Paul Fisher meets a Chinese pipa virtuoso passng through London
fROOTS Magazine(London, UK), March 2004, No. 249
[printing in the original format from the magazine] [image]

Pipa Music at the BBC in 2003
Photo: Andrew Cronchaw

On stage at London's Mermaid Theatre, Chinese pipa player Liu Fang wakes up from her state of inner tranquility. On her Chinese lute, she has just hypnotized an invited audience of a few hundred, and millions of BBC World Service listeners around the world. She played two tunes that ebbed between passages brimming with notes at break neck speed, that flowed into serene sections of space and silence.

Dressed in a blue silk Chinese dress, she accepts the applause gracefully. "Yes, there was just one musician," says tonight's compere Ian McKellen, alluding to those intricate passages. "One musician, but ten talented fingers." Liu Fang is here for a BBC World Service HIV/AIDS concert, to raise awareness of the continuing problems of HIV around the world. On the same bill are Oliver Mtukudzi and Rokia Traore, and various poets and actors.

Next day, Liu Fang is still a picture of calmness itself, while her very likeable effervescent husband and manager, Risheng, is rushing around. He's enthusing about the night before, equally looking forward to the day ahead, a live spot on Charlie Gillett's BBC London radio programme, my own radio show on Resonance FM in London, and of course a chat for fRoots.

At Resonance, Liu Fang plays two tunes in the studio. ... The second, ... she had played the night brfore at the Mermaid. Close up, it's even more of a dazzling experience. She rests her pear shaped lute on her thigh in an upright position. Her dexterity on the instrument is breathtaking, her fingers a blur over the strings. Each finger on her right hand is adorned with a fingernail pluck. Her eyes remained mostly closed, her face expressionless. In my headphones I can hear her breathing deeply.

I can't but help wonder if she is in a conscious state of mind, or in some kind of trance. "I don't know" she says, "I might look relaxed, but inside I'm concentrating very hard. I practice a lot which might be why it looks easy." It doesn't look easy to me. ...

... ...

While a virtuoso of traditional pipa, it's Liu's openness and sense for experimentalism that sets her apart from her peers. Her collaborators have included Syrian oud player and percussionist Farhan Sabbagh. The two recorded a remarkable CD, uniting two ancient stringed instruments from the same family, and toured Canada in 2000. The pipa has it's relation in Vietnam too, the dan ty ba, although Liu Fang played with dan bau (monochord) player Pham Duc Thanh at concerts in Canada. Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute) player Yoshio Kurahashi came to Montreal too, a collaboration she describes as one of her most rewarding. One of the most outlandish pairings was with violinist Malcolm Goldstein. "He's a wonderful musician' Liu enthuses, 'an American about 70 years old, now living in Montreal. What we do is very unusual, deep, and totally free." The only track I hear is about as far from the refined musician sitting quietly in front of me as you can get. Liu strums and slaps her pipa in discordant tones while Goldstein screeches over the top.

In yet another string to her pipa, the western classical world has embraced Liu Fang. She has premiered new compositions by Canadian composers R.Murray Schafer and Melissa Hui, performed two concertos for pipa and orchestra with the Moravia Symphony Orchestra in Prague, and played with various string quartets including the Paul Klee Quartet in Venice and the Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne in Montreal.

So successful is Liu Fang in the classical scene in Europe, she has not yet had time to make inroads into the world music market. This is something she and Risheng are keen to rectify, their brief visit to London being a good start. At BBC London, Charlie Gillett is suitably impressed as is his other guest for the evening, Robert Cray. The listeners are too, judging from the feedback.

In 2001, Liu Fang was the only musician to receive the prestigious 'Future Generation Millennium Prize' awarded by Canada Council for the Arts to artists under 30 years of age. The words of the jury summed her up rather succinctly. "Liu Fang's mastery of the pipa and the guzheng has established her international reputation as a highly talented young interpreter of traditional Chinese music. She aspires to combine her knowledge and practice of eastern traditions with western classical music, contemporary music and improvisation, thereby creating new musical forms, uniting different cultures and discovering new audiences."

With talk of her coming back for concerts and a recording project next year, hopefully UK and European world music audiences will be given the chance to discover Liu Fang too.

Liu Fang & Farhan Sabbagh Arabic and Chinese Music (philmultic). Liu Fang Chinese Classical Pipa Music from the The Ancient to The Recent (Philmultic). Available via or in UK via, tel.: 020-7722 3054.

-Paul Fisher, fROOTS Magazine(London, UK), March 2004, No. 249 .