Cuba trip added soul to Shenyang jazz pianist Liu Dongfeng's music

Studying in Cuba changed everything for a pianist from Shenyang. He found his musical soul and was invited to play for presidents

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:12am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:12am

Jazz is having a hard time taking off on the mainland. Part of the problem is a lack of media coverage - the music stresses spontaneity, individuality and even humour, traits not typically celebrated by state-run television and newspapers. Authorities also oversee most major concert halls, which further limits the opportunities for live shows - a complaint fans of rock music have echoed. But progress is being made. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Shanghai's jazz festival. One of the musicians who can often by seen playing at small clubs in the capital is Liu Dongfeng, a pianist. After being trained in classical music, the native of Shenyang, Liaoning, turned to Latin jazz, later studied in Cuba, and has played for its president, Raul Castro, and President Xi Jinping.

When did you start playing music, and what did you play?

I began when I was in secondary school, the Shenyang Conservatory of Music, where I learned to play classical piano. I then got into the Central Conservatory of Music, from which I graduated in 2004 with an undergraduate degree in jazz. I studied under Moreno Donadel - a very acclaimed Italian jazz pianist - and Japanese drummer Izumi Koga. They both helped to stir up my interest in jazz a great deal and showed me there are hugely different worlds all under the genre of jazz.

What do you do now?

I teach jazz piano at the Beijing Academy of Performing Arts three to four days and week, and also perform in clubs with my band, Los Amigos - a purely Latin jazz band - at least once a week.

Is it a life you enjoy?

Yes, it's an artist's life. I really like it. It's doesn't have the stress associated with a routine office jobs, although it does have its own set of problems. To be honest, although it may not come as a surprise, teaching doesn't make me enough money to get by, so that's why I have to play in different clubs, some of which feature the kind of jazz different from my favourite.

What is it about Latin jazz that interests you?

It's wildly passionate and so much of it is about the good, beautiful things in day-to-day life - like the sun, the beach, dancing and happiness … the things that, in my opinion, are universally important but somehow receive less mention in this part of the world. It's energetic and relaxing, and it releases positive energy in me.

Does it say anything about your personality?

It's funny because when you listen to Latin jazz - often said to be the most rhythmically complex form of jazz - you feel it's a very wild and vigorous kind of music that gets people dancing, and it'd be natural to think that all those who like it as much as I do are very passionate and wild. But no, I don't consider my personality typical of the music. On the contrary, I used to be quite a shy and quiet kid, but I've opened up quite a lot since I took to Latin jazz.

How did the change in your personality come about?

Going to Cuba to study jazz several years ago was a great inspiration. I had been playing Latin jazz for several years, but it dawned on me when I was finally there that the kind of Latin jazz I had been playing was so without soul. I could play in every key, all with the right timing, but somehow my sound came out as rather bland. You really have to be there to get a sense of how people lead their lives - you can say it's laid back or maybe even lazy, but I'd say they really know how to live - and having that is essential to performing and producing the music in its full gusto. I was there for three months, and every day I'd get up and take classes with local instructors for several hours, slow down and relax for several hours and then everyone would get together to play music into the night. It was a really good time. A life-changing experience.

Is there a performance you are most proud of?

It's got to be the one for two national leaders earlier last year at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, the grand hotel where visiting foreign dignitaries and provincial government officials are received. Me and other members of Los Amigos were told several days earlier we would have to put on a performance for two big shots, but it wasn't clear who until a day before the actual show. It turned out Cuban President Raul Castro was on a state visit and President Xi Jinping, who was then vice-president, would be there to host a reception. We decided to play the Cuban song Guantanamera to make our visitors feel more at home. It turned out really well and they both came and shook our hands and said nice things about us.

What is the state of Latin jazz and jazz in general in China?

Compared to several years before, there are more people interested, but not a lot of people are playing, and that is why I believe I should continue teaching and playing more for people. Most people in this country work really hard every single day and make very little money, so it makes sense the enjoyment of music isn't on most people's minds, but good music can energise and inspire. So my point is that more people must first become aware that there's this thing called jazz and Latin jazz, and I'm sure some of them will become followers.