Although I’ve never been much of a moviegoer, I was in fervent anticipation of the recent ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ film for obvious reasons. Asian representation in the media plays a big part in fostering cultural understanding and bridging the gap, and in its own way can even impact on the passage of Chinese music across borders. If it might not occur to you immediately why this might be, the case study of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and its soundtrack is a perfect place to launch such a discussion.
Despite the overly positive reviews of the soundtrack (most of which come from a western viewpoint); I thought it would be an interesting experiment to share my perspective on the film’s soundscape. As a Singaporean, member of the Asian diasporic community and a Mandopop enthusiast, it seems that I just so happen to possess the rare (but often useless) permutation of skills to launch a well-rounded critique of the film.
As soon as the titles started to roll and the sounds of a familiar Mandarin classic piped serenely into the background, I was choked with emotion. Never has a Western Blockbuster so prominently and positively displayed the music I loved. It had always been the small victories; like a end credits Mandarin song for Transformers, or some Jay Chou thrown into The Green Hornet or one of his other titles as a freebie; examples few and far between. And as the soundtrack progressed, I was in absolute euphoria. Never had I expected the soundtrack to be made up majorly of Mandarin tracks. By exposing millions of Western and worldwide audiences to Mandarin music, this would potentially be a huge for the industry. If executed well, the movie could be a perfect stepping stone for bridging cultural gaps between the east and the west; not only through the visual techniques, narratives and themes of the movie; but also through the film’s soundscape.
By Matt Taylor
What happens when you mix the charm and charismatic nature of traditional Chinese instruments and weave them through contemporary western musical genres? You get instrumental group A-Play China 一奏器樂派, who in December 2017 released their debut album Chapter I - Kung Fu Pop 第一卷˙宮羽破, an avant-garde mashup of of Eastern old and Western new.
The aim of A-Play China is to create modern pop music with traditional Chinese instruments, thereby acting as a two way cross-cultural bridge between East and West. On Kung Fu Pop, traditional instruments which have their roots in Chinese folk (including the guzheng 古箏, erhu 二胡 and dizi 笛子) are seamlessly integrated into elements of soul, rock, disco and pop, resulting in a seven track album able to embody the beauty of the ancient and modern, whilst simultaneously combining the vigor and vitality of the urban and rural to create a new and refreshing musical landscape.
Founder of the group and producer of the album, Zhou Jin Tai 周金泰 is an accomplished producer and composer, and has already enjoyed an illustrious decade in the Chinese music industry. As well as producing for other artists, he has composed the theme tune for several TV drama’s, has acted as head producer for New Year & Spring Gala events for Jiangsu TV, and invited to sit on the panel of Sing! China 中國新歌聲.
In the Chinese music industry, Zhou is seen by many as a pioneer in pop music due to his cross-border music creation and innovative thinking, and he has dedicated his career to the exploration and excavation of high quality independent pop music.
Chinese instruments being utilized in modern pop isn’t completely new. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, musicians like Jay Chou 周杰倫, Wang Leehom 王力宏 and S.H.E were leading figures in the China Wave 中國風, which sought to not only bring Chinese instruments and folk tales into the modern pop dichotomy, but place them at the core of their records, with the bridges and hooks often dependent on these traditional instruments.
Where A-Play China differs from this however is in how the instruments are employed - rather than playing traditional melodies and then building a pop song around this, or being used simply for hooks and interludes, they are instead intrinsically fused with their partner Western genre, resulting in a refreshing and harmonious collaboration where it feels less of a novelty, and more genuine pop song led by traditional instruments - a surprising rarity in modern Chinese pop music.
Despite this innovative use of instrumentation however, these traditional instruments are still capable of tapping into the expressiveness and spiritual connotation of the folk music they have historically been used for. For thousands of years, these instruments have carried with them stories and feelings of the East, and that is not lost at any point on the record.
The album Chapter I - Kung Fu Pop 第一卷˙宮羽破 is available to stream and purchase on most major music platforms:
In his long-awaited comeback, Mandopop king Wang Leehom builds on his previous experimentation with EDM sounds, releasing part 1 of 2 for his new digital album 'A.I. Love'. The first song on the two-song EP is the self titled first single 'A.I. Love', which since its release has been hotly debated over by netizens, who either seem to love or hate the song. As a hardcore Leehom fan and music journalist, I decided that now would be as good a time as ever for me to weigh in on the debate.
Starting off by unpacking the song lyrics, Leehom's voice; auto-tuned into a somewhat eerie manner comes in, chanting 'ethics attain ethics'; a play on the similar pinyin of those words in Chinese. In doing so, Leehom is already using the intricacies of the Chinese language to make a point. Both the words 'ethics' and 'attain' have the words 'dao de' in them in Chinese; ethics meaning 'dao de 道德' and attain meaning 'de dao得到'. Leehom uses their similarities; singing them in sequence to demonstrate the thin line that exists between ethics and attainment of success.
We see this particular play on words appear again leading up to the chorus ; and Leehom borrows the same technique for the chorus, singing 'A.I. Love(Ai)' repeatedly. This time, the play on words occurs between A.I., an English short-form for artificial intelligence and '愛Ai', the Chinese word for love. The wordplay works on two levels; first of all subtly reinforcing Wang's ongoing engagement with 'East meets West' themes within his music, and secondly making a statement on what he sees as the tug and pull between a reliance on digital technology at large (so much so that we use it to create sentient beings like ourselves) and real human emotions of love and concern; not only in a romantic sense but also in a general sense of stewardship and solidarity.
He touches on both these types of love in his verses, which feature heavy use of satire to hammer his point home. For example, in his first verse he sings:
'Inject a vaccine and you'll grow immunity/congratulations, you're now immortal/everyone wants a perfect lover/to give a shoulder massage at any time'
Leehom's use of satire here is almost palpable, and is clearly a critique on the concept of people using man-made means to become immortal; as well as the concept of an artificially created perfect lover. In his second verse, he uses satire again but moves his focus to how artificial intelligence and technology can be used in harmful and destructive ways, singing:
'Artificial Intelligence has finally perfected love/Just don't challenge it in go/No longer worry about the world's problems/it will colonize Mars'