Fri, Jun 09, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Urna, on the front line of world music

Her show this weekend is a testament to the enduring popularity of folk artists who hold true to their cultural roots

By Ron Brownlow  /  STAFF REPORTER

World music means different things to different people. For Mongolian singer Urna Chahar-Tugchi, this most eclectic of genres presents an opportunity to evoke and transcend the musical traditions of her homeland before a global audience. For listeners, it offers the rare joy of discovery in a market increasingly dominated by formulaic copies.

"The beautiful thing is to represent my culture to other cultures," Urna said in an interview on Tuesday. "I present Mongolian culture to my audience and they bring their culture to me. It's like a connection."

The 37-year-old "voice of the Mongolian grasslands," who performs tomorrow and Sunday at Taipei's Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, won the RUTH prize in Germany for Best International Artist. Promoters say hearing her sing live is like a religious experience.

"I interpret my songs with all my life and energy; therefore, I feel rebirth after each performance," she said in a press release.

The continued appeal of a musician like Urna proves that many artists encountered in a record store's world music section offer more than just novelty. Canadian artist Matthew Lien, who first performed in Taiwan in the late 1990s, has sold hundreds of thousands of albums here over the last decade. Trees Music & Art (大大樹音樂圖), which distributes Urna's records, including her latest album Amilal, has earned a loyal following from a diverse clientele who trust the indie label's taste as much for its exotic new acts as for second and third releases by established artists.

"When we started many people had a hard time understanding what we were doing," said Chung She-fong (鍾適芳), founder and director of Trees Music & Art. "Now people like world music, and many record stores have a section devoted to the genre."

Chung, who was interviewed in her company's office on Yongkang Street (永康街) in Taipei, said her label's best-selling release, Buena Vista Social Club, has sold "tens of thousands" of copies nationwide and still remains popular. Trees also distributes albums by local artists, especially folk musicians who sing about social issues. Hunters Who Lost Their Lands, the latest offering by Amis band the Betel Nuts Brothers (檳榔兄弟), has sold 3,000 copies since its release earlier this year.

While more popular genres are constantly tripping over themselves to recreate what was once creative, listeners will always find that world music has something new to offer, Lien said.

"When you broaden your horizons to view the entire globe and all these different cultures and their musicality as your palette, you've just got an endless supply of possibilities," said Lien, who was interviewed by phone on Monday. "I think world music has an incredible amount of potential because it's always doing something new and passionate."

But to some extent the genre has fallen victim to its own success. And the advent of the digital age poses more challenges than benefits for a niche whose appeal often rests on subtle nuances of sound that lose their "feel" on computer speakers and monophonic mobile phone ring tunes.

"We were really popular five or 10 years ago," said Stella Chang (張秀牋), who works in the marketing department for Wind Music (風潮音樂), the label that distributes Lien's music in Taiwan. "Now we're less popular." Wind Music sold 20,000 world music albums last year, down from 100,000 five years ago.

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