Sizhukong: It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Oon
It is something of a paradox that the western world knows so relatively little about modern China, even as the awakening giant's influence in the world is increasing. Who knows exactly what music is fermenting in its endless metropolises and among its multitude of ethnicities? Who knows what musical experiments and innovations are exciting passions and inspiring its youth?
With something like 10 million people migrating every year to China's cities, it seems inevitable, though, that old musical traditions will find new voices once merged with influences such as electronic music, hip-hop, rock and jazz. Most likely, much experimentation is actually taking place among a population numbering 1.3 billion.
As yet, however, little if any interesting fusion of traditional Chinese music with jazz has announced itself to the outside world. Taiwanese sextet Sizhukong is pioneering a trail in the fusion of traditional Chinese music and jazz. The results are spectacular; imagine Weather Report jamming with Tito Puente, sculpting beautiful and unmistakably Chinese melodies.
The name Sizhukong comes from the joining of three Chinese characters, and the meaning is multi-layered. Si means silk, from which strings were originally made, and may represent the flow of the music. Zhu means bamboo and may represent the roots nature of the traditional instruments. Sizhu means musical instrument. Kong means emptiness or the state of enlightenment that comes through meditation. Sizhukong means the pressure point at the end of the eyebrow which may signify the flow of energy that brings the body into physical and emotional harmony.
The multiplicity of meaning behind the name is entirely appropriate, as the music of Sizhukong is not easy to pin down; African and Latin rhythms blend with thousand-year-old Chinese traditional instruments and a jazz rhythm section. Sizhukong, it could be said, embodies the universality of music.
The roots of Sizhukong date back to 2003. The band followed a natural evolution, explains Yuwen Peng, the band's founder, main composer, musical director and pianist. "Actually, I started this band by accident," she says, laughing. "At the beginning, my friend Yichien Chen [lute/mandolin player] wanted a song composed for her instrument in a jazz style, so she asked me to write a composition for her concert. So I wrote the first one, which is called 'Fengyang.' At the beginning it was just a duo version with piano and liuquin [Chinese mandolin], and every year, she asked me to write one more song, so we got more and more repertoire, and I added more instruments."
"Fengyang," a highlight of a Sizhukong concert, appeared on the band's debut recording, Sizhukong(Sizhukong Records, 2007). That album contained all the elements of Sizhukong's stylethe adaptation of old Chinese folk songs, a jazz sensibility and the incorporation of rhythms and sounds from Africa and Latin America.
In the time since then there have been some personnel changes in the band and the sound of the band has evolved, growing more confident and assured. It is not, however, a simple matter playing Chinese music in a jazz style, and for each of the members of Sizhukong, this fusion presents its particular challenges.
Chihping Huang, xiao [Chinese recorder] and dizi [flute] player notes, "Before I joined Sizhukong, I only played the flute the traditional way. The chromatic tones and modulation of keys, which are very common in jazz, were very difficult for me. So when you see me play, you see me change flutes very often, but it's still possible to modulate to another key and beat. You have to cover the holes [using paper] to make the chromatic tones. So there are still many problems I have to face when I play in this western style."
Listening to Huang's mastery of a vast array of recorders and flutes from various parts of China, it is hard to imagine that such difficulties ever existed in the first place. The fluidity of his playing, the lyricism and virtuosity in his improvisation, recalls at times great Latin flautist Dave Valentin or jazz great Herbie Mann.
If the flute brings a Latin feel to the flow of Sizhukong's music, then the erhu [two-stringed fiddle] lends another dimension to the musical palette of the band. Alex Wu, who also plays percussion in the band, says, "Erhu originally came from other countriesnot China, but from middle east Asia. Later the Chinese developed it, so it looks like what you see today. The ancestor of erhu had a fingerboard, and you pressed the strings onto the fingerboard, but now on the modern erhu, you don't need the board; you just press the strings. It sounds very emotional and can express feelings dramatically, and because there is no fingerboard, the vibrations and the emotions you want to express can be stronger."