The Chinese erhu, an ancient two-string musical instrument played like a violin, is gaining popularity in the United States where it is often heard in the musical scores of movies. Musician Karen Han is using the instrument to build bridges between Eastern and Western music.
Born in a small town in Anhui province, China, she is the daughter of a professional musician. "When I was very little, my parents noted that I enjoy music so much, she said. "I loved to dance, I liked to sing. But my father knows how to play this instrument. And he said for your lifelong career, you'd better play this instrument."
She was reluctant at first, but came to love the distinctive sound of the erhu. It has a long, thin neck, a small sound box, and a bow made of horsehair. Its tonal quality is like that of a Western viola and it's perfect for the soulful songs of traditional Chinese music.
"This instrument, it's like a very close friend to me because the songs come out very soulful and haunting," she said. "And so to practice this instrument, and to play some music, it just makes me feel like I'm talking to a friend."
In 1985, Ms. Han toured 15 U.S. cities as part of a group of young Chinese musicians. Three years later she moved to Los Angeles.
Since then she has played on the scores of dozens of movies and television shows. Her film credits include The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club, Anna and the King, The Little Mermaid, The Passion of the Christ, and Mulan Two, which is now in production.
Classically trained at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, Ms. Han has recorded traditional melodies.
"I play folk songs and some very traditional erhu pieces that nobody knows who composed but it's very famous and well received by Chinese and all others," she said.
Some traditional tunes have a faster pace, like this one called "Horse Racing." It's "very traditional, and everybody knows this piece in China. And it's very happy, energetic," she said.
The musician experiments with Western styles and has played with the Asia-Pacific jazz band Hiroshima. One song was recorded with rock drummer Steve Ferrone, with the erhu backing up the drummer's hip-hop vocalizations.
While Karen Han has ventured into genres like rock and roll and pop, she says her American audience has also changed. She recalls her first time playing here in 1985.
"And I remember at that time that people looked at me and looked at my instrument," she said. "It was like they were seeing something in a museum. And they could look, but they could not touch. And now, it's totally different. Much more people recognize this instrument now. I'm very happy."