As a young woman in China, Qiu Xia He (pronounced Choo-Sha Her) first studied and then taught the pipa at the Xian Academy of Music. The pipa, a kind of lute, has a long history and a huge repertoire in Chinese music. Qiu Xia toured China in the 1980s, playing to large audiences. Then she moved to Canada, where knowledge of Chinese music was almost nonexistent.
One of the ironic consequences of that move is that she’s now doing more live performances of traditional Chinese music in Canada and the US than she would be able to do in China itself.
Qiu Xia and her husband Andre Thibault, a noted guitarist, went back to China last fall—she to visit family and friends, he to see the country for the first time. Qiu Xia had returned once or twice before, but she was especially struck by the changes she saw on this visit.
“Everyone is making money,” she said in a recent interview. But no one’s making money giving live performances of traditional Chinese music. “There are some experimental musicians who give live performances, but most live music is pop.”
“We heard the kind of music we play,” Andre added. “But it was all recorded, like elevator music.”
The couple are the chief musicians of two world-music groups. Qiu Xia founded Silk Road Music in 1991, originally to play the kind of traditional music she’d learned and taught in Xian. But she picked up new ideas from Vancouver performers like Celso Machado and Pepe Danza (and from Andre). Silk Road changed into a group fusing Chinese instruments and playing styles with Western tunes and techniques. Silk Road’s second CD, “Village Tales,” includes Chinese folk songs sung in English, and the notes offer a detailed, 40-page introduction to Chinese musical culture.
About a year and a half ago, Andre organized a new group, Jou Tou, using Qiu Xia, Pepe Danza and Celtic musician Amy Stephen, to perform music from a wide range of traditions—everything from Chinese to Latin American to Andre’s own remarkable compositions influenced by Arabic songs, flamenco, and Quebec pop. Inspired by Andre’s French pun, joue tout, Jou Tou really does play everything.
In China, however, traditional musicians are playing almost nothing in live performance. When Qiu Xia and Andre visited one of Qiu Xia’s former teaching colleagues this fall, the colleague was openly envious—not so much of their modest Burnaby lifestyle as of the opportunity to give live performances all over the world.
“All she can do now is teach,” Qiu Xia said sadly. “And her students study music just because it’s part of a university arts education that will get them a better job.”
The news confirmed what they already knew from a fellow-musician in Vancouver. Her husband is a successful businessman in Beijing, but her musical career would go nowhere in China. She’s better off playing occasional Chinese-music gigs in Vancouver than she would be back home.
Meanwhile Qiu Xia and Andre play the kind of music they love, but it takes enormous effort. While they draw on traditional folk repertoires, they explore new ways to make those repertoires meaningful to their audiences. In effect, they’re creating an audience that can appreciate both the tradition and their radical new expression of it.
Much of their time and energy go into “showcase” performances, where they play for audiences of potential clients: educators, festival organizers, and such. Just getting to showcase venues like Kentucky means cultivating government cultural agencies; Qiu Xia spends a good part of her time not practicing the pipa but writing proposals on her computer.
Far from a series of triumphal performances in huge auditoriums, Silk Road Music and Jou Tou play on unlikely circuits: a week in the Vermont schools, another week playing small venues in Washington state. This year they're playing in Hawaii, Alaska, the Yukon, southern California and Oregon. One of their few predictable jobs is at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, where Silk Road and Jou Tou play each summer in the “Enchanted Evenings” series—which Qiu Xia first conceived and launched over ten years ago.
Qiu Xia and Andre are realistic. Big theatres are too expensive for the kinds of audiences they attract, so they’re usually limited to an affordable four or five performers.
But in the small theatres and school gyms where they play, they can create a remarkable intimacy. Qiu Xia knew no English when she first came to Canada. Now she’s a poised and articulate guide to the music she plays. Andre, who brings a flamenco guitarist’s passion to his performance, can change the mood instantly with a wisecrack.
While they’ve been playing some of their pieces for many years, they never play them the same way twice. And they’re always experimenting, trying out new songs, new instruments, new arrangements.
Playing such music is no way to get rich. But Qiu Xia He and Andre Thibault and their colleagues have enriched the Vancouver music scene as few others have, and unlike Qiu Xia’s old friends in China, they’re performing live—and very much alive.
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