By Cher Bloom
Matthew LienMatthew Lien is a resident of Canada’s Yukon Territory, and he is a Superstar.
In some parts of the world, he is bigger than the Backstreet Boys, and can fill a concert hall with more than 30,000 people. In Taiwan, his fifth and sixth albums “Voyage to Paradise”, and “Touching the Earth”, occupied the Taiwanese International Top 20 pop charts ahead of such artists as Eric Clapton, and Celine Dion. His music and the voices that he represents have become household words–in Asia.
Why doesn’t Canada know about one of their most dynamic, outspoken and popular musical legends, here on his own turf?
Perhaps that will change now that the Yukon has been included in the West Coast Music Awards, (held at the Commodore Ballroom, on Thursday March 7, 2002), where Matthew Lien won “Yukon Artist of the Year” for his autobiographical seventh “world music” album, “In So Many Words”.
His unique approach to music produciton has yielded six solo albums, an album with the Wildlands ensemble, and numerous other projects and commissioned works.
“As a child, I remember being taken often into the mountainsby my mother who was an environmental activist and a deep lover of nature. The first time, (when I was only about five or six years old), I recall that it was very early in the morning. The sun was streaming through the trees. It was very wet, still and misty. It was cold, but the sun was warm, and we came into ameadow. There was a buck standing there, with a full rack –you could see his nostrils steaming. We all froze–the buck froze, we froze–we were locked in this moment in time which has lasted for me, an eternity. Maybe it only lasted for five or ten seconds before the buck bolted, but for that for that short expanse of time, I was looking God in the face.
It was later in my life that I began to research my aboriginal (Iroquois) roots. The things that have inspired me all of my life, have been based on a strong connection with the natural world. Even when I was a child, if I saw it being damaged or destroyed, I felt a compelling desire to defend what had no defense. It has always been my habit, that when I arrived in a new city, I would try to look through the cityscape and “see” what the landscape had been like before it had been “tamed” by men. I’ve always had many aboriginal friends. There are many community children who refer to me as “uncle”. When I was growing up, I spent all my summers in the Yukon with my father.
My family was very musical. We regularly had folk music gatherings at the house, and I started making music and writing right from the beginning.
Aboriginal spirituality has been alive in my blood all my life. It has obviously directed my path. I work very closely with aboriginal people. My values, my goals and my intent are the same as those people I admire among the people who are fighting for that synonymity of aboriginal culture and the natural world.
My first album was called “Bleeding Wolves”. The cover of the album is a closeup of a wolf staring the viewer straight in the face. The title track was inspired by the Yukon governement’s wolf kill program. It was a mournful lament about the tragedies and devastation that has been sufferred, at the hands of the hunters.
I was fortunate enough to get a copy of that first album, into the hands of the representative of a tiny Taiwanese record company at the MIDEM recording industry conference, in France.
The album was placed in record stores and listening kiosks–the people at the record company were receiving testimonials from people who said that the music was changing their lives. On my first trip over there, I performed at a federal penitentiary, because the prisoners had written a best selling book based on their emotional response to the album. Aboriginal groups there, were also identifying with this music.
Because of my music, the label doubled in size, and become the largest non-pop record label in Taiwan. Most of the music is instrumental, drawing from cultural influences from all over the world. The concert tours in Taiwan have been performed with an ensemble of up to 25 people, for audiences numbering over 30,000.
The Yukon government appointed me “Special Envoy” to Taiwan, somewhat like an ambassador. There are two aspects to this. As far as Canada goes, I was requested by aboriginal representatives, environmental activists and the Yukon government, who sought out my actions as an individual, to build a bridge between the two aboriginal cultures.
The Taiwan central government has requested that I assemble and lead a team of aboriginal representatives from Canada, who have experience in the aboriginal co-management of national parks. There is a phenomenal old growth forest in the northern region of Taiwan. It’s the last remaining intact area of first growth forest, comprised of red and white cypress trees that are as old as three thousand years. These trees are huge. They easily rival the California Redwoods. There are two indigenous tribes who have their traditional lands around this national park. They are the Bunan tribe, and the Attayal. The Taiwanese government wants to preserve the park as a heritage forest.
The governor of Kaohsuing Province invited me to travel throught the region and appointed me “Amabassador to Aborignal Culture”, of the Gau Ping River. He commissioned me to create a piece of music that celebrated thier aboriginal culture by meeting with these groups and recording their musical performances. I was requested by my record company in Taiwan to create an album which explored Taiwan’s traditional and aboriginal music and its environment.
I completed a commission by the Liana provincial government in Taiwan to produce a piece of music which explored their aboriginal and traditional culture through music as well. That piece was debuted for the President of Taiwan.
In Canada, I conceived of and executed a very ambitious language recording project, where I went out to a number of very remote communities and recorded languages through song and legend. I had attended several Elder’s Conferences here, and it became so clear to me that when they died, they were taking with them a window to the past. I approached the Aboriginal Language Council, and the Elder’s Council and told them that I felt I should start recording songs and legends in the original languages, because only the elders knew this part of their oral history, and that when they died, these languages would die with them.
Starting in 1994, I traveled around to several Yukon communities to record stories, legends and songs in the languages of the various tribes: i.e. Southern Tutchone, Northern Tutchone, Gwich’in, Tlingit. Over the course of about two years, as I began to develop an environmental project called the Caribou Commons Project, I continued recording aboriginal voices, thoughts and sentiments, in their native languages, and then used the voices in the environmental projects.
These were annual multimedia concert projects where we would go on expeditions in certain wilderness areas which were critical habitats, and faced some kind of threat. I would compose music out there, record sounds of the environment, with some aboriginal people speaking their thoughts about the issue, often elders in language. I was doing this in conjunction with my friend Ken Madsen who is an amazing wildlife photographer and environmental activist. He would capture images and I would compose music, record sounds and then produce these annual concert events. They were called Annual Wildlands Projects. We did about seven of them.
The last one was called the Caribou Commons Project, focusing on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and the Canadian range of the Porcupine Caribou herd, which ranges through the Yukon and part of the Northwest Territories. That is currently the focus of this year’s efforts. The Caribou Commons Project was the biggest incarnation of the Wildlands Projects. It has been ongoing since 1999. We toured that across Canada and the US. But it wasn’t until we got into the States, where we performed at venues like the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, and eventually ended in the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, that we played to really large houses on this side of the Pacific Ocean.
Our next event is the kickoff to the “Walk to Washington, DC.” event, in Seattle, in August. The advisory board to this event, (conceived to raise money and awareness for the environment.) include: the heads of the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wilderness Society, the Gwich’in chiefs of Old Crow and Arctic Village, Norma Kassie of the Vuntut Gwich’in (Yukon Gwich’in), David Suzuki.”
The Canadian media has been really difficult to inspire.
Maybe it’s time for Canada to sit up and listen.
2001: In So Many Words–Release in Canada & Taiwan, September 21, 2001
2000: Touching the Earth–recorded in Asia, Central America, & North America
13 weeks on Taiwan’s International Top 20 pop charts
1999: Voyage to Paradise–9 weeks on Taiwan’s International top 20 pop charts
1999: Caribou Commons (Wildlands with Matthew Lien)–featuring sound recordings from the
high arctic of Yukon and Alaska andthe Great Plains of Nebraska and South Dakota
1998: Confluence–recorded in China and North America
1997: Bleeding Wolves–sales in excess of 150,000 copies in Southeast Asia–3 weeks on Taiwan’s International Top 20 pop charts
1991: Music to See By