Strings attached

Strings attached

A daughter's promise to her dying father seven years ago sees erhu maestro launch jazz-infused album

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Jessie Hou had a mission to bring huqin into the modern era.
Jessie Hou had a mission to bring huqin into the modern era.
Photo: Felix Wong
The story of renowned erhu player Jessie Hou Shih-chieh is one of coincidences.

On April 6, 2004, in her final conversation with her father before he died, she pledged to release an erhu album in his honour. Fast forward seven years to the day, Hou was in Central for the press launch of her debut album, When Jazz Meets Erhu.

"Before going to bed, my father liked to listen to erhumusic to help him sleep" says Hou, a Taiwan native who now lectures at the Academy for Performing Arts. "It was his wish for me to make an erhu album, and I promised him then and there I would."

The erhu is a classical Chinese instrument that belongs to the family of instruments collectively known as huqin. It's a two-stringed instrument that produces sound when a bow is pushed or pulled across the strings. Combinations of sounds are produced by pinching the strings at different points, very much like a violin.

Hou began playing a huqin in primary school. "At the beginning, I never liked it," she recalls. "I was really young at the time and I was more interested in the pipa [a four stringed instrument that resembles a lute]. But it's quite a big instrument and my teacher said my hands were not suitable for it - my fingers were too short. We all lined up to choose an instrument. I was towards the end of the line and the only instrument left was a zhonghu [similar to an erhu but with a lower pitch] and she selected it for me."

Even before making that promise to her father, Hou had always wanted to bring the erhu into the mainstream. As a soloist, she travelled to many parts of the world to perform. It allowed her to broaden her appreciation for other genres of music and fuelled her desire to create a "never heard before" type of sound. But, oddly enough, her quest to bring huqin into the modern era was realised with the help of YouTube, when she saw a famous performer, and had an epiphany.

"Jazz master Xu Zhi-min was on a TV programme in Taiwan," recounts Hou. "I knew I wanted to make music with him right away." Finding Xu was easy - one of the other musicians on the show was Hou's former teacher - but getting him onboard proved difficult since he was involved in many other projects at the time. Again, though, luck was on Hou's side, and while Xu doesn't play on the tracks, he is credited as co-producer and arranger on the album.

After a few tracks were recorded, Hou sent them to renowned audiophile and technical consultant Ernest Lau Yin-tak [aka Hi-Fi Tak]. "He said: 'Great! This is a great CD!' But I thought he was just being polite, because we are also good friends."

But after some minor tweaks, the album was ready to be shopped to a label. Having never released an album before, Hou admits she had a lot to learn about the business side. But fortune again smiled on her: Lau introduced her to Jeffrey Lai, director of sales and marketing at Universal Music, who signed her. "It's precisely because I met these amazing people, who are at the top of the industry in Hong Kong, that has allowed me to make this album what it is now," she says.

On May 14, Hou will be performing at Kitec - the date also the seventh anniversary of her father's funeral.

Call it coincidence or destiny, one thing is certain: her father will be smiling upon her when she takes to the stage.

When Jazz Meets Erhu is available now

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