as it was interesting to hear her perspective, Wu Man speaks more eloquently through her instrument than any words could possibly express. She played about half a dozen short pieces, the highlight being a trio of Ukrainian and Chinese folk songs where she duetted with Ukrainian bandura lute virtuoso Julian Kytasty. As Ukrainian or Russian speakers would quickly realize, Kytasty comes from a family with roots in the China trade, and he is cognizant of them, explaining that these days he “looks to the east” for inspiration. The two hadn’t played together in at least a couple of years (he’s a big part of her hit album Wu Man and Friends), so this was a heartwarming reunion of sorts and it wasn’t long before sparks were flying, particularly on an old Ukrainian tribute to a fallen warrior that wound gracefully from a stately, resonant elegy to a volcanic ending driven by Wu Man’s feral tremolo-picking. A bit later on, solo, she also played a traditional dance that was her (successful) audition piece for the conservatory, a jaunty number that can be heard throughout many subway stations in lower Manhattan, played by a new generation of musicians who no doubt look to emulate her achievements.

This particular mix of meet-and-greet and concert was assembled under the auspices of the World Music Institute, who’ve been staging memorable concerts from a global cast of characters here for literally decades.

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December 8, 2012 Posted by | concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Stunning Black Sea Music Summit at the Met

Billed as Strings of the Black Sea, yesterday’s show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art lived up to the boast made by the organizers’ emcee beforehand: it truly was a landmark concert. It was a New York Eastern European music summit, sort of the Black Sea equivalent of those early 60s Rolling Stones Revues with short sets from a nonstop parade of icons like Howlin’ Wolf, Ike & Tina Turner, Otis Redding et al. The emcee wished aloud for a series of full-length concerts by each of the individual performers here next year, a wish that deserves to come true. As with Debo Band at Joe’s Pub on Friday, there was incongruity in seeing most of them rip through one adrenalizing dance number after another in front of a relaxed, comfortably seated crowd in the museum’s sonically superb Rogers Auditorium. But the audience was energized; the ripple of excitement after it was finally over was impossible not to connect with..

Christos Tiktapanidis got the party started, solo on politiki lyra fiddle (also known as a kemence). What he casually introduced to the crowd as slow was fast and what was fast was lightning-fast, a bracing display of fingerboard wizardry, all split-second doublestops, through a crescendoing opening taqsim (improvisation), a stark levantine dance and a happier number that lept from 5/8 to 7/8 time. Beth Bahia Cohen and Ahmet Erdogdular followed with a brief duo set on the Turkish tanbur lute: she bowed hers, holding it upright like a fiddle while he played his guitar-style with a pick. The two doubled each others’ lines effortlessly through another opening taqsim, stately songs from the 18th and 19th centuries, a rapidfire dance by Cohen on kemence and then an inspired, chromatically charged dance number sung by Erdogdular, who’s rightfully earned acclaim as one of Turkey’s foremost exponents of highly ornamented traditional Ottoman singing.

Julian Kytasty brought the lights down with a somber, haunting solo performance on the wide-bodied Ukrainian bandura, a sort of cross between a concert harp and a lute that frequently took on the incisively pinging, staccato tone of a qanun or a cimbalom. He began with a rueful number sung from the point of view of a dying warrior, encouraging his young protege to pick up where he fell. He explained that the blind minstrels who’d traditionally played this repertoire had been brought to extinction in the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. “Singers are never popular with the powers that be,” Kytasty reminded, in a song that “could be straight out of today’s headlines,” a brutally cynical number detailing how truth gets trampled underfoot and thrown into prison while lies are held high for all to see, to be celebrated by the status quo. His dynamically-charged, virtuosic picking took on a flamenco edge on another lament that he managed to fingerpick while simultaneously tapping out a beat on the body of the instrument.

Nikolay Kolev played solo on the Bulgarian gadulka fiddle, an instrument which has grown many additional strings over the last century: his has fourteen, including the resonating, sympathetic ones. He immediately took the intensity to redline, on a couple of wild, hypnotic, rhythmically tricky minor-key dance tunes, a ruthlessly, fluidly efficient romp in the Middle Eastern hijaz mode that began with yet another taqsim and an anthemic tune in 6/8 that vividly and uneasily bridged major and minor without quite being either. The final act paired violinist Nariman Asanov, one of the foremost (and few) Crimean Tatar fiddlers in the US, with ubiquitous and characteristically energetic, witty accordionist Patrick Farrell (who seems to pop up on practically every first-rate Balkan music bill in town, and leads the absolutely hilarious, unique Stagger Back Brass Band). With a singlemindedness that made it seem as if they’d played together for years, they slowly fanned the embers of a violin taqsim over an accordion drone until they were blazing and then romped through a brief series of fiery, minor-key dances, one with a wickedly catchy klezmer feel. Farrell finally got to solo as Asanov held the rhythm down and made the most of it. The entire crew, minus Kytasty (who needed a chair and mysteriously wasn’t provided with one) encored with a simple, memorable Anatolian folk tune, seemingly a tea drinking anthem, Erdogdular’s unamplified vocals soaring over the song’s darkly tinged, chromatic four-bar hook. The next concert in this series is at the Ukrainian National Home on September 25 at 7 PM featuring the North American debut of Ukrainian sensations Tecsoi Banda.

September 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment