Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Beyond Human Expectation: Music, Teaching and "The Orphan of Asia"

 Luo DaYou
 When I teach writing, I feel like I'm passing on what I best know how to do. When I write or teach about music, I'm talking about my inspiration, things spiritual that continuously forge my identity and broaden my vision. While music has always done this, to some degree or another, there's a reason these particular qualities are associated with the rock and roll explosion that started in the 50s.

Even back then, the ingredients had been around for a long time. American culture has always been defined by its mix of traditions--20,000 year old indigenous cultures and the trade-off between Africans brought here against their will and the various immigrants who settled here--first from Spain then northern Europe, and then everywhere else. Everything cultural that is distinctly American reflects, in some way, both the promise and the original sin of this modern Democratic-Republic.

But something took hold of the culture in the 1950s, something that's never gone away. Perhaps because of the increasingly narrowed thinking of the Cold War, perhaps because of the openings provided by the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps because everyday people for the first time were forging a common musical culture, rock and roll started something new. Different from jazz but a bridge to what hip hop did later, rock and roll created new ways to be at the heart of American culture, prevalent throughout American youth, and distinct from what came before. The mix of music reshaped and repurposed by aesthetics of the African diaspora became a celebration of life beyond the boundaries of narrow expectations. It became a celebration of the outsider. It became a celebration of the "other." It opened American popular culture to the world, and it gave back some of this same liberating potential, worldwide.

My students have long brought me music from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Far East, music that reflects the way rock and roll and hip hop found their way around the globe. In the piece below, my student Rong Zou (already a geographical reporter in China, so I take no credit), shows how the devastating "Terror of War" photograph taken by Vietnamese-American Nick Ut in 1972 influenced Taiwanese musician Luo Dayou, then influencing generations since. As Zou shows, the first wave of rock and roll also plays a role here, in the way it ignited a couple of British Invasion kids, Paul McCartney and Roger Waters (twenty years and lots of expanding choices down their respective roads) to inspire the arrangement.

At one point early on, Zou calls "Orphan of Asia" an "exception" to the songs that serve death. I'm not sure what she means, or if I would agree if I did, but I hear her description of it as a song for all of us living, "deeply and vulnerably trapped in plight." In the video for the song, scenes from A Home Too Far, a story of Taiwan's separation from China, play in the background. It's 1949, a time of civil war, and Chinese who do not want to lose their homeland find themselves trapped between armed forces, sinking in blood-filled water. As she describes it, the song is a blues for carrying on in that world and a gospel or soul song dreaming of possibilities "beyond human expectation." Somewhere in that description is what I think the rock and roll big bang (just around that same time) was really all about...and why the universes created carry on. Just as she says of the song, I repeat to myself more generally, "It really is worth knowing again and again."

With her permission, Zou's essay follows. Settle in. It's worth it.

                                         An Analysis of   “Orphan of Asia”
                                                    by Rong Zou
               After being away from my long geographical report career, I still keep two habits in life. One of those habits is listening to music on a road trip. Another habit, more personally, is that I liked visiting briefly some cemeteries we passed by accidently.  I don’t know what made the connection of the two habits, or if the two things just happened at the same time. When stopping by a cemetery, whatever song happened to be playing faintly drifted into such a quiet place. I read some names of some tombstones, then, sat nearby smoking a cigarette sometimes. As we departed, music in the automobile would continue playing, and at most moments I felt calm and soft in heart. Basically, I think all songs might be for death; however, there is one exception.
             In the spring of 2010, my two fellows of geographic studio, a photographer and a professional driver, and I made an interview along 900 miles of national boundaries between Vietnam and China, where the Chinese government built twenty-one national army cemeteries for fallen Chinese soldiers during the Sino-Vietnam war in 1979.  We went into each cemetery to look for the soldiers who were born in our hometown, Hunan province, then put a red rose before each of their gravestones. Finally, we figured out that more than 1,200 gravestones of my hometown soldiers were among the twenty-one cemeteries. I copied those fallen soldiers’ names and their birth and death years. Most were between 19 and 23 years old and killed within 28 days. If they were alive, I was aware that they were equivalently the age of our elder brothers. Sometimes, the cemetery keeper would tell us about some of the soldiers, saying, “He’s from the urban family, so his family came here one time many years ago; he’s from the rural family, his family never came to see him, too poor, too far away to come. You are the first ones see him.”
            By the last days of the interview, I seemed to become more and more anxious. “Turn music down, please.” I said many times in the car.  “Are you okay? Are you sick?”  “Probably. I don’t know.” I just didn’t want any sounds, any music.  No songs for those in my country.
             Around two years later, I was alone watching a sad movie at home. It was titled A Home Too Far, which was based on the true story of the Chinese civil war 30 years before The Sino-Vietnam war and was produced in Taiwan. In the ending, a song, “Orphan of Asia,” was played, and it was like a flood engulfing my mind. Although I heard it before, at that moment, following the special historical background study and seeing the history of tragic characters dying or becoming homeless in another country, the song seemed to be telling me and crying out the pain I didn’t realize and understand before. Immediately, it reminded me of my suffering when I visited the twenty-one cemeteries.
              Today I can interpret so many implications, metaphors, and multidimensional meanings hidden in  “Orphan of Asia,” which was written and recorded by a Taiwanese singer-songwriter, Luo DaYou, in 1983. I also know what, why, and how this song touched me.  The complicated political and social setting of the song, its unique music structure and poignant lyric, can echo the isolation, fear, and danger of an individual or race, not just Asians, in a society that is too dominant, too privileged, and too arrogant.
Terror of War, Nick Ut, 1972
              According to Taiwan Public Television music TV show, “Yesterday Once More,” in 2016, Luo recalled that the theme setting of “ Orphan of Asia” was directly aroused by a photo of a  “Napalm Girl” running away from a bombing, which was published in The New York Times during the Vietnam War. A Taiwanese music critic, whose name is Ma, ShiFang, in his music radio program, “Listen to,” in 2015, also pointed out that some backgrounds--for example, first, Taiwan reluctantly retreated from the UN in 1971; secondly, America established diplomatic relations with China instead of Taiwan in 1979; thirdly, Taiwanese have hated to bear their identity confusion since 1895 of Japanese colonial period,  --impacted and contributed on this music piece.
               In fact, the title word, “Orphan,” is just a typical metaphor, and it refers to a vulnerable situation, not only in reality but also in spirit, as a race, community, group and, of course, individual.
            There are three verses in “Orphan of Asia.”  In the first verse, Luo kept writing on four colors as allusion: “The orphan of Asia was crying in the wind/The yellow face had a red sludge/The black eyes had a white phobia/A western wind in the east was singing sad songs” (Infiity13.)  For people living in particular times and circumstances, it is easy to feel and understand the lyric imageries because of their exact suffering such as facing racial, political, or cultural experiences of prejudice and discrimination.
          The second verse stepped to a deeper level and continued telling a painful and graphic instance: “The orphan of Asia was crying in the wind/No one wanted to play a fair game with you/Everyone wanted your beloved toys/Dear child, why are you crying?” (Infiity13) So simple were the words but named the truth. Looking back at the human history, whatever race and place, there were countless scenes like this full of inequality, insult, and damage and, actually, such things similar are still happening every day now if you read or watch some world news reports or think about those vulnerable people, or gender, or  Islamophobia, and so on.
            Both above verses expressed experiences and feelings of frustration and isolation. The third verse became more poetic and strongly questionary: “How many people were pursuing the unsolved question/How many people were helplessly sighing in the late night/How many people's tears were wiped away in silence/Dear mother, what is the reason?”  (Infiity13) This verse changed the thought from history to current, from speaking only to Asian people but to all people. Meanwhile, the song offered no answer. Probably, it had no ability to know how to deal with the pain and discomfort when it could only ask “dear mother” like the most helpless people. Obviously, it made it easier for the listener reach the sympathetic response, and pushed people to thinking.
            In addition to the lyric, what “Orphan of Asia” truly impressed on the listener at first should be its unique music structure and processing.
            First, a point to mention is that in 1980s Luo was a Taiwanese icon as Bob Dylan’s followers, also he admitted he was a heavy fan of the western rock-roll music. According to his interview of Taiwan Public Television in 2016, Luo asserted that the music structure of  “ Orphan of Asia” was inspired by  “Mull of Kintyre,” which was performed by the Beatles singer Paul McCartney. Both songs included marching style with waltz beat. For the theme of “Orphan of Asia,” such a music arrangement made the rhythm melodic but the mood dignified simultaneously, just like a small piece of epic. 
            Secondly, the employing of instruments in “Orphan of Asia” was so unique that it easily impressed the listener. While recording “Orphan of Asia,” Luo decided to replace the Drum set with military bass drum and snare drum increasing the marching feeling of the song; and then, from the 2’33 to the 3’08 of this song, his band member played a 35’’ length of suona solo. The horn-like suona is similar to bagpipe in “Mull of Kintyre,” and both are ethic instruments. However, usually, as a kind of funeral instrument in most of Chinese countrysides, suona’s high pitch and sharp timber might make the mood and ambience extremely desolate. Therefore, for a dignified theme of “Orphan of Asia,” the instrument was especially effective and unforgettable. It’s worth mentioning that releasing  “Orphan of Asia” three years later, in 1986, another Chinese rock-star, Cui Jian, also used same way of suona solo in his most famous song, “Nothing to My Name,” at his first rock show. There was the same shock to audiences on the spot.
               Finally, as a special part of the music structure, the chorus appeared in all versions of  “Orphan of Asia.”  In particular, in the original version, the chorus was sung by kids. Ma, ShiFang guessed that the children’s chorus idea probably came from “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” which was performed and recorded by British band Pink Floyd. When the children’s bright, pure, and impeccable voices suddenly joined with the desolate suona, heavy military bass drum beat, and the singer Luo’s hoarse singing, they created such a huge contrast of feelings, almost blowing the heart apart. 
                Regardless most eastern countries traditionally emphasize country over individuality. When this emphasis reflects in Chinese modern music and, especially, if the theme of song related to country or something similar, the music usually showed more symbolized single ideology and less individual feelings. So, for a long time, it was rare to hear a Chinese pop song like anti-war or some other social issues songs in America. Perhaps that’s why when I visited twenty-one national army cemeteries I felt so much sadness. I have to say The Sino-Vietnam war then was just a senseless political war of relentless costing innocent lives, but none of the Chinese songs I knew corresponded to individual pain about that, or, even just a bit confusion, except to praise sacrifice. In a way, “Orphan of Asia” indeed challenged a cold, rigid ideology and political censorship, suggested more complicated and confusing human condition, whether in war or in normal, and this breakthrough not only simply echoed western pop music culture but also reflected its own, both in music and thinking, ethic way.
                Also, I remember one of my studio parties at a music house before I left my newspaper years ago. At that time, so many topics we planned to report and articles we have written were more frequently canceled by censorship, and everyone was very dispirited. In that music house, my newspaper’s editor in chief  talked about his frustration to me, and suddenly said, “I have to sing a song. I have to. Do you know what song I want?  ‘Orphan of Asia.’ We’re just orphans, aren’t we?” “We are.”  Yes, even today, I still think we are orphans, as well as I think all those, who are deeply and vulnerably trapped in plight, whether racial, political, or cultural, religious, or economical, are a kind of orphan. Perhaps just one thing is still comforting: sometimes, what music itself illustrates and educates is far beyond human expectation. So, thirty-six years have passed since “Orphan of Asia” released primarily, however, I sense it is really worth knowing again and again.
                                            Works Cited
A Home Too Far, director by Chu, Kevin,1990. (song version: Wang, Dave)
Infiity13. “The Orphan Of Asia,” 2008-2019
Luo,DaYou. “Orphan of Asia,” Future Master, 1983. (original song version: Luo,DaYou)
Ma, Shifang. “Listen to,” PlayerFM, 2015.
“Yesterday Once More,” Taiwan Public Television,2016. (45:59-55:21)