Electronica and Paiwan Melodies: The Two-Track Life of Singer Abao

In her song “Kinakaian,” Abao sings “The language we speak flows naturally / How beautiful it sounds.” Listeners will surely feel the joie de vivre she expresses in song. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

In her song “Kinakaian,” Abao sings “The language we speak flows naturally / How beautiful it sounds.” Listeners will surely feel the joie de vivre she expresses in song. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

This song tells the story of a Paiwan indigenous family, but it is also the personal story of Golden Melody Award winning singer Abao (Paiwan name Aljenljeng Tjaluvie). The abundantly creative Abao released her second solo album, Kinakaian: Mother Tongue, at the end of 2019. It had been three years since she released her first solo album, Vavayan: Woman, produced by Soichiro Arai. During this long interlude, Abao continued to enhance her creative powers, and the new album displays her skill in musical fusion, combining disappearing traditional Paiwan melodies with electronic pop music to come up with a fresh new style.

Building on a pop music foundation

In 2003 Abao, sporting a head of Afro-style hair, formed a group with her longtime partner Brandy. The first album put out by the duo won a Golden Melody Award for Best Vocal Ensemble. But their record company went out of business and they got nowhere. Still, Abao fondly remembers this brief period of professional work. “It is because I had that previous experience of making pop music that I have understood how to blend the modern music industry with the natural style of Abori­ginal music.”

A two-track life

With performances that combine pop and traditional, Abao says: “This is like my life experience. My life and work experience have always been very mixed.” Born into a Paiwan indigenous family in Taitung County, Abao’s father and mother, like many Aboriginal people, moved to the city (Kaohsiung in their case) to make a living, and Abao became a 100% “urban Aborigine.” However, although she grew up in Kaohsiung, each summer and winter vacation Abao’s parents sent her back to their home village to live with her people, so as not to lose touch with the Paiwan way of life.

Abao still faintly recalls how, as a child, she often saw her grandmother smoke her traditional long pipe. Whenever the weather was good, her grandmother would bring out her tobacco, splash some rice wine over it, and put it in the sun to dry. “Grandma grew her own tobacco that she smoked herself.”

Recording old Aboriginal songs

Starting in 2015, Abao launched a project to record Aboriginal music from all over Taiwan, which she calls “Nanguaq” (Paiwan for “good” or “happy”). She has gone deep into indigen­ous communities to record traditional songs, hoping to preserve some of the old melodies for young people.

The task of making the recordings is not an easy one. They have to meet the right people at the right times, and Abao describes Nanguaq as “a very contingent project.” For example, someone told her of an elderly woman in Taitung who was a fine singer and knew many old songs, but when they went there in winter to record her she was having respiratory problems, and they had to wait another full year.

To make the recordings they need to win the trust of the people they want to work with, and they also need the kind of tacit understanding that exists between fellow indigenous people. Sometimes when they have arranged a time to make a recording, the person to be recorded says they have to take out the trash and then doesn’t return for a whole hour. The pace of life in indigen­ous communities is relaxed, and Abao doesn’t put too much pressure on herself, but usually accommod­ates herself to the rhythm of life of her counter­parts. “You can’t concern yourself with whether or not they really went to take out the trash—the point is that they didn’t really feel like singing at that particular moment.”

Upholding a culture

Indigenous communities are continuously changing as traditional culture steadily disappears and elderly people pass away. Hence the recording project is both a race against time, aiming to preserve the common heritage of Taiwan’s Aboriginal peoples, and also a chance for Abao to observe different tribal cultures at first hand. Abao has never intended to make any money out of these old melodies that she has worked so hard to collect. Instead, the edited recordings are uploaded onto YouTube along with the songs’ lyrics, while the project is also accessible via a cellphone app, allowing everyone to learn the songs free of charge.

On her new album, Abao has four new songs that integrate old Aboriginal melodies, while many of the songs have their origins in ordinary daily life. “I feel that the old and the new must be blended together.” Young people are unlikely to have the chance to learn these old melodies in their daily lives, but if they are incorporated into pop music, “at least young people will be able to hear them by listening to these songs.”

Combining old and new

Take for example the album’s new song “Tjakudain” (“Helpless”), made in collaboration with DJ Didilong. The song cleverly employs the expression “tjakudain” (meaning “what can we do?”) that is currently hip in Paiwan society, echoing against the Taiwanese expression “you don’t accept me,” to commemorate a forbidden love between a Paiwan and a Han Chinese. The soaring middle passage is taken from “Song of Helplessness,” passed down among the Paiwan people.

The lyrics for “1-10,” meanwhile, were written by Abao’s mother. Constructed around the Paiwan numbers for one through ten, the song is like basic teaching material for the Paiwan language.

However, not all old melodies are suitable for this kind of fusion. For example, Abao avoids the use of traditional songs of worship. “Frankly, what’s the point of calling the souls of the ancestors without purpose? You can’t tell them to come down to see a pop concert, right?”

Following the release of Kinakaian: Mother Tongue, many people were so impressed by the nimble electronic music and rap vibe, the mainstream production values, and the cool “sun god” cover art on the album, that they thought Abao could go international. One fan won over by Abao, who declared that her knowledge of the Paiwan language was zero, still made an elabor­ate linguistic analysis of the lyrics, from function words and word roots to affixes and nominalization. The amount of effort required caused Abao’s mother to ask: “Did the person who analyzed ‘Tjakudain’ do it because they want so much to fall in love?”

“Look at your shoes, are they different from the ones we wear? Look at your skin, it is so fair….” Abao rises above stereotypical cultural symbols and through the lyrics of “Tjakudain” talks about the differences between Paiwan and Han Chinese. This Paiwan woman uses her beautiful voice to prove that music can transcend ling­uistic and ethnic boundaries.