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Dulcimer dame
Liu Yuening plays the Yangqin at the Chinese consulate. Picture by Aranya Sen

She first plucked the strings when she was just nine. The sweet notes made Liu Yuening give her heart to music. By the time she was 12, she was being hailed as an exponent of the yangqin, a Chinese hammered dulcimer which is a cousin of the santoor. Today, Yuening is one of China’s best-known musicians and also a scholar, with music albums, books and research papers to her credit. The petite and charming woman was in town for the Night of the Orient — When East Meets East, a musical extravaganza held at Town Hall to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. A t2 chat...

You have played in Calcutta before…

I played at the Town Hall three years ago on May 4 and this year I was back to play at the same venue on the same day! I am very excited. I have lived in Delhi for long but I love performing in Calcutta. I really like this city; it has an atmosphere of culture and learning. It receives music and art so openly.

What part do you play in the Sino-Indian cultural exchange?

I have stayed in India not just to learn about its music but also its culture and way of life — aspects that determine a country’s identity. Only then did I start on this music collaboration project, keeping in mind three goals. First, to introduce a Chinese instrument in India. Second, to discover common ground between the two countries through music. We have so much in common — religion, musical tradition and a sense of respect and culture. And third, to create something new out of this common ground. I have collaborated for three years with top Indian musicians, like santoor player Tarun Bhattacharya and mandolin artiste U. Srinivas, to create something unique.

What are the similarities between Indian and Chinese music?

Both draw inspiration from nature and man’s interaction with nature. This determines their essence and quality. Even technically, there are similarities in our musical scales. Our folk traditions are very strong, and from that comes the strain of improvisation. You will see how the great masters of music add something different to their pieces every time…. This is also there in Chinese music. I think these similarities make collaborating with Indian musicians very interesting and very challenging for me.

The yangqin looks very similar to the santoor. How are they different from each other?

They are very similar as they originate from the same instrument, but that is where the similarity ends. The santoor’s tone is more grave, while the yangqin has a more lively, light and warm sound. Also, the most basic difference is that my instrument has 1,000 strings, while the santoor has 100. The sticks that we play with are completely different. Yangqin uses thin, flexible bamboo sticks, unlike the wooden ones used on the santoor.

It sounds a bit like the piano…

Yes, that is because the sound is much more full and warm. In fact, it is also similar to the organ, as they have all evolved from the same instrument.

Did you know it was Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary when you started planning the musical project this year?

Yes. We, Chinese people, know Tagore very well and I thought it would be a great idea to combine the two occasions and play some Tagore as well as other pieces. What better way to forge stronger bonds?

The yangqin is a trapezoid string instrument having its origins in Persia, over 4,000 years ago.

The instrument is known by many names across Europe and Asia: the hammered dulcimer in England, the hackbrett in Germany, the tympanon in France, the cimbalom in Central Asia and santoor in India.

Over the years, the yangqin became integrated into the Chinese musical tradition and has now a distinct style of playing. It is an integral part of the nation’s folk music culture.

The yangqin is is played with thin, flexible bamboo sticks called qin zhu.

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