WHEN someone mentions the pipa, most people either don't know what it is, or just think of it as a very old-fashioned Chinese wooden instrument shaped like a pear that plays funeral music, says The Pipa Quartet's leader, Samuel Wong, with a hint of frustration.
But that stigma is something that he and his quartet are on a mission to debunk, especially with their recent invention of the more versatile electro-acoustic pipa, which has already earned them the first-ever National Arts Council Creation Grant for performing arts.
"Certain genres like metal and punk music need electricity. Acoustic instruments can't play them. But by adding an electric component, our pipa can now play an infinite range of sounds," explains Dr Wong.
The electro-acoustic pipa is the brainchild of the quartet, and, simply put, it is the equivalent of what the electro-acoustic guitar is to the acoustic guitar.
On the surface it looks like a regular pipa, but because of the extra electrical elements and the pick-up that is installed within its wooden body, the sound goes through the effects loop of an amp, and that gives the instrument a much wider range than that of the traditional acoustic pipa.
"I cannot use an adjective to describe the sound, because I can change it to anything I want it to be. It's like the combination of an electric guitar, with the skills of a Chinese pipa," says Dr Wong, who has a PhD in Ethnomusicology and currently lectures at LASALLE College of the Arts.
His quartet is made up of himself as well as three ex-students who used to take private pipa lessons from him. They have performed all over Singapore and even as far as Bangkok since banding together at the start of this year.
This Sunday, they will perform at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Expect to hear a few traditional songs as well as one of their own compositions.
"I think, for any instrument to be international, it has to be able to play all styles. You cannot just play Chinese music. So it is our dream for the pipa to become international and not be limited as a Chinese instrument," adds Dr Wong.
The Pipa Quartet will perform at the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on Oct 20, at 6pm. Admission is free. Log on to www.facebook.com/ThePipaQuartet for more information.