It might seem odd to compare the four stylish women of Red Chamber to Ireland’s most beloved leprechauns, the Chieftains; after all, barring a sudden surge of interest in leather-elbowed tweed jackets, Paddy Moloney and crew aren’t going to be gracing the cover of GQ anytime soon. But once you strip away the visual disparity, it’s clear that the two bands are basically on the same trajectory.
Both are rooted in tradition: Celtic for the Chieftains, Han Chinese for Red Chamber. Both are made up of instrumentalists who, individually, are of international repute. Both blend serious scholarship with the desire to please. And yet the Chieftains can get Mick Jagger to guest on their albums while Red Chamber scuffles on the college circuit. What gives?
I’d hate to think it was racism, but North America seems reluctant to accept the fact that one of the greatest string ensembles in Chinese music lives in Vancouver. Sexism might be a factor, but in their scarlet cheongsams the members of Red Chamber haven’t entirely rejected the beauty myth that powers the entertainment industry. And the music? Well, anyone who doesn’t respond to Gathering, the group’s second release, needs their ears syringed.
To begin with, Chinese music shouldn’t be that foreign to non-Chinese listeners. Structurally and tonally, it bears some similarity to baroque music, Celtic music, and bluegrass: the zheng, for example, sounds very much like a harp, while the sanxian is closely related to the banjo. And on Gathering the members of Red Chamber have ventured deeply into cross-cultural fusion, mixing Chinese classics like “Dance of the Yao People” with newly minted offerings from local composers Moshe Denburg, John Oliver, and Randy Raine-Reusch. Arabic strings, Jewish melodies, and African rhythms all play a part, but what this lovely recording most resembles is an extended Silk Road journey anyone can enjoy at home.