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Popularizing the Pipa and Erhu - 2003-10-02

Two musicians who immigrated to the United States from Shanghai, China, seven years ago have found a new American audience for their traditional Chinese instruments -- the pipa and the erhu.

Pipa and erhu duet

Betti Xiang and Yang Wei were professional musicians with promising careers in China when they decided to immigrate to the United States in 1996.

“Everyone has an American dream. We did, too.”

“As professional musicians we toured around the world when we were in China. So when we got a chance to immigrate to America, we brought our dream here. We wanted to connect with more people who will hear our music, and to play with more excellent musicians in America.”

After some months in the state of Texas, living with Yang Wei’s sister, the couple and their small son moved to Chicago, with the hope of one day being able to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the meantime, they began performing before small groups, aiming to acquaint American musicians and audiences with their ancient Chinese instruments.

“As professional musicians we tried to promote ourselves, so we talked to them, and say we’re musicians, and they say, ‘Oh, good, what do you play?’ And we say we play the pipa and erhu. And they’re, like, Oh-kay, because they don’t know what that is. And then, after they listen to us play, we receive so many, so many very, very warm responses from the audience, from the musicians. They say ‘Wow! This is such wonderful music.’”

Sound of pipa and erhu in concert

The pipa, which Mr. Wei plays, is a four-stringed, pear-shaped lute with 30 frets and a range of 3 and a half octaves. The erhu is a two-stringed violin with a range of three octaves, played with the bow passing between the strings. Both instruments are ancient: the the erhu has been played for perhaps a thousand years, the pipa for probably two thousand. At first, Yang Wei and Betti Ziang performed mostly traditional classical Chinese music, and although it was unfamiliar to the western ear, they found their audiences responding to it.

“We believe that music is the universal language, so no matter what kind of musical instrument, what kind of music you play, if you put your heart and your soul in the music, you really connect with people, they will be moved my your music. That’s what we believe. And our seven years here proved that.”

Since coming to the United States, Betti Xiang and Yang Wei have expanded their repertoire to include elements of Western music, both classical and modern. They have commissioned and performed new works by living composers. And they have incorporated jazz, blues, and even folk songs into their compositions. During an appearance recently at a folk festival in Bangor, in the northeastern state of Maine, Yang Wei explained to the audience the various strands of emotion and music woven into a piece called “Chinese Seeing America”.

Yang Wei's composition opens

“At the beginning, slow, it’s just like when we arrived here. We don’t speak English, we don’t know anybody, and nobody knows us, as well. So – loneliness, sadness, and also a little homesick. But very quick, very quick, we enjoy it so much, we [become] immersed in American culture, we love the food here, we love everything, so we mix them together, and you can hear these two melodies [the Chinese and the American] go in and out.”

"She’ll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain” theme

Thanks to their versatility and virtuosity, Betti Xiang and Yang Wei have realized their dream and performed with many outstanding American musicians and orchestras – including renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma and, yes, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Their concerts have taken then to many corners of the United States, as well as Europe, Malaysia and Japan--and they have settled into their life as Americans.

“Sometimes our neighbors, they ask us when they see us shoveling snow, or taking out the garbage, they’re wondering, ‘You should be on the radio, why are you here?’ But we are normal people. We have a normal life. But we find the meaning of life in music. Definitely we can find that.”

Recently, in collaboration with a piano trio, Betti Xiang and Yang Wei formed a quintet, “East Meets West”, which explores the cross-influences of Eastern and Western music.

Western theme played on Eastern instruments

English Feature #7-37909 Broadcast October 6, 2003

Special thanks to Natalie Liu and Jun Zhan of VOA-TV's Mandarin unit for contributing material for this feature.