Shoots of Friendship
Shao Sheng Vietnam Traditional Music Ensemble is one of the many beneficiaries of the Ministry of Culture’s Youth Cultural Gardeners project designed to boost exchanges with New Southbound Policy target countries. (Photo courtesy of Shao Sheng Vietnam Traditional Music Ensemble)
A youth program is facilitating cultural exchanges with New Southbound Policy target countries.
Yang Ching-yi (楊晴儀) had few preconceptions when she elected to take a two-week course in Vietnamese “nhac tai tu,” meaning music of amateurs, at Taipei National University of the Arts in March 2018. But she quickly found herself enraptured by the skills held by three visiting masters of the genre charged with teaching the class. Less than a year later, Yang and seven other students majoring in traditional music established the Shao Sheng Vietnam Traditional Music Ensemble as an outlet for their newly shared passion.
“Studying in Taiwan was one thing, but without local musicians to interact with, we felt our progress had a ceiling,” said band leader Yang, who plays the “dan bau,” a one-stringed zither. Luckily for the group, financial support from the Ministry of Culture (MOC) via its Youth Cultural Gardeners (YCG) project enabled a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in September 2019.
Shao Sheng band members learn from a Vietnamese master of “nhac tai tu” music in Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo courtesy of Shao Sheng Vietnam Traditional Music Ensemble)
Journeying to the home of “nhac tai tu” was a transformative experience for the band. Not only did they add new strings to their musical bows, including integrating vocals into compositions, but they also introduced some of Taiwan’s own folk music traditions to locals during their 15-day stay.
Shao Sheng’s experience is exactly the kind envisioned by the MOC when it began the YCG project in 2016 as a part of the government’s New Southbound Policy (NSP). Launched the same year, the NSP is a national development strategy that seeks to deepen Taiwan’s relations with the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states, six South Asian Nations, Australia and New Zealand.
Participants in the YCG project are required to stay in their chosen countries for at least two weeks. Chen Teng-chin (陳登欽), chief secretary of the MOC, said applicant groups must draft concrete proposals that will have a lasting impact on bilateral cultural relations with the target nation. Success is far from guaranteed; in 2019, the ministry selected only 11 out of 34 applicants. To date, 26 groups comprising 215 young people have received funding from the project.
Taiwan indigenous music group Mita Idea Co. performs at the 2019 Darwin Festival in Australia. (Photo courtesy of Mita Idea Co.)
Indigenous music group Mita Idea Co. applied for YCG money to attend Darwin Festival in Australia’s Northern Territory after a chance meeting with antipodean travelers in Taiwan. The 2017 Amis Music Festival, organized by Mita Idea in the southeastern county of Taitung, was attended by several Australians. These included Mark Grose, founder of Darwin-based record label Skinnyfish, which produces music by Australia’s indigenous peoples. Ties between Mita Idea and the region have gone from strength to strength ever since.
“Mark encouraged us to go to the 40th edition of the Darwin Festival in 2019, where indigenous art and music play a big role,” Mita Idea public relations manager Nunung Puhay said. Thanks to the YCG project, the group was able to achieve its goal, with an MOC grant paying for the travel of all eight company members. “The ministry’s generous support is the only reason we all made it to Australia,” Nunung said.
During the festival, the group staged a performance centering on Suming Rupi, founder of Mita Idea and a renowned Taiwan indigenous singer-songwriter. Members also talked to festival organizers and sought inspiration from the wealth of performances and exhibitions throughout the 18-day extravaganza. “It was a truly exhilarating journey,” Nunung said. “It gave us a whole new perspective on how to promote indigenous culture back home.”
Mita Idea group members are all smiles with founder of Skinnyfish Mark Grose, front, third left, and Australian indigenous musicians after a visit to the Darwin-based record label. (Photo courtesy of Mita Idea)
Mita Idea is not the only recipient of YCG funding to focus on fostering exchanges with indigenous peoples in the Indo-Pacific. Another group led by Guan Chia-hsiou (官佳岫), an administrative assistant at National Taitung University’s (NTTU) Center of Austronesian Culture (CAC), was eager to explore the region’s distinct identity. “I developed an interest in the tribes of eastern Malaysia while majoring in Austronesian cultures at NTTU after I found many similarities between the native peoples there and those in Taiwan,” Guan said.
YCG funding helped Guan and nine other team members from NTTU travel to the Malaysian state of Sarawak in the summer of 2019. The group learned about local community empowerment programs and cultural tourism development among members of the Bidayuh people, perhaps best known for their distinctive traditional longhouses. Guan was impressed by a visit to Nyegol, a village with only 18 households. “The sense of community was incredible, and the young residents talked earnestly about the need to create a sustainable future,” she said.
Forging relationships with local experts and cultural leaders is high on the agenda for all YCG participants. For the NTTU group, this involved talking to University of Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) academics, who helped explain the nuances of local indigenous society. The partnership continued in October last year when five UNIMAS students and one teacher visited the CAC to attend a workshop on Taiwan’s links with Austronesian cultures. Cooperation between the institutions looks set to carry into the future, Guan said, with NTTU and UNIMAS expected to sign a memorandum of understanding on boosting exchanges later this year.
YCG participants from the Center of Austronesian Culture at National Taitung University in southeastern Taiwan learn about indigenous farming practices in Malaysia’s eastern state of Sarawak. (Photo courtesy of Guan Chia-hsiou)
A similar story rings true across the board for YCG alumni, as participants revel in the program’s long-lasting benefits. Mita Idea, for example, inked an agreement with Grose for its participation in his newly planned music concert and creative hub in Darwin. The two sides have since discussed sending Australian artists to Taiwan for the Amis Music Festival and their Taiwan counterparts to Australia for the Barunga Festival in Northern Territory.
According to band leader Yang, Shao Sheng has also found itself gaining more visibility following the Vietnam excursion, with the group invited to perform at three times as many events as before. She puts the newfound popularity down to media coverage of its YCG adventures, with Taipei-based National Taiwan Museum booking the ensemble for a workshop and concert introducing “nhac tai tu” in October last year. “It was a tremendous honor to perform on such a grand stage,” Yang said. “We can’t wait to bring Vietnamese music to even more people around Taiwan.”
Chung She-fong (鍾適芳), an associate professor in the Department of Radio and Television at National Chengchi University in Taipei, advises the MOC on Southeast Asian affairs. She considers examples like those of the CAC, Mita Idea and Shao Sheng proof positive of the YCG project’s ability to create meaningful connections between Taiwan and NSP target countries. “Young people are always online, but in-person experiences reveal so much more than the curated world of the internet,” she said. “These moments are a chance to broaden participants’ horizons while promoting Taiwan values.”
Retrieve from TAIWAN REVIEW