Working the fields: Wooster Group’s performance invites parallels with Taiwan’s indigenous folk music

From left to right: Philip Moore, Eric Berryman, and Jasper McGruder in the Wooster Group production of a (then) work-in-progress, “The B-Side: Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, A Record Album Interpretation.”

The following piece appeared in the features section of today’s Taipei Times

Taiwan owes Kurosawa Takatomo. Without his efforts, much of Taiwan’s indigenous music would be lost. In 1943, while Aborigine soldiers were packed off to fight Japan’s war in the Pacific as part of the Takasago Volunteers (高砂義勇隊) squadrons, Kurosawa was recording the songs of their kinsmen.

Japan’s efforts to log every aspect of life in its colony were prodigious. As the sociologist Yao Jen-to (姚人多) — now Deputy Secretary General to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) — has written, “[n]o other colonial power in the world invested more energy in knowing the colonized.”

Even by those standards, Kurosawa’s work was impressive. If he didn’t blaze a trail in ethno-musicology, he set a bench mark. Kurosawa visited 150 villages around Taiwan, collecting 200 songs totaling 78 hours of music.

There is a peculiar irony in the documentation of minority cultures by oppressors who aim to extinguish them, whether through assimilation or extermination. At its worst, it presages grisly mementos such as Hitler’s proposed “Museum of an Extinct Race” in Prague.

Parallels can be seen in the THE B-SIDE: Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, A Record Album Interpretation, which premiered at the Wellspring Theater last weekend as part of the Taipei Arts Festival. Produced by The Wooster Group, a renowned experimental theater company, whose founding members include Willem Dafoe, the performance derives from an album recorded in 1965 by folklorist Bruce Jackson.

Using an in-ear receiver, actors Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore channel the voices of inmates who worked the prison farms. The repertoire comprises sermons, toasts — spoken word poetry that prefigures rap — and work songs. Introducing the piece, Berryman quotes from Jackson: “The worksong is not a song about work or a song one happens to sing while work goes on; it is a song that helps a person or group of persons do work.”

Kurosawa categorized Aboriginal songs by form and context, the latter including the subcategory of work songs. These were further divided according to activity, with weeding songs featuring prominently. Indeed, despite its name, the Elder’s Drinking Song, by Amis duo Difang and Igay Duana, which was pilfered by Enigma and became the theme to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, was originally a weeding song.

Among the most poignant of THE B-SIDE vocals is Rattler, an embittered ode to the generic farm hound that was sicced on errant workers. This was a flat weeding song.

“Because of the length of the hoe and the resulting long arc of travel, these are the slowest of the worksongs,” Jackson said.

Of course, the Aborigines weren’t prisoners and their lyrics were non-lexical, but the principle was the same: to enliven the drudgery and keep time. Listening to the song in tandem with Rattler is fascinating.

Following the opening night, the B-SIDE performers fielded questions. McGruder dismissed the issue of black history being documented by white people.

“The important thing was to get it out there,” he said. “And the chances of a black man going into those prisons — it would’ve never happened. I think what Bruce Jackson did was an incredible thing.”

Asked for their thoughts on what one audience member euphemistically termed the “post-Obama era,” the performers heaved a resigned, collective shrug.

“It was no surprise to us,” says McGruder, emphasizing the final pronoun. “After a black president, the idea of a female president was even more frightening. So by proxy, we got …”

“A Russian,” concluded Kate Valk, the show’s director.

“Really, though, nothing’s changed,” adds Berryman. “The only difference is now people believe us!”

Extending an earlier observation by McGruder that “the prison system is just an extension of slavery,” Berryman reflects on the paradox of the performance. “Great art should be timeless,” he says “But I hope one day this piece will be dated.”


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