Saturday, 17 September 2016

BORDERLANDS / Singapore International Festival of Arts / Review

Wu Man (Pipa) & 
Master Musicians from the Silk Route
Singapore International 
Festival of Arts 2016
SOTA Theatre Studio
Thursday (15 September 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 September 2016 with the title "Tracing roots of pipa in journey of discovery".

In Borderlands, world-renowned pipa virtuosa Wu Man traced the roots of her instrument all the way to Central Asia, to a time of antiquity when cross-fertilisation of different cultures was a way of life. For this concert, she was joined by five Uyghur musicians and a dancer from Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China's Far West.

A contemplative pipa solo Gobi Desert At Sunset by Wu ushered in Chebiyat Muqam, the first of several excerpts from muqams to be performed. A muqam is the traditional Uygur suite of pieces involving poetry, singing, instrumental music and dance. Typically a muqam would take several hours to complete and the full set of 12 could last the best part of a day.

For the purpose of this evening, Chebiyat Muqam, essentially an extended love song with erotic undertones, breezed through 25 minutes of sensuous and often exuberant music. The chief protagonist was vocalist Sanubar Tursun who also strummed on a dutar (a long-necked lute), whose pristine voice and haunting inflexions recalled an ancient age and exotic locales.

In the feverish climaxes, she was joined by Mijiti Younusi (on tambur, another plucked lute), Rexiati Abudureheman (satar, bowed lute), Adili Abudukelimu (kalun, a dulcimer struck by sticks) and Alifu Saideke (hand drum), who added their male voices to the fray. Time stood still for this unlikely entertainment, which had the drawing power of a muezzin's call to prayer, heady aroma of freshly burnt incense and earthly pleasures of a seraglio.

All the singing was in Uyghur, a Turkic language still spoken in Xinjiang alongside Han Chinese putonghua. An added visual element was the colourful presence of dancer Delare Maimaitiyiming whose nodding head movements and swirling revolutions took on the spectacular in Mountain Spring. Here she balanced six bowls on the top of her head without spilling a drop of water.

It was back to Wu Man, who assimilated her journey of discovery of Central Asian music in Song of the Kazakh, a virtuoso showpiece far removed from Chinese pipa music which unveiled Western harmonies and hints of polyphony.

In Hanleyun, two songs were joined. The first was about life experiences, of how a nightingale who has not suffered winter would not know the joys of spring, and the second on a homeland that resembled the Garden of Eden. For Ajam, all the plucked strings came together for a slow to fast and vigorous love-in.

For the final muqam excerpts, dulcimer-player Abudukelimu displayed his throaty baritone-like vocals (Dolan Muqam) and joined dancer Maimaitiyiming in an animated “pas de deux” (Nawa Muqam), relating the plaints of a desert hermit and sage.

The 90-minute concert ended like how it started, in near total darkness, with Wu in pipa solo Night Thoughts, a study on solitude. Face to face with true artistry, how these precious minutes elapsed, like dew evaporating under the morning sun.   

Wu Man and her ensemble meet with
SSO violinists Kong Zhao Hui & Yin Shu Zhan.

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