Feature: New tunes on old strings modernize Chinese rock in new era

Source: Xinhua| 2018-09-15 17:07:10|Editor: Xiang Bo
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By Xinhua Writer Luan Xiang

BEIJING, Sept. 15 (Xinhua) – "I hope that someday when young people want to learn to play a musical instrument, they would pick up a sanxian instead of a guitar," Wang Yu, a young artist, and modernizer of the traditional instrument, told Xinhua.

His recent concert in Beijing, reviewed by critics as "neoteric," "ingenious," "skillful" and "well crafted," displayed the expressive potential of the sanxian (literally 'three strings') - a traditional Chinese fretless lute – through unorthodox and refreshing themes.

From blues and rock to an experimental combination of Peking Opera dances, African drums, and Western classical cello, Wang Yu renovates and revitalizes ancient artforms in the present day.

"I would like to prove to the audience that the sanxian can be a precious heritage from the past as well as a vibrant and versatile component of the current and future music scenes," said the artist.

Alongside Wang Yu is a generation of young inheritors who have been working hard to place China's musical treasures closer to the center stage.


In 1994, He Yong, a Beijing native and pioneer of Chinese rock music, introduced the sanxian to an excited Hong Kong audience then under British rule.

Described as "epic" and "groundbreaking," it was the first-ever concert for the raw and powerful newborn rock'n roll music from Chinese mainland to debut over the border.

Starting with the sanxian's strophic, serene notes, He Yong's setlist opened with "Drum and Bell Towers," a nostalgic piece warning of the rapid pace of demolishing relics in the ancient capital city of Beijing.

"The Sanxian performer He Yusheng -- my father," introduced the then 25-year-old rock star who was said to have impressed the world outside Chinese mainland as the first, self-styled and one of a kind Asian punk musician.

Under the spotlight that night, He Yusheng, dressed in a traditional overcoat with a long rope, plucked the strings in a soothing tune while the young generation of rock stars shredded on their electric guitars and screamed: "Who came up with the question so difficult that the correct answer was seen everywhere?"

That could be one of the first attempts made by young Chinese musicians to incorporate traditional sounds with modern genres for both their acoustic effects and the symbolic, metaphorical significance.


Since then, many different elements of the nation's music treasure trove have been making appearances in enriching pop music's development in China.

Most of these culturally relevant elements are easily understood by the public. "For example, when the suona begins to blow an agitated war cry, it is understood that the hero and the nemesis are about to kick off the ultimate battle, like in 'Tai Ji: Zhang San Feng' with Jet Li," explained movie aficionado and music critic Nico Ma.

According to Ma, the sanxian, in particular, is closely related to the narrative singing artforms popular in northern China, with Jingyun Dagu (Beijing-style story-telling art accompanied by percussion instruments and sanxian) being one of the better-known subgenres popular in the capital and surrounding regions.

Hao Yun, a folk-rock singer and songwriter has applied the flowing-stream-like sounds of the sanxian as a main feature in his songs about love, loss, hopes, and day-to-day survival in Beijing in a slightly sarcastic yet optimistic way, to inspire the dreamers in the capital to uphold their ideals.

He refused to label himself saying that he has been sticking to his own principles of honesty and the sanxian.

"Longhorn beetles on the willow tree in front of the courtyard,

Disappeared in the last century.

Where did my chubby buddy from the tenement go?

No news was heard from him since we both grew…" He wrote in the nostalgic "This City."

The uniqueness of the sanxian's sound and its importance in traditional folklore make it stand out and characterize Hao's music style, according to the artist.


Starting Thursday, rock fanatics in several Chinese cities will witness, again, how a French man riffs on ancient Chinese instruments to create tunes either sentimental or full of excitement on stage.

Djang San, better known as Zhang Si'an in China, a Bordeaux-born musician, composer, and modernizer of Zhongruan and Pipa in rock music, will kick off his China Tour this September, in Wuhan, Chongqing, and Shanghai's World Music Festival.

At the age of 20, Jean-Sébastien Héry came to China and discovered the Asian country's charming folkloric traditions including the Peking Opera.

Héry says he in love with the Ruan and Pipa the first time he saw them. For the past few years, he has been exploring classic Chinese folklore and modernizing it across more than 45 albums released, using a variety of instruments and singing in Chinese, French, and English.

Discovering that the zhongruan's tuning can be changed to adapt to any type of music genre, the musician has used the instrument "in a Western way or in an Asian/Chinese way."

"Now that I have electrified the Zhongruan and Pipa, I can use them as either acoustic or electric instruments," he said.

By putting the Zhongruan at the center of his band, Djang San says he gives those two instruments "a way to express themselves that's better suited for the average listener, therefore creating room and a direction for more traditional instruments to be used in rock music."

The ideal that motivates him to search for new sounds is his desire to create a bridge between cultures, to use the past to create the future, to create a new space for traditional instruments around the world and a new music style based on them, erasing cultural, historical and music style boundaries, he said.

"I think traditional Chinese instruments and music are deeply linked with Chinese people and that they will never fade away," he said in a recent interview with Xinhua. "I think the music I make has a place to show this modernization."

A believer in « La Musique n'a pas de frontières » or in English « Music has no boundaries», Djang San believes in a world of cultural exchange where people need to mutually learn to go beyond the barriers of language or habits, "to open their eyes, their ears and their hearts."

"It's the only way for humanity to go forward," he said.