I recently returned from a trip to Taiwan, where I checked out the local music scene. Taiwan has a very layered cultural history; when I was growing up the country was called Formosa, a name given to it hundreds of years ago by Portuguese sailors. Taiwan was colonized by the Japanese, who left a profound mark, and most obviously, there is a huge Han Chinese population there that migrated in two major waves, one early, beginning in the 1600s, and another later during the 1940s and 50s under Chiang Kai-shek. There is also an aboriginal population, and although they have been marginalized like many of the aboriginals of the world, their music is increasingly being sold and enjoyed.
For my first installment, I'm going for the throat -- with an à cappella performance by a Nanguan singer. (Usually this music is performed with an ensemble of string, wind and percussion.) I had been told that there was a very adventurous Nanguan singer named Wu Hsin-fei who was doing all kinds of collaborations with western and aboriginal musicians. When I set up my appointment to videotape her, she requested that it be in the studio of a master ceramist, so we drove up into the mountains (Taipei is surrounded on three sides by mountains, the fourth side being a harbor) and I found myself in another world. I hope you will see and hear what I mean. So much of how we perceive music is learned, so you may need to "reset your brain" when you listen to this. But I also think that her performance is so riveting, and I was able to get so close up, that you will be drawn into this very special experience. Personally, I find that it calms me immensely.
One of the artists I interviewed said that Taiwanese (or in this case, Chinese in Taiwan) music is about time and space. I tend to agree with that, and will go one step further: it has been so refined over the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years, that it has retained only the most abstract essence of music. For me, it was akin to listening to a Western minimalist piece. And all you singers out there -- check out her tone production!
Here is some background information about the artist:
"Ms. Wu Hsin-fei has had formal training in Nanguan music and has performed with traditional Nanguan ensembles. Over the past few years however, she has started to sing some of the most famous ballads of the repertoire à cappella. More recently, for her new CD, she has chosen to sing Tang dynasty poetry - till now not part of the Nanguan repertoire, together with solo instruments such as pi'pa, flute, guqin and Arabic oud."
I can't wait to hear that CD!
In the coming weeks I will be posting performances and interviews with Taiwanese musicians, journalists and record people and I hope that you will find it to be as fascinating as I did.