Fri, Jun 03, 2005 - Page 13 News List

A fusion of tradition and modernity

"Beiguan' is a form of traditional Chinese music. The "Old Styles, New Grooves" festival aims to make it contemporary

By Max Woodworth  /  STAFF REPORTER

Luantan Ascent will be playing variations of Taiwanese folk and beiguan music.

Everyone is encouraged to come out this weekend to Da-An Forest Park and save beiguan (北管) music. Or is it support beiguan?

The difference between saving and supporting might seem trifling, but the hair-splitting over terminology was at the fore earlier this week when Taipei's academically minded Cultural Affairs Bureau chief Liao Hsien-hao (廖咸浩) was stumping for the "Old Styles, New Grooves" beiguan festival taking place tonight, tomorrow and Sunday.

"This is not about showcasing an old and disappearing local form of music. The purpose of the festival is to infuse beiguan with new musical elements to make it alive and relevant to a new generation," Liao said.

The theme is reminiscent of Taiwan and China's history of attempting to resolve two supposedly irreconcilable sides of a vexing dialectic -- East and West, tradition and modernity being the two most prominent examples -- with results that always defy expectations, often in spectacular ways.

This weekend's festival should be no exception.

Trees Music, which was handed the responsibility of organizing the event, has taken the conceptual framework detailed by Liao to create a series of events and concerts based on beiguan music but not limited by its tradition. It has come up with a supremely eclectic bunch of musicians who would probably otherwise never share a stage.

Beiguan is the musical accompaniment to northern Chinese theater and in Taiwan was popularized at community temple squares, where not long ago puppet theater and ge-zai-xi (歌仔戲) could be enjoyed practically every weekend. Anyone familiar with Peking opera will immediately recognize the crashing dissonance of beiguan, which is heavy on percussion and simple melodies.

Because beiguan does not have soloists and is intended mostly as background music to a theater performance or singer. Different musical styles can be integrated into it with surprising ease.

The spirit of experimentation in the festival is perhaps best exemplified by the inclusion of DJ Monbaza in the lineup. At Wednesday's presentation, his real-time chopping of beiguan sounds on a computer, mixed with break beats and drum-and-bass, managed to not sound too far removed from the real thing, as performed by the Sijhih City Chinese Music Society.

The young three-piece hip-hop group Kou Chou Ching (拷秋勤) are rappers who deliver rhymes over samples from traditional and popular Chinese and Taiwanese music. The result is an unmistakably Taiwanese hybrid without coming off as a musical mutt.

The fusions will get especially creative, however, with the foreign acts that are set to play. Some have no experience with the beiguan tradition and will be learning on the fly to incorporate the local style into their own.

The Tuvan throat-singing rock band

Yat-Kha is back for the second time in Taipei after playing the Migration Music Festival two years ago, but this time has the novel task of applying beiguan to their own music, which has been described as the grumbling anthems of the Siberian steppe.

"When you hear beiguan it sounds like chaos at first," Yat-Kha singer and guitarist Albert Kuvezin said. "But it's quite dramatic and meditative. That's what I like about it."

Beiguan is, in fact, derived from the music of China's northern plains that are near to the Mongolian and Siberian steppes and where strains of tribal music found their way south.

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