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“The Most Joyous Thing in the World Is Music!” – A Dose of Tradition at the Amis Folk Center

Ask the average person on the street in Taiwan about the country’s indigenous music, and you might hear the names of pop stars such as A-mei, Landy Wen, or Chang Chen-yue mentioned. Even if you’ve never set foot in Taiwan, chances are you’re already at least a little familiar with Taiwanese indigenous music.

Text: Joe Henley

This is thanks to Enigma’s 1994 hit song Return to Innocence, which was used as the theme for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games. The song features an Amis tribal chant, entitled the Jubilant Drinking Song, sung by the husband and wife team of Difang and Igay. But there is far more to Taiwan’s indigenous music than radio hits and pop-music crossover. Research suggests that the native peoples of Taiwan have been living here for around 8,000 years. Though some of the musical traditions of the country’s 14 recognized tribes that have developed over that long stretch of time are in danger of disappearing, there are many individuals working to bring them back to prominence.

The largest tribe in Taiwan is the Amis. The tribe’s territory extends from the area around the east coast city of Hualien down along the coast and along the narrow valley between the Central Mountain Range and the Coastal Mountain Range to the Hengchun Peninsula in the far south. The Amis have their own language, an Austronesian dialect, and have traditionally been a matriarchal society, with the women holding sway over family affairs and children adopting the surname of their mother rather than that of their father. When it comes to music, the Amis are known for their polyphonic vocals, similar to those employed in the music of Taiwan’s Bunun, Paiwan, Rukai, and Tsou peoples, in which two simultaneous lines of melody dance interact with one another during the course of a song. The Amis also have many traditional instruments, numbering around 40; according to research, this is more instruments than any other tribe. The skills in making these instruments, born of experimentation with different forest materials in the time when hunting parties would spend long periods of time away from settlements, were passed down from generation to generation. In the modern era, however, with Han Chinese immigration starting in the 1600s, followed by the 1895-1945 Japanese colonial occupation era during which indigenous culture was suppressed, the knowledge pertaining to these instruments began to disappear. Today, at the Amis Folk Center in Duli Village, Taitung County, an Amis man named Sawtoy is working to revive the ancient art of Amis musical-instrument making.

The Amis Folk Center is a place where one and all are invited to learn about all aspects of Amis culture and experience traditional ways. There is no entrance fee, but visitors are encouraged to make a donation of any amount they feel comfortable with in order to keep the center going. Among other activities, guests can take part in bow and arrow shooting, and if the weather is good take a ride on a giant swing traditionally used in Amis marriage ceremonies. At the top of the swing’s arc you can see to the Pacific, a short drive away from Duli Village. But the true highlight is witnessing a performance by the Kakeng Troupe, a group of Amis performers well versed in their people’s old-time songs, instruments, and dance. The kakeng, meaning “bamboo bell,” is actually a percussion instrument – nothing more than a simple bamboo tube, really – which is struck with a flat paddle. Kakeng were traditionally used to signify good news, and played when a man left his parents’ home to move in with his new bride’s family following marriage. As well as playing the kakeng, the Kakeng Troupe demonstrates the nose flute, which as the name suggests is played by blowing air out through the nose rather than the mouth. Because the flute has two tubes, one for each nostril, it produces a drone effect. The troupe’s performances end with a dance demonstration, with members of the audience invited up on stage to take part.

Should visitors wish to learn more, they can have a chat with troupe leader Sawtoy, a man with encyclopedic knowledge of Amis instruments. On a recent Travel in Taiwan visit to the folk center, Sawtoy, who teaches kids of any background, Amis or otherwise, how to make Amis instruments, hauled out his basket of wind, percussion, and wood instruments, along with his trusty carving knife, to give a demonstration of his skills. Most Amis instruments are based on two simple concepts. The first is known as pdox ufang, which refers to the holes in the wooden instruments that air must pass through. The second, piciw ngawa, means “cut,” referring to work that must be done with a blade. To showcase these basic concepts, Sawtoy produced a fresh green stalk of hollow bamboo, carved a few holes in it in ascending size, cut a small slice from the end to create a hole through which air was to be blown, and proceeded to play The Star Spangled Banner, all in the span of just a few minutes.

He next pulled out a “bow piano,” so named for its resemblance to a hunting bow. Placing one end of the bow in his mouth, Sawtoy produced vibrating tones by humming a melody, while plucking the single string with his thumb to produce a simple backing effect. He also played a tipolo, or pan flute, which was once used somewhat like a telephone. Sawtoy demonstrated the tones a woman might have used to call her husband out tending a field, three short notes that seemed to sound like “Where are you?”, followed by the tones the man might use to answer, three different notes, meaning “I am here.” “It looks like nothing,” Sawtoy marveled, “but when you play it, it comes alive.”

We then accompanied Sawtoy and the Kakeng Troupe to Chenggong, a nearby town, where the group performed for the students at a junior high school. Sawtoy began with a song, bouncing back between an Amis chant and improvised lyrics in Mandarin Chinese, cracking jokes and getting the kids’ attention. It wasn’t long before he held them in the palm of his hand, pulling out instruments of all kinds to show how those are made and played. “The most joyous thing in the world is music,” he told the audience, before introducing the youngest members of the Kakeng Troupe, children ranging in age from seven to their late teens, who performed for their visibly impressed peers in the crowd. The youngest played a salingsingan, a simple shaker instrument used to keep the beat. Sawtoy then pulled his audience in even further, using nothing more than a fresh piece of bamboo. Cutting one end down to a transparent strip, he blew into the tube, causing the strip to vibrate and produce musical notes as he hummed the Pink Panther Theme by Henry Mancini, drawing a laugh from the students. The performers took obvious pride in their singing and dancing, and Sawtoy pointed out that the Kakeng Troupe was nominated for a Golden Melody Award, the Asian equivalent of a Grammy, in 2012. By the end of the presentation, the Kakeng Troupe had a room full of new fans and, more importantly, a group of hundreds with a new interest in traditional Amis song, dance, and musical instruments.

The Amis Folk Center is open seven days a week, with daily performances by the Kakeng Troupe. To get to the center, take a train to the city of Taitung and catch a Taiwan Tourist Shuttle East Coast Line bus ( from Taitung Railway Station. The bus trip takes about an hour. Formal classes in indigenous-instrument making are not yet available for tourists, but Sawtoy hopes to establish a music school in the future. Until then, let Sawtoy and the Kakeng Troupe be your guides to the rich world of Amis culture, and experience traditions thousands of years in the making.

English and Chinese
A-mei 阿妹
Amis tribe 阿美族
Central Mountain Range 中央山脈
Chang Chen-yue 張震嶽
Chenggong 成功
Coastal Mountain Range 海岸山脈
Difang 郭英男
Duli Village 都歷村
Hengchun Peninsula 恆春半島
Igay 郭秀珠
Kakeng Troupe 旮亙樂團
Landy Wen 溫嵐
Sawtoy 少多宜

Amis Folk Center (阿美族民俗中心)
Add: 25, Xincun Rd., Duli Village, Chenggong Township, Taitung County (台東縣成功鎮都歷村新村路25號)
Tel: 0925-793-566 / 089-384-656

Provided by Travel in Taiwan Bimonthly July/August Issue, 2013