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The World in Four Strings
An instrumental soloist from Hangzhou tugs at Morocco's heartstrings with her Chinese pipa
By François Dubé | VOL. 9 July 2017

Yu likes to explore and combine musical influences of China and Africa

Concert performer Yu Lingling likes to point out that her hometown, Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, was the starting point of the ancient Silk Road, a corridor of inter-civilizational exchange. As if predestined by the place of her birth, the artist took the art of cultural sharing into her own hands and now travels the world with the goal of promoting China's traditional music.

At the 23rd Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, held in Morocco from May 12-20, Yu again had the opportunity to play her Chinese pipa, a four-stringed lute with more than 2,000 years of history. The African audience quickly fell under her spell. After an acclaimed performance, she was introduced to Princess Lalla Salma, wife of King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

Yu is a musicologist and virtuoso of the pipa. After establishing itself as a court music instrument under the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), the pipa was subsequently widely used, eventually becoming one of the most emblematic Chinese instruments. It is her expert mastery of this reputedly difficult instrument that earned Yu her invitation Morocco and the royal meeting.

"The audience in Fes was very sensitive and spiritual. They are great lovers of musical culture. Although I try to explain each piece before interpreting it, I think I didn't need to do that in their case, because they know that true music cannot be explained, we can only experience it. It is a movement of the heart."

Common points

Established in 1994, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music has been recognized by the UN as an important event contributing to dialogue among civilizations. For Yu, it is also a chance to combine the different musical influences of China and Africa.

"Music and dance are just another form of language that allows us to understand each other without speaking. During the festival, I played and improvised with other artists. When doing so, you need to alternate between following the rhythm and melody of others and setting the rhythm and melody yourself. In this exchange, artists are constantly trying to convey emotions to each other. That's Fes for me!"

Yu Lingling and her instrument

Yu has also decided to pay tribute to the ancient ties that linked the Arabic world to China by interpreting an old pipa solo melody rearranged by Ramzi Aburedwan, Director of the Palestine National Ensemble of Arabic Music.

Some of the melodies that Yu plays on her pipa arrived in China more than 1,000 years ago through the ancient Silk Road.

"In fact, traditional music is full of borrowings, so it's hard to say with certainty what comes from us and what comes from them. Morocco also has pentatonic music, like China," explained the musicologist who studies exchanges between ancient musical traditions.

Contagious passion

Yu has devoted herself body and soul to the pipa from a young age. At 13, she ranked first in the entrance examination of Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She entered the China Conservatory of Music at 18 before becoming a music teacher at Tsinghua University at 22. She finally settled in Switzerland in 1998, where she has since strived to make the pipa better known abroad. Her passion shows no sign of abating.

"The pipa's expressive capacity is very strong. It can express a vast range of feelings, especially due to the tremolo produced by the artist's hands. The artist must embody the music and invest his or her whole body and mind in the performance."

Recognized by experts for her innate expressiveness and her passion for communicating on stage, Yu has given concerts in more than 200 cities around the world. Her recent visit to Morocco has also been acclaimed by the public and critics alike.

"After my concerts, people came to ask me how many strings the pipa has. When I tell them it has only four strings, they are astonished and tell me that this instrument alone can express the range of an entire orchestra!"

Her performance in the white interior courtyard of a traditional Moroccan house was described as marvelous, exceptional and impressive by spectators, as reported by the Moroccan daily Aujourd'hui le Maroc.

Back to the source

The visit to Morocco was not her first time on the continent. Yu had already performed there at the Mawazine Festival in Rabat in 2004, and previously in Tunisia and Senegal. Each time, she was impressed by the authenticity and deep-rootedness of African music.

"In Africa, musicians have perfectly preserved their musical traditions. We can immediately hear that it is their own style, their inimitable way of playing and talking to us through their music."

Preserving the sources of traditional Chinese music is a priority for the artist, who is somewhat concerned about the present situation. "There is a tendency in China to imitate foreign practices at all costs, which makes no sense. We cannot import foreign orchestral forms that go against the nature of traditional Chinese instruments," she explained.

Through her work in Europe and China, Yu tries to help preserve these ancient art forms. Her message is simple: People have to know where they come from, to know where they are going.

She believes people have to reach a certain level before they can claim the right to innovate and create. Above all, a performer has to understand the internal logic and the roots of traditional music otherwise they can easily go astray, she said.

Hence the artist's insistence on learning from great music masters, especially in south China where she studied Kunqu Opera, one of the oldest and most influential forms of Chinese opera. "The traditional music of north China is powerful and masculine, while that of the south is more elegant and feminine. We must seek inspiration from these different sources."

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