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Chops: Min Xiao-Fen on the Pipa

Applying Western styles to Chinese instruments

Mi Xiao-Fen
Min Xiao-Fen (photo: Jiang Yu)

The pipa—a four-stringed, lute-like instrument—has a history in Chinese traditional music stretching back nearly 2,000 years, at least to the Han Dynasty. The instrument’s legacy in jazz, however, is considerably shorter. Since her arrival in the United States almost 30 years ago, Min Xiao-Fen has been a pioneer in integrating her ancient instrument with modern jazz and improvised music.

Bridging Eastern and Western sound worlds does come with challenges, but at this stage in her career Min largely shrugs them off. “If you asked me 10 years ago I might feel it was a struggle,” she said over the phone from her new home in Asheville, North Carolina. “But now I’ve had so many experiences, I’ve grown on the stage and I’ve learned from other musicians. Playing standards is not easy because you have to stick with the chords, but with improvisation, I feel really comfortable now.”

“Playing standards is not easy because you have to stick with the chords, but with improvisation I feel really comfortable now.”

That was not the case during her first experience with improvisation, during a concert of music by Wadada Leo Smith. Classically trained from childhood in her native Nanjing, China, Min had spent more than a decade as the principal pipa soloist of the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra and become a recognized master of the repertoire. In 1995 she performed a solo piece in Chicago on the same bill with the trumpet great, who immediately resolved to compose for her.

Midway through the resulting concert, with Min already struggling to interpret Wadada’s graphic score, the composer spontaneously called on her to perform an improvised duo. After recovering from the initial shock, she went on to enjoy collaborations with such iconoclastic improvisers as John Zorn and Derek Bailey. More recently she’s devised means to approach more straight-ahead jazz, with her autobiographical solo project Mao, Monk and Me and her exploration of the conjunction between her two cultures, “From Harlem to Shanghai and Back.”

The main trick, Min explains, is to pay close attention to the key in which pieces are written. “On the pipa, the open strings are A-D-E-A,” she explained. “If you use keys like B-flat or E-flat it’s very hard to use open strings, so you have to play single notes. That’s not beautiful. The pipa is such a dynamic instrument, and you have to do a lot of flamenco-style strumming. That way it’s much stronger and more dramatic. Otherwise it’s too thin.”

Min with Rez Abbasi (photo: Stephan Pruitt Photography)

Drama is key to Min’s latest project, a newly composed score for the 1934 Chinese silent film The Goddess. The music she crafted for the film, written for the duo of Min and guitarist Rez Abbasi, is documented on her latest album, White Lotus (Outside In). For these performances she supplements the pipa with a variety of other traditional Chinese instruments, including the seven-string guqin, the guitar-like ruan, and the banjo-like sanxian. She also represents the movie’s characters with vocals that range from soaring melodies to guttural growls.

As with the most personal elements of Mao, Monk and Me, Min’s interest in The Goddess is intimately connected with her earliest memories of living through Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. “This movie was dismissed as decadent by Chinese scholars during the Cultural Revolution,” she said. “The movie itself is very beautiful and is considered a high point in Chinese culture. But it’s still kind of hidden. I wanted a lot of people to get a chance to see this great film.”

The Goddess tells the story of a young single mother in Shanghai forced into a life of prostitution in order to pay for the education of her infant son. She becomes entangled with a gangster known as The Boss, who begins siphoning her earnings in order to pay for his gambling habit. “The movie wanted people to see the struggle and inequality that women faced,” Min said. “It was really an attempt to fight against the social pressure and attempt to seek justice in the system for women during that time, but the Chinese culture felt embarrassed by these things.”

“It’s an adventure every time … we’re always on our toes.” —Rez Abbasi

Min’s music, which was premiered at New York City’s Roulette in 2018, embodies the beauty, the tension, and the violence of the film. On pieces like “Bija (Seed),” her pipa and Abbasi’s acoustic guitar create a rapturously lyrical pairing; on others, her Buddhist chanting accompanied by his drones conjure a meditative transcendence, as on “Dukkha (Suffering)”; while a song like “Hatha (Sun and Moon)” delves into a cross-cultural blues feel.

“It’s an adventure every time because it’s only two of us supplementing the film, so we’re always on our toes,” Abbasi said in an email. “[Min’s] writing is powerful yet simple enough that it allows a lot of room for personal development … I felt the guitar served as a foil to her playing and magnified the Chinese qualities rather than overtaking them. Two plucked stringed instruments can sometimes convey the sound of a mini-orchestra and at times we were going for that larger and more percussive sound.”

The time period of the film also connects with “From Harlem to Shanghai and Back,” which was inspired by trumpeter Buck Clayton’s experiences leading his band the Harlem Gentlemen in Shanghai. “There was a great jazz history between America and China in the 1930s,” Min said. “Buck Clayton brought Kansas City swing to Shanghai and worked with Ji Linhui, who was called the father of Chinese popular music. During that time the music in China was so rich because you can hear the jazz influence, and as I started learning about that history I discovered this movie.”

Min’s taste for musical hybrids remains active. Since her arrival in Asheville—she and her husband fell in love with the culturally rich city during a brief vacation and decided to relocate permanently—she’s become fascinated with the possibilities of melding the pipa with the new sounds she’s begun hearing around her.

“Asheville is kind of a home for bluegrass and the blues,” she mused. “I’m hoping to find some local musicians and work together to play some blues and bluegrass. I want to have fun and see what happens.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.