Sizhukong: It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Oon
Wu is another virtuoso on his chosen instrument. His playing can be as soft as a sigh and exude a sobbing melancholy, or it can sound like an imitation of singing or be wild and abrasive. The exact origins of the instrument may be unclear, but it does bear a very strong resemblance to the African ritti, the one-stringed fiddle played by Gambian griot master Juldeh Camara. In Wu's more sweet-toned passages, there is a bluesy swing, which can recall the joyous playing of jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.
Playing in Sizhukong presents a particular difficulty for Wu. "Usually if the erhu is played solo in front of a large traditional Chinese orchestra, the orchestra members will be asked to play softer, so that you can hear the erhu clearly. In Sizhukong there are many loud instruments, which make it difficult sometimes for me to hear myself, so I have to stay close to the monitor to hear," he says. "In jazz, you have to modulate very often, but it's not difficult for erhu to modulate to other keys. I also play many percussion instruments in Sizhukong, so I understand different concepts of rhythm, which I can also apply to erhu."
If Sizhukong's melodies and sound colors are predominantly Chinese, then the harmonies and rhythms are largely western. Drummer Toshi Fujii, who hails from Japan, does much more than keep rhythm in Sizhukong. "Chinese instruments often play sounds from nature," Fujii explains. "With one cymbal, I can play a wind sound, with another I can make a sound like rain or a very Chinese-sounding cymbal. These are a little bit different from traditional jazz cymbals. I use traditional sounds from bamboo block, which has two different pitches."
Fujii's percussive coloring can be as subtle as a breeze, evoking croaking frogs one moment and becoming an utterly exhilarating sound the next, creating a din which would waken a Chinese dancing dragon from the dead. "I didn't used to pay attention to Japanese traditional music, but after I joined Sizhukong, I paid more attention," Fujii says. "I won't use Japanese rhythms, but sometimes I'll use a Japanese percussion instrument."
For Fujii, the challenges of playing the music written and arranged by Peng are not insignificant. "There are other differences between jazz and Chinese music; in jazz you will hear a two and four backbeat, but in Chinese traditional music they always have the accent on one and three. Sometimes I will get confused to keep that foreign beat," Fujii says, laughing.
Sizhukong's manager, Peter Lee, illustrates a fundamental difference between Chinese and western music. "A lot of Chinese music and dance does not rely on rhythm or meter. The three step is difficult for a lot of western drummers because it has no meter; they only count how long the breath is held and where it ends. They know the timing by how they breatheit's complicated," he says.
If there was ever any confusion in Fujii's time keeping, then it certainly doesn't transmit itself to the audience. Before switching to the drums, Fujii played bass in Sizhukong, a role now undertaken by Belgian Martjin Vanbuel.
"The first time I heard Chinese music was in Shanghai," Vanbuel recalls, "and then moving to Taiwan, the first time I heard Sizhukong was on the radioan interview with Yuwen [Peng]and I was like, 'Wow! This is really cool!' There was clearly something very creative happening in Taiwan. At that time I didn't know that just a few months later I would be joining that band."
Vanbuel plays both electric and double bass in Sizhukong and also is a composer. Yet as difficult as it for the Taiwanese members of the band to adapt to western musical concepts, approaching Chinese traditional music posed its own problems for Vanbuel. "There are quite a few challenges to playing in Sizhukong. Before I joined Sizhukong, I played double bass in traditional jazz and swing jazz, so I needed to adjust, to study more arrangements and play more regularly," he says. "I tried to learn Chinese traditional instruments' techniques and sounds to put on my instrument."
"I think the Chinese use a lot more decorative sounds, which can be very expressive, so I found that I should also use more dynamics," he continues. "There are certain solo moments where I try to imitate ... Chinese instruments like gouzen. Sizhukong is a very fresh and very inspiring experience."
For musical director/pianist Peng, Vanbuel brings an extra dimension to Sizhukong's music. "I'm really happy Martin joined our band," she explains, "because his ideas and his writing mean we have more variety. I think it's always good to have people from different cultures and backgrounds."
"Working together, we, the rhythm section, have to avoid eating up the other instruments," Vanbuel says. "We have to play more quietly or choose a certain sound color that doesn't eat their frequencies up."