East-West Fusion in Carlsbad

Wu Man [photo (c) Stephen Kahn]

Wu Man [photo (c) Stephen Kahn]

The Carlsbad Music Festival’s combination of Mexican popular music and traditional Chinese pipa performance furnishes an unequivocal sign that the elitist, “who cares if you don’t listen,” approach to new music is fading. Tuesday (May 13) at Carlsbad’s St. Michael’s-by-the-Sea Church, Festival director Matt McBane introduced pipa virtuosa Wu Man and the four musicians of Son de San Diego in the first of a series of collaborative events under the sponsorship of a grant from the San Diego Foundation.

Midway between an open rehearsal and a formal concert, this relaxed performance presented an hour of Mexican and Chinese popular and traditional songs that melded the sonorous plucked strings of Mexico, e.g. the jarana and guitarra de son, with the vibrant plucked strings of the ancient pipa, sometimes called the Chinese lute. Their first song, “La manta,” a traditional Mexican ballad, opened with a flourish on the pipa and quickly segued into strumming on the four small guitars while Son de San Diego leader Eduardo Garcia took the lead vocal. The pipa was more prominent in a love song from the North of China that allowed Wu Man to execute rhapsodic variations on its plaintive pentatonic theme. The guitarists added their most deft accompaniment to this ancient theme, turning it into what Wu Man humorously described as “Chinese-Mexican blues.”

A party song from the same region a China, a boistrous piece that suggested dancing in the streets, also gave prominence to the pipa with Garcia offering a counter theme on the Andean panpipes. Another Mexican song, whose title translates as “The Woodpecker,” began with delicate harmonics from the smallest of the guitars and quickly grew into a rousing ensemble piece that demonstrated how well the pipa, with its bright, penetrating timbre, could hold its own against the other four plucked string instruments.

In the Q & A that followed the performance we learned that these instruments all had a common source in central Asia. While the pipa has long been identified with Chinese music, it came to China from Persia. And the 17th-century guitars brought to Mexico from Spain were not indigenous to the Iberian peninsula, but came there from what is now Afghanistan.

The next opportunity to hear this unique ensemble will be June 21, 2014, when the Carlsbad Music Festival holds is Village Walk in downtown Carlsbad, a free music festival in which many of the soloists and groups that will appear in the annual September Carlsbad Music Festival offer a free sampler of their wares.

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