I finally did get to see the oldest playable musical instrument (Manwuyan) played tonight, having the prefect storm of things happen at once such as actually finding the concert hall without hours of wandering in the dark and arriving on the right date for the show. Things were really looking up since the concert organizer, who spoke perfect English (having graduated from De Paul in Chicago), was extremely friendly and gave me great seats four rows from the front.

To be clear, the organizers kept calling it the the oldest playable musical instrument at 800 years old but these bone flutes seem older by about 7000 years (they are also Chinese, officially "The flutes may be the earliest complete, playable, tightly-dated, multinote musical instruments.") Maybe this is the oldest string instrument or some other superlative, maybe this was just good marketing. (It was all in the Seoul newspapers so it must be true.)

The instrument is never traveling again out of China, and it is definitely really old, so I am satisfied that I have checked something off of the list.

This group of musicians and their style came from a town called Dali in Yinnan province, China, which is in the extreme south. It sits on a historic trade route with the melodious name of the "Horse Carried Tea Road." It seems like a beautiful, strikingly mountainous region, snow capped mountains and huge lush valleys. I have never heard of it, I must admit. The region is famous for a kind of tea called "Puer Tea." The show tonight included a video introduction to the region (in Korean) but I had a little booklet so I learned quite a bit new. A company that imports the tea and the special Puer tea pots (zisha pots) sponsored this concert, and here is a blog from the company that has the notes they handed out during the concert.

The head of the company ran the show, but I have no idea if he was flogging product throughout since the whole thing was in Korean.

The Chinese band ((Nanzhao Classical Music Esemble) had 19 members playing a bunch of different instruments, string, drums, and several kinds of wind instruments with a sharp reedy tone. I am almost totally ignorant of Chinese music, but it sounded cool. The Manyuwan has 25 strings, it looks a lot like a kayagum in fact, and is from the same family. Here it is being played in front:

I took this picture from the newspaper since I forgot a camera. The Manyuwan has a low sound. The band had another lute (a guzheng, I think), a brace of Er-hu players, a couple of pipas (center back of the picture), a couple of different size instruments called sanxians, which are very much like a thin necked fretless banjo with a snakeskin head (it is being played in this picture on the right).

I actually have the Japanese version of this (shamsien) back home that I picked up years ago in Madison, but I have only ever played Appalachian tunes on it.

The Chinese ensemble also had an extremely cool bass version of the sanxian, with a large apple basket sized body, a fretless neck, and a intricately carved eagle on the headstock. Very cool, I coveted it deeply throughout the concert.

I went up and looked at it afterward and was astonished to see that the neck was a fender electric bass neck retrofitted with elaborate Chinese pegs and with the eagle attached to the end, and then attached tho the wooden barrel. Something that can be made without much trouble.

There were a couple of showcases of particularly great musicians, as well as an effort to combine traditional Korean and traditional Chinese music (I think because it is a Korean company putting on the show, and they know musicians. One of the musicians was the daughter of a company executive I spoke to after the show). There was a pansori singer who was great. I have only heard old early 20th century recordings of pansori and never live, so that was a revelation. There were shouts of encouragement from men in the audience which I took to be considered part of the style.

The Er-hu player was great too. He did some fancy soloing on what at first I thought was the Chinese version of "Orange Blossom Special" but on further listening actually turned out to be a Korean tune called "Arirang" that I actually just learned last week at my kayagum class! (yes, his verison was a bit more ornate). He also did a duet with a Korean hae gum, which is a more nasal version of the Er-hu. The two sounded very interesting together, they have such different tones, it was like harmony singing in the same vein as Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn. And then they (the erhu and the hargum, not ET and Loretta) played "Toragi," which is a well known standard tune we learned about a month ago in the kayagum class. Looks like we are learning the right stuff!

I have to admit that I felt pretty good about being able to identify the Korean tunes being played even if I couldn't understand the commentary during the concert at all.


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