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Interview with Taiwanese Aboriginal Pop Star, A-Mei

Aired May 18, 2011 - 06:00:00   ET



ANJALI RAO, CNN ANCHOR: She's Taiwan's golden girl of music. For 15 years, A-Mei has been wowing the Chinese-speaking world with her unique sound and stage prowess. Born into an aboriginal clan in Eastern Taiwan, she first came to attention with this song. A duet with the late music producer Chang Yu-Sheng.

It didn't take long for A-Mei to secure her own record deal and release her first album to critical and commercial acclaim with songs like this.

Since then, her music and fashion may have evolved, but she's stayed true to her indigenous roots, and even recorded under her aboriginal name, Amit, for her 2010 album.

But it hasn't all been smooth sailing for the musician once hailed as an Asian hero. She was temporarily banned by Mainland China for singing the Taiwanese anthem at the inauguration of President Chen Shui-bian.

Now, at 38-years-of-age, she's proven her longevity in the music business with the release of her 15th studio album and a new single.

This week on TALK ASIA, we're in Taipei with A-Mei.


RAO: A-Mei, welcome to TALK ASIA. It's good to have you with us. Now, you have been a near constant feature on the music scene here since the late '90s. And you continue to stand out as the only known Taiwanese tribal pop star. Why do you think that your music has been so successful and so enduring?

A-MEI, SINGER/ENTERTAINER: I think, perhaps, it's because of my passion for music. I've been exposed to music ever since I was a child. Singing, music, to me is a part of life. I think I have a lot of passion for music and when I hold so much passion, I'm easily inspired and I want to share my inspiration with people when I'm performing on stage or for my albums. I think this is, perhaps, the reason that people have been very supportive and have encouraged me to produce good music.

RAO: You've also won six awards at the Golden Melodies, which are like the Chinese language Grammys. That's the most for a single artist ever.

A-MEI: Of course, and I'm very happy. Since I began my career more than a decade ago, I've produced a new album every year. It's been such a transitional time, because I changed my music style. I think my fans are actually receptive of my fresh start, and I've gone on to win many awards at the Golden Melodies. All of this has given me drive to keep going.



A-MEI: I also feel that, since I don't normally try to attract too much attention when I'm producing albums and everyone has acknowledged my latest work in spite of that, especially when I'm trying a new style - it's really motivational.

RAO: You were born into the Puyuma clan of aborigines in the eastern mountains of Taiwan, which sounds very mystical indeed. How different was your life then to the glamorous existence you lead now?

A-MEI: My hometown in the east is a very tranquil town where life goes on slowly. My life in the tribe can be described by one word, simple. Everything is simplified. Very simple resources, very simple thoughts, very simple happiness. A simple lifestyle was sufficient for us to live in the tribe.

So, transitioning from such a simple life in the tribe to my fast-paced life in the city, especially given my current profession as an artist, I think was extremely different at the beginning. It took me about three to four years to adjust to the fact that I need to approach things differently compared to when I was in the tribe.

During that transitional period, I encountered quite a few obstacles because I had to transform my introverted and rather shy personality into an artist who has to have the ability to excite tens of thousands of fans on stage. I think the transition is quite incredible.

For example, one day I could be performing on stage in front of tens of thousands of people, but at the end of the day, I could be back in my tribe, resting barefoot in the backyard, chatting with my siblings and relatives. Appreciating the surroundings and the singing.

RAO: But it has not been an easy road for your tribe, the Bunun. Basically, when the first Chinese settlers came here, they took your land off you and kicked you guys up into the mountains. Is there any sort of resentment or ill will that your tribe feels toward greater Taiwanese society?

A-MEI: I don't think my generation feels very strongly about this. We live very peacefully. Even when I was growing up, it was extremely rare to see any disagreements or fights among different tribes. I think everyone from my generation lives in harmony with each other.

At the beginning of my career, there was a lack of communication between all of the tribes in Taiwan. When my first album was released, there was a call for deeper communication and understanding among tribes. That was when people started noticing me. "Oh, she's from a tribe and her tribal tunes are mixed with pop songs". And that adds a special flavor to the mainstream music.



RAO: Your debut single, "Sisters", was unlike anything else that was out there at the time because it featured all these tribal rhythms. What do the members of your tribe back home think about, you know, the idea that one of their own was going mainstream?

A-MEI: It was quite an unbelievable time for them. Mixing tribal rhythms into the pop songs was an innovative and unique combination then. I also felt extremely proud when I was recording the "Sisters" single. I thought, "Wow, I'm representing my tribe and I can sing my home town rhymes and I can intertwine pop songs with tribal tunes".

I felt extremely happy, then. I was very happy and passionate about the fact that I could introduce my tribe and tribal music to all my fans all over the world. It was such an honor for me.

RAO: You aren't the first Taiwanese aboriginal singer, but you are the first one who hasn't tried to hide it, reportedly. Did you ever think about concealing your true identity?

A-MEI: Actually, I'm not the first famous Taiwanese aboriginal singer. Because there have been a lot of aboriginal singers who were established before me. Perhaps, at the time, I was a bit concerned about publicly advertising my aboriginal identity, but personally, I don't feel that I should have anything to hide at all.

I think my tribe is a truly beautiful tribe and the fact that I enjoy singing is precisely because of my background and upbringing. So, when I became a professional artist, I never felt the need to conceal my origin. In fact, I was hoping that more people would know that I'm from a minority tribe. The Bunun tribe. And I want people to understand more about us.

I believe artists before me have also tried to encourage awareness, but during my time, particularly, the public has started to pay more attention to aboriginal singers.

RAO: Coming up, A-Mei opens up about the controversy surrounding a presidential performance.




RAO: The lyrics in your songs, though, are about love and heartbreak and stuff that, you know, plenty of others sing about as well. How do you make sure that you don't get lumped in with them? That you sort of standalone as your own artist?

A-MEI: I think the type of songs my fans are most familiar with are love ballads. Probably because almost everyone can relate to a love ballad. A lot of people have asked why all my love ballads strike such a chord with them and make the pain of past experiences resurface. I'm an extremely sensitive person, and I'm very sensitive to all types of emotions. My songs include my personal experiences of love as well as what I've seen in other people - in movies, stories, and books.

RAO: You are the third youngest of nine kids. What are the best bits and the worst bits about growing up in such a big family?

A-MEI: The best bits about living in a large family are, of course, the atmosphere. The older kids can take care of the younger ones, and the younger ones can always seek comfort from their old siblings. You never feel lonely and there's always someone to speak to when you feel lost. I think this is the best part of a large family.

As for the worst bits of a big family, I think it's perhaps the lack of personal space. It isn't that big a problem when you were younger, but as you grow older, sometimes you can feel, "I want to be alone, I don't want anyone around me".

Also, all the decision-making process needs to take everyone into consideration in a big family. Especially my family. My parents place a lot of emphasis on the harmony and relationships within the family. All the siblings must support each other. So, you really can't do whatever you want. You must put your family before yourself. I guess that's the down side of a big family.

RAO: Interesting that you say it like that. That your parents were into harmony, because they sang, both of them, and your sisters also sang, and, of course, you did a lot as a kid. And you entered a national singing contest. You got to the finals, you're doing really well, then something terrible happened. You forgot the words.

A-MEI: Yes.

RAO: Take me back to that episode.

A-MEI: In retrospect, I think that singing competition was a rather important step in my singing career, because that contest made me feel that I was beginning to compete in a more professional setting. In fact, that competition was important to a lot of people back then. Why? Because I came from a very small village. Also, I entered as an aboriginal. So, when I was competing, almost everyone was watching it and thinking that, "We're cheering for you, you have to win the competition".

So, I felt a lot of pressure. Especially since I entered the contests only because of my father. My father's health was deteriorating. And I was usually the one who'd go and take care of him in the hospital. He said something to me that made me feel determined to enter the competition for him. My father said, "All the candidates singing on TV don't sing as well as you do. You can sing much better than them. You should enter the competition, so I can see you win".

After he told me that, I knew he wanted me to enter the contest, so I did. The entire competition process was a long, stressful, nerve-wracking, and exhausting experience. And when I came so close to winning, I forgot the lyrics. Maybe because I was too nervous. So the competition stopped when I forgot the words, and I lost. I remember feeling extremely defeated, then. And, before heading back to my village, I told myself that I would never sing again, because singing is no longer joyful.

RAO: And, obviously, your father wasn't discouraged, because he encouraged you to enter again the following year. But he died without being able to actually see you win it, that time. What sort of an impact did his passing have on you?

A-MEI: Since I was young, my father played a very important role. To me, he was a very good friend. Often, my father would tell me that if you want to do something, you have to actually do it. When you've done it, we will clap for you, because it means that you've succeeded. If you tried your best to do it, but failed, you'd realize that at least you've tried and that maybe it's not the right thing for you.

So I think my father has always instilled this belief in me. I always hold this in my heart in everything I do. I put all my efforts into doing something and, once I've done that, the rest is out of my control. I had to admit that when I reentered the contest and again came so close to winning, and my father suddenly passed away, his death was another really cruel defeat for me.

I remember my mother telling me, "Please don't think that your father left you when he died. In fact, he's still watching over you from above, seeing whether you are trying your best to finish what you've started". When my mother told me this, I thought, "OK, I'll finish the competition for my father".

As soon as I received first prize, I returned to my tribe and visited my father's grave. I left the trophy with him and said, "I listened to everything you said. I tried my hardest with everything I've done. Now that I've finished what I set out to do and have everyone's praise, now I need you to acknowledge it. I hope you know that I did it and that you're clapping for me from up high". Even now, I've gotten into the habit of talking to my father, regardless of what I do.



RAO: By 2000, you had become a household name. And that led to Chen Shui- bian asking you to sing the Taiwanese anthem at his presidential inauguration. He was seen very much by China as a splitist - somebody who wanted independence. Did you have any idea that, by singing, you would be tarred with the same brush?

A-MEI (through translator): This question has been bothering me for quite a while. Everyone knows that, since the beginning of my singing career, I've never touched on politics. For artists like me, I want to sing to everyone who likes music and everyone who listens to my songs. We don't like to get involved in sensitive subjects. So this has bothered me for quite a long time.

Let me explain this in a very simple manner. I was a singer then. I had a record company and I had an agency. So the artist must act in accordance to the arrangements made by the companies who have hired them. I believe both my record company and agency didn't think much about the performance either. So, for me, I was obligated to do what my company had arranged for me to do.

I've never had any political preference. Throughout my musical life, or just my life in general, I've never felt the urge to be a political spokesperson. I only strive to do my job and, in doing so, I have to carry out my contract as a singer. To be honest, the incident had huge implications. I shouldered all the pressure and the rumors on my own, but trust me, professional artists don't want to complicate their lives.

RAO: Sprite axed you as its spokesperson, Beijing decided to ban you from playing on the mainland, though eventually they relented and said, "OK, you can come back and tour". So you did that. And then, in 2004, when you were touring on the mainland, protesters demanded that you sing the Chinese national anthem. Back home in Taiwan, people were saying, "A-Mei's not sticking up for Taiwan enough". It was just this constant thing and reading it, you know, it just feels like this poor girl can't win. Did it feel like that to you at the time?

A-MEI: In my opinion, the big issue about the relationship between the two sides is not something I could comment on, because I don't think that I'm qualified to comment on it. To me, just as I said before, it's very simple. I am a singer. So there shouldn't be so many complicated relationships added upon me. So I only hope that prominent figures do not place too much complication upon professional artists, because we all hope that everyone is good, just like my songs. They convey love, peace, and feelings. I hope the same for the world.

RAO: Coming up, TALK ASIA hits the stage with A-Mei to talk about a very special concert.




RAO: In 2007, you put out A-Mei's "Star", which sold a million copies and featured the hit single "A Moment" with Jam Hsiao. Did you feel at that point that the troubles were behind you?

A-MEI: I think everyone would experience ups and downs in life. And, to me, I also think that my career is filled with both high points and low points. I've always told myself not to be bothered by too many irrelevant things. So, I have trouble focusing on what I want to concentrate on. Therefore, I've always tried to face an issue, to deal with it, and to eventually let it go. I think even though this process requires practice, I think I've done a decent job so far.

RAO: Away from the studio, you've been working with World Vision as well. You've even traveled to Sudan along with that role. Has what you've seen and experienced with that position affected your outlook on life?

A-MEI: Since the beginning of my career, I've always liked to do charity work. At first, I did it rather quietly and slowly, but gradually I began to work with larger organizations and the impact became much bigger. I am also very glad to participate in such work. To me, I think regardless if it's in Taiwan or elsewhere in the world, there are so many people in need of help, so there must be someone who initiates the helping-effort for them. Someone should create a large impact in order to help as many people as possible.

So, to me, the next big goal in my life, on top of my passion for music, is to help as many people as I can through charity work. For example, I collaborated with World Vision to implement a fund. This fund targets many aboriginal children to fulfill their dreams.

For example, some children cannot go to school and some face really difficult financial situations. However, some of them have a very unique talent or ability, but they don't have any financial support to obtain training. So this fund can help these children to complete their studies. I believe this is a wonderful plan and we are currently working on different cases under the fund.



RAO: So this is one of the stages where you have played previously. We'll talk about that in just a minute. But it wasn't that long ago where you decided to perform your first concert under your new name, which is your tribal name, Amit.

A-Mei: Yes.

RAO: What was the name change about?

A-MEI: Actually, to me, since the beginning of my career, until right now, more than a decade later, I think I've mostly sang pop music, including love ballads and dance songs. After singing many different types of songs, I've always hoped to create a new brand for me to experiment more authentic music. So, in recent years, the government implemented a new policy to allow aboriginal people to convert their names back.

So, at the time, since my aboriginal name is Amit, I thought, A-Mei is me, Amit is also me. So why not use my aboriginal name, Amit to establish a completely new music brand?

RAO: And when you did take to this particular stage, I understand that the audience was a little bit different than usual.

A-MEI: Actually, ever since I began my career, a lot of my very loyal and supportive fans are from the gay community. These fans brought me a lot of encouragement and support. I think - I don't know why - but I've always had this special kind of connection with them. They consider me a very good friend, and I can be their good friend naturally, as well.

Perhaps it's because I'm surrounded by a lot of talented professionals who are gay. Be it the composer, or concert organizers - they all supported me greatly. So, after my new album is released, I organized a special party - a boys only party - only boys came.

I thought it was quite fun. It gave me an opportunity to thank them properly. That night was definitely a crazy night. Seeing them being very happy made me very happy as well.

RAO: So what does this all mean for A-Mei, then? Is she dead?

A-MEI: No, no, no, no. Actually, I hope to continue my career through two different brands of music. A-Mei will continue on with what the audiences are familiar with such as love ballads, pop songs, and rock music. Amit, on the other hand, will take on a more daring and modern approach. Be it the lyrics or compositions. I think I can expand my creative space through these two different brands. So I am A-Mei and I am also Amit. I will always be on stage performing different types of songs for my fans.

RAO: Thank you so much, honey. It was brilliant.

A-MEI: Thank you.

RAO: See you soon. Take care. Bye.

A-MEI: Bye.