Musicians experiment to blend the traditional with the modern

Musicians from France, Ukraine and China trump cultural barriers at World Music Festival at Xintiandi.
Musicians experiment to blend the traditional with the modern
Ti Gong

Renaud Garcia-Fons Trio from France

Music unites us all. 

At least it did in Shanghai when France’s Renaud Garcia-Fons, Ukraine’s DakhaBrakha and China’s Gao Bowen came together on stage for the World Music Festival at Xintiandi for a performance that transcended cultural differences.

Despite being from different parts of the world, they shared a common idea of music — to bring traditional tunes into contemporary context.

French double bass artist Garcia-Fons wants his music to be universal, performed by a universal instrument. So he added a fifth string to double bass, and was referred to as the “Paganini of the double bass.”

“It’s still double bass, but added with a broad range of new possibilities,” he explains.

He developed different techniques, making the sound more Oriental and even like a human voice sometimes. Along with guitarist Kiko Ruiz and percussionist Negrito Trasante, Garcia-Fons and his band are the leading example of new direction in traditional music.

“I listened to all kinds of music when I grew up,” says Garcia-Fons. “I want to break the barriers of the instrument and broaden the range of my music to bring more changes. That’s why I added a fifth string to double bass.”

This is his first visit to Shanghai, but he is familiar with Eastern styles.

“I read Confucius and I like Taoism very much. So China has always been in the background,” he says. “I have couple of albums featuring traditional Chinese instrument such as pipa (Chinese lute), which I like very much. I'm always open to discovering more music.”

In 1998, Renault released Oriental bass that marked his first step pivoting from classical to world music. Double bass is not a traditional instrument for Eastern music, but Garcia-Fons’s imagination flows in his work. In his recently recorded album, “Silk Moon,” Garcia-Fons has mixed Turkish exotic style with double bass.

“I try to find a way to approach exotic music style, and make them live inside of me. I try to feel the mood and what’s really inside the music. This is essentially what my work is about.”

Musicians experiment to blend the traditional with the modern
Ti Gong

Folk-punk-world music quartet DakhaBrakha from Ukraine

A bit different from the Renaud Garcia-Fons Trio, DakhaBrakha, a folk-punk-world music quartet, blends ancient rhymes with modern punk and heavy percussion.

The name, a word from ancient Ukraine that is no longer used, means “give and take.” It refers to the exchange of energy between the audience and performers, and the idea of taking traditional sound and giving it back with modern music.

Featuring Olena Tsibulska, Iryna Kovalenko, Nina Garenetska and Marko Halanevychuses, the band describes their style as “ethno-chaos.”

They spent many summers traveling around Ukrainian villages to collect folk songs from elderly women living in remote areas. In addition to self-designed and pagan-like costumes, they also use human voices to mimic birds singing and natural sounds to make the audiences feel as if they were in the middle of the forest.

“But of course different people have different images of the music, so there’s no fixed way of understanding our work,” according to the band.

Things were difficult when DakhaBrakha started their journey 13 years ago as the only group singing Ukrainian folk songs in a new way. They had very limited ways of producing music.

The band added more worldly-wise elements while preserving the original taste of folk songs.

“It was our dream to create Ukrainian blues music for the whole country,” said band member Iryna Kovalenko in an earlier interview. “Now we're successful because it's something genuine.”

But with the growing exposure to different genres of music in an increasingly mass-mediated world, traditional music is gradually on decline.

“Something must be done. Because music isn’t just a profession, but also dream and duty,” says Peng Cheng, music director of the World Music Festival in Shanghai.

Musicians experiment to blend the traditional with the modern
Ti Gong

Pingtan artist Gao Bowen

Since 2013, the festival has strived to promote and bring changes to traditional Chinese music. Last year Peng seamlessly blended rap into Kunqu Opera, and this year he worked together with artist Gao Bowen to add some razzle and jazz into pingtan to attract the young generation.

Pingtan, a narrative musical tradition born in Suzhou and dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), is once a prevailing pastime in the Yangtze River Delta region but has struggled to survive.

Pingtan shares similarity with jazz as both are improvisational art, but pingtan is more unrestricted,” says Peng. “If the performer forgets the word, he can play the instrument until he remembers the line or throw it to his partner.”

“Each performance is different, so I can see why very few people have done major changes before, simply because it’s too hard,” Peng says. “I try to give Gao the freedom to improvise while a band is playing in the background, but it did take a lot of work and effort.” 

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