Recently my Resonance students – plus a few guests – joined the second Sound Journey. The first Sound Journey was about the Art of Listening, in Hsinchu. This time, we delved into musical traditions in an outdoor camping/guesthouse site in Puli, with fantastic views of the valleys and mountains of Nantou. The central event was a visit to the Bunun village of Mingder, now called Naihunpu (formerly Naifubo) in the Bunun vernacular. Here we were warmly received by mainly elder people (mostly 50+) of this small community. I visited them for the first time in 2005, when I stayed there for a few days, talking to them and recording their songs on audio and video. I was introduced to them at that time by Dr. Wu Rung Shun, the well-known expert on Taiwanese indigenous music and a recordist/compiler of the most extensive collection of published recordings from Taiwan, The Music of the Aborigines on Taiwan Island Vol. 1-9.
In 2005 I was struck by the Bunun’s music, their hospitality and their willingness to share their music, dance and wisdom with me. But I had no opportunity to follow up on my visit for a long time. Last year I finally returned, meeting some familiar faces and quite a few new ones too. I wasn’t just interested to learn more about their music for myself; I thought it would also be great if my students had a chance to experience their music. After all this music is always polyphonic, and it is more interesting to learn it together. So I asked the Bunun leaders if we could come over one afternoon to learn from them, and they agreed. They pointed out that they had Wu Rung Shun’s students visiting and that it was not easy to learn their songs. We were slightly uncertain as to how satisfying this would be for both parties. They had never worked with a group like ours, that is, a group of students that did not study music at the academic level. Perhaps we would not be able to make much of their music ourselves?
We came prepared: all of us had listened to the CD the Bunun from this village had recently produced, with a selection of their repertoire. And the evening before I had talked about different vocal styles and techniques and practised these with the group. We had also tried a Kyrie from Corsica, a polyphonic Christian song that I deemed appropriate to learn during this Easter weekend.
We were warmly received by a large group of about twenty people who were all introduced to us, and we all introduced ourselves to them. They were clearly very willing and eager to teach us about their music and perform for us. They insisted to change to their full traditional regalia of dresses, pants, headbands, earrings and carry-on bags, so they looked fabulous. Surprisingly, what seemed to be newly-made handwoven vests, turned out to be actually quite old, and worn for many occasions throughout the years. They took great care to maintain it.
After watching several pieces performed by them, I asked if we could mingle and spread out between them, men between men, women between women. That would allow my students to better hear that each individual sings something different. After all, in a recording you hear many voices, but you are not really able to find out how one particular voice moves around in the polyphonic network. They readily agreed and so we could hear at close range what different voices do: a completely different experience than hearing the whole song, played back from a CD. Ten years ago I also recorded Amis songs this way, moving between the singers so as to get a clear picture of different individual voices. It was very revealing! Suddenly the chords jump to life all around you, like some kind of enhanced-dolby-5.1-stereo – much better than that in fact.
The meeting continued with more singing, sitting between the Bunun, absorbing the richnes of their musical patterns and imitating them. They asked us to sing our Corsican Kyrie for them, which my students dared to do, even though they had only learned it the day before. It was an approriate thing to do, as the Bunun are Christians and were actually very busy this time of year preparing for next day’s Easter Sunday celebrations (later that night they still went to church to prepare for it).
Later on, we saw and heard the men sing the Pasi But But: the most famous of Bunun vocal pieces. It is so unique in the world of music that it is hard to come up with any parallel. When I first heard a recording of the Pasi But But some 20 years ago, I thought of the music of György Ligeti, the contemporary Hungarian composer whom I listened to quite a bit at that time. The slow, draggingly-ascending lines, curled up into each other, make up for a confusing sound experience, unlike most other types of polyphony (I also listened to hundreds of music traditions around the world, but the Bunun piece resembled none of them).
Thanks – again – to Wu Rung Shun’s PhD thesis of 1995, the mystery of this piece was revealed in all its fantastic detail, including all the meanings, terms, spiritual messages and other practices associated with it. With him and his colleague Dr. Chung Mingder and students at the Taipei National University of Arts we tried the piece many times. We often got lost in the steadily increasing flow of microtonal changes; sometimes we had some degree of succes; it was always intense and exhausting.
We were lucky enough – at least the four males of our group – to be invited to join their Pasi But But after they had done it. Again, each man of our group was surrounded by other men, and each in one of the four pitch-groups, holding hands and twisting arms firmly behind our backs. With the guidance of the experienced Bunun men’s strong, certain voices, there was little risk of messing this piece up, and indeed the three other men who never did it before got through it alright.
Finally, we shared more food, excited talk and some wine, as well as some Jew’s harp and mouth-bow playing to conclude our acquaintance.
Later that night, after we returned to the house on the mountain slope where we stayed, our group members unanimously rejoiced in this learning experience. Each for themsleves, they had made very different discoveries. One heard new songs that she had never heard before from the Bunun. Another said it was revealing to sing while being surrounded by several elders. A third was thrilled to feel the powerful voice of an aged, yet virile singer next to her. Another found out that the Bunun do not simply hit some notes here and there, but make certain patterns and still structure their pieces even though they improvise. Yet another marvelled at hearing the Pasi But But at close range, which is so different form a concert performance at a distance. One of the men of our group understood much better how this song worked after being taught to sing it with them.
My thanks to all the Bunun participants in the workshop, especially chief/chairman Diang Nangavulan (centre), Biling Demu (right) and Sani Sugluman (left).
2 thoughts on “Singing with the Bunun”
Thanks for this articel, Mark! There isn’t much out there about this unique style. Pasi But But reminds me on chanting in the western world which in the recent year went popular among yoga groups and overtone singers. There seem to be similarities to David Hykes’ early productions too. Do you know if he knew the style?
I’m pretty sure he was not, Wolfgang, but better ask him directly!
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