By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2018-09-27 08:06

Zhou Benming (fourth left), a fifth-generation musician of the Zhou Family Band, leads the band on a tour of the United States. [PHOTO BY JIANG DONG/CHINA DAILY]

The Zhou Family Band has been performing for the past seven generations and is still going strong, Chen Nan reports.

Eight members of the Zhou Family Band are currently on a one-month tour of the United States. The tour, which features 17 shows, began on Sept 18 at the Global Roots Festival in Minneapolis. American audiences will get a rare chance to hear centuries-old Chinese wind and percussion instruments, which the family has been performing for over seven generations.

At home, the band is part of weddings, births, funerals and rituals involving the worship of ancestors in Lingbi, East China's Anhui province.

The band's performances blend the suona (a double-reed Chinese horn), flutes, the sheng (one of the oldest Chinese wind instruments), mouth organs, drums and cymbals.

The suona, also known as the Bolin laba, was designated as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2014.

The band's US tour includes two shows at the World Music Festival in Chicago, two workshops at the University of Michigan and a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Before the performers began their US tour, the band did two shows at Beijing's 300-year-old Zhengyici Theater.

At the shows, the band opened the night with the Fanzi Tune-Prosper for Ten Thousand Years, which indicates wealth, prosperity and happiness.

The other pieces were all old tunes passed down from earlier generations, including a celebratory tune-New Life, which is performed when there is a birth in a family, and Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix Marriage, which is a standard fixture at weddings.

The oldest among the eight musicians, Zhou Benxiang, 70, imitates human voices using five instruments and embellishes his one-man act with stunts.

"What you see onstage is more than just music. It is deeply rooted in traditional Chinese folk culture," says the band's leader Zhou Benming, who is a fifth-generation musician.

"The music connects people with the gods and nature. It's rare nowadays.

"The musicians in the band are all blood relations.

"We have blood connections, which make the music even more special," says Zhou Benming.

The origins of the band date back to Zhou Jingzhi in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Zhou Benming, who was born in the 1960s, is the third son of Zhou Zhengyu, a fourth-generation musician.

At the age of 4, Zhou Benming began to learn to play the music instruments with his father. At age 8, he was touring with the band to perform at weddings and funerals around Anhui province.

Zhou Benming says there were many bands like his during the 1970s and '80s, which made the market competitive. But thanks to their techniques and reputation, the Zhou outfit has always been busy.

"I remember that a tour could last for over two months because the families needed us to perform at important occasions," he says.

Speaking about his early days, Zhou Benming says his father was very strict with him.

And to hone his son's skills, Zhou Zhengyu would make Zhou Benming practice for hours after school outside the house, either in the chilly wind in winter or under the scorching sun in summer.

Zhou Benming says he did not fully appreciate the art until he was enrolled to study the suona at the Anhui Provincial Art School at age 15.

"My father had high expectations. He told me that 'if you play, the Zhou Family Band's fame spreads'. I felt a deep responsibility to keep the family tradition alive," says Zhou Benming.

With urbanization and the development of rural China, bands like Zhou's are facing a decline.

"In the past, our performances could last three days for a wedding or a funeral. But now we just perform for two hours and some families have even abandoned the tradition, turning to pop music or dance," says Zhou Benming.

From the 1990s to the early 2000s, Zhou Benming founded a culture company and collaborated with TV stations across China. But this didn't take him away from the family business.

Then, 10 years ago, he shut down the company and has devoted himself to reviving the band.

"I want to regain our family's glory and to showcase this ancient tradition, especially for the young," Zhou Benming says.

As of now, there are over 100 members of the family who still play musical instruments.

But they live in different parts of China.

Zhou Benming brought together some of the veteran players to perform as a band.

They not only perform at theaters nationwide but also at top Chinese universities, including Peking University and the Chinese Conservatory of Music.

Last July, six of them toured five European countries doing seven live shows, including one at the World of Music, Arts and Dance festival in the United Kingdom.

The introduction of the band on the festival's website calls it an "irrepressible ensemble playing the music that accompanies births and deaths in central-eastern China.

"There's oodles of energy in their performances, making them kindred spirits with many East European gypsy bands."

A recording of the band's performance at the festival is with the British Library.

During its European tour, the band also performed at the Rudolstadt Festival in Germany, the Sommarscen Malmo in Sweden and the Sfinks Mixed in Belgium.

Hailed for its "tremendous energy" by the BBC, the band is regarded as "avant-garde" by The Guardian, and was selected by SOAS Radio as one of its five favorite acts from the 2017 festival.

Despite all the acclaim the band has received abroad, Zhou Benming says what he wants the most is to promote the music to Chinese audiences.

"In the West, the suona, cymbals and sheng are foreign instruments. When they listen to the music, they are open to the fresh sounds. But the Chinese have their own impressions about the musical instruments, which restrains their imagination," Zhou Benming says.

"My goal is to catch their interest and show them how deep and exciting the tradition is."