January 2005

Silk Road Music
January 30, 2005 • Hugh's Room • Toronto
The two female players in the Silk Road Quartet on the stage of Hugh’s Room are dressed in Chinese silk dresses. The leader sits with a pipa upright in her lap. The pipa, is sort of a lute, with a pear-shaped belly, a very wide neck with a lot of metal frets despite its only four strings that are plucked or strummed by the thumb and finger picks on the player's digits. Picked or strummed, it sounds like a banjo, bouzouki or mandolin. When Qiu Xia begins picking the introduction to their first number, in honour of the Chinese New Year, the music sounds, well, Chinese. But when the rhythm section kicks in with André Thibault on guitar, Willy Miles on Bass Guitar and Feng Jun Wang on percussion, the sound is like, well, you want to let out a bronco-riding whoop — ‘Yeee-haaaa’.

Feng Jun Wang
The next tune started with Qui Xia (sounds like ‘Chu Sha’) picking her pipa and Feng Jun, a highly trained and beautiful Beijing Opera performer singing in a powerful, high pitched voice, subtly modulated to produce fractionally different tones. Her ritualized gestures let you know the song is about a ‘man strong as a mountain’ and a lovely maiden who meet where a ‘stream flows clear from the mountain’. Feng Jun is joined by Willy Miles, a Vancouver Opera trained performer, who gives a singing translation into English. And when the rhythm section kicks in, you could be listening to a South American Coplas, or a First Nations drum circle chanting.

The third number was a slow Mongolian tune, sung by Feng Jun and Willy about ‘blue heavens where warm breezes blow and white lambs spread out over the grasslands.’ In it I heard the gospel spirituals “Deep River”, “Amazing Grace”, and those panoramic prairie rhapsodies that used to be composed for westward the wagons movies. Qiu Xia likes Celtic, so we were given a spirited jig called ‘Irish Impressions’. This was followed by “Jasmine Flower”, a tune borrowed by Puccini for his last opera, Turandot. But the lichee on top of the sweetened soy bean curd dessert was a really low-down Memphis blues, as if to prove that “even Chinese girls get the blues”.

We’ve been talking about Fusion here, and here is the best Fusion story I’ve heard to date, as told by Silk Road’s André Thibault. The group was in Memphis, Tennessee, en route to a gig in Thailand, and they decided that out of respect to 'The King’, they would include in the arrangements they were bringing to Thailand a rare 13 bar blues ‘The King’ used to play. Once there, Silk Road proceeded to teach that tune to a bunch of Thai musicians till they could play it together quite well. The Thai guys were surprised and thrilled to learn that these musicians from Canada respected music by ‘The King’. It seems that their 'King', His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, loved Jazz and composed some tunes himself.

Silk Road is a first class act: cheerful, the audience loved them, the second set was supposed to be completely different, but we couldn't stay for it. However, I look forward to reporting on Silk Road’s latest CD Village Tales, in the near future. Check back to The Live Music Report for that.

Qiu Xia He
Report by Stanley Fefferman • Photographs by Roger Humbert
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