Breakthrough the thinking of “indigenous music” as a style of music

Written by Kuing, GuoTing Lin.

Image Credit: Suming @ The Wall by square(tea) /Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

By examining the literature on the interaction between indigenous music and Taiwan’s colonial history, one can see that indigenous music was deeply affected by colonisation. Indigenous music is dynamic in the context of history. Taking the post-war indigenous ballads as an example, the China Youth Corps (救國團) adapted the traditional music of indigenous folk songs to influence the young people of indigenous intellectuals through a tribute of the China Youth Corps to the tribes. From the history of the China Youth Corps, we can also see the mandarinisation of indigenous folk songs. From this perspective, we can surmise that colonisation is a crucial factor for music through its combination of various cultural elements.

Indigenous music is inextricably linked to the changes and development of Taiwanese society. In the 1980s, the indigenous movements were flourishing, and music was a voice of resistance. In the 1990s, there was an enlightenment of indigenous musicians, who transmitted their identity through various music works. After 2000, following the spirit of independent music, the new wave of indigenous music planted the foundation of an indigenous music culture. After 2010, indigenous singer-songwriters have begun to use indigenous consciousness to create indigenous music lyrics for resonating with contemporary young generations.

Although more and more indigenous musicians have begun to show their identity and culture in their works, from the perspective of an indigenous subject consciousness, to go beyond such labelling is needed. Furthermore, it is also necessary to rethink structures to break the framework regarding “indigenous music” as a music genre. Of course, it is difficult to define ‘indigenous music’, since it has never been determined from the perspective of an ethnic group’s descent and language.

However, in most articles, including music reviews, album labels, research, etc., the label “indigenous music” has still intentionally or unintentionally been used to summarise all possible definitions with a singular term, which creates a reframing effect. For example, music created by a musician with indigenous ancestry, along with music written in indigenous languages is monolithically called “indigenous music”. As explained above, indigenous music is dynamic, and the connotation and context behind it are worth exploring. In other words, when listening to music, the first encounter is with the music itself, and then the ethnic identity and consciousness. This does not mean that the identity of the indigenous people is of secondary importance, but that cross-border music in a multicultural context is a trend in contemporary Taiwan. When the listener first hears the music and then reads the indigenous consciousness contained in its connotation, it can truly eliminate stereotypes and prejudices.

The preservation of ancient songs and the birth of the collective consciousness of the indigenous peoples (原住民) in the past have brought a wave of indigenous music as one of the music genres. As a result, in Taiwan, with a diverse ethnic group—especially with the rise of tribal consciousness—contemporary music is more diverse and inclusive. Not only the collision of tradition and modernity but also the dialogue among ethnic groups.

2019 was a year that music of Indigenous musicians in Taiwan blossomed. Albums with diverse music genres released. Music is regarded as a field for musicians to create a dialogue among diverse cultures in Taiwan. Take the album ‘Sesela’an’, which started a dialogue with the Austronesian groups, as an example, Ado’ Kaliting Pacidal, Pancah from Hualien has invited several indigenous musicians from New Zealand, Solomon island, Rapa Nui, Independent State of Papua New Guinea, République de Madagascar and Torres Strait islands to feature in her album. Being the starting point of the aforementioned Austronesian migration, Taiwan became the creative context for albums based on the singing and musical instruments of each musician. The music, therefore, tells the similarity of language and culture shared by the Pacific Islands.

There are albums of ethnic dialogues opened on the island of Taiwan. Aljenljeng (ABao)’s new album ‘Kinakaian’ (Mother Tongue) uses electronic music, gospel, hip-hop, and other music styles to break through the frame with Paiwan, Taiwanese Hokkien, Mandarin, and even Amis to tell the stories of daily life. The ten tracks in the album have their own vitality, but the production has to remain consistent. The blurring of various boundaries has created a dancing world. It is suggested that the single “Tjakudain”, which was made in collaboration with Dj Didilong (李英宏) ‘s Taiwanese Hokkien hip hop, tells an alternative traditional love story that failed due to ethnic identities.

Not to be missed is the album that talks with a traditional context. Suming’s new album ‘Bon-Da-Da’ tries to find the rhythm that represents Taiwan. Suming discovered that Bon-Da-Da had influenced Mandarin pop music for a long time in Taiwan. Thus, from this album, you can find a hybrid of modernity and tradition, and feel the consciousness of the indigenous people through chanting and rich arrangements. Suming excels at keeping Suming’s indigenous spirit in the contemporary arrangements of different music styles. In order to connect with most people in Taiwan, the lyrics in Mandarin are Suming’s purposeful communication in the album.

There is also Chalaw Basiwali’s album ‘SALAMA (Going out to play)’, in which he collaborated with Madagascar’s world music master Kilema again to catch inspiration from Hualien in Taiwan to Toliara village in Madagascar. Chalaw grasped the perspective of walking out of Taiwan with his own subjective interpretation of stylised cross-border music. Besides, Pingtung Paiwan Musician Sauljaljui (戴曉君) converts the ingredients she has gained in her village and on the stage around the world into a powerful album “Insides Revealed (裡面的外面)”. The arrangement is full of various sounds, including Yueqin (月琴), percussion instruments, string music, etc., showing the power and beauty of Sauljaljui’s voice. She is trying to subvert the imagination of a powerful female singer.

The importance of folk songs in the context of indigenous history lies in the fact that cultural preservation without a written record system relies on music and dance. Therefore, every moment in contemporary is creating the tradition of the future. Through listening, we read diversity culture rather than just one appearance of ‘indigenous music’.

GuoTing Lin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Westminster. This article is part of the special issue on Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music. 

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