Friday, August 3, 2007

Music Adventure Series: Guest Writer Amy Denio

Samba Drumming in Taiwan
(A Musical Adventure)

By Amy Denio

Greetings from Taiwan. A year ago, the only reference I had to the island was "made in Taiwan." Through an uncanny sequence of events, I've gotten to know this verdant pacific jewel pretty well over the last 9 months.

In September, 2006 I went to a party in a sculpture garden near Seattle and I met a one-legged French artist named Jean Paul Richon. Our meeting started a sequence of events which led me to Taiwan, to work on a project to arrange 15 aboriginal & popular Taiwanese songs with Brazilian rhythms, find a teacher to teach them to 25 Amis tribe kids (age 12-15), living here in Taipei, and produce the recording.

Jean Paul enjoyed my accordion playing, and was leaving for a winter residency in Taiwan the next day, so we exchanged email addresses. A few weeks later, he wrote me to say I'd been invited to play at the Taipei Blues Festival! I flew from Rome to Seattle to Taipei & came here for the first time in November, staying with Jean Paul at the Dream Community in Shijr City for 10 days. I found myself right at home.

The Dream Community was created by Gordon Tsai, a farmer's son who's now developed the family's rice paddies into luxury apartments, and has become a patron of the arts. Taiwanese customs and culture have been dominated by the 50-year Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and then by the Chinese occupation. Now aboriginal people make up about 2 percent of the population, and their culture is neither well known nor highly respected in Taiwan.

People from the various 10+ tribes often have difficulty to find good work, or to harbor hopes for a fruitful life. There is vast unemployment in the villages, and many aboriginal people have moved to Taipei, abandoning their cultures for Life in the Big City. Mr. Tsai's main concern is to encourage the traditions and culture for and among the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, especially the children. Gordon's passion is to create parades, and has hired samba teachers to work with children in aboriginal villages throughout the country.

Many people from the Ami Tribe in Hualien have moved here to Shijr City, Taipei County. About 25 children at the Camphor Tree school (age 12-15, have been learning to play Samba Reggae from Brazil for almost a year, and Gordon Tsai invited me to join this project. I was asked to arrange aboriginal & popular Taiwanese music to Brazilian rhythms, find a samba teacher to replace the outgoing teacher, and to produce the CD. I knew very little about either Brazilian or Taiwanese music. I considered the proposition for a few days - my schedule was already quite full of touring and commissions for the Spring of 2007. However, I saw that it would be a great opportunity, a chance to learn more about the traditions of this beautiful tropical island. I said "yes."

After hearing from about 40 potential candidates, I chose Jonathan Gregory to teach the Camphor Tree School students. I returned to Taiwan in February, 2007, to finish the arrangements of these cross-cultural songs, and to record a demo with a Brazilian drummer named Edoardo Campos & a wonderful Ami tribe singer named Xiao Mei (Little Beauty). We made a demo of the arrangements under challenging circumstances - we recorded 15 songs, (using one SM58 microphone), and mixed them all in a week, with the engineering help of Jonathan Gregory. After I returned to the West, Jonathan and Xiao Mei worked with the Camphor Tree School children to hone their drumming skills, to learn to sing while playing, and to memorize the arrangements.

Then, nothing. Not a word from Taiwan, how the rehearsals were going, how the arrangements worked out, how my friends were. I came back to the Dream Community for 5 weeks starting in early May, 2007 to supervise the rehearsals and produce the recording. I discovered that not all the arrangments were taught, the kids didn't have enough time to rehearse because they were under pressure to perform well in sports, and of course academically. OK, you can't expect a miracle... The children started to perform some of the arrangements throughout Taipei, and it sounded pretty good when I came back.

Jonathan & Xiao Mei made a demo recording with the students - 4 very short songs, all singing, tempos all skewed. Good try, but I wasn't all that pleased with their progress. I came to rehearsals, and I changed some of the arrangements.

Then more typical situations of Taiwan - we went to record the drums first,in a school auditorium, and naturally we waited more than an our for the custodian to arrive with a key to unlock the door to the room. We had only 4 hours to set up the mics, tune the drums, check the connections and record everything, but we did it!

Then we brought the files to another studio to prepare for the vocal overdubs. And naturally, the day before recording, we discovered that no one had actually reserved the studio, and thus it was not available for us the next day. In panic, we found another studio, even closer to Shijr City,
and we recorded the voices yesterday.

Tourism is not a major industry, so foreigners are seen as exotic and interesting. The people I've met here are warm & full of laughter. Yay, Buddhism! The food is varied and delicious, one sees brilliant colors and strong contrasts, such as ornate Buddhist temples next to factories, Catholic churches near Karaoke palaces. The steep mountains are covered with verdant jungles, filled with abundant hot springs and the beautiful beaches of Taiwan are awe-inspiring.

In May-June 2007 I stayed for 5 weeks, collaborating on various projects with artists involved with the Dream Community, travelling to aboriginal villages in the south, helping some Brazilians to teach samba to adorable children. I've posted some pictures on my myspace site (and a little blog). It's absolutely incredible there, I felt right at home. Chaos rules, nothing is what it seems, and the Taiwanese people are very open hearted. I also made a few field recordings, of aboriginal songs and a funeral procession in the distance.

A few days ago, I finally went to a few villages in South Taiwan - Chingpu, and Ruei Suei. Eduardo had been teaching the children samba rhythms, and we paraded in each of the villages. We joined the parade, and here are some photos - I'm the one in the eyeball mask. Afterwards, I taught funny hand tricks complete with hilarious vocal sounds to a group of little girls and we laughed uproariously.

After parading through the two rival coastal villages on either side of a river, we followed the river to reach the settlement of Ruei Suei - ringed by mountains overlooking a deep valley, and joined the children to parade through their village. I found myself dancing and holding hands with the village elders under the banana trees. I was asking myself how the hell I got here, a year ago I would have never imagined to be part of a National Geographic photoshoot...

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