The lyrics sung by New San-geu-tai Band (山狗大後生樂團), led by Tommy Yan (顏志文), are more like poems than an ensemble of catchy words. After an idea that sprouted nearly two decades ago, Yan is reinventing Hakka music, turning it from mountain songs sung by elders to a genre written and performed by younger musicians.
Yan said he solidified an “accidental” solo career in 1997. Since then, he has been building a cultural movement — among a generation whose impression of their heritage is increasingly diluted — by means of seminars, small venue concerts and forming a band, which was nominated last month for the Best Hakka Album Golden Melody Award (金曲獎).
Yan teaches the band members, who are in their 20s and 30s, to create Hakka music true to their own experiences. He encourages them to write in Hakka about what they know and to mix in languages like Mandarin and Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) to create original tunes.
Cheng Kai-fan (鄭凱帆), the band’s bass player since 2011, said that before Yan’s arrival to the scene, Hakka music was stereotyped as “very old” and inaccessible to young audiences. The reason that New San-geu-tai Band appeals to both younger and older audiences is that they keep folk-song traditions while adding rock, country and jazz elements to their songs — a stylistic choice demonstrated in their latest album, Under Eaves (簷頭下).
“He’s trying to lead us to make music in a more meaningful way … not just the very superficial way of doing music,” Cheng said.
One of the meaningful ways that Yan teaches is storytelling through music. Unlike pop-music songwriters, Yan and the band write words before a melody. The distinct tones in the language then help to inform the melody.
The technique has led to some of his fans’ most beloved songs, such as one depicting old-fashioned mixed goods stores in Taiwan’s countryside that facilitated neighborhood connections before the onset of brand-name convenience stores.
Although Yan is eager to embrace the changes new artists bring, he didn’t always have an experimental spirit. Until 1995, he was a mainstream music producer who couldn’t be bothered with composing the lyrics to his music. Then a project to compose for the film Good Men, Good Women (好男好女) with Hakka themes lighted a path away from the mainstream music industry he was growing tired of.
“Pop music is the same all over the world. No matter if you are [singing] in Mandarin or Japanese, you sing the same songs,” Yan said.
In addition to bridging the generation gap and creating Hakka music in a pop-dominated culture, he’s grappling with thriving as an independent ensemble. Without the backing of a big-name record label, radio stations are reluctant to play their music, Yan added.
But although Hakka music has a minority status in Taiwan, the band is well-received overseas, said lead singer Rita Lin (林鈺婷), who joined the band in 2008.
“I’ve heard from American friends who heard Hakka music and bought a CD because it was so unique to them,” Lin said.
“Maybe the market in Taiwan perceives Hakka music as unpopular but there’s a wider world of opportunities for Hakka music because language is not a barrier as long as there’s quality in the music.”
After years as a musician, Yan still chuckles when called a singer.
“I’m not a big star. I’m a cultural organizer. Culture has its own power, what we need most is a stage ... The stage doesn’t need to be big, just a quiet place,” he said.