Posts Tagged ‘Taiwan’
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, cold rainy season, warm people, amazing food and wonderful music.
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.
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.”