Matteo, a Chinese-American hybrid folk band based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is unique in that it plays songs that blend traditional Chinese and American folk music. Pri.org states, “While their inspiration is old, the results are something new. It is Western songs interpreted on Chinese instruments.” City Weekly.net declares, “The Salt Lake City quintet draws upon traditional Western stringed instruments for their sound but distinguishes themselves with the use of a slew of Chinese ones.”
The group is comprised of four 20-somethings: Eric Chipman, his wife Brinn Bagley-Chipman, Luke Williams and Jordan Riley. Eric, Brinn, and Jordan all speak fluent Mandarin Chinese, having served full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taiwan.
Brinn is a talented violinist, but in Matteo, she is often called upon to play the erhu — an iconic Chinese instrument, a fretless fiddle with a slender neck and just two strings. About her mission, she commented, “You just agree, I’m going to be a missionary and wherever you send me, I’ll go. You just get a letter and you open it up and you realize you are going to be in Taiwan for a year and a half or two years.” Brinn also went to China as an English teacher which was an overwhelming experience for her husband Eric.
Speaking about his missionary experience, Eric said, “Before I got assigned, I couldn’t have thought of a place I wanted to go least. I hated big cities, I hated crowds. I was honestly terrified of it.” When he wasn’t teaching the Gospel, he spent a lot of time hanging out in music shops, checking out the traditional Chinese instruments. He said, “The guzheng is the one I would always go to because I sounded better playing it than the other ones. It was just like you sat down and the people I’d be with would be, like, you’re really good at that thing.”
When the band first began using the Chinese instruments in their music they weren’t exactly experts. Eric used the guzheng in the recording of “Sweet Sweeping Joy” which appears on the band’s debut album, The Morning Market. He further commented, “We knew these instruments, we already felt like we were hacks at them. We were not trained in any way and so we wanted to do more justice to the instruments.” To better learn their Chinese instruments (6-foot-long, 24-string Chinese zither harp, erhu (Chinese violin) and raun (Chinese banjo)), the group spent six weeks studying music at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China. While at Sichuan, they also learned to play the liuqin (mandolin) and a mouth organ. Brinn said, “There is just a very certain way to play the instrument. Innovation and trying a different way isn’t necessarily valued. When we played things that were new or different it was just confusing to them, rather than being cool.”
The members of Matteo eventually learned to play their Chinese instruments better and more authentically and recorded an eight-song EP called “The Sichuan Project” with songs rooted in American indie folk music.
Eric says, “We have just as many Chinese friends in Salt Lake as we do American ones. So, in short, the music is a very much an accurate reflection of our lives, and more of a nod to the inevitable cultural-fusion of globalization than to the cultural-hijacking of colonialism.” Although the unique sound of Matteo, with its mixture of Eastern and Western folk instruments, may seem like an odd concept at first, once you hear them play, you suddenly realize how well they blend all the different sounds together. To find out the latest news about the band, check out their website, matteomusic.com.
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