Chinese Folk Musicians Bring “Lao Qiang” to the United States

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by Yegene Lee
Musician Wu Man plays the pipa, Chinese folk instrument. [Image: WikiMedia Commons - Bjahlstrom]

In March, Chinese musician Wu Man toured the United States with the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band, delivering performances to 25 cities and exposing US audiences to a form of Chinese folk music called “lao qiang,” or “old tune.” Wu Man has been acclaimed for her performances with a pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument that is parallel to the Western lute or banjo, and has performed with ensembles all over the world. The Huayin Shadow Puppet Band is a family band she encountered at Huayin County, in the northern Shanxi Province, while searching for traditional regional musicians.

Also known as the Zhang Family Band, the ensemble has been performing around northern China for the last three centuries, having been passed down for 11 generations. The band only recently opened up to performers who are non-family members. The US tour performances consisted of lively music using percussion and stringed instruments, as well as loud singing and shouting. One of the performers, Zhang Quansi, performed by pounding a bench that he had brought all the way from his home in China.

Wu Man’s elegant solos on her pipa provided a deliberate contrast to the more raw energy of the band. She also provided narration for the performances that helped inform audiences unfamiliar with the genre about the music and its history.

Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band are one example of a long history of music used as cultural exchange between the United States and China. Recently, the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles hosted a Chinese folk music concert by the China Broadcasting Performing Arts Troupe, who performed a mixed program of reimagined Chinese folk music and Western film scores. On the East Coast, the Silkroad Ensemble, a musical group founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, is touring with musicians of dozens of artistic traditions and cultures including Chinese artists like Wu Man. In February, American cities such as Muscatine, Iowa celebrated the beginning of Lunar New Year with musical performances, as when the Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra visited Muscatine for a special concert. Musical exchange has been an effective way for members of the two countries to collaborate and experience previously unknown aspects of each culture.