October 2023 and we were invited to be part of the Shekou Theatre Festival in southern China, a trip organised by Lesley Zhang from Creative China. Shekou is a district in Shenzhen, China’s third largest city with a population of around 18 million; the city is often referred to as ‘China’s Silicon Valley’ because of its status as a global technology centre.
We met a number of brilliant musicians while there, including three who joined us as part of a collaborative project called Global Music Voyage, which incorporated Orchestra of Samples. They were multi-instrumentalist KukaBek, the young rapper Muyi and classical harpist Xiyuan – who’s endorsed by instrument maker Music Public Kingdom (makers of the Konghou Chinese harp, who also run a venue in Shenzhen which we visited).
We were keen to record KukaBek for the project, so one afternoon we headed off to one of the many parks in Shenzhen, the beautiful Xiangmi park in Futian district, and recorded him playing dombyra, bamboo flute and some throat-singing. For info, we previously recorded dombyra and throat singing in Kazakhstan back in 2013.
An amazing self-taught musician, KukaBek is originally from Xinjiang in northwest China, a vast region of mountains and deserts and home to a number of ethnic groups, including Kazakhs – like himself. He’s been playing music since he was a teenager, and even though he’s self-taught, musicians are in his family – particularly his uncle who also plays dombyra. As well as the two-string dombyra, KukaBek himself also plays sybyzgy flutes, shankobyz (mouth harp), kobyz (a two-stringed horsehair violin played with a bow) plus keyboards, didgeridoo and handpan; he also practices Köömei throat-singing as well. He performs as a solo electronic folk artist but is also a member of folk band Aym, which means ‘Moon’ in the Kazakh language. He now lives in Wuhan, after studying there at the Wuhan University of Technology.
With massive thanks to Lesley and her team, and the Shekou Theater Festival.