Lo Sirong (羅思容) — Exploring Hakka Womanhood

Taiwanese singer-songwriter Lo Sirong (羅思容) is one of the few female musicians who have written and recorded original/traditional tunes in Hakka, a dialect of a group of migrant people who originated in central China. [Hakka is a melodic language but I regret that I don’t understand it. My father’s parents are both Hakka and they would speak Hakka to each other only when they wanted to communicate something incognito in front of their children.]

Lo Sirong sings about Hakka womanhood in contemporary Taiwan. Her music engenders a meditation on somber, chilling, and playful aspects of life. She rejoices her deep connections with her daughters, mourns the death of those who lost their lives during the White Terror period, and contemplates on domestic life, autonomy, work, homesickness, etc. Lo’s music straddles the worlds of both Hakka folk music and American blues.

“For One Coin, Make 24 Knots” explores the conditions of modern womanhood from the notions of independence to marriage. I’m drawn to the interplay of the lonesome harmonica, voice, and guitar. Her voice freewheels out of the conventional metrical temporality, a quality I hear in traditional Hakka tunes and country blues (Robert Johnson or Son House). In her liner notes, Lo writes the following:

‘Be realistic,’ ‘achieve,’ ‘fall in love,’ ‘get married’–a cacophony of expectations heard by women today. This song tells of a modern woman who, despite her personal and economic independence, struggles with pressure of marriage.

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“Everyday” opens with a melancholy passage by a Yehu (a two-string spike fiddle made of a coconut shell, similar to the erhu). Her liner notes indicate that this song “voices the thoughts of a woman struggling to break free of the structured constraints of gender discrimination in traditional society.” The call and response between Lo’s voice and the yehu animates an internal dialog reflecting on the meanings of life from the perspective of a mother looking at her child. Her lyrics talk about how her observations of her daughter’s sweetness during her sleep instigates her to day dream like a child. She improvises her vocal part and attributes the song to “the Hakka mountain song genre, the source of of all Hakka folk music.”

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In “The Vine Entwining the Tree,” Lo’s chilling voice hovers like spirits. The bass erhu creeps in and out of the foreground of the song. This song is titled after a historical novel about the tragedy of the White Terror in Taiwan written by Lan Bozhou. Based on the stage adaptation of this novel, this song cites a Tibetan mantra of Green Tara to console “the spirits of the people who, lovingly and without regret, sacrificed their lives.”

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[This post is instigated by an email I wrote my (Mermaid) friend Catherine Monnes whose wild musical explorations are ever inspiring.]