Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Shao Rong first broke with tradition when she moved to Japan (she is currently living in Tokyo), although she maintains an allegiance to the Chinese lute which differs from the Japanese version. Although similarly shaped, the Japanese lute is more rhythm-oriented and played with a fan-shaped pick while the Chinese instrument stresses the melody and is plucked with the fingertips which are covered with special artificial nails.
Shao’s second move away from tradition is that she plays mostly modern compositions on her recordings. In addition, she utilizes a combination of ancient instruments – guzheng (a Chinese zither invented thousands of years ago, now normally with 21 strings), erhu (a very old two-string Chinese lute played with a bow, originally constructed to imitate the human voice, and known in Japan as the niko), dizi (a small Chinese flute from the Tang Age two-thousand-years-ago) and shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute) – mixed with modern Western instrumentation like piano, guitar and bass.
In 1998, Shao was chosen by the Japanese Agency of Culture to join Tempyo-Gafu, an Asian ancient-music ensemble, which performed special concerts at the United Nations and in major U.S. cities including New York, Washington and Los Angeles (the show was televised in Japan).
Rong was allowed the high honor of playing an extremely valuable thousand-year-old five-string pipa, the oldest one in the world which makes it a national treasure. Rong usually plays the pipa in the “Rinshi” style using all five fingers to create a tremolo effect which makes the instrument sound to Western ears like a mandolin one moment or a banjo the next.
Shao always excelled at music and by the time she entered college, she was considered one of the top musical prodigies in all of China. She began taking piano lessons when she was five-years old and started lute lessons at age ten. When she was in her second year of junior high school, a new music school was established under the wing of the Beijing National Central Music Institute. Shao, along with 20,000 other students, took the entrance exams which only 12 passed. Of those, five were selected to attend this special university. Shao Rong was one of those chosen. At the Central Conservatory of Music in Bejing, she studied under the legendary pipa player Professor Liu Dehai, whose mastery was regarded as a national asset of the country.
After graduating from college, Rong returned to Shanghai in 1987 and joined the National Folk Music Band as a featured soloist, and she won a top award (“The Artistic Excellence Prize”) as one of the outstanding artists at the Shanghai Arts Festival. “In order to experience a fresh environment for my music,” says Rong, “I decided to move to Japan.” In 1989, she enrolled at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music which led to her appearance in the Shiki Company production of “Madame Butterfly” in 1990 as both a pipa player and an actress. After graduation, her performance schedule increased.
In July 1998, she performed as a soloist with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in the Japanese premiere of “Marco Polo,” an opera by one of China’s leading composers, Tan Dun. This led to an invitation from the Sapporo Symphony for her to appear as a soloist in a performance of “The Great Wall” by Japanese composer Ikuma Dan in April 1999. In July of that year, Rong had the honor of performing the world premiere of Tan Dun’s “Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra” at the Pan Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo which won Shao worldwide attention as a musician and led to performance requests from all over Asia, America and Europe. She also played at the Asian Composers Conference in Yokohama, and gave another Japanese premiere of Tan Dun’s work at the Suntory Hall Summer Festival. In addition, Shao is a part of the unique Li-Hua Ensemble.
On Shao Rong’s Orchid album, she is joined by various musicians including Jia Peng Fang on erhu and Naoyuki Onda on acoustic piano. The album was produced by Pacific Moon’s acclaimed recording team of Kazurnasa Yoshioka and Seiichi Kyoda. Kyoda wrote all of the tunes for the album with the exception of “Precious Moon” (which was based on the famous old Chinese classic song “Yue Er Gao”). Orchid begins and ends with two different versions of the tune “Wild Rose,” the first featuring the lute with piano and erhu, and the second placing the pipa sounds alongside acoustic guitar.
“I tried many new musical techniques on this album,” says Shao. “There are different styles in the playing of the lute. One is ‘bukyoku’ which is a very fierce, aggressive way of playingand the other one, ‘bunkyoku’ is a gentler type of playing….for the first time during these recording sessions, I played the lute with other instruments which are all of western origin like guitar, piano, bass and drums.”
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.