At first glance, the Chinese guqin and American rap have nothing in common. One is thousands of years old; the other burst onto the scene mere decades ago. Yet both, as the Dessa in China tour recently discovered, have the power to bring people together.
Wang Peng, founder of Jun Tian Fang, plays a melody on a guqin that dates back to the Tang dynasty (circa 618–907 A.D.). Photo by Stephen Manuszak.
On Sunday, May 20, we traveled an hour outside Beijing to Jun Tian Fang, a guqin factory and studio. The guqin, a long, seven-stringed instrument similar to the zither, is one of the oldest instruments in China. Many guqin compositions are thousands of years old.
Over the course of our day at Jun Tian Fang, we were treated to a performance by the center’s founder and master guqin musician and craftsman Wang Peng, learned about the history of the guqin, shared lunch and tea with Wang Peng and several of his students, and even got to try our hand at playing the instrument.
Dessa, Aby Wolf, and Matthew Santos perform at the Jun Tian Fang cultural exchange center. Photo by Stephen Manuszak.
That evening, Dessa, Aby Wolf, and Matthew Santos performed at the Jun Tian Fang cultural exchange center. The venue typically hosts guqin concerts; Dessa was only the second international musician to play there this year, and she was the first American rapper they’d presented.
When the house lights dimmed and Dessa broke into her first song, the 140 people in the audience listened, transfixed. Soon, they were clapping along to the beat and cheering after each song. When Matthew Santos sang his rendition of “Hallelujah,” several women in the back of the audience joined in on the chorus.
For her last number, Dessa left the stage and joined the audience. They created a circle around the three musicians, turned on lights of their cell phones, and swayed to the music. As Dessa sang, she made her way around the circle, extending her hand to the audience. She touched palms with those who encircled her: with children, with adults, with guqin students and enthusiasts, and, above all, with her many new fans.
To exchange: to give, to receive. To share. To learn with and from one another. To stand in a room, to reach out, palm pressed against palm, and to open yourself to this experience, this moment.
From the guqin workshop where the instruments are crafted at Jun Tian Fang to the stage after Dessa’s show where people gathered afterwards to take selfies; from our own attempts plucking the strings of the guqin to the dinner we shared with guqin students after the show—over and over on Sunday, we created ties between ourselves and others, between rap and guqin music, between American and Chinese cultures. We experienced, in short, a cultural exchange.