How much of your work has been affected by the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution?
I’m trying very hard to not be influenced by it. Because of the Cultural Revolution, our musical style is very romantic and revolutionary, including the way we play music and the way we listen to music. I’m trying to change the past and that’s a very difficult thing to do. After I came out of China for half of my life, I realized that I’ve been taught everything all wrong -- the way music should be heard, the way the piano should be played. I have to try very hard to get rid of those ideas.
Have you performed in China recently? How is your work received?
The audience in China loved it. It was very surprising. Before I went there, I told the musicians to be prepared. Maybe the audience will think we’re worse than they think we are here. Here people call me avant-garde and most people don’t accept my music. People here think they know more about culture. Before I went there, my friends heard I was going to come back. All of my friends were worried. They said, “Suppose we go to Sola’s concert and there is no audience or the audience doesn’t like it. What are we going to tell her?” And so they all told each other to say, “Good, we really enjoy it.” So everyone was nervous about this concert. The first five minutes after I started, some people in the audience started crying and immediately we got a really warm reaction from the audience. Some of my friends were so happy that suddenly they didn’t need to lie to me. I didn’t realize that people would cry.
I try so hard to find the soul of Chinese music and bring that soul out in my music. The people felt it. In the Cultural Revolution, most of us went into the countryside. We know about [rural culture] not from our formal education, but from working in the countryside. It was a beautiful culture and very different from what we see in the city. The way I play, I was really trying to go back to the countryside, and some people in the audience really felt that. They felt like they are in the village again. People have the idea that jazz and blues are western and very modern, but for me they are not. They are soul music and folk music. They are real and original. I don’t think there is a gap. We all have this real thing inside. That’s what I am looking at with this music.
In Beijing the audience was a range of ages. Some audience members were 70 years old. Then we went to Shanghai. Shanghai’s audience was all young kids. They looked at us like pop musicians. They loved it. All of the kids were very excited. It seems like the Shanghai audience knew more about western music and were more modernized than in Beijing. After the performance in Shanghai I went backstage and there was a cleaning man who came up to me and said, “I am so happy I want to tell you. For 50 years working in this concert hall, only foreign jazz bands come here. The Chinese audience applauds for foreign bands, but when a Chinese band comes, no one applauds. This is the first time there is a Chinese band on stage and we are all so happy and applaud.” I never heard that kind of thing before…. I thought everything I do is too avant-garde.
Do you think the pipa is a soulful instrument?
Any instrument can sound soulful. The reason I use the pipa is because I met a pipa player…. All Chinese instruments can be soulful, depending on the direction of the musician. What matters is taste. Chinese musicians can achieve so many different kinds of style. That’s the special thing about China’s tradition of musicians. If you ask them to play Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov, they can play it. They can play folk, they can play whatever. You give them the score, they can do it, whatever the style….
How did you form the particular band you’re with now?
I worked with all of these musicians the first time I came to the States six or seven years earlier. Amina [Claudine Myers] was there…. Wu Mann was also there. We’ve worked together all these years. I learned a lot from my musicians, especially Amina. In the whole United States, she’s the most soulful musician. Her voice and the way she plays piano and the way she treats music is so full of soul…. With Amina, I never worry. When she comes on stage, she gives you this really warm feeling. She always supports me. It’s not about whether she’s classically trained or not. For me, it’s how you approach the music. The notes are full of the musician’s own life. It’s not about training… with people like Amina, the notes just come out. That’s her life. Nobody can repeat those sounds.