CHINA: Our World In Song - Daniel Ho, Wu Man & Luis Conte
Updated: Jan 20
A celebration of world music, this album takes inspiration from many sources and reinterprets it in a Chinese folk style
What is world music when you really think about it? In some ways it is undefinable and intangible, and it often finds itself used as a buzzword by Anglos like myself to mean “not Western”. Taken in that solely Western-centric view of things, it serves its purpose, but it tells one absolutely nothing about the music at hand. West African music is rather different from Maghrebi music from North Africa, which is in turn vastly different from the music of Southern Africa and that is nothing like the music of the Russian steppe, East Asia or Latin America. I guess my point is, it’s a phrase that I come across a lot, and is used a lot, but is mostly a reductive term used to pigeonhole non-Western artists and their music. However, there are times when world music is an appropriate label, and that is when fusion of many genres and styles is present in the music, which is exactly the case with Our World in Song by Wu Man, Luis Conte and Daniel Ho. What these three have achieved is to interpret music from all over the world in a traditional Chinese style, and have done so with aplomb. It is also an important document of music heritage as well, as it is the first album dedicated to the music of the pipa, a Chinese traditional instrument that is sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute.
“One cannot deny that Wu Man and friends have certainly proved what they wanted to, which is that music is universally applicable in all sorts of fusions and combinations, and that the pipa is a versatile enough instrument to be the main feature of an album.”
The album starts off with a version of the French traditional song Frere Jacques, yet when it begins, it seems to sound like a traditional Chinese folk melody, and only once we hit about a minute forty seconds in does it become apparent that it is actually a transposition of French music. This is the wonderful aspect of this album, in appropriating the music from around the world they show that music is truly universal and part of a shared world culture. To my untrained Western ears at least, the album feels like an authentic Chinese folk music album, but in turn, none of the songs aside from the second and twelfth songs are actually traditional Chinese folk songs. For the rest, the trio raided songs from every continent, and put it into this pipa music style. But that is not to say that they reject any other musical influences in their songs. Luis Conte is Cuban, Daniel Ho is from Hawaii, and Wu Man is Chinese, and as such the album reflects that diversity of musical heritage. The third song is taken from the Spanish flamenco piece Romance Anónimo, and the pipa playing is reminiscent of the music of the flamenco guitar maestro Francisco Tárraga. The song after that, an interpolation of the South African traditional melody, Shosholoza, and their version has noticeable influences from South African music. One of the most famous recordings of Shosholoza is by the Soweto Gospel Choir, and that triumphant, soaring gospel sound has been incorporated alongside the sound of the pipa. These fusions may seem incongruent, but in context they work wonderfully. At its best, it creates a human sound, rather than a region-specific one. In addition, on Daniel Ho’s website he has a breakdown of all the instruments played on each track, and they were mixing in instruments from all over the world in their songs, again adding to this concept.
The album is an experiment, and a very interesting and enjoyable one at that. One cannot deny that Wu Man and friends have certainly proved what they wanted to, which is that music is universally applicable in all sorts of fusions and combinations, and that the pipa is a versatile enough instrument to be the main feature of an album. The light, almost impish and plucky sound of the pipa is expertly played by Wu Man, and the virtuoso playing is what sets this album out from the crowd, as it is literally the first album of its kind. For this alone it would merit a place in the history of world music, as it is somewhat unique. However, it is also true that it is a very good, accomplished, interesting and fun album that dips into music from all over the planet in an accessible way.