07/15/2012 12:28 EDT | Updated 09/13/2012 05:12 EDT

The Woman Who Plays the Pipa

Borderlands: Wu Man and the Master Musicians of the Silk Route on the Smithsonian Folkways label is the 10th and final CD/DVD set in the award-winning "Music of Central Asia" series, co-produced with the Aga Khan Music Initiative. It follows the journey of musician Wu Man in finding the future of her instrument, the pipa, in its past.

The music on the CD is hypnotic and quite haunting, and often evocative of the wide open spaces of the Eurasian high plains and steppes. It ranges from folk songs to new compositions and improvised pieces, from slow paced to lively and percussive, with wonderfully nimble vocals on some tracks.

I spoke with Wu Man recently over the phone about the project. The pipa is stringed and something like a lute, and like so many musicians in our global era, her love of a traditional instrument has led her on a continuous search to bring it forward into the modern era via collaborations with artists of many different stripes.


"My instrument, the pipa, has a long history in China. It's quite popular," she explained. As a child, she was taught to play traditional songs on the pipa in school, and while she fell in love with the instrument, she soon found that she'd exhausted the possibilities of the 20-25 pieces in the traditional repertoire. She was the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. "When I was in school in Beijing, I was already interested in all sorts of things," she says. "Then the question was brought up, so what's next?"

It was musical curiosity that led her to explore styles beyond the traditions she knew. "That's what brought me here 20 years ago," she says of her move to North America and its unique position as the crossroads of world cultures." After 20 years in the West, I've been involved in many collaborations, including Western music and world music." She's worked with the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma, and now plays as part of his Silk Road Project. She has played with the New York Philharmonic and The Boston Symphony Orchestra, among many others. When the City of Toronto awarded the Glenn Gould prize in 1999 to Yo-Yo Ma, he selected Wu Man to receive the Glenn Gould Protégé Prize.

The impulse to experiment has been a constant in her career. "I wanted to see, as a musician, what else I could do." Modern music and that of cultures other than her native China would enlarge the repertoire, but eventually, she was led back to the very origins of the instrument. "I'm looking for my own roots," she explained of the Borderlands project. "The pipa is not regionally from China, it's from Central Asia." The pipa made its way to China some 2,000 years ago over the well-travelled Silk Route or Silk Road, as it's sometimes called, a network of trade routes that once linked Europe and Asia.

Specifically, the pipa's origins lie with the Uyghur culture, a Turkic ethnic group with diverse origins whose history can be traced back to about 300 BC. As in many other nomadic cultures, music served a storytelling function and includes epic stories and poems as well as instrumental works, sometimes with religious context. The pieces on the CD reflect that tradition in songs with titles that translate into Hey Kid, Darling and The Only Pain -- songs that speak of love and the landscape.


In bringing the pipa back to Central Asia, she was bringing it back to play with its close cousins the tanbur and dutar, instruments which still exist in the region. Their musical meeting was not unlike that of distant family reunited -- in some ways very natural, but in others more challenging. "I would say very natural in a way, but the pipa, the language of the pipa is very Chinese right now," she explains. "If I play something with Buddhist music, it sounds natural," she says. But, the complimentary tone of the pipa also lends itself to the music indigenous to Central Asia and its Islamic culture. "The tone colour is quite natural." The language is different, but it feels right all the same. "It gave me the possibility to enlarge my own vocabulary," she explains.

"A lot of the pieces were based on improvisation." Wu Man let the experienced musicians like Abdulla Majnun and vocalists like Ma Ersa -- well-known artists in their own homelands -- begin patterns that she would follow and fit into. A DVD included in the package shows some of the improvisations as they take shape, along with the genuine enjoyment of musicians at play.

"This is definitely going to stay with me."

Her collaborators on the CD include Abduvali Abdurashidov (sato-tanbur) and Sirojiddin Juraev (dutar) from Tajikistan, Ma Ersa (vocals) from the Gansu province of China, and Abdulla Majnun (diltar, dutar, tambur, vocals), Hesenjan Tursun (satar), Sanubar Tursun (singer/songwriter, dutar), and Yasin Yaqup (dap frame drum) from Xinjiang, the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.