7.22.2008

Freddy Lim: Branding "Taiwanese" Sound and Identity

Below is a portion of an article that I'm co-writing with my sociologist friend Carey about indie music in Taiwan. My portion is based on my interview with and archival research on Freddy Lim, the leader and vocalist of Chthonic. The final version of the article will be published in Amalgam, a journal run by graduate students of University of Virginia.

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Known as “Freddy” (in English) in Taiwanese media, Freddy Lim spearheads the independent music scene in Taiwan. I secured a spot in Freddy’s busy schedule with his agent using my convoluted New-Jersey connection. At The Wall, one of the most established “Live Houses” in Taipei, we sat down near the entrance of the White Wabbit indie music record store and began chatting about Taiwanese music and cultural industry. With his long hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, Freddy seems amicable and earnest in person, quite contrary to his dark, intense stage persona in his metal band ChthoniC.

“The local idea”
Freddy leads ChthoniC (閃靈), an internationally recognized “extreme metal band.” In a typical ChthoniC song, one hears symphonic synthesizer, machine-gun guitar riffs, rapid firing on drums and bass, screaming vocals, and a crying erhu, a traditional Chinese two-string bowed instrument. The band utilizes form, length, modes, instrumentation, and the generally dark imagery from metal, while fusing these now universal pop music elements with a “local flavor.” The erhu accents the melody with its melancholic “Oriental” sound.

This “local idea”, according to Freddy, is ChthoniC’s winning ticket particularly in the international pop music arena. “The basic structure of metal is not going to change. Even if you use modern instruments and songwriting techniques, for example, 3-to-7-minute song length and verse-chorus-verse structure, you still need an idea. The bottom line is the idea. This is a way for others to enter your story. This is especially the case for metal since concept is important in this genre.”

Politicizing music / music-politicking
“ChthoniC” means “gods of the underworld” in Greek and has implications for the cultural and political underground. ChthoniC’s songs reference Taiwanese mythology and history. The band’s fourth album Seediq Bale (2005/6), for instance, is a concept album based on the story of the Japanese massacre of the Native Taiwanese group Seediq during the Japanese occupation in the first part of 20th century. The award-winning album Relentless Recurrence (2002/6) adapts the story of Na Tao Ji (林投姊), a ghost folktale that depicts the life of a woman who commits suicide to return as a ghost to revenge on a Chinese man after the latter raids her of wealth and sexuality and returns to China. This story, according to Freddy, reflects the fate of many Taiwanese women during historical influx of Han Chinese immigrants to Taiwan in the 17th century.

Freddy cites ChthoniC’s main influence as being black metal. Originated in Northern European countries such as Norway, the black metal movement uses pagan, Satanist, and other anti-christ imagery as a nativist effort to counter the hegemony of Christianity. Similarly, ChthoniC’s adapts black metal’s dark aesthetics and nationalist aim for the Taiwanese context. Freddy sings and writes lyrics in the Taiwanese dialect. This has political significance. From 1949 until late 1980s, Kuomintang (KMT) barred the use of Taiwanese in schools and media and instituted Mandarin as the official language. Since 1990s, the use Taiwanese over Mandarin has become a politicized symbol of the localization movement associated with Taiwanese independence known as “Taiwanization.”

Besides ChthoniC, Freddy fiercely creates and participates in public events. Most recently, a song he wrote for the Taiwanese baseball team was used to support the 2008 campaign of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate. Freddy also works as the Chief Operating Officer of TRA Music (The Running Ants Music, 螞蟻暴走音樂事業團隊, ) whose mission is to “develop a grounded environment for Taiwanese music while connect with industry in Japan, Europe, and North America through concert events, festivals, and recordings that showcase Taiwanese and international artists.” Many of the TRA events reflect the organization’s political leaning toward Taiwanese nationalism. The most politically explicit perhaps is Spirit of Taiwan, formerly known as Say Yes to Taiwan. The first of this festival series propagated messages of opposition to Chinese reunification in 2000. Each year the concert takes place on February 28 to commemorate the 228 Incident, symbolic of the violent military regime of the KMT in mid 20th century.

Representing Taiwan to the world
Freddy has become a self-designated spokesperson for Taiwanese independence internationally. Invited to perform at Ozzfest in the US and Wacken Open Air in Germany, ChthoniC toured US, Canada, and Europe, performing nearly 90 shows in 2007. The band named their tour as “UNlimited Taiwan”, a gesture to protest the exclusion of Taiwan as an independent nation since 1971.

At the press conference in New York, organized by the Taiwanese American Association, Freddy made a speech addressed to the U.S. government and citizens regarding the issue of the UN. Freddy asserted the United States as a symbol of freedom and democracy. He also criticized John Negroponte, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, for the latter’s comment about Taiwan’s push for UN membership as being a ‘mistake.’ Freddy ended by appealing for U.S. support in recognizing Taiwan as a state of autonomous sovereignty apart from China. “I still have faith in your Country, please support a democratic Taiwan and let the Taiwanese citizens share the same rights as your citizens in the international community. Don’t let us down.” ChthoniC’s message of pro-Taiwan independence has drifted far and wide. At shows, Freddy rallied the crowd screaming “Fuck China.” Taiwanese living abroad and fans from all over the world have expressed sympathy and support for the cause.

Selling the brand of nationalism
Freddy’s feats have set deep roots in the indie music scene in Taiwan. Since 1990s, Freddy and TRA Music have worked consciously to develop an ecology that encourages structural growth in indie music scene domestically while increasing the contact between Taiwanese and international musicians. This is only one side of the story. Not all Taiwanese bands and citizens are pro-independence or DPP supporters. Backlash to Freddy and TRA-dominated industry has rippled, however, not in any organized effort. Most criticisms target him for politicizing music, dominating the scene, and using the industry to advance his own career. With persistence, Freddy’s personal political conviction continues to drive him to build a particular anti-reunification “local” identity and community, branding it as “Taiwanese” or “Asian” to the world.

The 2008 presidential election resulted in a political switchover from the DPP to the KMT. This has already prevented Freddy from wielding financial and political backing from the government to invest in cultural Taiwanization. I asked Freddy, “what next?” He expressed that the TRA-affiliates will undergo some organizational changes and concentrate on the business aspects of their work. For ChthoniC, this means orienting further outward into the global scene. The band is now working on a new album, produced by Rob Caggiano, the guitarist of Anthrax. Similar to the Seediq Bale (2005/6), there will be a Taiwanese as well as an English release distributed worldwide.

I find this to be a fascinating case of how indie music organizes a transnational social movement. Much of Freddy’s inspiration has derived from his experiences and imagination of the U.S. and Europe: ideals of freedom and democracy filtered through the Euro-American rock idiom, now practiced in Taiwan vis a vis the world. As ChthoniC gains global recognition and mobility through record distribution and performances, I wonder, what will become of “Taiwanese” identity and sound domestically and internationally? Further, how do Freddy and ChthoniC manage or challenge the First-World or Euro-American notions of “Asia” or “Asian music”?

2 comments:

Alli said...

Hey, did you go to SCGMC last year? Jeremy Wallach gave a talk about metal in Indonesia. His stuff might be worth checking out:
http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/popc/page16661.html.

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