For musician Chen Wen-Ji, beiguan was a chance discovery that led to a lifelong love affair.
In a cramped room with no heating or light, I sat with my friend Mila across Chen Wen-Ji in an informal interview setting. Distant suonas (嗩呐) cut through the air with its uniquely loud screeching, gus (鼓; drums) and symbols beating in time to their rhythm. It was oddly comforting to sit in this small space as the music washed over us and the conversation enlightened Mila and I on the world of dedicated beiguan (北管) musicians – a unique cornerstone of Taiwan culture.
Tracing its origins to the Qing dynasty, beiguan music’s purpose is theological in nature, invoking the gods and other deities for protection. As such, many beiguan musicians and groups affiliate with local temples for practice spaces, performing only on festivals or holidays. Keelung’s beiguan music groups in particular are rarely cited, preferring the comfort of their temple, unlike neighbouring city Yilan’s beiguan groups.
Chen Wen-Ji embarked on his beiguan journey only after he had started working. A simple handyman at that time, he happened upon beiguan music and fell in love with the sounds. Initially, wary beiguan teachers refused to train him formally, and he had to sneak peeks at his teacher’s book containing traditional beiguan music pieces in order to learn.
When he first arrived at the temple to begin his formal training, there were around 10-20 students. Most of them had picked up music due to the lack of leisure activities in northern Taiwan (other than drinking, of course). Now, nearly twenty years later, Chen says that there are many more students interested in learning beiguan music as a way to conserve their heritage and traditions.
“Learning beiguan music is not easy. If we were late for practice by one minute, we would get one minute’s worth of a beating!” said Chen, who slapped his thigh to demonstrate the beating. Beatings, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. Many beiguan students find themselves practising nearly the whole day, resting only to sleep before quickly picking up their instruments again. For beginners, practicing the suona for hours can numb their cheeks to the point where they cannot form words or eat. Even accomplished musicians are not spared this relentless practice in their quest to control every beat of the gu.
Students undergo a rigorous training process before they can be considered professionals. They begin with one piece, known as Jinsandongchun (謹三咚春), on the suona, which is considered the most basic instrument of beiguan music. It is only after they have mastered all pieces on the suona that they can start on other instruments. For Chen, the gu was the most difficult instrument to master. Every instrument in the group depends on the gu for rhythmic pacing, though the gu’s mallets are tricky to handle with precision. Subsequently, the gu player upholds the tempo and overall feel of the piece, demanding a skilled musician to play it correctly.
Notation of beiguan music remains traditional. Instead of today’s Western-influenced modern notation, which uses markings like the treble and bass clef, beiguan music relies on a seven-note system based on the suona’s seven notes. Other symbols such as ၀ and ∕ mark downbeats and offbeats respectively. Chen says that students will often write in their own notes to denote rests or swing notes, though this is not considered appropriate in official beiguan education.
Chen’s unique background as a self-taught beiguan musician supports his image as a musical mastermind. He shared that he had been able to teach three students thirty pieces in three days whereas a more experienced teacher was only able to teach one. But Chen is as traditional as his music: he refuses to teach girls, claiming that only boys have enough stamina to persevere through the training. One girl had attempted to learn, but had ultimately failed to learn all the suona pieces.
He is also the only suona musician in Taiwan capable of the double breath technique (continuously blowing sound by inhaling and exhaling evenly through the instrument). The suona, which requires extensive lung power to produce a note, captures most of the air in one steady breath. But Chen claims he can successfully blow for twenty minutes continuously without pausing.
Despite the current return of Keelung’s interest in beiguan music, he predicts this is only temporary, pointing to moments in Taiwan’s history where the popularity of beiguan music had ebbed and flowed. Likening his role to a cultural representative, he feels this is not sad, but rather something to be proud of, as Taiwanese feel the relevance of the music at different periods. In this way, the tradition in this kind of music will live on.
Beiguan music began in the Qing dynasty, where it traveled from China’s Fujian province to Taiwan. It is known for its distinct Taiwanese flavor, with suonas (嗩呐) , gus (鼓; drums) various dizis (笛子; bamboo flute), erhus (二胡; two-stringed fiddle) and other percussion instruments serving as the main components. On occasion, a Mandarin-based vocal may be added to enhance the music’s message.