Pipa Master Min Xiao-Fen On The "Harmony And Balance" Of Traditional Chinese Music & Her New Album, 'White Lotus'

Min Xiao-Fen

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

GRAMMYs/May 21, 2021 - 02:38 am

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, 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. 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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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More



Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Rosalía Announces First Solo North American Tour


Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images


Rosalía Announces First Solo North American Tour

El Mal Querer Tour, named after the Spanish pop star's latest album, will come to Los Angeles on April 17 in between her Coachella performances

GRAMMYs/Mar 20, 2019 - 12:25 am

Rosalía is set to perform at some of the most popular music festivals around the globe, including Primavera Sound in Spain, Lollapalooza (Argentina and Chile) and Coachella, but the Spanish pop star isn't stopping there when she gets to the States. Now, she has announced her first solo North American Tour with a string of dates that will bring her to select cities in the U.S. and Canada.

El Mal Querer Tour, named after her latest album, will come to Los Angeles on April 17 in between her Coachella performances. Then she'll play San Francisco on April 22, New York on April 30 and close out in Toronto on May 2.


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"I’m so happy to announce my first solo North American tour dates," the singer tweeted.

Rosalía won Best Alternative Song and Best Fusion/ Urban Interpretation at the 19th Latin GRAMMY Awards in November and has been praised for bringing flamenco to the limelight with her hip-hop and pop beats. During her acceptance speech she gave a special shout-out to female artists who came before her, including Lauryn Hill and Bjork. 

Rosalía has been getting some love herself lately, most notably from Alicia Keys, who gave the Spanish star a shout-out during an acceptance speech, and Madonna, who featured her on her Spotify International Women's Day Playlist. 

Tickets for the tour go on sale March 22. For more tour dates, visit Rosalía's website.

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Walk, Don't Run: 60 Years Of The Ventures Exhibit Will Showcase The Surf-Rock Icons' Impact On Pop Culture

The Ventures


Walk, Don't Run: 60 Years Of The Ventures Exhibit Will Showcase The Surf-Rock Icons' Impact On Pop Culture

The exhibit, opening Dec. 7, will feature late band member Mel Taylor's Gretsch snare drum, a 1965 Ventures model Mosrite electric guitar, the original 45 rpm of "Walk Don't Run" and more

GRAMMYs/Nov 22, 2019 - 01:44 am

Influential instrumental rock band The Ventures are getting their own exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles that will showcase the band's impact on pop culture since the release of their massive hit "Walk, Don't Run" 60 years ago. 

The Rock Hall of Fame inductees and Billboard chart-toppers have become especially iconic in the surf-rock world, known for its reverb-loaded guitar sound, for songs like "Wipeout," "Hawaii Five-O" and "Walk, Don't Run." The Walk, Don't Run: 60 Years Of The Ventures exhibit opening Dec. 7 will feature late band member Mel Taylor's Gretsch snare drum, a 1965 Ventures model Mosrite electric guitar, the original 45 rpm of "Walk Don't Run," a Fender Limited Edition Ventures Signature guitars, rare photos and other items from their career spanning six decades and 250 albums. 

“It’s such an honor to have an exhibit dedicated to The Ventures at the GRAMMY Museum and be recognized for our impact on music history,” said Don Wilson, a founding member of the band, in a statement. "I like to think that, because we ‘Venturized’ the music we recorded and played, we made it instantly recognizable as being The Ventures. We continue to do that, even today."

Don Wilson, Gerry McGee, Bob Spalding, and Leon Taylor are current band members. On Jan. 9, Taylor's widow and former Fiona Taylor, Ventures associated musician Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and others will be in conversation with GRAMMY Museum Artistic Director Scott Goldman about the band's journey into becoming the most successful instrumental rock band in history at the Clive Davis Theater. 

"The Ventures have inspired generations of musicians during their storied six-decade career, motivating many artists to follow in their footsteps and start their own projects," said Michael Sticka, GRAMMY Museum President. "As a music museum, we aim to shine a light on music education, and we applaud the Ventures for earning their honorary title of 'the band that launched a thousand bands.' Many thanks to the Ventures and their families for letting us feature items from this important era in music history."

The exhibit will run Dec. 7–Aug. 3, 2020 at the GRAMMY Museum

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Alicia Keys Unveils Dates For New Storytelling Series

Alicia Keys

Photo by Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images


Alicia Keys Unveils Dates For New Storytelling Series

The artist will take her upcoming 'More Myself: A Journey' biography on a four-city book tour

GRAMMYs/Mar 5, 2020 - 04:07 am

After performing her powerhouse piano medley at the 62nd Annual GRAMMYs, R&B superstar, GRAMMY-winning artist and former GRAMMY’s host Alicia Keys has revealed that she will set out on a four-stop book tour next month. The storytelling tour will support her forthcoming book More Myself: A Journey, which is slated for a March 31 release via Flatiron Books and is reported to feature stories and music from the book, told and performed by Alicia and her piano, according to a statement.

Part autobiography, part narrative documentary, Keys' title is dubbed in its description as an "intimate, revealing look at one artist’s journey from self-censorship to full expression."  You can pre-order the title here.

The book tour will kick off with a March 31 Brooklyn stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From there, Keys will visit Atlanta’s Symphony Hall on April 5 and Chicago’s Thalia Hall with Chicago Ideas the following day, April 6. The short-run will culminate on April 7 in Los Angeles at the Theatre at Ace Hotel.

Pre-sales for the tour are underway and public on-sale will begin on Friday, March 6 at 12 p.m. Eastern Time. Tickets for the intimate dates and full release dates and times are available here.

Keys won her first five career awards at the 44th Annual GRAMMYs in 2002. On the night, she received awards in the Best New Artists, Song of the Year, Best R&B Song, Best R&B Album and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance categories respectively. She has received a total of 29 nominations and 15 GRAMMYs in her career.

This year, Keys will also embark on a world tour in support of Alicia, the artist’s upcoming seventh studio album and the follow up of 2016’s Here, due out March 20 via RCA Records.