Unconventional thinker sees the science in song

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am


Jaws dropped when Professor Dekai Wu first stepped into the classroom in combat boots and unevenly shaved red hair - a get-up common in Berkeley but shocking in early 1990s Hong Kong.

'This was before people even dyed their hair,' he recalls.

Today Wu sports a thick goatee and just a hint of the wild hair he sported years ago. But the the rocker in him hasn't changed, according to his linguistics students, who find him at concerts, where he performs as the percussionist and keyboardist for fusion electronica band ReOrientate.

The local group, formed in 2010, combines styles from all over the world, including China (they've got guzheng and erhu players) and India (their singer is Nigerian-Indian).

All of their music has a base in flamenco, a musical form now associated with Spain but which Wu has traced back to gypsies in northern India along the Chinese border. These nomads eventually travelled to Europe on the Silk Road.

Wu's musical passion began early. At age three, he was playing with radios, learning the piano and building synthesisers from scratch.

To Wu, music-making is not separate from his day job. Music is already recognised as a universal language of rhythms, cadences, melodies and grooves, he says. And just as languages borrow words and phrases across borders and cultures, so can music.

He describes his work as 'a search for the cross-cultural beauty of language, music, and cognition'.

'Understanding what is universal among humans is what lets us understand and listen to each other,' he said.