Taiwan has built a solid reputation as a hi-tech innovator, exporting many of its products overseas. Now the island would like to do the same with its cultural and creative industries, especially, its own special blend of independent (aka indie) music.
Taiwan’s pop music leads in Asia
Taiwan’s pop music culture is widely recognized as a dominant force in Chinese communities, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and China. The island’s pop industry churns out singers, bands, talk shows, variety shows, pop-idol dramas and talent shows that reach virtually the whole Chinese-speaking world.
Recognizing the potential of music to create a strong international presence for Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou included the cultural and creative industries as part of his Challenge 2008, a six-year National Development Plan. In promoting the island’s music, the Government Information Office (GIO) has chosen to sponsor Won Fu, a popular Taiwanese indie band, to tour the western United States this month.
Not your average rock band
The four-person band will arrive for a three-week stay on October 15th and have a packed schedule filled with performances, cultural visits and exchanges, recording sessions and interviews. In addition to introducing Taiwan's music to a foreign audience, the initiative hopes to inspire the band’s creativity and growth.
Won Fu are innovative and wildly popular in Taiwan. The band members consist of Xiao Ming (male vocal, guitar), Mami (female vocal), Dupy (drums), Twiggy (bass) and Ringo (the bandleader and a real dog). Contrary to the stereotype associated with rock bands, this wacky rock quartet does not appear in leather jackets or tight jeans, nor do they present an intimidating image of angry young rebels. Won Fu believe that their music and their live shows should be full of joy.
Formed in October 1998 by guitarist and vocalist Xiao Ming and bass player Twiggy, “Won Fu” is named after a pet beagle at Twiggy’s school. Performing for the first time at the Spring Scream Festival (Kenting, Taiwan) in April 1999, they have since appeared at a host of music festivals around Taiwan, including Spring Scream, Formoz Festival and Hohaiyan Rock Festival in 2002, where they subsequently won the Grand Jury award. They also perform regularly at live music venues including The Wall, Under World, Riverside and Witch House. Other than Mami who replaced the band’s previous vocalist Judy in 2006, the band’s line up remains unchanged.
A seamless blend of melancholy with humor
Won Fu list their musical influences as ranging from rock 'n' roll, to punk rock, to techno, and disco/electro. Their music does not follow a strict formula nor fit neatly into a specific genre as it encompasses so many different musical styles. Unconventional they may be, but their music is pleasingly delightful and irresistible. With vocalists more likely to hum light-hearted whimsical tunes than sing clichéd love songs, their bizarre and exuberant spirit is extremely catching. Their music is addictive, their lyrics infectious, their mood cheerful. Some say they blend the simple happiness of childhood with the affected melancholy of the teenage years. Yet their seemingly simple and humorous songs are the products of sophisticated creation.
The group released their hugely popular single “Sheep’s Marching” in late 2001 and later “Sin Gan Sen”. Their self-titled debut album “Won Fu,” released by Wonder Music in 2003, immediately climbed the best-selling new artist chart within the first week. They were rated No. 7 on the list of “Music You Can’t Miss 2003” by the Liberty Times, one of Taiwan’s major newspapers.
In 2004 they released their second album “Won Fu Again”, which won the “2004 Top Ten Album of the Year” from the Association of Music Workers in Taiwan. Their third and fourth album, “Won Fu Magazine” and “Modern Monsoon Groovin’,” released in 2005 and 2007, also went on to win the “Top Ten Album of the Year”. In 2005 the band was nominated “Best Band of the Year” by Singapore Hit Awards and by the Golden Melody Awards (Taiwan’s Grammy Awards) and twice again by the latter in 2006 and 2008.
Since making a splash at Japan’s TaiK Rock Festival in 2006, the band has gone on to release several Japanese-language versions of their songs, including “Do Re Mi”, the single “Modern Monsoon Groovin’” from their fourth album, released in 2007, and “The Wonderful World of Won Fu”, which is their biggest hit in Japan so far. In February 2008, "The Wonderful World of Won Fu" tour kicked-off in Japan to rave reviews. In addition to touring in Japan, the band has also performed at the Huayi Festival in Singapore, as well as in Hong Kong, Macau, and China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangchow). Won Fu’s next album is due out in November 2009.
Embarking on first US tour, one of learning
Soon after arriving in the Bay Area, Won Fu will be playing at the UC Berkeley Taiwanese American Student Association benefit on Friday, October 16th. Following the devastating typhoon which claimed at least 619 lives and damaged 44 villages this past August, Won Fu and a local Berkeley student band, Zeroth, will perform to raise money for typhoon relief. A reception will begin at 7pm in the courtyard of the Genetics and Plant Biology (GPB) building and the concert will take place in Room 100 of GPB, located in the northwest corner of UC Berkeley campus. With a student’s budget in mind, tickets are merely $2-5. For more information, please visit http://tasa.berkeley.edu/. The following week, the band will play at San Francisco’s Café du Nord on Wednesday evening, October 21st.
Outside the Bay Area, the band will travel south to Los Angeles to play at the Spaceland on October 24th. Won Fu will continue onwards to Portland, Oregon, to perform at the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls and to participate in the programming there. While in Portland, they will also play at Rotture on October 28th before traveling north to Seattle, Washington. While in Seattle, they will pair up with U.S.E. (aka United States of Electronica) to perform at The Vera Project (evening of 10/31) and the Comet (afternoon of 10/31). To find out more about Won Fu, please visit: http://www.myspace.com/wonfu.
The heart and soul of indie music
Indie music provides an answer to the new generation of Taiwanese youth’s searching for an alternative to mainstream pop music. Creativity and genuine expression, not commercial interest, is the soul of independent music. Contrary to the institutionalized process of producing mainstream pop music, indie artists typically write, compose, record, distribute, and promote their own music. Some even have their own recording label or use independent labels, rather than major commercial labels. Artists maintain creative direction over their expression of ideas, perceptions, and feelings and strive to avoid commercial manipulation.
Indie music generally is made not for profit but for creative expression of ideas, sometimes speaking out for sub-cultures and socially marginalized groups. Indie music is a fiercely individualistic presentation of the musician’s own life experiences and perceptions. It is about an unrestrained, adventurous, and experimental spirit. It is diverse in its take on a wide variety of themes.
For most indie artists the scene is challenging. The domestic market is relatively small, there are a limited number of suitable venues, and most musicians maintain day jobs. Bands made up of students often disband as members are forced to leave for obligatory military service in Taiwan or to pursue other careers. In spite of the many obstacles, a number of indie bands such as the pop rock band, Sodagreen and indie singer-songwriter Cheer Chen have successfully landed recording contracts with major recording labels over the last few years.
The number of Indie bands has dramatically grown from 20 before 2000 to nearly 500 in 2005. The scene is certainly becoming more organized in Taiwan, with more festivals catering to indie bands. However it remained very localized until ChthnoiC, a black metal band incorporating a distinctively Eastern-sounding version of black metal, played at Ozzfest, the leading heavy metal festival in the United States. The band incorporated the baleful melodies of the erhu, a two-string Chinese version of the violin, and the rich folk history of Taiwan into their music. They have become famous for being the first Asian band to play at Ozzfest.
At a pre-tour press conference in Taipei on October 8th, Su Jun-pin, the head of the GIO, said, “Taiwan’s popular music is in the leading position in Chinese communities. In order to give the island’s music industry an edge, the GIO decided to sponsor the creative and talented music bands to tour abroad. Through performances, professional exchanges and participation in music festivals, the government expects the bands to broaden their prospective and enhance their performance skills, indirectly input new ingredients to Taiwan’s music creative world.” Su stressed that Won Fu’s tour to the US is GIO’s flagship project to promote popular music, in the hope that Taiwan’s music makers will enjoy the same success as Taiwanese filmmakers overseas.
Taiwan's pluralistic and free environment has helped nurture a thriving independent music scene with dedicated artists and devoted followers. In his April 2009 Monocle article “Hit Factory-Taipei,” Robert Bound refers to Taipei Pop as Taiwan’s new heavy industry and argues that the island’s pop culture leaves the mainland standing. Taiwan’s indie music is way ahead in terms of diversity, vibrancy, and quality compared to other Mandarin communities. Perhaps it is time to give indie bands the recognition they deserve.
- The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.
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