If you measure the heat of a band by the freshness of its sound, then the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band is hotter than the latest indie-rock sensation, even though its music is centuries old. From the moment it took the stage with Wu Man at Campbell Hall on Thursday, March 8, the group delivered one surprising moment after another. Whether they were shouting and chanting in unison over swirling strings and percussion or calling for the bench player to come forward and pound his musical bench with a wooden block, these Chinese folk musicians were never less than 100 percent committed to raising the roof. While their wild, energetic style may at first seem like an odd match for Wu Man’s sophisticated pipa playing, it quickly became apparent when she joined in that with her mischievous streak and Hendrix-like virtuosity she can riff and rave with the best of them.
Indeed, much of the credit for this irresistibly crowd-pleasing program has to go to Wu Man, who crafted a fascinating and wide-ranging sequence of pieces that showed off the remarkable diversity within these various Chinese folk-music forms. The shadow puppets of Huayin fought noisily as expected, but at another point in the show, they engaged in a delicate dance accompanied by the pipa alone that was largely contemplative. Won over to silent awe by the exquisite nuances of Wu Man’s artistry, the audience then burst into laughter and applause whenever the Huayin band struck up its jaunty antics again. This was a truly memorable night; the pairing of Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band represents a distinctive achievement in the spread of traditional Chinese culture to the West.