Fri, Feb 29, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Wild Fire voices burn slowly

By David Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Guitarist Gelresai (left) and Puyuma singer Leo Chen (right) perform tonight at the Witch House.


A boriginal musician Leo Chen (陳永龍) grew up singing about joy and the beauty of the mountains of his home, Nanwang Village in Taitung County. At that time, he saw the traditional songs of his native Puyuma tribe as nothing special - they were just an ordinary part of life.

It took leaving home to realize that he was wrong. Chen moved to Taipei to attend university and found himself helping his cousin Pur-dur (陳建年) record an album that earned widespread critical acclaim. The experience opened Chen's eyes to fresh, creative possibilities for Puyuma music, and hearing the music in a different setting - the recording studio - gave him a new perspective.

"I started to see that [this music] was something beautiful - something truly awesome," said Chen. He began to re-learn songs from his youth with the help of his family. "Then I decided maybe I should try to sing these songs in my own way," he said.

Since then, Chen has been forging a modern path for traditional Puyuma and Taiwanese folk music as a singer and percussionist with Wild Fire Music (野火樂集), a group of like-minded Aboriginal musicians that holds ensemble and solo performances across Taiwan. As a collective, Wild Fire Music aims to bring a new sound to Taiwanese folk music. Tonight Chen shares the stage with fellow Wild Fire vocalist Hsiao Mei (小美), starting at 9:30pm at Witch House in Taipei.

The audience can expect a more intimate, reflective performance. "We're not setting out to create the huge festive feeling [of ensemble Wild Fire concerts]," said Chen. "We'll be doing songs that suit us better individually - it will be something like a conversation between our own voices."

Performance notes

What: Leo Chen and Hsiao Mei at Witch House (女巫店)

Where: 7, Ln 56, Xinsheng S Road Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市新生南路三段56巷7號). For more information call (02) 2362-5494 or visit

When: Tonight at 9:30pm

Admission: NT$300, includes one drink

On the Net:

Hsiao Mei starts the evening with a solo set, followed by Chen, who will be backed by guitarist Gelresai (陳世川) and keyboardist Cheng Chieh-ren (鄭捷任). Both Hsiao Mei and Chen's sets will likely include songs that feature on two Wild Fire albums, Beautiful Haiyan and Back to the Open Country.

The albums offer listeners a sonic sketch of the two singers. With Swing Naluwan, Chen adapts a standard performed by many indigenous musicians across the island. Chen's version stands out for its latin-jazz groove, and he sings confidently at a higher range, backed by vocal harmonies, acoustic guitar and the djembe, a hand drum originating from West Africa. His wistful rendition of the traditional Puyuma Mountain has a pop sensibility with its slow, soulful piano accompaniment.

Like Chen, Hsiao Mei came to appreciate the songs of her Amis heritage in a new setting, when she joined Wild Fire Music in 2004. She sings traditional tunes drawn mainly from her Amis heritage, as well as Japanese and Taiwanese folk songs. Hsiao Mei's signature song, Periwinkles, is a ballad that was written by the Tsou songwriter Uyongu Yatauyungana (高一生) in 1949. Hsiao Mei sings this piece with a palpable richness that gives emotional weight to the song.

But she also yearns to go beyond the standard Aboriginal and folk repertoire. "When you sing someone else's songs for a long time, you start to think, what about me? What are my own views?" she said. Hsiao Mei will perform some of her own songs at tonight's show, including a few in the Amis language.

Hsiao Mei, who is not fully fluent in the Amis language, often consults with Amis elders and family members when writing songs, working to translate her ideas from Mandarin Chinese. She likens the process to "doing homework." "So it's best when the songs are short," she said, laughing.

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