Oud, meet pipa; pipa, meet oud

Gao Hong and Issam Rafea will perform on April 25.
Gao Hong and Issam Rafea will perform on Wednesday at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

Wednesday night, an unlikely pair of musicians takes the stage of the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. Gao Hong plays the Chinese instrument known as the pipa; Issam Rafea plays the Middle Eastern instrument called the oud.

While the two musicians come from vastly different cultures, they — and their instruments, both of which are compared to the lute — have more in common than you might think.

Gao Hong started playing the pipa when she was 8, at the urging of her mother. It was at the time of China's Cultural Revolution, when millions of urban youth were exiled to rural areas to work on farms.

Gao Hong plays the Chinese pipa.
Gao Hong plays the Chinese pipa, a four stringed instrument with a 2,000-year history in Chinese classical and folk music.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

"My mom forced me [to learn the pipa], so I can get a job," she said. "That's why I became a professional musician at the age of 12."

Hong's hard work paid off. She went on to become an acclaimed soloist, and in the mid-1990s she moved to the United States. She now teaches music at Carleton College in Northfield.

The pipa is a beautiful, pear-shaped instrument with a long neck and four strings. Hong holds it almost straight up in her lap when she plays. The pipa has been part of Chinese culture for 2,000 years, in both classical and folk music, like the violin or guitar in Western music.

Syrian musician Issam Rafea came to the United States in 2013 to teach and conduct. The Syrian Civil War was escalating, and so he stayed and sent for his family. He now lives in Illinois.

Last year, Carleton College invited Rafea to come to Northfield for a month to teach Arabic music.

"So before he left I just wanted to thank him and other people," Hong said. "So we just had a casual lunch and I said, 'Hey, before you go, maybe we go to the studio, just for fun?'"

Hong and Rafea sat down with their instruments and began to improvise. They immediately felt a connection through their music.

Issam Rafea plays the oud.
Issam Rafea plays the oud, a type of lute native to the Middle East and North Africa. Its history dates back 3,500 years ago to Persia.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

"It's not the instruments," Rafea said. "It's the character, views, personality and how musically you're thinking, and this is all translated through these great instruments."

Hong has collaborated with musicians from other cultures before, but she says this was different. They were so delighted by the experience that they arranged to meet again and record their improvisations. The result is a new CD called "Life As Is: The Blending of Ancient Souls from Syria and China."

Hong said making the music was not as effortless as it sounds. Rafea generally plays the oud in quarter tones, while Hong uses a pentatonic scale on the pipa. Her instrument has frets; his does not. In order to stay in tune with one another, they are often bending strings in search of the right key.

"I have to use my left hand to control every note, and he has perfect pitch, so sometimes he'll say 'A little higher,' 'A little lower,'" she explained.

Both Hong and Rafea are skilled musicians, composers and improvisers. Both took refuge in music in order to escape harsh realities in their home countries. And both are now sharing their music and culture with American audiences. They perform Wednesday night at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. Since all of their music is improvised, the experience will be a singular one.

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