Chinese “Indie girl” modernises classical music of the West and East
Wearing a Chinese Han dress with black straight long hair down to her waist, and singing East Asian ethnic folk songs with fingers plucking strings from guitar to Guzheng, Yijia Tu, a 22-year-old musician from Chengdu China, has been recreating traditions of both Eastern and Western music in an unconventional way.
It seems that Yijia was born for music and chosen by music. Her mum told her that when she was one year old, she started mumbling with rhythm before she knew how to speak. Yijia began receiving classical piano training at the age of four and had a first go at song writing when she was nine years old.
When she was a teenager, Yijia was very much into ancient Western music, such as Gregorian chant and medieval music. These styles have been of great influence on her musical practice. At the age of 16, she made her first stage appearance as a semi-finalist in the popular Chinese singer-songwriter talent show “Sing My Song,” and became known as the “indie rock” prodigy girl who sang the “Flying Dandelion”, which was composed by herself.
Tu formed her own band in 2017, called The Sages, during her study in Music at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Photograph: Yijia Tu.
Just a year later, in collaboration with Chinese and Internationally acclaimed musicians including Grammy winner Luca Bignardi and Liu Huan and the China Philharmonic Orchestra, her debut album 17 with Sony Records won the Media’s Choice Awards at the renowned 2015 Chinese Music Awards (CMA) and she was nominated as the Best Chinese Female New Artist on the same awards.
In 2016, she moved to London and continued her pursuit of music at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. It is since then that she began recomposing what was conventional in oriental and western music to connect to an audience in a modern global society.
“Ever since coming to the UK, I’ve been more aware of my cultural identity,” said Yijia, “I began to be more interested in traditional Chinese music, and started to experiment blending them with contemporary musical elements such as world music, indie, electronic and pop.
“There’s a quote by the composer Gustav Mahler that I really like,” she continued, “‘Tradition is about keeping the flame alive, not worshipping the ashes’.”
Having a great interest in world music, or music that connects to traditional roots from all over the world, Yijia has employed this principle in her own music practice.
Yijia Tu is performing Mongolian throat singing on AXA Chair Launch event at SOAS, University of London, 6th February 2018. Photograph: Yijia Tu.
In an interview for China Minutes, she said, “I feel like what I can contribute is to build a bridge between different traditions and musical styles from traditional to modern music…as I believe this is a way forward in an age of globalization and cosmopolitanism.”
So here she is. In 2017, drawing inspirations from different music elements throughout time and history, together with her classmate Peadar Connolly-Davey, a 21-year-old from Ireland, she formed a band called The Sages. It mainly focuses on traditional East Asian and Chinese music, with an Irish twist.
The name of The Sages comes from The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (竹林七贤) in ancient China, which was a group of seven scholars, poets and musicians that gave up their mundane life and secluded themselves in rural areas. The 贤 (wisdom) in its Chinese version was replaced with a homophone of 弦 (string) to indicate the music nature of this group.
Yijia said, “As time goes by, we have to try and make traditional music still relevant to the modern world. So, for me, in order to do that, blending them with pop or western instruments seems like a natural thing to do.”
A brush painting of a performance by The Sages. Source: Yijia Tu
One of her styles of singing is Tibetan chanting mixed with Mongolian throat singing. Both are typical Chinese Ethnic singing skills practiced mostly by ethnic minorities in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Delivered through her clear and powerful voice, which contrasts the gentle melody generated from strings, her music demonstrates her enthusiasm for ethnomusicology and eagerness to express her cultural identity through the fusion of classical Chinese music elements.
“I feel like as a Chinese musician, a lot of the mainstream music in China is disconnected from our roots, which would make the sounds more like existing music genres rather than creating our own music style.
“I was inspired by world musicians such as Huun Huur Tu from Tuva, and Eivør from the Faroe Islands to express my musical identity that connects to my roots,” said Yijia.
As a young musician who is in her early 20’s, Yijia clearly understands what music the young generation are expecting to listen to, which also contributes to her success. “By mixing different kinds of music together, it can engage a wide range of young listeners who have never listened to traditional music. As they find the music more accessible, relatable and relevant to what they are used to listening to.”
The uniqueness of adaptations of traditional folk music and original compositions by Yijia have proven to be a success and music produced by the band has convinced audiences from the UK as well as the rest of the world. The Sages featured on the BBC’s Radio 3 Music Planet in January 2020 and played live on the channel’s In Tunes show.
“I feel like apart from just playing music, we can hopefully keep tradition alive, and also open up people’s minds about cultures other than their own.
“It’s also really touching when we have people who came to talk to us after our performance, telling us that we’ve inspired them to also connect with their roots,” said Yijia, “It makes me feel like I am making a small contribution that can helps people raise some kind of awareness, apart from just enjoying the music.”
The Sages’ performance on the opening act for the University of Oxford Chinese New Year Festival at the Oxford Town Hall, 11th February 2017. Photograph: Yijia Tu.
As her journey at SOAS came to an end this summer, Yijia is ready to kick off her master’s degree in music with places offered by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. While daily routine has been confined during the Covid-19 crisis, there is no lockdown in music and like many other musicians, Yijia sees this as an opportunity to create music. She has been doing online gigs for charities from her room, where, of course, the spirit of having traditional rhythms heard in the mainstream music scene continues.
Living in a society that thrives on cultural exchange like never before, it seems to her the level of multiculturalism and diversity are not reflected in mainstream music. “Most mainstream music does not really have the representation of non-western cultures, and most of the music genres today derived from the West,” says Yijia, “I try to build a bridge that is neither solely Western/modern mainstream or traditional Chinese, as it seems more organic to me to express music in this way.”
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