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MUSIC is clearly important in Taiwan, so much so that even the refuse-collection lorries play it as they go about the streets. But, such eccentricities aside, the music scene on the island is thriving and its eclecticism reflects the diverse culture of the people.
An amalgam of “Mandopop” and Western classical, pop, rock and metal sits alongside folk culture and the distinct artistic identities of indigenous tribes.
As part of the Global Music Match initiative, which is establishing, albeit virtually, an unprecedented collaboration between 96 artists from 14 countries around the world, my folk band the Magpies are linking up online with a number of bands over the coming weeks, the first being Taiwan's Outlet Drift.
An indigenous band from the Amis tribe, Outlet Drift consists of siblings Putad (bass) and Wusang Pihay (guitar) and their cousin Linken (drums), all of whom who grew up in the city of Taitung. They returned to their indigenous community 10 years ago to explore their heritage and reclaim their tradition.
The Amis people make up one of the largest indigenous groups in Taiwan, but the 1949 arrival of the nationalist Kuomintang party, after its defeat in the civil war in China, led to the suppression of native Taiwanese culture and almost entirely eradicated the Amis language.
Outlet Drift describe their mission as rekindling their traditions and keeping the Amis language alive, and music is their “way to let people know.” Although heavily rooted in Amis culture, their style is far from traditional. “[The elders] think our music’s not the traditional way, but who cares,” they assert.
Their jazz, rock and psychedelic influences have made them a hit in Taipei and other big cities, especially with younger audiences.
Educating the future generations is paramount for the band and they want to breathe new life into traditions rather than simply preserve them.
Outlet Drift sing about nature, the land and the ocean, and their songs are a celebration of traditional ceremonies such as the harvest festival, in which they express gratitude for the resources they've received from their ancestors.
The traditional trades of farming and fishing feature heavily in their writing – not a million miles away from the All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough or Greenland Whale Fisheries type of songs so familiar to the English traditional folk scene.
Amis society is matrilineal, with inheritance passing through the maternal line, yet the band say that, in practice, men do the physical labour while women usually play a key role in the family and in educating the next generations.
Interestingly, the way they speak about these gender roles seems almost identical to the traditional Western view of gender. But their perception of their importance is reversed.
That's reflected in the music. Much like many traditional songs we might be familiar with, Amis traditional music features call and response and it is always led by the woman, Putad tells us.
She often sings a musical counterpoint to the men. Simultaneous yet rhythmically and melodically independent, it's a line which represents her role as a woman.
The themes of their songs also illustrate the importance of women and motherhood in their society. During our interview, they sing us a song about breastfeeding. That’s not a songwriting topic we’d ever come across before but, as their voices travel 6,000 miles to us, our hairs stand on end.
At a time when it’s easy to feel isolated from the rest of the world, it’s an enormous privilege to hear them and, as we wave goodbye, Putad remarks how “music is the universal language.”
She’s absolutely right and no language barrier or frustratingly slow broadband can get in the way of that.
You can follow Global Music Match at globalmusicmatch.com. The Magpies are on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?time_continue=177&v=YJgHEQHzuO8&feature=emb_logo and youtube.com/watch?time_continue=48&v=j4kPOdmsfDs&feature=emb_logo
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