For one Alaskan, learning about the role of music in Chinese society was illuminating not for its foreignness, but for its familiarity.

While you might not be familiar with the word pipa, you have no doubt heard music produced by this 2,000-year-old, stringed, Chinese instrument. It is, to me, the sound of China.

Pipa virtuoso Wu Man has been travelling around Alaska sharing her love of the instrument not only for how it embodies the history and culture of China, her country of origin, but how it can be used in contemporary music forms. Wu Man is recognized as an outstanding exponent of the traditional pipa repertoire as well as a leading interpreter of contemporary pipa music by today’s most prominent composers, and collaborator with nationally renowned artists such as Yo Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet.

Wu Man is currently wrapping up her Alaska AIR (Artist in Residency) program after having performed a collaborative work with Alaska musicians titled “The Oort Coud” in Juneau, Sitka and Anchorage. (See previous posts about the Alaska AIR program here and here.)

The host organization for Wu Man’s residency was Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, the Native-owned national media organization headquartered in Anchorage. Shyanne Beatty, KNBA on-air personality and host of the nationally syndicated Indigenous music program Earthsongs, said that working with Wu Man and learning about the role of music in Chinese society was illuminating not for its foreignness, but for its familiarity.

“I learned how her culture parallels Alaska Native culture,” Shyanne said. “Especially the tradition of using music for blessings or to show respect – it’s not the same instrument, but similar customs.” An upcoming Earthsongs will feature an interview with Wu Man.

Successful artist residencies enrich the host communities, while providing an opportunity for growth and learning for the artist. Tomorrow, Wu Man will visit Rasmuson Foundation before departing for home, and we look forward to learning what Alaska has taught her.