Nine Songs, a concert by Chinese ethnic musician Rui Fu that debuted last month, bridges ancient Chinese and Saudi Arabian civilisations and the modern music scene
On a cold November night in AlUla, an ancient city in northwest Saudi Arabia known for its rich human and natural heritage, a soft, occasionally quivering and chilling voice creeps from the darkness. Against the backdrop of rocks and canyons dimly lit by red stage lights, a woman in a red robe walks to the centre stage. Her voice is almost a howling moan of desperation; her words resemble an ancient tongue. Then slowly, the ensemble that encircles her—a violin, a harp, taiko drums, a Chinese dulcimer and gupin—begins to join in and perform a concert of rich and harmonising music paying tribute to ancient rituals that celebrate human life.
The western and eastern, ancient and modern instruments and vocals would seem an unlikely combination. But it was exactly what Chinese musician Rui Fu wanted to achieve in Nine Songs, the two-night-only concert that debuted on November 25, 2022 in the Art in the Landscape pavilion in AlUla.
Commissioned by the Royal Commission for AlUla, the concert, for which Fu was the singer, co-artistic director and producer, was part of the opening programme of Wadi AlFann, a new, ambitious cultural initiative that features artworks by both international and Saudi artists to be installed in the desert canyons of AlUla, which spans 65 sq km. The first phase of this project is expected to be completed in 2024. It aims to rejuvenate the area, which used to be an ancient trading port, as a place of cross-cultural exchange that will act as a creative and educational space for locals, tourists and artists.
Nine Songs shares a similar agenda. The concert took inspiration from a 2,500-year-old set of ancient Chinese romantic poems from the Songs of Chu (also known as Nine Songs), an anthology about shamanism. Fu expanded on this idea, seeing Nine Songs as describing the stages of the human journey: birth, motherhood, desire, loss, death and so on. “We took to the contemporary theatre our interpretation of the human psyche as we grow through different stages of life,” Fu says.
She explains that while Nine Songs was originally were dedicated to ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan, it doesn’t “just represent a single person’s emotional connection to the world”. She claims, for example, that Nine Songs could have been written by more than one author and could have referenced folk traditions, which were then turned into philosophies and teachings passed down generations for reinterpretation. “That says something about Nine Songs’ universality, which drew me in and made me think that I can connect to people from different cultures and walks of life,” she says.
The lyrics of her concert, therefore, were in an invented rather than official language, as she’s conveying her message through an emotional experience evoked by her voice and not storytelling through words. She also brought together a team of musicians from different backgrounds: percussionist Joji Hirota is from Japan; violinist Preetha Narayanan is from Tennessee and is known for merging western and Indian classical training; China-born gupin player Xiaogang Zeng studied in Sweden and merges Chinese revivalist music and Swedish and Norwegian musical traditions; harpist Ruth Wall is from the UK and is passionate about new music; Chinese dulcimer player Chao Tian is from China and specialises in traditional Chinese musical performances.
Fu has also undergone quite a journey in her nurturing of the arts. While she moved to the US at 11 and sang in jazz and American folk music bands during her college years, she has always been under the influence of her grandmother, who is a singer of Qing opera, a traditional form of regional Chinese opera from Hainan, southern China, where her grandmother was from. It was through Chinese opera that she found a way to fully express herself. “I was a troubled teenager, having gone through emotional turmoil,” she recalls. “I took some time away from college, and I was back home and living near the woods [on east coast]. One winter, I was struggling, and I found that singing ethnic Chinese music that I grew up listening to as a child was consoling.”
She describes this music as “raw” and “beautiful”, and “coming from the chest, it’s almost like what people do when they scream or make a call to the animals on plateaus and grasslands. It connects with my personality and my sensibilities more.”
The musician would then travel in and out of remote areas of Tibet, Yunnan and Guangxi for seven years and stay with indigenous tribes, from whom she learnt their music, storytelling and the ways they perceive the world. “It was much more down-to-earth than what I learnt at a music school, where I was taught to control different parts of my body,” she says. “Ethnic music isn’t that precise in technicality, but its approach is more poetic and intuitive. I was drawn to its imperfection because it mirrors life.”
When she got the invitation to be the co-artistic director of Nine Songs, it was a golden opportunity to expand her practice—but one that came by chance. Farooq Chaudhry, another artistic co-director, and Jocelyn Pook, the musical director, were looking for someone who could sing the music of indigenous groups. “Jocelyn typed in the wrong name and Google stumbled upon me,” Fu recalls with a laugh. “I was doing an artist-in-residence programme on the Music Centre at Strathmore in the US. Usually, the artists would just perform live in the music hall, but because it was during the pandemic, the centre filmed us. Jocelyn stumbled upon my video the day I put it up online.”
It was an immediate yes from Fu. While the pandemic made travelling difficult at the time, she looked up videos, documentaries, poetry, myths and stories that connected her to the landscape of the Middle East, which she had never visited before this project. She then banded together a few instrumentalists, whom she selected according to their improvisational skills. “Ancient Chinese instruments don’t really work within the framework of western classical music,” she says. “So I focused on musicians who can improvise.” The team met up in London to experiment with their compositions and develop the concept.
Nine Songs’ premiere in November was attended by international journalists, artists and locals. It served as a fitting introduction to the 2024 opening of Wadi AlFann’s art installations and the rest of the companion activities, such as artist talks, which all aim to bring forth global conversations about and collaborations on art.
Coming up, Fu and her team have plans to bring Nine Songs to London, Athens and Edinburgh, where she expects the site-specific work to be tweaked according to the locations’ landscapes and cultures. “Here in Saudi, we were inspired by Arabic melodies and its stunning canyon landscape. In London, it might be in a theatre; in Greece, it might be staged outdoors again,” she says. “It’s an experiment for us every time, which keeps the piece alive. One thing’s for sure: we don’t get stagnant with it.”