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China Daily Global / 2020-06 / 17 / Page014

Tuning in to the past

By Chen Nan | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-06-17 00:00

Traditional music has found increasing appeal among a younger audience, due to greater access to it and the passion of its fans, Chen Nan reports.

Sometimes you have to travel to appreciate your own. Sometimes, waking up in a foreign land gives you a precious insight into your own country.

Fang Songping is a musician and has traveled but when he was at home with his pipa-player father, Fang Jinlong, he preferred Western rock.

It was hulusi, the gourd-like instrument, that really changed his life. He happened to bring it to Los Angeles, while studying music there. His classmates were fascinated when he played music with it, and a new horizon opened up before him.

According to a recent report on traditional Chinese music, young Chinese people are turning their attention to traditional arts. More and more are listening to traditional Chinese music.

The report was released on June 2, under the guidance of the China Association of Performing Arts, by Kugou, a leading social media platform of digital music. The platform has been highlighting traditional music along with other forms of Chinese intangible cultural heritage, and garners more than 400 million active users monthly.

The report focused on the genres of traditional Chinese art, such as operas and folk music, and also analyzed age differences and locations. It found that more than 100 million people tune in to traditional Chinese music monthly.

The top three most popular types of traditional Chinese operas are named in the report-Yueju (or Cantonese Opera), Peking Opera (or Jingju) and Huangmeixi.

It also pointed out that the popularity of traditional music is a result of the rise in social media and networking, and through joint efforts made by traditional musicians and opera performers. For example, Peking Opera artists from Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company once recorded for a Chinese video game that centers on exploring Chinese food.

Rising of stars

Pipa player Fang Jinlong, father of Fang Songping, is a musician who has been devoted to preserving and promoting traditional music among young people for years. He has attracted lots of young fans on his social media platforms.

His 12-minute performance at the New Year's Eve concert on Dec 31, 2019, livestreamed by video-sharing platform Bilibili, made him an online star, receiving warm feedback from the young audience. He adapted pop songs with traditional Chinese folk tunes and played dozens of musical instruments, including the pipa and erhu. His show even incorporated elements from Chinese martial arts culture, American folk music and Japanese anime.

During the livestreamed show, he was accompanied by a 100-member symphony orchestra under the baton of conductor Zhao Zhao, and he's seen sometimes talking with other musicians, communicating with the audience and imparting knowledge about the instruments or the music, while the audience was able to interact with the musicians, as well as with each other, by leaving instant messages on the screen.

Fang Jinlong, from Anqing, Anhui province, says: "I have been a musician for 42 years and released nearly 40 albums, but previously my music wasn't all that popular among younger listeners. It made me think and inspired me to change my music."

The musician, now in his late 50s, was first introduced to music by his father, also a pipa player in a local Huangmeixi opera troupe, and started to play liuqin (a four-stringed Chinese mandolin) at 6 years old. Before graduating from primary school, he could play more than 10 traditional Chinese instruments.

"I didn't expect that the show on Bilibili would receive so much attention. I am very proud of it. Traditional Chinese musicians are constantly trying to come up with new ways to promote the genre. My idea is to fully display the versatility of the music in a fun way," says Fang Jinlong.

The process of experimenting with his music and making his music popular among young audiences is "like that of an experienced chef sensing how different ingredients will change the flavor of a dish", he says.

"I taught myself to play all those instruments to better understand traditional Chinese music," adds the musician, who also co-founded a female band, Sweet 18, in 2003. The band is known for their creative interpretation of traditional Chinese musical instruments and their adaptation of famous Chinese pop and folk songs.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fangs released a song, Illuminate, for which the younger Fang composed the instrumental piece, while his father played nine instruments, such as the pipa, guqin, and shakuhachi (a Japanese flute).

"Music can bridge cultures and connect generations," the father says, adding that they hope to introduce traditional Chinese musical instruments with a contemporary touch, by conducting livestreams and playing pop songs from the East and the West.

One's two worlds

Fang Songping, born and raised in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, learned to play piano and the pipa at 4 and also developed an interest in Western music as a child. He was exposed to a diverse array of Western genres, like R&B and rock, at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California, where he began studying in 2012.

Like many youngsters, he used to play "loud music" in his room at home, which his father didn't understand and had no idea what he was listening to.

He inherited his father's musical gene and can play various kinds of instruments, like the guqin and zhongruan (a traditional four-stringed plucked instrument), but he didn't enjoy traditional Chinese music that much until he pursued his music studies in the United States.

When leaving China, he took with him the hulusi, a kind of Chinese wind instrument made from a gourd, and played it recreationally in the college. The exotic sound of the instrument won him lots of fans and requests to perform on stage. Then he started researching about traditional Chinese music and combining elements of it into his own compositions. In 2015, he returned to China and started his career as an indie musician.

Now, Fang Songping works as the music director of a popular reality show, Gems of Chinese Poetry, which centers on traditional Chinese arts, such as poetry, music, dance and paintings. He composed eight original instrumental pieces, inspired by traditional Chinese culture, like music, chess, calligraphy and paintings.

The Fangs say they will collaborate on music pieces composed and played for video games.

The younger Fang, who plans to release an EP of his own compositions this year, says: "I am drawn to both Chinese and Western music since I am influenced by both of them."

Group influencers

According to the report, there are also lots of young pop stars combining traditional Chinese music elements into their creations, which are offering their young fans opportunities to enjoy traditional music as well as inspiring them to discover more about Chinese arts.

Chinese pop idol Zhang Yixing released his latest album, Lit, on May 29, which sold over 1.5 million copies within eight minutes through major domestic music streaming platforms. The 29-year-old singer-songwriter has demonstrated his ability to sing and rap, and also to express his lyrics in different languages, such as Chinese and English. He combined traditional Chinese and Western styles of music. The instruments used for the songs are also a fusion of old and new. The classic Peking Opera piece, Farewell My Concubine, featuring the love story of Xiang Yu, a warlord in the late Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and his concubine Yu Ji, was featured in his music video of the title song, which has been viewed over 7 million times on YouTube.

The report also gave an example of Kunqu Opera, one of the oldest traditional Chinese operas, which attracts over 100 million listeners who were born after 1990. The listeners play Kunqu Opera melodies for about 275,000 times.

On May 16, the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, together with Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe and the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Troupe, co-launched an online show as part of a series of events to mark the 19th anniversary of the art being listed as a UNESCO "oral and intangible heritage of humanity" in 2001. More than 600,000 viewers watched the livestreamed performance, mostly their long-term followers who haven't had much chance to watch performances in theaters since the COVID-19 outbreak.

"We have achieved popularity among a young audience, especially those aged between 25 and 35," says Gu Haohao, 47, president of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe.


Performers from the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe greet their online fans after a livestreamed show on March 16, to mark the 19th anniversary of Kunqu Opera being listed as a UNESCO "oral and intangible heritage of humanity". Over 600,000 people watched the show. CHINA DAILY



Chinese traditional musician Fang Jinlong (left) plays pipa with his son, indie musician Fang Songping, on guitar, in popular reality show Gems of Chinese Poetry. CHINA DAILY





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