A few weeks back I received an email from Benoit Bouquin, a French DJ and producer based in Taipei. He told me he’d slowly amassed a collection of CDs, records and tapes from Taiwan, all spanning the late 80s and early 90s – and was almost ready to make a mix. The music evolved from a period when Taiwanese society was undergoing a massive political and cultural shift, marking the end of dictatorship and the birth of democratic society.
Upon receiving the email I had almost no knowledge of Taiwan’s political circumstances or its rich musical history, so it was a pleasant surprise and I was very eager to gain some further insight.
How long have you lived in Taipei and what led you to settle there?
I’ve been living in Taipei for 11 years now. Back in 2005, I was finishing my masters degree in Paris when my girlfriend at the time, who majored in Chinese language, got accepted for an exchange program in Taipei. After coming to Taiwan to visit her, I really fell in love with the country and applied for a scholarship to study Chinese in Taipei for a year. Luckily my application went through, and in August 2006 I arrived in Taipei with the intention to learn Chinese for a year and then get back to my philosophy studies. But somehow I’m still here 11 years later.
When you had that first experience in 2005, what made you fall in love with the country?
The food, obviously! And the friendliness of the people. But that alone is not the reason why I stayed in Taiwan, it’s a combination of my desire to keep learning Chinese, starting a teaching job that I really loved, making some good friends, and being involved in a burgeoning electronic scene. All these elements are the reasons that made me settle here.
And what sparked your interest in Taiwanese music ?
To be honest, it’s a very recent interest. Back when I lived in Paris, record digging was my main hobby. But after some tentative digging in Taipei when I first arrived, I gave up. First, most of the records I found here were in terrible condition, due to the tropical weather of Taiwan. Second, maybe as a consequence of the previous point, the records that were in good condition were usually quite expensive. With little to no knowledge about Taiwanese music, I just wasn’t ready to buy records just based on the cover art for 15USD or more a piece. So for many years I kept this weird habit of digging only when I traveled abroad, and buying only stuff online while in Taiwan.
Then in 2014, I went to visit an exhibition called “Sound Cultures In Post-War Taiwan”. It was a very general exhibition about music in Taiwan during the second half of the 20th century, but there was an interesting section about independent music during the 1980s, which was a key moment in Taiwan’s political and cultural history.
The 1980s was a time of political liberalisation that ultimately led to the end of dictatorship, and was also a moment of extraordinary artistic creativity. I already knew a bit about Taiwan’s cinema during that period, mostly through the movies of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, and I thought there might have been a similar burst in creativity in music, but I just couldn’t find that music on my own – until I visited that exhibition and heard a soundtrack for a theatre play that intrigued me right away when I heard it. The use of drum machines and synth together with some very “Taiwanese” melodic elements fascinated me, and from there I slowly started piecing together the puzzle, mostly by looking up the discographies or musicians involved on that recording and other records from that label.
Who were some of those key musicians, playing a part in this creative movement during the 80s and early 90s? Did they share a similar style? Or were they mostly connected in terms of political sentiments, also shared by the new wave film-makers like Edward Yang?
Maybe the most interesting band from that era is 黑名單工作室 (Blacklist Studio). Their album 抓狂歌 from 1989 (2 years after the lifting of martial law) is a mix of rock, hip-hop and Taiwanese folk style of singing, with a strong political message (pro-Taiwan independence) and the use of local Taiwanese language as opposed to Mandarin (which is seen by some as the language of the KMT, the political party that imposed a dictatorship in Taiwan after 1949). The band only recorded two albums and then each member started their solo careers. 陳明章 went on to record movie scores and some successful folk music albums, 葉樹茵 continued recording folk songs with electronic elements in relative anonymity, while 林暐哲 became a famous commercial rock producer.
In Taiwan now, do you feel any contemporary music continues to foster this pro-independence stance or a sense of Taiwanese identity? Given the tense relationship with the PRC…
Yes and no. I think both issues, pro-independence and a sense of Taiwanese identity, are a bit different.
After 1987 and the lifting of martial law, the musical landscape completely changed, and a sense of Taiwanese identity as a distinct identity could finally be expressed. Both Taiwanese language and Aboriginal culture got more exposure through music, and even entered the mainstream musical landscape. One of Taiwan’s most famous pop singers now, A-Mei, is an Aboriginal from the Pumaya tribe, and she has included some lyrics in Pumaya in her songs. Including Aboriginal lyrics in a pop-hit would have been totally unthinkable before 1987. I think the example of A-Mei shows that the sense of a distinct Taiwanese identity (as opposed to being Chinese) is very strong now, especially among young people. The fact that signs of a distinctive Taiwanese identity are present in the most mainstream music is proof that that identity is also a mainstream idea.
The pro-independence stance is a much less mainstream opinion, because declaring independence would probably mean a war with China, which a majority of people obviously don’t want. So, logically, this pro-independence stance is not something you’ll see in mainstream music, but more in underground music, in the punk scene, the metal scene, the hip-hop scene, etc… Actually, lots of young politicians supporting independence come from the musical scene. One good example is Freddy Lim, leader of the metal band Chthonic, who has become the leader of the New Power Party, a young party advocating civil and political liberties as well as Taiwanese independence.
Do you ever find old records or CDs featuring music produced before this change (pre-1987)? And if so, what’s it like?
Yes, of course there was lots of music in Taiwan before 1987. It was mostly divided in 2 categories: music sung in Mandarin and music sung in Taiwanese. Taiwanese pop had a strong Japanese influence (from the pre-1945 times of Japanese colonisation), with enka-style vocalisation – a style more popular among the working class and older people.
Mandarin pop followed the international trends and tried to appeal to young people – so you’ll find some Carpenters style ballads, some disco, some 80s pop, etc…
But pre-1987, the lyrics would always be about non-political topics – basically sad love stories, or songs about longing for the “motherland”. The end of martial law in 1987 brought lots of political lyrics that were totally forbidden before, as well as an opening to less “mainstream” musical styles from abroad (punk, indie rock, noise music, hip-hop, etc…).
I recently discovered some really cool Aboriginal music from the 70s-80s which I’m starting to dig into now. Not the Aboriginal music that’s been recorded by ethnomusicologists and distributed abroad, but the contemporary music that aboriginal people were listening to at the time, their own pop music in a way, with electric guitars, drum machines, synths. I’m now trying to track down these cassettes now but it’s quite difficult – I will have to travel to some Aboriginal tribes to find more. Hopefully I can come up one day with a 70s/80s aboriginal mix.
Sounds like a very interesting project. I was wondering, do the threats from China affect the atmosphere in Taipei, or is it something exaggerated and rarely felt or mentioned in daily life?
Not really in daily life. From daily conversations, I can’t really feel any “cold war” atmosphere. It seems to me that people are more concerned about the economic situation of Taiwan than the island’s political future. Saying that, I don’t think the threats are exaggerated, they are actually very real.
Can you converse in Chinese at a native-level now? I imagine the characters must be very difficult to master even after 11 years. But those aside, would you say you’re fluent?
I think my spoken Chinese is way better than my written Chinese. For conversation, I would say I’m 90% fluent – I understand almost everything and when I don’t, I can ask for clarification. Reading is way more tricky though, I mostly read comic books in Chinese, but newspaper articles are a real challenge. But I’m trying to learn a bit more every day – doing research for this interview actually led me to learn some new characters!
You mentioned you were throwing some parties when you first started living in Taipei, what were those like? And is there much of a scene for dance music in Taipei?
So during my first few months in Taipei back in 2006, I made some Taiwanese friends who were running a flea market, and I soon started DJing at these events on Sunday afternoons. That’s a place where I got to meet lots of DJs, and soon I started organising parties with some Taiwanese friends. At the time, the night scene was dominated by big commercial nightclubs, and the few crews doing less commercial house or techno parties needed a lot of imagination to find venues to host events. For a while, me and my two friends Aya and Monkey ran a weekly night at a burger restaurant that we turned into a club on Saturday nights. We had to wait until the last customers finished their dinner, and then move about 20 tables to a storage room, then install a DJ booth and a sound system. We also did events at bars or commercial clubs, but never could really settle at any venue, either because of their music policy or because they were trying to screw us financially.
After taking a break for a year, I got back to promoting parties in 2012. My friends Yoshi and Lloyd invited me to join their collective Bass Kitchen. The first party we did together was with Chida at a super ghetto venue (Taiwanese mafia high on ketamine style), and since then we’ve hosted numerous DJs (Chida, DJ Kent, Move D, Gerd Janson, Lee Douglas, Samo DJ, Levon Vincent, Gonno, Powder, 5ive, Eddie C, Tiago, Mr. Ho, Bézier, and many more…).
That period around 2012-2013 was when Korner opened, which totally changed the club landscape in Taipei. Korner was the first place offering every weekend quality house and techno music, and from the beginning the management got us, as well as a few other like-minded promoters, very involved, by letting us have our nights there and inviting us to play regularly. Korner has been open for five years now and it’s been a big driving force in establishing a night scene outside commercial top-40 clubs.
Aside from Korner, I should also mention the Smoke Machine parties and podcast, as well as Organik Festival, which both put Taiwan on the global map for techno fans.
It’s funny how these spaces open…. almost perfectly timed and forming out of a collective need. I’m curious to learn more about the burger shop parties! Pretty amazing environment to throw a party in…. I can’t really picture it. Were they successful?
Cool! Yeah the Burger parties were super successful. Actually the Burger restaurant was in an alley behind a big commercial club, next to a 7-eleven where lots of the club customers went for cheap drinks. So people would typically go to 7 grab a beer, drink it on the street, then hear loud music coming from next door and come check out our party.
It’s really good memories cause we made many friends there, and we also booked lots of young DJs who now are the major guys in the scene now. For instance, we had this young student called Diskonnected play his first gig at our party – and now he’s the main techno guy in Taipei, just coming back from a Europe tour with gigs at Panorama Bar and Robert Johnson.
Also I didn’t mention but we did a few warehouse parties around that time – a former bottle cap factory where we had DJ Kent from Force of Nature and then Move D – who has come back almost every year after that party and who started a music project with me and my friend Marco (it’s called L’Amour Fou, we have an EP coming up on Smallville very soon).
It’s really cool that your ingenuity – DJing at the burger restaurant, markets and other unlikely spots – allowed you to connect with all these people you might’ve never crossed paths with otherwise. Sounds like it was a really challenging time, but also really exciting and rewarding too.
I think the absence of a club for non top-40 music forced a lot of like-minded people to be imaginative and think about ways to create a party environment outside of clubs. That led to lots of events in odd places, like restaurants, but also art galleries, basements, rooftops, private apartments, etc… It was not easy because those parties often got interrupted by the police – I remember a party that I organised with my friend Aya where the police stopped the party and checked everyone’s ID for about an hour. When they were done they told us we could keep on partying, but by that time about 2/3 of the crowd had left and the vibe was dead.
I think some of this spirit is back today with some younger promoters – there’s been lots parties in the mountain or in abandoned warehouses during the last year, and it looks like there’s gonna be more and more of these in the future.
What you’re describing reminds me of the situation in Sydney. The government have brought about the closure of many good venues by enforcing really strict regulations on opening hours and serving drinks after midnight… as a result people have apparently started hosting warehouse parties, more outdoor raves and house parties. I guess basically people will always find a way to do what they’re passionate about.
Yeah, and especially around Taipei there’s so much nature and mountains. It’s always possible to find a place in the wild where you can have fun without bothering anyone around.
The police situation is a bit weird here though. There are usually crackdowns on parties just before elections, and then we’re fine for the next four years. It looks like cops suddenly become busy enforcing regulations before elections, but I still haven’t really understood why…
Very excited to hear the music you’ve been working on with Move D. What led you to start making music together?
Move D came to Taiwan for the first time in 2013 to play at one of our warehouse parties (organised with my friends Yoshi, Lloyd and Allen). He was staying a couple of days in Taipei after the party so me and my friend Marco asked him if he wanted to jam. That’s how we recorded our first track, “Da’an”, that was released on Smallville Records in 2015. Then Move D played two more times in Taipei over the next few years, and each time we recorded more tracks together – which eventually led to the EP that’s about to be released on Smallville.
Are you also producing music independently? And is this something you’ve been doing for a while?
Yes, music production has always been an on-and-off thing since my days as a (terrible) bass player in high school. But it’s only been 2 or 3 years since I started making tracks that I’m really happy about. At the moment, I’m finishing an EP with my friend Riley, as BBRB. It should be released early next year on a Hong Kong-based label called Fragrant Harbor, with remixes by Mr. Ho and Powder. Super excited about that! Also, a remix that I did for some friends from Okinawa will be released in November as part of a CD compilation on a new Korean label called Oslated.
Really looking forward to these too. Anything else coming up that you’d like to mention?
On the party side, me and my Bass Kitchen crew have a few parties lined-up, with our good friend Alex From Tokyo this weekend, and then with Bézier and Josh from Dark Entries in November. I’m also excited to play the closing set for Korner’s 5 Year Anniversary Party in October. It’s gonna be a 3-day party marathon so I’m curious to see how many people are still gonna be there for the end.
On the music side, I’m currently working on some dance productions for a new Japanese label, as well as on some chillout music together with my wife Jill.
Thanks again for the mix and for this interview!
Photography – Jill Chien
Check Benoit Bouquin / Initials B.B.’s mix below!!