Sizhukong: It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Oon
Does the music of Sizhukong swing? Peng doesn't think it matters too much. "Traditionally, jazz is played in a swing style, but I don't think swing is the best dynamic for this combination with Chinese instruments. I might try it later, but so far I don't think the groove sounds right with Chinese instruments," she explains. "Instead, Latin rhythms sound more appropriate for our arrangements."
The use of Latin rhythms in Sizhukong's music is something quite natural for erhu player Wu. "When I played Beijing opera or traditional Chinese music, I discovered certain Latin rhythms in the melodies," Wu says. "I think it's because of the Silk Road going all the way from Europe to Asia; there must always have been some kind of connection between musics."
Listening to Sizhukong's second CD, Paper Eagle (Sizhukong Records, 2009), this connection, the universality of music, can be clearly discerned. Beyond the aforementioned Latin and African influences, elements of bluegrass and country color the music. There is not much light, either, between the sound of Chinese traditional stringed instruments or flutes and Irish folk music, a fact that legendary Irish band The Chieftans underlined on The Chieftans in China(Claddagh,1985).
Returning to the question of swing and jazz, Peng has this to say: "Apart from swing rhythm, there are some very important elements in jazz, like syncopation and a certain way of articulation. You don't have to play swing to sound jazz. Articulation, syncopation and some harmony can sound jazzy."
Undoubtedly there are those who would cast doubt on Sizhukong's jazz credentials, but then again Joe Zawinul faced similar accusations and replied by saying he had never played anything but jazz. Peng is less defensive. "Sometimes I'm asked if I think our music is jazz or not, and I'm like, 'I really don't know,'" she says. "When I write music, I'm just trying to make it sound right or beautiful to myself. I try to be honest and to hear what's inside, what touches me first. Sometimes I feel it's not jazzy enough, so I'm still thinking what I can do besides what I've already done, and I'm still searching for directions."
If the musical scores were clear in Peng's mind in the beginning, she admits that the other members of Sizhukong found switching to the jazz idiom difficult at first. She describes the band's playing in the early days as "maybe a little stiff."
"Jazz has a very kind of flexible rhythm, a relaxed feel, and we discussed how we should put the jazz feeling inside and also bring out the traditional way of the dizi [flute]we call it oon [imagine a pouting French pronunciation]. It's hard to translate, but that kind of grace note and decoration of the note," she says. "I want to bring the oon of Chinese music to our own music because I think it is a very important and beautiful part of Chinese music."
The concept of oon is essential to Chinese music, and thus, it follows Sizhukong's music. Much discussion and laughter takes place among the band members as they try to succinctly define what it means in terms that a westerner could understand. It is variously compared to singing or conversing; words like rhyme, tone, Chinese Kunqu Opera, Tai Chi and meditation are all thrown into the ring in an attempt to describe its essential characteristic, but none of these seem to completely satisfy. In the end, Lee offers this explanation: "In Chinese calligraphy, you concentrate on a stroke. A stroke has many rhythms, but you have the starting point, you have the upper point and you have an end, but everything has to be in one action. This kind of flow, we call oon. Oon is not something you can grab, like the air; it's something you can only feel." This eloquent definition earns Lee a round of applause from all.
Emboldened by this breakthrough in understanding, Peng adds, "Even in one note, you can have that oon. It's not abstract; it is the Chinese traditional expression of the music, and it's down to the technique. But that could be one kind of oon."
The announcement that there is more than one type of oon and therefore the need for more brain wracking causes laughter amongst the band. Suffice it say, when Sizhukong play, it is poetry in motion. The band, individually and collectively, sound as if they are, to repeat a well-know jazz phrase, "in the zone."
Sizhukong's performance was warmly received by the Penang Island Jazz Festival crowd, and the band has won over audiences in Indonesia, Korea and China, as well. The band's music however, had a few detractors in the beginning.