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AppalAsia mixes Eastern and Western folk traditions

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The song "Wild Horse," from local trio AppalAsia's 2010 album Pu An, ends with some sonic punctuation that evokes the chicken scratch that might come from experimental guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. But the person responsible for the noise is not a guitarist, nor does the piece come from the world of free improvisation. Mimi Jong creates these sounds on the erhu, a two-string Chinese violin, as a final thought in the trio's version of a Chinese folk song. 

It might sound like a strange ending for such a song, but it fits with AppalAsia's far-ranging experiences and influences. 

"Even though we're viewed as a world folk thing, to us it's as much like a jazz ensemble because of the way it functions," says dulcimer player Jeff Berman. "We have a tune and we're going to open up on it and explore it."

Berman and banjo player Sue Powers (who is his wife, and his bandmate in Devilish Merry as well) began playing with Jong roughly three years ago. While their influences seem far removed from each other, they found a connection between traditional Chinese and Appalachian music and, early on, often began by combining two traditional songs to create a third new one. 

"A lot of people who are deeply into their ethnic traditional music don't necessarily want to improvise outside their tradition," Berman says. "What was so attractive to us was that we were all fearless in that way -- seeing where the music will take us and creating something of our own."

Some listeners have compared it to bluegrass music, but Berman disagrees with that pigeonhole, noting that Powers' banjo stylings are more in the African tradition. "Our aesthetic is very different; it's bluesier," the dulcimer player says. "With bluegrass, there's lot of sixteenth notes and a pretty static rhythmic foundation. The older style of banjo playing is so polyrhythmic and drumlike because of the African origin."

 

APPALASIA opens for ALASH TUVAN THROAT SINGING ENSEMBLE. 7:30 p.m. Thu., May 26. First Unitarian Church, 605 Morewood Ave., Shadyside. $15-$20. 412-361-2262

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