In the days when there were only three terrestrial TV stations in the country, the Kupa Big Band (鼓霸樂團) was one of the hottest local musical ensembles playing in musical variety shows, night clubs and state banquets. Well-known band conductors such as China Television Company orchestra’s Lin Jia-qing (林家慶), Taiwan Television orchestra’s Hsieh Li-sheng (謝荔生) and late composer and jazz master Kenneth Lee (李奎然) all formerly played in the band.
Conducting a routine practice in their basement studio in Taipei City’s Wanhua District (萬華) last month, band leader Hsieh Shou-yen (謝守彥) said that in the old days, they had about 15 to 20 engagements a month, but now that number has dwindled to four or five.
“At times, I thought of quitting, but such a thought did not last long,” he said. “I must keep the promise I made to my uncle.”
Established in 1953 by Hsieh Shou-yen’s uncle, Hsieh Teng-hui (謝騰輝), the Kupa Big Band was an instant sensation during the post-World War II era when Taiwan was receiving economic and military aid from the US.
In contrast to smaller jazz combos, in which most of the music is improvised, music played by big bands is prepared in advance. A big band typically consists of 12 to 25 musicians.
Kupa began playing at the Ambassador Hotel in 1964. The Ambassador was one of the city’s ritzy hotels frequented by American soldiers, foreign visitors and diplomats. The band played there for 24 years.
It also played in various music variety shows on terrestrial TV stations. At its peak, Kupa had five bands playing regularly in hotels, night clubs and dance halls. In 1992, Hsieh Teng-hui was honored by the Golden Melody Awards for his contribution to Taiwan’s popular music.
Hsieh Shou-yen joined the band about 30 years ago during its heyday. He started out playing the saxophone and clarinet. During his compulsory military service, he played drums and the saxophone so well that his supervisor offered him a job, but the promise he made to his uncle held him back.
“The one thing my uncle worried about on his sick bed was whether the band would fall apart,” he said. “He told me to take good care of it, so I did and I still do now.”
Over the years, the band has transformed itself from a house band to a 22-person jazz band. Its repertoire includes jazz covers of a variety of songs ranging from classical Mandarin, Taiwanese, country and even Taiwanese opera. The band is also good with Latin music, classical, ballads and dance music.
Talking about the contemporary music, Hsieh Shou-yen frowned and said “young people do not seem to understand what music is.”
“Music is not a shouting contest. Music does not have to involve drugs or booze,” he said. “Music is something that makes you feel good and does not screw up your body and soul.”
At the age of 70, Hsieh Shou-yen said it was time to look for a successor. His ideal candidate must be skilled at musical crafts, inter-personal relations and leadership.
Most of the band members have passed their prime, and while a few are in their 20s or 30s, they all have side jobs.
Saxophonist Wu Jen-yi (吳貞儀) is the only woman in the band. The 35-year-old graduate of National Chengchi University’s English Department does English and French translations on the side.
She joined the band in 2002 and the person who introduced her also plays in the band. However, being the ensemble’s only woman, she said, does not give her any special status.