>>The pipa, a 4 stringed 26 fretted instrument, has been one of the most popular traditional Chinese instruments for over 2000 years. Leah Oh of O’s Pipa is a classically trained pipa musician that has fused the genres of classical Chinese music and modern folk rock with her new album, Nomad. The pipa is without a doubt the featured instrument across the given 8 tracks, but the context to which we listen to the instrument’s unique sound varies greatly. Some tracks are more accessible to someone with no previous experiences listening to pipa music, while others sound closer to the pipa’s original environment. This carefully planned back in forth offers an excellent introduction to the instrument and allowed me to be both challenged by this new sound and welcomed with something more familiar.
The production on this album is spectacular. The mixing of the pipa compared to other supporting instruments is deliberate and impactful. The track Amazon Jungle is clearly a duet piece between the flute and the pipa, with each instrument taking turns in the mix’s forefront as well as interacting with each other in a more balanced sound. Drunken Sage, on the other hand, features a start and stop polyrhythm carried entirely by the pipa. The first track, A Dozen Days, does a great job of easing the listener into the unique sound of the pipa, having its intricate strum and pluck technique supported by an ensemble of strings and light percussion to progress the melody. You can hear the texture of each string being worked, and the pipa sounds delicate and intricate without being tinny – especially when supported by bass percussion or strings, like in Power To The Pipa. Personally, I think the pipa really shines with its ability both carry a melody and delve into the abstract, and switch between the two settings very easily. Leah isn’t afraid to get into soundscape territory either; Moving The Yurt features an excellent stereo call and response segment featuring the pipa, with actual birdsong layered in the back. I’m going to refrain from comparing the pipa to other known strings, but it’s clear Leah’s command of the instrument is absolute, and she’s got an excellent understanding of what styles to use and when.
The two highlight tracks of the album for me are Trip and Power To The Pipa. Trip balances the atmospheric and arrhythmic with a slowly building melody produced by carefully layered pipa tracks. The song itself is the musical expression of a journey into one’s own imagination and leads the listener on without being too constraining on tone. Power To The Pipa is the featured folk rock pipa fusion track. The bass and kit drum carry a fantastic rhythm and support the pipa’s soloist style melody without being overwhelming. No aspect of the composition sounds out of place or shoehorned in, and I think this style is what would turn the average listener on to the more traditional tracks of the album, like Moving The Yurt or Snowflakes.
Nomad is an expertly produced journey into the depth and technique of the pipa. Your mileage on traditional Chinese folk music may vary, but there’s no denying the diverse range of environments featuring this unique instrument are bound to catch your ear in a good way. If you’ve never listened to the pipa before, I couldn’t think of a better way to get started.