Mandopop needs no introduction and even less in the way of PR. When the six nonthreatening boys of Magic Power arrive in Vancouver on Saturday (September 5) on a rainbow of sugar, hair gel, and EDM beats, this city will weather its biggest hormone throb since the “Chinese Beatles”—or Mayday, as the band is otherwise known—showed up for last year’s blockbuster Pacific Coliseum gig.
Like Mayday, Magic Power hails from Taiwan, the country that has dominated Chinese popular music for some four decades. But beyond its indefatigable assembly line of pop stars, the island nation once known as Formosa has defined itself as the epicentre of musical creativity in the Chinese-speaking world.
“Taiwanese people started to do something different much earlier than people in Hong Kong and China or other Chinese people around the world. That’s why we’re unique, I think,” says Po-Chang Wu, frontman for the rock band Echo. Like Magic Power, Echo comes to Vancouver via this year’s TAIWANfest, with late-afternoon concerts on Saturday and Sunday (September 5 and 6).
Po-Chang believes it all began in the early ’70s with Taiwan’s “folk era”, when college students turned from aping Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley to writing their own songs. With the end of martial law in 1987 and the thawing process of “Taiwanization” in the ’90s, indie labels and music festivals started to appear and a diverse musical identity took shape, complete with its own underground.
Echo exemplifies that cosmopolitan impulse. To western ears, the opening track of its 2014 album, To the Purity of Life, comes on like a weird hybrid of Coldplay and David Bowie, but there’s also something unmistakably Chinese bouncing around inside its slick grooves. Po-Chang states that maintaining the band’s native cultural identity is vital.
“Of course we have a lot of influence from western bands, from ’70s Bowie to ’90s Britpop and also the ’90s grunge bands from Seattle,” he tells the Georgia Straight in a call from Taipei. “That’s very important for us. But you can tell this is a band from Taiwan, not a copycat of western music from somewhere in Asia.”
For Andrew Yeh, Taiwan’s vibrant and multitiered music industry is what brought him to Taipei. “I think Taiwan’s in a lucky spot because a lot of the Chinese-language popular music is produced in Taiwan, so I think that it’s created a sort of hub,” says the singer-songwriter, also on the line from Taipei. “You have a lot of artists coming out of Taiwan who are actually foreigners. They’re Malaysian or from the mainland or something, but they’ll move to Taiwan and kind of come out from here.”
Yeh was born in Chicago, attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and chose to pursue his career in Taipei over New York, L.A., or Nashville. His first solo record was released earlier this year, but Yeh comes to TAIWANfest Vancouver with a collective called WhatBands and a very specific mission.
“We really hope that our story and our music can draw more people to mindfulness and meditation, and a more uplifting and positive way of looking at life,” he explains of the Buddhist-oriented project. Following both of its regular performances on Saturday and Sunday (billed as Rock the Buddha), WhatBands provides the soundtrack to something called the Downtown Slowdown, an attempt to turn the 700 block of Granville Street into an outdoor meditation centre.
“The vision was somewhat inspired, I think, by how Christianity has a lot of wonderful music that’s not necessarily that traditional,” offers Yeh, who joined the multifaceted WhatBands three years ago as its musical director. “Its meaning relates to the idea of Buddhist emptiness, like, ‘What band?’ It’s a name and also a question,” he explains, adding that the project also includes a traditional Chinese orchestra and a choir.
“I’m a little more influenced by British rock groups like Muse and Coldplay, stuff like that,” Yeh continues, addressing his role in the guitar-rock division of WhatBands. “But there’s also some very Taiwanese influences, almost aboriginal-type music flowing through, and some Chinese influences.”
Like Echo, it’s the idiosyncratic result of an artistic community in remarkably good health.
“Yeah,” says Yeh, with the kind of satisfaction you don’t often hear from somebody who performs for a living. “It’s a good place to be a musician.”