Wang Li Chinese jaw harp and calabash flute Qingdao, China, via Paris, France Wang Li has attained a seemingly impossible level of virtuosity on some of the world’s oldest and humblest instruments. Employing circular breathing and throat-singing techniques with masterful subtlety on his favorite, the jaw harp, as well as the calabash flute, Wang Li’s […]
- Chinese jaw harp and calabash flute
- Qingdao, China, via Paris, France
Wang Li has attained a seemingly impossible level of virtuosity on some of the world’s oldest and humblest instruments. Employing circular breathing and throat-singing techniques with masterful subtlety on his favorite, the jaw harp, as well as the calabash flute, Wang Li’s improvisational solo performances are utterly transfixing. The ethereal music he has created is confounding – an experience simultaneously primeval and avant-garde. With a wry humor, Wang Li takes audiences on a meditative musical journey to interior worlds.
Wang Li hails from Qingdao, a coastal city in northeastern China on the Yellow Sea, where he grew up playing a kouxiang, or jaw harp. In college, he played bass in Western-influenced bands, but once he graduated, his life took a surprising turn: Li wound up in an austere French monastery, where he came to a new musical vision for the jaw harp and Chinese calabash flute. After four years there, he struck out on his very personal musical odyssey. Li studied jazz at the Paris Conservatory and became fascinated with improvisation. He then returned to China, and traveled throughout his native region learning from local musicians. All of these experiences are reflected in his highly personal, yet universal music.
Li can produce a mind-boggling array of sounds and rhythms on his chosen instruments, both of which date back many centuries. The Chinese kouxiang belongs to the vast, ancient family of mouth harps, which are found in cultures around the world. It is made of bamboo instead of metal and has three tongues. The hulusi (cucurbit, or “calabash” flute) is a free reed instrument with a gourd wind chamber. It has a beautiful pure, clarinet-like timbre but, being soft in volume, is most often played solo. While Wang Li is taking these ancient instruments into new territory, his compositions are most often inspired by fond memories of his family, and the simple nursery rhymes and counting songs of his childhood.
Both music writers as well as audiences have been wowed. Writer Rayna Jhaveri describes first hearing him play the jaw harp: “. . .I felt transported to some place of secret magic, as the music built slowly and progressively in energy until the whole room was pulsating with the power of this tiny instrument. . .” NPR’s All Things Considered: called him a “most sublime and experimental artist. . .who uses both traditional and avant-garde techniques and improvisation to create a surprising sonic palette.” The New York Times wrote: “. . .He played jew’s-harps, twangy little instruments that were closely miked and enriched by reverb so that every touch and resonance was audible in detail. . .fascinating, introspective perpetual-motion meditations. The rhythms of sharply pinging, clicking notes sometimes suggested electronic dance music; ghostly overtone melodies sighed up above. It was deeply solitary music, quietly spellbinding. The Wild Magazine described the music as “adark and dreamy almost acoustic dubstep sound. . .Wang Li is such a virtuoso, a sort of human Moog synthesizer.”
Bio provided by the Richmond Folk Festival