Chyi Yu, Nana Mouskouri, Vincent Van Gogh, San Mao, and Buddhism
I had begun talking about Chinese vocalist Chyi Yu here, lamenting that I didn’t have time to cover more facets of her varied career. (See Part 1 for discussion of Chyi Yu, Li Tai-Hsiang, and the meaning of the song “The Olive Tree.”)
In this follow-up I’ll usher the reader through a whirlwind tour of three periods in the life of this fascinating artist, whose best work is infused with spiritual feeling. Music videos will guide us on our journey…
I’ve written about the close artistic collaboration between Chyi Yu and composer-arranger Li Tai-Hsiang. Chyi Yu was to some extent his protégé, and they shared a belief in music without borders. Different styles of music were not separate islands, but formed a continuum. One could therefore mix styles freely and create something more meaningful. Let’s pick up the story in 1983, when after a four-year hiatus, Chyi Yu again worked with Li Tai-Hsiang in the studio. Here’s “The Sigh of Chrysanthemum” from her album You Are All My Memories:
Even today it’s hard for me to listen to this song without tears coming to my eyes. It’s such a perfect example of the synergy between Chyi Yu, Li Tai-Hsiang, and poet Hsiang Yang. As with much great art, there’s a combining of opposites: joy and sadness, innocence and experience. The style might be called light classical, the main instruments being harp, oboe, and strings, but with the addition of electric bass. As many times as one listens to this song, it’s always perfect, with not one note or inflection out of place.
User zzenzero is active on both YouTube and DailyMotion in posting a few of Chyi Yu’s early songs, often with detailed biography, lyrics translation, and helpful links — for which we heartily thank him or her. We thus gain this translation (slightly edited by me):
All waiting, only for the golden-haired chrysanthemum
Smiling and slowly blossoming in the cold night
Gently floating down like the leaves of the forest
The greeting is as beautiful as the sound of water
But with a little anger just like the wind,
People treading through the bracken trails
Startled by the clear yellow moonlight,
And in the evening trampling on the branches
left by the woodcutter
Cold stagnation faded dark and desolate
Always passing by with head bent and hair hanging down,
pretending not to be there
Outside the forest stream, a few teardrops
clutching the grass
Now disintegrated in the wind
You ask me about the duckweed’s logic
Ah, that is it
Dew sinks into the earth, gently sighing
Chrysanthemum, golden-haired chrysanthemum
is enduring to wait.
After the cold winter, the spring will come
I’ll wait all my life for your perfection
I have a lifetime to wait for you to
show your perfect colour
I have a lifetime to wait for you to
unfurl your colour.
— Hsiang Yang
From 1987 on into the 90s, Chyi Yu recorded mostly English songs. She reminds me a little of Greek-French chanteuse Nana Mouskouri for a few reasons: Both were influenced early on by Joan Baez; both have big hearts and like to make people happy, so they sometimes surrender to the popular taste and sing English songs which everybody knows and requests, but which aren’t the best poetry (tending toward the sentimental); and because of their kind and empathetic nature, both have been selected as ambassadors of good will.
zzenzero writes of Chyi that “one of her many ventures outside music was in 1997, when she was invited to serve as the ‘World Vision’ 1997 Hunger Ambassador, on behalf of Taiwan Asia, going to Africa to visit refugees.” (I suppose that makes her a “hunger artist”!) Nana Mouskouri was likewise appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in October 1993. Here from 1967 is a très grave Nana Mouskouri singing a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina” on French television:
In both France and Taiwan, a singer is… well, a singer — an entertainer. Both Nana Mouskouri and Chyi Yu have struggled to be taken seriously as artists while also cooperating with the need for people to have their pop idols imbued with a certain cosmetic glamour. In Nana’s case, her trademark thick-rimmed glasses say “I’m an intellectual — not some bar room singer!” Chyi Yu has a degree in cultural anthropology from prestigious NTU (or was it UCLA?)) and is nobody’s fool!
So how does Vincent van Gogh fit into all this? (you’ve been dying to ask). Well, one can hardly put together a slideshow of his work without using Don McLean’s song “Vincent” for the music track. See below, except that some mischievous imp has swapped in Chyi Yu’s cover version, which is a good example of her English song period:
Now brace yourself for the big change: In Part 1 of this series, I mentioned that I always felt there was something spiritual about Chyi Yu, but it proved elusive as I tracked her career over a couple of decades. Listening to her cover versions of (often syrupy) English hits, I was smacking myself in the head asking why she wasn’t doing something more meaningful. Could she ever transcend the glamour/popularity factor? Fast forward to 2012 when I stumbled upon an amazing Buddhist music video:
The voice sounded so familiar… Oh my God, that’s Chyi converted to Buddhism and singing seven-syllable Buddhist sutras in her inimitable style! Such clarity and poise, and no artificial sweeteners. It was an astounding development that knocked me for a loop. I felt personally vindicated. She had been a folk hero of mine in the early 80s, but I’d felt a bit let down during her pop star years. Now she seems to be doing what she was born to do, which is to give voice to spiritual feelings and so awaken them in others. A 2009 article in the Chinese press says in part:
Chinese pop-ballad sensation Chyi Yu is all set to take the stage for her final solo concerts, five years after she last appeared in Beijing.
Often dubbed “China’s Enya,” the 51-year-old singer met with the media dressed in her signature Bohemian style.
While most expected to learn the details of her upcoming concerts, Chyi shocked reporters with the announcement that her November performances would be her last solo concerts ever. Then she burst into tears.
“The reason is simple: singers hold solo concerts because they have the ambition to propel their career to a higher level. I’m living a peaceful life now, devoting my time to Buddhism. I think this concert will draw a perfect conclusion to my career,” Chyi explained.
Billed as The Voice – No Boundaries, her concert will focus solely on her music, without dancing or visual effects. Artistic director Jin Zhaojun said that many concerts these days tend to be over-enhanced by technology, with the music itself marginalized.
“Because of my religion and my major in anthropology, I dislike boundaries,” Chyi added. “There are no boundaries in music, from Chinese songs to English, from classical to pop and from past to present. Therefore the title No Boundaries perfectly summarizes the content of this show.”
The music diva will present 20 timeless classics in both English and Chinese, including Amazing Grace and Vincent, the Broadway hit Memory, as well as her smash hit The Olive Tree and Swan Lake, a reprise of her collaboration with [the] Russian National Orchestra.
By her own admission, she has never been a prolific performer. The past three decades of her career only saw seven Chinese albums and seven English releases, with a number of chart-topping singles… “God gave me a good voice, but I’m not active enough. I am not a planner and I sing as I like. Singing has always been my hobby, not a means of living,” Chyi explained.
She added that the decline of China’s pop music industry, the prevalence of piracy and the change in listening trends also impacted her music.
In 2002, Chyi converted to Buddhism. She then released four albums featuring Buddhist chants.
“I got a chance to know Buddhism on a trip to Tibet and I discovered the religious music can benefit common people as well,” Chyi said. “If pop music can sooth people’s moods, then spiritual music can comfort our souls.”
Source: “Chyi Yu announces final farewell” by Xing Daiqi
Like former New York Yankees sportscaster Phil Rizzuto, Chyi Yu has come out of retirement a couple of times, but her concerts remain rare. She recently said that the changing moods and emotions of pop music tease the senses, while soulful music precipitates quiet and encourages self-cultivation — purposes well-suited to her later years.
Not every Buddhist recording she releases is of equal quality. Some are more distinctive, while others sound more “generic.” I look at it in terms of genotype and phenotype. Much Chinese Buddhist music that’s meant to please the general public shares a common genotype or familiar sound created through traditional elements, but particular examples of the genre manage to break out of the genotype and show their own distinctive traits, their phenotype. The artist brings something of his or her own personality and life experiences to the music. This is what I look for.
An amusing side note is that Chyi is often described as a “Bohemian” — a term which may strike the Western ear as slightly archaic for someone who discovered the sixties in the late seventies. 😉 Perhaps the most famous Chinese Bohemian of the last half-century was writer San Mao, who went backpacking, married a Spaniard, wrote romantic novels and poems, and tragically committed suicide in 1991. In 1985, she collaborated with Chyi Yu and Pan Yue Yun on the album Echo.
The story goes that San Mao was looking for someone to record her poems in song form, and felt that Chyi Yu and Pan Yue Yun were Taiwan’s only true Bohemians (outside herself, of course). Evidence of Chyi’s legendary “Bohemian style of dress” is hard to come by, because she was usually pretty well dolled up and coiffed for album covers and publicity shots. But the music video for San Mao’s song “Meng Tian” (“Dream Field”) captures something of the informal Chyi (who’s on the left):
In a roughly-translated interview with the Yangcheng Evening News, Chyi talked about the purity of the burgeoning campus folk scene in the late 70s, and of reading San Mao’s work in high school. She told San Mao it may have been God arranging their fate when they later came to work together. As she and Michelle Pan were recording “Dream Field,” San Mao began sobbing because it reminded her of her husband José (who had drowned six years earlier).
Thanks to windcglider’s blog, we know the lyrics to this song say that In each person’s heart there is a field where the seeds of dreams are sown. What should I plant? What should I plant? Plant peaches, plums, and spring’s breezes… If the lyrics are upbeat and idealistic, the melody and video speak poignantly of the distance between everyday life and that special place inside our hearts.
Chyi Yu’s music is available from iTunes, Rock Records (Asia), and other distributors. You may also find imports for sale at Chinese music outlets in Western countries.