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Sizhukong: It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Oon

By Published: February 1, 2010
For Fujii, the challenges of playing the music written and arranged by Peng are not insignificant. "There are other differences between jazz and Chinese music; in jazz you will hear a two and four backbeat, but in Chinese traditional music they always have the accent on one and three. Sometimes I will get confused to keep that foreign beat," Fujii says, laughing.

Sizhukong's manager, Peter Lee, illustrates a fundamental difference between Chinese and western music. "A lot of Chinese music and dance does not rely on rhythm or meter. The three step is difficult for a lot of western drummers because it has no meter; they only count how long the breath is held and where it ends. They know the timing by how they breathe—it's complicated," he says.

If there was ever any confusion in Fujii's time keeping, then it certainly doesn't transmit itself to the audience. Before switching to the drums, Fujii played bass in Sizhukong, a role now undertaken by Belgian Martjin Vanbuel.

"The first time I heard Chinese music was in Shanghai," Vanbuel recalls, "and then moving to Taiwan, the first time I heard Sizhukong was on the radio—an interview with Yuwen [Peng]—and I was like, 'Wow! This is really cool!' There was clearly something very creative happening in Taiwan. At that time I didn't know that just a few months later I would be joining that band."

Vanbuel plays both electric and double bass in Sizhukong and also is a composer. Yet as difficult as it for the Taiwanese members of the band to adapt to western musical concepts, approaching Chinese traditional music posed its own problems for Vanbuel. "There are quite a few challenges to playing in Sizhukong. Before I joined Sizhukong, I played double bass in traditional jazz and swing jazz, so I needed to adjust, to study more arrangements and play more regularly," he says. "I tried to learn Chinese traditional instruments' techniques and sounds to put on my instrument."

"I think the Chinese use a lot more decorative sounds, which can be very expressive, so I found that I should also use more dynamics," he continues. "There are certain solo moments where I try to imitate ... Chinese instruments like gouzen. Sizhukong is a very fresh and very inspiring experience."

For musical director/pianist Peng, Vanbuel brings an extra dimension to Sizhukong's music. "I'm really happy Martin joined our band," she explains, "because his ideas and his writing mean we have more variety. I think it's always good to have people from different cultures and backgrounds."

"Working together, we, the rhythm section, have to avoid eating up the other instruments," Vanbuel says. "We have to play more quietly or choose a certain sound color that doesn't eat their frequencies up."

The third of Sizhukong's traditional instrumentalists is the exceptionally talented Chihling Chen. Whether on ruan [Chinese lute], an instrument that dates back 2,000 years, or liuquin, Chen's technical prowess on these beautiful instruments is something to behold. Her facility in conjuring moods or creating a scene like a painter is an essential part of Sizhukong's sound. Two hundred years ago, the liuquin was, like the other traditional instruments in Sizhukong, an instrument of accompaniment in Chinese opera. Then it had only two strings and seven frets and was not designed for chromatic tones. Over the years, like a tree growing and gaining branches and reach, it has evolved to its present status as a four-stringed instrument with 24 frets.

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