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Wu Man brings ancient Chinese folk songs and modern East-West fusion to Ojai Music Festival

Wu Man is a virtuoso of the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument.
Photo by Gan Yuan
Wu Man is a virtuoso of the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument.

Wu Man, a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, is a virtuoso of the traditional Chinese string instrument, the pipa. She's performing at the Ojai Music Festival this weekend, bringing both ancient Chinese folk songs and modern East-West fusion to the performance.

There’s a series of caves in Dunhuang, a Chinese city on the edge of the Gobi Desert. In the early 20th century, a Taoist monk discovered a trove of ancient documents, paintings and textiles in one of them. Among that treasure were 25 pieces of music written for a traditional Chinese instrument known as the pipa.

“So the original, those 25 pipa tunes, right now they’re in Paris, in a museum,” said Wu Man, who began practicing the pipa as a child. “I'm doing a recording project: I want to play those 25 tunes.”

Man will be performing a few of those ancient pipa songs at the Ojai Music Festival this year. She said they're in a totally different tuning and mode than what we now think of as modern Chinese music.

“Somehow, between Central Asia and China and Europe, a combination mixed. Because that time in [the] Tang Dynasty, China basically welcomed everyone, so a lot of culture mixed, including the pipa, [which] came from Central Asia!” Man said.

In addition to these early pipa tunes, Man will be part of the festival’s main performance, Ghost Opera. It's a work by Tan Dun, which the composer wrote in part to feature Man's pipa playing.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful piece — we’ll offer the best piece from the composer. It's not only like a string quartet and pipa quintet piece, but also very theatrical. We have a stage setting, and each musician has to play different instruments,” Man said.

Man is also performing with Grammy award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens, who will play banjo. Both musicians are part of Silkroad Ensemble, an eclectic group of musicians founded by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Giddens is also the artistic director for the Ojai Festival this year.

Wu Man said her pipa and Giddens’ banjo pair perfectly together.

“We always thought that banjo and the pipa [were] very, very close; somehow they're related. Sometimes I play pipa and [the] audience will come in to say, ‘Wow sounds like a banjo.’ So sometimes I joke, ‘Oh, this is Chinese banjo,'” Man said.

Wu Man performs with the Silk Road Ensemble at the Mondavi Center in Davis, CA
© Max Whittaker
Wu Man performs with the Silk Road Ensemble at the Mondavi Center in Davis, CA

Man and Giddens met over Silkroad's Zoom meetings during Covid. When they finally got together to practice in person, Man decided to write a piece for them to play together.

“I just love her artistry and love her creative side,” Man said. “I wrote especially for us a Chinese folk song… It’s called ‘Raining Day.’”

Man said it takes a long time to learn your instrument, your sound, and to get comfortable on stage. During a performance, you have to think about the music, understand what’s next and grasp the flow of the piece.

If I play the solo concert [for] an hour and a half, afterwards, I’m just dead. You know, my body, my mind. I just don't want to think. That moment you concentrate 100 percent, not just on music, [but on] your mind, your body, your finger, your muscle, everything,” Man said.

Man has been performing for more than 30 years, but she said there are challenges. She joked that when you say you’re a musician, people always want to know what your day job is.

"It can be very hard to make a living as an artist,” Man said.c“But I think for me, the [biggest] challenge is how can I introduce the pipa, this Chinese ancient instrument with a very long history — fascinating history — and that still survives today? How can I introduce [it] to more people [who] live [on] this earth and to be able to let pipa live another century, [and] not disappear?”

After the Ojai Music Festival, Man will travel back to China to see her 88-year-old father. An artist himself, he also teaches traditional Chinese painting on rice paper.

“My father gave me the sense of what is beauty, what is art. If I look in any art piece, I see music there. I see the structure; I see the color; I see the dynamic; I see the timing; I see the definition. I see lots of things–exactly like music,” Man said. “When I listen to music, I also see paintings. So my father actually gave me the foundation to become a musician, become an artist. Yeah.”

Whether performing ancient Chinese music, an opera, or a contemporary duet she wrote herself, Man said she’s excited to be with fellow musicians at the Ojai Festival. How lucky for us that playing pipa is her day job.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Shanbrom Family Foundation.

Melanie Senn was born in Camden, New Jersey (the resting place of Walt Whitman), but was raised in California. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Latin American Literature from UCSB, and after living a couple years in Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, got her master’s degree in English. She had a 25-year teaching career, including 17 years at Cal Poly where she taught essay writing and argument. Now she dedicates her time to writing and audio storytelling, and hanging out with her with her two teenage sons and their dad, musician Derek Senn.
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