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Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Singing with the voice of an erhu

Staff writer

On July 28, 1976, Jia Pengfang was in Beijing to take an entrance exam for the army's music-and-dance troupe. For the young musician from the countryside, it was the only way he could hope to realize his dream of becoming a professional musician -- and also the only way he could register himself as resident of the Chinese capital.

News photo
Erhu master Jia Pengfang

On this fateful day, however, one of the 20th-century's biggest earthquakes hit Tangshan, a city southeast of Beijing, killing an estimated 242,000 people.

Though it seemed certain the exam would be called off, Jia left for the army base carrying his erhu, a two-stringed instrument known as "the violin of the East." Often said to resemble the human voice, the soulful sound of the erhu, with its sense of timeless pathos, is such that even on first hearing many people feel sure they've heard it somewhere before.

Indeed, the exam that day was canceled, and because of Mao Zedong's policies at the time, Jia had no choice but to return home to work on farm collectives. But just as fate had suspended his hopes of becoming a professional musician, a fortuitous sequence of events eventually allowed him to pursue his dream again.

Although in the years that followed he succeeded against the odds in winning acclaim in his home country, it wasn't until Jia came to Japan in 1988 that his music began to reach a wider audience.

Fortunately for him, 1988 was also the year the movie "The Last Emperor" was receiving international praise. Its Academy Award-winning score showcased the deeply moving sound of erhu and sparked considerable interest in Asian music.

While Jia's success in Japan did not come overnight, he is now recognized as one of its top players. Among his releases, his 1998 album, "River," was a milestone of the genre, and several of his songs have made it to the upper reaches of New Age music charts in the United States. In addition to playing Carnegie Hall, he has also contributed to numerous movie and TV productions.

And this month, almost 25 years after Jia set off for that army base in Beijing, the musician will release his seventh album since coming to Japan.

Awakening to the erhu

Born in 1958 in Heilongjiang Province, on China's northeast border with Russia, Jia was the youngest of five siblings, all of whom played an instrument. His second-oldest brother, Pengxin, was himself a professional erhu player and a crucial influence on Jia.

News photo

"As a little child, I used to share a room with my brother," recalled Jia in an interview. "He'd get up earlier than I did and practice the erhu, so I'd wake up in the morning to the sound of the instrument."

Jia didn't begin formal study of the instrument until he was 8, during the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution. By the time he was 10, he was giving public performances as a member of the state music-and-dance group.

Young Jia would go to bed early and get up around 4 a.m. to practice erhu for a few hours before school.

"There was no television, and you could hear erhu music only occasionally on the radio. When I happened to hear that sound from a friend's house on the street, I used to run home and turn on the radio, which took a while to warm up. By the time I could hear anything, the piece would almost be over," Jia said, smiling. "But because it was so rare and special to hear it, even to this day I can recall every single sound. It still resonates with me."

Jia's love for the erhu became stronger in his teens. At age 16, with the support of his brothers, he moved to a relative's home in Beijing so that he could learn from China's top musicians. Among them was Shen Liliang, a concertmaster of an established orchestra for film soundtracks.

"He didn't teach any detailed techniques or anything," Jia said. "He had lots of students and on Sunday, he taught only in the morning. Each of us got 10 to 15 minutes. He just told us, 'You can practice this one,' and then he would play a phrase or two. That was all. If you couldn't feel the music, you were out of luck."

"As there were no printed scores or photocopiers, we had to manually copy the original scores. You could say that we were using scores that were not necessarily reliable. While copying them, you could very well make a mistake. Looking back, it was actually good that we did that. I was always wondering while I was playing whether the score was correct or not, and my own judgment was constantly required."

Then, in 1976, the Tangshan Earthquake struck with a magnitude of 7.8. Unable to remain in Beijing, Jia returned home.

Almost a year later, he received a letter from his former teacher, recommending that he go to university. The Cultural Revolution was over, and Jia was free to return to the capital to take the entrance exam. So, with the support and sacrifice of his brothers, at age 19 he was selected from more than 500 applicants for a place at the Central Music Academy's Folk Music Department.

But then, yet another incident altered his path yet again.

"While waiting for my turn, I was practicing in the waiting room. Then a man came up to me and started to ask me things like, 'Since when have you been playing erhu?' and 'Where are you from?' and things like that. I was, like, 'Why all the questions? Leave me alone.' I thought it was just a strange guy bothering me."

The man, however, was the concertmaster of the China Central Folk Music Orchestra. In 1978, Jia was invited to join his orchestra, which was the most prestigious of its kind in the nation. Later that year, he became an erhu soloist, and then sub-concertmaster of the orchestra.

Jia remembers this time as "a golden age for those in the field of Chinese folk music." The instruments were being constantly improved thanks to substantial support from the government.

After playing in the orchestra for 10 years, however, Jia was becoming increasingly aware of the world beyond China. It was then, in 1988, that he decided to come to Japan. Asked why he chose Japan, he at first answers with a joke: "Maybe because there was a plane?" Then he explains the real reason he left Beijing.

"In the China Central Folk Music Orchestra, all the musicians played Chinese traditional instruments and Chinese traditional music [most of the time.] And of course when a solo player joins, they are also playing traditional instruments. I mean, the orchestra was meant for that, and that was also good, but I felt that there was more to erhu, what it can do, you see? That's why I needed to change my environment."

Leap years

Jia's attempts to explore more of the instrument's possibilities continued in Japan. Lacking any formal connections to the local music world, he did odd jobs, from dishwashing to construction, to make ends meet.

However, one small music-related job led to another, and it wasn't too long before Jia's talents came to the attention of Japan's leading composer, Katsuhisa Hattori. After joining one of the composer's recording sessions, Jia was asked to play in one of his concerts. So it was that, only a few months after that recording session, he found himself on the stage of the Aoyama Theater.

After that, doors began to open. Jia's encounter with Hattori allowed him to perform with musicians from other genres -- including the top jazz guitarist Kazumi Watanabe, the shamisen master Shinichi Kinoshita and the well-known ocarina player Sojiro.

Although Jia says these cross-cultural experiments didn't always work, he wasn't deterred from forever seeking out new combinations.

"You might think that shamisen and erhu don't go well together," he says, "but Tsugaru jamisen [from Aomori Prefecture] has a good bass line, and I can join in on melodic parts. And sometimes, I can play fast along with shamisen. It all blends exquisitely."

In 1994, the year his debut album in Japan, "Kagen," was released, Jia entered Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. After five years of studies there, combined with playing all over the world, he graduated with a master's degree. Jia himself, though, is humble about this achievement.

"Japanese schools are good for those who are willing to study," he said. "In Chinese universities, you have no choice but to study, because otherwise you can't graduate. In Japan, you can still graduate without studying too hard."

With his new, soon-to-be released album, Jia says he's coming much closer to his goal of discovering new possibilities for the erhu. He says that in Seiichi Kyoda's dynamic arrangement of a traditional bird song by master Liu Tianhua, the erhu -- known as the instrument that "sings" -- can now dance. In the song "Tomorrow," he says he is using the erhu to express hope rather than sorrow.

Jia says his existence consists of memories, and they inspire him to play music differently each time. And it appears that his well of memories is deep and inexhaustible.

It will come

At his studio in Shinagawa Ward, Jia currently teaches more than 230 students, and recently he also opened a class for 60 other students in the Osaka area.

Instead of being didactic and telling his students how to play, he lets them hear how it is supposed to sound by playing himself. They are naturally awed by his technique. Jia is soft-spoken and doesn't display dramatic emotion on his face, but once his bow touches the string, you can sense deep feelings immediately.

The lesson ends with joking and laughter, but for the students who have been playing for just a few months, Jia has serious words of advice.

"If you have been playing the erhu for three months, the sound is the sound of three months' playing; and if three years, then three years. Some people might be better at it than others, but as you continue to play the instrument, you will better understand the balance between when you push the bow and pull it," he says.

"There's no theory, and I can't explain it in easy terms: The important thing is to continue and play it for a long time."

The fragile yet strong erhu
The erhu, known as niko in Japanese, is the most well-known string instrument in China. Derived from a similar instrument in Central Asian countires, it appeared in China about 1,000 years ago, during the Tang Dynasty.

Until the late 18th century the erhu was primarily used in opera accompaniment. However, thanks to the contributions of composer Liu Tianhua in the early 20th century, it gained recognition as a solo instrument.

The erhu seems fragile, yet is capable of creating expressive melodies with subtle and deep resonance. The instrument's neck, which is commonly about 80 cm long, is often made of rosewood or ebony. Unlike a violin, it has no touching board or frets. At the bottom of the neck is a small sound box, which is traditionally hexagonal in shape and covered at the front with Indian python skin. The bow is made of thin bamboo and two strings of horsetail fiber.

Trade regulations that protect endangered species have made the crafting and importing of erhu more difficult. These days, for example, instead of using wild pythons, erhu makers use snakes raised on Vietnamese farms.

Jia himself gets involved in the instrument-making process, giving his workmen feedback. This is, in turn, passed on to his students, since most of them use the same style of erhu as their teacher.

A recital to celebrate Jia's 15th anniversary in Japan and album release will be held March 23 at Kioi Hall, (03) 5276-4500, near Yotsuya Station. For tickets, call Lasa Kikaku at (03) 5748-3040, Ticket Pia at 0570-02-9999, or Kioi Hall Ticket Center at (03) 3237-0618.

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