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Luo Dayou in Concert:
Taiwan Singer-Songwriter an Inspiration to Mainland Musicians

by Lisa Movius, Shanghai Editor

Taiwan's recent influences on Mainland China are in general dominated by things like hideous peach-colored high rise apartments and cotton candy puff-pop music from the likes of Ah Mei. But Taiwan has also contributed one of the most enduring cultural icons of the last two decades. England gave America the Beatles, and Taiwan gave China singer-songwriter Luo Dayou, whose 8 September performance in Shanghai is the musical event that all of China is talking about.

China was closed off to the world during the Cultural Revolution, but with the first glimmers of reform in the late '70s and early '80s, a crack appeared through which outside music began to seep in. Even before international influences began to penetrate China's shell, cultural fragments from Taiwan and Hong Kong began to appear. In contrast to the Mainland's isolation, Taiwan since the 1950s was host to American soldiers, and thus recipient of American radio and emerging musical stylings. The first Taiwanese music to become a sensation in China was syrupy songstress Teresa Teng (Deng Lijun), whose soft ballads were big with the older crowd and spawned a new genre of state-sanctioned gush music known as Tongsu.

For the younger generation, however, the first music to touch their joint consciousness was that of Luo Dayou. His simple, student folk style songs and down-to-earth lyrics were first introduced to the youth of China through Tongsu singers who regurgitated his songs following the release of his first album in 1984. In the mid '80s, young Chinese born between 1965 and 1975 were primarily listening to Luo Dayou and John Denver, as well as another Taiwanese singer Li Fengshi, who offered more catchy tunes but without the depth of Luo's lyrics.

Luo Dayou, now 46, is of Hakka ancestry and started out as a pharmacist. He started dabbling in music in the late 1970s. He is neither a pop star nor a rocker but rather a musician, and he considers himself primarily a songwriter. In addition to his own eleven albums to date, he has written countless songs for other Taiwanese singers, many of which have hit the top ten, and he now has his own record label, called Music Factory.

Stylistically, Luo Dayou defies classification. His early music in particular shows strong folk roots, and many of his songs tap into native Taiwanese cultural influences. Some songs are reminiscent of 1950s American diner and soda shop rock, and others exhibit a 1970s lounge lizard growl. What captured the hearts of a generation, however, were his lyrics, touching on issues of life, attitudes, social responsibility, and the political problems of both China and Taiwan with an underhandedly critical strain of dark humor. The lyrical style is not particularly artsy or complex, but rather conversational; the cleverness comes in the meaning, not how the words are put together.

His 1984 debut album was titled "Zhi hu zhe ye," a gibberish phrase of particles from classical Chinese used to mock Confucian pedantry. The title song quipped,

If you know, you know; if you don't, you don't.
Who said this? Confucius.
If you know, you know; if you don't, you find out.
Who said this? Mencius.
What are people saying these days?
Fuck it.
Where will this get them?

Luo's most enduring songs also date from this album, including "Childhood" (Tongnian), "Tomorrow will be even better" (Mingtian hui geng hao), and "Little town of Lugang" (Lugang Xiaogeng). Other favorites include "Comrade Lover" (Qingren Tongzhi) and his Ballads: one from 1980, one from 1990, and a third to be released with his forthcoming 2000 album, his first release since 1994.

Although Luo Dayou is an icon on the mainland, he has never gathered nearly as large a following in Taiwan. He doesn't consider himself a star, let alone an icon, and his driving interest is in life and its minute, daily nuances. "In the twelve years I've been with my wife [TV actress Li Lie], we've moved eight times, traveled hundreds of thousands of kilometers, and seen how life is different all over the world. People's lifestyles are different North from South, East from West, in hot climates or in cold. Even for Chinese, I've observed differences in daily life between mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, and overseas Chinese. These things, life, are what matters, what I try to write about." He enjoys, for example, venturing into grungy clubs, checking out performances by underground bands, because he likes to see where the youth get their energy, their inspiration.

Luo Dayou will be performing at the Shanghai Stadium on Friday, September 8. Despite his icon status in China, and the fact that the core of his fan base is here, he has never before performed in mainland China. Shanghai will be the only performance, so fans from all over China are making a pilgrimage here for the show. Among them are many leading figures of the Chinese music scene, who careers were first inspired and influenced by Luo's music, including Cui Jian and the members of Thin Man.

If this China debut concert had been held ten years ago, the Stadium would be crammed with screaming teeny-boppers. Instead, it will be crammed by screaming white-collar thirty- somethings, who have been awaiting this concert for a long, long time. All 70,000 tickets for the Luo Dayou concert have already sold out. Luo Dayou performed in the US last year, at the Lincoln Center to an audience of 4500, but he has never before performed in as large a venue as awaits him in Shanghai. He admits to being rather nervous, is afraid that when he's done, no one will clap. Somehow, I doubt that will be a problem.

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