Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence 1

I first heard the music of Chyi Yu around 1986 or so. I had gotten interested in music from Taiwan and China thanks to Sounds of China, a radio show put on by Chinese students at Columbia University. That show still airs on WKCR-FM as part of its In All Languages lineup.

Music nourishes us with many qualities that we need or long for, and not all qualities are available from a purely Western diet of sounds. I felt thrilled that my aural and cultural palate was being expanded by listening to Sounds of China. I made friends with some Chinese students and learned more about the music they were playing.

From the moment I first heard her singing, I felt that Chyi Yu was a very special artist. There was a quality of purity and joy in her voice which suggested something spiritual. That quality proved elusive as I tracked her career over a couple of decades. Out of many albums she released, around seven from her early and late periods stand out in my memory. There’s a middle period not quite as interesting to me, but I’ll get to that…

Chyi Yu rose to prominence as a beloved figure in the “campus folk” movement that emerged in Taiwan in the late 70s and early 80s, coming out of schools like NTU (National Taiwan University). Campus folk was strongly influenced by the American folk music revival of the sixties, and indeed, one of Chyi Yu’s early triumphs was winning a folk-singing contest with her Joan Baez-like rendition of “Diamonds and Rust.” But most campus folk was sung in Mandarin, and Chyi Yu famously sang in that language with a clarity and purity reminiscent of Baez, but a voice uniquely her own. She still does.

Though it’s a hackneyed cliché to refer to a female vocalist as a “songbird,” Chyi Yu seems like one of those people put on earth to sing and to delight others with her voice. The naturalness of it all brings to mind these lines from Tagore:

“To the birds you gave songs, the birds gave you songs in return.
You gave me only voice, yet asked for more, and I sing.”

But how dull to listen to my praises without hearing the artist herself! Without further ado, here’s Chyi Yu singing her 1979 hit “The Olive Tree,” which became her signature song, performed around the world and known to most Mandarin speakers:

Even not knowing the meaning (as I certainly did not at the outset), one is struck by the beauty and sadness of this song. Chyi Yu had the good fortune to work with a very gifted composer/arranger named Li Tai-Hsiang. I learned only tonight that he died in January 2014 of multiple ailments. A great loss to the music world!

It was their work together which distinguished Chyi Yu’s early career; for while her voice was filled with youthful innocence and joy, there was often something venerable and tragic in the music of Li Tai-Hsiang, as if he personally had suffered through a hundred years of Chinese history filled with war, famine, and bereavement. When I first heard this 1984 example of his singing, I was completely blown away:

It was this combining of opposites which brought a depth of experience to their shared musical collaborations. Li Tai-Hsiang wrote large symphonic works, but also sensitive folk arrangements. In “The Olive Tree,” listen carefully to the oboe part and observe how he leaves a non-harmonic tone hanging for a long time so that it sounds almost dissonant. As for the meaning, here’s one translation:

The Olive Tree

Don’t ask me from where I have come,
My home is far, far away.
Why do you wander so far?
Wander so far, wander so far?
For the little bird flying in the sky,
For the blue brook running in the mountain,
For the broad meadow green and wide,
I wander, wander so far.
Then, is there more?
Yes, for the Olive Tree of my dream.
.
Don’t ask me from where I have come,
My home is far, far away.
Why do you wander?
Why do you wander so far?
Far, far away?
For the Olive Tree of my dream.
Don’t ask me from where I have come,
My home is far, far away.
Why do you wander so far?
Wander so far, wander so far?

It’s easy to see why this song became a virtual anthem among the Chinese diaspora. “Don’t ask me from where I have come” is another way of saying “Don’t ask me about the horrors I have seen and been through.” But the song is popular in both Taiwan and the Mainland, perhaps because it skirts politics and evokes an archetype of the wanderer far from home pursuing an unattainable dream. In this sense, the olive tree is a symbol of an unformed longing that drives us onward without fully knowing why. It’s not explicitly spiritual, but perhaps it will be when it ripens.

So far, only one song from Chyi Yu and we’ve barely scratched the surface! Her evolution as an artist has taken many turns. I hope to pen Part 2 soon, and talk about her explicitly spiritual phase (which she’s still in). I’ll leave you with another of her folk songs — this time a duet with Pan Yue Yun. It’s called “Dream Field,” and like “The Olive Tree” the lyrics are by San Mao, who was a passionate and tragic character in her own right.

The song says 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… For a fuller translation, see windcglider’s blog here.

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.

Read Part 2 of “Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence” here.

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4 comments on “Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence 1

  1. Pingback: Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence 2 | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence 2 | Ethics and Spirituality

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  4. Pingback: More About Me | Ethics and Spirituality

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