A Nose for Music: Pairang Pavavaljung and the Paiwan Nose Flute

(photo by Jimmy Lin)

(photo by Jimmy Lin)

Nose-flute master Pairang Pavavaljung, a “living national treasure” who represents the Ravar group of the Northern Paiwan people, uses the music of the nose flute to tell the legends and stories of Taiwanese indigenous people. The art of playing the unique twin-pipe polyphonic nose flute was on the verge of being lost, but today it is being taught to five students, allowing this music to continue to survive.


Amidst a cool and pleasant early autumn breeze, the clear, bright sound of the flute emerges from the Chiang Wei-shui Theater at the National Center for Traditional Arts in Yilan. The music is simple but melodious.

Played as the finale of the program, the piece is “Awakening the Heart with the Notes of the Flute” performed by 85-year-old national treasure Pairang Pavavaljung (also known by his Chinese name, Hsu Kun-chung). Pavavaljung, who underwent cardiac catheterization less than two weeks previously, stands cautiously on the stage as his practiced fingertips move across the holes of his nose flute. The ingenious changes in melody, accompanied by expressive vibrato and glissando, display the unique polyphony of the twin-pipe flute. Sometimes low and quiet, sometimes high-spirited, Pavavaljung’s playing tells of the relationship between man and nature, and inspires minds to connect with the universe.

Pavavaljung, accompanied by five students who are studying under him, introduced the audience to the unique nose-flute music of the Northern Paiwan people as part of a program of performances showcasing younger practitioners of traditional arts. The art of playing this indigenous instrument was on the verge of being lost, but thanks to a Ministry of Culture program to promote the transmission of traditional performing arts, long-told indigenous legends and stories now have the chance to be carried forward by a new generation.

Using the flute to tell about culture

Pairang Pavavaljung was born in the remote Paiwan indigen­ous community of Tjavadran, deep in the mountains of Pingtung. A blacksmith by trade, he watched his father play the nose flute from early childhood. At age 15 he made his first bamboo flute, and since then the sound of the flute has been a constant part of his life, through all its ups and downs.

“It’s as if the nose flute is speaking for me, and through its sounds I can share my inner feelings with people, with my community,” Pavavaljung explains, speaking in Paiwan.

When Pavavaljung proposed to his wife at age 20, he stood outside her family’s slate house playing his nose flute, and it was the sincere love expressed in the music that persuaded her father to open the door and give his assent. At age 48, when he was elected head of Dashe Village, where Tjavadran is located, in the quiet of night under star-filled skies community members could always hear the soft sounds of his flute in the distance as they fell asleep. Even scattered dogs would respond to his playing with soft grumbles, yaps, and whimpers.

A unique polyphonic instrument

The twin-pipe nose flute is a polyphonic instrument. One of the pipes has holes and plays the main melody, while the other has no holes and serves as a drone accompani­ment.

Pavavaljung’s own composition “Brothers Who Sing of Love and Longing” uses the polyphonic nature of the twin pipes to tell the myth of two brothers who left their village and became two mountains. The elder brother is ­represented by the main flute, with its rich variety of tones, while the younger brother is represented by the soft low note of the drone. They crouch forever at the two ends of Gaomei Bridge, singing to each other.

As young people move away from indigenous com­mun­ities for work or study and older generations of indigen­ous elders pass away, the number of people able to play the nose flute has declined. Some years ago the Council for Cultural Affairs (now the Ministry of Culture) took note of this crisis, and in 2011 registered Pairang Pavavaljung from the Northern Paiwan people and ­Gilegilau Pavalius of the Central Paiwan people as “preservers of the important traditional performing art of the nose flute”—living national treasures.

Sounds to awaken the heart and mind

Back in 2000 Pavavaljung himself, fearing that the art of playing the nose flute might be lost, began teaching children at Timur Elementary School in Sandimen Township. Later the Ministry of Culture included the nose flute in its Program for Preserving Folk Arts, using a selection process, assessments and a master-apprentice system to systematically train students to both make and perform with the instrument. One of that first class of students is Pavavaljung’s second son, Etan.

“As indigenous communities face the process of modern­ization, the purity of the sound of the nose flute can inspire those of us who have been in contact with modern civilization to ponder and preserve the culture and values of the tribe,” says Etan, who is fluent in the Paiwan language. The earliest nose flutes had only one hole, and when played they sounded like the call of an owl. As more holes were added, the flutes could reproduce the flowing sounds of mountain springs and waterfalls, or the rustling of bamboo groves. Amid the cacophony of modern life, the nose flute, which can imitate nature, produces the music that is closest to nature.

Etan is also an accomplished visual artist. The vecik engraving style that he invented uses traditional carving techniques with added colors to create pictures. These works, including If the Wind Stops Blowing One Day, which was acquired by the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, are all based on elements of Paiwan culture.

Learning the skills of making and playing the nose flute is the same. “In the not-too-distant future, when I become an elder, I can also pass along my knowledge to the next generation,” says Etan, explaining his own role.

The essence of culture and language

However, the thing that makes Pairang Pavavaljung happiest is that for the four years since his grandson Sakuliu Mananigai turned 15, he has been taking a bus each week from Taitung to Pingtung to learn the nose flute from his grandfather.

Mananigai, who is now a student at National Kao­hsiung Normal University, performed at the opening of the school’s anniversary celebrations, just as Pairang Pavavaljung always performs at important events like the weddings of his tribespeople and ordination ceremon­ies for indigenous pastors. “When my son learned the nose flute this was the continuation of a tradition, but for my daughter’s child to be learning this art gives me that feeling of joy you get from recovering a precious treasure that was lost,” says Pavavaljung in Paiwan.

Yu Weimin is another student who is now entering his second year of study. Half Paiwan by ancestry, he entered the Ministry of Culture’s Program for Preserving Folk Arts with the idea of recording and preserving tradi­tional Paiwan folk songs.

A graduate of the Department of Music at Fu Hsing Kang College who majored in the flute, Yu dis­covered that in comparison with the Western vocabulary of scales and pitches, the principles behind the nose flute’s sound production and the positioning of its holes (for example, the distance between holes is measured from the end of the flute) are similar to Western music ­theory. However, because in the past knowledge of the nose flute was passed down through the generations only by word of mouth, there are challenges in writing it down as sheet music today; especially difficult are capturing improvised tonal changes and interpret­ing tradi­tional Paiwan terminology.

In old Paiwan melodies, one can sense the sound of breezes blowing through bamboo groves, and the gentle tones express the ever-­changing seasons and nostalgic memories of home. To quote the ­lyrics of the song “Ai­na­luan” (“Ballad of Distant Memories”): “Our living heritage of music and sound keeps us close to our simple and un­preten­tious land.”