In a joint performance last month by Charles Riley and Ron Miles, the audience inside a packed hall at the University of North Carolina watched the American duo’s street-dance moves, straight out of the 1980s.
Accompanying the dancers at the show was the unfamiliar sound of The Sheng – the Chinese mouth-blown, free-reed instrument consisting of vertical pipes, Wu Tong was the player.
Wu, 43, produced a vibrating sound with the wind instrument The Sheng, whose origins date back at least 3,000 years, in step with the fast-paced dance numbers.
The musician, whose family makes the instruments in Beijing, has spent decades giving the sheng modern relevance.
“What attracts me most about mixing the sound of the sheng with other art styles is not only the creative process but also an interactive one,” says Wu.
One of his most recent crossover projects was performing with cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. “Sing Me Home”, released on April 22, is the Grammy-nominated ensemble’s sixth album, and Wu contributed sheng and singing.
Although he began learning to play the instrument as a young child, Wu didn’t fall in love with its sound until he was 11, when he first started improvising.
Enrolling at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1990, he formed Lunhui with classmates, a rock band that played Chinese instruments and guitar.
Wu sought every possible way to break the mild temperament of the sheng. But as he grew older he discovered more about the spirit of the ancient instrument and devoted his time to linking it with the contemporary world.
Watch Wu Tong play the sheng here: