Photo: Phantom Limb

SABIWA Folds the Music of Taiwan’s Ethnic Groups Into Odd, Elastic Concréte

SABIWA relies on Taiwan’s natural beauty and its traditions for a record that defies comfortable categorization and demands repeated listening.

Island no.16 - Memories of Future Landscapes
Phantom Limb
14 April 2023

Moving the sounds of the Far East to the ears of the West, whether via field recordings or collected physical releases, has motivated crate diggers, composers, and restless sonic explorers for decades. There were the avant-guardists, such as Henry Cowell, whose field excursions to Indonesia in the early 1960s were released by Folkways and whose music, along with that of contemporary composer Lou Harrison, was influenced by the island nation’s gamelan traditions. Later, post-punk pranksters Sun City Girls incorporated all manner of South East Asian references, instruments, melodies, and, more problematically, vocal inflections throughout their seemingly infinite releases.

American beat crafter Malik-Abdul Rahmaan turned a record-digging trip to Malaysia into an instrumental hip-hop album. Then there’s France-born, Berlin-based Laurent Jeanneau, who, aside from the countless hours of recordings of Asian Ethnic Minority music from Western and Southern China, Vietnam, Laos, and elsewhere, also records under the moniker Kink Gong, where he filters these sonic influences into his experiments. In one way or another, these artists have allowed Westerners to engage with music we might not have otherwise heard, even as they enriched their tonal palettes.

But then all of these guys, and I do mean guys, are, other than Rahmaan, white. While this review isn’t the place for the conversation around possible issues with that reality, it most certainly points out, over and over, the notion of Western privilege, a global inequity that, for some, allows for grant funding and the general ability to travel and visit people who often live in isolation due as much to economics and racism as landscape.

This is what makes Island no​.​16 – Memories of Future Landscapes, the latest release from SABIWA, such a necessary corrective measure as well as a stunningly unique release. SABIWA, who was born in Taiwan, has an academic musical background and now makes Berlin her home, folds the sounds of her birth country’s various ethnic groups into odd, elastic concréte. Inspired by an imagined Island where spoken word, gender, and species identity are all blurred or non-existent, the music here tugs the traditional into unforeseen places.

“Christal”, for example, is grounded in a recording of a once-forbidden folk melody about Taiwanese independence sung by her uncle. Over its nine-plus minutes, his words are joined by other droning voices, a cascade of metallic clangs, and electronics before disappearing into a cauldron of cloaked reverberations. “Dog Smells Your Future” begins with clattering gongs and other traditional percussion before SABIWA’s voice and electronics enter. Bird chirps appear, and strange vocal incantations squirm in and out of the mix. What sounds like guitar strings being ripped from the instrument’s neck tussles with the vocals before chimes, whispers, and the sounds of the Taiwanese countryside become the focus. At 14 minutes, it never quite builds on a theme so much as it equalizes every sonic ingredient.

While SABIWA has certainly included hints of her birth country’s music into some of her other recordings, unlike releases such as DaBa, with its pop leanings, or her self-titled debut from 2018, an album that focuses on brief, jittery impulses, Island no​.​16 – Memories of Future Landscapes relies on Taiwan’s natural beauty as well as its traditions for an album that defies comfortable categorization and demands repeated listening. Crucially, it is also music created by someone who hears unknown physical realms in sounds with which she grew up. It’s the familiar dressed up as the imagined.

RATING 8 / 10