Interesting and awesome facts about Taiwanese piano rock group TIZZY BAC: they’re a household name in Taiwan; they’ve coined a brooding and gospel style of piano rock called “orchestra grumbles” which sounds like Sgt Pepper-era Beatles on an oriental-themed acid trip; oh, and their female lead singer Chen Hui Ting has a strong anti-nuclear stance.
However, ignoring this writer’s momentary melt into effusive fan-boydom, it can be said that what really sets Tizzy Bac apart from most of the other bands that appeared on this year’s Liverpool Sound City line-up is that, back in their country of origin, the reality of them being blacklisted by China for over-zealously advocating the independence of their nation is all too real. “In Taiwan, when we were kids, bad things might happen if you said the wrong thing,” says Lin Chien Yuan (Drums), one of the three band members – Hsu Che Yu (Bass) and the aforementioned Chen Hui Ting (Vocals) are the other two. But “bad things” doesn’t even scratch the surface, and for those whom remain blissfully ignorant to the “bad things” to which he’s referring, here’s a brief synopsis.
For more than five centuries, the provincial state of Taiwan, off the South Eastern coast of China, was fraught with crippling warfare, political unrest, civil disorder and, not least, oppressive social and cultural control. If you were part of the indigenous populace that inhabits the island then, naturally, those conditions were hard enough, but when you’re geographically sandwiched in-between three of the world’s most belligerent and temperamental Asian super powers, it was never going to be all smiles and sunshine. Taiwan was long embroiled in the throes of Chinese civil war, so when Chiang Kai-Shek (leader of the defeated Republic of China nationalist party) fled to the island in 1949 and forcibly assumed territorial and political control, systematic suppression became a reality for the indigenous population. Hundreds of years of traditional Taiwanese culture were suddenly suppressed and censored by the Kuomintang-led Republic of China Government, and a prohibition on expressions of Taiwanese independence was enforced to brutal extremes. Thankfully, all of this ill-tempered puppetry has started to blow over since the demise of the tyrannical Chiang Kai-Shek and, albeit that 98% of the people living on the island have ethnic ties to China, Taiwan is now recognised as an independent democratic state by the wider global community – just don’t say that too loudly.
Fast forward to the present: it’s day three at Liverpool Sound City and Bido Lito! is surrounded by a fastidious entourage of Taiwanese nationals at Parr Street Studios following a live recording session with the mercurial Tizzy Bac. In a suitably blundering fashion, we all pour into a nearby kitchen reeking of mid-festival mania and multi-cultural confusion to muse over the hardships of cultural oppression in Taiwan with Tizzy and the three-piece rock band known as the psychedelic voice of Taiwan, ECHO. So with the click and clack of cameras in tow, we dive straight in. “We all love British music, and the most important part of the reason why I chose music for my career is because of the Beatles and Liverpool,” reveals Pochang Wu (Vocals) from Echo, whose band’s leather-clad credo suggests that they’ve just walked in straight from an audition for a post-WWII biker culture period drama. He continues: “I bought my first record when I was a kid; I loved the Brit-pop music of the 90s – Suede, the Verve – and I also loved Bowie. In Taiwan, we also watch the Jools Holland Show, so British culture is very attractive to us.”
The music of Taiwan reflects the rich and eclectic culture of the Taiwanese populace, with many genres such as Mandarin pop, folk, classical and heavy metal reflecting their cosmopolitan society, and the complicated interplay between nationalisation and globalisation. “We get a lot of different multi-cultures from all over the world – from China, from Japan, from Portugal, Spain – so I think in our culture we are very open to everything,” nods Tizzy Bac’s Hsu Che Yu. But the assimilation of western popular culture intertwined with traditional Taiwanese values is a prevalent reference point when unravelling Echo’s amalgam of scratchy indie-guitar lines and taut, soaring melodies, and similarly with Tizzy Bac’s gothic piano-driven beguile. With 13 years’ experience collectively since their coincided formations in the same college, Tizzy Bac and Echo are considered veterans of the Taiwanese music scene. However, much of the enormous influence exerted by foreign rule pre-dates even their formative years.
Since the liberation of the Taiwanese political system in the mid-1980s, and the removal of martial law, it wasn’t long before Taiwan’s emancipation translated into music. “In the past twenty years a lot of people have opened their eyes to a lot of exciting music from all over the world,” says Pochang Wu, of Echo, who tells us that there’s now over an estimated 4,000 bands in Taiwan expressing themselves more openly through the medium of music. He continues with unwavering enthusiasm: “In 2007, we released our second album [Bastille Day], and we toured around the island; we had about 100 concerts in that one year. There’s been huge growth in the music scene recently, we get a lot of music festivals and live venues around the island and many bands [have] exploded.” The wave of consenting nods that accompanies this assertion holds testament to this notion, prompting us to delve a little deeper. When asked to what extent Taiwanese culture has been influenced and oppressed by Chinese rule, a subdued silence beckons and the tacit and vehement sense of humour that makes Taiwanese people so endearing subsides. The man who speaks first is sat crumpled in the corner, eyes concealed behind his shades, “It [was around] 1984. I wrote a song with the lyrics ‘go west’, we even had coverage in Rolling Stone, I think. At the time the government said NO, no [don’t] go west. And the song, it just disappeared,” says CEO of Riverside Music Inc and influential figure in the Taiwanese indie music scene, Geddy Lin: the Taiwanese equivalent of Tony Wilson. Elisa Lin, an American-Taiwanese singer-songwriter, interjects: “If you’re an artist in Taiwan and you say anything or perform any word that implies that Taiwan is an independent country as opposed to part of China, then China blacklists you and you can’t go there. That’s oppression right there.”
Take Russian feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot for instance: two of their members were incarcerated for publicly protesting against the Putin administration, seriously undermining civil, nay, basic human rights. Or Taiwanese heavy metal band ChthoniC who’ve been banned in parts of China because of their support for the Taiwan independence movement. This kind of oppression is alien to us and we often take our freedom of speech and basic human rights for granted in this country. So before you create another bolshie meme about how David Cameron is leading our country into economic meltdown on your cracked version of Photoshop, take a minute to consider just how lucky you are. “We [will] still fight for our rights, but right now we’re free to speak anything we want here. So, I love my country,” quips Pochang Wu of Echo, with a wry smile. And despite the language barriers, this meeting of minds is proof that music plays a unique role in summoning one’s identity and establishing a universal ethic of positivism. This is the sound of empowerment.