When Peninsula Productions set out to bring fresh, culturally-diverse sounds to concert venues in Surrey and White Rock, an ensemble like Red Chamber was top of mind.
A concert this Friday evening (Feb. 1) in White Rock is a rare local performance for the Vancouver-based quartet, known internationally for its traditional Chinese "plucked string" repertoire. Also intriguing is the influence of more modern sounds - bluegrass and gypsy jazz among them. The music is performed by four gifted women on instruments that include Chinese zither (or zheng) and lutes of various kinds.
"This really is a top-notch ensemble with great musicians, and we all come from similar cultural backgrounds," Red Chamber group leader Mei Han told the Now. "We speak the same language and lived the same social and political changes in China, and we were also trained as conservatory-trained musicians and worked in professional groups before moving to Canada. There is a lot of commonality in the group."
Red Chamber, which got its start in 2006, is now the primary musical vehicle for Han, who is earning her Ph.D in ethnomusicology at UBC. The ensemble also features Guilian Liu (on Chinese lute, or pipa), Zhimin Yu (bass lute, or ruan) and Geling Jiang (multi-instrumentalist).
"Many musicians come from Asia to Canada, especially Vancouver, which has become a hub for world music," Han explained. "We have great opportunities to collaborate with so many musicians who play different styles, including bluegrass, gypsy jazz and so much more. There is so much in those styles that we can learn from, as an ensemble, adding life to our music."
Han came to Canada in the mid1990s, some years after seeing first-hand the bloodshed of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. During that fateful spring night in 1989, Han could hear the gunfire from her dorm room as soldiers set upon protestors calling for a more democratic government.
"It was like experiencing war," she recalled. "It was a very difficult time. We were not surprised that the government would suppress the students, because that is what the Chinese government has always done, but to that extent was shocking - for armed soldiers to shoot innocent people like that.. I was born in a military family and worked in ensembles that belonged to the army, so what happened then (at Tiananmen Square) was a breaking point for me, and I started to question absolutely everything I was taught."
Han has played music professionally since the mid-1970s, and has become a master of the 20-string zheng in recent years.
"The instrument is easy to play at first," she explained, "because it is tuned to a pentatonic scale, and that sounds so sweet and attracts young girls to the instrument. But as I studied ethnomusicology and the history of (Chinese) music and more about the instrument, performing on it became more difficult. I am always learning."
This Friday, Feb. 1, Red Chamber performs at First United Church (15385 Semiahmoo Ave., White Rock), starting at 8 p.m. Tickets for the concert are $25 in advance (tickets. surrey.ca, also at Tapestry Music) or $30 at the door. For info, visit www. peninsulaproductions.com.