Jiaju Shen to Debut the E-pa and Original Compositions at Ran Tea House

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Chinese music makes a breakthrough on Sunday, August 2 at Ran Tea House, as pipa player Jiaju Shen introduces the world’s one and only electric pipa, or “E-pa” in a release party for her first solo EP, Black Silk.   

Bringing contemporary interpretations and flairs of jazz, funk, reggae, and to traditional Chinese music, Jiaju has been a torchbearer for Chinese music in New York  With FJ Music Fusion, a duo she founded with erhu player Feifei Yang, she has performed over 300 times around the United States including shows in New York at the United Nations, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Rubin Museum of Art, Summer Stage, and at a Brooklyn Nets game at Barclay’s Center.

For this solo outing, Jiaju partnered, in what she calls a “super match”, with composer Li Zong, who studied scoring for film and multimedia at NYU and music production and design and electric music design at Shanghai Conservatory of Music.  Over a period of four months, they created conceived and recorded three original pieces with different musical styles that vividly represent Jiaju’s experiences in New York and are a sharp departure from traditional modes of composition and performance for the Chinese pipa.   Reminding us that traditional works are richly imbued with stories and culture, she hopes that the imaginations of her listeners will be inspired the by stories and feelings contained in the music.

“Black Silk” 《青絲》dazzles with its strong Chinese flavor within a modern Western pop music shell .  “After Farewell” 《別後》forms a wordless poetry, simple and soulful,  through the pure sound of acoustic piano and pipa.  In “Marionette Dance,” 《提線木偶》the pipa dances under the direction the player, using Zong Li’s “voice solo” style through pipa alone, yet sounds like a jazz troubadour’s performance.  Listen to excerpts on Jiaju’s page.

Finding that the traditional pipa did not always jive with her fusion style, Jiaju set out to create something that could.  Somewhat similar to an electric guitar and electric violin, the E-pa, inherits the traditional pipa’s elegant styling while incorporating experiential and ergonomic design ideas that take into consideration the players’ comfort during performances and transport.  Designed and crafted by Zheng Xi, an industrial designer residing in the United States, after research and discussion with Jiaju, the sleek wooden body of the E-pa is smaller than the traditional pipa’s.  It maintains functional elements of the neck and cherishes the decorative embellishments of its forebears.  The electric pickup expands the pipa’s expressiveness and tone, creating unique dimensions that make it suitable for both traditional and modern styles.  Jiaju also suggests that because of its design and because of its tuning with a twelve-tone equal temperament, the E-pa is accessible to people performers from different cultural backgrounds for use in various settings.

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E-pa in the workshop

Given the possibilities for new timbres, previously unavailable from the classical pipa, Jiaju explained to us that she and the band needed to think about which effects pedals are best for the pipa and song.  It also demands a different set of techniques that require consideration of the positioning of the instrument, angle of picking and strumming, and the tremolo used.

Before Jiaju came to New York, she says everything she played was very traditional, classical, and in a Chinese style.  After studying and performing here, she discovered a joy in the way people play music and how the audience engaged with the music and discovered live performance is her opportunity for a dialogue with the audience.  Expanding her story-telling voice through her instruments and reflecting her belief that fusion music is a key to opening the door to the beauty of Chinese traditional music and culture to American audiences, Jiaju told Beyond Chinatown of this first live E-pa performance, “I want to give my audience a concept, possibility, and let them know the possibilities are infinite.”

Sunday, August 2, 3 PM
Ran Tea House, 269 Kent Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
$15/Online through Eventbrite; $20/Door.  Admission includes free copy of EP.


Images courtesy of Jiaju Shen

The post was updated to correct song titles and ticket prices.