indigenous music

Singing with the Bunun

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.

The Music of the Aborigines on Taiwan Island, Vol. 1: The Bunun

The Music of the Aborigines on Taiwan Island, Vol. 1: The Bunun



Recording the Bunun of Naihunpu in 2005 (they gave me their dress to wear for the occasion).

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.


Singing the Pasi But But

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.

BununSaniSuglumanBununOfferingDiang Nangavulan BununBilingDemuSq

My thanks to all the Bunun participants in the workshop, especially chief/chairman Diang Nangavulan (centre), Biling Demu (right) and Sani Sugluman (left).



Sangpuy’s new cd Dalan


Today is a special day for the Katipul tribe in Jrben village, Taidong. It is the end of the Big Hunt Ceremony, an age-group ritual held every year where boys learn about hunting and traditional territory, the social system of the tribe, perform dances and songs in the night, and where respect is paid to elders and those who have suffered from loss and tragedy in the past year. Once I had the privilege to join the ceremony. That was in 2004, when I spent two months in Taiwan learning traditional songs and dances from the Katipul, Amis, Bunun, Saisiat and Tayal tribes.

I vividly remember those days spend down in the valley where the Jrben hotspring hotels are, at the riverside. It began with rituals in the village to mark the places of various historic events and to visit traditional tribal boundaries. Today, as then, the morning of the 31st of december marked the return of the men from their hunting camp. Women dress up beautifully to receive them, and a series of rituals is performed in an open field.


Performing songs and round dances in Jrben’s Katipul community (photo by Mark van Tongeren)

Later in the morning young men go through the community to visit private houses of those who lost a family member in the past year. At every courtyard the men line up in their traditional dress to perform a song and dance that ends the period of grieve and isolation of the widow or widower and other relatives. At times this is a very moving ceremony, where the tragedy of loss is felt by all present. The words spoken, and the songs and dances energetically re-enacted by beautiful and strong young men, provides genuine relief and consolation and shows how closely knit the Katipul community is. (for completeness sake, I should add that the cd uses ‘Katatripul’ instead of Katipul).

A central figure in the ceremonies, then and now, is multi-talented performer known by his tribal name as Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw. He belongs to this rare species of individuals who tend to be the focal point for many people around them, whatever they do. They may be performers, they may be natural leaders, or they may be ruthless dare-devils. When such talents are bestowed upon someone already at a young age, it is easy to become engulfed in one’s own power. Not so with Sangpuy: it was clear, also in 2004 when he was in his mid-twenties, that he carried his responsibilities towards the younger age group and the elders. Sangpuy formed a natural bridge between elders, such as the much respected elder singer Valikay, and his own and younger generations.

Valikay and Sangpuy at the Big Hunt Ceremony, december 2004

Valikay and Sangpuy at the Big Hunt Ceremony, december 2004 (Photo by Mark van Tongeren)

In 2004 Sangpuy taught me some of Katipul’s songs and dances, made a double-nose-flute (‘ma-omui’) for me and showed me how to play it. I did my best to learn a melody played by him for a year or so, but did not get very far, mainly because playing requires considerable control over a very small airflow coming out of the two passages of the nose. But Sangpuy quickly picked up some of my throat singing techniques and quatrain-singing from Tuva (Siberia), which he immediately transformed to quatrains and guttural sounds in his native tongue, causing roaring laughter from everyone present.

Making of the ma-omui double-nose-flute Sangpuy offered to me. As he writes in the cd, "Every hand-made nose flute is unique, exclusive, one and only."

Making of the ma-omui double-nose-flute Sangpuy offered to me. As he writes in the cd, “Every hand-made nose flute is unique, exclusive, one and only.” (Photo by Mark van Tongeren)

I was struck by the ease and fluidity with which Sangpuy sang, by the pleasant sonority of his voice whether singing or speaking. Last year, when I visited the men coming back from the hunting camp, I saw an exhausted Sangpuy who had missed many hours of sleep (if he had slept at all), dragging himself from one ceremony or function to the next. His voice, though rough and tired, kept a convincing, natural power: there was no question that anyone else could take over his functions.

Already in 2004 I heard Sangpuy’s characteristic voice on several cds. During the Bihg Hunt Ceremony we often woke up at the river bank with a fine cd of his singing accompanied by guitar and a choral group. The night before we had heard him and the other men singing. I am lucky to have heard how Valikay at his old age could still produce his typical, forceful falsetto, either alone or alternating with Sangpuy and another elder singer, because several years ago Valikay has passed away.

Perhaps Valikay’s passing away is part of the reason why Sangpuy is taking his calling to a new level. He spend much time to set up his own studio, with the aim of producing a new album of his own music. About two months ago I received an invitation to the launch of this new cd, called Dalan. Upon arrival, and seeing the art-work, I noticed that Sangpuy had gone through a considerable transformation: he has adopted a new look and had enlisted the help of many others to produce a cd that is, again by the looks of it, ready to compete with top-quality world music acts. The cd-package is a gem, with fantastic photos and artwork in black, greys and browns, and extensive lyrics and texts in three languages.

Artwork for the cd (photo courtesy of Katatepan Studio)

Artwork for the cd (photo courtesy of Katatepan Studio)

I wondered how much Sangpuy’s new path had changed his music. And I must say, he did an admirable job. He uses the possibilities of the studio and his network of music professionals sparsely and with intelligence. There is a grand opening theme song praising the Lord with big orchestral sounds, but there are also intimate solo songs and instrumental pieces. The dance song Malikasaw, a sort of ‘anthem’ for the Katipul, is captured with its characteristic, optimistic energy with a chorus responding to Sangpuy’s leading voice, and also in a minor-key version. In some traditional songs recordings of the voice of Valikay are blended in, creating a clever post-humous studio collaboration with a voice of the past. Several other sounds from the environment and social gatherings evoke the communal atmosphere of Katipul music and emphasise its deeply social nature. Acoustical music predominates on Dalan, but the closing song uses some looped samples and field recordings to great effect.

With Dalan, Sangpuy stays close to his roots, and focuses on boosting the production side of Katipul music compared to older cd releases. It is clear he will develop his artistic vision step by step, with a strong sense of commitment to his tribal lineage, but with a professional attitude toward the world music business. He wisely demands patience from admirers, of which there are plentiful, who wonder what other new musical directions or collaborations he envisions. Stay tuned!

Mark van Tongern and Sangpuy

With Sangpuy at the cd presentation (photo by Hao Sheng-Hsin)


14 tracks, 49 minutes, 44 page booklet with high quality b/w and color prints enfolded in luxurious cd-package.

Produced by Katatepan Cultural Studio. Tel. 0975689462.

Distributed by / available through Wind Music

More about Sangpuy’s cd, concerts and activities: