May 2005

Xu Fengxia
May 17, 2005 • Goethe Institut • Toronto
Report by David Fujino with photo by Roger Humbert
Xu Fengxia is a world musician, and a masterful player of the 21-string harp, the guzheng.

She plays her heart out; and when she played "Plum Blossom", she gathered us into an empty space of sound where taut and brittle notes are suddenly a swept waterfall of notes; where her left hand bends the ulullating sway of strings, our heartstrings.

Silence. Her voice sounds and throbs with pauses, as she breathes out the melody line in a horizontal tremulous ache; and her right hand strums a steady tempo.

Heads bob at the jazz chords and swinging rhythm, harmonics are sprinkled throughout, and the finger dampened strums make the body sway. There's deep centuries of sound in the low chordal notes. And there's optimism in her arpeggios, and a delightful free sense of rhythm.

Xu Fengxia is a world musician, and a bold and committed improvisor. Too bad if you weren't here to hear her second piece, an improvised piece with a strong jazz flavour, but more than a jazz flavour, as we hear her voice scatting and syncopating notes, lifting from level to level, sighing — and swinging — over a storm cloud of chord strums; and when she bowed on alternating sides of the bridges of her guzheng, we had a body memory of that eery high-pitched loop, that high squealing we hear darkly in European art music.

Xu Fengxia is a world musician, and her willingness to collaborate became a special gift on this night. Instead of playing an encore, she improvised a guzheng duet with Toronto musician David Sait who had asked her on the Internet if he could duet with her in Toronto.

Sait plucked gentle arpeggios and off rhythms while Xu Fengxia bowed furiously. (I think she broke a string during this piece.) Sait was then found to be playing with soft mallets as Xu Fengxia let her voice cackle, sliding her pitch up and down and again evoking European avant garde sounds. Her closed eyes, her poised body, both hands ready to strike, and her voice, another line and texture, are vital energies in her spacious world of sound.

After Intermission, the evening was nicely framed by the screening of Laurence Petit-Jouvet's film, Off the Road, which features Xu Fengxia's friend and collaborator, the deceased bassist Peter Kowald.

In the film, Kowald wants to go to the source of Black American music, so he flies from Germany to New York where he buys an old station wagon and drives westwards to the Delta region, for him, the source of Black American music.

Kowald plays and talks with mostly Black Americans in their communities in New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, and Oakland, and he observes at one point, that "global musicians play open, not local forms", and he's clearly happy to meet and play with questing spirits like tenor player Fred Anderson and trumpeter Eddy Gale Stevens.

Ever since 1945, Peter Kowald says he was never at ease and was unhappy with Germany and its history. So he became a musician who started to travel the world. He met Xu Fengxia in Germany, her present home base.

Xu Fengxia, like Peter Kowald, is a brave spirit who walks towards us with her music.

You can learn more about Xu Fengxia's music by logging on to If you want to know more about traditional Chinese musical instruments, you can log on to

Thank you, Xu Fengxia, for your borderless songs. And thank you, Peter Kowald for your inspiring example.

We welcome your comments and feedback
David Fujino
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Roger Humbert
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