Photo: Jiang Bingqing
Pipa Master Min Xiao-Fen On The "Harmony And Balance" Of Traditional Chinese Music & Her New Album, 'White Lotus'
To Min Xiao-Fen, the music of the West and East aren't so different. And although "Anicca," off her new album, 'White Lotus,' has an otherworldly quality, a closer listen evokes a universal sensation of integrity and order
To hear Min Xiao-Fen's "Annica," named after a Buddhist term meaning "impermanence," is to feel pulled between the earth and the ether. She plays the pipa, which, in America, is typically thought of as a Chinese lute. The tonality of the strings may evoke something close to an acoustic guitar, but the harmonies have depth and darkness beyond description—to say nothing of her droning, rasping vocal over the top.
But after a minute or two, gravity sets in. The tune, premiering exclusively on GRAMMY.com, from her new album White Lotus, out June 25, reveals ancient dimensions of harmony and order. (The pipa's been around for more than 2,000 years, after all.) What initially may have come off as strange and different becomes incontrovertibly human—something from the heart or the guts. In conversation, Xiao-Fen is kind, bubbly and informative, and she's quick to note that American sounds aren't so different from those ringing from China.
"Blues and bluegrass reminds me of what I studied in China!" she says with a dash of mirth. "Talking blues reminds me of a Chinese [form] called pingtan. It's music from the Southeast that I grew up with."
Speaking of transdisciplinary connections without borders, here's another: The relationship between music and cinema. White Lotus is Xiao-Fen's original score to the long-lost 1934 Chinese silent film, The Goddess. The music isn't just played on pipa, but on a variety of other plucked instruments—plus, eerie loops mixed with Buddhist chanting. The results sound far more familiar than alien thanks to Xiao-Fen's mastery and deep connections to American improvisational music.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Min Xiao-Fen to talk about her roots in traditional Chinese music, how she came to score The Goddess, and how music can explode cultural barriers between the East and the West.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
Tell me about the pipa's history and significance in China.
The pipa developed during the Qin Dynasty between 220 and 270 B.C. Of course, it's a plucked instrument. Western people say it's a Chinese lute. It's a pear-shaped wooden body. The name "pipa" comes from Chinese syllables: pi and pa. The maker of the instrument played it and heard sounds like "Pi-pa, pi-pa," so he kept the name. The most common technique is to use your first finger, strike down, and with your thumb, strike back, so it sounds like "pi-pa."
The pipa has four strings. The tonality is A-D-E-A. During the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907 A.D., a pear-shaped wooden body pipa was introduced to China from Central Asia. At that time, the pipa only had three or five frets, was held horizontally and they used a plectrum. During the Tang Dynasty, the pipa became a principal musical instrument in the imperial court, and it was played solo or with an orchestra.
Right now, I'm playing the modern, reformed pipa, so it's chromatic-scaled and has six large frets and 24 bamboo frets. It's been around so long that it has a large repertoire; [it can be] played lyrical-style, martial-style. It's a wonderful instrument, especially for solo.
What feelings is it meant to convey? Is it meant to capture the entire spectrum of emotions? Or does it have a specific role in that regard?
Chinese music is always associated with nature and seeking that harmony and balance. When we play traditional music, which is very hard because you have to use your inner energy, we always emphasize strong but not aggressive, soft but not weak. This is how I was trained as a traditional Chinese musician. You have to be very careful how you play, with your energy. Just don't show too much! Always the balance.
How did you come to this instrument?
I grew up in a musical family. My father—he passed away—was an educator and pipa master. He taught at Nanjing University for 60 years! My sister was a well-known erhu player; that's a Chinese two-string fiddle. She passed away, too. I'm the youngest. My brother is an orchestra conductor.
When I was young, I just wanted to play. I didn't want to study music. My father always encouraged me to study a Chinese instrument, but I was just not into it. One day, I remember my father, after university, came back home and said, "Hey, your classmate wants to study pipa with me!" I lent her the pipa and immediately got jealous. So I told my father, "I want to learn!" I was 10 years old.
Is the pipa the only traditional instrument you play on White Lotus?
I played several other plucking instruments. Actually, it's a whole family of instruments. One is the ruan. It's also a plucked instrument, four strings. It's kind of a lower tone, like a viola, a little bit. Also, I play the sanxian. It's also in the Chinese plucked-instrument family. The sanxian has three strings and no frets with a long handle. Also, the guqin, one of the ancient seven-stringed instruments. We're going back 3,000 years.
Tell me about scoring The Goddess.
I had to compose a musical theme for each character in the film. For the single young mother forced to work as a prostitute, struggling to support her young son, I used Buddhist chanting and voice with electronic loops to surround her and to show her lotus-like purity.
For her young son, I created some simple notes to emphasize his innocence. The sounds for the thug, or gangster, who was stealing money from a woman trying to save money for her son's education, are dark, ugly and irregular. The climax of the film occurs when the young mother grabs a bottle and smashes the thug on his head. That moment is so strong, so I decided to simply use silence and let the action speak.
Min Xiao-Fen. Photo: Jiang Yu
Where do traditional Chinese music and American improvisational music connect for you?
I was a pure traditional musician, and I have a lot of stories I could tell you about how I went in this direction. Basically, I learned all kinds of genres and styles of jazz on stage, because I work with so many great musicians. I started composing my music in 2012 with my Dim Sum CD. I was thinking, "I want to do something for myself." Just spontaneous. I thought I would start to improvise on swing notes and see how it goes.
Is there a way that understanding the ancient musical heritage of Asian-Americans can help combat xenophobia?
That's what I want to do. I feel like it's my duty. I want to introduce not only my instrument, but all kinds of things, arts and film. America's a great place for all kinds of races and cultures.
First of all, I feel very lucky because I never thought I could go that far. I was totally trained as a traditional musician, not changing the notes, just following what the master taught me. Coming to America, I felt very lucky. I met so many musicians that influenced me. I could become myself. Before, I was so stiff! When I came to America, everyone just said, "Hey, do what you want to do! Be yourself!" I fundamentally changed.
It's not only films. I also worked with dancers and opera singers. Also, visual arts. I learned so much from different kinds of formats and arts. It's good to share your experience and share your culture—to tell people what a great history China has.
I feel like when one views another fearfully as an interloper, understanding that they have their own rich traditions and inner lives just like them can help soothe those pains. I mean, China is an ancient place; America is only about 250 years old.
You know, there are a lot of similarities. Blues and bluegrass remind me of what I studied in China! Talking blues reminds me of a Chinese [form] called pingtan. It's music from the Southeast that I grew up with. It's a form of singing and talking and making jokes and playing and acting. It's very similar to the blues. This world is small, you know? People should be open-minded.
We think these lands are so far-flung, but they're not. The East and the West aren't on different planets.
You don't know this instrument, but music is a universal language. You don't need to say something. You just play it and make them happy.
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Photos: Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW; Robert Okine/Getty Images; Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella; Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
5 Artists Showing The Future Of AAPI Representation In Rap: Audrey Nuna, TiaCorine & More
A growing number of Asian American and Pacific Islander artists are exploring how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express their multiculturalism — and they're being embraced for doing so.
Is it possible for an Asian American rapper to achieve widespread commercial success? In the 2016 documentary Bad Rap, no one could be too sure.
At that point, some firsts for the community turned out to be false starts: In the ‘90s, Mountain Brothers was the first Asian American rap group to sign to a major label, but left just two years later. In the early aughts, MC Jin lost critical career momentum he gained from his impressive winning streak on "106 & Park’s" Freestyle Fridays, when Ruff Ryders delayed his debut album release by more than a year. As Miley Cyrus sparked a national conversation about cultural appropriation in hip-hop, Bad Rap’s subjects faced questions regarding whether they’re just as guilty as Cyrus, or whether their music was helping break the “model minority” stereotype.
Since then, hip-hop, a Black music tradition, has spawned countless global scenes, bringing contemporary rap across the Pacific and beyond. Rap taking hold in Asia can still seem contentious, whether dissecting K-pop's use of the genre or revisiting the viral songs that landed Awkwafina in Bad Rap. But, there is also a growing number of artists who are figuring out how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express and explore their multiculturalism — and are being embraced by the music industry for doing so.
In 2013, Kanye West’s jarring Yeezus changed Audrey Nuna’s music tastes for good, encouraging her to check out hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest and MF DOOM. From there, she "started making what I wanted to hear," as she told Pigeons and Planes.
Nuna prefers to call herself a singer, to better reflect the stylistic versatility throughout her 2021 debut a liquid breakfast. Still, the "Robitussin flow" in "Comic Sans" is undeniable — to where Jack Harlow responded to her cold email and hopped on the song’s remix.
The making of a liquid breakfast made Nuna realize that she never has to search far to find inspiration. On "Blossom," Nuna’s grandmother laughs as she tells her about how, while fleeing the Korean War, she woke up from a nap on the migrant trail to find that her travel group — including her family — accidentally left her behind.
In the future, Nuna hopes to feature more Korean instrumentation as she channels her current influence, Radiohead. As Nuna told W, "We’re sitting here, living, because our grandparents were able to survive."
"She fell in love with the lifestyle of a pop star," pH-1 raps in "Yuppie Ting," the third track off his 2021 album But For Now Leave Me Alone. As he boasts of the Louis Vuitton he wears and the Michelin star meals he eats, pH-1 alternates between rapping in Korean and English with impressive precision, his flow skating over BlackDoe’s garage-inspired production.
Behind the scenes, pH-1 has felt more torn between the Korean and Western music industries than his music lets on. Even Jay Park, who has followed pH-1 since he moved to Korean and competed on rap talent show "Show Me the Money," once told him to write more in Korean. But for pH-1, to write exclusively in Korean would be to deny his Stateside upbringing in Long Island and Boston, and how he, like so many Korean Americans, naturally alternate between Korean and English in conversation.
"If I want to ‘financially succeed’ in Korea, I would have to make a song that’s very Korean-style. But that’s not me," pH-1 said to fellow artist Eric Nam in 2019. Instead, the more glittering spots of But For Now Leave Me Alone showcase pH-1 to be the experienced globetrotter he is.
In Bad Rap, Rekstizzy films a music video where, at a cookout, he squeezes picnic condiments not onto hot dogs, but the backsides of dancing Black women — for a song called "God Bless America." In his larger quest to become the "Korean rapper" he dreamed of in elementary school, he figured that outrageously offensive visuals were a must." "Whatever we do, people are gonna talk shit about us ‘cause we’re Asian," he says in the documentary.
Straddling the Asian and American aspects of one’s identity can seem impossible. But now, years after Bad Rap and after guest appearances in Adventure Time and Beef, Rekstizzy seems to have figured out an ideal balance. Mostly, he doesn’t seem nearly as pressed over proving that he’s American.
His own pop culture references, crude as they may be ("May cop a lewd body pillow on Etsy"), speak volumes. His music’s debaucherous nature recalls a wide swath of U.S. regional rap styles, from the Bay Area ("요리 (Yori)"), to the Midwest ("Mal Do An Dweh") and Atlanta ("Hentai"). As for his attempts to rap entire verses in Korean for the first time, apparently the jokes write themselves. As he and Bad Rap co-star Dumbfoundead realized while recording "Mal Do An Dweh," their takes on Korean slang sound hopelessly out of date, because as the latter realized, "We communicate in Korean more with our parents than our friends who speak in Korean."
Spence Lee is the child of a first-generation Chinese American and a Vietnamese refugee. But for much of his earlier material, his ethnic origins were hard to discern on record alone.
Spence Lee’s previous moniker, Shotta Spence, honored the "Dirty Jersey" that raised him — more specifically, the Caribbean supporters he gained before he relocated to New York, modeled for Yeezy, and gained producer Mike WiLL Made It as a mentor. That influence also appears all over his last full-length, 2019’s 1012; on songs like "Bounce," his cadence is equally inspired by reggae and trap.
Spence still shouts out how he came up with "shottas" and "rastas" on the autobiographical single, 2022’s "On God," one of his first under a new moniker bearing his family name. But that fact makes up just one chapter in his larger journey to capturing both the attention of Mike WiLL and 88rising, who jointly released the single. Mike WiLL explained to Joysauce how he and 88rising founder Sean Miyashiro saw "how Spence could be the bridge for many cultures, being from Jersey \[and\] into fashion, understanding his history, having principles and morals."
But Spence perhaps puts his new direction best in "On God," when he raps, "I do all this s— for my mom."
TiaCorine (whose father is Black and Japanese, and whose mother is part of the Shoshone Nation) ends her 2022 breakout album, I Can’t Wait with a breakup anthem dedicated to the poor music exec who counted her out. In "You’re Fired," she raps to keep from crying and sounding completely helpless: "You never listen to my songs, I’m always doing something wrong."
Today, her sly single "FreakyT" has 21 million Spotify streams and a Latto remix, it’s impossible to imagine how the situation in "You’re Fired" must have played out in real life.
TiaCorine’s music is Southern rap by way of Hatsune Miku — and it makes perfect sense, in an age where streaming has turned both hip-hop and anime (two of her biggest influences) into Stateside juggernauts. Her music captures the zeitgeist, though it also comes from an authentic place: While her father played formative ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop in his Range Rover, her mother blared pop-rock instead. "That goes into my music — of me, just being free. Me just being confident in myself," TiaCorine told Preme magazine. Thanks to that confidence, mainstream success not only seems possible, but inevitable.
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Photo: Courtesy of Henry Lau
Press Play: Henry Lau Shows Off His Musical Prowess With A Dynamic Performance Of "MOONLIGHT"
Genre-bending singer Henry Lau uses a loop station to perform his single "MOONLIGHT," incorporating the violin, cello and both electric and acoustic guitar.
With his single "MOONLIGHT," Henry Lau refuses to be burdened by his past relationships. Now, he's turning a new leaf, dancing carefree under the night sky, regardless of the negative emotions he might feel.
"I'm waking up in a daze, get it out of my face/ The sun is shining on every move that I make," the singer reveals in the second verse. "So, let's get to forgetting everything that went wrong/ Everybody here, we been crying too long/ We can dance about it to our favorite song."
In this episode of Press Play, Lau performs "MOONLIGHT" from a mansion rooftop during sunset. He constructs the entire song using a loop station, playing a violin, cello and electric and acoustic guitars — one of his signature performance techniques that prompted his nickname, "one-man band."
Lau released "MOONLIGHT" in January — marking his first single in two years — via Monster Entertainment, the label he founded alongside his brother Clinton. He released another single, "Real Love Still Exists," two months later; the track features Malaysian R&B singer Yuna.
Watch the video above to watch Henry Lau's impressive loop station performance of "MOONLIGHT," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.
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Photo: Joseph Rosen
Here's What Went Down At The 2023 Blues Music Awards In Memphis
A crowd of more than 1,100 filled the ballroom of the Renasant Convention Center in Memphis for a music-filled show. Here are four takeaways from the soulful evening.
For more than four decades — even during the pandemic — the Memphis-based Blues Foundation has annually recognized the genre's best, including such GRAMMY-winning luminaries as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
On May 11, the foundation presented the 44th Annual Blues Music Awards, featuring a host of blues mainstays — as well as younger artists who combine the various strains of the blues with diverse strands of Americana.
A crowd of more than 1,100 filled the ballroom of the Renasant Convention Center in Memphis for a music-filled show that packed 25 awards and more than a dozen musical performances into a deceptively tight five-hour show.
Here are four takeaways from this year's Blues Music Awards:
Big Winners Were Touched By Tribulations
This was the second in-person BMA ceremony following two years of virtual presentations due to COVID. But while the pandemic has abated, illness still loomed over some of the night's wins.
Tommy Castro, who won B.B. King Entertainer of the Year for the second year in a row — and whose band is, ironically, called the Painkillers — missed the ceremony because he was recuperating from back surgery. His award was accepted by his frequent collaborator, Deanna Bogart, also a winner for Best Instrumentalist - Horns.
BMA regular John Németh, who recently survived a bout with a jaw tumor, was thankful just to be alive to accept his two awards on the night, one for best instrumentalist-harmonica and another for Best Traditional Blues Album for the aptly-titled May be the Last Time, a collaboration with Elvin Bishop and others that was recorded two weeks before his cancer surgery.
"I had no idea if I was going to be able to make it here tonight, but I did," said Nemeth to a round of applause. "I want to thank the Blues Foundation, I want to thank their HART Fund, and I want to thank everybody who donate to my GoFundMe to help me get a brand-new jawbone so I can play some more harmonica."
Repeat Winners Ruled The Night
A lot of familiar names were called out from the stage. In addition to Nemeth, Buddy Guy (Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album) and blues rock up-and-comer Albert Castiglia (Blues Rock Album and Blues Rock Artist) each won two awards on the night.
Meanwhile, Castro led the way among artists winning categories for consecutive years, including Albert Castiglia (Blues Rock Artist), Danielle Nicole (Instrumentalist Bass), Curtis Salgado (Soul Blues Male Artist) and Sue Foley (Traditional Blues Female Artist).
Perhaps most impressive though was GRAMMY-winning blues guitarist Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, who won Contemporary Blues Male Artist for an impressive fourth year in a row.
While ccepting the award, a humble Ingram said he hadn't prepared anything to say because he didn't expect to win. Right then, he thanked his fellow nominees, and returned to the stage for an acoustic set that showcased his strong, assured vocals as much as his adroit fretwork.
Hill Country Blues Are Alive And Well
The night before the BMAs, the Blues Foundation held a ceremony at the Halloran Centre in downtown Memphis to induct a new class into the Blues Hall of Fame.
This included departed greats Esther Phillips, Carey Bell, Snooky Pryor, Fenton Robinson, Josh White, and Junior Kimbrough, the late Holly Springs bluesman who helped pioneer what has become the North Mississippi Hill Country style.
At the BMAs, the sound made famous by Kimbrough and his close contemporary, the late R.L. Burnside, proved to be alive and well.
R.L.'s grandson, GRAMMY winner Cedric Burnside, who holds an impressive 10 BMAs, was, scheduled to perform but, for whatever reason, missed his slot.
His uncle Duwayne Burnside, who has written and played with his father, Kimbrough, and the North Mississippi Allstars, among others, carried the torch. He played an acoustic set of hill country classics backed by R.L.'s longtime guitarist Kenny Brown.
Young Artists Made Their Mark
Veteran blues artists dominated this year's BMAs, but a handful of young performers broke through at the show as well, wowing the audience with their performances.
McComb, Mississippi's Mr. Sipp (aka, Casto Coleman) returned to close out the night with a gospel-infused closing set that brought the crowd to their feet.
Two more former emerging artist winners also provided show highlights: GRAMMY-nominated band Southern Avenue rocked the house with an inspired acoustic stage mini set, featuring a trio of female voices.
Meanwhile, Detroit's Annika Chambers and her musical partner Paul DesLauriers delivered a high-energy segment that fused rock and soul into their blues.
Joining these up-and-comers was this year's Emerging Artist winner, 22-year-old St. Louis native Dylan Triplett.
A prodigy blessed with a four-and-a-half octave vocal range, Triplett took the stage early with his band to play R&B-inflected selections from his debut album, Who Is He? When his name was called for his award, he acknowledged his faith and thanked his parents — including his father, saxophone player Art Pollard.
Clearly, the blues are alive and well — and the 2023 Blues Music Awards remain a critical part of this magnificent musical sphere.
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Photo: Courtesy of Nat Myers
ReImagined: Nat Myers Offers A Bluesy Rendition Of John Prine's Final Song, "I Remember Everything"
Korean-American blues singer Nat Myers honors John Prine by transforming the late country great's final song into an upbeat, acoustic folk track.
On April 7, 2020, the country world had to say goodbye to beloved icon John Prine. Two months later, his final song was posthumously released, and it was a poignant one: "I Remember Everything," a reflection on a well-lived, well-loved life.
"I remember everything/ Things I can't forget/ The way you turned and smiled on me/ On the night that we first met," Prine sings in the chorus. "And I remember every night, your ocean eyes of blue/ I miss you in the morning light like roses miss the dew."
In this episode of ReImagined, Kentucky native Nat Myers performs a cover of "I Remember Everything." Known for his nimble picking style, the Korean-American singer performs the song on just an acoustic guitar. He remains mostly faithful to Prine's original recording, but increases the tempo for a more folk-inspired sound.
Aside from covers, Myers has a blooming career writing original blues music. On June 23, he will release his newest album, Yellow Peril, via Ease Eye Sound, an independent record label and studio in Nashville, Tennessee, owned and operated by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
Press play on the video above to watch Nat Myers' cover of John Prine's "I Remember Everything," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of ReImagine.
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