Wu Man: The tale of the pied pipa

by Elizabeth Kerr / 21 February, 2013
"The traditional spirit is in my blood, it will never go away, but what can I do to introduce this instrument to the next generation?”
Wu Man in 2009, photo/Jay Blakesberg

When Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man was told by Musical America she was to be named 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, she was disbelieving. “Did you guys make a mistake?” she thought. The list of previous winners of the prestigious prize includes Yo-Yo Ma, Midori Goto, Joshua Bell and Evelyn Glennie. Wu is the first non-Western musician to receive the accolade. Accepting the award, she said, “My dream is to bring this instrument out of its traditional role, to make it part of the 21st-century musical family, not just in China but in the world.”

The pipa, a four-stringed traditional Chinese instrument of Persian origin, was chosen for the nine-year-old Wu by her parents. She moved to the Beijing Music Conservatory when she was 13. “In China at that time, if you were talented, a prodigy, you were picked and trained at a very young age. My parents paid nothing, the government paid. It was huge news in my hometown when I was chosen. I was very happy – those 11 years at the school were my best time.”

Wu moved to America 22 years ago, and took seven Chinese instruments with her. “I was being prepared,” she laughs. “I thought, ‘If I can’t play the pipa, maybe I can play the dulcimer’ just to survive.”

A few years after arriving, she met the Kronos Quartet, an event she describes as “magical, a career-turning point. That time totally changed my way of thinking about the meaning of music and being a musician. I’ve always been interested in contemporary music. The traditional spirit is in my blood, it will never go away, but what can I do to introduce this instrument to the next generation?”

Wu is a principal member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, which promotes cross-cultural learning. Asked in 2009 to curate two concerts at Carnegie Hall in an “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices” festival, she returned to China to discover her musical roots beyond the urban environments in which she grew up. “I brought 30 musicians from the Chinese countryside. I found a ninth-generation family Taoist band in northern China, a shadow puppet group from central China, a female singing group from Guizhou province in the south-east.

“These musicians play for weddings and fairs, like a gypsy group, hired by villagers. They usually play outside, very loudly, sending a message to the whole village. On the Carnegie Hall stage, it was so loud I was laughing, but the audience loved it.”

For her solo recital in Auckland, her audience will “taste the pipa music up close”, she says. “I’ll take them through the journey from ancient times, classical-style, through to composed new pieces and improvisation. I hope the audience will say, ‘Wow! What an enjoyable concert’, but also that they’ll understand some of Chinese culture. Music can make people understand other cultures and peoples much more directly than any other means.”

KRONOS QUARTET AND WU MAN, Civic, Auckland, March 9; WU MAN, Auckland Town Hall, March 10. Both as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.
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