The Ba Ban Chinese Music Society of New York
By Gus Denhard
Founded in 1999, the Ba Ban Chinese Music Society of New York is dedicated to the preservation, creation, and presentation of Chinese traditional and contemporary performing arts. Named after an ancient piece of folk music, “Ba Ban” literally means “Eight Beats” which is the structural basis for the grouping of notes in traditional Chinese music. The ensemble includes highly accomplished artists who graduated from the top conservatories in China and have performed in concert halls around the world. The ensemble performs on silk and bamboo instruments, a classical instrumental grouping dating from the Qing dynasty (1636-1912) that includes various dizi (bamboo flutes), sheng (mouth organ), pipa (lute), qin (seven-stringed zither), ruan (alto lute), huqin (fiddles) and yangqin (dulcimer). In 2015, the group was recognized by the New York City Council for exemplary cultural service to the community.
I had an opportunity to talk to Zhou Yi, a renown pipa (Chinese lute) artist and one of the two founders of Ba Ban Chinese Music Society of New York. She spoke to me from her studio in New York City.
GD: How did you come to meet your founding partner, Yimin Miao, and what inspired you to create the Ba Ban Chinese Music Society?
ZY: Miao and I both studied music at the Shanghai Conservatory but did not meet until we came to New York City where a lot of Chinese professional musicians have settled. We saw an opportunity to perform the traditional Jiangnan sizhu repertoire of the Shanghai region, a cultural background that we shared. It was relatively easy to connect with excellent traditional Chinese musicians in New York; we mostly met them by attending concerts. Miao had studied the traditional flutes in Shanghai, and he also knew of some musicians who had moved here.
GD: Take me back to the early days of your development as musicians. What was your education like in Shanghai?
ZY: In my student days it was very competitive to enter a conservatory. Of the 1,000 applicants for pipa, two were selected to enter the program. Selection was based on very competitive tests and auditions. Also in those days, many of the old masters were still teaching; there are fewer of them living now. If you played a traditional instrument like pipa, you were also required to play a Western instrument, in my case piano. There are two tracks in conservatory, traditional Chinese and Western. Now it’s required for students, especially composers, to have a minor in a Chinese instrument since there is a trend to blend the Western and Chinese styles in new compositions. Many students decide to continue their studies in the West.
GD: Please tell me how you approach the ancient music of China? What guides the decisions you make about how to perform the music? And how does the audience respond?
ZY: We pick instruments that are appropriate to the period of the music we perform. For example, the music of the Tang Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty require different instruments, and the repertoire is different also. Sometimes we program based on the period, but often use themes that are more creative and attractive to our audience that are designed to educate them about Chinese history and culture.
For 20 years we have been playing concerts in public libraries and have developed some very attractive programs. Many have a theatrical aspect, combining visual elements, costumes, and lights. One themed concert about the Yangtse River recreates a tea house on stage! Other themes include Chinese pop music from the 1930s, and music for Chinese New Year. Before concerts we distribute articles about the history and meaning of the music via WeChat, the popular Chinese social media platform. Popular articles are often shared a thousand times. Then when people come, they are ready to appreciate the concert.
GD: I know you have professional musicians in your ensemble, but can students participate also?
ZY: Yes, part of our mission is to spread the traditions of Chinese music. We teach several small group classes, and when students reach an advanced level, they may perform with the group. We have three students playing with us currently. Our idea is to pass the knowledge on so the music can continue for generations.
GD: How is your organization dealing with the challenges of Covid-19?
ZY: Of course our public concerts, workshops, and school programs are cancelled, so we are focusing on online presentations and teaching. We have no other choice. But we will survive and will be ready to resume our work in the future.