Roots of Life and Music in Yilan

Roots of Life and Music in Yilan
Photo Credit: Luke Hein
What you need to know

Jipo, a sheng player from Yilan County in Taiwan, forsook a career in the capital to make music with his community.

By the time Yang Chih-po (楊智博), or Jipo, graduated with his master’s from National Taiwan University of the Arts, he was already a virtuoso sheng player.

Sometimes referred to as the Chinese mouth organ, the sheng (笙) is one of the world’s earliest free reed instruments. It produces a sound similar to an accordion by channeling air blown into a chamber through vertical pipes. Jipo’s extensive training could have been his ticket abroad or to the rarefied arts circles in Taipei.

Instead, the 31-year-old Yilan native moved in with his parents and started a band. Now Jipo’s music is contributing to local efforts to revitalize society and culture. Yet, to understand Jipo’s story, it’s necessary to understand the sheng, the instrument with which he shares a fate.

“According to legend the sheng was created by Nuwa,” says Jipo. As he tells it, the great ancestor mother formed the sheng by sticking bamboo reeds into the dirt, the same dirt out of which she formed humankind. According to The Book of Names《釋名》, a 200 CE text, “The sheng’s shape resembles objects growing from the ground.” To Jipo, this symbolism is important. He explains that the word ‘sheng’ is homophonous with the word ‘to birth’ or ‘to live.’ “So the instrument also represents harmony and life,” Jipo says. “It’s very sacred."

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Photo Credit: Luke Hein

The sheng was once a fixture at important ceremonies and other state functions. There are ample references to the instrument in historical texts, depictions of it in art, and ancient instruments recovered from archeological digs. It grew popular in Southeast Asia and in what is today the People’s Republic of China. Morphing as it traveled, the sheng spread through Taiwan, Japan, and Korea and, much later, made it to Russia and Europe.

“But nowadays,” Jipo says, “not so many people know about this instrument.” He himself had felt little interest in the sheng when, in grammar school, Jipo’s music instructor volunteered him to play it. “My teacher said, ‘Ok, since nobody wants to learn it, maybe you can try.’ But when I got my first lesson, I thought, ‘Ok, it’s kind of like… cool,’ and so I just kept going.”

By college, Jipo had become infatuated with world and fusion music. He went on to study interdisciplinary performance during his master’s. But excelling at this kind of music required something he couldn’t learn in school. “The first thing if you want to crossover or if you want to collaborate with others, the first thing you have to know is who you are and where you are from,” he says. So Jipo returned to Yilan and, with four childhood friends, formed A Root in 2016.

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Photo Credit: Luke Hein

Since its founding, A Root has performed in Taiwan, Europe and the US. They have collaborated with well-known groups like the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. A Root’s 2018 album, Rooty Mental 《同根生》, gained nominations in two categories from the Music Resource Group’s 17th Independent Music Awards. “It was a milestone for our band,” Jipo says. "We take very local, very Taiwanese elements to create a new genre of music, and I really appreciate that judges worldwide can understand and appreciate this kind of stuff.”

The performers ground their music in their hometown’s natural and cultural environments interweaving traditional opera and folk forms with elements of jazz, rock, blues, and classical. “The mission of our band,” Jipo says, “is to change outlooks from tradition to transformation.” By creating art that includes the local community in producing and enjoying it, A Root avoids becoming stuck in nostalgia or viewing tradition as static or a resource to be mined for its value as a global commodity.

The critically acclaimed track “Dance Party of Gods” 《鬧三仙》 and its music video exemplify the band’s approach to composition and to its larger aspirations. The song opens with percussion and the squeal of a suona horn accompanied by Jipo’s sheng: a typical beginning for a Taiwanese Opera, the nationally prized performance art that originated in Yilan. The video shows temple incense burning, opera actors dressing and traditional music scores laid out before cutting to a boy drawing and daydreaming. The stage set, a story unfolds of this boy wandering Yilan in search of local gods performed by seniors, who ultimately join him for a dance party at a rural temple.

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Photo Credit: Luke Hein

Involving kids and seniors in creating the video was an opportunity for A Root to use art making to address local challenges and their global dimensions. “Yilan’s biggest problem concerns a population that is shrinking and aging,” Jipo says. As elsewhere in Taiwan, which will soon have one of the world’s highest rates of aging, Yilan County’s youth chase education and work in booming cities, leaving behind seniors who must juggle senescence, agriculture work, and emotional and social needs within increasingly anemic communities. Jipo says creating the video brought camaraderie and joy to the seniors who participated. “They were just like kids,” he says.

After producing “Dance Party of Gods,” several of the elders who contributed have fallen ill or passed away. “So,” Jipo says, “the music video has a lot of meanings: how you seize the day, how you cherish the time you have. Right at that moment I felt we were all the same age as the elder people, but, back to reality, they all have some physical problems and have to deal with many kinds of other problems. But arts or music can be like a painkiller.” Depression, loneliness, suicide, poverty and illness present great challenges to Taiwan’s rural elderly. In this context of fraying rural society, A Root seems to be sewing a kind of patchwork quilt. And at the center of this effort is Jipo with his sheng and his deep concern with affirming life.

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Photo Credit: Luke Hein

Music videos, performances and an album in production are keeping the band busy. Speaking about the future, Jipo grows pensive. “I got the chance to work with artists in Europe,” he says. “There, they call ‘performers’ ‘movers.’ If you say, ‘Oh, I’m a performer,’ they would say, ‘Oh, you’re a mover.’ I started thinking, ‘Why do they call a performer a mover?’ And this is my own conclusion. The work—the task of an artist—is to give people some inspiration or move people. So ‘what makes you move, and what moves you?’ is really important. It’s a fundamental question to ask yourself that will affect any action and move you make. So maybe you can think about that…Maybe that’s a clue to keep going or to move onto your next step.”

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Photo Credit: Luke Hein

Yilan’s seemingly endless rice paddies lie empty in the winter months before farmers fill them with young seedlings. Shallow water covers the dark mud and turns the fields into near perfect mirrors, reflecting whatever passes above or close by. Standing for a photo on a ridge between two paddies, Jipo looks confident, as if he’s glimpsed something essential in one of these black pools. At the very least he seems to know what’s moving him forward. “I always felt it was the sheng that chose me,” he would later write to me. “I never had this idea that I was going to protect it… I just have this simple desire to share.” But this ‘simple desire,’ invested in fully, becomes something profound, and it’s moving Jipo, his sheng and his community toward a future novel yet rooted.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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