Both the Arabic lute, the oud, and the Chinese four-stringed lute, the pipa, originated from the same ancient instrument - the Persian barbat. Though the pipa has been altered considerably though out its 2000-year history, it originally resembled the 5,000-year old oud and is thought to have been introduced to China through the Silk Road. Syrian oud master Issam Rafea and Chinese pipa master Gao Hong instantly bonded when first met. They immediately committed to recording and performing together. They began improvising music that was so cohesive it seemed as if they had worked together for years. Both Issam and Gao Hong are wonderful composers, and this helps each anticipate what the other will do in their improvisations. Since they only play improvisations, no two performances are ever exactly the same. In concerts, the duo asks for titles from audience members and then creates instantaneous site-and audience-specific pieces based on the suggested titles. Their music sounds both ancient and strikingly modern at the same time. It is neither Chinese nor Arabic, but something fresh and new that only they can produce. Both musicians are immigrants as well, and the performances are ones that immigrants from any culture can enjoy and relate to.
A video of the duo recently went viral on Facebook getting 13,500 views, 199 shares, 463 likes and 57 comments in the first 24 hours. (Two weeks later it hit 25,800 views and 323 shares). Their music, which is all improvised, is touching people very deeply in wonderful ways. Both artists think this is their best cross-collaboration to date, but were concerned that only they would feel that way. Obviously, that is not the case. Below are some of the comments (some translated from Arabic) from Facebook viewers:
"I swear to God this is the music from the heart."
"Amazing performance. It touched my soul."
"A single language understood by the whole earth."
"You r both great musicians, thank u for that nice video. U proved that music unites nations from far and wide."
"I describe it as this: you will hear and forget yourself and the war of wars.. .and the alienation and longing…Greetings to the wonderful language…the language of music..."
"Beautiful thoughts mozo (beyond awesome). Thank you gao hong and issam rafea."
"Sounds that transport one to a palace somewhere on the Silk Road, which we have the pleasure to hear."
"Wonderful, music makes you feel good and like your are flying."
"It sounds like the awakening of infinite creativity."
"Wow, what is this safa (purity of spirit, heart, mind, and life)? I can't find words to express it..."
"So beautiful... so wonderful... Professor Essam.. Professor Gao."
"This is called the spirit of the lute, and how sweet it is."
"God is beautiful!"
"This is when music truly is the language of the world and rises us to the feeling of becoming one.
Issam Rafea was the winner of the 2010 “Best Composer Award” in the Dubai International Film Festival (Muhr Arab) for the film “Matar Ayloul,” (“September Rain.”) Rafea was the Chair of the Arabic Music Department at the High Institute of Music in Damascus and the principal conductor of the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. Rafea studied under Fayez Zahr El-Din, Aref Abdallah, and Askar Ali-Akbar. In 1995, he received his bachelor’s degrees in Oud and Double Bass performance, as well as Oriental Conducting from the High Institute of Music in Damascus. He is also on the faculty of the institute teaching Oud. In Syria, Rafea has been an active composer and arranger for TV and theater since the 1990s.
In addition to several solo appearances with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestrai, Rafea has performed internationally in countries like France, Spain, Germany, Holland, Italy, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait and United States. He participated in festivals such as the Mediterranean Festival in Algeria, the World Universal Expo in Seville, Spain, Spiritual Music Festival Marseille, France; the Arabic Music Conferences in Cairo, and Babel Festival in Iraq.
Rafea is the co-founder and oudist for the contemporary Arabic music group “Hewar.” Hewar has performed in several countries such as UAE, Egypt, Germany, UK, France, Japan, and the USA. In 2011 and 2012 the group participated in the Morgenland Festival in Osnabrueck, Germany with successful performances that resulted in the production of a new album “ Letters to a Homeland” featuring a live performance by the group. Rafea also founded “Twais Quartet,” a group that performs both original compositions by Rafea and traditional Arabic musical works.
Rafea collaborates internationally with groups like “Gorillaz” , and arranged five works for the group that were performed by the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music that were recorded in Damascus Opera House. One piece, “Plastic Beach”, was selected to be on the “Gorillaz” album released in 2009. The project concluded with an international tour in the UK, Europe, Lebanon, Syria, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia. Additionally, Rafea participated in a series of concerts and workshops during 2010 with the students of Royal Academy in Denmark as part of the Syrian-Danish cultural cooperation. He was also invited by the German institute in Ankara, Turkey to participate in an electronic music concert.
In March of 2013 Rafea was invited to the United States to direct the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble and give a series of presentations and performances at Northern Illinois University School of Music. While he was in Illinois, Rafea performed with guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque in multiple cross-cultural collaborations. Rafea currently resides in Illinois and continues to perform, compose and teach.
“All in all, I believe music is a universal language,” Rafea says. “Whether you are from Africa or the Middle East, America or Europe, you have a connection to music, you can feel the beat. Every type of music has its own unique sound. But there is interaction between audience and musicians, so even if you’ve never heard a certain kind of music, every person responds in his or her own way - the images it creates in your mind, the feelings it inspires. And the musicians like to hear the audience voice their responses.
Gao Hong, a Chinese musical prodigy and master of the pear-shaped lute, the pipa, began her career as a professional musician at age 12. She graduated with honors from China's premier music school, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she studied with the great pipa master Lin Shicheng. In both China and the U.S. Gao has received numerous top awards and honors, including First Prize in the Hebei Professional Young Music Performers Competition and an International Art Cup in Beijing. In 2005 Gao Hong became the first traditional musician to be awarded the prestigious Bush Artist Fellowship, and in 2012 she became the only musician in any genre to win four McKnight Artist Fellowships for Performing Musicians. The Minnesota State Arts Board has awarded her with an Artist Assistance Fellowship, an Artist Initiative Grant, Folk and Traditional Arts Grants, Tour Minnesota Grants, and a Cultural Community Partnership grant.
Gao has performed throughout Europe, Australia, Argentina, Japan, Hong Kong, China, and the U.S. in solo concerts and with symphony orchestras, jazz musicians, and musicians from other cultures. She has performed at many major festivals worldwide. Her performances have included those at the Lincoln Center Festival; Carnegie Hall; the San Francisco Jazz Festival; the Smithsonian Institution; the Next Wave Festival; Festival d'Automne a Paris in Paris and Caen, France; the International Festival of Perth, Australia; and the Festival de Teatro d'Europa in Milan, Italy. Her performances of pipa concerti with symphony orchestras include several world, U.S., and regional premieres and performances with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Buenos Aires Philharmonic, Louisville Orchestra, Pasadena Symphony, Heidelberg (Germany) Philharmonic, Women's Philharmonic (San Francisco), the Portland (Maine) Symphony, and the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra among others. In addition, she performed with the Lincoln Center production of “The Peony Pavilion.”
As a composer, she has received commissions from the American Composers Forum, Walker Art Center, the Jerome Foundation, Zeitgeist, Ragamala Music and Dance Theater, Theater Mu, IFTPA, Danish guitarist Lars Hannibal, Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, and Twin Cities Public Television for the six-part series "Made in China." Meet the Composer Inc. in New York City has awarded her two Creative Connections grants and two MetLife Creative Connections grants.
Gao Hong’s newest CD, Pipa Potluck, was winner of the 2016 Global Music Award - Outstanding Album Award, and was an Independent Music Awards Nominee for Best Album.
Her numerous other recordings include those that have received Just Plain Folk Music Award Nominations in 2017 for Best Asian Album, Best Asian Song, and Best Instrumental Song; and a 2012 Global Music Award - Award of Excellence Solo Instrumental (Gold Medal).
China's foremost music publication, "People's Music," wrote of Gao Hong that "like the famous Luoyang peony, she has gradually emerged as the best of all beautiful flowers...her performance has extremely strong artistic appeal and belongs under the category of 'fine wine'...the more you listen, the more beautiful it gets..."
Copyright © Gao Hong and Issam Rafea
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Photographs by Eve Liu