For Taiwanese five-piece band JhenYueTang, culture accumulates over time, and music is no exception—a way of fostering a deeper understanding of traditional beliefs and cultural expressions without dismissing the possibility of incorporating contemporary touches and innovations to make it appealing to a global, young audience
By Ian Urrutia

World music has taught us that there will always be a place for the kind of art that upholds the cultural identity and heritage of the communities that it represents. While the term might ruffle someone’s feathers due to its perceived colonial connotations, for once, it feels freeing to know that this movement exists not only to challenge Western popular music as the barometer of creative cool but also to transport listeners to a different dimension.

For Taiwanese five-piece band JhenYueTang, there’s a way of fostering a deeper understanding of traditional beliefs and cultural expressions without dismissing the possibility of incorporating contemporary touches and innovations to make it appealing to a global, young audience.

The eclectic act has always believed in the importance of allowing traditional music to break existing boundaries and, by doing so, effectively providing awareness of cultural sensitivities and nuances that reflect the shared experiences of people within a specific region or group.

Regardless of their openness to infuse indigenous music with modern elements, JhenYueTang remains committed to presenting the intrinsic values that are often attributed to Taiwanese cultural traditions, particularly the art of performing spiritual rituals and divine invocations through music. In fact, their debut album, Come to the Offering! delves into the true essence of Taiwan’s temple culture, using music as a medium to convey these themes and pass its scriptures on to the modern generation.

The Rest Is Noise PH recently talked to the members of JhenYueTang—Wang, Da-Wei (vocals), Sung, Meng-Wei (suona), Wang, Yi-Xiu (guitar), Yu, Chu-Han (bass), Wang, Fan-Wei (drums)—ahead of their showcase performance this week at 2023 World Music Festival @ Taiwan (WMF@Taiwan) about the cultural upbringing that informs their music-making process, the spiritual awakening in their songs, and the value of art in preserving the continuous transmission of culture.

As someone who has remarkably made a name in the realm of world music, what sets you apart from other artists in Taiwan? What makes you ethereally distinct and unique as far as identity is concerned?

For the Taiwanese [people], traditional beliefs are closely intertwined with our daily lives. In recent years, many musicians and bands have drawn inspiration from these traditions to create music. The founding members of JhenYueTang have experience in temple and traditional arts industries who chose to make traditional beliefs the core of our band, hoping to express the roots and context of temple culture through music composition, live performances, and visual works afterward.

For JhenYueTang, a stage performance is not just a musical performance, it’s also an uplifting and solemn religious ceremony. This includes rituals like altar opening, deity invocation, rituals, holy reinforcement, and divine reporting, which are part of the religious ceremonies seen at traditional temple festivals in Taiwan. These elements are blended with modern music on stage, allowing the audience to experience the rich Taiwanese flavor of temple festival rock.

You’ve managed to infuse traditional Taiwanese culture with contemporary music styles while making it sound like your own. What kind of message do you want to spread across borders? How is the reception to your music so far?

We believe that Taiwanese traditional beliefs encompasses very rich and unique artistic expressions that presents the cultural traditions, aesthetic values, and the spirit of encouraging kindness and helping others of Taiwanese.

However, many precious aspects of this culture have gradually faded away in the changing times, which make us feel quite regretful. Therefore, we hope to interpret traditional culture through the transformation of music, bringing it into the realm of popular culture.

Our goal is to capture the attention of the younger generation in Taiwan and share the unique cultural landscape of Taiwan with friends from all around the world. We aim to provide a deeper understanding of Taiwan to the global community.

Up to this point, our performances at music festivals and local arts festivals have received recognition and resonance from many Taiwanese friends and piqued the curiosity of some foreign friends.

Why is it important to preserve the intricacies and nuances of traditional/indigenous music? And as someone who is deeply inspired by it, how do you make it appeal to a global and/or young audience?

As far as we are concerned, culture accumulates over time, and music is no exception. What we now call “traditional music” was the creative effort of our predecessors and was once the popular music of their time. We hope that our music can also contribute to preserving the cultural roots. Building upon this foundation, we aim to incorporate modern elements to create a form of expression that resonates with global and young audiences. By allowing traditional music to transcend established boundaries, we aspire to ensure the everlasting transmission of culture.

You’ve released your debut album, 拜拜呦 (“Come to the Offering!”) in 2021. Can you tell us more about it? 

JhenYueTang’s first album, Come to the Offering! consists of seven tracks. From the songwriting to the design and binding of the album, everything is created by our members, drawing inspiration primarily from rituals of paying respects to gods and seeking blessings through music, we depict the common festivals and ceremonies seen in Taiwanese temples.

We aim to extend the sensory experience beyond auditory perception to encompass visuals, scents, and tactile sensations, allowing listeners to delve into the true essence of Taiwan’s temple culture. Additionally, through the spiritual energy of our songs, we hope to offer blessings for Taiwan and all living beings.

Lyrically speaking, what are the themes that you’ve explored and discussed in your music?

JhenYueTang’s lyrics are all written in Taiwanese dialect, drawing inspiration from various sources, including formal Taoist scriptures and incantations, elements from temple ceremonies, auspicious phrases and chants passed down among believers, depictions of scenes from religious rituals, and the emotions and states of mind people experience when immersed in religious activities.

Through the dissemination of these lyrics, we hope to provide people with a deeper understanding of temple culture so that it no longer feels mysterious and unfamiliar. Additionally, we aim to sing about shared life experiences and insights that resonate with people universally.

What are some of your most notable achievements as an artist so far? Any memorable festivals that you’ve played in recent memory?

Being selected as one of the Showcase groups at this year’s World Music Festival@Taiwan is perhaps the most fulfilling achievement for us so far! This year, we have participated in various events, including ” EMERGE FEST 2023″ in Taichung, “Taiwan Music Festival” in Kenting, and in July, we graced the stage of “The Next Big Thing,” a dream for every Taiwanese band.

Whether it was our dedicated fans or friends hearing JhenYueTang for the first time, we received a lot of enthusiastic responses at every event. Each one left a deep impression on us, and we had an immensely enjoyable time!

What can we expect from your upcoming performance at the World Music Festival @ Taiwan?

Our past performances have primarily been for Taiwanese audiences, and this may be our first time facing many foreign spectators. In contrast to Taiwanese people who already have an understanding of temple festival culture and can easily relate to it, we are also looking forward to how international viewers will react to our performance. Therefore, we will present an authentic JhenYueTang experience. In addition to singing, we will also incorporate rituals like altar opening and deity invocation. We hope to convey the abundant energy of Taiwanese traditional beliefs to friends from different cultural backgrounds.

Why dabble into world music of all genres and styles that you can choose to explore? How has world music touched your life on a personal level?

We believe that “sharing” is the most important characteristic and spirit of music. World music originates from the unique roots and features of each culture, and we aspire to use our music to share the colors that belong to Taiwan with global audiences. At the same time, we ourselves enjoy the vibrant experiences brought about by the diversity of world music.

Catch JhenYueTang at the World Music Festival @ Taiwan this October 2023. The four-day event is touted as Taiwan’s biggest outdoor festival dedicated to world music, and will feature a variety of music shows, cross-artform performances, international showcase events, exotic bazaars and more!

Header photo courtesy of StreetVoice; all inline photos courtesy of the artist