Music Performance

Taiwan Indigenous Music Performance: Bunun Ritual Song “Pasibutbut” Bunun People

The Bununs is the fourth largest of the Taiwanese indigenous groups. Traditionally, the Bunun did not have a centralized leadership. Instead, after consulting with an elected group of elders, decisions were made by consensus. Before the Japanese occupation, the Bununs were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in villages or small family groups throughout the northern and central parts of the Central Mountain Range. Like other indigenous groups in Taiwan, headhunting was a common Bunun practice for territory protecting, but this custom died out with the arrival of Christianity at the end of the 19th century. Bunun people had a reputation as skilled hunters and fierce warriors. During the Japanese occupation, they moved to centralized lowland villages. In recent decades, many indigenous peoples in Taiwan have moved to the cities. Nevertheless, a considerable segment of the modern Bunun population still feels connected to their ancestral lands and prefers to live in villages nearby or deep in central and eastern mountains in Taiwan. In the past, the Bunun used to tattoo their body and file their teeth, but these customs have gradually disappeared. Prior to the so-called Ear-shooting Festival in each March and April, every male adult would take their hunting trip in the mountains. After this ceremony, such hunting participants would be considered adults and could join their brothers to hunt from that moment on.

The role of Bunun’s traditional singing in the world

Like other indigenous peoples in the world, Bunun’s music and dance practices are inseparable from every aspect of their daily lives, including myths and legends, collective and individual history, social customs, living environment and rituals. Especially valuable are their songs that serve as “books” in cultures with writing system, which are cultural carriers of all wisdoms, histories and life experiences passed down from generation to generation. Bunun musical instruments include the bow harp (Latuk), the jew’s harp (Honhong), the five-string zither (Banhiratuk) and pestles (Dudur).

Of all the Bunun vocal performances, the most renowned repertoire is the semi-improvised polyphonic singing – pasibutbut, which comes as one of the most studied subjects among musicologists in the world. While singing, all singers attentively listen to each other in order to achieve the most harmonious subtlety, a state that can only be obtained via singing with the stability of a mountain penetrating the sky. This singing style is also considered as the most unique one within the world music landscape that attracts steadfast attentions from Western avant-garde composers. For example, Marco Stroppa, an Italian composer and professor for composition at the State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart, composed two works Come Naturally di Foglia for 8 voices and electronics and Cantilena Fora for 16-part choir (with 36 or 48 singers) based on the structure of pasibutbut.

Another example that asserts the uniqueness of Bunun’s music is the project initiated by American cellist David Darling. Listening to the Bunun singing of Wulu villagers for the first time in 2000, Darling was stunned by the delicate harmonies of their polyphonic chorus, which resembles Ligeti or Berio to western-trained ears. Darling then embarked on a project with an ideal to connect different cultures, aiming to create a dialogue not only between West and East, but also between indigenous voices and cello sound. Darling travelled to Wulu village to develop and execute this recording project together with the Bunun people. The result was an album titled Mudanin Kata.

The Bunun people have been performing throughout Asia, Europe and North America, representing Austronesian and indigenous culture from Taiwan. Their repertoires often come from traditional ceremonies that mark Bunun agricultural calendar as well as rites of passage commemorating birth, marriage and death.