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Folk Music Of China Vol.5: Aboriginal Folk Songs of Taiwan
Naxos World (
Review by Andrew Cronshaw

I am guessing that most people, even those with considerable knowledge of the musics of the world, listening to this CD with no information, would have no idea where it’s from.

Listen "Drinking Song (Amis)"

The opening three tracks, a high male vocal call with wild mixed-chorus response, might be guessed as pow-wow music from an American First Nation, though lacking the drum-beating. Or one of the two titled “Old Men’s Drinking Song” might be spotted as what German band Enigma sampled in the track “Return To Innocence” that subsequently became a theme for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In fact it’s a song of Taiwan’s Amis people, of the island’s south-eastern coastal region, a sacred song praying for God’s blessing before the harvest sacrifice.

Listen "Weaving Song" (Saisiyat - excerpt)

Two women of the north-western Saisiyat tribe, Qiong Feng Jin Rong and Feng Zhu Xiu Xiang, duet in wedding, farewell and weaving songs, the edgy voice of one being matched by the warmer voice of the other so the difference in their vocal qualities makes their unison sound like harmony.

Listen Nose flute solo (Paiwan - excerpt)

There are similarly winding melodies in the ‘missing-you’ and nostalgic songs of a two female, one male, trio of the Paiwan people of Taiwan’s southern extremity. The male singer, Xie Shuineng, then plays a solo on the only instrument here, the Paiwan nose flute, a darkly breathy double wooden whistle which is played, using one nostril, traditionally by men to express sorrow instead of crying, though women players have been leaders in today’s revival of what was a dying skill.

Listen Pray For The Harvest (Bunun - excerpt)

Tracks 16-23 are from Luona villagers of the Bunun people, and the first, “Pray For The Harvest Of Millet,” also known as “Pasibutbut”, is really something different and very striking. It has become widely heard largely because of its use during the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (which, given China’s, er, difficult relationship with Taiwan was quite a thing). Multiple calm male voices gradually combine wordlessly and continuously at different pitches, gradually touching unison and harmony and intermodulating as they move. It’s the stuff of Nordic film noir or the Popol Vuh “Aguirre Wrath Of God” soundtrack. Here’s what the booklet notes say about it:
“Between November and December each year, the Bunun people sing this song to pray for the harvest of millet. During a performance of the song, eight to twelve people stand in a circle with their hands behind their backs. The eldest people start to sing first, and then the remaining people join in with different tones which makes the chorus. When the chorus begins, the singers move along the circle so the chorus turns into a very special contrapuntal effect. Depending on the overall effect (whether it is harmonious or not), the people will be able to predict whether or not the harvest will come.”

“The Bunun have a folk legend regarding their discovery of chorus singing. Once while out hunting, the Bunun ancestors crossed a forest and in the valley they found a waterfall. The ancestors were amazed by the sounds of the waterfall as well as the echo (with harmonious tones) in the valley, which sounded to them like a scared calling. Hen they arrived back at the tribe they found that the millet had been harvested and thus they believed that god (Dehanin) showed his blessing with such sounds. Thus, generation after generation of Bunun people developed their unique style of chorus singing. It is also said that the local singing style is inspired by the natural echo in the valley.”

Listen A Drinking Song (Bunun - excerpt)

The other Bunun songs, except one solo, are male and female voices in call-and response chorus songs with words, and not in the same calm intermodulating style as “Pasibutbut” though with connections to it, particularly the massed voices of the impressive “A Drinking Song” which sounds almost Polynesian.

Listen Song of Encouoragement (Truku)

The Seediq people of central Taiwan are represented by three solos from female singer La Bai Bi Lin. The third, “Families Without Men,” says “I’m going to the other side of the mountain.” “It’s so late, why do you have to go?” “I need to avoid him, because he’s a bully.” And the Truku people’s contribution is again a woman solo singer, with two short songs that say “Though I have been stopped in my tracks, I will overcome it” and “God, please send a breeze. Breeze, please come quickly.”

These aren’t any kind of scratchy archive recordings; they were made in May 2014, in Taiwan but it’s not clear whether on location or not. They have reverb; its application in ethnic field recordings is sometimes a point of discussion, but here it’s tasteful and effective.

The Taiwan CD is number 5 in the “Folk Music Of China” series, all recorded in the last decade, that Naxos has released during 2019 and 2020. Here’s a quick overview of the other five in the series, all, as their titles indicate, focusing on songs rather than instrumental music:

  • Vol.1: “Folk Songs Of Qinghai And Gansu”. Male and female singers, mostly solo, from the five ethnic peoples – Tu, Bonan, Dongxiang, Yugur and Salar – who live in these two provinces.
  • Vol.2: “Folk Songs Of Inner Mongolia And Heilongjiang”. Female and male solo singers from the five ethnic groups – Mongol, Daur, Hezhen, Orogen and Evenki – of these two provinces of northern and north-eastern China. While Mongolian long song is one of the traditions included, and that is sometimes, though not here, accompanied by a drone from other singers, by no means all Mongolian singing is the well-known ‘throat-singing, and there’s none of that in these recordings.
  • Vol.3: “Folk Songs Of Yunnan”. Songs from the Wa, Blang and De’ang peoples, who live mainly in the west and south-west of China’s most south-western province, Yunnan, which borders on Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. The Wa are represented on eight of their ten tracks by the villagers of Banwen Village, in wild, soaring group, call-and-response or solos from female and male singers, including one given an unexpected added synth-orchestral accompaniment. The final Wa track is a solo on the Wa’s small grain-stalk reed pipe (wrongly described in the booklet notes as a flute), the gugan-di. Some of the songs from the Blang people are accompanied by three- or four-metal-stringed lute. The songs of the De’ang include a slithering duet or trio style that slides into and away from close seconds harmonisation.
  • Vol.4: “Folk Songs Of Guangxi”. The Zhuang people are China’s largest minority, with a population of about 17 million, and most of them live in Guangxi autonomous region. The other three smaller ethnic groups on this CD are the Mulao, Maonan and Bouyei, with Guangxi’s remaining 40% being Han Chinese. The CD’s 47 tracks are equally divided between the four ethnic groups. It opens with fine edgy high Zhuang female solo singing, then into Bouyei songs, again female, largely solo but also polyphonic including group vocals with close intervals making dense chords, one including flute, and three excerpts from Nuo folk opera, in which the male and female performers wear costumes and masks. Mulao songs aren’t monophonic; they involve a pair of singers, one holding a shifting drone. One has lyrics that go “I sing folk songs when I feel bored. I can’t earn money with folk songs. But only they can take my boredom away”– pretty universal in sentiment! And in the first of the Maonan tracks, which are polyphonic duets or trios, the male sings “I haven’t sung this folk song for a while. I don’t know whether I can sing it well now. I have not prepared for your arrival”, to which the women who have been singing drone reply “It’s nice to listen to your song, and let us sing a song for you too. Of course we cannot sing as well as you do. You are the ocean and we are the stream”.
  • Vol.6: “Folk Songs Of China’s Tajik & Russian Minorities”. This most recent addition to the series features songs from the Tajik and Russian minorities living in western and north-western Xinjiang. The fourteen Tajik songs, as the notes point out, aren’t the Xinjiang restaurant-style pop and dance music, but folk songs from two areas, Tashi and Yining. Unlike the others in the series, everything here has instrumental accompaniment – the Tajik material on rawap and satar lutes and frame drums, while one Russian song is accompanied by balalaika, the other five by the Russian bayan accordion.
  • Update: there’s now a number 7 in the series, “Folk Songs Of The Yi And Qiang Tribes In Sichuan & Yunnan
Given that often people’s view of Chinese music is principally of Chinese classical music, particularly the instrumental music of such as guzheng, pipa, erhu and flutes, it’s very good indeed, and extremely enlightening, to have series that delves into the living village musics of this huge country, which is such a patchwork of different peoples whose cultures and music survive despite the dominance of the Han people (who make up about 92% of China’s population and are the world’s largest ethnic group). And it‘s particularly good that the very striking regional folk singing traditions of its estranged neighbour Taiwan are included. - Andrew Cronshaw


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This recording is our pick for Music of the Month for June, 2020
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