Leah Ou, who performs under the name O’s Pipa, moved from Chengdu, China to Rochester just last year. On her previous visits to Rochester, she took to busking at the public market (among other venues), and people began to take notice – after all, according to Leah, it’s not often there’s a pipa musician in Rochester.
“I came to Rochester about 2 years ago – but I was traveling, but I still busked at the public market – and I think that’s how some people started to know, ‘Oh! There’s a pipa player in Rochester!’ And after I got married, I’ve been staying in Rochester for one whole year.”
Leah Ou started learning the pipa at 6 years old. Classically trained, she continued to play the pipa throughout school and college, before establishing herself as a pipa musician and teacher in China. Now that she’s continuing her music career in Rochester, she’s been expanding her repertoire, taking the classical techniques used in traditional Chinese music and applying them to more American folk-rock styles.
“The teacher always just told me how to play the techniques, and play them again and again, so about moving here was making me start to think about the fusion of different elements of the sounds instead of just playing the traditional Chinese songs. I want to add more elements to it, but not sacrifice any techniques that I already know. I think that’s what makes the pipa very special, and makes me special.”
Leah’s first self-titled album featured the traditional Chinese music that she had practiced for years. For her most recent EP, Petal power, explores the relationship between classical pipa techniques and American folk-rock songwriting. On one of her songs, ‘Power to the Pipa,’ she collaborated with several local musicians, showcasing the versatility of the pipa as a solo instrument as well as its ability to work with other instruments – guitar, bass, kit drum, synths, to name a few. Currently, she is working on her second full album.
“But the second album I’ve tried to put more of my ideas into it! As a classical musician you play a lot of songs from different composers, but you also have opinions and ideas, so that’s why I’ve started to compose more and more songs.”
Music performance for Leah is quite personal, as she’s not afraid to express herself through her music. One of her new songs, ‘The Trip,’ was written about a particular meditation session where she found herself confronting the darker, more complex aspects of her inner self and her experience breaking through those emotions. The song flows like the intimate personal journey it was based on, and that intention is expertly conveyed through the piece. It’s not often we get the opportunity to experience such a unique instrument – and Leah recognizes this.
“The sound of pipa to me is very familiar – I think people will find that the sound of pipa is different, so I want them to first get a new experience of a different instrument, and be open to more things. To know this instrument, and find the shining points of it.”
Here's a small clip of one of her performances at The Little Café: