At almost every major rally staged in front of the Presidential Office, the sound of angry protesters chanting slogans seldom went without a rousing live performance by the Black Hand Nakasi Workers’ Band (黑手那卡西工人樂隊)
The band was established in 1996 by seven like-minded people who came from different labor unions — Chen Po-wei (陳柏偉), Liu Tzu-chiang (劉自強), Wang Ming-hui (王明惠), Chuang Yu-lin (莊育麟), Yao Yao-ting (姚耀婷), Chang Ti-hao (張迪浩) and Yang Yu-jen (楊友仁).
What brought them together were the controversial decisions made by several companies that year — including Dong-ling Electronics Co and Fu-chang Textile Co — to shutter their firms without giving their workers notice or severance pay.
When the laid-off workers took to the streets to demand compensation, the septet not only stood side by side with them, but also kept them entertained by putting on impromptu performances.
What makes the band’s music so special is not just its catchy melodies, but the way the lyrics vividly capture the agony and rage experienced by most blue-collar workers in the nation today.
It is able to do so because most of the songs were written by oppressed workers and underprivileged people rather than by the band members themselves. Their music has thus become a channel through which people — labeled as “low-lifes” by some — can express their thoughts and feelings.
The band has performed in numerous social movements, such as the 1989 Snails Without Shells Movement, as well as protests against nuclear energy, unjust urban renewal projects and the demolition of the Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium in New Taipei City.
Band members also occasionally meet and engage in dialogues with participants of various social movements. They also visit mentally challenged people to teach them how to tell their stories through music.
“Musical inspirations always come in handy when people are protesting or have their backs against the wall. However, when they are not in protests, it takes collective brainstorming and perseverance to write lyrics that capture the absurdities of society,” Liu said.
Reminiscing about the bands’ works, Liu said they spent nearly 18 months working with the Taiwan International Family Association to learn about the challenges foreign spouses and their husbands face because of the nature of their union and help them turn their stories into an album titled Wives from Across the Sea (跨海/牽手).
The band also joined hands with the Cihfang Care Center in New Taipei City to create an album titled The Life of a Sick Person (破病人生), which offers an insight into the feelings and desires of mentally challenged people.
“Most mentally ill people are uncomfortable sharing their thoughts, so I had to ask them leading questions to help them open up, such as: ‘Do you want to tell people that you are not a weirdo?’ and ‘Do you want to be given more job opportunities?’” Chuang said.
Yao said people with mental disabilities tend to speak in an illogical manner when they feel nervous, but they are able to engage in normal conversation once they feel secure.
The key element in collective musical creation is meaningful participation, Liu said, adding that their songs are about the shared experiences of a group of people rather than those of a single person.
“The songs we sing do not belong to you or him, but to everyone who participates in the lyric brainstorming process,” Liu said.
Chang said the band’s goal is to give underprivileged people and grassroots workers direct access to cultural resources instead of simply acting as their “spokesmen.”
“Both [entertainer] Chicken Cutlet Girl (雞排妹) and Taiwanese rock band Mayday (五月天) have encouraged youngsters to stand up and act against [social injustice]... but the Black Hand Nakasi wants to do more. We want to join the battlefield,” Chuang said.
To fulfill that goal while keeping the band afloat, individual members have to take on part-time jobs at labor unions and colleges and live economically.
Despite their financial straits, the septet turned down Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim’s (蕭美琴) invitation for them to perform at a campaign event.
“We can sing in social movements for free, but we will never sell our music to politics,” the band members said.