Catching the tiger, Wu Mei, oboes and cymbals

This Larson cartoon reminds me of the “catching the tiger” tricks of the Li band—a rare moment of secular entertainment within the liturgical sequence.

In my film (from 42’52”), Wu Mei’s tricks are charming (see also §B8 on the DVD with my 2007 book)—interesting also to compare (from 51’22”) the more leisurely 1991 version of his predecessor Wang Chang.

Wu Mei [1] (b.1970; film from 53’52”; see also Photos) is one of the great wind players in world music. Of course he does everything—also singing the liturgy, playing the large cymbals for a cappella sequences, and occasionally giving another Daoist a turn on the guanzi while he plays sheng mouth-organ. He’s a Daoist, not a “musician”, yet his musical genius is indispensable to the success of the Li band.

He was the fourth of five children from a poor family—his blind younger brother spent some time learning the shawm, and their father was an old friend of Li Qing. Wu Mei was at once enchanted by the sound of the funeral ritual, and there and then he went up to Li Qing and asked him if he could become his disciple. He went to live with him for the first year, and then commuted by walking an hour from his village, five li away.

Wu Mei recalls that the first time he played guanzi for a ritual was for a funeral at Lower Liangyuan in 1990, during his third year, playing small guanzi along with the aged Li Yuanmao on large guanzi. This might remind us of young, pre-punk, Nigel Kennedy in duet with venerable Yehudi Menuhin. But Wu Mei doesn’t remember much about it—they just got on with it; anyway, the seniors were satisfied with his playing.

When the hymns are accompanied by shengguan, a good guanzi player makes all the difference. Like Li Yuanmao or Li Tong in the old days, Wu Mei is not just totally reliable, he is inspired, helping the other Daoists to sing to the best of their ability, complementing them perfectly—managing to combine a deeply mournful tone with an almost playful way of weaving in and out of the melodic line, ducking and diving, sometimes soaring. The singers recognize that a good guanzi player is a great help to them in rendering the text.

Wu Mei soon became a local star. With his radiant innocence, he is on another planet, floating in the clouds above this world of dust. Here there is no empty display; he is a vessel, a puppet for the gods, like Bach. On guanzi—and not just in slow hymns but even in the zany “catching the tiger”—he has none of the posturing of the virtuoso. And not even just when he is actually playing: it is delightful when he takes a little break in the instrumental suite or the popular errentai sequence, doodling a little phrase reflectively on the guanzi before plunging back into the fray.

WM zhuo laohu

Concert performance in Rome, 2012

He is always devising new decorations, like renaissance divisions—experimenting, seeking new ways of making transitions. The others are attuned to all this as they accompany him. While the decorations of the older generation remained within strict confines, Li Manshan and Golden Noble observe that in recent years Wu Mei has been experimenting beyond the “rules”. To me, there was always an element of playfulness even in the slow solemn style (like Liu Zhong, although he wasn’t so admired); and if this is modernizing, then I’m cool with it. When I suggest to Li Manshan that Wu Mei’s ornaments are still serious and spiritual, he defers to my musical ears—but obviously he is a master musician with way more experience of the style. Perhaps the way to see it is as an innovation that began with Liu Zhong and has culminated in Wu Mei—it’s amazing, even if not strictly kosher. Bach would have adored Wu Mei’s guanzi playing.

The way he plays the large bo cymbals is childlike and adorable too; you can sense how utterly comfortable he is as a musician. Again he has a particularly charming way of decorating the patterns, tastefully testing his partner’s creativity and probing the possibilities. The most exhilarating, and by far the longest, cymbal piece is Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body, now played only as a coda for Transferring Offerings (for which, apart from the edited version in my film [from 1.11’07”], you can enjoy a fantastic complete concert rendition in the 2014 DVD), but also prescribed upon ascending the platform in the Pardon (film from 50’31”). Wu Mei and Yang Ying can’t help showing their delight in it, whereas Erqing and Li Bin maintain their serious demeanor. This is the only percussion piece that ever attracts an audience, and even applause. Local or urban, Chinese or foreign, no-one remains unmoved by this exhilarating piece.

[1] These comments are edited from my book.

One thought on “Catching the tiger, Wu Mei, oboes and cymbals

  1. Pingback: Dreaming | Stephen Jones: a blog

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