On stage at London’s Mermaid Theatre, Chinese pipa player Liu Fang awakes from an apparent state of inner tranquility. On her Chinese lute, she has just hypnotized an invited audience of a few hundred, and millions of listeners around the world to the BBC World Service. Two tunes that ebbed between passages brimming with notes at break neck speed that flowed into serene sections of space and silence.
Dressed in a blue silk Chinese dress, she accepts the applause gracefully “Yes, there was just one musician”, says tonight’s compare Ian McKellen, alluding to those intricate passages. “One musician, but ten talented fingers”.
Liu Fang is here for a BBC World Service HIV/AIDS concert, to raise awareness to the continuing problems of HIV around the world. On the same bill are Oliver Mtukudzi and Rokia Traore, and various poets and actors.
Next day, Liu Fang is still a picture of calmness itself, while her very likeable, effervescent husband and manager Risheng is rushing around. He’s enthusing about the night before, equally looking forward to the day ahead, a live spot on Charlie Gillett’s BBC London radio programme, my own radio show on Resonance FM in London, and of course a chat for fRoots.
At Resonance Liu Fang plays two tunes in the studio. The first Red River has a melody, she explains, that derives from the Yi people of southern China. The second Dance of the Yi People was composed in the 1960s, and was the first tune she had played the night before at the Mermaid. Close up it’s even more of a dazzling experience. She rests her pear shaped lute on her thigh in an upright position. Her dexterity on the instrument is breathtaking, her fingers a blur over the strings. Each finger on her right hand is adorned with a fingernail pluck. Her eyes remained mostly closed, her face expressionless. In my headphones I can hear her breathing deeply.
I can’t but help wonder if she is in a conscious state of mind, or in some kind of trance. “I don’t know” she says, “I might look relaxed, but inside I’m concentrating very hard. I practice a lot which might be why it looks easy” It doesn’t look easy to me.
‘The pipa is a traditional Chinese instrument that has existed in China for more than 2000 years.” Liu explains. “It has four strings and thirty frets. There are two main techniques for playing it on the right hand. The first is tantiao just using two fingers. The other is called lunzi using five fingers.”
Early Persian and Arab paintings and sculptures depict an instrument bearing a close resemblance to the pipa. Images of musicians strumming a pipa like instrument and riding on camels can be found decorated on pottery, indicating that travelers from west Asia brought a similar instrument along the silk road to China during the Tang Dynasty, 618-907. Ever since it has occupied a central place in Chinese music, both as a solo or ensemble instrument.
Liu Fang was born in 1974 in Yunnan Province, southern China, into a musical family. “My mother is a traditional Chinese opera singer so I began to listen to traditional Chinese music before I was born! I first started playing the pipa when I was six years old.” She gave her first public performance when she was nine, and in 1985 played for the Queen. “Oh, that was a long time ago, when she visited south China. I played two solo pieces for her” she remembers. And did the Queen enjoy the pipa? “I don’t know, but we all had a picture taken together.”
When she was fifteen she went to Shanghai to study at the Conservatory of Music for four years. “That’s where I learnt the guzheng, the Chinese 21 stringed zither. The guzheng has been around in China for more than 3000 years.” She received many provincial and national prizes, but discovered in reality traditional music was not encouraged in China. She found herself performing after dinner or tea, for people more interested in talking than listening. Life as a traditional musician was certainly going be challenging.
Meanwhile, Dr Risheng Wang from a province in northern China, was a research scientist of meteorology in Germany when he heard a cassette of Liu Fang. He fell in love with her exquisite playing and started writing fan mail to her. The two met on one of Risheng’s trips back to China, and soon after were married.
Risheng found Canada’s immigration policy more welcoming than Germany’s and they settled in Montreal in 1996. They have subsequently found Canada’s support of the arts welcoming too. Risheng gave up his meteorological work, to concentrate full time on managing Liu’s career. With support from the Canada Council for the Arts and the tireless efforts of Risheng, Liu Fang has toured extensively in concert halls around the world (apart from the USA, of where talk about visas is not one of their favorite topics). She has further recorded CDs and collaborated with a variety of musicians from different nationalities and backgrounds.
While a virtuoso of traditional pipa, it’s Liu’s openness and sense for experimentalism that sets her apart from her peers. Her collaborators have included Syrian oud player and percussionist Farhan Sabbagh. The two recorded a remarkable CD, uniting two ancient stringed instruments from the same family, and toured Canada in 2000. The pipa has it’s relation in Vietnam too, the dan ty ba, although Liu Fang played with dan bau (monochord) player Pham Duc Thanh at concerts in Canada. Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute) player Yoshio Kurahashi came to Montreal too, a collaboration she describes as one of her most rewarding.
One of the most outlandish was with violinist Malcolm Goldstein. “He’s a wonderful musician’ Liu enthuses, ‘an American about seventy years old now living in Montreal. What we do is very unusual, deep, and totally free.” The only track I hear is about as far from the refined musician sitting quietly in front of me as you can get. Liu strums and slaps her pipa in discordant tones while Goldstein screeches over the top.
In yet another string to her pipa, the western classical world has embraced Liu Fang. She has premiered new compositions by Canadian composers R.Murray Schafer and Melissa Hui, performed two concertos for pipa and orchestra with the Moravia Symphony Orchestra in Prague, played with various string quartets including the Paul Klee Quartet in Venice and the Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne in Montreal.
So successful is Liu Fang in the classical scene in Europe, she has yet had time to make inroads into the world music market. This is something she and Risheng are keen to rectify, their brief visit to London being a good start.
At BBC London, Charlie Gillett is suitably impressed as is his other guest for the evening, Robert Cray. The listeners are too judging from the feedback.
In 2001 Liu Fang was the only musician to receive the prestigious ‘Future Generation Millennium Prize’ awarded by Canada Council for the Arts to artists under thirty years of age. The words of the jury summed her up rather succinctly. “Liu Fang’s mastery of the pipa and the guzheng has established her international reputation as a highly talented young interpreter of traditional Chinese music. She aspires to combine her knowledge and practice of eastern traditions with western classical music, contemporary music and improvisation, thereby creating new musical forms, uniting different cultures and discovering new audiences.”
With talk of her coming back for concerts and a recording project next year, hopefully UK and European world music audiences will be given the chance to discover Liu Fang too.
Originally published in fRoots 2003