Cirque du Soleil and Radio Canada International

In the mid-1990s I owned a shortwave radio. It was one of the top-tier models made by Sangean, although I forgot the model number. That was before Internet radio came along, and you could still write to shortwave radio stations, with an attached international reply coupon, to request for their schedule and publications. So I wrote to Radio Canada International (RCI) to ask for their schedule and a booklet on how to install shortwave antennae. Sangean's manual listed the addresses of the radio stations you could write to.

Because the city is in a basin, shortwave reception in Taipei wasn't great, so an external antenna made sense. I bought one coupon from a stamp collecting store (that's the one and only time I did that in my life), sent the letter, and a few weeks later, I received the schedule (which got updated every 6 months — because the atmospheric condition varies by season) and a guide to install various kinds of antennae. My father helped me install a long-wire antenna, the simplest type, on the roof of our apartment building (he also told me how shortwave radio was a restricted item in the 1950s in Taiwan, as the government didn't want people to have too much access to the information of the outside world). We calculated the needed length and got the insulation right, dropped the connecting cable to my window, and connected to the radio's external antenna socket. In addition to RCI, we were also able to listen to BBC World Service, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Radio Japan (NHK) and a few others with different reception qualities, a great supplement (my father would have said alternative) to ICRT, Taipei's local English station.

RCI's broadcast time in East Asia was short, 30 minutes in French and then 30 minutes in English, but the timing was perfect. The French broadcast started at 6 AM Taipei time, then followed by the English broadcast at 6:30. My Sangean radio had both a timer and tape recorder, so I let RCI wake me up every morning, then later on the bus I would play the English news and programs in my Aiwa cassette player. That was a great way to wake up and learn English.

Before a shortwave broadcast begins, the station plays a short sequence to identify itself, called "ident." The ident of BBC World Service, "This is London calling," is among the best known (check out this YouTube video, the version I heard is between 1:01 and 1:30). RCI, unsurprisingly, used the first bar of "O Canada," the national anthem, followed by the bilingual announcement "Radio Canada International / Radio Canada International" (yes, one of them was in French...), and the sequence repeated itself two more times.

For me, one mystery about RCI's broadcast, at least in East Asia, was that before the ident, they actually played three minutes of a song, in a language that was definitely neither French or English. I hummed the tune to many people, but no one I asked knew what it was. It was also strange, too, because not many shortwave stations did that, a full three minutes of a song before the ident.

I usually erased the tape on which I recorded each morning's program, but one day I decided to save a tape for the opening song. A few years later I converted the tape into MP3, played the clip to a few more people, but I still hadn't got any answer. And then I forgot the whole thing.

Just today, out of the blue, I realized I still kept the MP3 file, and now I could use services like Shazam to identify what the song was. And so I did. Turns out that the opening song was "Kumbalawe," the opening song of a show by Cirque du Soleil. It totally made sense now, as they are Canadian (from Montréal). The song uses an invented language, though. Isn't it amazing, that with a technology like music identification, we can find out the name of a song whose melody you never forget, after so many years?

On the other hand, I guess I could have written to RCI long ago to ask about the song. Still, it was a happy rediscovery of a song that made so many wonderful early mornings.