[Dixielandjazz] THE PIPA.

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Thu Mar 3 14:46:15 PST 2005

"Robert Smith" <robert.smith at mitransport.no> WROTE:

> The banjo I used to play had five strings (G banjo).
> Isn't a "banjo" with four strings a ukulele-banjo or banjolele?
> So a pipa is really a Chinese ukulele (a ukulele is made of wood) that sounds
> (and looks) more like a mandoline.
> A mandoline is tuned in fifths. How is a pipa tuned?
Well, Bob, since you asked..... A, E, D, A (La - Mi - Re- La) or to be clear
on the Pipa, below is more than you wanted to know about it. (from the web)
It is the typical "twang" that one hears throughout Chinese (and Japanese)
music and much beloved by the people there. Poems are written about revered
Pipa players. Quite the opposite from the music that generates all those
banjo jokes in the USA, :-) VBG

Maybe all you banjo pickers should graduate to Pipa? :-) VBG

Didn't Marco Polo bring Pipa music back to Italy and start Jazza in all
those Pasta Parlors that he built when he returned from China? Pipa and
Pasta, more proof that Italians invented Jazz.

If my present plans hold, I'll be seeing that famous Chinese Pipa at the BAM
club in Brooklyn tomorrow night.

Steve Barbone

"The pipa is a four-stringed Lute, one of the oldest Chinese musical
instruments which appeared in Chinese written texts of the second century
BC. Xi Liu of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) described in his book, The
definition of Terms -- On Musical Instruments, that the name of the
instrument pipa originally refers to two finger techniques. The two Chinese
characters pi and pa stands originally for the two finger techniques, i.e.
plucking at the strings forwards and backwards, respectively. In the Qin
Dynasty (222-207 BC), there had been a kind of pluck-instrument, known as
xiantao, with straight neck and a round sound-body played horizontally. In
the preface to his verse Ode to Pipa, Xuan Fu of the Jin Dynasty (265-420
AD) wrote: "...the pipa appeared in the late Qin period. When the people
suffered from being forced to build the Great Wall, they played the
instrument to express their resentment". By Han Dynasty (206 BC -- 220 AD),
the instrument developed into a form of four strings and twelve frets,
plucked with fingernails and known as pipa or qin-pipa. In the Western Jin
Dynasty (256-316), the qin-pipa was named after the famous scholar, Ruan
Xian, who was a virtuoso in such an instrument. The instrument is still
called ruan till present day. During the Northern and Southern Dynasty
(420-589 AD), a similar instrument, called oud with a crooked neck and four
or five strings was introduced through the Silk Road from little Asia, known
as the Hu Pipa (Hu stands for "foreign" in Chinese), which was played
horizontally with a wooden plectrum (see the picture below for Tang Dynasty
pipa player). By combining the original Chinese lute and the Hu pipa the
making of the instrument gradually became what the present pipa looks like.
Meanwhile the playing method has been developed and repertoire increased.
The pipa was played vertically with five fingers of the right hand instead
of horizontally with a plechtrum (see the above photo). By the Tang Dynasty
(618 - 907), the pipa was one of the most popular instruments, and has
maintained its appeal in solo as well as chamber genres ever since."

"The Tang pipa was larger than the modern instrument. It usually has four or
five strings and fewer frets (compared to the present day pipa). Probably
influenced by the hu pipa, the Tang pipa was often played with a wooden
plectrum, a technique still used by its Japanese descendent, the biwa. Since
the mid Tang Dynasty, and particularly since the Song Dynasty (960-1279),
the instrument has been gradually developed into the present form of a lute
played with fingernails while the techniques with the plectrum were totally
abandoned. The modern instrument is half-pear-shaped, with a short, bent
neck, and has 30 frets which extend down the neck and onto the soundboard,
giving a wide range and a complete chromatic scale.

"There were huge repertoires of pipa music in Chinese history, particularly
during the Tang Dynasty. But most of them were lost. Fortunately, there are
precious pipa pieces handed down from one generation to another by
individual artists and scholars. Some pieces have been preserved in Japan
and some more pieces of musical scores were discovered along the Silk Road
in Gansu Province, China, around 1900. These musical notes, known as the
Dunhuang scores, triggered great concern and interest in China as well in
abroad. However, they remained a mystery until the early 80s, when the
scholar, Prof. Ye Dong from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music successfully
"decoded" 25 pieces of them. The beauty and elegance of these pieces have
thus first been revealed to the public after having slept for a thousand

"The pipa music has been loved by Chinese people through the centuries.
During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1645-1911) Dynasties, various pipa
schools with different styles were flourishing in the South, centered in
Wuxi, Suzhou and Shanghai, and the North, centered in Beijing. The
development of finger techniques for both hands achieved a high standard by
the masters from each school. The present day pipa techniques are mostly the
fusion of those different schools. Now the pipa is one of most popular
instruments in China. Many of the compositions that make up the traditional
repertoire, which were handed down from generation to generation through
individual artists and scholars, date back hundreds of years, while others
are part of a body of compositions that are dynamic and growing. In the
recent decades, composers have explored the possibilities for pipa and
orchestra. Nowadays, there are also celebrated pieces for pipa concerti with

"Pipa's technique is characterized by spectacular finger dexterity and
virtuosi programmatic effects. Rolls, slaps, pizzicato, harmonics, noises
are often combined into extensive tone-poems vividly describing famous
battles or other exciting scenes, such as the Ambush which describes the
decisive battle field fought in the second century BC between Chu (Xiang Yu)
and Han (Liu Bang). The instrument is also capable of more lyric effects, as
the tune Sai Shang qu (Songs from the other side of the border). This tune
is said to represent the sorrowful song of a Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD)
noblewoman, who was compelled for political reasons to marry a barbarian
prince. This story appears in several versions connected with the origin of
the pipa. There are also a lot of written texts and famous poems about the
pipa music played by virtuoso performers in history. For instance, the
following comments can be found in the texts from the Tang Dynasty (618 -
907) describing the intensity of the Ambush played by artists of that time :
"... as if thousands of warriors and horses are roaring on the battle field,
as if the earth is torn and the sky is falling". In his poem, the Pipa Song,
Bai Juyi, one of the leading poets in the Tang Dynasty, described vividly
the pipa music performed by an artist: "... The thicker strings rattled like
splatters of sudden rain, the thinner ones hummed like a hushed whisper.
Together they shaped strands of melody, like larger and smaller pearls
falling on a jade plate."

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