Posts Tagged ‘Taiwan’


Return to Taiwan from Michal Shapiro on Vimeo.

This is a departure for me of sorts; as you know, I usually cover international music. The trip to Taiwan promised a great deal of culture and concerts, but Hurricane Soulik blew that second element away. Still, there is so much that is fascinating about Taiwan’s culture that I knew I would come back with something of interest, so I just kept my camcorder rolling, and here is the result, and some written comments about it.
One of the things that of course, makes Taiwan unique is that as my colleague Lucia points out in the video, it is over 90% Han Chinese. Yet even the hordes of tourists who come over from the Mainland these days will tell you that Taiwanese are somehow different. Yes, much of the culture is directly traceable to the mainland, but one must factor in the influence of the European powers who traded (and exploited) this island for hundreds of years, the 50 years of extremely influential Japanese occupation, and the history of a nationalist military dictatorship, which morphed fairly smoothly into democracy. Then a generation of hard work also created a highly successful capitalism that is peculiarly Taiwanese. And let us not forget that it is an island, and islands tend to create particular cultures in and of themselves. There are aboriginal tribes, and also a significant population of Hakka Chinese that arrived hundreds of years ago, to farm the lush, mountainous south, to be factored into the mix.
I start my video with Taipei 101, which is a kind of symbol for the hard-won business success of Taiwan (it is currently a hub of the tech industry). Its Green elements and its pagoda-like design, also point to a sensitivity towards nature and Asian art, respectively. And a word about the puppet theater… I mention that glove puppetry has been voted the most representative art form of Taiwanese culture, but the performance I show here is very traditional. Today, there are complete televised soap operas acted out with puppets, and even teenagers have their favorite characters, and get all caught up with the stories. These characters have modern dress, and modern concerns. So while what I caught and present here is wonderful, it is only part of the story.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone about why food is a cultural marker. (I am a confessed foodie.) Legend has it that When Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, he brought all the best cooks with him. This may or may not be true, but what is certainly true is that a very specific and sophisticated Taiwanese cuisine has developed based on the ingredients so readily found here, with an emphasis on tropical fruits, fish, poultry and seafood. The textures are delicate, the flavorings subtle, with little in the way of spicy heat. Of course the fare at the Night Market was far brasher, and the experience of wandering around in this high energy place, filled with one fascinating offering after another was totally exciting, and sheer fun.
I closed my video with an off-the -cuff interview with two delightful young people who were selling pineapple cakes at Taipei 101. They seemed quite perfect.
NOTE: I have since learned that the mystery food in the Night Market, the small vegetable wrapped in green leaves is called a “betel nut.” The vendor stuffs the fruit with special herbal ingredients and wraps it up with a betel nut leaf. It has a stimulant effect, so people who need to stay awake use it. Priestley, our colleague from the Solomon Islands mentioned that in his homeland, it is commonly used as well. He noticed that our bus driver used it too, instead of coffee. Priestley thought perhaps it was another link between Taiwan’s aboriginal population and the Solomon Islands.
If you like the music that you heard in this “travelogue” you can see a rehearsal and interview with the band Sizhukong here at inter-muse:
It is part of a six part musical journey I documented years ago using at the time, a Flip camera, also here on my site (just go to the archive, to the “Taiwan Journey” series).
For more information about the puppet theater, please visit

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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.

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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.

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Here’s where you’ll find my weekly original world music video blogs that appear on Huffington Post, as well as an archive starting in April of 2009.

This is also the place where you will find video that is exclusive to my site. I’ve traveled to places like Uzbekistan, Morocco, and Taiwan and no matter where I go I have found amazingly talented and creative people working in every genre from the deepest traditions to the cutting edge.

It’s been incredibly rewarding to interview them and to capture some of what they do on video. Enjoy what you see and hear, and let me know what you think. I welcome your feedback.