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Music from the soul: Former People's Army musician looks to change the way H-Town looks at Chinese sound

Music from the soul: Former People's Army musician looks to change the way H-Town looks at Chinese sound

Five million residents, 88 Super Neighborhoods and more than 90 languages spoken — Houston is loving it. With those numbers — indicative of the United States' most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis — it's no surprise why certain cultural gems are hidden from public view, not on purpose, but by twist of fate.

But for one homegrown music ensemble, that's about to change — at least that's their plan.

What began as a rehearsal between five Chinese immigrant musicians seeking cultural comfort is now a gathering of more than 30 players embracing professional, amateur and student talent. At a Houston Chinese Traditional Music Group music practice, retirees, business professionals and homemakers mingle freely with high schoolers while sharing an art form that unites them.

Playing music bridges across their generations, and now they want to arch over cultures to render ancient Chinese sounds familiar to audiences of all cultures.

"Most Chinese instruments are made of trees, bamboo wood and silks, " Yang Wang, says. "In Chinese philosophy, trees are considered the symbol of livelihood and springtime. In the music you can hear water, birds, nature and imagine beautiful landscapes when listening to these songs, some of which have been around for thousands of years."

 "Powerful music can touch anyone, any culture. I have great confidence audiences will like our music. It's from our soul, we play from the heart."

Whether a listener identifies the fluidity of a brook represented by a gentle arpeggio of a guzheng, a type of zither; the playful chirping of a mountain bird on the dizi, a wooden, often handmade flute; or wispy wind when strumming a pipa, a lute dating back to the Han Dynasty in the second century and adored by the Tang Dynasty in the seventh and eighth centuries; Yang is certain that the bucolic character of the art form is something that every person from any culture can relate to. 

"Powerful music can touch anyone, any culture," she says. "I have great confidence audiences will like our music. It's from our soul, we play from the heart."

At the helm of the community ensemble is a former People's Army musician and music critic. Xin Zhang is a warm, passionate leader who in rehearsal is serious, very serious, about musicianship. He works arduously with his orchestra weekly, and the concerts surprise even the most opinionated of music fiends — count this reporter as a big fan.

The next Houston Chinese Traditional Music Group is here, set for 7 p.m. Saturday at the Jade Buddha Temple. Titled "Heaven's Melody: Celebration of Buddhist Culture," the program amasses works of Buddhist provenance, some arranged by modern Chinese composers. Described as soft, pure and still, the repertoire offers a respite from hurried cosmopolitan life.

Also on the playbill are more rambunctious works of Chinese origin that celebrate spring and its rituals, and fiery ethnic dances amid a fantastical countryside mise-en-scene.

Filled with curiosity, CultureMap attended a rehearsal and chatted with new and longtime members to better understand how cultural music affects the players' lives. Watch the video (above).

Houston Chinese Traditional Music Group's "Heaven's Melody: Celebration of Buddhist Culture" is on Saturday at 7 p.m. There's limited seating. To reserve a spot, please call 573-356-6686.

News_Chinese classical music group
What began as a rehearsal between five Chinese immigrant musicians seeking cultural comfort. . . Photo by Joel Luks
News_Chinese classical music group
. . . is now a gathering of more than 30 players. Photo by Joel Luks
News_Chinese classical music group
The Houston Chinese Traditional Music Group welcomes professional, amateur and student talent. Photo by Joel Luks
News_Chinese classical music group
Chinese instruments are made of trees, bamboo wood and silks. Photo by Joel Luks
News_Chinese classical music group
News_Chinese classical music group
News_Chinese classical music group
News_Chinese classical music group