Music in the key of life

16:27, September 14, 2010      

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The musicians wear black, short collarless jackets, loose trousers, black turbans and big silver earrings that sway back and forth as they play in front of changing background visuals.

The four musicians, of the Va ethnic group from Yunnan province, are rehearsing Ancient Songs of Va People, one of the five chapters of a multimedia show to be performed at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), which is located in Beijing's 798 Art District, on Sept 18 and 19.

"It's so weird to have such a huge train out there. What's it for?" asks Yan Bin, 64, one of the Va musicians, referring to an ongoing exhibition by a young artist who moved a real train into one of the exhibition halls at UCCA.

Thanks to his family's long tradition of music, Yan, the son of a headman of a tribe in Ximeng Va autonomous county, in Pu'er city, was able to absorb a thorough knowledge of the ethnic group's music, especially the handmade instruments. "I have hundreds of instruments at home and the 47 I've brought here are just a small selection," Yan says.

"Here is a flute I made from a tree root. What makes it special is the strand of hair I tied to the end of the flute, which is from my late mother," Yan adds, holding up the flute.

Yan has been working for the Ximeng county culture department for over 30 years, specializing in recording the music of the Va ethnic group and collecting their musical instruments.

Yan and his elder brother Sui Ga have been enthusiastically dedicated to spreading traditional Va culture since 1997, when the late musician Tian Feng discovered them and invited them to form the first Va music class.

Yan says that he wants the current show to help people become more aware of Va ethnic culture, which honors family life, nature and a spiritual discipline based on responsibility.

"I felt like passing down the singing and dancing, just like letting my descendants remember my mother through the flute," Yan says.

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