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Notes from the east

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Photography by Aaron Mayes

Behind the scenes and on stage, Hong Wang is dedicated to promoting Chinese musical culture. (Mastering 40 ancient instruments helps.) 

xun (pottery flutes)

xun (pottery flutes)

Stringed instrumentsThe musical notes that float from Hong Wang’s living room in southwest Las Vegas sound fresh, precise and yet faraway, each suggesting a languid, long-ago moment in China’s past. They come from instruments such as the banjo-like ruan, or moon guitar, a four-stringed instrument used in Beijing Opera. Or the xun, a clay-vessel flute resembling a beehive with finger holes. There’s also the laba trumpet, which mimics birdsongs, and the matouqin, or horse-head fiddle, a traditional Mongolian bow-stringed instrument on which Wang can evoke the thrumming energy of horses racing across the grassland. And, of course, there is Wang’s mainstay, the erhu, or Chinese fiddle. It was invented 1,300 years ago during the Tang Dynasty and sounds eerily like a human voice.

Each day in his living room-turned-studio, he plays these instruments not just to practice them, but to master them — and he has. At age 57, Wang works them all like a virtuoso, more than 40 ethnic Chinese instruments in all.

Support comes from

niutuiqin, a two-stringed fiddle“It’s my cultural identity,” he says of his commitment to these instruments. “I was raised in China. I lived there 30 years. I have done the research into the country’s musical past. And I want everyone to know that we have this tradition. That’s why I work so hard.”

His mastery is more than musical. Wang has also become Las Vegas’ shadow ambassador for Chinese music. Like the notes he plays, Wang’s influence isn’t readily visible, but you can certainly hear it and feel it. Over the past several years, Wang has worked with promoters in China to include Las Vegas on the touring schedule of several music-and-dance groups, including a 400-member student orchestra that performed at the Rio hotel-casino. He helped arrange a deal in which two touring Chinese dance groups performed at the Orleans hotel-casino. Wang is also the co-founder of the Nevada Arts Academy in west Las Vegas. He and his partner, Jie Bu, have so far brought 300 Chinese student musicians here for weeklong classes and orientations in American culture. And if that’s not enough, he’s writing the scores for two new Chinese animated films, one called Horse Pants, and hopes to get both shown at Las Vegas venues.

“Right now, we don’t have resident Chinese performance groups in Las Vegas, so we’re bringing them in from other places in the world,” he says. “We’re planning events to share our culture — not just with the Chinese community, but the community at large.” Of course, Wang puts his own instruments in service to the cause, too; he’s also the cofounder of local fusion band Pangea, which blends musical stylings from East and West.

Wang’s tireless commitment to sharing this music comes from a much deeper place than a desire for cultural connection. It’s intimately tied to his upbringing and personal history.

“I love my culture’s music,” he says. “And I don’t want it to die.”

 

Beauty in the face of banishment

Wang grew up in Nanjing, in southern China, the son of an engineering professor who was blacklisted and placed under house arrest during the Cultural Revolution’s attack on the nation’s artists, scientists and teachers. At 18, Hong, too, felt the government’s wrath. He was dispatched to the countryside for a year, where he planted tea and dug canals.

His salvation was music. Since the age of seven, he had been a singer and dancer in Beijing Opera productions until he became part of a traveling youth musical performance group called Little Red Flowers. After hurting his back in a fall, the young Wang switched gears to take up a more stationary pursuit: playing the erhu. He loved the voice-like quality of the sound, and began a strict discipline that has marked his musical career: He practiced day and night. Within six months, he had nearly perfected his play.

Even though he was politically banished to the countryside, Wang was kept close to Nanjing so he could continue to play. He later entered a musical conservatory, the Nanjing Arts Academy, where he added the ruanto to his repertoire. One day, when a professor said he needed a volunteer to learn the Western oboe, other students stood still. Wang raised his hand.

“I loved the oboe,” he recalls. “But my teacher warned that I needed to play well, otherwise the instrument sounded like a duck.”

The school sought to establish a new Western instrument department and soon began grooming Wang to teach there. He continued playing Eastern instruments and learned the dizi, or Chinese flute; the guanzi, a double-reed wind instrument; and the sheng, a mouth organ. Eventually, Wang left China to travel. In 1991, while in Europe, he heard an Irish group called the Red Army playing a respectable version of Chinese folk music. That’s when he was struck by the lightning bolt: It should be the Chinese themselves who promoted their music to the rest of the world, he decided. That began the quest to mine what is left of his nation’s musical traditions.

Those traditions are a dwindling resource. During lectures at various Chinese music conservatories, Wang has learned that while many young musicians embrace the East-West fusion sound, most want to play rock guitar instead of an ancient folk instrument their ancestors might have played. But he doesn’t blame Chinese youth for the lapse; he blames the government.

“The government has a duty to protect this cultural resource. With the right policies and encouragement, young people will come around.”

 

Strange yet elegant

In 2008, when he moved to Las Vegas from San Francisco, fleeing the threat of the next big earthquake, Wang brought with him a cosmopolitan musical mindset. He sought out other Chinese musicians here for jam sessions and inspired them to seek public playing engagements.

For four years, until 2015, Wang’s Beijing Trio ensemble played each Chinese New Year season at Bellagio’s Conservatory and Botanical Garden, entertaining curious international tourists, who wanted to know more about these strange-yet-elegant instruments.

“Many were amazed by their beauty,” he says. “And then, when they heard the sounds they made, they couldn’t believe it.”

That fascination goes both ways. An expert on the oboe and saxophone, Wang is a passionate proponent of fusion music, which combines sounds from many cultures. He’s played Chinese instruments along with Western orchestras in Berlin, San Francisco and Shanghai, and envisions a near future when international symphonies will combine the singular sounds and complex arrangements from countries across the globe. But make no mistake: His dreams are of a sonic tapestry, not a melting pot. When his tours have taken him to China, he’s given lectures to the country’s budding musicians, many of whom have forsaken their own musical heritage in a headlong rush to master the rock guitar.

Do not forget your roots, he advises them. You will need them to stake your culture’s place in the international music of the future.

In some ways, nurturing those roots is a race against time. How can these instruments be taught if their masters are dying off? For decades, Wang has also traveled to his homeland on a quest to preserve its ancient harmonies and techniques. He’s lobbied government agencies to locate the old masters, many sick and near death. He’s traveled by bicycle and by donkey over mountain passes to seek out the aging musicians who are sometimes wary of disclosing the secrets of their craft. Through these efforts, he’s amassed the last-known live recordings of musicians such as the Mongolian vocalist Hajab, who once sang his region’s ancestral melodies for Chairman Mao Tse-tung. And there is the old matouqin player Maxibataar, who was imprisoned for 15 years by the communists just for being a musician.

In the U.S., Wang has performed with Tan Dun, who won an Academy Award for composing the music for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and with Chinese-American composer Zhou Long, who won a Pulitzer Prize in music for the opera Madame White Snake. He has also played his suona, or Chinese oboe, in a session with the famed American jazz drummer Max Roach, each responding to the other’s lead in a musical conversation between two cultures, two musical traditions.

 

‘I’m ready to play’

Here in Las Vegas, Wang practices daily, between frequent trips to Los Angeles, where he’s contributed as a studio musician to the soundtracks of various movies, as well as the Kung Fu Panda cartoons. Jeremy Zuckerman remembers the first time he saw the slight Chinese musician walk into the Los Angeles studio for an audition. Zuckerman, the composer for the Kung Fu Panda cartoon series, wanted an authentic Chinese musical sound, but he worried that Eastern-trained musicians could not read Western music well enough to keep pace with demanding production schedules.

“I wasn’t sure how things were going to go, but from the moment I heard Hong play, I got goose bumps,” he says. “We signed our dude right then and there.”

Since then, Wang has played in more than 130 episodes of two cartoon series, as well as on several films. He drives to Los Angeles from Las Vegas every other week, his van loaded with various Chinese folk instruments. There, he labors in the studio for 12 hours or more, and then immediately drives home to Las Vegas. “Amazing,” says Zuckerman. “The guy works harder than James Brown.”

Cynthia Harris, the owner of Classical Entertainment, a Las Vegas musical booking company and former curator for the live music program at the Bellagio Conservatory, recalls how Wang frequently impressed audiences with his virtuoso efforts on various instruments.

“Hong is a brilliant technician,” she says. “Whatever he picks up, he plays masterfully.”

Since Bellagio discontinued the series last year, Wang has not found another local live-music venue to regularly display his talents. But that’s not silencing him: On weekends, Wang often throws parties for fellow Chinese musicians. They play competitive ping-pong and stage impromptu jam sessions. Otherwise, Wang is practicing, always practicing, as he looks for more musical projects in China, California and Las Vegas. Whether it’s a performance or a lecture, he’s eager to do anything to further the tradition of Chinese folk music that has become his life and his passion.

“I’ve practiced for years,” he says. “I’m ready to play.”

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