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Music enriches lives of residents in former coal-mining region
Meng Hui began learning to play the trumpet at 21, not for fun, but to earn money after he lost his job at a coal mine in Mazhuang village, Jiangsu province.
Some 15 years ago, the village brass band offered him a job with a stable salary. He has continued to play the instrument ever since, and worked his way up to become the leader of the band.
"I was initially asked to help tune and fix instruments, and the then-band director Meng Guodong persuaded me to choose a musical instrument to play," he said, recalling the first time he picked up a trumpet.
The first tune he learned to play was Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
The village band was founded in 1988 by Meng Guodong, the village Party chief. He set up the band with the idea to "make Mazhuang famous", guessing that audiences would be impressed by Chinese farmers playing Western brass instruments.
The village committee paid locals to join the band. Only a small number of the founding members knew how to play the Chinese flute or suona horn. So most, like Meng Hui, started from scratch with brass instruments.
Mazhuang was previously a coal mining village, and Meng Hui"s father was a miner. After graduating with a college degree in computer science, Meng Hui worked in the office of a colliery until 2002, when all the small coal mines were closed due to environmental concerns.
By that time, the village was better off, and a few residents worked in the fields.
The Party chief said at the time the village was not desperate for money, but the formation of a unique musical group was just something for residents to be proud of.
A year after its establishment, the 20-member band performed seven songs at a festival gala broadcast by the local television station.
In 2006, China Central Television reported on the band. It gained national attention and was invited to take part in the 2007 International Marching Band Musical Festival in Giulianova, Italy.
The band, which had been expanded to 28, took part in the festival and performed Beethoven"s Ode to Joy, Puccini"s aria Nessun Dorma, and Chinese classics Love My China and Picking Lu Chai Flowers.
"That was the first time we went abroad. We had no expectations. There was only one thing on our minds: Don"t let our country lose face," band member Wang Fei said.
To their surprise, they won second prize for their performance at the festival.
In 2014, the band won the Yui Prize at the 4th Lyasassa Group Dance Competition in Okinawa, Japan. Most of the band"s members are multitalented, playing several instruments while also being skilled at singing and dancing.
Meng Hui said thanks to the band"s success, many of Mazhuang"s 2,000 residents can play brass instruments. At any given time, the band will not have any difficulty finding 200 musicians for a large performance.
"With the band"s growing international exposure and popularity, it is able to maintain about 30 full-time members and gives between 100 to 300 concerts or performances a year, including festival celebrations, wedding or inauguration ceremonies, and TV galas," he said.
In addition to the village committee"s 100,000 yuan ($15,630) in annual funding, the band earns 300,000 yuan a year in revenue from its commercial activities.
Li Hongxia, 40, said working in the band suits her because she does not need to leave home to become a migrant worker. She now earns 3,000 yuan a month and has free time to take care of her family.
"The village is not at the top of any GDP rankings, but we have earned ourselves national honor for being a civilized and culturally-enriched village, and music brings a sense of self-accomplishment and happiness to villagers," added Meng Guodong, the Party chief.