Pipa Virtuoso Wu Man Brings Ancient Chinese Music To The Present

May 5, 2018
Originally published on May 5, 2018 8:45 am

Wu Man is recognized as the world's greatest virtuoso on an instrument that is over 2000 years old: the Chinese pipa. Throughout her career, she's brought the pear-shaped, 24-fret instrument into the 21st century by collaborating with world class orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and groups like the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.

"Jump out the box — I always wanted to do [that] as a musician," Wu Man tells NPR's Scott Simon before playing the main riff to Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." "I personally really enjoy [trying] something different ... to use my instrument to communicate with the audience." She hopes her music will teach the world more about Chinese music and culture.

Wu Man stopped by the NPR studios in Washington D.C. to discuss the history of the pipa, the increase of women playing it and how she experiments with different genres with NPR's Scott Simon. She also played a traditional pipa piece, "White Snow in Spring," live.

Hear the performance below and listen to the full interview at the audio link.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



Wu Man is recognized as the world's greatest virtuoso on an instrument that's over 2,000 years old, the Chinese pipa. But she's brought it into the 21st century by collaborating with world-class orchestras, the Kronos String Quartet and crossing cultural borders with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.


SIMON: Wu Man will be in Washington, D.C., later this month as an artist in residence with the Silk Road Ensemble, and she's in our studios now. Thanks so much for being with us.

WU MAN: Thank you, pleasure.

SIMON: I have to begin with the extraordinary instrument. I don't even know where to begin. It looks a little bit like an - maybe in the West, we'd call it a lute.

WU: Yeah. It is related with the lute - kind of pear shaped with the four strings, bamboo frets.

SIMON: How many frets?

WU: Twenty-four.

SIMON: I began to count, but I lost count.

WU: Yeah (laughter) - and with a huge tuning pick, four strings, and tuning is A-D-E-A (playing pipa).

SIMON: Wow. And it's a new instrument, I gather.

WU: This particular one, yes. It's a new - it's five years old.

SIMON: May I ask, how common is it for women in China to learn to play a musical instrument?

WU: Well, that actually very interesting. All my teacher, they are men, that generation. And if we go back to the history of, see, the pipa master, they mostly are men, not female. But somehow, you know, you see the painting, you see the statue - always women, goddess carrying the instrument. So there is sort of like a fantasy in the area. So I think popular for women play starts 1990, so now it's very popular for a female to play this instrument.

SIMON: May I ask you to play something briefly?

WU: (Playing pipa) So you hear a lot of silence between the notes. That's very, very typical Chinese music.

SIMON: Is it demanding to play?

WU: It is very, very demanding. As you see, my right hand tremolo - what we call tremolo or in Chinese, we call (speaking Chinese). It's like a rail you're running. That's technique very, very difficult, you know. (Playing pipa) That's the - a lot of guitarists, I think, they're always so it's a hard one. How do you play evenly? All the technique based on this tremolo and then started to expand many different kind.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you have to take special care of your hands, may I ask?

WU: I wish I could (laughter). I still do laundry (laughter) you know, still do - clean the house so (laughter).

SIMON: You do laundry with those artistic instruments.

WU: When I was little, yes, you know. But we do have - on the right hand, we have special pick, like plastic fingernails, and you tape it - tape to arm five fingers. Thats kind of a modern way to play the instrument. But older days, we use natural fingernails. It's the same as other instrument.

SIMON: We want to play an excerpt from a documentary a few years ago about the Silk Road Ensemble, and you cut loose with a version of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man."


WU: (Playing pipa).

My interest is - it's kind of a jump out of the box, not only limiting myself as a Chinese musician or pipa player.

(Playing pipa).


WU: (Laughter) Yooo (ph).

I think that little clip - a lot of especially young kids like my sons age, their say, wow, so cool (laughter). Jump out of the box, I - this is like my - I always wanted to do as a musician. I think there's so many kind of music out there. There is not only one kind. If I tried to play (playing pipa to the tune of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man") you know (laughter) that definitely there is a sense of rock 'n' roll and music captures the change. So I think that's not only the instrument as basically a person, the musician.

SIMON: And I understand, this ancient instrument can actually do a good version of BJ Leiderman's WEEKEND EDITION theme. BJ is the man who writes our theme music.

WU: (Laughter) You want me to try that?

SIMON: I would like - I would love that.

WU: Are you ready?


WU: (Playing pipa to the tune of WEEKEND EDITION theme).


SIMON: With all due regard to what we play week after week, that's the most beautiful version that I've ever heard. Thanks so much for doing that. So what do you hope people might understand in their musical souls better about China when they hear your play?

WU: Well, people given me sort of a hat, you know, say I'm ambassador of Chinese music or like, wow, kind of a heavy thing. But basically, I really wanted audience to - or people to know more about Chinese music or Chinese culture. You know, this is pipa. It's - nobody - most street people, they don't know. But it's such a cool instrument, don't you agree?

SIMON: It is a very cool instrument.

WU: So I thought, you should know. This is very cool. So that's my goal, to open a new door for pipa.

SIMON: We wanted you to play us out with a piece of music. But first, let me tell you, it's just been wonderful having you with us, Wu Man. Thanks so much.

WU: Thank you.

SIMON: And what will we hear now?

WU: I will play a traditional pipa piece. It's called "White Snow In Spring" - (playing pipa).

SIMON: That's Wu Man playing the pipa in our studio. And you can hear the full performance on our website, npr.org, so beautifully recorded by Stu Rushfield and Brian Jarboe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.