Hollywood's Pitch Perfect film series gained immense popularity after its release in 2012, bringing the art of a cappella music to the forefront. Many came to associate a cappella performances solely with energetic renditions of popular songs on stage. However, it is an integral part of the broader family of vocal music. In Taiwan, the diversity of vocal music has quietly blossomed.
In late 2010, Clare Chen, founder of the Kehua Cultural Foundation (科華文教基金會), established the Vocal Asia Festival (VAF), an international a cappella arts festival. Positioned as a “moving festival” based in Taiwan, VAF connects a cappella creators and resources from various Asian regions, showcasing the diversity of Asian vocal music. Recognizing that musicians in the Asian region have been operating and developing independently for a long time, VAF collaborates with them through touring performances to promote a cappella. Since 2011, VAF has been held in locations such as Taipei, Shenzhen, Taoyuan, Gwangju (South Korea), Shanghai, Taitung, Hong Kong, Hsinchu, and Kagawa (Japan), establishing itself as the largest a cappella arts festival in Asia.
Creating Music with Voices and Bodies
The term “a cappella” originates from the Italian phrase meaning “in the chapel.” It dates back to the Middle Ages, representing a pure form of unaccompanied vocal singing. However, as music history evolved, a cappella underwent continuous transformation, seamlessly integrating styles such as Renaissance, classical, choral, street, jazz, rock, and pop. Modern a cappella extends beyond vocal performances using “natural voices” and can incorporate technology like microphones and sound systems. It also involves vocal techniques mimicking the sounds of percussion instruments. This broader definition aligns with Vocal Asia's ongoing efforts to promote a more expansive form of vocal music, even incorporating a hint of instrumentation in performances, along with physical movements and dance, aiming to inspire new choral aesthetic thinking.
In 2017, Kehua Cultural Foundation founded Project M. In addition to hosting annual teacher training camps and nurturing a new generation of a cappella groups, it also organized the A Cappella Youth Camp for young people aged 13-25. This year, both VAF and the Groove It! Vocal x Rhythm Summer A Cappella Youth Camp took place at Taitung's Junyi School of Innovation. The events invited diverse performing arts instructors, providing a platform for musicians, groups, and students who specialize in classical, pop, solo, or choral singing to exchange ideas and enjoy a playful and educational environment.
Like children, we all need toys and tools
While the development of Western vocal singing predates Taiwan by hundreds of years, Japan and South Korea have matured their choral industries, giving rise to many professional singers. In comparison, Taiwan started later, and the exchange between choral and a cappella is not yet widespread. "Because everyone is still exploring, in the process of seeking positioning and innovation, both sides seem to have a bit of insistence on their respective expertise," noted Chen Wu-ming, Executive Director of the Kehua Cultural Foundation. He is also the leader of a vocal group and a music theater producer. Many people who love to sing may be either dedicated to the professionalism of singing or not well-versed in recent developments in other singing fields. As a result, there may be some hesitation in venturing into different musical forms.
Taiwan boasts a rich cultural heritage with Hakka, Minnan, 16 indigenous ethnic groups, Japanese colonization, and Chinese history. "You have this cultural heritage. It's super rich!" exclaimed Gabriel Hahn, a musician from Germany, based in Taipei and Berlin, active in body percussion and beatboxing. With a background in choral music and serving as both the Deputy Executive Director of Kehua Cultural Foundation and the Executive Director of the TMC Culture and Arts Foundation, Lin Chun-lung said, "We want to blend various musical elements and pursue its diversity." Kehua Cultural Foundation aims to eliminate the boundaries between choral and a cappella, allowing for the creation of more interesting musical forms.
“In reality, we are just like children; we see what is there and then we play with it. But before creating, we must first know that there are all kinds of toys and tools because different things inject new stimuli into each other," said Gabriel. " One thing we need to do is to give people the courage and the chance and the infrastructure to start creating. We hope to broaden perspectives and provide more choices for cultural creation."
In 2019, VAF collaborated with the Setouchi Triennale in Japan, integrating a cappella music into local artistic creations. Curator Fram Kitagawa pointed out that the distinctive feature of a cappella is its freedom from venue restrictions; it can be sung anywhere. Musicians expressed their sentiments to local leprosy patients through a cappella. One elderly lady, whose husband passed away from leprosy, exclaimed after hearing their songs, "Wonderful! Wonderful! Surely my husband must have heard you singing too!" A cappella, with the pure power of voices, transcends cultures and borders.
2023 Groove It! A Cappella Youth Camp & VAF
Impacted by the pandemic in 2021 and 2022, both the camps and music festivals scheduled to be held in Taitung were canceled. To prevent disappointment among participants, Kehua Cultural Foundation launched online A Cappella Relay Challenge and VAFex Art Festival, connecting a cappella enthusiasts from around the world to sing together online. Domestically, a small-scale teaching and singing initiative titled “Project M—A Cappella Teachers Come to Your Home” was introduced, allowing students to interact face-to-face with their instructors.
Finally, in 2023, the eagerly anticipated A Cappella Youth Camp was held as scheduled, bringing together top figures in the music industry as instructors. Apart from Gabriel and Christine Liu Yuru, who holds a music master's degree from Vienna and serves as the Artistic Director of the Camp and VAF, other musicians such as Cai Zixuan, Gu Chenzhen, Qiu En, Zheng Lingxiang, and more participated. Simultaneously, VAF featured interdisciplinary instructors such as Japanese jazz vocal percussionist Kaichiro Kitamura, pop jazz artistic director Zhu Yuanlei, vocal artist Li Wenzhi, performing artist Zhang Yahhan, a cappella pioneer Liu Jingyu, and choral conductor Chen Anyu.
The overall director of VAF's courses was none other than the acclaimed contemporary a cappella Godfather, Deke Sharon. Known for his work on the film Pitch Perfect, the TV a cappella competition The Sing-off, and Disney's group DCappella, Deke Sharon is renowned for his role as the primary arranger.
Speaking of Deke's teaching style, Christine mentioned, "He rarely tells singers what they're doing wrong; instead, he suggests how they can improve. He also uses his own energy to help everyone open up. Since everyone might not know each other and could be a bit shy, instead of saying, 'Sing louder here,' he would loudly ask, 'Do you think this is fun?!' Everyone would enthusiastically respond, 'Fun!!!' He motivates us in this way, not by delving into professional terms on the sheet music." Deke profoundly understands the festival's goal of bringing FUN to everyone, and he embodies it, making the participants more cohesive.
This year's youth camp combined traditional choral singing, a cappella, and pop music, expanding a cappella groups, usually consisting of 5-6 people, to the size of a choir. The focus was on body percussion, incorporating physical movements and dance. Gabriel mentioned, "Body percussion complements a cappella; both don't require instruments, only our bodies, possessing features that other music forms don't have. Therefore, the goal of this year's camp was to combine these two, and the final result was very successful. Its lively form was very helpful for the students' learning and performance."
Every year, the camp invites low-income or indigenous students to participate. Gabriel shared some interesting observations, "Teaching indigenous children is always a delightful experience for me because they easily engage with what I teach... They are not shy and easily find joy in playing, enjoying group activities. They have excellent body coordination, and their body intelligence is easily triggered... Perhaps it's their natural ability to relax or an inherent playfulness; I'm not sure of the exact reason, but that's my goal in teaching — to get them moving or more creative.”
Singing Different Tunes in the Classroom and Nature
For the past five to six years, Christine has been visiting the Lirui Elementary School (利稻國小) in Taitung every month to teach the children to sing. "In Taitung, as soon as you step out, you see mountains and the sea; nature gives us a very special experience." Gabriel added, "The energy of nature is very different from the city... Bringing students to nature is also to let them feel that music is not only in the classroom or on stage; it always exists. Whenever you want to sing, nature can inspire you.”
One day during this year's camp, the teachers took the students to visit Forest Culture Museum. They strolled through the forest, experiencing making music in nature. The students formed a drum circle for improvisational creation, and throughout the process, everyone had to focus on listening. Each improvisation was a meeting with nature. In music and nature, everyone could become a leader, a follower, or a connector of the entire sound. “Music always helps you find your role; it brings you closer to yourself. For example, if you have ideas and want to lead a team, in that song, you can learn how to communicate with others. People with stable and energetic voices are crucial in a group; they need to be placed in the middle to maintain a steady rhythm, like a strong tree,” said Gabriel.
Singing together is good for the world
VAF has invited international master groups such as The Real Group from Sweden, Slixs from Germany, Rajaton from Finland, Idea of North from Australia, Naturally 7 from the United States, Vocal Sampling from Cuba, and more to conduct vocal ensemble music camps across Asia. Looking to the future, Kehua Cultural Foundation hopes to create a venue in Taitung, a base for performances and exchanges, where musicians, travelers from various places, and local residents can come to learn about a cappella. Gabriel said, “Perhaps we will organize a concert with a focus on vocal jazz. The choral and vocal music scene in Taiwan may not be very familiar with vocal jazz, and people may not be clear about the profound influence of jazz on American culture and contemporary popular music. Jazz is very flexible and helps bring people from different backgrounds together. It is a music generated purely by inner drive. Therefore, in Taiwan, due to different history and culture, it will also generate a context for Taiwanese jazz, which will be a good discovery for singers.”
In the past decade, Kehua Cultural Foundation's promotion of vocal music originated from the founder, Clare's, childhood love for music and choir. Discovering a cappella in European choir competitions when she was young, she believed that young people in Taiwan would love it and introduced it to Taiwan, planting the first seed. She firmly believes, “Singing together is good for the world.” This pure belief drives her to invest time and passion without reservation. When people sing together, those seemingly insurmountable boundaries may gradually fade away. Although it may not be widely popularized in Taiwan, this energy is unfolding.
A heartfelt thank you is extended to the late Clare Chen, the founder of the Kehua Cultural Foundation, for her long-term support of the Project M in organizing camps and training instructors in Taitung. Clare, not only a successful entrepreneur but also a devout Catholic, dedicates her time to sing for vulnerable groups in places such as nursing homes and is involved in charitable work for leprosy patients. She has also promoted choral and a cappella music in Taiwan, sowing the seeds of music in remote areas and nurturing generations of musical talents.
Her dream is to create a pilgrimage route filled with music, faith, and culture in the Hualien and Taitung regions of Taiwan. She sees vocal music as a medium connecting the island, culture, and people. Clare's life is a wonderful combination of faith and music, shaping her unique journey. With a spirit of dedication, she brings endless blessings to the young people of Taiwan through her actions.
Photos provided by Vocal Asia, photographed by Wang Meixin