Traditional View of Indigenous Music
Performers dressed in exquisite traditional costumes and tattooed with mysterious art on their faces – that’s the attitude most of regular Taiwanese listeners have towards indigenous music. It is usually considered a part of traditional festivals – like the famous Amis Harvest Festival – with perfect harmonies, full of passion and energy, often accompanied by dancing. There’s also religious and hymnic music, mostly sung with the purpose to show respect for the creator god and our ancestors.
Most people thought there were only 9 indigenous tribes in Taiwan: Amis (阿美族), Paiwan (排灣族), Atayal (泰雅族), Bunun (布農族), Puyuma (卑南族), Rukai (魯凱族), Tsou (鄒族), Saisiyat (賽夏族), and Tao (達悟族). Through massive analysis of historical documents and field research, the tribes that qualify to the “traditional tribes” were eventually rectified by the government in 2001, making the number of indigenous tribes grow from 9 to 16. This rectification movement also secured the rights of indigenous peoples, giving them more legal protection.
Amis Harvest Festival is a typical indigenous event. Usually held in the end of the Amis calendar, its main purpose is to ask the ancestral gods to bless crops, and pray for a bumper grain harvest, stock breeding, and new births in the coming year.
Throughout the history, different sovereignties – from Zheng Dynasty (明鄭), Qing Dynasty (清代), Japanese Colonization Period (日治時期), to the period after Chinese Nationalists Government relocated to Taiwan (國民政府來台) – had different names for indigenous peoples. Those names were being carelessly altered from Tu Fan (土番), Ye Fan (野番), Shou Fan (熟番) to Takasagun (高砂族) and Takao (平埔族). As totalitarianism together with sinicization (漢化政策) left indigenous culture all but buried, you could hardly see it appear in the pop music market either. However, all these obstacles did not keep indigenous music from being preserved and passed down.
The first time indigenous music won attention from the international pop music industry was in 1994. The song “Return to Innocence”, recorded in The Cross of Changes, the second album of German New Age band Enigma, went straight to the top on charts in various countries in the world, and was even chosen for the promotion for 1996 Atlanta Olympics. A fraction of the song was actually sampled from the “Elders Drinking Song” (老人飲酒歌) by Difang Duana (郭英男) and his Amis Falangaw tribe members.
The pure and flawless angelic harmonies gained the song international popularity. While it earned Taiwanese music some praise internationally, it also gave Difang Duana and Ma Lan Choir (馬蘭吟唱隊) an opportunity to record two albums of traditional Amis songs, in collaboration with a well-known international production team put together by the Rock Records with a huge budget.
Difang Duana singing “Elders’ Drinking Song”
At 28th Golden Melody Awards held in June 2017 24 albums were nominated for Album of the Year, the award category that emphasizes breaking down language barriers. Out of so many competitors, the final winner of this award went to Sangpuy (桑布伊, Han Chinese: Lu Jie-Xin 盧皆興), who also won Best Indigenous Singer and Best Vocal Recording Album, taking media by storm. Originating from Katatipul Village (卡地部落) in Taitung (台東知本), the Puyuma descendant Sangpuy has shown his unique talents in singing and songwriting since he was little. This victory of his allowed audience to learn more about the beauty of Taiwanese indigenous music.
Education and Preservation of Indigenous Music
Every indigenous tribe has its own language and music culture. Applying tetratonic, pentatonic and graceful harmony skills into singing, Taiwanese indigenous music has manged to preserve its basic traditional form. Tribes preserve their religion and respect for the creator god through ceremonial music and dance. Their songs describe different stages a man or woman can experience in his or her life. Therefore, you may hear songs about hunting, love, wedding, work, harvest, battles, sickness, etc.
Handcrafted musical instrument such as latuk, harmonica, lubuw and nose flute all to help create a more abundant listening experience. Among all, “Pasibutbut” (祈禱小米豐收歌, often miscalled Eight-Part Polyphony, 八部合音), a prayer for a good harvest of the planted seeds by Bunun tribe, and “Bulai naniyam kalalumayan” (or “Beautiful Rice Grain”, 美麗的稻穗), a tribal song of Puyuma – are what the general public is familiar with.
Often miscalled “Eight-Part Polyphony”, the song “Pasibutbut” applies uncommon vocal techniques and a scale system different from the traditional ones. It was discovered by Japanese scholar Takamoto Kurosawa in 1952 and later astonished the world.
Due to differences in languages across generations and the lack of writing system, indigenous music is mostly preserved through the word of mouth, Western music theory education, and practice of the choir ceremony of tribes. Different tribes have gradually developed their own scales and harmonies, creating their own unique styles.
With the rapid development of Western culture and technology, radio, audio electronics and television all become omnipresent in the life of indigenous tribes. Furthermore, the popularity of folk and Mandarin songs have gradually replaced indigenous music – preserved mostly through word of mouth – with catchy pop format. One of the most significant groups is the famous Bei Yuan Shan Mao (北原山貓), which once was a five-time winner of the classic Taiwanese singing competition Five Lights Award (五燈獎). The group was known for combining indigenous songs with classic Nakasi and using humorous and creative lyrics (e.g. “I live next to Tai Ma Village” – a Mandarin profane pun) to create popular songs.
Current Situation of Indigenous Music in Taiwanese Music Industry
Raised with love of singing and blessed with perfect voices, indigenous people often preserve their music through cultural ceremonies of their tribes. However, traditional topics about life and death, survival and other life-related issues have changed with the times. Many new indigenous songs have absorbed other genres (e.g. rock arrangements). Recording their songs on tapes and selling them in their neighborhood, those musicians created a brand new music economy that’s very different from the traditional one.
Brought by American troops who have stationed in Taiwan, a great amount of Western rock music swept the island. Music was one of the most indispensible and important types of entertainment at that time, resulting in the increasing popularity of club performances. Hailed as the Singing King of Indigenous Peoples and Father of Folk respectively, Wan Sha Lang (萬沙浪) and Ara Kimbo (胡德夫) formed a band and sang in hotels. Their powerful and sonorous vocals made it easier to interpret Western classics. They both achieved their own success by singing movie theme songs – “Where Did the Wind Come From?” (風從哪裡來) and “Naluwan Love Song” (娜魯灣情歌) – and by getting involved in writing of folk songs themselves. Among all the songs Ara Kimbo sang, the classic yet controversial one called “Formosa” (美麗島), written by Li Shuang Ze (李雙澤), has become a must-sing song for huge concerts and gatherings.
In the middle of the 90s, Power Station (動力火車), the music group formed by Yu Chiu Hsin (尤秋興) and Yen Chih Lin (顏志琳), became popular in the pop music market because of their singing contribution in the compilation Pub Heroes (Pub英雄會). In the same period, aMei gained public attention through Five Lights Award. Her debut album “Sisters” (姊妹), produced by Tom Chang (張雨生), has sold over a million copies in Taiwan, making her a significant indigenous hot shot in the Taiwanese pop music history. aMei is also known as AMIT, her original Puyuma name. She devoted herself to promoting indigenous music groups and is certainly one of very rare indigenous divas of Taiwan.
In 2009, the most popular Taiwanese diva aMei reinvented herself and became AMIT, which is her indigenous name. The new alter ego presents an alternative and darker side of her aesthetics of both visual and music, often connecting to the indigenous culture.
Golden Melody Awards, the most significant music award held by the Taiwanese goverment, started to classify award categories based on singing languages such as Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka and indigenous languages at the 16th annual award in 2005. As a result, a new category called “Best Indigenous Album” was added. More and more local record labels started to put efforts into managing and discovering new acts for indigenous music, which let such groups and singer-songwriters make their breakthrough.
Apart from the artists mentioned above, who wre often categorized in the indigenous language awards, there is still a whole lot of award-winning indigenous singers who sing in the official language – Mandarin. The most significant ones include diva aMei, Samingad (紀曉君), Purdur (陳建年)、Biung (王宏恩), Ayal Komod (張震嶽), Auli Blubluone (or Jia Jia, 紀家盈/家家), etc. The audience can see many indigenous singers participating in singing TV competitions. Singers such as Leheane Palray (or Liang Wen Yin, 梁文音), Alines (or Jane Huang, 黃美珍), Afalean Lufiz (盧學叡), Mark Chang (張心傑) – all made their career breakthroughs through such shows.
Currently, many local labels conduct field researches and try to preserve traditional indigenous music, and they put more efforts into releasing what they have already collected. There are also talented indigenous singers who raise their voice through songwriting, allowing the audience to listen to their blessed and unique creations. Traditionally trained children’s choirs such as the Vox Nativa Choir, who were known for their angelic harmonies and received praises for their performances at international events, successfully promote the indigenous music through education. Councils of Indigenous Peoples under Executive Yuan (行政院原住民族委員會) and Taiwan Indigenous TV (原住民族電視台) both devoted themselves to preserving the music and voice of indigenous people through funding and TV programs, hoping to secure an abundant environment for indigenous music.
5 Indigenous Taiwanese Artists You Should Know
The first music team dedicated to collecting traditional indigenous songs. By putting their field researches in order and creating more songs on top of that, this classic team has released a great amount of self-produced albums. To cope with capitalism and sinicization, they speak out through releasing albums, cultivating new talents, and preserving the history of traditional indigenous songs, hoping to survive the invasion of western trends and popular culture. The featuring artists of Abo Music are Ngerenger Kazangiljan (林廣財), Chen Ming-jen (陳明仁), Inka Mbing (雲力思), and Sangpuy (桑布伊/盧皆興).
Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe / Camake Valaule
(泰武古謠傳唱 / 查馬克‧法拉屋樂)
Formed at Taiwu Elementary School (泰武國民小學) at Taiwu Township (泰武鄉) in Pingtung County (屏東縣), Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe was led by Paiwan instructor Camake Valaule. He collected a great amount of traditional Paiwan tribal songs and formed a choir to perform them. Their album “Where the Songs Begin” (歌開始的地方) sold like hot cakes and won numerous awards. They were invited to perform in many countries and received high praise. They stick to their original belief to sing their own songs, and carry that spirit forward, making them one of the most successful cases of Taiwanese indigenous music preservation.
Inka Mbing is the co-founder of Abo Music and the most significant singers of Atayal tribe. Once making living by singing in folk music restaurants, after she got married Inka Mbing started to put effort in collecting traditional indigenous songs. Living a low profile life, she learned on her own and was able to retrieve the music glory that especially belongs to Atayal tribe. She also teaches Atayal languages at elementary schools in her tribe, allowing indigenous kids to be proud of communicating through their own mother language. She slays her live performance with strong and powerful vocal, and wakes the raw desire of music inside human beings through her songwriting.
Being a descent of Puyuma and Amis, Panai made her breakthrough via her debut album “Muddy Doll” (泥娃娃) released by Taiwan Colors Music in 2000. Her sonorous voice full of energy and power always moves the audience. She has released two studio albums so far, and been putting effort into collecting indigenous songs in her hometown Taitung (台東) and holding music festivals and song camps. She is currently active in the indigenous traditional territory movement.
Sangpuy, the youngest member of Abo Music, is also known as his Han Chinese name Lu Jie-Xin (盧皆興). Through the very strict age classification and preservation training of Puyuma tribe, he was well known for his amazing vocal performance, self-made music instruments (nose flute and lubuw), and his performing skills since he was young. Proficient in the interpretation of traditional songs, his two studio albums all combined the style of indigenous songs but escalated further to a whole new level. He is hailed as the must-follow indigenous singer of the recent years.
5 Indigenous Music Albums You Should Hear
Suana Emuy Cilangasay & CMO – “Journey of Freedom”
蘇瓦那與CMO樂團 – “自由的旅程”
Formed in 2010, the members of Suana Emuy Cilangasay & Creating Music Orchestra (CMO) include indigenous and Han Chinese descents. Combining contemporary music arrangements with the adaptation of traditional Amis songs, their debut album “Journey of Freedom” might be one of the best entry albums to explore the world of indigenous Taiwanese music. Suana, the music director of the band, was once a member of the famous a cappella band O-Kai Singers (歐開合唱團). His creations for CMO band are exquisite, sentimental, often moving.
Biung – “The Hunter”(王宏恩 – 獵人)
As a singer-songwriter, host and a theatre actor, Biung is the most significant musician of Bunun tribe in Taiwan. He wrote and produced all the songs in his debut album “The Hunter”, and earned himself fame by being nominated to the Golden Melody Awards. As an optimistic person, he is a talented performer with silvery and moving vocal techniques. The song “Ana Tupa Tu” (月光), meaning “Moonlight”, from his debut album is still considered an indigenous pop classic.
Outlet Drift – “Drowning”
(漂流出口 – 逆游)
The old Chinese saying “A newborn calf fears no tiger” best describes Outlet Drift. Consisting of three Amis youngsters, the band is famous for its powerful live performances. Combining traditional elements with contemporary arrangements, it doesn’t do justice to their powerful music if you only use terms like “grunge” or “punk” to describe it. The skillful bandsmen are capable of creating rough and raw sound effects, and unique vocals and harmonies of indigenous singers along with special guitar filters create an everlasting psychedelic atmosphere. What Outlet Drift offers is a unique listening experience.
ABAO – “vavayan”
(阿爆 aka 阿仍仍 – 女人)
A host, singer-songwriter and an actress, ABAO is originally from Paiwan tribe, and over the recent years she has demonstrated a very rare versatility. With a unique, soulful atmosphere and dynamic rhythms, her music often makes her audience feel like dancing. In 2004, ABAO and fellow singer Brandy won the Best Group award as a duo at the Golden Melody Awards. After a decade, her solo and self-written debut album “vavayan“, produced by Arai Soichiro (荒井十一), still earned her a Golden Melody Award in the category of the Best Indigenous Album.
Inka Mbing & Her Young Atayal Friends – “Ima Lalu Su”
(雲力思與大小朋友 – 你叫什麼名字)
After having spent six years collecting traditional Atayal music, Inka Mbing, who had released her classic album “ga ga” in 2006, created another memorable album once again. The booklet of “Ima Lalu Su” documents the writing process of each song in details. You can read through her words while listening to the record, and feel the magical and powerful strength her music brings. Inka Mbing promotes and carries forward her traditional tribal culture through singing and songwriting. Her vocal remains charming even after all these years.
5 Record Labels You Should Know
Wild Fire Music
Founded in 2002 by experienced musician Elaine Hsiung (熊儒賢), Wild Fire Music has been devoted to the promotion of indigenous music and classic folk songs. Het Eyland Formosa (原浪潮音樂節), a music festival the label holds annually and Beautiful Haiyan (美麗心民謠), a series of albums the label released with the help of the festival – are all indispensable ways to learn more about indigenous Taiwanese music. Artists signed to the label include Yonlon Chen (陳永龍), who has sonorous vocals and is one of the must-listen singers.
Trees Music & Arts
Founded by Chung Shefong (鍾適芳) in 1993, Trees Music & Art has not only imported a great amount of indigenous music from countries around the world, it also holds Migration Music Festival (流浪之歌音樂節), which lets Taiwanese audience get in touch with brilliant live performances from across the globe. With the vision of respecting humans and motherland, the label has helped produce and release albums for Inka Mbing, Betel Nuts Brothers (檳榔兄弟), Huegu & Docdoc (迴谷與達可達), etc. Each album Trees Music & Art produced is a masterpiece, making it a brilliant label that music lovers shouldn’t miss out.
Taiwan Colors Music
Founded by famous musician Chang 43 (張四十三), Taiwan Colors Music releases various brilliant albums with strength and originality on a regular basis each year. You can also suggest that the albums released by Taiwan Colors Music might have a greater chance to be nominated for Golden Melody Awards. The artists signed under the label include Aboriginal Music In Taiwan (原音社), Purdur, Long-Ger (龍哥), Hao-En & Jia Jia (昊恩家家), NanWan Sisters (南王姊妹花), Chalaw Basiwali (查勞‧巴西瓦里), O-Kai Singers, and their albums are all classic artworks that worth listening over and over again.
Founded in 1988, Wind Music has released a great quantity of albums with good quality. Genres the label covers include – but are not limited to – traditional music instruments, religious music, minority music, world music, meditation music, and nature music. Among all, the albums that are produced and planned by indigenous musicologist Wu Rung Shun (吳榮順) help indigenous music be preserved under a constructive plan. Wind Music plays a very important role in the promotion of Taiwanese Indigenous Culture.
Founded in 2014 by Andy Chen (陳冠池), this local record label focuses on discovering amazing vocals of different ethnic groups. Led by an experienced musician Han Xian Guang (韓賢光), the label has released various indigenous music albums for artists such as Vangsaran (部落美男子), Yang Mu Ren (楊慕仁) and Sang Mei Juan (桑梅絹), and the genres Taiwan Story is interested range from Dance to Latin to Funk to Classic Hymns. You can find many unexpected invaluable music treasures in these albums that present Taiwan Story a new label with good quality that deserve more attention.