With their wild energetic style music that was centuries old, a farmers ensemble from remote Northwest China has delivered one surprising moment after another to audiences along the way of their on-going U.S. tour.
Led by pipa virtuoso Wu Man, the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band, which comprises eight farmers from Huayin County, Shanxi Province, showcased a little known Chinese folk music called "Lao Qiang," which is roughly translatable as "Old Tune," at the New York Society for Ethical Culture Saturday evening.
New York City was the 10th stop of the group's 12-city, cross-country tour of the United States, running from March 1-25.
WOOD BENCH AS PERCUSSION INSTRUMENT
From the moment the band took the stage with vigorous and boastful cry of Zhang Ximin, a senior artist of Lao Qiang, the eight predominantly elderly men were never less than 100 percent committed to raising the roof with their singing, and sometimes raucously shouting, at the top of their lungs.
"It's really an exciting thing!" Robert Martin, director of the Bard College Conservatory of Music, New York, told Xinhua after the show. "The passion, the energy of their music is amazing."
Theodore Levin, professor of music at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, agreed.
"It's very sophisticated, it got rock power, they are masters," Levin said. "That (wood) bench is unique, it involves a lot of expertise. "
Levin referred to the unique percussion instrument -- a long bench pounded by a band member with a wooden block.
The bench, which was brought here all the way from the farmer's home, was among a variety of Chinese folk music instruments like yueqin (a banjo like instrument with four-strings), erhu, lute and fiddle the band uses to tell lively stories of rural life in sounds rarely heard in the West.
Lao Qiang is lauded as the ancient Rock and Roll of the East, comprised of energetic folk music that has roots of over 2,000 years. It features high pitch singing, accompanied by a band of traditional Chinese instruments in dynamic rhythms and beats. Traditionally, Lao Qiang musicians would accompany a puppeteer, who would tell stories from behind the screen.
VERY DIFFERENT FROM POLISHED CONCERTS
The band's show would not be so entertaining without a lot of heavy lifting from Wu, whose informative, interesting narrations in English before and after the farmers performances that provided historic and cultural context even little known to native Chinese audience.
Wu, who moved to the United States in 1990, has carved out a career as a soloist, educator, and composer, a leader of cross-cultural exchanges. She was named Musical America's 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, marking the first time this prestigious award was bestowed on a player of a non-Western instrument.
Wu first met the farmer musicians around a decade ago at Huayin, a fishing and farming village at the foot of Huashan Mountain and near the Yellow River. At that time she was travelling in China's remote regions to uncover the country's ancient musical traditions that are in danger of being lost.
For more than 300 years, the then called Zhang family Band has toured the countryside, bringing its rugged shadow puppet plays that call to life the mythical heroes and gods of the oral folk culture of Shaanxi, often evoking famous battles of the Tang dynasty (618-907), to temple fairs and rituals.
"Their music is so raw and real, very different from the polished concerts we typically see in the concert hall," said Wu."I want to share this with audiences across our country and bring awareness to this music that is still being performed today in the remote villages of Northern China."
After her initial visit to the village ensemble, Wu brought them along with several other groups - none of which had been seen in the West - to the stage of the Carnegie Hall in New York City in 2009. The audience loved it so much. Then Wu decided to return to China and make a documentary about her experience (Discovering a Musical Heartland), which inspired her to bring the shadow puppet band back west again.
This time, Wu was excited to see that the Chinese village band has been greeted with more cheers and applause.
"We have so many different cultures on this earth," said Wu. "We learn from each other - and it makes us stronger."