Cultural Revolutionary

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In the early 1980s, there weren’t too many Western musicians given to dressing in Mao suits and writing songs with titles like Cantonese Boy and Canton. In fact, there was only the one, and the inimitable, David Sylvian. Since that time, he has become an avant-garde composer of considerable stature, but he has retained his connections with East Asia—as a source of inspiration and of musical collaborators (most famously, Ryuichi Sakamoto).
Non-Asians will find this hard to appreciate, but for those of us with musical leanings that are more Kowloon that Kalifornia, the 1981 album Tin Drum—by Japan, the band that Sylvian formerly fronted—remains a landmark document. It marked the first time that Asian themes had been handled with any sensitivity in Western popular music. More than that, it was one of the first efforts by Western popular culture in general to construct Asia in ways that were neither stereotyped nor patronizing. If you think I’m overstating the case, try and think of something that preceded it—Hong Kong Phooey? Carl Douglas’ Kung-fu Fighting? David Carradine?
At a time when Asian bands were robotically regurgitating Western styles (and most of them still do) Sylvian reflected our own culture back to us and in so doing taught us a lesson of immeasurable value. When he returns to Hong Kong on October 27, to give his first performance here in 24 years, he therefore deserves a hero’s welcome. They ought to declare a public holiday, greet him with a government motorcade and pin a Golden Bauhinia to his chest for services rendered. Ought to. But instead he’ll have to make do with the gratitude of the musical cognoscenti that make up his audiences. See you there, hopefully.

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