Making a Difference:
KET Music Programming

Of course I have met and will continue to meet folk musicians and see performances, and I’ve started to pick up instruments. But still the most contact, the most opportunity I have to experience this music is KET.

Han Kuo-Huang

University of Kentucky ethnomusicologist

It’s a long way from Xiamen, China, to Bardstown—and even farther by way of Taiwan and Chicago.

But for Han Kuo-Huang, who learned American folk tunes by Stephen Foster as a child in pre-Communist China, the trip, musically speaking, was a short one.

“I have been so impressed that, here in Kentucky, music is so emphasized,” said Han, who began teaching part time at the University of Kentucky in 2004. This teaching position, sought as a refuge from harsh Chicago winters, came after his first retirement from 30 years in the music department at Northern Illinois University, where he founded its world music program in the 1970s.

“When you look at a Kentucky map what do you see?” Han asks with a smile. “‘Birthplace of Bill Monroe.’ The location of Appalachian museums. Music is an important part of the culture here in Kentucky and that impressed me a lot.”

Han, whose given name means “country bells,” (somehow, he says, his father knew he would grow up to be a musician) embraced the musical culture of his new home from the start. Everywhere he and his wife, Maria, went, from his position at UK to impromptu gatherings in barber shops, he found music in Kentucky. And when he turned on the television, bluegrass came pouring out.

“I have become a faithful Jubilee watcher,” said the now-dually retired ethnomusicologist, who confines his instruction to frequent workshops with schools, cultural centers, and other venues who welcome the more than 150 instruments he owns from around the world.

Jubilee provides endless opportunities for me to hear good performances.”

So devoted a bluegrass fan has Han become that, at the urging of bluegrass musicians who participate in his Indonesian Gamelan orchestra, Han has taken up the banjo as his next musical conquest.

“I always liked it to begin with,” he said. ”The famous phrase from a Tang Dynasty poem that reminds me of the banjo frequently is from a poem called Song of a Guitar:

‘The large strings hummed like rain,
The small strings whispered like a secret,
Hummed, whispered—and then were intermingled
Like a pouring of large and small pearls into a plate of jade.’

“Even though it’s not about a banjo, I always thought a banjo fit it better,” he says with a laugh. “I always said, ‘One day I’ve got to pick that up.”

With Jubilee as his viewing mainstay, Han has found plenty of enriching musical programs on KET. “The two programs that had deep impact on me are Heart of the Hills: The Story of Mountain Music and The Rhythm of My Soul: Kentucky Roots Music,” he said. “I’ve never seen this type of homegrown music that is so rooted, that people really love it. They are really a part of it.”

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“And you don’t have to be ‘a musician,’” he marvels. “As a professional musician who’s been classically trained, I have been so impressed with these non-musicians who can play these instruments so well—so professionally!”

Han’s musical expertise has not gone unnoticed by KET; in the KET Music Arts Toolkit, he appears along with his Gamelan orchestra, a form of traditional Indonesian music featuring sets of tuned bronze gongs, chimes, drums, flutes, and other instruments. And he’ll personally be featured next season on Kentucky Life.

Han has been so drawn to Appalachian culture that he’s made it his next academic project. Already he has penned articles for Chinese scholarly journals on bluegrass and country music—and Stephen Foster.

“It impressed me so much that a little town would put up this musical to Stephen Foster—these were the songs we sang as little kids! We didn’t know the meaning, but we sang them, and we knew the tunes well.”

Now that he’s found his own Kentucky home, Han intends to continue immersing himself in the state’s rich musical heritage.

“Of course I have met and will continue to meet folk musicians and see performances, and I’ve started to pick up instruments,” he said.

“But still the most contact, the most opportunity I have to experience this music is KET.”