TaiwanFest 2017: Passionate protest singer Lin Sheng-Xiang draws comparisons to Woody Guthrie

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      Protest music has a long history of bringing about major societal transformations.

      It was a centrepiece of the Arab Spring, opposition to the Vietnam War, and liberation movements in Latin America and South Africa. Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin' '' and John Lennon's "Give Piece and Chance" are two of many examples around the world.

      But what many Canadians don't realize is that protest music has also influenced the rise of democracy in Taiwan.

      One of the progenitors during martial law in the 1980s was Lo Ta-yu, a folk-pop singer whose political songs were sometimes suppressed. 

      Lo was followed by Taiwanese punk artist Sissey Chao, the pop band Mayday, and, more recently, Fire EX, whose "Island Sunrise" became the theme song of the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014.

      The Sunflower Movement set the stage for the defeat of the ruling and conservative-minded, China-friendly Kuomintang party in last year's presidential election. The winner, Tsai Ing-weng of the Democratic Progressive Party, is the first president of Indigenous and Hakka minority descent.

      Lin Sheng-Xiang will perform at free concert

      On Sunday (September 3), another giant in the Taiwanese music scene will perform at a free concert on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

      Guitarist and vocalist Lin Sheng-Xiang is also part of the country's Hakka minority, growing up in Meinong in southern Taiwan.

      He's been called Taiwan's Woody Guthrie because of his popular rural-tinged folksy protest songs. Naturally, this is the first thing that the Straight mentions when he gets on the line for an interview from his Vancouver hotel room.

      "Ha ha ha," Lin laughs. "If you say that, it is my honour."

      Lin comes by this humility naturally. As the son of farmers, he's spent a great deal of time romping around in pig pens, even in adulthood as a popular musician. And he's kept his ego in check as his fame has risen around the world.

      Lin's lyrics reflect the values of farm folk and their concern about how city culture is damaging the country's environment.

      While he admires Guthrie and Dylan, he reveals that his favourite western musician is actually Van Morrison.

      Morrison is known for combining a range of musical styles, including Irish-Celtic mysticism, rhythm and blues, rock, folk, and soul.

      In a similar vein, Lin's music reflects various influences, including Hakka, American folk music, Okinawan melodies, Taiwanese pop, and jazz.

      This is his third visit to Canada and tonight will be his first performance in Vancouver in 15 years.

      Watch this English-subtitled biography Lin Sheng-Xiang.

      Band highlights environmental issues

      Lin plays an electric moon guitar and fronts a seven-member band that includes three Japanese musicians. Since 2000 he has released eight albums, including last year's Village Besieged.

      Its 18 songs raise alarm over air pollution, unemployment, and the impact of industrial operations on agriculture.

      Lin's song titles translated into English give an indication of what's troubling him these days: "Bullying Our Village", "Pollution Has No Passport", "In the Marshes, There Is No Unemployment", and "Quitting Plastic Poison".

      "If we make the music and I sing a song, we can put messages in," Lin says.

      Lin has been nominated and won many Golden Melody Awards and other prizes. However, he declined the honours for Best Hakka Album and Best Hakka Singer because he didn't feel that these awards should be categorized by language.

      It was a protest noticed all over Taiwan.

      During the Sunflower Movement, Lin travelled to Taipei to support the students. He acknowledged that the leaders, Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, listened to his music when they were young.

      "I'm so honoured that they did," the musician says.

      He also sang during the 2016 election campaign to support Tsai Ing-wen's candidacy. Lin says he was determined to prevent the Kuomintang from winning another presidential election.

      "I never support the KMT," he declares. "I think the political environment is changing. I think in Taiwan, we need different political parties."

      The Kuomintang has a very checkered past in Taiwan. When its founder, Chiang Kai-shek, moved his Chinese nationalist government to Taipei in 1949, he imposed the martial law that lasted until 1987.

      Even before Chiang moved to Taiwan, the then KMT nationalist government of China massacred approximately 10,000 Taiwanese in the so-called February 28 Incident in 1947.

      That was followed by a period known as the "white terror" where thousands more Taiwanese were executed for opposing KMT rule.

      Lin says his direct family members weren't punished in that era but it happened to others in his area. And in 2009, he released an album inspired by Hakka writer Zhong Li-he, whose family suffered enormously at the hands of the KMT. 

      Watch Hakka singer-songwriter Lin Sheng-Xiang perform "Planting Trees" with Alfred Muro and Min Tze Wu at the BenFeng Festival in 2014.

      Lin's music reflects electic influences

      He describes Hakka music as having a "special flavour" that relies on different musical scales than other Taiwanese folk music.

      His band includes a suona player, Huang Po-yu, and this double-reeded horn adds a traditional high-pitched sound to certain songs.

      Lin points out that Lo Ta-yu also relied on a suona on his second album. "He influenced me very, very strongly."

      Perhaps Lin's greatest musical mentor, however, has been the band's guitar player, Ken Ohtake, whom he met at the Migration Music Festival in Taipei.

      "He's my teacher," Lin says with characteristic humility.

      Ohtake was schooled by Okinawan musical master Hirayasu Takashi.

      In the west, Okinawan music is often considered much happier and cheerful than other music coming out of Japan. But according to Lin's bass player, Toru Hayakawa, "sadness and melancholy feelings" also characterize the sounds of Okinawa, which is south of Japan's main archipelago.

      Lin says he's "lucky" to work with three Japanese musicians, including Hayakwa and drummer Noriaki Fukushima, emphasizing that they and his German engineer really know "how to concentrate" on what they're doing.

      "They are very professional," Lin adds.

      He also says he feels a deep connection with the Okinawan people, noting they have several things in common with Taiwan's Aboriginal population.

      The Okinawans are generally less well off financially than the average Japanese. The same can be said of Taiwan's Indigenous population in comparison with Taiwanese society as a whole.

      Kanpai Japan!

      This year's TaiwanFest is celebrating the friendship between Taiwan and Japan. That's articulated in the festival's slogan, Kanpai Japan!, which means a toast to Japan.

      In light of this theme, TaiwanFest's managing director, Charlie Wu, tells the Straight that it makes sense that a popular Taiwanese musician with three Japanese players would be a headliner.

      According to Wu, Taiwanese music has evolved in ways that are shattering boundaries in the creative process. This is now part of the country's identity.

      "Young musicians are leading, in many ways, the progressive thinking and mindset in Taiwan today," Wu says.

      That's certainly the case with Lin Sheng-Xiang and his band, which has long been waging a musical war on pollution, environmental degradation, and political repression.

      As was seen during the Sunflower Movement and the last presidential election, that's having major political reverbertations on the island nation.

      "We're criticizing how the factories are damaging the countryside's environment," the bassist, Hayakawa, says. "I think the whole idea is to bring awareness of those kind of issues from a regular working farmer's point of view."