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Touring concerts mix old Chinese art forms with Western music

Updated: 2016-04-27 08:08:01

( China Daily )

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A decade ago, when songwriter and producer Lu Zhongqiang began to operate his company, 13 Months, from a Beijing attic, his vision was to promote original music in China.

His indie record label has helped rock and folk musicians Ma Tiao, Xie Tianxiao and Wan Xiaoli, among others, to shine through Folk on the Road, which is a series of live performances touring different Chinese cities since 2010.

The series is Lu's brainchild.

The 46-year-old is now focusing his attention on a new project, titled China Music House, or Xin Yue Fu, which gets Chinese opera performers and musicians of traditional instruments with DJs and Western artists on one stage. Launched last May, the shows have since toured Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Suzhou, drawing more than 20,000 people.

On April 16, Lu, along with artists involved with the project, released five albums that contain songs like Dreaming Peony Pavilion, which has six modern takes on the 600-year-old Kunqu Opera; Pingtan Orient Soul, which is a contemporary interpretation of seven classic works of pingtan, a traditional form of storytelling and ballad in the Suzhou dialect; and Traditional Opera Remix, which combines other Chinese operas such as Peking Opera and Cantonese Opera with jazz and electronic sounds.

Lu and China Record, among the country's largest record companies, have entered a deal to release CDs of joint performances by international musicians and Chinese opera performers.

As a result, New York-based oud player, Hadi Eldebek, who is a member of cellist Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, will join in China Music House in August and cooperate with Chinese musicians on new works.

"In my youth like many others I too liked rock, folk and all music that sounded cool and individualistic. But now I unconsciously look for old sounds that I heard as a kid."

His parents were both Huangmei Opera performers before their retirement from a local troupe in East China's Anhui province. After graduating from the music department of Nanjing Arts University and learning double bass, Lu tried to shun Chinese opera and worked as a producer for Warner Music China and China Central Television's popular touring pop concert series, The Same Song.

When he toured with rock and folk bands earlier, he would often find himself watching CCTV's Chinese opera channel at hotels, he says.

"I feel sad when I see that the market for such old art forms is shrinking today. I can't help but think that I need to do something about it."

In 2014, he spoke with Chen Weilun, a film songwriter, about his desire to give the old Chinese operas a new touch.

They started with adapting episodes of Peony Pavilion, the Kunqu Opera classic, but failed after three months of experimenting.

"Chinese operas have their own rules, which is a priority for us before remixing songs," says Chen, also a producer for China Music House.

The players and DJs that they have invited for future tours are young, some of whom haven't heard old sounds of Chinese operas.

"We spend weeks listening to a piece of Chinese opera and then we improvise with jazz, rock and electronic beats in the style of Chinese opera singing. And after trying for long we get the most suitable combination," he adds.

Shi Xiaming, 31, who was born in Suzhou in East China's Jiangsu province, and started learning Kunqu Opera at age 14, joined China Music House performances last year. He says Chinese operas face the challenge of attracting young audiences.

"This project helps to link old and new materials in performances," says Shi, an actor of the Jiangsu Kunqu Opera Troupe.

Last year, Gao Wenbo, a well-known Shanghai pingtan artist, sang in the Suzhou dialect with a DJ, guitarist and percussionist playing in the background during a show. He is attracted to the project because of the immediate audience reaction, he says, just like "they would enjoy rock or folk".


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