Old folk magic

Updated: 2011-10-16 08:00

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

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Old folk magic

Twelve Girls Band combines traditional Chinese instruments with a mixed repertoire of Chinese and Western music. [Phtots by Zou Hong / for China Daily]

Old folk magic

Old folk magic

Young singers, old songs. Traditional music given a modern makeover. These are the lifelines that are keeping old folk songs evergreen in China. Chen Nan looks at the talents at work and sees how young blood infuses old songs with new life.

For two hours, she stood on the stage at the National Center of Performing Arts in Beijing (NCPA) last night, belting out a repertoire of songs as old as the hills. But the singer is a radiant 29-year-old, and at the peak of her career. Soprano Lei Jia has just finished a solo recital, which she titled Tunes of Revival.

These folk songs, known as min ge, are all part of common culture, popular at the grassroots, coming from all over the country, incorporating the cultures of regional and ethnic groups. They have been sung for generations, passed on simply through word of mouth.

But in these days of multiple musical choices, they are under threat, in danger of being discarded by new generations addicted to Western beats and modern pop. Young people complain the songs are slow and boring.

This is where singers like Lei Jia step in and give the old songs new interpretation, and a fresh face of glamour. And it seems to be working.

"Today, one of my fans messaged me, and she said it's great to see young singers still sing Chinese folk songs, and encouraged me to keep going," Lei says. It was one of several encouraging messages she received after news came that she would sing at the NCPA.

For Lei, folk music is the most beautiful sound in the world.

When she first studied Chinese folk music at the age of 16 at the China Conservatory of Music, she had no idea what the future held for a folk singer.

Born and raised in Hunan province, Lei has been influenced early by folk songs, thanks to the rich ethnic cultures of her hometown, Yiyang, in the north of Hunan.

"My grandparents lived in the mountains, where singing and dancing were part of daily life," she says. "Folks used singing to express their emotions, happy or sad."

When Lei joined the Song and Dance Troupe of the general political department of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) as a soprano soloist, she found to her surprise that folk songs were not as popular as she thought.

With the support and help from teachers and friends, Lei started to cultivate a fan base, even starting a micro blog to get closer to fans. She also re-arranged and added new musical elements to folk songs to freshen their appeal.

In 2008, she put in a lot of effort to update music sources from China's ethnic groups and participated in The Songs of the 56 Chinese Nationalities Music Torch Relay, as a gift for the Olympics Games.

The good news is that young musicians like Lei have sparked a surge in popularity for folk songs.

This weekend alone, there were three concerts showing off the old folk charm.

Folk music group, Twelve Girls Band, is the first all-female ensemble combining traditional Chinese instruments with a mixed repertoire of Chinese and Western music. Tonight, they celebrate their 10th anniversary with a concert at Beijing Exhibition Center Theater.

Selected from more than 4,000 candidates, each member of the band excels at a traditional instrument such as erhu, pipa, guzheng, yangqin and the Chinese flute.

The group first made their name abroad with a debut album, Eastern Energy, in North America. They returned to China in 2004, and their interpretations of Coldplay's Clocks and Enya's Only Time had won massive support from audiences at home and abroad.

That the 12 girls show up on stage in showy costumes, high heels and choreographed moves also helped their popularity, winning fans from a new generation born after the 1990s in China.

But for tonight, they return to their roots, with a repertoire of purely folk music.

For folk singer Mai Sui, who is having a solo recital tonight at Beijing Workers Gymnasium, the revival of Chinese folk songs means having a richer source of musical inspiration.

In her latest album, Double Faces, the 30-year-old award-winning folk singer broke convention by collaborating with R&B singer Hu Yanbin and pop singer-songwriter Li Jian.

The familiar folk tunes in her album are interpreted by acoustic guitar rather than traditional strings or symphony.

"All I have done is to break the traditional perception of a Chinese folk singer," she says.

"I tried to add more modern elements into my music. Chinese folk singers used to stand on stage in one gown all night and sing 30 songs. But times are different now, and I want to make some changes."

You can contact the writer at chennan@chinadaily.com.cn.