Ara Kimbo (胡德夫)
Sky High Mountain Blues (大武山藍調)
Arrival Music (有風音樂)
Puyuma Aboriginal singer Hu De-fu (胡德夫), or “Kimbo” as he is commonly known, has finally released his second album in a career spanning more than 30 years. Now going by his Aboriginal name, Ara Kimbo, the 60-year-old sounds re-energized on Sky High Mountain Blues (大武山藍調), a grand production in many respects.
Backed by a new record label, Arrival Music (有風音樂), Kimbo traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, and hired top-shelf studio musicians to record Sky High’s eleven tracks, a mix of rock and gospel covers and new versions of his own classic tunes. This album plays like a polished retrospective, though it does suggest new possibilities for the beloved singer.
Die-hard fans won’t hear Meilidao (美麗島, Formosa), the song by the late Lee Shuang-tze (李雙澤) that Kimbo made famous and got him blacklisted by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government in the late 1970s, when it became associated with pro-democracy activism.
But Kimbo’s affinity for the music of the 1960s and 1970s remains evident in his choice of songs for this new album, which include covers of Don McLean’s Oh My What a Shame and Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home. Kimbo, who has a commanding tenor voice, offers a spirited performance on these songs, but the renditions probably won’t impress the average fan of Western rock because of his accented English.
It’s Taiwanese listeners of Kimbo’s generation who are most likely to appreciate these songs, as they harken back to the singer’s early days in the 1970s, when he cemented his position as the “Father of Taiwanese Folk” (台灣民歌之父) while performing on the Taipei coffeehouse circuit. Kimbo also acknowledges his long-standing appreciation for American gospel by singing standards like Were You There? and Put Your Hand in the Hand.
The best songs on Sky High by far, though, are Kimbo’s originals and his performances of traditional Aboriginal songs. He revamped the lyrics to his popular Standing on My Land, which has become Drifting on My Land (帶著血管的漂流木). It’s songs like this on which his backing studio musicians from Nashville shine. Their tight and driving blues-rock arrangement fits perfectly with the song’s soaring and mournful melody, credited to the late Amis singer Difang (郭英男).
Kimbo has long fancied himself as a singer of “Aboriginal blues,” and he makes the connection between his roots and American blues feel very natural on Sky High Mountain Blues, the title track. The backing musicians play a slow but swinging minor blues groove (think Bob Dylan’s current sound), and once again, they save the day. Their tight and smooth groove allows Kimbo to belt out the lyrics, sung in his native Puyuma language, with gusto. Without a doubt, this track is one of Kimbo’s finest recorded performances to date.
There are a few other noteworthy moments on Sky High: Kimbo offers a nice rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (it’s well suited to his voice, and the best cover song on the album), and there’s Power in Me (內在的力量), the official anthem for the 2009 Taipei Deaflympics that he co-penned with theater director Stan Lai (賴聲川). The latter song includes guest vocal appearances by Chang Hui-mei (張惠妹), aka A-mei (阿妹), and Paiwan Aboriginal singer Matzka (瑪斯卡).
Despite the high production values and excellent performances all around, Sky High suffers a bit from a lack of focus with its smattering of rock covers, Aboriginal folk and pop numbers. Kimbo’s work with Nashville musicians shows the most promise on his original material and Aboriginal traditionals, and it’s too bad he didn’t pursue this direction fully.