From Traditional to Heavy Metal

Musical Artist

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and that’s certainly the case for Xi Yao Chen. The Hamilton-based musician, who moved to New Zealand 13 years ago, is the latest in a long line of family members to play the Guzheng, the traditional 21-stringed Chinese zither.

“Both my great-grandfather and my grandfather played the Guzheng, as does my mother, who is a Professor of Guzheng at the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing. My grandfather also helped found the China Central Conservatory of Music in 1956,” says Yao (pronounced Yoow).

His family has, in fact, been playing the Guzheng for 130 years. “I’m the fourth generation to play it, so it’s my responsibility to carry this on,” says the 30-year-old proudly.  

Musical talent also runs through his father’s veins: he’s a conductor in a Chinese traditional orchestration band and plays the Er- Hu (like a two-stringed violin).

An only child, Yao moved to New Zealand in 2002, in search of a better life. After finishing his last two years of high school in Timaru, he moved to Christchurch and a commerce degree at Lincoln University.

“But I was too involved with music and failed my first year,” laughs Yao, who started playing the piano at four years old.

Realising that music was his true passion, he moved to Hamilton where he completed a Masters degree in music and a marketing degree at Wintec in 2011.

Since then, he’s paid the mortgage by teaching the Guzheng at both Wintec and the University of Waikato, as well as masterclasses at Victoria University, along with performances at various events around the country, including WOMAD and Chinese New Year at Parliament in February. 

Yao also established a not-for-profit organisation, The New Zealand School of Traditional Chinese Music and Performing Arts, which brings Chinese music students to study at Wintec.

And he’s probably the only musician in the world to play the Guzheng in a heavy metal band!

“Five of us, including three Kiwis and other Chinese guy, started Dragon Soul in 2005. We play a Eurasian style of heavy metal and mainly do original songs. It sounds weird but the Guzheng goes well with the guitar.”

As well as introducing the ancient instrument to people who’ve probably never seen it before (“People in nightclubs are fascinated with it”), he admits playing in smaller settings is preferable to large concert halls.

“I also busk with the Guzheng in Hamilton and people love it. I enjoy that interaction you get, taking it to people instead of being up on stage and not able to talk to the audience.”

And what do his parents think of him using the Guzheng in such a non-traditional way?

“My mother is happy for me to play it in a heavy metal band – she just tells me to keep away from the drugs!”    

Although his parents still live in China, Yao calls New Zealand home and is proud to be the first Chinese musician to gain his permanent residency in the talent category as a Guzheng player.

“I’ll keep playing it as long as I’m able to…”