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Song Rises in the East

Hong Wang's Chinese Ensemble Crosses Folk Borders, Into Classical, Jazz and Country Music


Beijing-born musician Hong Wang co-founded Melody of China in 1993. Its mission? To promote his native country's musical heritage.

The San Francisco-based traditional folk music ensemble, which plays Saturday in San Juan Capistrano, also hopes to broaden its reach by integrating a variety of contemporary, non-Chinese strains into the mix.

Though much of MOC's repertoire is indeed steeped in ancient Chinese melodies and legends--and played with indigenous instruments such as the xun (pottery flute), sheng (bamboo mouth organ) and guzheng (zither)--the ensemble also stretches into classical, jazz, country, folk and world music territory.

Selections on the group's 1997 debut CD, also called "Melody of China," range from the Xinjiang music of northwest China ("Ding Tong Camels' Bells") and south Tibetan folk music ("Tibetan Dance Music") to reinvented American standards ("Arkansas Traveler" and Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home.")

MOC, which also features Haiyue Zhang on ruan (moon guitar) and Linhong Li on pipa (Chinese lute), has collaborated several times with Asian-American jazz pianist Jan Jong and drummer Max Roach, and performed with the Stanford University Symphony Orchestra. In addition, Wang--a multi-instrumentalist who specializes in the erhu (two-string fiddle)--and yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer) player Zhang jammed in Berkeley last year at Mike Marshall's International Mandolin Festival.

Just last week in San Francisco, MOC was featured in the world premiere of New York composer Yualin Chen's "Shijing Suite" (The Book of Odes). Based on an anthology of Chinese poetry from the 11th to 7th century BC, the work incorporates not only ancient Chinese instrumentation and the soprano vocals of Cindy Wang (no relation), it tiptoes into the electronic age with the use of synthesizers and samplers.

According to Hong Wang, a graduate of Nanjing Normal University and former music editor for the Jiangsu Province Institute of Culture & Arts, traditional Chinese folk music will wither away if it's not broadened.

"As much as we've come to love this rich music, it's honestly very hard to get others as interested without doing something contemporary . . . a sound or style that they can relate to," Wang, 40, said by phone from his Bay Area home.

"So we commission new compositions, ones that usually mix Eastern and Western instruments in creative ways," he said. "We're constantly experimenting, like we'll play all these Chinese instruments in Irish and old-time ballads, or we'll join an Asian-American orchestra in a tribute to Duke Ellington's music.

"One of the great things that happens when we cross these borders is that audiences get exposed to music and cultures that they otherwise wouldn't. How many jazz, classical or bluegrass audiences get a chance to hear something like the Chinese fiddle and lute, or hear a beautiful song that's 2,500 years old--like 'Ding Tong Camels' Bells?'

"At the same time," he added, "when we're performing before a primarily Chinese American audience, they may be hearing 'Arkansas Traveler' for the first time. So I think what we're doing just lends itself to the kind of experience that demonstrates just how small the global village really is."

Wang believes in introducing youngsters to multiculturalism. When he came to the U.S. from China in 1993, he got involved in Young Imaginations, a Bay Area multicultural arts-in-education organization where he developed a series of music programs geared toward elementary and high-school students.

MOC has visited nearly 100 schools, playing music and educating students about the variety of traditional Chinese instruments and the country's culture and customs. Wang says he's trying to foster the same kind of supportive environment that piqued his interest in the arts when he was only 7.

"There was a great cultural revolution going on [in the '60s], and I was lucky enough to learn about music and dance as a member of the Red Flower Children's Ensemble," Wang said. "With the encouragement of my instructor, I learned to play the erhu, and then later the oboe and other [Chinese] woodwind and percussion instruments. I studied and played there for three years, and without him, I simply wouldn't be an artist today.

"We want to say to our community, 'Don't forget tradition.' It's pretty ironic that in China [today], most of the teachings about music talk about Western music, not Chinese. In the 1960s and '70s, we learned a lot about American pop and jazz. But because the government invalidated much of what preceded their rule, they didn't want us studying our own history and musical roots."

Fortunately, said Wang, few barriers--political or otherwise--exist in the ears of the young.

"When the kids in the schools take a turn on our instruments, it's so heartening to see not just the Chinese Americans get excited, but kids from all racial and ethnic backgrounds," he said. To them, it's not Western or Eastern, classical, folk or jazz--it's just cool-sounding music."

* Melody of China plays Saturday at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, La Sala Auditorium, 31495 El Camino Real. 7 and 9 p.m. $3-$6. Presented by the San Juan Capistrano Multicultural Arts Series. (949) 248-7469.

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