My interview with Lo Sirong (羅思容) began on her rooftop in Chingtan (青潭), Sindian (新店) with a conversation about plants, flowers and small creatures. She offered me cinnamon leaves to nibble on and spoke of a lizard that strutted through the garden as if it was the ruler of a kingdom. All the while, Lo exuded the innocence of a child and the sensitivity of a poet.
In a sense, the musician embodies her music.
Born and raised in a Hakka family in Miaoli, Lo writes songs mostly, though not exclusively, in her mother tongue. Her two Hakka-language albums — Everyday (每日) her 2007 debut and The Flowers Beckon (攬花去) in 2011 — both garnered awards in Taiwan and China, winning praise from music critics on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Some used words like “classic” and “graceful” to describe the musician’s compositions on life as a mother, lover and woman.
For Lo, making music is a way to reflect upon and understand where she comes from.
“When I create a piece, I want to touch upon the profound, not the superficial, to convey the emotion and the unique texture, quality and depth of Hakka culture,” she said.
Lo’s entry into the world of music just over a decade ago is an oft-told story of how, when reading through the works of her father Lo Lang (羅浪) — a renowned Hakka poet — she was suddenly overcome with the desire to sing. It was a turning point in her life that reconnected the artist to her “mother culture.” Lo began collecting traditional Hakka songs and, as memories and stories from her childhood began to emerge, she began composing songs in her native tongue.
“Before I was not aware of what it meant to be a Hakka. As soon as I started writing in my native language, my relationship to my culture became clearer. Childhood memories started coming back to me … It was a powerful force pushing me forward,” the 52-year-old singer said. “My body is more relaxed when I speak and sing in my mother tongue. It is the most natural articulation of myself.”
Lo’s musical expression is an accumulation of, and continuity with, years of self-discovery and exploration. Having adhered to “mainstream values” for the greater part of her life, the musician broke away from social conventions when she fell in love with and married a man “with no money, but having a hundred works of poetry in his pocket.” Shortly after their daughter was born, the family moved to a run-down house in Wantan (灣潭), a secluded village in Sindian accessible by ferry. There, they reared chickens and ducks, grew fruits and vegetables, and lived a pastoral life that gave Lo ample time to paint, write and be close to nature and her inner voice.
When Lo writes a song, she starts with the lyrics because the musicality is inherent in the language, which is “the carrier of ideas, emotions and physical expressions unique to my culture.” When talking about her experience with her native tongue, the musician also has her own unique viewpoint.
“The Hakka dialect I speak contains many nasal sounds that resonate upward through the skull. It has a spiritual sound. Hakka people are grounded to the earth because our work was [historically] tied to the land. Consequently, I feel two opposite forces inside my body: one moves upward and the other downward, much in the same way that a plant spreads its roots deeply into the ground and blossoms against the blue sky,” Lo mused.