Flutist Rhonda Larson and her band Ventus presented a Charity show in Beijing before they started their tour show in China. Li Jing / China Daily
Rhonda Larson was born wanting to play the flute. She heard the instrument somewhere, she said, and arrived on the planet knowing she was destined to play the instrument. So it's no surprise she did just that starting at the age of 10.
"My earliest recollection, I knew I was going to be a flute player, but I wasn't permitted to start until they start you in the public school program, so that was 10. It's a bizarre thing," she joked.
Now at 51, Grammy Award-winning Larson can play about 50 different kinds of flutes from all over the world, and one of the instruments she's most recently mastered is the Chinese dizi, a kind of bamboo flute that has five to eight holes and is a major part of many Chinese folk songs.
The dizi isn't that different from the Western flutes she is used to playing, though it does produce a slightly different sound, she said. "The instrument is very new for me," she said. "Thanks to its similarity to the Indian bamboo flute in holes and blow, it's easy to get."
"Every flute has a different core feel to it, and that's how I usually come to choose it for a certain piece of music," she explained. "With the Chinese flutes, I am mostly playing Chinese melodies on them, but I'm using them a couple of times, because I like the sound of the flute, so it doesn't matter what country it came from, it just fits the piece of music really well."
It took her about a month to get comfortable with the dizi and she was already embarking on a three-week concert tour across China in June, playing various pieces of music using a wide variety of flutes with her band. The tour was such a hit she was invited back.
It was also the first time the native Montanan had visited China, and the country left an impression on her.
"It's beautiful. It's stunning, the whole thing when you go to a new country for the first time, you're just taking it all in as if you were a reporter in a way. My favorite place on that tour was Lanzhou. It was so beautiful and there was no humidity - it felt like Montana," she said. "We got to spend some time on the city plaza where people hang out at night, where women were dancing to music. It was sort of a cross between tai chi and line dancing, and we joined in. I loved being there."
It was also the first time Larson and her four-piece band Ventus - which includes multi-instrumentalist Chris Rosser, percussionist Carolyn Koebel and Grammy Award-winning bassist Eliot Wadopian - had played in front of a Chinese audience, and the feedback was spectacular, she said.
"Just because we love what we do doesn't mean somebody else might," she said. "So we went there and they loved it, and that was so thrilling, because it was a little scary, that very first concert.
"And at least from the expressions, I can see the first couple of rows of beautiful, happy faces, particularly with the women and the younger kids. It was very joyful and they loved it. We got several encores and it was very fun," she said.
Larson's second China tour - six weeks covering 25 cities - kicked off this week with a performance at the US Embassy in Beijing and the China Braille Library in the city.
At the library, the visually impaired in the audience smiled and waved their hands in the air and tapped their feet to the rhythm. Some sang along with a popular Yao folk song they played.
The repertoire featured a blend of world music, based on the group's travels around the world, from Romanian folk dances and melodies from 12th century France to songs from the Middle East and West Africa. Three songs of the 30-number set are Chinese.
Larson found one of them, the Chinese melody Your Collar from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), by searching online. "I first heard a vocal of the melody and fell in love with it," she said. "It is very powerful and beautiful."
The band enhanced the ancient tune played on the dizi by adding jazz bass. "Just like adding spice to food," said bassist Wadopian, "when we take a melody from a particular culture, we normally add some new elements to make it something different."
The concert tour came about because Larson pitched the idea to the embassy since the current US ambassador to China is from Montana, and the flautist "wanted them to know that a fellow Montanan was going to China", she said.
From Beijing, Larson and her group will be making stops at Qingdao, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wenzhou, Zhoushan, and venues across the country.