Chinese Pipa music meets hardcore punk rock music might best describe Chinese Pipa musician Ma Jie’s improvisational jams with the Chinese-American band Say Bok Gwai.
And since coming to America, she has collaborated and experimented with musicians from genres such as jazz, country, blues and rock. With modern instruments accompanying her Pipa, she creates a hybrid sound that merges her Eastern influences with Western sensibilities.
Jie listened to many different styles of music, including American rock bands like Gun’s N Roses, Van Halen and Metallica.
Fittingly, Jie grew up in Lan Zhou, a small town in China near The Silk Road, a great East to West trade route and vehicle for cross-culture exchange started in the second century B.C.
Historically, the Pipa is a four-stringed Lute, one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments which appeared in Chinese written texts of the second century B.C. The word Pipa consists of two Chinese characters pi and pa, referring to the two right-handed techniques for plucking the strings forward (pi) and backwards (pa).
As one of two daughters, she received her name Jie when, her father Bin took the Chinese characters Min Jie, roughly translated to mean “Fast… Sharp… Victory,” and gave Min to his oldest and Jie to the youngest.
Although both daughters practiced music, Jie began studying music at age five and was a professional musician by age 14. Her mother Degin Ge saw that Jie was more accomplished as a performer and sent her sister Min to study business, while Jie began studying with the great Pipa masters of China Fendi Wang, Dehai Liu, and Yuzhong Kuang and Ruan professor Jiliang Liu.
After receiving a Bachelor of Music from the Tianjin Conservatory of Music, one of the best music schools in China, Jie was accepted to be an adjunct professor in the music department of Liao Ning Normal University. As a music professor, she traveled to colleges giving presentations on Chinese traditional music and was invited to perform in Japan in 2002 as part of a cultural exchange program.
During this time, Jie listened to many different styles of music, including American rock bands like Gun’s N Roses, Van Halen and Metallica. That exposure to the West would soon lead her to the United States.
Arriving in America, Jie has performed at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco in 2004, performed with the Citywinds Woodwind Quintet in San Francisco in 2005 as a member of the Chinese music ensemble Melody of China, and hosted a radio program on Chinese music for Sing Tao radio.
In addition to producing her first CD, she has founded her own company, CM Music, along with co-founder Hung Chang. So far CM Music has provided entertainment for law school galas, corporate parties, and private events. She has also developed a large following on MySpace.
Recently, Asiance sat down at Javaholics in San Francisco to chat with MySpace’s most popular Chinese Pipa player.
ASIANCE: Tell us how you got started playing the pipa?
Jia Ma: Actually, my mom, Degin Ge, was my first teacher. And she’s a very good educator. I learned from her for seven or eight years, and I went to Bejing to learn from her professor, Fendi Wang. He’s a master of this instrument in China and he’s very famous. I learned from him and lived in his house, and then I went to college at Tianjin Conservatory of Music.
ASIANCE: What was it like apprenticing with Fendi Wang in his home?
Jia Ma: I practiced everyday under his eyes and nose. (laughs) He gave me very special instructions. His style is very traditional. Very old school. He focused on the traditional things more than others.
ASIANCE: Tell us about your teaching at Liao Ning Normal University.
Jia Ma: I taught the instrument pipa and another one called Ruan, and Chinese musical history and music appreciation.
ASIANCE: How long did you teach there?
Jia Ma: Two years.
ASIANCE: Do you still teach?
Jia Ma: Yeah, I do, but now most of my students are private clients. I used to teach at Oakland’s Westlake Middle School, but no more.
ASIANCE: What happened?
Jia Ma: Sometimes they change teachers. It’s not that stable. It’s just an after school program. Maybe they changed the program or added other instruments.
ASIANCE: Did you enjoy teaching? Was it fun for you?
Jia Ma: Yes, especially for the smart students.
ASIANCE: How did the students respond? Did you find they enjoyed the music?
Jia Ma: Actually, to be honest, some of the students, especially, the Asian students, they come to the class because their parents ask them to – and they have to come to the class. Some of them little by little have to come to enjoy it. Some of them just have to do it.
ASIANCE: But did you enjoy it when you were growing up?
Jia Ma: Actually at first, I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t have a very good memory of my childhood. Besides homework and school, it was practicing. I never played with other kids my age. Even if I could get a chance to go out, no one knows me. That’s bad. (Laughs)
ASIANCE: How many hours did you practice when you were a child?
Jia Ma: Oh… at least three. Everyday, including Chinese New Year. I had to practice then I can eat or read. I had to finish all of my homework at school and then I can come back home. After dinner I had to practice the whole evening until I go to bed. That was cruel. (laughs) Sometimes I tease my mom, I say, “That was like child abuse.”
ASIANCE: What are your practice sessions like now?
Jia Ma: Scales. It’s my tradition. It’s like my mom’s still asking me, the first hour, you have to play basic things like scales and some small pieces but not songs. And then I practice some Chinese music and try to play some other Western music.
ASIANCE: Tell us about your CD?
Jia Ma: The first few songs are traditional and next I played with modern classic. And this is some improvisation with an electric guitar players…. It’s not really rock… I only have one time, I’ve played… Do you know Say Bok Gwai? Oh…they’re like very crazy… their style is hardcore… I couldn’t even hear myself… and I don’t even know what they are screaming
about because I don’t understand Cantonese… But I played with them and I used an pipa. So its basically like electric pipa.
ASIANCE: What was it like playing with Say Bok Gwai?
Jie Ma: That was very interesting because at first they thought I could only play very soft pipa and ballads. So I told them I could pay very fast and crazy like you guys do… and they said so, “Oh, really?” And I put a pickup on my instrument and started playing fast and they were like “Oh, my god.” (laughs and makes shocked look on her face). They invited me to have a performance with them… and I think its just a very fast rhythm and just different with Chinese.
ASIANCE: So where do you see yourself going with your music? Are you going to do more improvisational and experimental or go back to classical?
Jie Ma: Both. Performing Arts Center where I play very serious concerts is very limited. It’s not like you can get a lot of opportunities to play up there. To me I’m very open-minded to play with all kinds of musicians and I can get more work and opportunities to play different things. I like them both so I want to do them both.
ASIANCE: Tell us what your radio show was like?
Jie Ma: Actually, the interview was a one-time thing as a musician, but I asked them if I can contribute something because I used to teach Chinese musical history and appreciation. And they said, “All right cool. We can give a program to host and you can introduce everyone.” So I did that as a volunteer… my purpose was so that more people could know about Chinese music.
ASIANCE: What do you suggest students do if they want to become better musicians or professional musicians?
Jie Ma: By my experience, I think that students, no matter what kind of instrument or music you are learning, need to listen more and more to a variety of music, not only very limited or very narrow areas. You should listen to all of them and get different things from the different styles and then you will enrich your music. For me I have listened to all kinds of music since I was a child… To the students I say listen more and be productive, don’t spend a long time on the practice just catch the points.
ASIANCE: Was that what you emphasized as a teacher?
Jie Ma: Yes. Because some of my students are adults and have to work everyday, I told them you don’t have to practice everyday like one hour or more. Something like 20 minutes you just catch the point and solve one problem everyday. That’s all. You don’t have to play again and again when you don’t even know what you’re doing. If you don’t have time, you can spend just a few minutes thinking about what you have to practice that helps, too. Mental practice.
Ed Moy is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. His writing has appeared in Asian Week, Asian American Film dot-com, Asiance Magazine and Woman International Magazine. He can be found on MySpace at http://www.myspace.com/edmoyfreelancewriter