Master Ka Leung Ching, or Teacher Ka as he is affectionately known to his rabid listeners, is one of the most memorable personalities I've ever encountered within the Indianapolis music scene.
Teacher Ka is an extraordinary musician and the leader and founder of the Indianapolis Chinese Orchestra. During one conversation, he told me he plays around 30 different instruments, and during a recent concert, I was enthralled to watch Ka pick up several different traditional Chinese instruments and perform beautifully.
RELATED: Ai Weiwei and China's underground rock scene
But Ka is not interested in using the Indianapolis Chinese Orchestra as a forum for his musical virtuosity. Instead he wants to see the group become a vehicle for cultural inclusion and diversity in Indianapolis.
Teacher Ka has an irrepressible passion for sharing music, and finding ways to connect the traditions of East and West. Though Ka speaks almost no English, his kind spirit and joyful music communicate in volumes. If you ever have a chance to meet Teacher Ka, or attend one of his performances with the Indianapolis Chinese Orchestra, I thoroughly recommend it.
NUVO: Tell us where you grew up and what initially sparked your interest in music as a young person.
Teacher Ka: I was born in the countryside of the Western part of China. When I was in elementary school one of my schoolmates, a young girl, had a Chinese flute and that triggered my interest in music.
NUVO: Were your parents also musicians?
Ka: My father was fond of singing, but my parents had no knowledge of music.
NUVO: Did you study music at an academic institution?
Ka: I developed a curiosity for different types of Chinese music and instruments. That fueled my desire to learn. Basically I learned music by myself. But really, through a blessing of God, I was exposed to so many situations where I met talented musicians and learned different instruments and skills from these encounters.
I would have really loved to be educated from a musical institute. But unfortunately, when I was a young man the political, social and economic situation in my country did not allow me to even have the expectation to fulfill that dream. The environment was not under my control and the only way for me to learn music was to study independently and with other musicians I met.
NUVO: Did you have the opportunity to perform with any orchestras while you were living in China?
Ka: I don't want to talk too much about my time in China. I want to emphasize that I really started performing music in Hong Kong. From China I moved to Hong Kong and I stayed there for almost twenty years. When I was in Hong Kong I was very active in performing Chinese music. I established a number of orchestras in different religious high schools in Hong Kong. The students and myself were invited to perform internationally all over Asia, and even Austria.
NUVO: Teacher Ka, I've seen you perform on several instruments, from Chinese instruments including the hulusi and erhu, to western instruments like the saxophone. I'm curious if you know exactly how many instruments you play?
Ka: [laughs] Well, I never tried to make a count of how many I could play. But most likely I can play twenty or thirty — but I'm not an expert on all those instruments.
Ka: Whatever I've achieved in life has been through the blessing of God. When I came to Indianapolis about six years ago, I saw there were not as many Chinese citizens here as on the East or West coast of the United States. But I was surprised one time when I was brought into a Chinese Christian church here and met the people, and they were very interested in Chinese music.
That is how our orchestra started, the early structure was just a few families playing for fun. There was no organization at first. But through a blessing of God, more and more people have been interested in our group.
The orchestra started in the year of 2010. So for six years our group has been growing quite a bit. The efforts of group member Kwan Hui have helped to add structure to our organization and we've truly become an orchestra.
NUVO: In addition to presenting Chinese music, I know you have a greater vision for the group's role in the community. Tell us about your mission for the orchestra.
Ka: I was brought to this great country through a blessing from God. Though I don't have a lot I can contribute to this society, I try my best by using my musical skills to lead the orchestra and to contribute some color and diversity to the great city of Indianapolis.
I really enjoy having other ethnic groups join our orchestra. While we call ourselves a "Chinese Orchestra," we are actually multi-ethnic. We are not only Chinese; We do have a number of Americans participating in the group. It is our desire to have more local Hoosier folks to join our group.
NUVO: A good example of your desire to reach out beyond the Chinese community can be found in the orchestra's repertoire. In addition to playing Chinese folk and classical melodies, the orchestra also performs several American songs. At a recent concert I saw the group playing everything from "The Yellow Rose of Texas" to "Back Home Again in Indiana." Tell us about the orchestra's repertoire and the inclusion of popular American melodies.
Ka: We have approximately 300 songs in our repertoire, encompassing Chinese music, Western pop, folk and religious music, plus other forms of international music from India, Korea and Japan. I'm a musician who loves all kinds of music, western music, Chinese music, other types of ethnic music. As long as the music is beautiful and pleases my ear I will try to present it. I feel our orchestra is not only for the local Chinese ethnic folks, but we are open to the entire city, and we love to present our music to other groups.
Over time we've done many presentations here in Indianapolis. We observed that if we do a presentation purely of Chinese music that while the audience enjoys the performance, there is a lack of interaction. However, when we add different varieties of music like American film songs and folk music, the audience becomes very active. We see them waving their hands and moving their bodies. The response would change from just sitting and listening, to actually expressing their feelings. For me this proves our orchestra is going in the correct direction as we try to reach out to the entire population of Indianapolis.
NUVO: Any final thoughts on the future of the Indianapolis Chinese Orchestra, or more generally the future of Chinese music in Indiana?
Ka: Our expectation is to use our music to reach out to the entire state of Indiana. Crossing cultures is our hope and expectation for the orchestra. We want to see more non-ethnic Chinese musicians join to make our group a truly diverse rainbow orchestra. That is our dream for the future.
Note: I want to send a huge thank you out to Indianapolis Chinese Orchestra member Kwan Hui who kindly interpreted for Teacher Ka during this interview. If you'd like more information on the Indianapolis Chinese Orchestra, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.