Sunday, October 26, 2008

unlikely oracle: taipei blues band

This is a year wheels have been coming off the tracks. The tracks themselves are groaning and twisting as strains on the American world order become unbearable. Oil reached 147.00 a barrel over the summer. Food prices rose: a bowl of dry noodles normally 30 reached 50, 60 yuan in Taiwan. Even as Iraq quieted in relative terms (not for the families of the murdered, or course, but for the world media), the tracks groaned louder. China put stars in our eyes with monumental performance engineering in the Olympics’ opening ceremony.

In October came the avalanche, a cascade of stock crashes echoing from one country to the next: losses in the night on the other side of the globe inspiring fear in the morning on our side, and vice-versa, night and day and day and night. Night was only a time for news nightmares from the other side. News anchors appeared peculiarly animated. For once their reports were not about tiny glitches in the machine’s operation, and their predictable solutions, but about real events. There was a sense, with the fear, of other possibilities. The future was, for once in a long time, not dictated by the monotonous ticking of a market metronome.

By chance watching a jug band perform one late October Saturday night in Taipei, this innocuous happening was infused with an uncanny historical mirage. Brian had insisted we go by high-speed rail in order to catch their performance; we chewed Japanese-style hamburgers and saw lights whizzing below like from a plane coming in for a night landing. “I asked Louise if she wanted to come,” he said, laughing, “and she said, ‘don’t you know there’s an economic disaster happening?’” He told me about the band’s leader, a young Taiwanese man whose mother had sent him to a middle class household in Mississippi as an exchange student. She hoped he would learn good English and become a doctor. He fell in love with early blues music.

We sat in a big room in the Taipei Artists’ Village after the performance as the musicians, some attired in antique, early 20th century hats and suspenders, played and frolicked in spontaneous combinations. Their instruments talked back and forth delightfully. People danced, clapped, stared, gathered close, hooted, sang. “This is what music used to be,” said Brian, “about people getting together – simple and alive. Once music was recorded, it was removed from this energy.” I thought of accounts I had read of literary and artistic circles, and of all the romance accumulated around these soap operas and their late-night music and affairs. The example I know best is of the American expatriates in Paris after World War One.

So this is why these circles are hung with such nostalgia, I thought as the musicians played, mingled, stamped their feet, whirled. They were not just emitters of sound, as they are in recordings, but human presences, heated, rollicking, generous, free, instantaneous. Those storied circles’ rarity makes their memory persist out of all proportion to their tiny size and duration. But why should only those past generations be so blessed with this vitality? Is it not available to us, here and now?

Looking at the man grating the washboard on his chest, or at David Chen, the bandleader, cradling the banjo, and thinking of economic crisis and the Paris circle, and musical energy in general, I had a tiny hallucination. An old-time dress-up band’s performance suddenly became a portentous oracle for the future: a period of cultural vitality and economic chaos last seen in the 1930s is upon us once again. Conversations will feel laden with meaning again, and there will be a zest of danger in the air as things teeter on the brink, refreshingly undetermined.

The world awakens, and hundreds of cities will see a rich ferment of music and thought and politics, freed of the stale repetitions of fashion and political stasis. The air will clear a little as factories close down. The earth will breathe. People will suffer – and ponder.

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