Music of the Bunun, Taiwanese Aboriginals

The Bunun is an indigenous tribe from Taiwan. In strong contrast to other
aboriginal tribes, the Bunun people have very little dance music. Nevertheless,
they have a great talent for music, especially singing. When tribe members
gather, they sing and harmonize music that expresses all aspects of their lives.
The main characteristic of their music is “improvised polyphonic singing”, which
is one of the most studied elements by musicologists. In this style, each singer
attentively listens to the others in order to achieve the most harmonious tune.
Bunun musical instruments include the musical bow, the jew’s harp, the
five-string zither and pestles. Other aboriginal tribes in Taiwan have also developed such sophisticated
harmonies and compositions that have been handed down by word of mouth over the
generations. The content of the music and dance is closely related to every
aspect of people’s daily lives including social customs, ethnic origins, nature,
the meaning of myths and legends, family structure and social organization.

The Bunun originally lived in the northern and central plains on Taiwan’s
west coast, but some crossed the central mountain range and settled down in the
mountain regions near Hualien and Taitung. Currently the Bunun in Taitung are
concentrated in Haituan and Yenping, inhabiting high and cold mountain regions
suitable for growing millet, their main staple.
Today, there are over 40,000 Bunun people residing on the central mountain range
of Taiwan.

In the past, the Bunun tattooed their body and filed their teeth, but these
customs have gradually disappeared. In May-June all the men participate in the
Ear-shooting Festival to pray for a good millet harvest.

Bunun tribespeople have been performing throughout Asia, Europe and North
America, representing Taiwan’s aboriginal culture from the isolated highlands of
central Taiwan. The selections come from annual ceremonies that mark their
agricultural calendar as well as rites of passage commemorating birth, marriage
and death. Aboriginal artifacts, photographs and food are also displayed during
the performances.

This unique music received some exposure in popular culture when the group
Enigma sampled an aboriginal singer’s exceptional voice and included it in the
hit track “Return to Innocence,” which went on to become the 1996 Olympic Games
theme song.

There are not too many recordings of indigenous Bunun music. Taiwanese label,
Wind Records, released an album, Music of Aboriginies on Taiwan Island, Vol. 1
The Songs of the Bunun Tribe (TCD-1501) in 1992. The recording includes more than a dozen Bunun songs collected by Mr. Wu¡
Rung-Shun of the National Institute of the Arts in Taiwan.

American cellist David Darling first heard the singing of the Bunun people of
Wulu village in 2000. He was stunned by the richness of their polyphonic choir
and the delicate harmonies in their music, sounding to western ears redolent of
Ligeti and Berio. He embarked on a project to draw together these contrasting
cultures in a new musical adventure, its aim to create a dialogue between West
and East, between ancient tradition and the modern world, between untamed tribal
voices and a contemporary cello sound. Bunun’s polyphonic choir, considered
unique within the world music landscape, is now in danger of extinction.
However, this project does not aim to preserve or document the music as it
stands, but rather to open it up to a fresh interpretation. In an effort to
respect and retain the singing in its most original ancient form, David
travelled to Wulu village to develop and record this project together with the
Bunun people. The result was an album titled Mudanin Kata.

The Bunun Cultural and Educational
was founded in 1995, and is the first foundation set up by
Taiwanese aborigines. At the basis of the establishment of the foundation was
the desire to help solve the problems that the aborigines faced in
land-ownership, education, agriculture, transportation, culture/tradition,
economy, etc. The aborigines’ educational needs are one of the foundation’s
priorities. The Bunun Cultural and Educational Foundation provides services in
children education, after-school counseling for teenagers, educational camp
meetings with university students, caring of the handicapped and seniors, and
the preservation of culture and agriculture.

[Photo 1: David Darling]