East sounds West

Updated: 2013-07-21 08:23

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

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 East sounds West

By interpreting Western songs on Chinese instruments, Matteo hopes their audience will experience something like what a foreigner visiting China might feel. Photos Provided to China Daily

 East sounds West

Matteo spent six weeks last summer studying music at Sichuan University in Chengdu and finished their first EP Sichuan Project during their stay.

A bluegrass band from Salt Lake City in the United States, that plays all their music on traditional Chinese instruments, is producing a unique sound that is quickly gaining fans. Chen Nan reports.

Eric Chipman had heard of guzheng, or Chinese plucked zither, but it was not until he actually laid a hand on the instrument that it had an affect on him.

That first touch has since led to a band called Matteo, with four members all in their 20s, who use guzheng (Chinese zither), erhu (Chinese violin), and ruan (Chinese banjo) to play American folk music.

Growing up with bands like Pearl Jam, Chipman, a guitarist who is equally apt on mandolin, had no connection with China until he volunteered as a Mormon missionary and was dispatched to Taipei in 2005. He frequented a music shop in Taipei, where he bought a guzheng.

Like most Western people, Chipman encountered traditional Chinese music mostly as it was being played in the background at restaurants. But when he saw the instruments in the music shop, he was curious.

"You just put your fingers on it and it immediately sounds really Chinese. It's intriguing," he says.

Two years later, after his mission was finished, he returned to Salt Lake City for university and became a singer-songwriter. Though the cost of shipping was more than the price of the instrument, he brought his guzheng home.

With the Chinese instrument, he could play songs which he would never play before.

The first band member to join Chipman was his wife, Brinn Bagley Chipman, who he met at Utah State University.

Bagley Chipman, who is an accomplished violinist and grew up listening mostly to country and folk, plays erhu in the band.

"When I first heard erhu, I thought it was really bad. But I started wonder how to play with it and what the techniques are," says Bagley Chipman, who bought an erhu when she spent six months in Guilin, capital of South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomou region, teaching English in 2005.

Later, Chipman rounded up two musician friends, including Salt Lake multi-instrumentalist, Luke Williams, whose main musical prowess is on the electric bass, playing funk and jazz, and his old college roommate, Jordan Riley, who also had accrued several Chinese instruments.

"Living in America, our lives are surprisingly connected to China. We interact with Chinese people daily, speak and teach Chinese," says Riley, who is a classical guitarist and teacher in music education with a growing appetite for world music.

Riley's father lived in Taiwan in 1971 as a Mormon missionary. Riley went to Taiwan in 2004 and learned erhu there. At the completion of four years at the university, he and friends spent six-weeks backpacking through Southwest China into Laos. Passing through Kunming along the way, he purchased a zhongruan as a traveling instrument.

Later in the US, he hit upon a pipa, yueqin, and guzheng.

"We are not trying to 'be' Chinese. We are more trying to express what we have experienced collectively in our lives thus far, and a large part of that happens to be China," he says.

Chipman and the rest of the band spent six weeks last summer studying music at Sichuan University in Chengdu, where they polished their instrument playing skills and finished their first EP, Sichuan Project during their stay there - Western songs interpreted on Chinese instruments.

About 90 percent of the album was written and recorded in the international student dormitory over a three-week period. Back in Utah, after the trip, they wrote the remaining lyrics, sang a few vocal parts, and recorded a bit more erhu.

One of the songs, Mountain Pass, is largely about their weeklong road trip in a 14-passenger van into western Sichuan province. Breakfast is the one instrumental track on the album representing the city of Chengdu in the morning.

The band says American music has many different genres, many of which have become popular worldwide. It is music that they are familiar with. But sometimes they hear too much of the same genre of music in the same venues as background or hear too many advertisements using music to sell a product.

"Sometimes we are looking for music to fill a role higher than that," says Riley. "Chinese music has many different facets. It's not just the difference of a rhythm, genre, and instrumentation. It can be the difference of aesthetics, motive, purpose, and history even. There can be so many different ways to pluck one string on a pipa and it can make you rethink even the most fundamental aspects of music."

East sounds West

"The East is truly unique from the West in so many ways, and by using the sounds and appearance of the instruments, we hope our audience is able to feel for a moment something like what a foreigner visiting China might feel on their first, or even fiftieth time there," says Riley.

Now, the band is enjoying playing the kind of music they want, and the response to their EP and first album The Morning Market has been surprisingly positive.

"It pushes us to keep producing a new sound that can reach people who maybe haven't been grabbed by pop music or what is already out there. This group will likely always be a minority, but we are really very happy and comfortable with that," says Riley.

Their music videos can be downloaded at dropbox.com and their EP The Sichuan Project can be downloaded at matteo.bandcamp.com.

Contact the writer at chennan@chinadaily.com.cn.

(China Daily 07/21/2013 page5)