Red Chamber is an all-female quartet of dazzlingly virtuosic Chinese-Canadian musicians.

Back to the future: Chinese-Canadian musical virtuosos turn tradition on its head

Robert Moyes

Special to The Record

Long based in Vancouver, Red Chamber is an all-female quartet of dazzlingly virtuosic Chinese-Canadian musicians who play traditional Chinese instruments like the zheng and the pipa.

But rather than being slaves to 1,000-year-old classical musical traditions, these modernists have created a unique cross-cultural fusion that incorporates improvisation and numerous western influences. There literally is no other ensemble like them anywhere on the planet – which is one of the several reasons why fans of acoustic music should check them out when they perform in Courtenay in early November.

Mei Han, the group’s leader, grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution. She was apprenticed to masters who rigorously instructed her on how to play the zheng, a plucked instrument analogous to a zither.

But after the horrors of Tiananmen Square, Han fled China for Canada in 1996, soon earning a degree in ethnomusicology from UBC. There she met Randy Raine-Reusch, a noted multi-instrumentalist and composer and world music pioneer; it was a meeting destined to change her life.

“Randy asked me to improvise and I was shocked,” explains Han, who had only ever received rote instruction from her Chinese teachers. “He gave me some basic principles and when I started to play, something was lifted from my spirit … I was free!”

Red Chamber was formed in 2006 and has gone on to make acclaimed CDs as well as wowing audiences in prestigious concert halls in Europe, North America, and Asia.

Aside from Han, whimsically christened a “Zheng Master” by the Montreal Gazette, the ensemble’s other members include Guilian Liu, arguably the world’s premier pipa (Chinese lute) player; Zhimin Yu, North America’s only ruan (bass lute) virtuoso; and award-winning multi-instrumentalist Geling Jiang.

“Every single member of our group is well seasoned, with over 40 years of playing,” Han says. “These literally are among the world’s top players on their instruments.”

This remarkable quartet has created a surprisingly approachable repertoire. Their first CD, Redgrass, explored connections between traditional Chinese music and bluegrass (one song, featuring mandolin superstar John Reischman, became a viral video hit on YouTube).

They have also explored such genres as Celtic, gypsy jazz, electro-acoustic, and various Eastern European styles. And it’s worth adding that much Chinese music shouldn’t be all that foreign to Western ears. Structurally and tonally there is a similarity to Baroque and Celtic music, while the zheng has a harp-like tone and the sanxian sounds like a country cousin of the banjo.

Han regularly tours in China, and finds that Chinese audiences are looking for familiarity and aren’t interested in being challenged by something new.

“Chinese culture is very critical – things are black and white, right and wrong,” she says. “In the West, audiences are open-minded … they allow us to be freer and more creative.”

As part of that remarkable merger of ancient Chinese aesthetics and contemporary western innovations, Han and Raine-Reusch have invented new tunings, developed new fingering techniques, and created new forms of expression for these venerable instruments.

“We do play traditional melodies, but then we stretch it,” says Han. “When we perform, 50 per cent is improvised.”

Red Chamber is coming to Courtenay at the invitation of Doug Cox, artistic director of the Vancouver Island MusicFest.

“This group kills at festivals … their music is played on exotic instruments and has an otherworldly quality but it’s also quite accessible,” says Cox. “I’ve seen them twice and people in the audience had their jaws dropping to the floor,” he adds. “They’re spellbinding musicians who will enchant anyone who likes acoustic instrumental music.”

Red Chamber performs Friday, Nov. 3 at the Native Sons Hall. Tickets are available through the Vancouver Island MusicFest website.

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