Wu Man's Smashed Pipa

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Wu Man and the Pipa

I hold the view that world music musicians are great when they take a regional music and expand it so that it becomes internationally known, even concert music. Ravi Shankar did that with Indian raga. Segovia with Spanish guitar. Astor Piazzolla with tango. Chinese virtuoso Wu Man is doing that with the pipa, the elegant Chinese lute whose history goes back thousands of years. She has performed most notably with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet, symphony orchestras, and has toured the world many times over. Because of her, we know what a pipa is.

So it was disheartening to read that a flight attendant on a U.S. Airways flight smashed her pipa into a storage closet, breaking the neck off. Professional musicians have very personal connections with their instruments, which becomes part of their artistry, an extension of their minds and bodies. Wu Man had this pipa for 17 years, and it was with her during all her achievements from the day before she was known outside of China. It was valued at $50,000 and uninsured. Uninsured because many insurance companies do not know how to estimate value of an exotic instrument that isn’t as well known as a guitar or lute.  There also were no hard-shell cases made for the pipa, which was in a soft cover when the flight attendant broke the neck off.

The Pipa: a Chinese instrument related to the lute

In her case, however, things resolved positively. U.S. Airways flew her to China, where she was able to get a new pipa from the same luthier that made the broken one; the airline paid for the new instrument as well.

I remember arguing with a particular panelist at a United States Artists meeting where $50,000.00 no-strings-attached grants were being given. The person in question was telling me that Wu Man was just another folk musician and that a jazz musician was more deserving. I used the argument mentioned above: taking a regional music and making it known around the world. Fortunately I prevailed, and she won the prize.

With China having become a world power, we might as well know something about its rich culture and its music. And Wu Man is making that happen.

Here is Wu Man talking about the instrument, and performing with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project at Harvard University: