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Shanghai Restoration Project: Hybrid Backbeats

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Shanghai Restoration Project: Hybrid Backbeats

Shanghai Restoration Project: Hybrid Backbeats

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Back now with Day to Day. Opening ceremonies for the Olympics are now just three days away. Most of the attention will be on Beijing, but six other cities in China will host events as well, including that country's most populous city, Shanghai.


Back in the 1930s, Shanghai was a hub of commerce between east and west, and over the years, the city has become this great blend of traditions and cultures. You can see it on the face of the city, in its architecture. You can hear it in the jazz that came out of Shanghai decades ago. The Olympics have inspired a Chinese-American music producer to create an updated soundtrack for those visiting his native Shanghai.

(Soundtrack of music)

Mr. DAVID LIANG (Music producer): My name is Dave Liang, and I'm the producer of The Shanghai Restoration Project, a musical project that combines traditional Chinese instruments with hip-hop and electronica.

BRAND: Independent producer Martina Castro spoke with David Liang about writing the musical story of Shanghai.

Mr. LIANG: Shanghai's a really interesting city. For those who haven't been there, what they probably wouldn't expect are all the western colonial buildings that were built in the 1920s and 30s. They have an entire area right on the waterfront called The Bund, which has a bunch of old buildings that were used for trading and for banking back in the day. And what's really interesting is you walk just a few blocks to the west, and you'll see traditional Chinese buildings. They have some of the oldest temples in China there. So it's really this beautiful fusion of eastern and western architecture and culture.

About 10 years ago, when I went to Shanghai for the first time, I remember seeing these old jazz bands play. And it was really interesting because there were these old Chinese men playing jazz, but combining it with Chinese instrumentation, and sometimes, they would have a female singer who sang in Chinese. And I went home and did a little bit more research and realized the story of these jazz bands was very similar to my own musical journey.

My father was actually born in Shanghai, and he left when he was very young. So I grew up here listening to all sorts of western music, from classical to jazz to pop to hip-hop. But I had a grandfather who played the flute, and my mom played the zither, and I was exposed to some of those instruments as a kid. And it's really incredible because this project has enabled me to bring things full-circle, from both a musical and personal perspective.

I grew up as a classical pianist and then eventually transitioned to jazz when I was in high school and experimented with all sorts of things throughout high school and college, whether it was choral music or whether it was Broadway or jazz. And I never felt, I guess, completely myself in terms of my musical identity.

And it wasn't until one day, somebody gave me a suggestion, well, if you want to be true to yourself, why don't you use some of these instruments that you grew up with and grew up listening to. So that's when I started to fuse the Chinese instrumentation with all the musical experiences I had leading up until that point.

The song "The Bund" is one that's almost in two parts. The beat, when it first starts, is very hip-hop. There's a Chinese instrument on it called the shal-so-na (ph), which is a very shrill instrument, almost flute-like. In the background, you have a lot of synthesizers, and then later on, the flutes come in. But what I really enjoyed about it is, it was almost a new-age song until probably half-way through, where all of a sudden, it becomes sort of a piano breakdown, where it's just vocal percussion, which is something used in a lot of college a cappella groups. And on top of it, I was playing jazz piano. And eventually, you actually bring back all the elements from before, the synthesizers, the Chinese flutes, and the hip-hop beats. So at the end, you have almost four genres that are represented.

I think, when I make this music, the most important thing is to be true to myself, and just, I want my music to be a very honest reflection of who I am, and that is a combination of Chinese culture and American culture. And everything I do, even though sometimes it might seem calculated, it's actually very - it's very inspired.

And as I was making this music, I found that it would inspire other people. And a lot of people would be very curious as to what those instruments were or where those sounds came from. So it's almost turned into a little bit of a mission, to share with people this amazing culture, seven to 8,000 miles away. And then on the flip side, what's interesting is that people in China, when they sometimes hear the music, they'll say it reminds them of their childhood or this region in China. But it's the other elements that they're so curious about. And so it actually can go both ways.

BRAND: David Liang is the creator of The Shanghai Restoration Project. His two-disk album is called "Instrumentals." It's out today. He spoke with independent producer Martina Castro.

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