Group brings unique voice to Peninsula

Mei Han, left, will perform with fellow members of her group, Red Chamber, at First Avenue Church Feb. 1.  - Contributed photo
Mei Han, left, will perform with fellow members of her group, Red Chamber, at First Avenue Church Feb. 1.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Climbing onto the bus in Beijing, 11-year-old Mei Han knew she would have to stay focused to make sure her basket full of eggs, oil and rice wouldn’t tip.

The half-day bus ride ahead of her was sure to be another bumpy one, and she didn’t want to lose any of the gifts she was bringing her music instructor.

The gift of goods came in lieu of payment to the teacher, which was not allowed during the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s-’70s, for teaching Han how to play the zheng, a Chinese plucked zither.

“Teachers were really poor at that time as they were not allowed to receive tuition from students,” Han said, reflecting on one of her earliest memories of playing the zheng.

“Every time I would go to a lesson, I would bring something to give the teacher.”

Now, more than 40 years later, Han’s passion for music has not faded.

The Vancouver transplant has become one of the most sought-after zheng artists in the world, playing shows in Europe, Asia and all over North America.

“It’s not just about the instrument,” Han explained. “It’s about me trying to find a vehicle to express myself. It has something to do with cultural and personal background. In China, it’s really hard to have an individual voice. Most people don’t and they don’t realize that.

“For me, for some reason, I was born with a rebellion inside me. I felt it was important to have my voice. I didn’t know how important until I came to Canada. Now I’ve found my vehicle.”

And for those on the Peninsula who want to see Han perform, there will be a rare upcoming performance with Red Chamber, the group she founded in 2006, at First United Church, 15385 Semiahmoo Ave., on Feb. 1.

Joined by Han is Guilian Liu, internationally recognized as one of the world’s premier pipa (Chinese lute) players, Zhimin Yu, established as the only ruan (bass lute) virtuoso in North America and award-winning multi-instrumentalist Geling Jiang.

“The members of the group have been performing for a very long time. (Liu) is very well known in China and I knew of her in the 1980s. We lived in the same city growing up, but never had a chance to perform together in China,” Han said.

“Vancouver is an immigrant hub. People you knew about and couldn’t meet in China, you meet here. It’s such a small place with so many big fish.”

The group brings together the four different backgrounds of the performers to create a unique sound, even though they are not from different countries or cultures. The music will reflect their personal experiences and create one voice, Han said.

And while the group is known for its performances featuring traditional Chinese music, Han said they are also influenced by a range of music, including Cape Breton fiddle tunes, European Balkan music from Bulgaria and Gypsy jazz.

“They can all be performed on our instruments and there have been many Canadian composers who have created music for us to perform, specifically.”

One major influence since coming to Canada has been the use of improvisation, which does not occur in China, Han said.

The group will perform a very popular Chinese tune from the 1950s, but have created a completely different arrangement with improvisation.

“It’s called Dance of the Yao People, and every Chinese person knows the piece,” Han said. “But the way we play it adds another dimension to the tune.”

Han will also perform a solo piece, a traditional zheng piece called Lonely Crows Singing in the Winter Stream.

A poetic title for musical pieces is another traditional Chinese practice, Han explained, adding that the goal is not to describe what the song is about but the mood that it evokes.

“The title is meant to describe the nature and reflection of the person’s mood and their connection with their environment,” she said.

“There are many different layers. When I perform that song, there maybe a little bit of a mood change you can hear. It depends on how I feel that night.”

And for those who automatically write off Chinese music based on what they hear in restaurants, Han urges more exploration of the genre.

“To be honest, I find that music offensive. It’s not a true representation of Chinese music. It’s only one of hundreds of thousands of pieces,” she said.

“We will play a wide range of repertoire with this program to give different angles and touch the whole history. I think people will be surprised to hear it. It’s not just a cultural experience but an exploration.”

Tickets for the show are $25 in advance and are available at Tapestry Music until Jan. 30 and online at https://tickets.surrey.ca

For more information, visit www.peninsulaproductions.com or www.mei-han.com/redchamber.html

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