Fri, Oct 03, 2003 - Page 4 News List

Minstrels take melodies to masses

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Two American musician are traveling around Taiwan to share their love of pure guitar and banjo music with audiences who are known for being tuned in to heavily synthesized songs and manufactured Mandopop.

The musicians -- banjo player Buddy Wachter and guitarist Steve Hancoff -- have, since 1993, toured internationally as State-Department sponsored ambassadors of American music. This month, at the invitation of the the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), they are giving a series of five concerts around country.

For their program, the musicians have created a rich tapestry that weaves together the music and stories of the greatest American musical legends and composers such as Stephen Foster, J P Sousa, Scott Joplin, Jelly-Roll Morton, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.

"They will sing the folk songs of the Civil War, the Great Underground Railroad, the rail expansion west, the Prohibition and the Great Depression," the AIT said in a press release.

Lest the subject matter appear rather heavy, it should be said that the dueling musicians have received both popular and critical acclaim for their performances. Writing in the Mississippi Rag, reviewer William Schafer wrote: "Steve Hancoff's approach to guitar parallels famous jazz pianist Jelly-Roll Morton's `notion of piano as band.' He translates the complex rhythms and polyphonies of band and piano jazz into the techniques he developed for the guitar."

"Music has a voice of the culture," said Wachter, who with his partner Hancoff has already presented two concerts this week, in Hsinchu and Taoyuan.

In their concerts, the musicians use only their instruments -- and although they are amplified, there are no electronic sound effects to dress up their music. They wish people to hear the music in its original color: "Fundamental music" or "music in its pure form" is how Hancoff and Wachter describe their music.

With their fingers and voices alone the duo attempts "to play music in its purest form -- using the instruments that played the music at that time [the music was created] ? To capture the feelings that were present in the songs of that time," Wachter said.

The banjo player said that when he plays music, he is trying to evoke "an emotion, a mood, an honest feeling" -- such as sadness or elation. "I am not trying to tell a story when I play," Wachter said.

"We are trying to show people what the music is like and what the feelings are underneath," he added.

Before playing at the press conference at the AIT earlier this week, the pair told their audience to "adjust your ears to two hearts." The emotions in their hearts became audible in the musical conversation streaming from the banjo and the guitar.

"Emotion is more primal than intellect," Hancoff said.

Acknowledging that proper technique and intellect are important, Hancoff, however, believes that "the whole point of music is to bypass technique."

For Hancoff, who finds it somewhat difficult to translate his feelings into articulate words, music is his first language. In fact, at a recent appearance he treated his audience to an improvised a piece of music after seeing a painting at the National Palace Museum that greatly moved him.

Buddy Wachter and Steve Hancoff will be holding a concert at Taipei's DaAn Park tonight at 7pm.

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