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The 1st Chinatown Asian Music Festival

Elliott Simon By

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Min Xiao-Fen, a virtuoso on the classical Chinese pipa, has taken her instrument beyond its 2000 year old repertoire broadening it with the music of Monk, Duke and Miles as well as bluegrass.
1st Chinatown Asian Music Festival
New York, NY
November 12, 2005

The first Chinatown Asian Music Festival was a culturally uplifting experience as the unrivaled inclusive power of music was front and center. Presented by Blue Pipa Inc. and showcasing Asian music from three distinct cultures; China, Japan and the Philippines, time-honored artistry was presented in a contemporary context. Blue Pipa Inc. is a non profit organization whose mission is to encourage and support traditional and modern music from all cultures with the goal of advancing new and experimental music. The three performers; Min Xiao-Fen's Blue Pipa Trio, the Japanese drumming troupe: Taikoza, and percussionist Susie Ibarra, though musically and stylistically diverse, held true to the festival's aim and presented traditional music in a modern way. The audience members, many of whom were experiencing this music for the first time, related to each of the program's assorted offerings.
Susie Ibarra, well known for her cutting edge synergies that mix old and new to create wonderful musical forms such as her latest project, Filipino trance music (Electric Kulintang), opened up the festival with a traditional solo performance on kulintang. The kulintang is a Filipino percussive instrument that consists of eight bowl shaped gongs that are struck with mallets. The gorgeous resonance of the individual gongs can ring out melodically or be played off of each other to create engaging harmonics. Beginning with a "Duyog that exposed the kulintang's subtlety of sound, Ibarra successfully revealed the instrument's adaptability. Her own improvisational skills were featured on "Binalig and her program closed with a softer than soft, yet strikingly melodic "Sinulog .
The nuance of Ibarra's kulintang was followed by the intensity of Taikoza. Japanese taiko drumming is an art form that combines polyrhythms and martial art-like choreography. A variety of drums are used including massive specimens made from hollowed out tree trunks that can weigh several tons. Taikoza, a NYC based performance troop headed by Marco Lienhard, proceeded to electrify the crowd with a set that prominently featured taiko along with flute and hand cymbals. The unison rhythms and visual spectacle of "Hachijo , a piece motivated by the summer festival on the island of the same name gave way to a medley of Japanese folk songs. Six drummers portrayed Okinawa's summer festival on "Eisa with a delightful interchange between hand cymbal players before the frenetic feel of "Yatai Bayashi" reflected Chichibu City's December festivalto close things out with crisp unison drumming that alternated with exciting polyrhythms.

Min Xiao-Fen, a virtuoso on the classical Chinese pipa, has taken her instrument beyond its 2000 year old repertoire broadening it with the music of Monk, Duke and Miles as well as bluegrass. A four stringed lute that rests vertically on the musician's thigh, the pipa has 30 frets that allow for an exceptionally broad sonic range. By using finger picks in the style of a banjo picker, the pipa, in the hands of someone as skilled as Xiao-Fen is capable of an exceedingly wide array of effects; quick runs, flails and beautifully delicate melodies.

Xiao-Fen, who is no stranger to the NYC downtown crowd with multiple appearances on Tzadik label releases and her own solo project With Six Composers (Avant, 1998), appeared at the festival with her jazz trio. Guitarist Stephen Salerno and bassist Dean Johnson made the sound into a full throated string symphony while maintaining a centered focus as Chinese folk, pop and American music were reinterpreted. A popular Chinese pop song from the 1930's "Fragrant Flowers of Night served as a forum for an American "Old Timey take on its melody and as opportunity for Xiao-Fen to display her vocal skills. Likewise, the Chinese folk tune "A Pair Of Flowers featured pipa banjo flailing and guitar flat pickin'. The traditional bluegrass number "Red-Haired Boy was given Asian tinge as he was portrayed as the "Red-Haired Boy Dancing with Golden Snake . Program closer "Fascinating Chinese New Year , fittingly inspired by the Gershwin tune "Fascinating Rhythm melded slide guitar with pipa for a cross cultural delight.

A wonderful afternoon that showcased the universality of music, here's hoping that this Festival will become an annual event.

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Min Xiao-Fen: Prove, Improve, Improvise


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