One of China’s few first-class traditional artists, embracing a two-decade international career, renowned Shanghai Erhu musician and composer Ma Xiaohui is “an artist who speaks with the world through Erhu.” Raised in an academic family, she graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Ma Xiaohui is artistic advisor to the Shanghai Grand Theater, a member of the United Nations Oriental Art Center, and served as “Love Ambassador” for the World Special Olympics held in Shanghai (October 2007) – “ where she tutored young Olympian Qiao Meili on Erhu for the Flame Lighting opening ceremony. Past concertmaster to the Shanghai Traditional Orchestra, and an adjunct professor at Southwest Jiaotong University, she also serves as adviser to the Hong Kong Youth Music Association.
Additionally, Ma Xiaohui serves as Education Advisor to the Shanghai Grand Theatre Education Center. Awarded the First Prize for the National Guangdong Music Competition, the Baosteel Classic Arts Award, and First Prize for the first Shanghai Spring International Music Festival, she has also appeared as the first Chinese traditional performer in numerous major world festivals. Ma Xiaohui is perhaps most readily recognized for her duet with famed cellist Yo- Yo Ma on the Oscar-winning soundtrack for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Indeed millions of us have heard the sounds of her music and have been moved by the emotional power of her playing, giving little thought as to who the artist is. Yes, millions of us have heard Xiaohui Ma playing on the Oscar winning soundtrack of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and felt our emotions rising and falling as Ms Ma’s Erhu weeps and laughs with the Cello of Yo-Yo Ma.
Ma had her New York debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall this past June and performed to a rapturous audience. She returned to NYC this past November to give a lecture and to perform a recital at the United Nations. Ms Ma’s lecture was on the healing power of music as well as on the history of the Erhu and its role in the cultural development of China.
It is of note that Tan Dun, the famed Chinese composer, sent a letter of support that he asked to be read during her Carnegie Weill Hall performance in lieu of his attendance. In the letter, Mr. Dun stated: “Ms. Ma, you are truly one of the most talented young musicians of our time and you have made it your challenge to transform the Erhu from being an instrument only associated with traditionally Chinese music to one recognized on the great stages of the world as a bona fide classical instrument.” He added: “Your talent and virtuosity was evident to me . . . and your ability to caress the most exquisite sounds from the Erhu is demonstration of a rare talent.” Proud of its national treasure, the Chinese government in 2000 presented Ma Xiaohui as Cultural Ambassador in Shanghai’s successful bid for the 2010 World Exposition.
Recently, Ma Xiaohui was selected to become the new Dior “famous artist image” in China. This is the first time in the history of Dior that a Chinese artist virtuoso was chosen to be their cosmetics face for China. Dior posters portray a beautiful image of Ma Xiaohui with her darling Erhu, reflecting something of her charm and unique musical ability. We spoke to Ma after her performance at Carnegie Hall.
ASIANCE: Please tell us a little bit about the Erhu and how you got involved with it?
Ma: The Erhu is a two string instrument. It’s a kind of Chinese violin and we can play 3 octaves. Actually we have a whole family with many different sizes. The major one is one string AD, another is AD and A, the lower one is G and D, the higher one is 5 keys higher. It’s made with old redwood. At the bottom is a small resonator body (sound box) which is covered with snakeskin. All the string instruments came from the Middle East. So they are very old. Erhu came from Persia and Egypt through the Silk Road which is influenced by many cultures over several years. They came to China in the hopes of becoming famous. They came to Hunan Province, the middle of China. The Erhu sound is close to a human voice. The voice of a woman. It’s so deep and sensitive. It’s more important what you understand of yourself and how through this instrument you share to the world and get a connection with people. You still have to find the right instrument to express yourself.
The Erhu instrument is a strong character and capable of many things. It was influenced by so many cultures. In China, this is the classical traditional instrument which is for concert music. It’s also in many movies, CDs, etc.. Anytime anyone wants to express emotion, sensitivity and romance they always use the Erhu.
The Erhu for me is like an actor. Just to describe the nature. When I was 6 years old I started to play the Erhu by accident. My parents are both professors but they are crazy music lovers. So we have 3 instruments at home. One is the violin, one is the accordion and the other is the Erhu. I played and people said I have talent. After a ½ year I was already on the stage.
I studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. My professor said that if I wanted to be a professional, shinning musician, I had to go to the States.
Here’s a video of Mz Ma and her beloved instrument
I like to live my life simple, innocent and pure but also a deep understanding for life. Warm sensitive, spiritual instrument of Chinese culture.
ASIANCE: So you were born and raised in China?
Ma: They don’t believe that because I travel so much. I grew up with my darling instrument. Nobody believed I played the Erhu instrument because I’m feminine. They think I play piano or cello. Or that I’m an opera singer. People give me down eyes when they find out I play the Erhu. It’s supposed to be a beggar instrument.
I want to have a revolution for the Erhu. IT’s a beautiful joy of life. It has a strong impact for me.
ASIANCE: Do you want to teach?
Ma: I love teaching but I’m too busy with my performance schedule. Several times a year I go to famous universities and coach Erhu students. They’re very talented. I teach how to put your heart and soul through the music. Relax, be yourself. Don’t think too much of yourself. Think about the music. We need technique to support us.
ASIANCE: How did you get involved with Yo-Yo Ma?
Ma: Tan Dun, a famous composer, who’ Chinese came to New York 20 years ago. He was to become a star. Director Ang Lee asked him to compose the soundtrack for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. So he came to China. He came to me and asked to collaborate. Yo-Yo Ma was a role model for me. The way he plays and the open mind how he touches a different world. Finally I had an opportunity to play such a romantic and beautiful song. It’s amazing and beautiful. I realized the Erhu with the Cello is so elegant. Erhu is like a woman and Cello is like a man.
ASIANCE: Is there anyone in particular that you would like to work with?
Ma: MacalÃ©, played trumpet. He plays classical music so well. He is fantastic for jazz. He is so unique. I would like to work with him. I would like to work with Tan Dun again.
See Ma Xiaohui’s personal blog www.maxiaohui2u.blogspot.com