Kimbo grew up in an aboriginal community in southern Taiwan and is known throughout the world for his folk classics. Provided to China Daily
Veteran folk singer takes his late-blooming star power on the road, Chen Nan reports.
Hu Defu, commonly known as Kimbo, doesn't speak much, but when he plays piano, he sings, literally and figuratively.
He sings of growing up in an aboriginal community on remote Dawu Mountain of southern Taiwan; he sings of his childhood being a poor but happy cowherd; and he sings the creation stories of the Puyuma and Paiwan, two aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, which Kimbo's parents came from.
In December, the 60-year-old white-haired Kimbo released his second solo album, Sky High Mountain Blues, and he presents songs from the latest album and folk classics from his first album, In A Flash, released six years ago, on his current tour around China.
Related: Painted faces
It seems a rare phenomenon: a recording by an aboriginal artist who has broken out into the mainstream. The once blacklisted singer-songwriter released his debut album at 54, which became a top seller in Taiwan, and his concerts attracted numerous fans, including officials and celebrities.
"When he sings, the world becomes silent," wrote a critic from Taiwan, referring to his concert at the small Catholic church of Tamkang Senior High School in Taipei, where he held his first concert 40 years ago.
Going by his aboriginal name for the first time, Ara Kimbo, he sounds re-energized on Sky High Mountain Blues, which was born out of a trip to Nashville, Tennessee he took with his wife.
He met a group of American musicians there, who teamed up with Kimbo to record the new album's 11 tracks, a mix of rock and gospel covers, and new versions of his own classic tunes.
Reflecting his career spanning more than 30 years, this album, which contains songs in English and languages in his tribe, plays like a polished retrospective, he says.
The singer-songwriter, who is known as the Father of Taiwan Folk and also Taiwan's Bob Dylan, shows his affinity for the music of the 1960s and 1970s while choosing songs for this new album, including covers of Don McLean's Oh My What a Shame and Blind Faith's Can't Find My Way Home.
He also acknowledges his long-time appreciation for American gospel by singing standards like Were You There? and Put Your Hand in the Hand.
When he met David Leonard, the Grammy Award-winning US record producer, Kimbo was surprised at how, together, they could give new life to the old songs of the tribes.
Long positioning himself as a singer of indigenous blues, he makes the connection between his roots and American blues very natural on Sky High Mountain Blues, the title track.
With Leonard and other musicians' free jamming, Kimbo belted out the lyrics, sung in his native Puyuma language with passion.
Related: Carmen dances flamenco
"The reason why I decided to go to Nashville was because it is where my favorite music, bluegrass, was born. I want to go back to what influenced me most and what I listened to during the past 40 years," he says.
His childhood exposed him to aboriginal culture, and it is a culture that reserves a particularly important place for music. Then he became interested in music when he joined a choir as a student in Taipei. In 1970, he studied foreign language in Taiwan and became obsessed with Western music.
In the 1970s, together with his friend, folk singer Lee Shuang-tze, Kimbo started performing self-penned folk songs at coffee shops and hotels in Taipei. His sincere and heartfelt folk tunes soon won popularity.
After Lee drowned in 1977, Kimbo premiered his famous song Formosa at the funeral and became an aboriginal activist.
He campaigned for the Northern Students Alliance (a group of aboriginal university students), for the aboriginal miners killed in the 1984 Haishan mining disaster, and against the construction of a nuclear waste dump on Lanyu Island.
He helped found the Minority Affairs Council in 1982 and established the Alliance of Taiwan Aborigines two years later.
Kimbo's political activism derailed his music career until his first album, In A Flash, was released in 2005, which won him both the Best Lyricist and Best Song of the Year Golden Melody Awards in 2006.
One of the most encouraging personalities who took Kimbo back to the industry was the late aboriginal singer Difang, who brought Taiwan's indigenous music to the world.
His tune, A Drinking Song For the Elders, was used in German music group Enigma's hit track Return to Innocence, which was also used as the theme song for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlantic.
"The original music material and aboriginal traditions have long been ignored by the mainstream culture," says Elaine Hsiung, renowned music producer, who produced Kimbo's first album. "It's shameful for people to wait so many years to hear music by aboriginal musicians like Kimbo."
In his new album, Kimbo also rewrote the lyrics of his popular Standing on My Land, which has become Drifting on My Land, a mournful blues-rock dedicating to Difang.
For Kimbo, good music is honest music that gives people blessings, dreams and hope.
"I might have missed out on fortune and success, but I was honest to myself," he says.
Contact the writer at email@example.com.