Island Futurism島國未來主義: AIslanders 未來島民
The following is an introduction and literary supplement to Island Futurism’s debut album: AIslanders 未來島民。I sat down recently with one of the band members, Hsu Lijon,
許立忠, to talk with him about the band, the album, his musical journey, as well as digging a bit deeper into some of the background behind the songs in this funky intro to their unique “Afro-Formosan” sound.
An Improvised Breakthrough
I remember the first time I met Hsu I have to admit that I was a tiny bit skeptical. It’s not that I didn’t like or trust him — not that at all, in fact. Hsu is a very likeable person, a cool cat, someone I can imagine a friendship growing from a chance encounter — perhaps, accidentally spilling a beer on him at a musical festival sparking a friendship — that kind of guy. Not one to fall into the current trappings of being energised through division, he is is respectful of other viewpoints even if he totally disagrees with them. Conversation with him is like beach time, laid back and flowing with the rhythm of the tides.
My short-lived skepticism came from my own set notions of what improv theater could or should be. For some time now, Hsu, has been a valued rhythmic addition to Formosa Improv Group 佛爾摩莎即興組合 (FIG) joining us both in practice and in performances alike as our percussionist and sound guru. Clicking and clacking, chiming and tapping, wrapping and shaking, Hsu is able to reproduce and find just the right sound effect to any scene. In a way, he is FIG’s pulse and bag of sounds. I find myself personally creating more characters such as cowboys with spurs on their boots just to have Hsu provide the “chingggg…chingggg” of my footsteps across the imagined wooden saloon flooring. When he first joined our practice at one of our members’ apartments a couple of years ago, he was introduced to us by our self-dubbed “FIG Mama,” Michi, as a man of many talents who could do anything with percussion.
As a lifelong improviser, I am extremely fond of musical accompaniment and performing musically improvised scenes as I think it ups the stakes and gives provides challenges to the performers with bigger pay-off for the audience. However, I have only ever performed with musicians who play instruments such as piano, guitar, guzheng 古箏，violin, accordion, etc. — essentially those instruments that can play a melody (a wide array, nevertheless). Before improvising with Hsu, I had never considered doing musical improv with a solo percussionist. After that first practice with him, I quickly put my doubts to rest and said yes to this wonderful and experimental addition to our group as he led us in an improvised drum circle where we explored narrative through rhythm. Truly a man of multiple talents, we’re happy to hear his group, Island Futurism島國未來主義, debut album, AIslanders 未來島民, and hope that its music spreads to the corners of this lovely green island and beyond.
“For anyone who wants to choose music as a profession, you have to first make sure that this is what you want to do, and then dedicate yourself to it. I’ve realised that there’s a distance between where I am now and where I want to be in my dreams as a musician. This period is a turning point for me.” — Hsu Lijon
Originally majoring in industrial design, Hsu has maintained a strong interest and dedication to music ever since high school. Not only did he major in industrial design, but he also came from a family background where people tended towards being engineers and “left-brainers.” Hsu feels as if he entered his musical journey rather late in the game as he had to break the mould of taking a more traditional professional pathway, but he is dedicated to his craft, and the release of this debut album is a milestone that shows he continues to look forward.
“There were a lot of things that blocked me in [my journey] from the start, so if I want to reach my goal of being a full-time drummer, then I have to make a stronger effort. Maybe at the beginning, I didn’t realise how much time and effort it would take.” — Hsu Lijon
A cross-section of tradition, technology, and rhythm
Spiritual. Ritualistic. Entrancing. Multi-layered. These are the words that came to my mind when listening to the beginning of the opening track, “Shaman’s Calling: 薩滿呼喚” in AIslanders: 未來島民. It’s clear that the listener is on a journey here leading somewhere introspective and respectful of cultural traditions, yet funky, fun, and fantastical at the same time.
“We’re trying to imagine a world that is combined with religion and technology. We try to recreate this feeling in the album and in the concept of the music.” — Hsu Lijon
Hsu and the bands’ members all come from Taiwan, an island steeped in tradition, but at the same time a location with a checkered past involving intermingling and mashing of multiple cultures, languages, religions, and nationalities. There are sounds and languages associated with Taoism, Mazu (Matsu), as well as echoes of Taiwanese traditional aborigine culture, reflected in the title of the first song, “Shaman’s Calling.”
With so many different sounds happening in one album, it may be challenging to categorise the genre of music, but that’s part of the fun when listening. The group settled upon the incredibly niche genre of “Afro-Formosan” as their label, possibly the only band to fit this slot. This was a decision that was decided half/half by the band’s members and the band’s leader, Allen Blow.
“What we are trying to do is combining the things we love, like Afro Beats [for example], jazz, etc, with Taiwanese traditional music. The more we practice, the more we learn how Taiwanese music works. It’s all part of a process. Afro-Formosan isn’t really a style that exists, but it’s one that we’re discovering and could [pioneer] in the future.” — Hsu Lijon
At the beginning of “Walkin’ Tune 走路調”, for example, listeners can hear a traditional Taiwanese stringed instrument and someone singing in dialect. This type of music would be played as sets are changed in a traditional stage drama, or for when someone is moving from one location to another. The music switches abruptly to a funkier version after about a minute, and we can feel Island Futurism walk into the scene, as if the set has been change.
The interlude between “Walkin’ Tune” and “An Island that Goes Forward” is one of my personal favourite moments on the whole album. During the opening 10 seconds of “An Island that Goes Forward” its almost as if we’ve been transported outside of a traditional Taiwanese temple and we hear the ever-present percussion and clash, followed by the blast of the 嗩吶 “suona” that accompanies “Beiguan music 北管音樂”.
From my own layman perspective, I have always referred to Beiguan music as “Taiwanese Temple Street Music.” It’s another traditional type of Taiwanese music that involves A LOT of percussion instruments and is often played outside of the temple, spilling out into the street, bringing a festive atmosphere accompanied with stage dramas and people wearing gigantic costumes in the image of Taoist gods.
“One of the biggest challenges of this album was playing in a band with 13 members. As a drummer I’m used to playing with 4 or 5 members. In a band with 13 members, every little detail and decision you make in the music as a drummer will affect the music.” — Hsu Lijon
It’s also evident when listening to the album that Afro-Formosan music works best with a lot of percussive sounds and beats. The listener can get caught amidst the rhythms like a UFO descending into Jupiter’s gravity field. As amazing a percussionist as Hsu is, he isn’t an alien in said UFO, and he only has two hands and two feet. Due to a combination of physical limitations and musical necessity to add to the richness of the music, he actually had to train up his friends so that they could contribute as percussionists in some of the songs.
“We had 4–5 other percussionists playing at one time on some of these songs. I taught my friends how to do the percussion according to the music, and it was a combination of learning and figuring it out as we went along.” — Hsu Lijon
Listening to “Island Futurism島國未來主義: AIslanders 未來島民” is truly a pleasure to play at home in the morning as you welcome a new day. I can almost hear the sizzling of eggs in the background as I cook to the music and shake my booty at the same time. It’s an album that lends itself well to multi-tasking, or simply for chilling on the rooftop. The album also represents the mixtures of languages, traditions, religions, ethnic groups, and openness to other cultures that I have come to know and love in Taiwan. It’s a learning experience and cultural exchange where we can have one foot tapping to traditional Taiwanese music, and another foot grooving to Afro Beats music at the same time.
Listeners can hear percussion instruments with strange names such as the thunder drum, the shekeres, the timbales, and the ocean drums to name a few. For a taste of something different and an adventure where you can immerse yourself in the soothing hot springs of multiple cultures while simultaneously biting into your fried eggs as you groove with rhythmic beats on a Sunday morning, this album is one not to miss!