I first encountered the music of Xiao Dong Wei two years ago, on a beautiful June morning. I'd ridden my bike down to the end of Maple Road to find Huron River Drive all blocked off with traffic cones. I stopped. No cars, no nothing, just a lithe and graceful woman with long, dark hair who was seated on a chair in the brush and weeds alongside Huron River Drive. Next to her were two men, one with a guitar, one with a mandolin. Amid a riot of birdsong, they began to play — bluegrass with a strange and haunting twist. The instrument Xiao Dong played was not quite a fiddle, though I couldn't exactly tell what was different about it. She sang, in both English and Mandarin — in a haunting, powerful, nuanced voice.
Soon an odd, pounding rhythm could be heard. I looked west and saw a tall, dark man running down the road, his feet slapping the asphalt. He was very fast. By this time the music was filling the air, but he didn't seem to notice. Along came another runner — then another and another. (This was, I soon realized, the Dexter-Ann Arbor Run.) Soon there were throngs of runners, and they heard the music, turned, smiled, and shouted, "Thank you!" Xiao Dong nodded and smiled and played on.
Born in China, Xiao Dong began studying the erhu (that thing that was not quite a fiddle) with her father at the age of five. At eleven, she was accepted to the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music and made the 1,200-mile move to Beijing, where she went on to earn her degree and graduate as a "master" of the erhu, with a minor in classical piano.
She went on to a varied professional career before moving in 2005 to Detroit, where she reached out to explore and embrace the music of the area. How do bluegrass, folk, rock, and punk interact with the erhu, and with traditional and not-so-traditional Chinese songs? You never know until you try.
Her avant-garde quartet XD WEI was a fascinating experiment that combined erhu — and the elements of classical Chinese music — with American instruments like mandolin, guitar, bass, banjo, saxophone, and percussion. It's a gorgeous pastiche that, once you hear it, seems to make all the sense in the world.
For her latest incarnation, a new band called Madame XD, this tireless, inventive artist teams up with her husband (and frequent collaborator) Ken Hottmann — long a fixture on Detroit's music scene — and other musicians. The two clips I heard veered from sweet, atmospheric folkiness to bratty in-your-face rock 'n' roll. Xiao Dong makes the erhu fit right in, turning that sweetness to all kinds of crazy mischief.
Madame XD is at the Top of the Park on Sunday, June 22.
[Review published June 2008]