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The African American Who Loves Playing the Guzheng

A Minnesota-based African American man is breaking cultural barriers by gaining widespread acclaim for playing the guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument. However, some people have accused him of cultural appropriation, preferring that he focus on music from his own culture since he is not Chinese.

Interest in the guzheng

Jarrelle Barton became interested in the guzheng when, as a 13-year-old child, he discovered a CD of Chinese traditional music from the public library. Once he heard the music, Barton fell so much in love with the guzheng that he immediately decided that he had to learn how to play it.

Barton persuaded his grandmother to buy the instrument and started learning Mandarin so that he could make sense of the Chinese tutorials online. Initially, Barton tried to watch the players’ fingers and mimic them so that he could master the instrument.

Later on, he found a guzheng teacher in Minnesota and began polishing his playing skills. Eventually, Barton became so adept at playing the guzheng that people started noticing and admiring his skills. He practices the instrument at least six to seven hours per day, earning money by performing at events and by teaching.

“To play it at the very sophisticated level that Jarrelle has reached at his young age is very rare. Even among musicians who are from China, some don’t play the older traditional repertoire with as deep an understanding of the music. He also has this real meditative quality to his music where every note seems to have a meaning,” Star Tribune quotes David Badagnani, director of the Cleveland Chinese Music Ensemble.

In addition to the guzheng, Barton immerses himself in Chinese calligraphy, watercolor painting, and bonsai. He also loves cooking Chinese food. Barton became a Buddhist after a woman commented that he looked like the Buddha during one of his performances.

In addition to the guzheng, Barton immerses himself in Chinese calligraphy, watercolor painting, and bonsai. (Image: Monica Song / Vision Times)

Cultural appropriation

When Barton uploaded a few videos of himself playing the guzheng on the Chinese social media website Weixin, he was bombarded with hundreds of messages from people who appreciated his mastery of the instrument.

The Chinese were apparently amazed that a foreigner was able to play their traditional instrument with such perfection. Even back in America, he often receives congratulations from Chinese origin people for playing the guzheng. However, he also has to deal with negative snide remarks and accusations of cultural appropriation.

During a performance, someone gave him a book on African drum music and asked him to stick to his own culture. And as an African-American, Barton is well aware of the complexities of cultural appropriation and does not wish to be a part of it. However, music is one thing that he believes should not have boundaries of ethnicity and race.

Jarrelle Barton plays the guzheng 1-44 screenshot
Music is one thing that Barton believes should not have boundaries of ethnicity and race. (Image: Screenshot/ Youtube)

“It’s my love; it’s my life. I’ve devoted so much time to it. This passion I have for it, it goes beyond labels and borders and it’s completely free. And I think that is where true music is, it’s free,” MPR News quotes Barton.

He has received strong support from several Chinese people who dismissed the accusations of cultural appropriation and encouraged him to pursue his passion. And as Barton says, music definitely should not have boundaries. After all, it is the one art form that can truly transcend the identities of race, nationality, language, and class, uniting people from all groups.

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