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December 18, 2010

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One man's magic flute

For years Liu Fukang has been playing his bamboo flute at village weddings, celebrations and holidays. Wing Tan listens.

Liu Fukang is more comfortable playing his flute than speaking. The retiring, 60-year-old man feels at home playing his bamboo flute, a passion since he was a teenager and his angry father smashed his "useless" toy.

Liu's musical career of playing dizi (side-blown traditional bamboo flute) has had its highs and lows.

These days, he's on a high. Liu is something of a celebrity in his small village in Qingcun, a remote hamlet half-hidden in suburban Fengxian District.

He and his rustic band in larger Yangwang Village play for wedding celebrations, all Chinese holidays, baby showers, factory ribbon-cutting ceremonies - and on weekends in the village's central theater. The band includes trumpets, oboes, cymbals and drums.

"There are almost 40 parties all year round, from Spring Festival to New Year's Eve. It's quite busy but I love it," says Liu as he caresses a bamboo flute that is polished and golden after years of playing.

Mostly Liu plays for pleasure, he's seldom paid, except in delicious banquet food, candies, chocolates and other things.

"That's enough - I'm happy to be part of the celebrations and share the joy with my audience," he says with a big smile.

Liu got hooked on the flute when he was a teenager and heard people playing flutes at a wedding in the village.

"I just fell in love with the slim and elegant instrument. I thought it was the flute that picked me."

At first he made his own flutes with bamboo growing in the village and taught himself to play, practicing in the fields, by the river and in courtyards. His only loyal listener was his old, yellow dog.

"My father strongly objected to my hobby because the land needed to be worked and we weren't allowed to do 'useless' things," he recalls. The whole family had to work to earn a living.

"No way," said his father, breaking the flute in half and smashing it.

"I was heartbroken at that time but now I find it an interesting memory. It was understandable for a father and a farmer."

During the 1960s when the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) swept China, Liu got his musical break. He joined the local propaganda team to play the flute with Red Guards promoting the thoughts of Chairman Mao Zedong.

In 1972, the 22-year-old joined the army and was stationed with an artillery crew in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province. When his leader discovered he could play the flute, Liu was spared the rigid routine and assigned to the band.

"We didn't need to march in the early morning or take the night shift," he says. "I got plenty of time to play the flute and met lots of music lovers in the band. We practiced and improved together - it was a golden time in my life because I could dedicate my heart and soul to the thing I truly loved."

When he left the army after five years in 1977, he returned home and was assigned to a village factory making nails, screws, nuts, bolts, pins and other hardware.

He didn't quit playing. Liu started a band and in his spare time taught young workers how to play. The 18- and 19-year-olds were happy and quick to learn.

Liu put down his flute in the late 1980s when the country began economic reforms and started opening to the outside world. His factory closed and everybody was forced to find a new job. Liu opened a rubber factory and for 10 years he didn't touch the flute.

One day when he was cleaning the house, the flute fell from a shelf.

"I picked it up, stared at it for a while and I told myself never to put it down again," Liu says.

And he hasn't.

Soon he was playing again and local musicians joined him. They played for farmers in the fields and traveled to other towns and suburbs in the Pudong New Area.

Today Liu and his band are local fixtures. When he walks down the street, old buddies ask when's his next show.

"Young people have moved to town centers and only old people are left," says Liu. "It's been their habit for years to see our weekly show in the village's central stage."

Liu has collected more than 50 flutes made of different kinds of bamboo, with varied shapes and timbre. He owns a flute made by Wei Shide, a master flute maker in Shanghai.

A good flute that can make a beautiful sound needs high-quality bamboo and craftsmanship, he notes.

Flutes made of white bamboo growing in the northeastern area of Yunnan Province is loud and resounding, while black bamboo grown in China's south and east sounds deep, low and sentimental, he adds.

Whatever variety, flute bamboo should be old and wild.

"Year-old bamboo looks good but it's easily broken and eaten by caterpillar worms. It's still young and fragile and hasn't gotten durable through cold winters. Old bamboo is tough and strong.

"No matter how hard you play, adagio or fast-tempo, it's always firm and never out of tune.

"Bamboo is like a man growing from innocence to maturity. It's always telling me how to be a better person," Liu says.


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