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Vancouver composer and erhu player Jirong Huang erases boundaries between western and Chinese recorded music

Jirong Huang by @marclesperance
Jirong Huang has worked as a professional musician in Vancouver since immigrating from Shanghai in 1988. Photo by @marclesperance.

After more than a century of Chinese and western music mostly existing in separate silos in Vancouver, they’re finally coming together on recorded albums. A key instigator has been Jirong Huang, who founded the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble in 1989.

The cheerful ehru player and composer spoke to Pancouver over Zoom in advance of the ensemble’s upcoming Sunday (February 26) concert at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

Huang, suona player Zhong Xi Wu, and guzheng player Sarah Yusha Tan will join keyboardist Sijia Huang and percussionist Bruce Henczel for the release of Vancouver family folksinger Ginalina’s Going Back album.

Huang says that before he recorded Going Back with Ginalina, he was very familiar with the Asian folk songs on the album. In fact, he knew them since he was a child in Shanghai.

“I like all these songs—and the improvisations,” Huang says. “It feels good. It’s a different take.”

Huang explains that the ebullient final track, “Gong Xi”, is a very popular Chinese song commonly performed at Lunar New Year festivals. He noted that even Canadian kids are energized by the song’s melody and exciting rhythm and percussion.

“Actually, this song is not only for kids,” Huang says. “It’s for all ages.”

On Going Back, Ginalina injected a modern West Coast folk sensibility, along with some English lyrics, to the Asian songs. At the same time, the three-time Juno nominee included Chinese instruments, such as the guzheng and erhu, to retain the traditional feel.

17 Desktop_Ginalina-LunarFest Concert Together We Are
Jirong Huang, Ginalina, and Sarah Tan performed three songs together at the Orpheum Theatre for a Lunar New Year concert.

Huang records jazz album

Last year, Ginalina told Pancouver that the erhu, a.k.a. the two-stringed Chinese violin, and the guzheng added so much personality to Going Back, which is her fifth record.

“It really balances out the vision of this album, which is presenting these Asian Far East traditional folk songs, but in this kind of re-imagined West Coast folk style,” she said.

Over the decades, the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble has performed at many high-profile events. They include the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, and Sonic Boom.

The group has also worked with composers of diverse backgrounds. Between high-profile gigs, including the recent LunarFest Vancouver concert at the Orpheum, and smaller performances, Huang has been able to work full-time as a musician since immigrating to Vancouver in 1988.

Along the way, the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble recorded two albums: Transplanted Purple Bamboo (2000) and New Frontiers (2006). Huang has also recorded his own music.

Video: Jirong Huang played erhu and Sarah Tan played guzheng with Ginalina at the Orpheum Theatre.

Recently, Huang and two other musicians with the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble collaborated with three western musicians on another album. Jasmine Jazz. Released earlier this year, it features local band leader Jodi Proznick on bass, Bill Coon on guitar, and James Danderfer on clarinets.

Huang, of course, plays erhu, with Wu on suona and Tan on guzheng. Guest artist Liam Macdonald provided percussion.

“Jasmine Jazz is about musical conversations, an east meets west experience, full of beauty, harmony and mutual respect,” producer Proznick’s website states. “The repertoire is a beautiful mix of songs pulled from jazz and traditional Chinese folk music and original composition by members of the ensemble.”

Proznick and the three Chinese Canadian musicians are no strangers. They first performed a Jasmine Jazz concert in Vancouver back in 2014. The new members of Jasmine Jazz joined them for the album. Earlier this month, they performed a concert at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

Video: Watch Jirong Huang’s recent demonstration of erhu playing at a Burnaby library branch.

Father was also an erhu player

Huang says that he loves to improvise. This helps explain why he’s attracted to playing jazz music. He adds that Tan, the talented guzheng player, improvises exceptionally well.

Moreover, his hometown of Shanghai had a thriving jazz scene in the 1920s. Back then, musicians blended Chinese folk melodies with the sounds of U.S. big bands in this most international of Chinese cities.

However, Huang is so much more than an improvisational musician. He also trained for four years in classical western and Chinese music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Students at the conservatory had to learn piano, according to Huang. This ensured that they could master music theory. Eventually, Huang specialized in the erhu—the same instrument that his father played as a folk musician in Shanghai. His dad also sang, wrote dramas, and worked as a stage actor.

Huang has a sense of adventure, leaving China before a much larger wave of Chinese immigration to Canada in the late 1990s and 2000s. He said that those who came from China in the late 1980s were mostly well-educated and eager to explore the world.

Some of his dad’s charisma is evident in Huang’s energetic and joyful stage presence. He also appears to have had a wanderlust from a very young age.

“When I was a child, I followed my father around,” Huang recalls with a smile.

The Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble will perform with Ginalina on Sunday (February 26) at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. For information and tickets, visit the ensemble’s website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.