It’s easy to forget that behind the singer on stage, there is often a collaborator offstage who plays an equally important role in the music. This holds true for one of the Taiwan folk scene’s longest-running and most unique songwriting partnerships, that of singer Lin Sheng-xiang (林生祥) and lyricist Zhong Yong-feng (鍾永豐).
Their latest work can be heard on Growing Up Wild (野生), Lin’s third solo album and fifth with Zhong, which was released last month and features Ken Ohtake (大竹研) on guitar.
As a fellow musician and friend of Lin’s, I’ve watched his music evolve into a finely honed and gentle acoustic sound, a long way from the rousing protest rock of his first band, Labor Exchange (交工樂隊). [See correction below.]
But what has always remained the same is a core concern for social issues and community, which has inspired many of Zhong’s lyrics, mostly written in Hakka.
For Getting Dark (臨暗, 2004), Zhong wrote about the effects of globalization as seen through the eyes of urban laborers; Planting Trees (種樹, 2006) was about the struggles of farming communities in the face of dwindling subsidies and trade liberalization after Taiwan’s entrance into the World Trade Organization.
Growing Up Wild looks at women and families in contemporary Taiwanese society, particularly Hakka farming communities, and touches upon the economic divide between northern and southern Taiwan.
“People love their music because it comes from a real place, it comes from a concern for people, and it comes from a sense of humanitarianism,” said Chang Tieh-chih (張鐵志), a music critic and author of a local best-selling book on rock music and social change.
He says that Zhong’s literary flair gives a unique touch to the music. “Yong-feng’s lyrics are like one poem after another, and moreover they’re epics. There’s almost nothing like this in Taiwanese popular music.”
But in talking to the 45-year-old, who has won multiple Golden Melody Awards for best lyricist, one might not immediately discern a passion for poetry and storytelling.
In a phone interview earlier this month, Zhong, who currently serves as the head of Cultural Affairs Department in Chiayi County, conversed more like a social scientist or grassroots activist.
This wasn’t surprising given his masters degree in sociology from the University of Florida. He was also one of the founding members of the Meinung People’s Association (美濃愛鄉協進會), an NGO that successfully prevented the construction of a dam that would have wiped out his hometown of Meinung (美濃) in Kaohsiung County in the late 1990s. It was during this time that Lin and Zhong started their partnership with Labor Exchange.
Growing Up Wild is different than past albums, Zhong said, in that he took a more “anthropological” approach to writing.
Zhong, who wrote all but three of the album’s 10 songs, focused on women in Hakka and other Han Chinese families in farming communities, which feature as the main characters in his stories. (Lin wrote the lyircs for two of the other tracks; the third is a traditional children’s rhyme.)
Family Break-Up (分家) tells of a young woman who watches as her family divides up their property. She doesn’t have any say in the matter, as heard in the refrain: “A daughter has no name/no part in the family/and no right to intervene.”
With this song, Zhong said he wanted to illuminate the fact that traditional families tend to ignore a woman’s “legal status” when it comes to inheritance matters, divorce or disputes.