On a recent Saturday night, a long queue outside the small live music venue Witch House (女巫店) caught the attention of passers-by. People in the line were worrying about not getting a seat for a live performance by iconic folk singer Chen Ming-chang (陳明章), who has established a solid fan base with his folk-rock mixed with local ballads and a uniquely Taiwanese sound.
Chen’s 37-year music career began in Beitou (北投), Taipei City, which he still calls home. He taught himself to play guitar in junior high school with a cheap guitar borrowed from his older brother. In his early 20s, Chen got involved in the then popular minge (民歌) Mandarin folk music scene and wrote around 30 songs in this genre, but failed to make a splash.
At the age of 24, Chen began writing music in his native language, Taiwanese, and found his true calling. The life-changing awakening to the beauty of Taiwanese folk music was caused by his introduction to the music of the late folk legend Chen Ta (陳達), an exceptional yueqin (月琴) musician famed for his Hengchun folk music sound (恆春調). Chen lived most of his life in poverty and died in a car accident in 1981.
“After military service, I was given a tape of Chen Ta’s music. I listened to the tape everyday, drinking and in tears,” said Chen, who got misty-eyed talking about this even after so many years.
So began Chen’s long journey through the amazing diversity of Taiwanese folk music, which is still preserved in grassroots music. “I never felt deep emotions writing songs in Mandarin. But in the grassroots folk tunes, I recovered a strong connection with the place I live. So it was just a natural for me to wave goodbye to minge and Western influences,” Chen said.
Chen spent years collecting music from around the island, and has turned himself into an ethnomusicologist with a proficiency in nanguan (南管), beiguan (北管), yueqin and a myriad folk genres and instruments.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chen emerged as one of the pioneers in the underground music scene with the release of the first anti-government-themed Taiwanese album Blacklist: Songs of Madness (黑名單工作室－抓狂歌) in 1989. A collaboration between Chen, Joe Wang (王明輝), Chen Chu-hui (陳主惠), Lin Wei-tseh (林瑋哲) and others, the record marries political-rhetoric and sarcasm to hard-hitting rock sounds and became a landmark in the Taiwanese music scene, shifting the genre away from the sentimental ballads that had previously dominated.
Never positioning himself as a protest/rebel singer, Chen’s heart lies with the traditional music that he tries to keep alive by including modern sounds. With his mind-boggling guitar prowess, Chen single-handedly invented a style of playing the guitar that allowed him to imitate the sounds of nanguan, beiguan and yueqin, and enabled him to play gezai opera (歌仔戲), Taiwanese puppet theater music, and Hengchun tunes on his guitar. Another important musical influence for Chen has been drawn from years of visiting and hanging out in Aboriginal villages in Taidung (台東) and Hulien (花蓮).
“I often tell my students that if you want to go international, you have to start with the land you live on,” said Chen, who has been giving music lessons to anyone who is interested in the hope that he can pass down what he has learned about the traditional tunes.
It’s a piece of heartfelt advice taken from his own experience. Chen’s compositions for Ho Hsiao-hsien’s (侯孝賢) Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵) and The Puppetmaster (戲夢人生) as well as Lin Cheng-sheng’s (林正盛) March of Happiness (天馬茶房) have won him several awards at international film festivals and an avalanche of invitations to perform abroad.