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Taitung’s Tiehua Village – A Fine Place to Wind Down and Listen to Indigenous Music

October 4, 2013 DESTINATION No Comments Email Email

Taitung County is home to many a talented musician with indigenous background. Tiehua Village, in Taitung City, provides these musicians with a stage to perform and interact with visitors from afar.

Dust falls, and the village comes alive. A cool breeze blows through, bringing a welcome respite from the fierce afternoon heat. Bats dart above our heads, silhouetted against the twilight. The cicadas in the trees across the way chirp rhythmically, their sound matched in sync with the bustle and chatter coming from the market that borders the village. Groups lay picnic blankets on the grass, order drinks from the bar, and sit back to soak in the evening. The clang of an iron bell rings out. A band starts to play.

Hosting live music from Wednesdays to Sundays, as well as a local food and handicrafts market on weekends, Tiehua Village is not, as its name might imply, a municipal entity. It is, however, the home of a small, distinct community, a gathering point for local musicians and artists, and a platform for them to perform in a city strangely lacking in live-music venues.

“In Taitung there have always been a lot of talented composers and musicians, but it’s always lacked a good, stable performance venue where these musicians can play,” says Xiao Lu, the bassist in tonight’s summer-jam performance.

The east coast, and Taitung City/County in particular, is known as a hub of Taiwan’s indigenous culture. Seven of Taiwan’s fourteen recognized indigenous tribes have a significant presence in the county, representing 15% of the area’s population – a substantial amount when you consider that Taiwanese aboriginals only make up 2% of the island’s entire population.

“Here in Taitung, many of the musicians are indigenous people, and the music we write tends to reflect the special qualities of our tribes. Because of this, the musicians here, their music, and their opinions about music are very different from those in Taipei, and Tiehua Village has provided a place where the musical community can come together and develop our own perspective on music,” Xiao Lu adds.

Built in 2010 on the site of old railway workers’ dormitories next to the former, now dilapidated, central station, Tiehua Village stands in the middle of the Taitung City like an enclosed bastion of bohemianism. Though Taitung, with its open sky, broad and uncluttered sidewalks, and relaxed coastal vibe, is a far cry from the congested urban headache that is Taipei, Tiehua Village nonetheless gives the impression of being an oasis of calm amidst chaotic bustle, an enclave of peace and love amongst the 24-hr convenience stores, coffee chains, and KTV complexes.

The village comprises a large grassy area, with one side bordered by a bar and two permanent shops – Good Buy and the Lovely Taitung Shop, which sell local produce and crafts. On the opposite side is a line of gazebos, which on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays shelter a local handicraft market, the Slow Bazaar. On the northeast side is a newly constructed small exhibition hall, where local sculptors and artists can display their work, while on the southeast side there is an outdoor stage area, and next to it an indoor venue where gigs are relocated if the weather turns. In accordance with the village’s go-with-the-flow approach, however, performances are often staged wherever the mood the day dictates – on the grass, under the eaves of the shops, next to the bar.

“For indigenous music, you don’t need many instruments or fancy equipment, just people together and a few drinks, and the singing starts,” says a laughing Fong Cheng-fa, the village manager and a member of the Amis tribe. Fong epitomizes the spirit of Tiehua Village. Despite standing over six feet tall, being built like a small house, and having the hair of a seasoned mosher, he is remarkably polite and soft-spoken.

“Around 70% of the bands that play here consist of local and/or indigenous musicians,” Fong says, “but it’s not just about the music. Here we have the local market, workshops, exhibitions, theater performances – we’re trying to get the whole community involved. This place is a sharing space.”

“Many people who come here ask why we haven’t got more indigenous artifacts or exhibitions, but we feel that’s too old-fashioned, too much like a museum. We’re not like the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, with model villages and the like; we’re here to focus on modern indigenous culture.”

While the village is certainly not an anthropological museum, it has a definite feel of being a world apart from Taiwan’s dominant, Chinese-influenced culture – whether it be the hand-made indigenous crafts available in the shops, the bracelets and patterned bags on sale at the Slow Bazaar, or the millet wine flowing at the bar.

“For a lot of musicians, the fact that this place has a lot of indigenous color is very reassuring – it allows indigenous musicians to feel like they’re performing at home, and not feel so ill at ease,” Xiao Lu says. “If you were to ask us to perform this music somewhere else, I think we’d feel very different.” Many of Taiwan’s indigenous artists have developed a warm sense of familiarity with the village, and feel a special kinship. In June, Mandopop superstar A-Mei, a member of Taitung’s Puyuma tribe, played at the village along with mellowed-out rocker Chang Chen-yue of the Amis, with stripped-down sets and ticket prices of just NT$500 (a fraction of their usual concert-ticket prices).

While a few indigenous performers like A-Mei achieve national and even international fame, causing their music to become more mainstream, many of the local musicians still experiment with blurring the line between traditional and modern music. Songs are sung in the language of the musician’s tribe, and traditional melodies, ballads, and chants are mixed with rock, metal, and punk in a spirit of experimentation that, while it may not yield perfect results every time, is gradually making indigenous elements a mainstay of the area’s popular music scene.

“For us personally, if we’re writing a modern song, it feels safer, more natural to include indigenous elements in some way,” says saxophonist Kabudayang, also from the Puyuma tribe. “It’s difficult to explain why. Perhaps it has something to do with this music being a part of our DNA – we hear it while we’re growing up, from when we’re very young. It’s like when African-Americans play the blues or when the British play punk rock; it’s not the same when others do it. It may be something to do with history, and indigenous music is also an accumulation of history, so including it has this feeling of being right.”

But can such diverse musical traditions coexist in one song? “Indigenous music tends to be simpler, less aggrandized, less adorned with skill and technique than modern Western music,” Kabudayang says. “It very directly tells you a story. But the songs aren’t simply love ballads. There are songs that express anger, the warrior spirit, sadness, heartbreak, joy. The themes, in fact, are quite similar to those of Western music.”

Xiao Lu adds, “Nowadays, a lot of young indigenous people are very skilled at mixing modern music and their own traditional songs. And the songs they write clearly have their roots in Taiwan. If we sing English songs, it’s clear that they’re not our own. But if we create songs with elements of indigenous music, they very clearly convey a unique Taiwanese identity.”

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