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Tender splendour

A young pipa (Chinese lute) prodigy plays mood music even as she preserves her ancient instrument's tonal purity

Shao Rong on the pipa
Pacific Moon Records

To those not familiar with Chinese music, the name may suggest a pipe, but the Chinese pipa is actually a four-stringed lute played with all five fingers. It is said to be more than 2,000 years old, with a tear shaped body made of red sandalwood and a neck of bamboo and bull horn.

Shao Rong with the pipa Shao Rong is from Shanghai where her musical inclination and talent was honed from as early as age five. She went on to earn a scholarship to the Central Coservatory of Music in Beijing where she learnt to play the pipa from China's national asset, Prof Lui Dehai.

While you listen to this album, you might be persuaded that the pipa is actually many different instruments. Shao achieves this effect by varying her plucking and strumming techniques. Given an orchestra with other traditional Chinese instruments, besides Western instruments like the piano, guitar and drums, the album, as in world music efforts, reaches out across cultures.

Seiichi Kyodo is the composer of all tracks except the traditional Chinese song Yue er gao, which is also called Precious Moon. The guitar chords, the piano and the tabla and drum combination give it a very contemporary setting.

Wild rose has the piano introducing the chord back-up on which the graceful pipa waltzes in. The tinkling notes of the pipa and the violin-like notes of the erhu combine with the piano and round off the acoustic sense of the orchestration. Bamboo dance shimmers with strong guitar notes, chords and a beat which supports the wild exploration of the pipa. A second verion has the pipa playing with the acoustic guitar instead of the piano.

Shao says of this piece, "When I was playing this piece, I could remember the hot summer days when I was a child and how happy I was to run along the path through the cool bamboo grove."

True love seems to come straight from the heart of the musicians. For Indian ears, the Chinese preference for the pentatonic scale of what we call Bhoop or Mohana may sound repetitive. The flute is at its most evocative here, and the erhu with its graces fills in the breaks.

A day goes by is chirpy -- and let me say this -- reminded me of a mild summer day and vast open spaces with butterflies flitting by. The guitar chords are tautly worked out, covering minors, fifths, sevenths and augmenteds and lend colour to the melody.

The flute, the dizi and the shakuhachi soar and dip like birds. For Shao, this captures "the images of a small town in winter, closed to the outside by the snow and wind"!

Well, that is perhaps good mood music. It says different things to different people, depending on the geography of their hometowns. To help find Shao's vision, you could light the incense sticks provided in the CD hinge!

The land of woods and waters features with the pipa with more graces, approximating from time to time the richness of gamaka in Indian music.

Unicorn makes the pipa sound like a santoor. Marketplace might make you think of a vivid, colourful Indian bazaar. It is full of tabla beats and fast plucking on the guitar and pipa. Satyajit Ray could well have made this piece. One more tale is soft with elusive melancholy, and the pipa plays staccato as well as graceful glides bringing to it a wholesome identity.

This album points to the kind of experiment traditional Indian musicians could attempt and perhaps succeed at. This shows that one can play good traditional music and yet explore other music cultures and unorthodox orchestral colours, and not blindly ape rock, techno or whatever is selling.

S Suchitra Lata

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