music in Taiwan

music in Taiwan
Taiwan’s musical scene is a lively mix of traditional, popular, classical and hybrid genres. Over the course of a day, traditional drums and suona, Western classical and a variety of popular musics are all likely to stream into one’s sonic environment. During any given week in Taipei, performance venues such as the National Concert Hall, Novel Hall, Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall and the Red House Theatre, to name a few, stage a wide range of performances. Complementing this scene are numerous pubs scattered throughout the city where one may hear aboriginal singers, Taiwanese folk singers, Hakka rock, jazz and many other pop music varieties performed by local, expatriate and touring artists. A host of other musical activities occur beyond the domain of these publicly advertised events and outside the capital city. In addition, music plays an important role in religious life from the daily chanting of Buddhist and Taoist clergy to the performance of Taiwanese opera, hand-puppet theatre and instrumental genres at temple festivals and other ritual events. The richness of the music scene is partly explained by the diversity of the island’s peoples coupled with Taiwan’s rather complex settlement and colonial histories.
Aboriginal music
Taiwan’s original inhabitants are not Han Chinese. Numerous culturally and linguistically distinct tribes of Malayo-Polynesian (Austronesian) peoples lived throughout the island prior to the migration, which began in earnest in the 1600s, of settlers from southeastern China. The aborigines remained the dominant population until the nineteenth century. Their ultimate origination point is much debated. One theory conjectures southeast Asia while another asserts mainland China. Based on linguistic evidence, yet another theory posits that Taiwan itself was the origination point of all Austronesian-speaking peoples, who now inhabit a huge area spanning from Madagascar through Indonesia to New Zealand (Aotearoa), Hawai’i and to Easter Island (Rapanui). Taiwan’s government currently recognizes ten mountain tribes whose home villages are located mainly in the interior mountains and along the eastern coast. These tribes are the Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Shao, Tsou and Yami (also called Tao). Currently, all tribes combined comprise less than 2 per cent of Taiwan’s population.
The traditional cultures of most tribes are endangered. Commercially released collections of field recordings made during the 1990s confirm that traditional songs and instrumental music are now largely the province of the senior generation. Lyric content ranges from the narration of daily activities such as hunting, fishing and farming to songs used for important rites and rituals, including weddings, funerals, music for exorcism and prayers for a good harvest. Vital knowledge such as legends, origin tales and concepts of nature are contained in various forms of musical expression. In the past, tribal members grew up surrounded by musical expression, and most were practised singers by the time they reached adulthood. The living patterns that closely integrated life and song have been significantly disrupted. Years of outward migration to urban centres combined with an educational system—which until very recently aimed at assimilation in Han Chinese culture—has taken a heavy toll on the transmission of traditional knowledge, including native languages and musical repertoires.
Presently, annual festivals draw tribal members who live in areas beyond their village, home for several days of singing, dancing and general celebration. It is in this context that young people learn to perform the communal singing and dancing that are an integral part of these gatherings. Typically, participants sing, hold hands and move in long lines, which often form concentric circles, as they dance to simple repeated patterns. Jingling ankle bracelets and small bells, which they attach to their colourful costumes, add rhythmic accompaniment to the unison or multi-part singing. Many of these events are now open to outsiders. One of the best known is the Amis harvest festival, which is held in July or August each year in Hualian and Taidong counties along the east coast.
Aboriginal music gained both domestic and international attention in the mid 1990s when the voices of Amis singers Difang Duarna (Kuo Yingnan) and his wife Ignay (Kuo Shin-chu) were used as the basis for the mega hit ‘Return to Innocence’, which was originally released in 1993 by the European musician Michael Cretu. How Cretu, who works under the name ‘Enigma’, came to possess the recording of the Kuos’ singing is a long and sordid tale; suffice to say that Cretu used the Kuos’ voices without their knowledge or consent. Though more than half of ‘Return to Innocence’ featured the Kuos, Enigma failed to credit their contribution. When the song was used as a theme song for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games, people in Taiwan were both belatedly awakened to the unique beauty of aboriginal song and angered by the unfair use of the Kuos’ intellectual property. With the financial backing of the Taiwan-based Magic Stone Company, the Kuos sued Cretu, EMI/Capitol and the International Olympic Committee, among others, in the United States. The case was settled out of court in June 1999.
Kuo Ying-nan passed away at the age of eighty-two on 28 March 2002 and his wife died just twenty-one days later at the age of seventy-nine. In the six years between the use of their music for the Olympics and their deaths, the Kuos were frequently invited to perform in Taipei and throughout the island. They were especially favoured guests of politicians who wished to identify themselves with aboriginal Taiwan. Magic Stone produced two CDs featuring Difang and a small group of elderly Amis singers. The music of both CDs combines the original Amis tracks, which were recorded a cappella (as is the Amis tradition), with ‘new-age style’ music. The new age music for the Circle of Life (1998) was created in Belgium, while various composers from Malaysia, Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan and Taiwan contributed music for the Across the Yellow Earth (1999).
The attention paid to the Kuos in the wake of the ‘Enigma affair’, coupled with a renewed interest in aboriginal culture, paved the way for numerous aboriginal singers to launch recording careers beginning in the mid 1990s. The most commercially successful of these has been A-mei (Zhang Huimei), who is the daughter of a Puyuma tribal chief. A-mei has released more than fifteen recordings and is famous in Taiwan, mainland China, and throughout the Mandarin-listening world. Her vocal style is somewhat ‘sultry’, and the overall sound of her music is similar to mainstream American pop and includes elements of rock, blues and hip-hop. She sings predominately in Mandarin, but has also recorded in English and Japanese. A-mei occasionally draws on her Puyuma musical heritage as in her first hit single ‘Jiemei’ [Sisters], which was released in 1996 on a CD of the same name. In this song, she and her mother converse in Puyuma and her mother sings a traditional tune. The aboriginal group Power Station (Dongli huoche) broke into Taiwan’s pop music mainstream about a year after A-mei and also enjoys considerable popularity in China. Power Station is frontlined by two young men from the Paiwan tribe. Their music only occasionally includes uniquely aboriginal elements.
The music of both Samingad (Ji Xiaojun) and Pur-dur (Chen Jiannian) retains close ties to their Puyuma heritage. Samingad won the ‘Best New Artist’ award for her first CD, Voices of the Sun, Wind and the Grassland (1999), at the 2000 Golden Melody Competition (Taiwan’s equivalent of the Grammies). Pur-dur, who happens to be Samingad’s uncle, won in both the ‘Best Male Vocalist’ and ‘Best Song Writer’ categories for his first album Ho-hi-yan Ocean (1999). Samingad sings in both Puyuma and Mandarin, and frequently utilizes traditional Puyuma melodies. Pur-dur sings to simple guitar accompaniment primarily in Mandarin, though he sometimes includes Puyuma text and melodies. Biung’s (Wang Hongen) exclusive singing in his native Bunun won him the Golden Melody Award in the ‘Best Non-Mandarin Singer’ category in 2002. Other aboriginal singers from various tribes have released CDs, including: Jiang Jinxing (Kuo Ying-nan’s son); Panai; Beiyuan Shanmao (North Aboriginal Mountain Cats); A-mei mei (a female duo which includes A-mei’s sister, Saya, and their cousin, Raya); and Feiyu Yunbao (Flying Fish, Cloud Leopard). An aboriginal singer of particular note is Hu Defu (Kimbo), who first achieved island-wide recognition in the 1970s during the campus folksong movement for his rendition of the song, ‘Beautiful Formosa’ (Meilidao). Hu still occasionally performs at pubs in Taipei, though he makes his home with his Puyuma family in Taidong county.
Han Chinese traditional musics: Holo
The Holo, also referred to as Hokkien or ‘Taiwanese’ in English, are those people whose ancestors came to Taiwan from southern Fujian province before 1945 and whose native language is derived from the southern Fujian dialect. Holo comprise about 75 per cent of Taiwan’s population. There are numerous varieties of traditional Holo music actively practiced in Taiwan. Folksongs have been passed down from generation to generation, mainly by amateur musicians. Though originally sung to accompany work or to entertain oneself or a small group, some folksongs were used as subtle protest songs by opposition supporters during the years of the KMT-imposed martial law (1947–87). They continue to be heard during election campaigns, and some have been recorded by famous singers of Taiwanese popular songs. In some cases, the songs have no specific political association and may serve simply to invoke a nostalgic mood. Though folksongs traditionally existed in many variant forms, over the last several decades, particularly following the publication of Lü Chüan-sheng’s influential choral arrangements, the melodic forms of many songs have become more or less standardized.
Native scholars classify most Holo music into either the southern style, called nanguan (southern pipe), or the northern style, called beiguan (northern pipe). These two styles comprise a wide variety of genres including instrumental music, solo singing with accompaniment, and operatic forms. One genre that has received a great deal of scholarly attention is the sizhu (Silk and Bamboo; and see Jiangnan sizhu) ensemble referred to as nanguan, a slow-moving, delicate music whose ensemble is comprised of bowed and plucked string instruments, an end-blown flute and wooden clappers, and often includes a solo singer (see Minnan nanyin). Believed to have first arrived in Taiwan in the 1600s, nanguan was traditionally the province of the educated elite due partly to its refined sound and use of notation. Nanguan musicians form clubs that meet either in community centres, in the homes of club members or in temples. Besides playing at club meetings, these groups may perform during biannual rites that commemorate patron gods and deceased club members, as part of temple festivals or for public concerts. Only about a dozen nanguan ensembles currently remain active in Taiwan, and a number of these have had in recent times to rely on government patronage.
The most commonly encountered form of beiguan music is a raucous ensemble comprised of the several suona (double-reed instrument with a wooden body and flared metal bell) and gongs and drums (see luogu) whose players ride on trucks during funeral processions. This form of ensemble also plays an important role in temple festivals and other celebratory events and may be regularly heard throughout the island. Beiguan music provides the basis for a number of other genres, including the popular hand-puppet theatre (budaixi) and a dying opera form called luantan.
Han Chinese traditional music: Hakka
Hakka people migrated to Taiwan mostly from Guangdong province beginning in the mid 1600s. Hailing from different areas of Guangdong province and migrating at different times, Taiwan’s Hakka belong to two culturally distinct groups, the northern and the southern. The earliest arrivals settled in Taiwan’s southern counties of Kaohsiung and Pingdong and tended to maintain fairly closed communities. The later arrivals initially settled in the central and northern counties of Miaoli, Xinzhu and Taoyuan and were generally more open to cultural exchanges with other groups than their southern counterparts. All Hakka combined currently comprise about 11 per cent of Taiwan’s population.
The most representative examples of traditional Hakka music are mountain songs (shange) and bayin ensemble music. Realizing that fewer and fewer young people were learning to sing Hakka songs, a number of efforts to ensure their survival were made starting in the 1960s: a Hakka Song Research Association was established in 1962 and several magazines dedicated to printing song notation and essays about the songs were founded around the same time. The 1960s and 1970s saw the release of numerous recordings of Hakka mountain songs sung by accomplished folk singers and by winners of newly established Hakka song competitions.
The bayin (eight sounds) ensemble takes its name from the ancient Chinese system that classifies instruments according to eight essential elements: metal, stone, silk, bamboo, skin, earth, gourd and wood. Though the ensemble includes several types of string instruments, the predominance of percussion and suona places bayin in the loud chuida (blowing and beating) category of traditional Chinese ensembles. In Taiwan, Hakka bayin groups are either professional or amateur and are hired to play for auspicious events such as weddings, birthdays and temple festivals, and recently, for funerals as well. Most ensembles have between four and eight players, but as many as ten additional suona players may be added for special occasions.
Mountain songs have inspired the creations of the Hakka rock group, the Labour Exchange Band (Jiaogong Yuedui), which artfully combines traditional and traditionally inspired tunes with Western harmonies and rhythmic patterns. The band’s instrumentation includes suona, erhu (two-stringed bowed lute), yueqin (plucked short-necked lute), guitar and both traditional and Western percussion. The band is politically active and is particularly well known for its opposition to the Meinung Dam construction project. The band’s first CD, Let Us Sing Mountain Songs (1999), earned awards for the ‘Best Production of a Non-mainstream Album’ and the ‘Best Songwriter for a Non-mainstream Group’ at the Golden Melody Award competition in 2000. In the 2002 competition, their second album, The Night March of the Chrysanthemums (2001), won in the ‘Best Band’ category. The group has toured abroad, including appearances in 2001 at the Brugge Festival and the Gent Folk Festival in Belgium and the Respect World and Ethnic Music Festival in Prague.
Han Chinese traditional musics: other
Emigrés arriving in the late 1940s brought a variety of musics from all over China to Taiwan. A number of Chinese opera forms, solo instrumental traditions and narrative song genres were among the arts that the mainlander refugees hoped to keep alive in exile. The modern Chinese orchestra, which employs instruments derived from China’s own instrumentarium and is modelled after the Western symphony orchestra, has been one of the most successful of the post 1949 arrivals. This genre, termed guoyue (national music), typically uses Chinese folk tunes or newly written ‘oriental-sounding’ melodies with Western-influenced harmony and orchestrational style. There are currently four professional gaoyue orchestras active in Taiwan: the Taipei Municipal Chinese Classical Orchestra, the National Chinese Orchestra, the Kaohsiung Chinese Orchestra and the Chinese Orchestra of the Broadcasting Corporation of China. Legalization of cross-Straits travel in the late 1980s, and the ensuing cultural exchanges, has brought renewed life to some traditions, though others, such as Jingju (Peking opera), are sadly fading away.
Popular music
The commission of a Taiwanese theme song, ‘Weeping Peach Blossoms’, for the local showing of a Shanghai film in 1932 is typically cited as the germinal event in Taiwan’s popular music history. The sorrowful movie and song told the story of starcrossed lovers from different social classes. Melancholy love songs have dominated Taiwan’s popular music scene ever since. Neither the Japanese colonial regime nor Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian Nationalist Party tolerated songs with overt social or political criticism. Songs of love provided a relatively safe expressive outlet. Taiwanese frequently point to the primacy of sad songs as the product of a people that have been long governed by outsiders.
Numerous local recording companies were established in the mid 1930s. Local composers (such as Deng Yuxian and Wang Yunfeng) and lyricists (such as Zhou Tianwang, Zhan Tianma and Li Linqiu) created numerous songs that are still sung today. Following the outbreak of war with China in 1937, the Japanese initiated a policy that restricted the use of the Chinese language, including local dialects, and until Japan’s defeat in 1945, artistic creation was preferably conducted in Japanese. The inaugural period of Taiwanese pop music came to an abrupt end. The withdrawal of Japan did not, unfortunately, bring an improvement in creative conditions. The devastated post-war economy combined with Nationalist-imposed restrictions on and disparagement of local culture forced many talented artists to abandon creative endeavour. The need for Taiwanese-language songs was partly filled by translations of Japanese songs that could be produced far more cheaply than original works.
When the mainlander refugees arrived in the late 1940s, the sounds of Mandarin popular music quickly filled Taiwan’s airwaves. Shanghai and Hong Kong-style Mandarin pop dominated the scene through the 1960s. Televised variety shows became a key venue for the promotion of locally produced Mandarin songs. The first generation of local Mandarin singers included Bao Nana, Xie Lei and Qing Shan. The music of the enormously popular Teresa Teng (Deng Lijun) dominated the Mandarin song market in the 1970s and 1980s and spread, albeit surreptitiously, to the Chinese mainland. With the US military presence during the Vietnam War, American soldiers and pop music also filled island nightspots, and during the 1960s American pop music was favoured by upwardly mobile young people. The elder generation and the less well educated, however, continued to favour locally produced music.
The Campus Folksong Movement emerged following a series of diplomatic setbacks for the ROC in the late 1970s and represented a new direction for the island’s pop music. With anti-Western sentiment running high, university students shunned American pop. Inspired by the phrase ‘sing our own songs’, they composed songs in Mandarin that they sang to simple guitar accompaniment. Following in this spirit, medical student turned song-writer and singer Luo Dayou became a pioneer in musically criticizing social realities in the early 1980s. His early songs, such as ‘Small Town Lugang’ and ‘Super Citizen’, departed significantly from the melancholy and apolitical songs of previous decades.
The work of creative artists quickly began to flow following the lifting of martial law in July 1987. Released in 1989 by a consortium working under the name Blacklist Studio (or Workshop), Songs of Madness was perhaps the most significant work of this new era. Combining rock, hip-hop and lyric elements with uniquely local sounds, this CD brought new life to Taiwanese-language music. Song content ranged from vivid depictions of everyday life in Taiwan to sharp criticism of the Nationalist regime as in the song, ‘Democracy Bumpkin’. One of the group’s key artists, Chen Mingzhang, went on to create a body of his own works and remains one of the island’s most important and visionary musicians.
The 1990s witnessed a musical renaissance as artists drew their creative materials from Taiwan’s own cultural heritage, particularly from the traditions practised by uneducated folk musicians. The rise to fame of Lin Qiang (Lim Giong), Wu Bai and China Blue, Bobby Chen (Chen Sheng), and Zhu Yuexin (Joy Topper), among other artists who often sing in Taiwanese, gave birth to ‘New Taiwanese Music’. Zhu, in particular, excelled at ridiculing the continuing lack of clarity surrounding Taiwan’s political and cultural identity in his pastiche-like compositions. Also significant is the ‘Queen of Taiwanese Music’, Jiang Hui (Jody), who brought new life to ‘wine songs’ and other kinds of melancholy Taiwanese songs. She continues to produce top-selling CDs. The last several years, however, have witnessed a sharp decline in the production of inspired pop music. Rampant piracy, aided by the proliferation of MP3 technology and a general economic downturn, has resulted in many companies being unwilling to back any but the most formulaically mainstream singers. In addition, opposition to Nationalist rule, which inspired the creation of many ingenious works, dissipated following the election of President Chen Shui-bian in early 2000. Youthful love songs reign once again, although labels such as Taiwan Colours Music, Crystal Records and a few other indies, continue to support the production of alternative and unique music.
Western classical idiom
Though traditional music holds an important place in contemporary society, Western classical music enjoys a higher status; and many more people are trained in Western than in Chinese music. The study of Western music began in earnest during the Japanese colonial period, when the most promising young musicians travelled to Japan for advanced training. Since the end of WWII, the USA and Western Europe have been the preferred sites for overseas study. However, many students receive their training in Taiwan’s own universities and institutes.
The most important state-subsidized symphony orchestras include the National Symphony Orchestra, the Taipei Symphony Orchestra and the semi-professional, Kaohsiung City Symphony Orchestra. There are also privately operated professional orchestras, including the Taipei Sinfonietta and Philharmonic Orchestra (founded in 1985) and the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra, established in 2002 with the stated goal of cultivating Formosan musicians and promoting Formosan music which is rarely appreciated beyond the island.
Taiwan has produced a number of art music composers whose works tend to be a confluence of Western and local musical elements. Hsu Tsang-hui (1929–2001) was an important pioneer who was active as both a composer and music scholar. He earned his advanced degree in France, founded the Music Creative Group, which aimed to stimulate local music composition in the 1960s, and was one of the founders of the Asian Composers’ League in 1973. Hsu conducted extensive research on Taiwan’s traditional music and was a key in the development of ethnomusicology in Taiwan. Other composers known regionally and internationally include: Lü Chüan-sheng (b. 1916); Hsiao Tyzen (b. 1938) who identifies himself as a Taiwanese-American; Ma Shui-long (b. 1939); Li Tai-hsiang (b. 1941), who is of Amis heritage; Pan Huang-lung (b. 1945); and Chin Hsi-wen (b. 1957).
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Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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