#BBCtrending: Super Mario’s ancient Chinese makeover

  • 25 February 2014

Almost two million people have watched a YouTube video of a musician playing the Super Mario Bros theme tune on a traditional Chinese mouth organ.

The piercing warble of the sheng, a 38-pipe Chinese mouth organ, is usually associated with Chinese temple and folk music. But the audience at a recent talk in Taiwan on the 3,000-year-old instrument were surprised to hear it being used to tackle one of the most familiar jingles in the pop culture pantheon. "If anyone recognises this tune, stick your hand up," said the event's host, before a musician, Lijin Li, broke into the calypso theme tune from Super Mario Bros.

The moment was filmed and posted on YouTube two weeks ago and has attracted more than a million views since Sunday. It seems to have become a sensation because many believe the ancient sheng does a remarkably good job of mimicking the eight-bit video game music - even down to the effects used when Mario collects coins or "powers up" in size after eating a mushroom. "I felt like I was playing the game," remarks one viewer on YouTube. "This is insane," says another.

"It's great," agrees Jianbing Hu, a master of the sheng based in New York and a member of the Silk Road Ensemble. But he doesn't think the novelty of Super Mario Bros is what's driving the views - rather it's the novelty of hearing the sheng, an ancient instrument that many modern Chinese are unfamiliar with. There was a fad for playing modern, Western tunes on traditional instruments in the 1990s, he says, but in general there is more enthusiasm for traditional Chinese music in the US than in China. "For every 1,000 people learning the violin, you might get one learning the sheng," he says.

Ground Theme, the music from Super Mario Bros, was composed by Koji Kondo for the game's release in 1985. It has appeared in numerous titles since then and more recently spent over 200 weeks in Billboard's ringtone download charts. Lijin Li's rendition this month is not the first to take place in a concert hall - the composer has been filmed performing it on a grand piano.

Reporting by William Kremer

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