The Wire


Yan Jun

Yan Jun: Thanks For My Chinglish

January 2014

Writer, musician and Sub Jam label runner Yan Jun tells a story about Chinglish music and what happens when the King Kongs and Godzillas of world music collide.

Recently I've been thinking a lot about world music. And before writing this article about it, I did a lot of preparation: I took a shower; I replied to several emails from friends in Europe and Canada before the shower; I played Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew loudly while I took the shower; I helped another friend by proofreading a translation of his Chinese tour flyer, after the shower. Etcetera. All of these details are to illuminate my feeling for English. But why Miles Davis? To make me feel easier as there’s no lyrics in his music, la.

There was a “la” in the end of that last sentence. I don’t know how to express myself without it. It’s like shrugging my shoulders. People in Hong Kong speak English in this way. So, I guess Peter Scherr does too. He is a jazz musician and producer who has lived there for years and I hate him. Sorry for my Chinglish, I mean: I have collaborated with guqin player Wu Na in many improvised music situations, but one day she told me that she will not play improvised music anymore because Peter Scherr told her that he felt bored by it. As Scherr and Wu Na had a successful world music collaboration at that time, she took his opinion to heart and started focusing on composed music instead.

Now, it’s possible that Peter Scherr will hate me because I have picked him as a scapegoat to hate world music through. But please, Peter, don’t hate me, it’s world music’s fault, so together let's hate world music, instead of each other!


Guqin is the most elegant traditional instrument in China. An instrument that is about creating subtle sounds rather than distinct notes. Check the almighty Wikipedia if you don’t know it. Wu Na is the only player who has brought this zither to the world of jazz, rock, experimental, improvised and, unfortunately, world music. Sorry for my Chinglish again, but in my dictionary world music means unlucky.

Once I saw Wu Na play with a Swiss jazz group in Bern. The musicians were not young but they seemed to be trying to play a kind of high school orchestra level of jazz. Musically, the guqin was useless in that arrangement as there was an electric bass covering all of its parts. Just like Miles Davis overwhelmed the sound of my shampooing in the shower. After watching that show, I lost some money and then fell ill.

Together with Wu Na and two other musicians, Xiao He and Li Daiguo, and tea master Lao Gu, I recorded some music and released it as The Tea Rockers Quintet. We described it as improvised world music. Unlucky: after playing together four times, it was then that Wu Na said she preferred to play composed music.

There is a rumor in China: that the academic, traditional musicians can never escape melody and composition. Another rumour is that only the ladies of these traditional instrument players (for instance Wu Man, Min Xiaofen and Yang Jing, three pipa players) can survive in the Western music world. I’m not sure about the first rumour, but I know there is an exception for the second: sheng player Wu Wei. Wow! In one picture, he plays in front of conductor Gustavo Dudamel. I see Godzilla vs King Kong, two giants from different worlds collide on stage. I love Wu Wei’s new hair and red scarf. And unfortunately (or unluckily) none of the above ladies would dare to have a style like his: disharmonious and a bit crazy.

wuwei_laGodzilla vs King Kong: conductor Gustavo Dudamel (left) and sheng player Wu Wei

No lyrics, but Miles Davis has his language, indeed. It smells like English, it’s lively. And all these players and composers like Dudamel and Wu Wei have their own languages, too. But they need to build a new language so that they can play together. But I think this is not my business, and they would probably kill me if I showed up and played my Chinglish music on their stage. But anyways, why should they play together? Only because “We Are The World” or a similar sentiment?

Now I’m listening to Cecil Taylor. A logical step after Miles Davis. It’s a Freedom release. But how can I write about guqin with this kind of music? There is no reason to put guqin into this world. They are good when they have distance in between. We do not live in one world, fortunately. I couldn’t image living in a world where everybody spoke the same language. Neither English, nor the new musical Chinglish one we’ve created so that West can play with East! Now I hear a voice crying from the speaker. Jazz players speaking, singing, crying, muttering when they play their instruments. It’s just nonsense, cries accompanying the player’s body movement. It sounds like a small gap opening from another, almost visible, world. Like a King Kong or Godzilla smiling out from under the shadow of the great world music game.

But to be honest, as a listener I prefer to hear more melodies and traditional compositions from players like Wu Man, Min Xiaofen and Yang Jing. Their King Kong lives, or dies, there.

Maybe Wu Na is right. Improvised music makes some people lost and anxious. Rich people always tend to protect their money, and language, I guess. And tradition is such a heavy wallet. Today Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor are heavy, too. Elegant ladies are terribly heavy. They can look like stone statues. (You know why people donate to temples? So that they can keep a lighter step: Good job old stones, thanks for keeping the money!)

And now my CD player is playing in its own style: glitch! A DJ Sniff style. Japanglish!

As it turned out, the solution to our quintet troubles was to play a trick: we would all play together for a fifth time, and this time I said to everyone: sure, we won't do any improvisation. We will make a precise plan before playing: three of us – without Wu Na and Lao Gu knowing it – will get totally drunk before we start and play spontaneously.

So, that's my world music story. Thanks for my Chinglish.



Hello Yan Jun,

It's good to read your story... I seem to remember that around the time I played with Wu Na, I had started to feel less drawn to free improvisation, and I must have mentioned that to her. Certainly I didn't mean that as a prescriptive "don't play free" in Wu Na's case.

I remember enjoying her playing (it was back in 2009, this project that we did together), and struggling to find a place for myself in the music. Not really finding it, which can happen sometimes.
The group was Didier Petit on cello, Wu Na, myself on bass and Xu Fengxia on guzheng. All those strings, and all covering more or less the same register. Bass and baritone through the treble range, but a lot of low and middle register. No matter what I played, I seemed to get in the way, so I ended up doing very little, which is fine. There's no law saying that you have to play all the time...

I had been doing a lot of free playing for several years, and was starting to feel like I was repeating myself, just doing the same kinds of sonic gestures over and over, and I wanted to play more song forms and rhythmic things, and have the potential for freedom to be there, lurking in the background.

So, for example, if you were playing a more structured thing, you could stray from that, as much as you wanted to, and it would be ok with everyone. If the music went there, you could completely abandon the structure and go off into a free section. Or a highly structured piece could be colored by improvisational gestures and effects. I wanted to have freedom available as one color in a huge palette of possibilities, rather than as the only color available.

It had a lot to do with my background. I was feeling the pull of my first loves in music, which were really classical music and rock music. So it was a very personal thing. This shift away from free playing.

I've heard recordings of Wu Na with Daiguo since then. Perhaps it was the tea rockers. I am not sure, but I think it was, and it was lovely music. Sparse and meditative and very free. Maybe you were on the record... Li Daiguo gave it to me when he came by my place a couple of years back... So I could enjoy hearing it, but I didn't want to DO that.

One thing that I believe is that whether the music is completely free, completely pre-determined or anywhere in between, there is always an aspect of improvisation present. That you have to surrender to the moment in order to make music that sticks to the air, music that rings true. So at the most profound level, it is not so important if the music is written or improvised. I am sure that when Dudamel is up there doing it, he feels the energy as it flows through him, and follows that. So even he doesn't know exactly how things are going to unfold, though the notes and dynamics and expression are highly determined.

...I think Wu Na is a great artist, and I would imagine that ultimately she is following her heart in what she decides to play. That's what I would wish for her, at any rate. I'd be pretty embarrassed if she was truly basing her choice on something that I said. Who am I to tell somebody else what to do? I wouldn't presume to do that. I'm just another person trying to find my way. I certainly don't consider myself to be any kind of authority on music or anything else.

Ok, I've rambled enough.

Peter Scherr

hi peter:
happy chinese new year!
Dudamel is great! wu na opens her guqin center recently! i love r 'n' r!
yan jun

Hi Yan Jun! How are things going with "Sub Gum" records. So is the issue free.improv or Worldmusic. Where would my stuff fit? (You know some of it) - about that: what can we look forward to with "Ahk for Kwok"? i am anticipating!!!!!
I know another "worldmusic" mouth-organ virtuoso success. She plays the "sho" and i heard her do a piece by Ichiynagi. Once in Korea i told a student who asked for advice about moving towards "National Music"(Koog Ahk) from "Classical"(European) that he should study Japanese music¨. I never understood why related Oriental cultures had so little knowledge of each other.
I would like to suggest that Wu Na take a look at the old piece i sent you"Sang-Teh". Some movements could be solo. Any instruments can follow the rules, so it is trascultural in essence. I sometimes wonder if i am American composer. What you think. (See, i know some Chinglish too!) yours, Ph.

Godzilla is Japanese.

Today, I went to the beach front with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said "You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear." She put the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

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