Preserving Ancient Poems With Xiao He

by tonedefsound

A mixmaster of Chinese stringed instruments, traditional poems, Mongolian throat singing and a head crowned with silky white hair. What do you get if you  fuse it together? It creates the one and only Xiao He of Beijing. Xiao He has had a prolific career in the music scene of the northern capitol and beyond. With his avant-folk rock band Glamorous Pharmacy, Mr. He has explored and toured the Middle Kingdom and beyond, purveying the unique sounds of both traditional and modern China. 

For the past few years, Xiao He has been upping his avant-gardism to a whole new level with solo acoustic sets filled with audience-enrapturing voice and guitar loops. One such story I clearly remember is my first time meeting Xiao He at a dive bar in Shanghai. As he was about to end his solo improv set, he invited Lu Chen, the singer of the popular folk rock band Top Floor Circus to the stage for an extended improvised set. This was both a surprise and a shock as Top Floor Circus was banned from performing for one year because of their viral song “Shanghai Welcomes You”, a tongue-in-cheek knock on the official Beijing Olympics song, painting a not so harmonious life in the southern city. But Xiao He appreciates all artists.

With zhongruan in hand, Mr. He has also been spending his time organizing pop-up performances in the hutongs and parks of cities across China and engaging in impromptu jam sessions on chance encounters with kids and elderly folks filling the city parks with the sweet, ancestral sounds. 

After a few month stint in Shanghai learning old poems and nursery rhymes from the seniors to put together a collaboration performance, Xiao He sits down in his artistic abode and answers some questions for you!

How did your love of music begin? As a blossoming musician years ago, what gave you the most influence?

I enjoyed painting when I was a kid. Back then, my dream was to become a painter. I could easily calm myself down while painting and forget about time.  When I entered the army and became a soldier, painting became not that convenient. You know it’s hard to bring joy to others immediately by painting, it’s a difficult thing to do in a closed group life. So instead of painting, I fell in love with the guitar. This instrument was very popular in military camps. Soldiers who played guitar were also very popular. Later, when I started practicing playing guitar, I found that I liked music more and more. It not only calms my heart, but also makes others happy as well.

What gave me the most influence?  Whether I became a painter, musician, worker, vendor, etc., my parents have had the greatest influence on me , so big that I still haven’t found its full impact, perhaps it will take forever.

Combining traditional and experimental sounds is your constant theme. How did this come about?

In my art, I do not want to reinforce the differences and boundaries between tradition and modernity. I think people’s perception of the real world is becoming more and more accurate these days.The so-called “tradition” can be expressed in a contemporary way today. It is no longer just the past or only belongs to the tradition. In fact, it is us, we especially need the concepts of past, tradition, modernity and experimentation.

Can you tell us your most memorable experiences in your travels around the world?

The most memorable experience is the performance I did in an old and solemn church in Venice. I did a completely improvised show. Something happened then, which I still remember vividly. The atmosphere was very serene. In addition to some Italians, there were also some Chinese attendees. Maybe they just wanted to come and see who this Chinese musician was. I was in the middle of playing when a pair of Chinese audience in the front row got up to leave. I put down my Zhongruan, jumped off the stage to stop them and persuaded them not to leave until I finished that song. They went back and sat down reluctantly. I have had a lot of that kind of improvisational theater and acts in those years. I returned to the stage and continued to play.The Chinese couple stood up and ran out of the church. Then the audience began to applaud. It was a really fun show, more interesting than the one where I once climbed into a tree to perform.

How did you conceive of the Shanghai nursery rhyme concert series?

In 2018, after completing Beijing’s “Hutong Nursery Rhymes”, we gained a lot of moving and energy inside. We also see the possibility of influencing the environment with just a few people interested in preserving old nursery rhymes and poems. We decided to find the next song like “Lugou Qiao”(Marco Polo Bridge) and more Mr He, an 80-year-old man who taught us this beautiful song.

Music is a channel that connects everyone. The elderly, musicians, and every participant share this time and space and create new memories together. This is why we want to search for the respective traditional nursery rhymes and perform the scenes live in these cities. Hear and make new connections of the past and present.

Do you have any thoughts on the future of music?

I think the current development of human music seems to be very rich, but in fact there is not much breakthrough. From the time there was music to our present day, human cognition of music has been very limited, especially on a public level. This has led to a very slow evolution in musical substance. Two hundred years ago, Beethoven said that music was the highest form of enlightenment. Today, people only regard music as a pastime and entertainment tool, lifestyle background, or commodity.

I have confidence in music. It is not just a collection of sounds. It is the best evidence and mechanism for the truth of interaction in the real world. It is the best mechanism for people to recognize themselves too.

Mandarin article of Xiao He’s Nursery Rhymes story: 

Video of Nursery Rhymes performance:

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