24 September 2007

Mid-autumn barbecue

Tomorrow is the mid-autumn festival but I just don't feel any special. Neither festive food (moon cakes and pomelos) nor customary events really buoy me up, probably for I'm now surrounded by fellow Taiwanese and immersed in an inescapable atmosphere laden with excessive exuberance.

Quite right, familiarity breeds contempt. If I were in Scotland, I wouldn't thinks so, just as how excited most Scottish people might feel about Burns Supper when they are far away from their land.

As mentioned in another entry on this weblog, having a barbecue has become a ritual of the mid-autumn festival in Taiwan since the mid 1980s. Although the folklorist Liu Huanyue (劉還月) argues that it is just a westernised form of celebration, which reflects the thriving economy and uplifted living standard in Taiwan at that time, it has been recently reported on all major news channels that the ever-increasing popularity of the mid-autumn barbecue in Taiwan may has its origin in advertising campaigns.

It might be two soya sauce manufacturers, Wan Ja Shan (萬家香) and Kimlan (金蘭) who once ran their commercials incessantly before the festival, that instigated the mid-autumn barbecue.

Whichever is true, I heard another bullshit explanation last night. It's an adapted story about the Chinese mythical archer Houyi (后羿), who shot down nine suns and saved the earth from excessive heat, and his wife Chang'e (嫦娥), who swallowed a pill of immortality and ascended to the moon.

For more details about the original myth, read the Wikipedia entry. Here comes the parody:
Annoyed by his wife Chang'e's ascent to the moon, Houyi lifed up his bow and targeted at the moon. In a moment of exasperation, he released the arrow but shot down the sun by mistake. The fallen sun scorched the land and charred animals. In memory of this incident, the surviving folk have barbecues on the mid-autumn festival, the day on which the moon is at its fullest and brightest of the year.
A folk tale is in one sense a story which depicts an event at a time when photography and video were not yet introduced and thus has been passed through generations only by word of mouth. No one can verify what had happened to Houyi and Chang'e, nor can anyone challenge this lighthearted version. Therefore, I like this story and will going to tell it to my daughter in the future, and she will surely pass this on to her fellow classmates.

14 September 2007

Teaching 'world music'

I have been foraging for academic employment since I passed the doctoral viva, but unfortunately it seems to be a rather unpropitious time for job hunting in higher education institutions. While the recruiting procedure for full-time academic staff at Taiwanese universities won't commence until early spring, I won't be shortlisted for an interview at any British university if i keep dawdling in Taiwan.

At one point, I thought I would end up wandering aimlessly between Albion and Formosa, just like a migrant roaming in unseasonable weather. However, much to my surprise, a short notice arrived at my email box last Sunday from a retired professor, Ricardo Canzio, whom I used to work with at National Taiwan University. I am now asked to cover his study leave and teach world music in the Department of Music, National Taiwan University of Education, 2 hours a week for 18 weeks, from next Wednesday onwards.

There is no point turning down this offer and therefore I have to prepare a course package within a week.

I would say delivering ideas of world music to those 4th-year students from a department of music (more appropriately, of 'Western classical music') is actually about unfettering them from the shackles of theories of Western classical music, which they have allowed to be arrayed upon them since their admission to the department.

So, what's so world about world music?

The term world music was originally coined in a meeting on 29th June 1987 by some independent record labels to name the many various forms of music unclassifiable in terms of Western genre labels with a view to improving the music’s sales situation.

Now world music covers a wide range of recordings of traditional indigenous music and song from around the world and may include
  • Non-European classical music
  • Folk, tribal or ethnic music from diverse geographical regions
  • Popular music from non-Western urban communities
  • Non-European musical forms influenced by other 'third world' musics
but definitely does not include
  • Western popular music
  • European classical music
Whatever forms of music the term world music could embrace, a succinct definition given by Richard O. Nidel in his World Music: The Basics is
many forms of music of various cultures that remain closely informed or guided by indigenous music of the regions of their origin.
I wonder how I will entice those students in our first meeting by recounting the history about the creation of the term and asking them to rid themselves of European classical music. Nevertheless, I believe it'll surely be full of challenge and fun for me, and hopefully for them as well.

05 September 2007

Let no one sleep in Ghost Month

Video clip courtesy of Moonwall

We may not have someone in Taiwan like Paul Potts, a mobile phone shop manager who took away the breath of the scathing judge Simon Cowell at the show Britain's Got Talent by singing Nessun Dorma ( 'let no one sleep') the famous tenor aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot, but we have Mr Xu Wenlong (許文龍), an enthusiastic and properly-trained amateur singer, who sang the same aria at a community 'ghost month' social function.

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is the so-called 'ghost month' (鬼月 guiyue), during which the gate of the netherworld is unbolted and ghosts and spirits are allowed to visit the living and have a month of bacchanals of food and drink. It is customary to placate those 'fella brethren' (好兄弟 hao xiongdi, a euphemism for ghosts who have no living family and thus wander around aimlessly) by offering them sacrifices lest they get into mischief or cause harassment.

A major ritual service is usually held on the 15th day of the ghost month and it is not uncommon to see residents of a community, together with owners of business premises within close proximity, to organise a special joined service and a social function thereafter. While in the past people would deliver performances of glove puppetry, Taiwanese opera or other kinds of entertainment as part of the offerings, nowadays people just make the social function an occasion on which neighbours, employees and proprietors drink, eat and watch whatever performance that amuses them.

It wouldn't be surprising for any Taiwanese to see scantily-clad young ladies singing or pole-dancing on this occasion. If you fancy, sometimes you can even join them, singing a song either to the accompaniment of a combo or a karaoke track. Nevertheless, it is utterly astonishing to have someone belting Nessun Dorma. Did Mr Xu mean it – let no on sleep in Ghost Month? Anyhow, I'm sure Puccini would be glad to stretch himself in his grave and learn that Taiwanese have found a new stage for this aria.