Fri, Feb 07, 2003 - Page 17 News List

That Generalissimo Swing

Founded almost 50 years ago, Chiang Kai-shek's favorite big band is in its third generation and more popular than ever

By David Frazier  /  STAFF REPORTER

These days, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) may only smile at us from NT$10 coins, his presence maintained by his giant statue in his giant memorial and other sundry images and icons scattered all over this island.

But his favorite band plays on.

Kupa (鼓霸), a 24-piece jazz band, founded half a century ago in 1953 and now in its third generation, is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Six months ago the big band of yesteryear began appearing at Taipei's Red House Theater on the first Saturday of each month. They will continue the string tomorrow night and also perform Sunday in Keelung. Even though the piano player is 70-years-old, band leader Hsieh Shou-yen (謝守彥) says their wild swing music still drives the girls crazy.

The 66-year-old Hsieh, a gentleman dandy who punctuates his conversation with swing beats and hummed bars from Take the A Train, is the nephew of Kupa's original founder, Hsieh Teng-hui (謝騰輝). It was over 30 years ago that the younger Hsieh joined his uncle's band as an alto saxophone player, and he recalls the numerous occasions that the band was summoned to play for Chiang at his villa on Yangmingshan.

"Chiang would always ask for Kupa," said Hsieh. "Anytime there were foreign VIPs, he'd ask for us."

So Kupa became regulars in the Generalissimo's grand ballroom, playing, as Hsieh put it, "for the KMT and the ambassadors of the world" in a heavily guarded pocket of opulence in a nation under martial law. It was all very Casablanca, an aura that Kupa still exudes in both their lore and the untempered authenticity of their big band swing.

At Chiang's villa, "we never knew who we were playing for. There were always lots of foreigners, and we could tell they were big shots, but it was very secret and we never knew who anyone was. We would go up to the villa and we wouldn't be allowed into the ballroom until right before we played. Then right before we went on stage they would search us. They'd even search inside the horns. After we played, we'd leave immediately," said Hsieh.

It conjures up visions of a waltzing Generalissimo, but did Chiang Kai-shek ever dance?

Hsieh sidestepped that question and continued with his story.

"Chiang would never specify a fee before we played. He'd just invite us. But when we were finished playing he'd come up and slip us a red envelope (紅包), and the amount was never small."

But back to the dancing. How did the Generalissimo dance? Was he shorter than Madame Chiang?

"No, no, no. There was no dancing. Everyone was just dining. They were all sitting down."

When Hsieh Sheng-yen founded Kupa in 1953, the band went by a different name. They called themselves the Cuban Boys. At that point, the elder Hsieh had been living outside Taiwan honing his musical skills for 11 years and he wanted to give the group an international feel.

But when Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, Chiang personally asked the band to change its name.

"Chiang told us that Cuba's a communist country and that being named after a communist country just wouldn't do," said the younger Hsieh.

"It was as simple as that," he continued. "If he told you to change your name, you changed it. It's not like now. Now you could be called, I don't know, the Mainland Big Band or something like that and no one would care. But back then, if Chiang said something, you'd better do it."

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