Modern US musician handpicks traditional Chinese instruments

NEW YORK – Justin Scholar, a New Jersey native, has earned his name as the “Chinese instruments guy” at the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival as he brings a Chinese instrument every year to let people try.

“This year I brought a zhongruan (Chinese plucked string instrument) to entertain the guitarists because it’s shaped like a guitar. And some people really pick it up quite quickly,” Scholar told Xinhua in New York after he returned from the outdoor music festival held at the Old Pool Farm, about 56 kilometers outside of Philadelphia last month.

Two clear goals

The 26-year-old musician has previously presented Chinese instruments including guzheng, bawu, hulusi, sheng and erhu at the event.

“Even though I can’t share the traditional Chinese tunes, the new instruments are enough of a fun experience,” he said. “The children and non-musical folk really seem to enjoy it, and some people have bought their own guzheng after trying.”

“Their (musicians) unabated passion for the preservation of folk music means they are incredibly curious about the folk music that is rarer or less represented; that’s where I thrive,” said Scholar.

“I always invite people to come sit in and learn about it and try it and you’ll be amazed at how some Americans who have never heard of this instrument before can figure out how to play on their own with no more instruction,” he said.

Scholar had his heart stolen by Chinese instruments ever since he made his first trip to Shanghai in 2015 through a study-abroad program when he was a student in New York University.

“I find the guzheng is my most inspirational tool of expression, and the seeming lack of experimentation with the instrument is what I aim to change,” he said.

“I have two clear goals as a musician,” he said. “In China, I hope to reinvent the guzheng for a younger audience by producing new music influenced by jazz and folk and singing in English.”

“My second goal is to introduce guzheng to the West, which is why I am here,” he said. “I find the guzheng is the most accessible instrument for non-musicians to create beautiful sound.”

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Scholar said his musical style can be described as “meditative and serene at times, or melancholic and expressive other times. It depends on the song.”

“I hope one day that many people will hear my music, especially the thousands of guzheng players, and that they will be encouraged to try writing their own music and freestyling while learning to express themselves,” he said.

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