Book Review: "Beyond 'Innocence': Amis Aboriginal Song in Taiwan as an Ecosystem"

Beyond 'Innocence': Amis Aboriginal Song in Taiwan as an Ecosystem (SOAS Musicology Series) By Shzr Ee Tan. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2012. $114.95 Includes illustrations (black and white photos, map and music examples), appendices, bibliography, discography, and index.

Reviewed by Larry Robinson 

The song "Return to Innocence" by Engima features a field recording of the Ami aboriginal tribe of Taiwan and was eventually used as the 1996 Olympic theme song. This theme song later became a prime example of the mishandling of academic field recording and later copyright infringement. Beyond 'Innocence' explores the topic of cultural ownership by examining the many functions of music within the Ami community. As one of the most in-depth studies on Taiwanese aboriginal music in English to date, Shzr Ee Tan's book makes a valuable contribution to this literature. Based on six years of fieldwork exploration in an Amis village in Taitung, Taiwan between 2000 and 2006, Tan argues that Ami songs exist in an "ecosystem" of contexts, which changes their function. She explores the dichotomy of past and present, song as metaphor, political economic issues around aboriginal music both within and outside of Taiwan, and engages in musicological analysis. Tan's ecology metaphor re-conceptualizes our approach to copyright infringement and cultural ownership.

Tan's introduction sets the stage for her argument that no one is "innocent" in the case of the copyright infringement of the Ami aboriginal song used in Enigma's "Return to Innocence”—aboriginal songs were already circulating in an ecosystem of usage and functions without regulation in both the Taiwanese popular music industry and the aboriginal popular music scene. This "ecosystem" Tan speaks of is the "different integrating dimensions of traditional and contemporary singing activity [of song]" which includes "several interacting sub-systems, sometimes acting interdependently or as microcosms within microcosms" (7). Tan examines song as everyday life in chapter two, as ritual and Christian hymnody in chapter three, as performance in chapter four, and as popular music and political expression in chapter five. Difang, the Ami performer featured in Enigma's "Return to Innocence" went on to monopolize his fame by producing his own CD, which was not received well in many villages. While becoming an envied local star, he also helped reestablish the awareness of Taiwanese aboriginals. Tan finds that Amis melodies and lyrics are deliberately moved across genres: from a traditional shaman rain-praying songs to staged prayer-tuned performances to Christian hymns to new age-inspired songs.

In chapter one, "The Story So Far," Tan first carefully constructs a literature review detailing the history of academic research on Taiwanese aborigines and their music dating back to historical Chinese records from 220 CE. In the midst of this chronicle of writings on Taiwanese aborigines, Tan simultaneously outlines a history of Taiwan starting from the island’s physical attachment to Mainland China, through Japanese colonization of Taiwan during the 1930s and 1940s, to controversial contemporary works on Taiwan's past and present. Second, with this history in mind, Tan begins conceptualizing an Ami tribe identity in relation to Taiwan's other fourteen recognized aboriginal tribes and her fieldwork experience in an Ami village. Through her discussion on the Ami people's use of Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and the Ami dialect, Tan begins examining the role of language in how the villagers identify themselves and how they identify her as a Singaporean. In closing this chapter, Tan describes the elaborate story composed by her host family to legitimize her presents in the village: Returning to allegedly find her roots, Tan was accepted into an Ami family as the illegitimate daughter of the host family's father.

In chapter two, "In Search of an Amis Song Model," Tan begins establishing a framework for Ami music through semantic and musical analysis. Lifok, Tan's key informant, a seventy-eight-year-old well-respected Ami musician, systematically categorizes Ami music through function and context. According to his model, within contemporary village life, aboriginal music floats in an ecosystem of folk songs, dance performance songs, hymnal songs, functional/ritualistic aboriginal songs, art (music), and karaoke music. Although some villagers and schools argue that Lifok overthinks and generalizes, Tan finds that his ideas are confirmed by her observations of Ami practices. The key Ami musical genre, the ladhiw, which was used in Engima's "Return to Innocence," includes a song traditionally sung by women while peeling vegetables, drinking, or during festivals and at weddings. It is in this context/chapter that Tan's "ladhiw as everyday life" takes form, for example, in animal cries and the human voice through speech and song, and through sounds of nature, such as rain, thunder and wind. Based mainly on the diatonic scale, the song texts (lexical and non-lexical) have some root in styles derived from Japanese popular music forms. This begins to tighten Tan's main point that the music sample used by Engima may not have been utterly taken out of context.

In chapter three, "Mass Festival, Festival Mass," Tan focuses on the metaphor of Ami aboriginal songs as ritual. The names of Ami festivals in Mandarin can often cause confusion because the vocabulary that is already translated into Mandarin (Tan's primary mode of communication) is often used as a generalized term that does not reveal the nuanced musical functional differences between various Ami villages or other Taiwanese aboriginal tribes. In this chapter, Tan focuses on a five-day Kiloma'an festival that takes place during the second week of July, which includes detailed preparation, music, dancing, and games. This festival, which is largely social rather than religious, is organized by age groups. During this festival, tribe members perform for each other in contests, which heightens their performativity. Highlighting the striking impact of Christianity on Ami ceremonial music, Tan makes a point of stating that the majority of Ami tribe members practice Christianity not Buddhism or Daoism. Therefore, church hymns are also a large part of Ami musical repertoire. As a result, the context for these festivals and Ami music, although not entirely based on Catholicism, is also not entirely based on the stereotypical sense of aboriginal culture.

Although there are several points of musical function overlap, in chapter four, "Performers and Audiences," Tan attempts to move away from the traditional and ritualistic aspects of Ami music and into Ami music as entertainment and mass media. In this chapter, Tan examines the metaphor of Ami songs as a staged performance. Wedding, church, inter-village, and tourist performances of Ami music all demonstrate the versatile roles in which the villagers place their music. Through two case studies, one from London and the other from Taiwan, Tan examines how Ami people take their music out the village setting, which is typically viewed as isolated, and begin commercializing their performance style. By presenting these two cases, Tan demonstrates how the function of aboriginal music changes with its audience. She explores the multidimensional meaning of the word "performance" in Chinese, which can involve revealing what one has learned through testing or proving a proficient skill level to commercialized performances of Ami aboriginal music. Because the Ami people themselves base their performance content, style and genre categorization entirely on the context of performances, the relevance of authenticity and cultural representation is challenged.

In chapter five, "Aboriginal Pop," Tan examines Ami songs in the context of popular music and politics. Through exploring Taiwanese history, Tan examines the impact of the Japanese popular music model on Ami song through colonization and postcolonial ties. By following the transformation of Ami tribal song into popular music genres and the formation of a cassette culture in Taiwan, Tan reveals the extent to which context changes conceptions about music. By analyzing the early context of Ami song in popular music, she further argues that the multitude of musical contexts for Ami music creates genre. Tan does this by recontextualizing the narrative of the life of performer Lu Jingzi, the first aboriginal performer. Lu's solo career spanned Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, and her singing style blended that of Japanese enka and Ami song. In her reevaluation of cassette culture through the Ami context, Tan explores issues of copyright and ownership. Furthermore, she affirms the role of karaoke in perpetuating new contexts for aboriginal music as Ami songs fuse with rock and blues.

In her concluding chapter, "An Ecosystem of Taiwan Aboriginal Song," Tan further turns the groundbreaking Engima copyright infringement case on its head by placing the original field recording in a new context. Tan convincingly argues that there is a liminal space between categorical differences tabulated by informants. She deconstructs the notion of the village through examples that a village is not simply a self-contained entity, but in contrast, a system that is constantly reestablishing and reconstructing its identity through interactions with other villages and urban life. To strengthen her argument, Tan demonstrates that, historically speaking, some villages acted similar to contemporary cities by participating in global trade, which is not always accounted for when ethnographers analyze village life. It is in fact this complexity that turns the once seemingly self-contained music of the Ami people into an ecosystem of musical exchange with outside cultures well before Engima popularized their music. Ami musical forms exist as a musical entity, but they are also constructed through imagination. In the end, the strength of Tan's conclusion lies in the fact that she allows her work to sit in several viable frameworks. In addition, the data disc containing the sound excerpts from the book as well as some video footage allows listeners to hear the fluid genres in which Ami songs are situated.

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