Preserving China's Musical Heritage

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In Shanghai’s super-modern Grand Theater, a fashionable, mainly young audience applauds enthusiastically as Guo Yong takes center stage. He acknowledges the semicircle of musicians around him and prepares to play a solo. But Guo does not raise a flute, trombone, or oboe to his lips; instead, he proudly holds aloft a large bushy tree branch covered in leaves. Blowing on one of the leaves, he produces a sound that mimics the twittering of birds as he plays a traditional Buyi folk song. The other musicians on the stage include a Mongolian throat singer, an ethnic Kazakh from northwestern Xinjiang playing a two-stringed banjo, and a four-member Miao minority singing troupe from a village in southwestern Guizhou.

It’s the first time such music has ever been performed in the Grand Theater, a formal venue more accustomed to large Western symphonies playing Beethoven. But these musicians are all playing traditional songs from their various ethnic groups. The songs are interspersed with new, specially composed pieces inspired by these traditions, sung in lilting, ethereal tones by Zhu Zheqin, the Cantonese-born singer whose vision this concert embodies. Zhu, better known abroad as Dadawa, has always stood out in China’s contemporary music scene; in the 1990s she became the first Chinese musician to win international acceptance in the “world music” field with her Tibetan-inspired albums Sister Drum and Voices From the Sky. Now she has made it her mission to help preserve China’s traditional ethnic music....

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