Yen Chih-wen: the pioneer of Hakka music innovations

Chinese Name
Born: January 25, 1954
Birthplace: Pingtung County (Southern Taiwan)

As the first musician in Taiwan to start Hakka music innovations, Yen Chih-wen used the method for composing modern jazz music to rearrange traditional Hakka music’s elements and features to create a new look of Hakka pop music. He founded the San Gou Da Band (山狗大樂團) and published his first solo album "Who is the One Singing a Mountain Song (係麼人佇介唱山歌)” in which he sang the enthusiasm and vitality of Hakka music, setting off the upsurge in popularity of Hakka folk songs. The album was nominated for the Golden Melody Award’s Best Hakka Singer and Best Fusion Album awards.

Yen grew up in Hakka culture from a young age, and fell in love with Western music during his middle school years. In 1974, he entered the Department of Fine Arts of the National Taiwan Normal University. In addition to his passion for participating in the school's musical community, Yen learned from the jazz musician Di Hei-shan (翟黑山), studying jazz guitar performances, modern harmony, and music composition during his school days.

After graduating from the National Taiwan Normal University and completed his military service, Yen went to Boston, USA to study at Berklee College of Music. His major was music composition and modern guitar. Because of his contact with students and music from all over the world, he gained great inspiration in his views and attitudes toward music, and that had a great influence on his future creation of Hakka music.

After he returned to Taiwan, he immediately entered into the production of mainstream records, and also established a music production studio to teach guitar techniques, music composition and arrangement. Many of the musicians in bands and the behind-the-scenes professionals of albums have been taught by him.

In 1995, Hakka director Hou Hsiao-hsien invited Yen to create the film score for his film “Good Men, Good Women (好男好女).” For the first time, Yen used Hakka music and Western modern music to create the sound track. The film score later became one of his masterpieces of innovative Hakka music and launched his 10-year long journey in Hakka music creation.

In 1997, Yen established the San Gou Da Band, in which he served as the band leader, lead singer and guitarist. He and the band have produced five Hakka albums which have won awards in domestic and foreign music circles. The band has also been invited to perform in the U.S. twice, opening a new era of Hakka new music creation.

In 2008, Yen invited young rookies to form a new group, the Shan Gou Da Hou Sheng Band (山狗大後生樂團). The voice and appearance of the young lead singer Lin Yu-ting (林鈺婷) quickly gained the attention and recognition of the new generation. The band’s album "Waves of Grain (禾浪)" released in 2012 was nominated for the Golden Melody Award for Best Hakka Album.

In 2014, the band’s album"Under Eaves (簷頭下)," which covered songs adapted from traditional music, was once again shortlisted for the Golden Melody Award. The band has performed a new style of Hakka music in a fresh and lively style, and it was widely loved by young people. 

Yen used the simple vocals of Hakka to sing the stories of life around him, and devoted himself to cultivating new generations of Hakka singing talents. In doing so, he has injected endless vitality into Hakka music. He has tried to integrate the most essential part of Hakka culture into modern pop music, in hopes that amid tradition and modernity, he can find a new direction for passing on Hakka music to the younger generations and creating more innovations.