Obscure Chinese Music for Mainstream Gypsy and Jam Band Fans
The Uighurs are a nomadic Muslim culture centered primarily in the oasis cities of northwestern China. Throughout much of the Chinese subcontinent, their music carries an air of mystery, similar to how much of Europe has historically perceived gypsy music as being otherworldly or supernatural. Like the gypsies, the Uighurs continue to battle against discrimination and repressive regimes; the diversity of the Uighurs’ music reflects the vastness of the terrain where it originated. Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man was looking to collaborate with Uighur musicians and fortuitously, the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways label came onboard. Methodically, they’ve built a series titled Music of Central Asia, of which Wu Man’s new album Borderlands, credited to her along with “master musicians from the Silk Road,” is the tenth installment. This album presents several different strains: there are echoes of Indian music, the Middle East and even Scandinavia represented in this often plaintive, biting collection played on a series of indigenous lutes and fiddles including the satar, dutar, tanbur and a new, doublenecked invention called the diltar, along with Wu Man’s incisive pipa.
Aside from being just plain fun, the purpose of the album seems to be twofold. For one, it’s a generous attempt on Wu Man’s part to help her fellow musicians – sato-tanburist Abduvali Abdurashidov, dutar player Sirojiddin Juraev, crooner Ma Ersa, multi-lutenist Abdulla Majnun, singer Sanubar Tursun and her younger brother, satar fiddler Hesenjan Tursun, and dap drummer Yasin Yaqup - reach a broader audience. It’s also an attempt to return the music to its roots, considering that much of the repertoire represented here is more commonly played with large-scale orchestration – a relic from the days of Stalinist pomp reaching the Uzbek and Tajik hinterlands – rather than by small groups of folk musicians. But while the instruments here may be acoustic, the energy is electric.
Wu Man did her homework before recording this, adjusting her pipa to mute the bright, pinging tone normally associated with the instrument as it’s been played since the 1950s. There’s a lot of very inspired jamming here, particularly on the opening track, a Tajik theme for “three and a half instruments,” which begins with a skeletal, Arabic-tinged riff and expands its ominously with lots of Indian-style, bent-note ornamentation. The satar solos rustically on a solo improvisation and a stark medley of folk tunes as well as carrying the album’s second track, a pensive wide-open-spaces theme that wouldn’t be out of place in the Huun Huur Tu catalog. There’s a battle theme that sets shuffling, almost furtively scurrying pipa patterns over the strum of the lutes and a Kurdish folk song that sounds like it could be the roots music that Bollywood grew out of. There are a couple of originals by Sanubar Tursun, one an allusively triumphant theme with intervals similar to those of traditional Finnish music, another with hints of southern India.
A Kazakh song gallops along brightly, Wu Man’s agile picking giving it an American bluegrass feel. Ma Ersa, the Chinese folksinger, reaches to the top of his falsetto as the ensemble plinks and dips spaciously behind him one of only two recognizably Chinese melodies here, the other being a lively pastorale sung by Sanubar Tursun. The album ends with an anxious, Arabic-toned love song, a delicate pipa improvisation and an epic Sufi incantation.
Who is the audience for this? It’s not a stretch to think that fans of gypsy music and the more pensive side of gypsy and jamband rock would eat this up. And then of course there are the ever-expanding circles of people who’ve always liked esoteric music, which happily continues to inch closer to and closer to the center. The album comes with an accompanying DVD recorded in Paris which wasn’t part of the promo package sent out to media.