Wu Man, master of the pipa

Wu Man

Every autumn I devote extensive coverage in this column to Bloomington’s Lotus World Music and Arts Festival. I was recently surprised and excited to find out that Lotus Fest is just one element of the Lotus organization’s year-round effort to promote global music and culture in the Hoosier state. Chief among these projects is Lotus Blossoms, a youth-focused outreach program that brings world renowned performers into Indiana schools.

The 2017 Lotus Blossoms lineup features an amazing mix of artists representing traditions from Iraq to Mexico. On Friday, March 31, Chinese pipa master Wu Man will perform a free public concert as part of her Lotus Blossoms residency.

Wu Man is recognized as the top virtuoso on the pipa, a lute-like Chinese instrument that’s roughly 2,000 years old. Her study of the instrument began at age nine, when Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution was in full effect. While Wu Man grew up learning the pipa steeped in the traditions of Chinese culture, her career on the instrument has transcended those parameters and carried the pipa to the frontiers of 21st Century music.

She’s released nearly a dozen critically acclaimed solo albums and recorded important work with artists like Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet. Wu Man is a founding member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. An incredibly versatile musician, Wu Man is equally comfortable contributing to experimental music projects like Bang on a Can, as she is performing on the soundtrack of Kung Fu Panda 3.

I spoke with Wu Man via phone from her home in San Diego.

Kyle: You’re a great master of traditional Chinese music, but you’re also an equally great musical innovator. For example, I really love your 2003 album Pipa From a Distance where you play the pipa through a wah wah pedal. Is it ever challenging for you to find a balance between tradition and innovation in your music-making?

Wu Man: I grew up playing Chinese traditional music. The traditional music is in my blood. It will never go away. It's a very important root for me. But I always ask myself what's next? That question leads me to step out of the traditional box to a much bigger musical world. That question leads to me to see what I can do with this traditional Chinese instrument. That's why I started innovating and collaborating and taking the instrument in new directions. But again, as I mentioned it's still rooted in the tradition.

Kyle: In that particular example I just cited, what led you to playing pipa through electric guitar pedals?

Wu Man: I know this is very crazy. [laughs] I grew up at a time in China when we didn't know jazz or electronic music. There was nothing at that time, there was zero happening in China in the '80s. So when I came to the States in the '90s, I suddenly heard so many different kinds of music, from jazz, and rock, to heavy metal, and electronic music.

Every time I walked in a store in the States I heard this crazy sound, that to me sounded like pipa music. People would say, "Oh, that's an electric guitar. That's rock guitar." Somehow that sound stayed with me. I thought it would definitely be fascinating if I tried my instrument with those sounds. So I started using the guitar technology with the pedals, the wah wah, the delay, and the distortion. It's very new and exciting. It's a different color of the pipa, but you still hear the pipa style there. It's definitely not a guitar. To me that's fascinating. So that's why I did it in 2003.

Kyle: You grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution when, as you mentioned, exposure to music and culture from outside China was very limited. I think it’s interesting that you’ve gone on to establish a career where embracing diverse influences has in many ways been a central element of your music making. You’ve collaborated with such a rich assortment of artists and you’ve crossed a lot of stylistic and cultural barriers with your music.

I’m curious if there’s a connection there? Having grown up without the luxury to explore other musics and cultures, did that create a hunger for you to dive into the music making you’ve now become famous for?

Wu Man: Wow. You're absolutely right. I think that's exactly my experience. When I first moved to the States in 1990, I was like a sponge. My eyes were sparkling to see all the different kinds of music, and all the different possibilities. So you're right, I was hungry to jump onto this bigger stage. I definitely wanted to open my mind and to try to work with other great musicians and ensembles to create something else. That's my goal and mission as a musician. I always mention that this is the value of being a musician and why I'm learning this instrument and why I became a musician.

Kyle: The scope of music you've performed is staggering. You've performed and collaborated with so many great Western classical musicians, ensembles, and composers. You've also performed very traditional American Appalachian folk music with banjos and things. I read recently that you had a chance to perform with son jarocho musicians from Mexico. That sounds like an incredible blend of music to me. I can't imagine how that might sound.

Wu Man: It sounded great! We just did a recording a few weeks ago, so we're working on an album. I live in San Diego and there's a huge Latino community there. Somehow we live in the same space, but we never culturally or musically collaborated together. So a few years ago when I applied for a fellowship from the San Diego Foundation they supported this project.

All the traditional instruments of son jarocho are plucked string instruments. They are all different types of guitars. They are relatively the same as my instrument, the pipa. They are all related. It was very interesting, we played Mexican folk songs and we played Chinese folk songs. I remember the first time we played a concert in San Diego, the audience came to us and said "Wow, how many years have you guys worked together?" We said, "Well, just a few weeks!"

That shows how natural and organic it is to play together and work together. We immediately thought this sound was beautiful with the pipa and guitars. You heard the amazing colors of each instrument.

Culturally it was very interesting. Our communities have many things in common in the way we both love food, and outdoor celebrations and parties. We have a lot in common culturally and musically.

Kyle: You’ve also been digging deeper into the music of your homeland in recent years, in particular you’ve been investigating the musical traditions of minority groups in China. Can you tell us about some of your recent explorations of Chinese music?

Wu Man: I've been back and forth to China often in the last ten years. I wanted to find out, what really is Chinese traditional music? What really is Chinese folk music? China is like space, we're geographically so big. There's not just one tradition, there are so many. There are local folks songs, and instrumental music, and dramas, puppet shows, and so many things musically.

I went back and worked with a musician from the Western part of China that we call Uyghur people. They are related to Central Asia, and their music is very, very different than the place I grew up in. Their music is very much related to Central Asia and to the Kazakh tradition. They play the dutar, which is related to the pipa, because the pipa came from Central Asia.

Also, I went to the center of China, which is very close to Mongolia. They have the shadow puppet groups and they have incredible vocal parts and instrumental sounds in the music. I'm still working and touring with them in China and Europe.

Kyle: There's one final collaboration I wanted to ask you about, Wu Man. You have worked with one of my musical heroes, Philip Glass. What's it like to sit down with Philip Glass and work out compositions?

Wu Man: Wow, unforgettable. Philip is also my hero too. The first time I was very surprised when we met years ago in Vienna at the same concert. The Vienna Orchestra played his symphonies and I played a pipa concerto. After the concert Philip came to me and said, "I want to write a piece for you." I was like, "Oh my god, yes!" [laughs] That was my reaction.

Then we started talking to decide what kind of project and what kind of music. He is very humble and soft speaking, but very clear musically in what he wanted to write. I remember when he wrote a sort of pipa mini-concerto with his Philip Glass Ensemble. I came down to his apartment in New York City and we sat down and he played on the piano and I played on the pipa. He would play something on the piano and ask me if that would work on the pipa. I feel I'm so fortunate to sit next to Philip while he played the piano and I played the pipa. That moments to me is really unforgettable. We were surrounded by all his books and music and a Buddha statue. Imagine that picture. [laughs]

His music on the pipa really fits. I remember when he finished Orion, which is a 12-minute pipa piece with his ensemble, after the concert a lot of the audience came to me and said, "This is exactly Philip Glass' music style. This pipa really fits." Philip Glass helped in some ways for me to push the pipa, and its history in a forward direction.

Kyle: As I’m sure you know, we’re going through a tense period here in the States. There’s so much disagreement between people politically and socially. Your music has crossed so many barriers and brought so many people together from different parts of the world, and different ways of life. I’m curious if you believe music can have a serious role in bringing people together at a time like this.

Wu Man: I definitely think yes, music will push the boundaries. Everyone has musical talent, no matter what background or color. If you're human you can sing and dance and play instruments. To me, that's my goal. That's why I'm here from China to introduce this Chinese instrument to new audiences, to open them up. I think that it's important to know your neighbor through music and art. I think that for humans, this is the healthy way to live.


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.

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