All around the world, musicians are standing up for their roots in the face of globalisation. While the likes of Manu Chao can bring their message to a ‘world’ stage, for the vast majority it’s about local issues and local music.
There can hardly be a better candidate for some eventual backlash against western cultural and economic imperialism obliterating local traditions than the island of Taiwan. As one of the economic powerhouses of the region (a so-called Tiger Economy) Taiwan is one of the world centres of mass production. The rush for prosperity has not come without environmental and human cost.
The origins of The Labour Exchange Band go back to an anti-dam movement that started in Meinung, a village in the mountainous region of Kaoshiung county in the south of the island. After gaining support of the county magistrate, a group of two hundred or so elderly farmers went north to the capital Taipei. Somewhat overwhelmed by the urban bustle they encountered, their leader Chung Hsiumei suggested they sing their own Meinung mountain songs on their march to the legislative Yuan. With spirits raised they put their case for how the dam in Meinung would threaten their lives, destroy their property and harm local ecology. Agriculture was already in decline, young people had to leave the area to get work elsewhere.
Lin Shenghsiang was one of those young people, when he heard of the protesters. He was a student in Taipei, playing with a rock group Guantze Music Pit. “I was born in Meinung from a peasant family.” explains Shenghsiang. “My mother was raising pigs to support the family and saved some money for me for my first Lakewood guitar many years ago. I decided to go back to my hometown from Taipei in 1998 when the anti-dam campaign was blooming in Meinung. When I met the members of the anti-dam campaign in 1999, I was asking myself what I could do for the campaign and for my hometown. The thing I could do was sing, play and write music. I decided to use music as the instrument for the campaign, and this became the concept for making the first album Let’s Sing Mountain Songs . After this, The Labour Exchange Band was formally established.”
Shenghsiang enlisted the help of two other members of Guantze Music Pit. “We are all from different backgrounds” he says . “Our percussionist A-da is a ‘Nakasi’ musician with 20 years experience playing at weddings and festivities since the age of eleven. Nakasi is a very special form of band and musical style which received profound Japanese influences linguistically as well as musically. It’s a very rustic and urban-rooty form of music, normally with a keyboard, which has replaced the accordion, and drums accompanying the singers. Then there’s Kuanyu, he is our bassist and the sound engineer of the group.”
The other two were brought in for the new incarnation. “Chung Yungfeng from Meinung is one of the original core members of the association of the anti-dam campaign. He is a poet who brings in critical views in his realistic style of writing. He has been recruited by various departments of the new government for his radical views. Jincai is from Singapore and the leading sourna (reed horn) player in the Kaohsiung City Chinese Orchestra. He has been living in Taiwan for 11 years. His musical education is more ‘hereditary’ than academic, although he later trained as a classical sourna player. All his family, down from his grandfather’s generation, have played at weddings and funerals in a traditional lineup with drums and sournas.”
I wondered how the band’s name had come about. “When we were nearly ready to release Let’s Sing Mountain Songs, about twenty of the core members and comrades of the campaign came to the Tobacco House where the recording was done, to try and find a name for the group. The countrymen of Meinung and the friends who supported the campaign donated money and goods that we needed for the recording project. The older generation from our hometown supported the idea of recording, even though using music to express the message of anti-dam building was new and strange to them. Some often came to the Tobacco House to bring us food, clean the studio, and some to sing backing vocals on the traditional mountain songs. The ‘labour exchange’ tradition of the peasant society in Meinung had transferred to the process of recording the album. We were reminded of the spirit of the ‘labour exchange’ and the philosophy of the mutual-assisting system, and liked to keep the spirit in our band. Therefore, we chose the name Labour Exchange Band. In Chinese, we called it Jiao Gong Yue Dui. Normally, a band in Chinese is ‘Yue Tuan’, but we followed the old fortune naming system in the village, and replaced Tuan (Group) to Dui (Team) because of the lucky strokes of the Chinese character. We like the old belief kept in the peasant’s life.”
The mountain people from Meinung, including Shenghsiang, are mostly Hakka Chinese, literally meaning ‘guest families’ who originally came to Taiwan from northern mainland China. They are a sizable minority group making up about 17% of Taiwan’s population. “According to history, we have migrated due to wars at various times. Hakka people have migrated to nearly every corner of the world, mainly different provinces of China, Taiwan, Central and South America and South East Asia. In Taiwan, Hakkas are known for their tough spirit due to the migration in their history. Most of the Hakkas inhabited the mountainous areas of Taiwan during the pioneering age. Some people assume this is the origin of mountain singing and songs.”
These were mostly working songs, sung in the fields and plantations. Sometimes these were made up spontaneously, the words reflecting what they saw and heard, often in male and female call and response style.
” I grew up in a Hakka village and my parents and my grandparents experienced the most radical changes in society. The Hakkas cherish their resourcefulness in the face of a hardship. It has almost become the nature of Hakka people. The nature of being a Hakka as a kind of spirit has supported two of our recording projects, especially when we were not supported at all by any big and financially exuberant record companies. Now we finally could achieve what we wanted to accomplish.”
However, going back to his roots was not a natural process for Shenghsiang. “Myself and Yongfeng were born and grew up in Meinung. We listened to mountain songs and Hakka ba yin (instrumental music) in our everyday life when they were played live and sung in weddings and funerals. However, they were more like background sounds for us. We couldn’t avoid western rock and roll, which had a greater influence on our daily life, as it did for everyone. When we discovered that the music from the west was carrying us away from our tradition and hometown, we decided to go back to our own roots and take this as the main line of our compositions. We are glad that we awoke from that, and could finally find our own way home. Therefore, we started later to use Hakka mountain songs and Hakka ba yin as the main structures of our compositions.”
Like many other musicians around the world, going through a similar catharsis of rediscovering their roots, they add a new dimension to a tradition. “We adopt different components of the traditional music from Hakka, but do not exclude other musical elements from other cultures. For us, cultures are growing with assimilations, and the process of assimilation requires various elements without restrictions. We are one of a very few groups who use Chinese instruments for compositions, and we are the only group who use traditional Chinese instruments as the main structure of our compositions. I have chosen moon guitar (yueqin) to accompany my singing, though I never trained as a moon guitar player. It took me some time to get used to the two-stringed instrument when I had been playing a six-string guitar. It took some energy to learn and get used to. I am not a good solo player, but I take it seriously. Our sourna player Jin Cai is a professional musician and innovator, the treasure of our band. He is the leading sourna player in the orchestra that he is playing for, and his solo improvised playing has added colour to our band.”
While the instrumentation is a mixture of Chinese and western instruments, the songs sometimes follow a western structure, especially their own compositions. “When I was a student, I listened to a lot of western rock, such as Pink Floyd and then later Sting and U2. Then my ears were seduced by the music of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Tom Waits and Van Morrison. To me, Van Morrison has remained in a kind of exalted position. Then I had the chance to be exposed to some Asian groups like Caravan from Thailand, and Soul Flower from Japan, as well as Cui Jian from Mainland China. On the second album Night March of Chrysanthemums, there is another influential figure, the Mainland Chinese novelist Mo Yen, whom I would like to dedicate this album to . I would say Van Morrison and Mo Yen are the two most influential figures for my compositions on the Night March of Chrysanthemums.”
Night March of Chrysanthemums has an epic feel to it, following the real life story of Ah-Cheng, a farmer from Meinung. This time they tackle not just local, but global issues. “When we finished the first album, the anti-dam campaign was not yet into the phase it is now. We have achieved the goal at last, the new government agreed not to build a dam in Meinung. We thought even when the campaign had reached this stage of success, we would still like to discuss the problems in Meinung, in all the agricultural societies through our music. Therefore, we chose agriculture as the theme of our next album, which was actually linked to our daily life, our families, our friends and neighbours. For us, the making of the album was more like writing a novel. Ah-Cheng, as a hero of the novel, as well as a universal male role from a changing agricultural society reveals some universal issues discussed around the world.
“When we were making the album, it was a complicated process. I had to refer to Mo Yen’s novel as when he was writing his book, he was writing a film-novel. We were actually making an album with the concept of making a film. We ran through a lot of pictures in our minds. The members of our band got together to tell stories and listen to the shared experiences of the villagers or friends. We did field research and interviewed many peasants, and spent some time studying the chrysanthemums growing. For instance, the theme song of the album, when we call the roles of the chrysanthemums is like how we were called during our military service.
“It was important that we were aware of the ‘microphone’ passed to the farmers and labourers, who had never had this in their hands before, which might make them afraid to express themselves in a logical way due to lack of practice. So we learned the facts from them, and let our songs speak.”
Like other peasants and farmers approaching middle age, the matchmakers found it difficult to find a suitable partner for Ah-Cheng. Instead he went to southeast Asia to find a ‘foreign bride’.
“In ‘After A Long Period a Strange Place Becomes Home’, we asked the social workers who help the ‘foreign brides’ in our village to run workshops for us to understand their real situation better. The most satisfactory thing for us was the feedback from the peasants and the foreign brides. When we sent the finished album to the farmers who we interviewed, they all thought that the album did speak for them. The song we wrote for the foreign brides who married our village farmers has now become the theme song for the Chinese learning classes run for the foreign brides in the communities. The children of the foreign mothers could all follow their mothers and sing together. This kind of feedback is pushing us to carry on. ”
Indeed, the album’s message went right to the top. “Our President once quoted our concept of the Night March of Chrysanthemums in his speech on the policy of agricultural industry.”
Not many groups before them have combined music and politics. “In Taiwan, when most people think about democracy, it is in terms of the one vote that everyone has, but people very often forget about the right to participate in public debates and discussion of policies. What we are trying to do is to use music to express our comments on public policies, especially those which are not being debated and discussed in public. Our political views are more to the left in general. This rare standpoint straightaway makes us independent from usual political activities, since we hold different opinions from the mainstream right-wing point of view, and we are able to be independent with our own opinion. It is important that the band is using the microphone of music for expressing our comments to what we observe from our society.”
Does Shenghsiang still concern himself mostly with local politics, or is he increasingly thinking on a global level. “When we position ourselves on a ‘higher’ global level, we see clearly what we should do. We are living on the island of Taiwan, so we can more concretely be involved in the political and social movements here, but the global vision is a must for us to express our views and opinions. They are not being able to dissected into two independent levels.”
If their political activism is unusual in Taiwan, their music is equally unique. “We are categorized as Hakka folk sometimes, some other times as World Music, or occasionally, names like Agricultural Rock and Campaign Music are coined for our music, since there are no other bands working on a similar thing in Taiwan. Categorizing our music is not a big problem for us.”
However, they have achieved some mainstream acceptance. “This year we are nominated in the best pop group category in the largest local music award, the Golden Songs Award. We are nominated with a heavy metal rock group, and even with a pop idle group in the same category. It is actually very hard to compare our music with those groups. We do think that our music is for the people and to the people, so it is a kind of ‘popular’ music or ‘peoples’ music, depending on how you define popular music. If people think that we do not sing ‘popular’ songs, the songs for the people, we do not agree at all. Last year, we were nominated in categories under the non-mainstream music section, and were nominated with classical singers and musicians in the same category. A very interesting experience for us.
“As to Cui Jian from China and Lo Dayou from Taiwan, there’s no doubt they can be categorized as pop music, although they use a lot of elements of Chinese traditional instruments in their compositions. However, we carry in our songs straightforward political and social opinions, and people started wondering what we are doing, and how our music should be categorized.”
I wondered if there was any relationship between Hakka Chinese and the aborigines, who have recently helped revive interest in Taiwanese identity through their own music. “During the pioneering age of Hakkas on the island of Taiwan hundreds of years ago, we were rivals to aborigines (the first inhabitants on the island) and Hoklo people (originally from the Hokien Province of China, the earlier migrants from the mainland inhabiting Taiwan) for surviving on the then virgin island. However, there were cultural interactions among the Hakkas, the Hoklos, and the aborigines in our daily life. Culturally, we are not so detached to each other. For instance, we have a traditional mountain song called Half Mountain Song, which tells a love story of a Hakka man falling in love with an aboriginal girl. Our villagers are very fond of aboriginal music. It is not uncommon for Hakka people to invite aboriginal singers to perform at their weddings for the festive atmosphere. I think that the Hakkas, the aborigines and the Hoklo have been living together on the island for centuries, and they do influence each other in musical styles and their ways of life. However, it needs to be researched carefully.”
A lot of people would recognise the voices and melody of at least one aboriginal tune, but probably without realising it was Taiwanese at all. Enigma sampled two aboriginal Amis singers, Difang and Guo on their hit single, Return to Innocence. The duo were unaware they had been sampled until a friend heard the song on the radio. A Taiwanese lawyer filed a suit, the case eventually being settled out of court. “When listening to the voice of aboriginal singers and the melody that they are making, I do think that they are gifted, and the heritage has been passed down from their ancestors. However, I think that music is not only about it passing down the generations. Taking Difang as an example, he has a great and unique voice, but when his voice is exploited by the mainstream music industry, and he is not able to follow the direction he would like to and express himself through his voice, it is for me very sad. I think that music and cultures are changing within the context of time. Music does not refer only to the oral traditions passing down from the ancestors anymore.”
Contemporary aboriginal music released by the same record label as Labour Exchange Band (Trees Music & Art) is more to Shenghsiang’s taste. “I would like to talk about another aboriginal group, the Amis musicians, Huegu and Docdoc, who have recorded the Bura Bura Yan album. Huegu also appears on the Betel Nuts album (a pioneering compilation, also featuring music from Papua New Guinea). They are not merely singing the ancestors songs. They combine and mix Japanese musical influences, western rock and blues and any others that they have experienced in their life. I could feel the climate, the temperature, the breeze, and the landscape of the island revealed in their songs with the very special and natural way of mixing different cultural elements and self-taught instrument playing, which makes their music very unique. I do think that there should be more aboriginal musical groups like Huegu and Docdoc. Hu Defu is another legendary aboriginal singer I admire very much.”
Shenghsiang doesn’t find much to admire in the Taiwanese pop industry, which like most of east Asia is totally domineering and totally dominated by some of the worst pop idols imaginable. “In Taiwan the pop industry is feeding a lot of people who are producing sounds. When I look at people who only produce sounds for money, I feel sad for them, and become more understanding and tolerant. There are a few figures from the pop scene, whom I admire such as Lo Dayo. When I thought that he already had three good albums, I should not be so critical about his later works since by this time he was in the pop industry, in which the trap of earning money is set up for people who are living on commercial sounds.”
Labour Exchange Band CDs have so far only been released in Taiwan, although they have performed abroad. “We toured in Europe in 2001, playing at the Festival Respect in Prague, the Brugges Festival and Gele Zaal Festival in Belgium, and we had a concert at New Morning in Paris. We were invited to a festival in Macau and Hong Kong in the same year.”
Have they ever thought of playing with like minded musicians from other countries? “Personally I would like to sit on a live concert of Soul Flower (from Japan) very much. I like what they do. However, I do not think that music from different cultural structures can easily be placed together for a jam session.”
For now, The Labour Exchange Band are happy to build an independent future in Taiwan. “We would like to have a full-time administrator to help the band, so I can concentrate on writing and composing. On the one hand, we wish the band to be independent from the very commercial music industry; on the other, we cannot avoid the channels of distribution if we want more people to listen to our music. So far, we only think of enlarging the influence of our music in Taiwan.”
While not selling out to the music industry in Taiwan, they are happy to accept accolades at home or abroad if they come their way. “We do not concentrate on achieving fame, since we think that people will have to pay a lot and lose a lot for achieving it. For us to be famous or to be known could be a burden. It is more important for us to live and talk like everyone else. However, we also feel the contradictions and struggles sometimes when we are trying to spread our music to a wider group of listeners. In the very unhealthy musical environment of Taiwan, we are a pioneer band, with the urge to be heard by a larger audience as well.
“As for the idea of being a world famous band, we think that if the value of our music deserves it, then that it is fine. We will not struggle ourselves to be famous.”
With special thanks to Chung Shefong of Trees Music & Art.
Originally published in fRoots magazine July 2002