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East sounds West

Updated: 2013-07-21 08:23
By Chen Nan (China Daily)

A bluegrass band from Salt Lake City in the United States, that plays all their music on traditional Chinese instruments, is producing a unique sound that is quickly gaining fans. Chen Nan reports.

Eric Chipman had heard of guzheng, or Chinese plucked zither, but it was not until he actually laid a hand on the instrument that it had an affect on him.

That first touch has since led to a band called Matteo, with four members all in their 20s, who use guzheng (Chinese zither), erhu (Chinese violin), and ruan (Chinese banjo) to play American folk music.

Growing up with bands like Pearl Jam, Chipman, a guitarist who is equally apt on mandolin, had no connection with China until he volunteered as a Mormon missionary and was dispatched to Taipei in 2005. He frequented a music shop in Taipei, where he bought a guzheng.

Like most Western people, Chipman encountered traditional Chinese music mostly as it was being played in the background at restaurants. But when he saw the instruments in the music shop, he was curious.

"You just put your fingers on it and it immediately sounds really Chinese. It's intriguing," he says.

Two years later, after his mission was finished, he returned to Salt Lake City for university and became a singer-songwriter. Though the cost of shipping was more than the price of the instrument, he brought his guzheng home.

With the Chinese instrument, he could play songs which he would never play before.

The first band member to join Chipman was his wife, Brinn Bagley Chipman, who he met at Utah State University.

Bagley Chipman, who is an accomplished violinist and grew up listening mostly to country and folk, plays erhu in the band.

"When I first heard erhu, I thought it was really bad. But I started wonder how to play with it and what the techniques are," says Bagley Chipman, who bought an erhu when she spent six months in Guilin, capital of South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomou region, teaching English in 2005.

Later, Chipman rounded up two musician friends, including Salt Lake multi-instrumentalist, Luke Williams, whose main musical prowess is on the electric bass, playing funk and jazz, and his old college roommate, Jordan Riley, who also had accrued several Chinese instruments.

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