FolkWorld Issue 38 03/2009; Article by Walkin' T:-)M

From Pen Pals to Best Friends
The Xi'An Sí Sessions – Irish Music Meets Chinese Music

The Xi'An Si are a traditional Chinese music group, playing some of the world's most ancient instruments. However, they do not simply continue a thousand year old tradition.

The Xi'An Si

The Xi'An Sí "The Xi'An Sessions"

1. Roisin Dubh 2. Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile 3. An Comhra Donn 4. Marbhna Luimni 5. Raglan Road / Fainne Gael an Lae 6. Brian Boru's March 7. The Maids of Castlebar 8. The Coolin 9. The Blackthorn Stick 10. The Derry Air 11. O'Carolan's Concerto 12. She Moved through the Fair

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Noticing the similarities between the traditional music of Ireland and China, the quartet released their debut album, 'The Xi'An Sessions,' consisting of Irish tunes infused with the music of China.

The four young ladies from different areas in the Henan province comprising the Xi'an Si Ensemble met at Shaanxi's prestigious Xi'An Conservatory of Music in 2000. Studying China's most prominent classical instruments, the group soon found themselves performing together around the ancient city of Xi'An.

After graduation in 2004, the group disbanded and each member followed its own path of professional musicianship. Around this time Li Kai, the guzheng player of the ensemble, became introduced to the music of Ireland. She confesses that her previous knowledge of Irish traditional music had been confined to the occasional adaptation from certain Hollywood blockbusters.

However, she had a chance encounter with an Irishman, David Keohane, in a music shop in Zhengzhou city. Li Kai agreed to teach David the music of the guzheng in exchange for him introducing her to the traditional music of Ireland. Instantly struck by the common beauty shared by both musical styles, I soon discovered that the colourful tones of Irish traditional music could find a welcoming home within the distinctly Chinese timbres of my beloved guzheng.

Irish music had an enduring soul that was worth exploring further, Li Kai says. In 2006 she moved to Ireland where she arranged and recorded a few solo Irish pieces on the guzheng. These were broadcast, with some of her traditional Chinese recordings, on various radio stations around Ireland. Eventually, she decided to record a full album of Irish music played entirely on Chinese instruments. She returned to China reuniting her ensemble of friends.

Li Kai's then husband David arranged twelve traditional Irish pieces consisting of airs, hornpipes and jigs. The music of The Xi'An Si is performed on the following traditional Chinese instruments: guzheng, erhu, pipa, and dizi.

Li Kai (pronounced: lee kai) is the only member of the group who resides in Ireland. She plays the guzheng (goo jung, Li Kai, guzheng 古箏) a twenty-one stringed plucked instrument that belongs to the zither family. It is believed to have been in existence since about 500 B.C., which is why it has earned its 'gu' (i.e. ancient) prefix. The modern-day guzheng has movable bridges and is tuned to a pentatonic scale, thus has four complete octaves. The musician usually attaches plectra to each finger, advanced players sometimes on both hands. The right hand is used to pluck the strings, while the left hand is used to produce ornamentations and vibrato. These techniques can create sounds that might evoke a waterfall, thunder, or horses' hooves. Many new pieces have been composed for the guzheng since the 1950s which used techniques such as harmony, bass notes and counterpoint. So why not Irish music?

Bei Bei (bay bay) is a performer with the Henan theatre and Dance group in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province. The pipa (pee pah, Bei Bei, Pipa 琵琶) is a four-stringed plucked lute-like instrument with a pear-shaped wooden body which can be traced back to the Qin dynasty (221 - 206 B.C.). The traditional 16-fret pipa has becoming less common these days; the modern instrument has a short, bent neck with 30 high frets, based on the 12 tone equal temperament scale, with all the intervals being semitones. The high frets allow the left hand to add a large amount of ornamentation. The fingers on the right hand, like the guzheng, are usually attached with plectra. Unlike the guitar, the plucking fingers move outwards. The instrument's name is made up of two Chinese syllables indicating the two most common ways of playing. Pi is to push the fingers of the right hand from right to left, thus striking multiple notes, and pa is to pull the thumb of the right hand from left to right.

Xu Zhen (shoo jen) is a music teacher living in Zhengzhou. The erhu (arr hoo, Xu Zhen, Erhu 二胡) is a two-stringed bowed instrument which was introduced to China in the 10th century from Central Asia. The first Chinese character of the name (er, i.e. two) is believed either to come from the fact that the instrument has two strings, or that it is the second highest huqin in pitch in the modern Chinese orchestra. The second character (hu) indicates that it is a member of the huqin family. The name "huqin" literally means "barbarian instrument." The erhu consists of a long vertical stick-like neck, which is attached above a small hexagonal resonating body. The maximum range is three and a half octaves. The two strings are usually a fifth apart in pitch (D4 and A4). Unlike the violin, the bow hair is locked in between the two strings, allowing both sides of it to produce sound. The player pushes the bow away from the body when bowing the outside string, and pulls it inwards when bowing the inside string. There is no fingerboard; the player stops the strings by pressing the fingertips onto the strings without the strings touching the neck.

The small resonator body of the erhu is traditionally covered with snakeskin (python) on the front side. In 1988, China passed its Law on the Protection of Endangered Species, making it illegal to use and trade unlicensed pythons. Regulations require erhus to have a certificate from the State Forestry Administration, which certify that the skin is Xu Ming, Dizi not made from wild but from farm-raised pythons. Individuals are allowed to take up to two erhus out of China when travelling; commercial buyers need additional export certificates.

Xu Ming (shoo ming) is also performing with the Henan theatre and Dance group in Zhengzhou. The dizi (dee tsi, 笛子) is a transverse wooden flute, that is traditionally made from bamboo. It became popular until the 5th century B.C., though archaeologic findings suggest that simple transverse flutes have been present in China for over 8,000 years. Between the embouchure and the finger holes the dizi has an additional hole covered with a special membrane from a thin shaving of reed (dimo), making the sound brighter and louder and adding harmonics to give the tone a buzzing, nasal quality. Most professional players have a set of seven dizi, each in a different key. The dizi is often played using circular breathing, slides, popped notes, harmonics, trills, multiphonics, fluttertonguing, and double-tonguing.

The group christened themselves 'The Xi'An Si' (pronounced: shee ann shee). Our name is derived from two languages, explains Li Kai. Xi'An is the Chinese city where we met and Sí is from that most fascinating of Irish traditions, the fairy. Li Kai feels that their music is a delicate amalgamation of two distant cultures. The traditional music of Ireland finds a welcoming host within the ancient musical timbres of China. The Xi'An Sessions is where Irish and Chinese music went from pen pals to best friends.

Chinese Music (FW#36)

Photo Credits: (1) The Xi'An Sí; (2) Li Kai; (3) Bei Bei; (4) Xu Zhen; (5) Xu Ming (from Xi'An Sí website).

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