Music

Jia Pengfang left his home in rural China with an erhu and a dream

by Chiho Iuchi

Contributing Writer

Talent is a ticket. Some people use it to nail auditions, others to get into a top school. Jia Pengfang used his to see the world, and his particular talent was the erhu.

Born in 1958 in China’s northeast province of Heilongjiang, Jia picked up the traditional stringed instrument after turning 8 — in the same year the Cultural Revolution began. While many artists and writers were being sent to the rural reaches of Red China, Jia, the youngest of five children, began dreaming of life in the capital.

“I wanted to take strides into a bigger world,” says Jia, who as a teen devoted himself to practicing the erhu. “My sister laughed at my dream.”

He eventually made it to Beijing to study under an erhu teacher and in 1978, after the Cultural Revolution blew over and the country had settled down, his teacher advised him to take the entrance exam for the Central Music Academy. He was then recruited by the China National Traditional Orchestra and, rather quickly, Jia found himself living the life of a professional erhu player.

He played there for 10 years but eventually began to wonder where else his ticket could take him. Chinese citizens hadn’t been allowed to travel abroad, but as Deng Xiaoping’s reforms began to cement themselves and China’s doors started to open, Jia saw an opportunity.

“In those days, pop music by Japanese artists such as Momoe Yamaguchi and Masashi Sada was popular in China,” Jia recalls, “and that made me yearn for Japan.”

Abandoning a secure future as a key member of the China National Traditional Orchestra, Jia moved to Japan in 1988. He recalls being quite confident in his choice; after all, he’d come pretty far already. New obstacles included a language barrier and visa complications, but once again Jia’s talent helped him. The respected composer Katsuhisa Hattori became a fan of Jia’s erhu and supported his quest to obtain an artist’s visa. For Jia, the respect went both ways.

“I was fascinated by Hattori’s music when I first heard it. It was warm, natural and had the right fit for the timbre of the erhu. I felt like I found what I’d been seeking,” Jia says. “Without him, I couldn’t have continued working in Japan.”

Hattori involved Jia in many of his musical projects. Among their collaborations was a brilliant performance with an orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1997. The following year, Jia released his breakthrough album, “River,” via the Pacific Moon label. The tracks blended Western musical styles with Chinese folk instruments, winning Jia a spot on the U.S. new age charts.

“I’ve always wanted to make world-class music with the erhu, but at first I didn’t quite know how I’d get audiences to accept this kind of instrument,” Jia says. “Of course, I incorporate traditional Chinese elements in my music, but if I were to go too strong on traditional styles then it might turn people off. There should be some balance and harmony.”

Sometimes known as the Chinese violin, the erhu’s history can be traced back more than 1,000 years. It’s a two-stringed bowed instrument with some unusual features: One is that its body uses python skin, resulting in its often threnodic sound. Another is that there’s no fingerboard; the player stops the strings by pressing their fingertips onto the strings without the strings touching the neck.

“Not being limited by a fingerboard, we can control the transition of the pitch and the depth of the vibrato, and that generates the specific stir in the wailing sound of erhu,” Jia explains. “How you control and express the sounds depends on each performer.”

To mark his 30th anniversary in Japan, Jia released a CD titled “Jasmine” earlier this year. It features Chinese pop covers and some new original material. He released “Kokoro Fureai” (“Sailing Around the World with Erhu”) in June, and has been holding concerts across the country. He has shows coming up in Toyama, Mie and Shizuoka prefectures, as well as an October date in Tokyo.

“It’s a luxury to be able to collaborate with a full orchestra, but there is still room for improvement,” Jia says about his recent performances. “Rather than just performing melodies on the erhu while accompanied by a Western-style orchestra, I wanted to find ways to create more harmonies between the unique sound of the erhu and orchestra.”

Though Japan has become like a second home to him, Jia hasn’t cut ties with China. He has been invited to a music event in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, on Aug. 17 — the first such invite since leaving 30 years ago. He’s also working on music for Chinese films and video games, the latter being a job he was asked to do because the producers had been fans of Jia’s contribution to the soundtrack for the 2002 Sega Dreamcast game “Shenmue.”

“They still remember my erhu from the game,” Jia says, adding with a smile that he has never played “Shenmue” himself. “Soundtracking video games used to be looked down on, but it’s definitely a musical field with big potential and budgets.”

Whatever field he plays in, Jia says he hopes his music can at least deliver some kind of emotional impact to those who hear it, and he takes pride in a certain sense of timeless beauty.

“Things that last for a long time have universal value. For instance, the beauty of a flower will never change, and perhaps our sense of appreciation for that beauty is deeply etched in our minds,” he says.

It’s the pursuit of expressing such beauty that keeps Jia and his erhu on their journey, and there’s always a new audience waiting.

Jia Pengfang takes his 30th Anniversary Recital to Mirage Hall in Uozu, Toyama Prefecture, on Aug. 26 (¥4,000; 2 p.m. start), and to Hamarikyu Asahi Hall in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward on Oct. 12 (¥6,000 at the door; 7 p.m. start). For information on other live appearances, visit www.jia-pengfang.com.