A Rare, Explosive New York Performance of Ancient Chinese Music and Puppetry

by delarue

The manic energy of Chinese New Year in New York can’t compare with Saturday night’s performance by the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band with pipa virtuoso Wu Man at the Ethical Culture Society. Staged by the World Music Institute, the show featured not only hammering medieval battle songs to rival any Viking pageantry, but also boisterous, droll shadow puppetry. Wu Man wryly characterized it as “old Chinese rock and roll.”

As chronicled in the 2012 documentary film Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China, the lute virtuoso has been on a crusade to preserve rapidly vanishing folk styles across her vast home turf. As you would imagine, Chinese sounds are every bit as diverse as American music. This concert was a rare opportunity to experience feral, centuries-old village traditions from a dynastic family band which has been active since the 1700s, updated with some spine-tingling 21st century improvisation. Wu Man is the first woman to ever play with this crew, which until recently had been strictly a family enterprise, run by the Zhang clan of farmers from a mountain village in Shaanxi Province.

One of their instruments was a robust handmade wooden bench that percussionist Dang Anhua had brought from home. His wife had sewed a pretty pink carrying case which typically draws mystified looks from airport checkin personnel across the globe, Wu Man explained. That bench absorbed several mighty whacks to cap off a battlefield scenario, and gave the floor of the stage several mighty thumps as well.

Wu Man opened the show with a couple of solo pipa pieces, a traditional number followed by an original, shifting sometimes elegantly and sometimes suddenly from lilting pastoral passages to fiery volleys of tremolo-picking and the occasional sparkling glissando.

A rustic, sawing quartet of erhu fiddles – one a low-register zhunghu model, akin to a Chinese cello – kicked off the first group piece, frontman and moon lute player Zhang Ximin leading the ensemble with his hearty, theatrical vocals. Many of the group numbers commemorated battles from the first century A.D. Others retold ancient fables, from a creation myth to a droll shadow puppet piece about a group of villagers fending off a voracious lion.

Wu Man is an irrepressible extrovert, a generous and insightful ambassador for traditional Chinese music and is also very funny, whether enumerating the difference in Chinese dialects, recounting the group’s adventures on the road or trading peek-a-boo riffs with various group members. Zhang Shinin played several percussion instruments including a small gong, and served as puppeteer as well. Zhang Qansi, Zhang Xinmin and Dang Guangdi played erhu, with Yuan Yuti on zhunghu, and Liu Xicang on banhu, a long trumpet.

The concert followed a dynamic path, with intricate pipa pastorales interspersed among the jubilant, catchy, pentatonoic anthems. Shivery fiddling, elephantine snorts from the trumpet and raucous percussion rose and fell, Wu Man a gentle but forceful, pointillistic presence with her rippling strings.

The World Music Institute’s next show is a  Middle Eastern-flavored triplebill of brilliant Middle Eastern and North African women performers at the Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Saturday night, March 24 at 7:30 PM. Fiery Tunisian art-rocker Emel Mathlouthi, slinky, oud-fueled Middle Eastern/Nile Delta dance orchestra Alsarah & the Nubatones and Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj share the bill: tix are expensive, $35, but worth it.