Moving Music that Transcends Language

2020 / April

Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Wind Music /tr. by Bruce Humes

A member of Taitung’s Pinuyumayan community, Sangpuy Katatepan has been deeply attracted to the ancient melodies of his tribe since childhood. He composes the lyrics for each song on his albums in the Abori­ginal language of his people. This love for the land is channeled by a robust yet gentle voice that not only moves the Taiwanese, but also transcends the language barrier, reson­ating with musicians abroad and earning him a gold medal at the September 2017 Global Music Awards in the USA.

“Singing is my life”

After he removes makeup applied for a promotional shoot and dons square-framed glasses, baseball cap and military camo pants, the off-duty Sangpuy looks very casual. Smiling as he recalls his musical journey, he says in a slightly raspy voice, “Becoming a singer? It never occurred to me!”

“I never studied how to sing per se. Singing is just my life.” In Aboriginal culture, there is no script with which to chronicle history, so lived experience and wisdom are passed down through carving, weaving and song. In the tribe, there are different songs for different occasions and moods. Singing is as natural and as necessary as breathing.

As a child, Sangpuy often practiced singing with relatives and friends. After arranging to meet up at someone’s house, they’d take along some musical instruments and rehearse. But no one imagined that from among these children, future Golden Melody Award winning vocalists such as Paudull (Chen Jiannian) and A-Mei (Kulilay Amit) would emerge, along with other behind-the-scenes musicians.

“Back then, writing songs made you a bad-ass! My big brothers and their friends composed plenty in high school, and I followed in their footsteps by writing my own.”

At the time, there was a very popular singing com­peti­tion in Taitung, “The Soaring Generation.” It attracted many young participants, and also nurtured many Aboriginal singers. It was in this environment that Sangpuy began penning his own compositions.

Cherishing culture, yearning for Nature

Sangpuy describes growing up during the “era of enticement.” In the nineties, TV, video games and other forms of entertainment gradually became popular in his home village, and so the young spent less time with the older generation. 

“But I was a little different. I liked to be with them,” recounts Sangpuy. He recognized that they possessed an invaluable treasure—the ballads of yesteryear they intoned—that resonated with him, moving the very depths of his soul. In order to learn the tribe’s mother tongue and ancient songs, he cherished the time spent with his elders and regularly visited them.

Motivated by his respect for and pride in his native culture, Sangpuy won election as head of the local tribal youth association. It was not until the end of his second three-year term that he finally left his tribal community in Taitung to realize his desire to seek success in society at large. To gain a foothold, he chose Shulin District in New Taipei City, where his extended family is based up north, and got a job as a metal worker in an industrial zone. In his leisure time, he cycled along the coast and admired Nature’s beauty.

Biking through streets and alleys is when musical inspira­tion is most likely to strike Sangpuy. He often hums and sings to himself, and if a melody emerges, he records it with his mobile. If he hears a distinctive sound in his environment, he captures it too.

The path to stardom

Aboriginal vocalist Biung (Wang Hung-en) had recom­mended Sangpuy for an audition to appear as a special guest in the concert celebrating the tenth anniversary of A-Mei’s professional debut. Just as Sangpuy was trying out, A-Mei happened by. His robust voice, brimming with untold tales, evoked the memory of her father, who had just passed away, and she couldn’t hold back her tears. 

Then she noticed Sangpuy exiting the recording studio. “That was you!” she exclaimed, suddenly realizing that the person behind that heartrending voice was a younger but familiar fellow Pinuyumayan.

That was the start of some 40 performances on the road with A-Mei’s concert tour. After three years or so, Sangpuy—then approaching his thirties—decided to put his own songs in order and cut his first solo album.

To raise funds, Sangpuy drafted a plan and applied to the Council of Indigenous Peoples for a subsidy. He obtained a modest grant totaling NT$500,000 (less than US$17,000 at current exchange rates), but despite being strapped for money, he toughed it out and completed production of Dalan. Surprisingly, given the no-frills production process, the album was shortlisted in five categories for the 2013 edition of Taiwan’s largest music competition, the Golden Melody Awards, and Sangpuy emerged as the winner for Best Aboriginal Singer.

Remarks Sangpuy, visibly moved: “As long as the music comes from your heart, even without big-time funding, you’ll be heard.”

Diverse musical manifestations

At the awards ceremony, Sangpuy, dressed in the tradi­tional garb of the Pinuyumayan, went down on one knee as his mother placed a floral crown upon his head as a mark of honor. He invited the other nominees for Best Abori­ginal Singer to come up and join him, and then, a sign proclaiming “Protect Our East Coast!” in hand, he spoke out on behalf of the ecology of his native region. For Sangpuy, the award was not the result of his personal success in the competition; it was an honor bestowed on the land itself. 

On Dalan (Pinuyumayan for “Road”), half the songs are contemporary interpret­ations of ancient tunes. Sangpuy was keen to preserve his tribal ­culture through this record, enabling his fellow Pinuyumayan to hear their mother tongue anytime, ­anywhere.

Thanks to his passion for his home region, Sangpuy became acquainted with other singers who share similar ideas, including Sheng-xiang & Band, Fire EX., and Hsieh Ming-yu. Interacting with them helped Sangpuy recognize the potential for integrating more instruments into his music, as he did for his second album, on which he added the sound of the yueqin (“moon lute”) as an accompany­ing instrument, bringing a fresh sound to indigen­ous folk music.

Sangpuy collects unique musical instrument sounds, hoping to use them in future compositions. On the day of our interview, he takes out his mobile phone, and clearly excited, opens YouTube to share a video of the latest instrument he has fallen for, the duduk, an ancient Armenian double-reed woodwind. “Sounds neat, eh?” he exclaims dreamily.

“I like to search for primeval sounds, ones that are almost never heard nowadays.” Sangpuy admits that he rarely listens to popular music now. He admires singers like Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian soloist, and even the songs of an anonymous Japanese granny can attract his attention—because via their vocals, both manifest a dynamic, unredacted sense of life.

Language connects us to the soil

Seeing so many music videos in Sangpuy’s personal collection, this reporter can’t resist asking: “Which one’s your favorite?” The video that he plays in response is a documentary. A swath of pure white snow, a few Himalayan natives and grazing sheep aside, there are no subtitles or manu­factured soundtrack—just the tinkle of a bell hanging from a sheep’s neck, a person’s panting, and the sough of the wind blowing across the snow-covered land. The soundscape fascin­ates Sangpuy.

“This is their life. Just a snapshot, but it’s a joy to see.” Images of a traditional people’s way of life remind Sangpuy of the past of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. The Bunun and Atayal were formerly somewhat nomadic, but the Japanese colonial government decreed that the Aborigines had to reside collectively in fixed communities, so this part of their traditions was lost.

Nostalgia for tradition is reflected in the lyrics on Sangpuy’s albums. He insists that they all be in his tribal tongue. “Language is the crucial link to the land. Losing our language is like abandoning our land.”

In this modern era, many young people in indigenous villages don’t speak the language of their forebears fluently, but Sangpuy has never worried this would negatively impact record sales. “I just do my thing without considering the market,” he says nonchalantly.

And that appears to be the case. Dalan has already undergone three pressings, and the second is now underway for his second album, Yaangad. Such is the appeal of “moving music that transcends language.”    

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