23 June 2008

First wedding anniversary


Time flies at twice the speed of my life; suddenly it's our first wedding anniversary. Whereas two days ago on the summer solstice, which by chance fell on a Saturday this year, we went for a hike and surprisingly retrieved the long-lost cicada song, what are we supposed to do on this supposedly special occasion, which unluckily comes about on the first working day of the week?

I gave Fanne a card, a coffee spoon made of Slitti's extra-bitter chocolate, with which she can stir sugar and milk in her coffee while it dissolves, and some Arabica coffee beans coated with Slitti's pure, extra-dark chocolate. She invited me a meal at an Italian-style restaurant, Pasta West East.

So it was our paper anniversary.

(close look at Slitti's chocolate spoon and coffee beans coated with chocolate, images from Lucullian Delights, the author of which obviously happens to share with me the same taste in cioccolato)

22 June 2008

Cicadas alive and singing

(image from this blog. Visit to see more.)

I just cannot remember the last time I heard cicadas singing in urban areas in Taiwan. In Keelung, the harbour town where I was born and brought up, cicadas used to strike up their reverberating chorus, celebrating the arrival of summer. In Taichung, the sun-drenched city where I spent three years in senior high school, their thunderous songs helped me stay awake in numerous soporific classes when days became longer. However, in Taipei, the capital where I live now, they seem to disappear in summer.

I once thought cicadas were all killed and extinct in Taipei. But fortunately, they are actually all alive and singing, though not in the city centre.

Fanne and I went hiking at Elephant Mountain (象山 Xiangshan, not a mountain indeed, just a 183-metre-high hill) yesterday afternoon. Surprisingly, virtually just a stone's throw away from Taiepi 101, the so-far-tallest building in the world, we heard an exciting hubbub of cicada singing, the nostalgic noise which once resounded countless summer days and nights in my childhood and adolescent years.

It was absolutely stunning. These tiny critters, with their amazing acoustic talents, worked together to form a sound backdrop which would require hundreds of buzz saws and Egyptian mizmars operating simultaneously to produce in a studio.

Ear-piercing as cicada song was, in the hill we went on basking in the unforgettable sound of summer.

Hence, it turns out that in Taipei, the capital where I live now, cicadas are still chorusing in the hills in summertime, looking towards the city centre.

16 June 2008

BBQ and the qilaut frame drum

water bamboo
water bamboo drum
(images courtesy of Maolun)

I went to a BBQ gathering organised by Botany NTU, Class of 1998. Although I am actually a member of the class of 1997, and thus was once their 'male senior schoolmate' (學長 xuezhang), a Taiwanese expression which may sound awkward and verbose in English, I am quite acquainted to some of them and would sometimes join the gang.

At one point, after roasting some succulent water bamboo stems (茭白筍 jiaobai sun, not really bamboo but a species of wild rice) for a while, in response to a conjuring sound suddenly pounding in my head, I started beating a paper plate with a water bamboo stem like an Inuit from Far North striking a frame drum.

Apart from my far-fetched association of food and a plate with an instrument, what is really worth noting is that different from the Uzbek doira, which is played with both hands almost on every bit of the drum, the Inuit qilaut is only beaten from the back by one stick on its frame instead of the skin.

Have a look at this picture to see how an Inuit drum dancer plays her instrument and you'll probably appreciate the whole scenario.

Inuit drum
(image from Nick Russill's album of Greenland Faces)

It appears that teaching World Music has already had certain impact on my life.

10 June 2008

Sa Dingding: Overstated or false publicity?

The winning artists of BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music 2008 have been announced at a ceremony in London on the 10th of April. The winner of the Aisa/Pacific category was Sa Dingding (薩頂頂), a female artist of Chinese nationality, born in Inner Mongolia to a Mongolian mother and a Chinese father. It was her major label international debut album Alive, release by Universal Music in 2007, that won her the trophy.

I definitely have no doubt of her musicality, vocal techniques, creativity, image and so on, nor do I have the slightest interest in discussions about the controversy over her appropriation of Tibetan music or over issues such as 'ethnicity', 'authenticity' or whatever pedantic criticism that might be raised when dealing with 'world music'. Quite the other way around, I just wallow in the rich fabric of sounds of her impressive voice and all the electric tones.

However, firstly, I don't think the obviously ancient Sanskrit lyrics were written by herself, and secondly, I am sceptical about her knowledge of Sanskrit and wonder how and to what level she has studied Sanskrit.

On the BBC website, it goes:
Her recordings make full use of impressive linguistic abilities, featuring lyrics she has written in Mandarin, Sanskrit, Tibetan and the near-extinct Lagu language, as well as an imaginary self-created language which she says is generated from the emotions evoked by the music. (emphasis mine)
The lyrics of 'Alive (Mantra)', one song from the winning album, are said to be the Sanskrit Vajrasattva Mantra (follow the link for more details of this mantra). It is the chanting in this track that raises my suspicion.

Upon hearing this piece one day over the Internet, I was aware that what she intoned was actually the transliterated version of Vajrasattva Mantra in Tibetan, but not the original Sanskrit text. Even worse is her mispronunciation of some Tibetan words, which is a result of reading the modified Tibetan version through the transliteration of Tibetan into Chinese characters.

Vajrasattva Mantra is well known among many Chinese-speaking Buddhists, who practice Tibetan Buddhism but don't actually read Tibetan texts. Therefore, a text composed of Chinese characters roughly corresponding Tibetan pronunciation has long been prepared and there are a range of CDs of either pure recitation or melodised chanting against new-age-style back ground music available for them. It is not difficult to tell that Sa Dingding's Vajrasattva Mantra is Tibetan, and indeed mispronounced, rather than Sanskrit when comparing her recitation with the Sanskrit text and the Tibetan transliteration (follow the links and scroll down).

Moreover, I noticed later that 'Alive (Mantra)' is not the only case in the album. 'Tuo Luo Ni', another piece based on the Sanskrit Karandamudra Dharani Sutra (again follow the link and scroll down), is actually the Chinese-transliterated text as well.

I am absolutely not against her adaptation of the Chinese-transliterated in her musical work. The point is that if it is the Tibetan mantra, then it is Tibetan, not Sanskrit; if it is Chinese transliteration, then it is not the so claimed Sanskrit. It is simply wrong, particularly when introducing something from a distant culture into the global mass market, to mislead the audience.

If she had studied Sanskrit, as she claims or as reported in the media, she would have sung the mantra in proper Sanskrit. She probably not dare to explain in the liner notes or when interviewed that the sounds of Sanskrit mantra or sutra are all Chinese, but I suppose that certain department or production team from Universal Music should have made some research before launching the album.

It's a pity. I enjoyed the music per se but I despise overstatement or false publicity, and besides, I feel sorry for the person who was misled to prepare those words on the BBC website.

05 June 2008

Long time no see, Katoh-san

In the virtual world on the Internet we not only encounter new challenges but also retrieve old memories. Pretty much like a small piece of paper which may lead a genealogist to unfold more about a particular historic figure's life accounts, an entry on a weblog, on a search engine results page or on a list of whatever stuff from the Internet may direct us through umpteen web sites to locate a person who was once quite active in our life but whom somehow we lost contact with.

Katoh Masahiro (加藤昌弘), a colleague from Stirling Media Research Institute, whom I called Katoh-san (Mr Katoh in Japanese), found my article about old Shanghi pop on the online database of the Cambridge University Press. The serendipitous finding, with the help of Google's unrivalled searching capacity, showed him the way to my weblog.

It's amazing. Katoh-san not only left a comment on my blog but also wrote a post dedicated to me on his.

Prost! To the Internet and to Google.