This is the last installment on Taiwanese music, and it seems very fitting. On a chilly and rainy day I visited the mountaintop home of the Guqin Society, where after a bit of a steep climb, Yuan Jung-ping was waiting for me with hot tea and sweets. He proceeded to play a calming and lovely song about bidding goodbye at a station. The guqin (pronounced "chin"-- I HATE the Pinyin spellings!) is an instrument that may date to 4000 years ago. Playing it is as much about meditation as music. The song is from the 12th century, with Jung-ping's arrangement, and it is spare but beautiful. Like my first posting of Nanguan music, it rewards the person who really listens to it, bringing them into a still place.
The music was punctuated with the now light, now heavy sound of rain falling on the roof. Farewell, Taiwan.
Farewell to the hospitality, rainy season, amazing food and wonderful music.
This post covers a lot of territory: electronica, performance art and hip hop!
Lim Geong was the first person I absolutely knew I wanted to interview when I went to Taiwan, because his work is right up there with the best electronica, and it always retains a strong Asian flavor. His story is unusual too, in that he started out with huge success as a pop singing star, and rejected that role to, as he says, "go from the front of the stage to behind the scenes." He has since scored many movies, and even appeared as an actor in quite a few. To me, he's practically a metaphor for what Taiwan has gone through: he expressed the freedom from martial law when he sang his big 1990 hit "Marching Forward" and then followed his star reaching out to the rest of Asia and the world, with music of the digital age.
On the other hand, the gentle acoustic venture "A Moving Sound" is the baby of Scott Prairie and Yun-Ya Hsieh, aka Mia. Mia studied interdisciplinary arts with Meredith Monk in the USA where she met Scott, and together they have brought the rather Western concept of performance art to the island, bringing dance, theater, music and plenty of audience participation together.
Hip-hop is of course no stranger to Taiwan, but Kou Chou Ching are the pre-eminent conscious rap band there. I first learned about them through their wonderful video "Black Heart", a computer-generated animation based on Chinese puppet theater (still a high art in Taiwan) and flavored with both classical and traditional sounds. But the song is an indictment of amok capitalism that creates the black-hearted businessman, who in turn sends poisonous products into the marketplace. Kou Chou Ching is gradually tuning in Taiwanese youth to the need for more engagement with their world.
We tend to think of Taiwan mostly in terms of its relationship to China. But there are eleven different aboriginal tribes still dwelling on Taiwan, some going back 7000 years. Amazingly each one of the tribes is distinctive from the others in customs and language. What unites them is their common marginalization, as various successive powers have attempted to "normalize" them into the ruling or majority culture. Many have held on to their identities, and still live in the mountains, valleys and plains of the island. Inka Mbing, an Atayal, was forced to leave her village at a young age in order to make a living in Taipei. But a lifetime later she is at the forefront of preserving the culture of her tribe. Her voice can be powerful and heartbreaking at the same time, and she is not without adventure, as I heard that she and the Nanguan singer Wu Hsin-fei (see Taiwan Journey Part 1) have been known to jam, and wonderfully, too. By contrast, the rock band Totem is made up of young bucks from different tribes -- Paiwan, Ami and Taitung -- and they have an unapologetically commercial sound. That's okay, it's what they love, and the songs -- which can be about leaving home for the city, or the pleasures of tribal life -- also retain some of the melodic elements of their folk music. They've had some decent recognition at home, and won the music competition at the Ho Hai Yan Rock festival in 2004. In the lead up to that, they were part of the documentary "Ocean Fever." After listening to their records, which have quite the "wall of sound" production, I think I can safely call my video "Totem Unplugged."
There is no way that I could have covered all the different aboriginal music in Taiwan in the five days I was there. Suffice it to say that if any of this music piques your curiousity, there's plenty more to be heard! I recommend checking out the catalogues of Trees Music & Art, Wind Music, and David Darling's striking recordings with the Bunun tribe, "Mudanin Kata."
My thanks to the very knowledgeable David Chen for his commentary.
Jazz has traveled the world and I had definitely planned to check some out when I was in Taipei. I had invites to hang at the various clubs in town, but ended up too weirdly jet-lagged to partake of any nightlife (25 sleepless hours of travel will do that...). But I had heard about Sizhukong, a jazz ensemble featuring two Berklee grads, Yuwen Peng on keyboards, and Toshi Fujii, who plays bass here in my video, but who usually plays the drums. I was able to make a daytime appointment and went to see them during one of their rehearsals. I found the combination of traditional Chinese instruments and jazz sensibilities to be surprisingly successful, thanks to thoughtful arrangements and good material.
A quick note: Yuwen Peng was born and raised in Taiwan, and returned there after graduation from Berklee with a mission to create a jazz with Taiwanese character. The composition "I Remember Formosa" was written while she was at Berklee. It's easy to imagine her recalling the modalities she was raised with to write the piece, and it's lovely to hear it now, arranged for Erhu (violin), Dizi (flute) and Ruan (lute).
In 1999 on the southern tip of Taiwan, where the majority population of Hakka Chinese had settled, the government planned to build a huge dam. The Hakka farmers went to the capital city of Taipei to protest. The dam, they said, would destroy the ecosystem, and was a risky enterprise considering the earthquakes and landslides the area experiences. (I was there during an earthquake...not pleasant.) Lin Sheng Xiang, a Hakka from the village of Meinong, and pursuing a musical career near Taipei, became involved with the struggle to prevent the building of the dam. He moved back to his hometown in Meinong, and the Labor Exchange Band was formed, giving a musical voice to the movement, and the dam was never built. Although the Labor Exchange band is no more, Lin Sheng Xiang has continued to create thoughtful music along with lyricist Zhong Yongfeng. When I interviewed him in the bucolic south of Taiwan, he played a Hakka folksong, a charming song he wrote about his daughter, and a song (co written with Zhong Yongfen) from his latest CD,"Growing up Wild" the concept of which is songs about females.
I was surprised that Lin Sheng Xiang's name came up as often as it did when I interviewed musicians and record people. And although no one ever called it "protest music" everyone acknowledged the call to social responsibility and greater awareness that his songs contain. Our own Woody Guthrie's songs reach out to the heartland, touching on family values and love of the land. I think there is a brotherly resonance in the songs of Lin Sheng Xiang.