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American musician chooses classic Chinese instruments for contemporary music

Xinhua | Updated: 2019-08-29 09:32

NEW YORK -- Justin Scholar, a New Jersey native, has earned his name as the "Chinese instruments guy" at the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival as he brings a Chinese instrument every year to let people try.

"This year I brought a Zhongruan (Chinese plucked string instrument) to entertain the guitarists because it's shaped like a guitar. And some people really pick it up quite quickly," Scholar told Xinhua in New York after he returned from the outdoor music festival held at the Old Pool Farm, about 35 miles outside of Philadelphia on Aug. 15-18.

TWO CLEAR GOALS

The 26-year-old musician has previously presented Chinese instruments including Guzheng, Bawu, Hulusi, Sheng, Erhu at the event.

"Even though I can't share the traditional (Chinese) tunes, the new instruments are enough of a fun experience," he said. "The children and non-musical folk really seem to enjoy it, and some people have bought their own Guzhengs after trying."

"Their (musicians) unabated passion for the preservation of folk music means they are incredibly curious about the folk music that is rarer or less represented; that's where I thrive," said Scholar.

"I always invite people to come sit in and learn about it and try it and you'll be amazed at how some Americans who have never heard of this instrument before can figure out how to play on their own with no more instruction," he said.

Scholar had his heart stolen by Chinese instruments ever since he made his first trip to Shanghai in 2015 through a study-abroad program when he was a student in New York University.

"I find the Guzheng is my most inspirational tool of expression, and the seeming lack of experimentation with the instrument is what I aim to change," he said.

"I have two clear goals as a musician," he said. "In China, I hope to reinvent the Guzheng for a younger audience by producing new music influenced by jazz and folk and singing in English."

"My second goal is to introduce Guzheng to the west, which is why I am here," he said. "I find the Guzheng is the most accessible instrument for non-musicians to create beautiful sound."

Scholar said his musical style can be described as "meditative and serene at times, or melancholic and expressive other times. It depends on the song."

"I hope one day that many people will hear my music, especially the thousands of Guzheng players, and that they will be encouraged to try writing their own music and freestyling while learning to express themselves," he said.

EXPERIMENTING WILDLY WITH GUZHENG

Played traditionally, the about 5-foot long Guzheng can be "very daunting," he admitted.

"Of course, it will take years and years of practice. But if your goal is just to express yourself and to make sounds that are pretty and just lose yourself in music, I find that the Guzheng is the fastest route to creating that sound pleasing to the ears," he said.

Because of its pentatonic scale (the traditional tuning), the sounds Guzheng naturally produces are "always complimentary and pleasant to your ear," according to Scholar.

"I am convinced that anyone, with ten minutes of focus, can produce something that they are proud of. It's an outstanding experience for young children and adults who are often afraid of trying to play music, although they'd like to," he said.

Scholar said he is "experimenting wildly" with the Guzheng.

"I've invented my own tuning by shifting its scale around, and adding a new note which allows me to make western-sounding chord changes," he said.

"I am building an electric Guzheng sound using a loop pedal, synthesizer and amplifier," he said. "I can play standing up, with hammers; I even played a show in complete darkness."

There is "great potential" for Guzheng and other instruments to "be reinvented and shared," he said, "This is my lifelong passion."

Scholar's music video debut "Thinkinbout" features the young musician alone in a dark room with the guzheng, delivering a stirring vocal performance while the Chinese characters for his English lyrics flash across his face.

RIDING MASSIVE WAVE OF CULTURE FUSION

Scholar said he felt very lucky that his exposure to Chinese culture has opened a new window for his life and career.

"Being in China has completely opened my mind to a world of potential for learning and modernizing some ancient Chinese instruments," he said.

Scholar's passion for Chinese instruments was highly applauded by many young Chinese musicians living in the United States.

"It's very rare to see somebody like him, I mean among young American kids, who devoted so much into Chinese traditional instruments," said Yang Feifei, a well-known Erhu player in New York City.

"We jam a lot actually sometimes. I often introduce some Chinese traditional songs to him. And he gave me a lot of idea about how to modernize this Chinese traditional instrument," said Yang, who joined Scholar for an improvisation performance at the end of the interview.

"I very much intend to promote Chinese instruments in the United States, but right now I really need to grow myself as a musician," Scholar said.

Calling themselves Culture Exchange Kids, both the musicians have a strong sense of obligation to help promote people-to-people exchanges between the United States and China.

"I think that there's a lot of work to be done in cultural communications between our countries and our cultures," Scholar said. "We're kind of riding a massive wave of two big countries coming together. I'm very happy to be a part of it."

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