Abao Shatters Boundaries in Taiwan's Mainstream Music Scene

Abao Shatters Boundaries in Taiwan's Mainstream Music Scene

What you need to know

Abao, a Paiwanese singer, reinterprets traditional folk songs with contemporary arrangements, creating something different from the usual Mandopop.

By Chia-hsuan Ku

A bright voice answers the phone with a heedless air, “Hello! Can you hear me clearly?” 

Having been acquainted with Abao’s penetrating singing voice, I was slightly disoriented from her carefree greeting. 

Abao, an indigenous Taiwanese singer, was recently nominated for eight prizes at the Golden Melody Awards, the Grammys of Taiwan, with her album “kinakaian / Mother Tongue.” One can imagine that her schedule has been fully packed, and as we spoke she was riding in her agent’s car. Her answers were by turns interrupted by Google Maps directions and dashboard camera speed notifications. But she was fully at ease amid the flux, and spoke to me as if we were on a road trip together. 

“I was recording when they announced the nominations. My reaction then was ‘Oh, okay,’” she said. “It wasn’t until a week or two later, when I was texting with Arai Soichiro [Abao’s producer], to share congratulations, when I realized we were both caught in work that we didn’t have a chance to register any reaction to the nominations.”

It finally dawned on Abao that she alone had received eight nominations, one of which was for her lyrics written in Paiwan language, her mother tongue. Indigenous people are estimated to be only 2% of Taiwan’s population of 23 million. Abao is a member of the Paiwan tribe, which only has slightly over 100,000 people according to the latest census.

Making it on her own

In 2003, Abao had already debuted with a partner, Brandy, as a vocal duo. Their first album scored a Best Vocal Ensemble Golden Melody award. Although Abao’s enchanting performance won her much attention at the time, she admitted wanting to leave the music business after completing the Mandarin-language album. 

“Making it as a musician requires a fair amount of luck, but I am more inclined to a stable life. At the time I thought that if creating music wasn’t going to bring a good, stable life, then I should just stop."

Soon after, Abao returned to her original job as a nurse, at which she would work for many years. She didn’t restart her music career until she was asked to help her maternal grandmother record a Paiwan folk album.

“After completing my grandmother’s album, I suddenly wondered how I didn’t understand many of the lyrics. Of course, old folk songs have words with deep meanings. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to express the cadence of these folk songs.” Abao said. 

She compared folk songs to the reggaeton hit, Despacito. “A lot of people can sing without knowing what the lyrics mean. I thought at the time that Taiwanese indigenous can also make music to reach foreign audiences.”

Transitioning from Mandarin to Paiwan-language music, Abao explained there were vast differences between the two. “Mandopop already has an established style and method of delivery. Every word must be enunciated in a certain way, there are rules around breathing, and so on,” she said. “There is not much room for expressing new feelings. For example, a love song has to be sad: heavy sadness, moderate sadness, and light sadness! (laughs)

Abao went on to say that there’s nothing wrong with Mandopop’s style, and it could just be that this is what local audiences like. But when recording Paiwan songs, she didn’t feel the same pressure to meet the market’s expectations for Mandopop. She had the leeway to experiment. 

Bringing traditional tunes into contemporary music

Like many indigenous people of her generation, Abao and her family moved from the countryside to Kaohsiung since she started attending school. Her parents still spoke in Paiwan language at home so she could understand most of it, but she lost her fluency in speaking since she had no one else to chat with. 

“They [Abao’s parents] don’t really have the patience for me sometimes, and they would just say okay, okay stop talking,” she said. 

In 2015, Abao launched the Nanguaq Roundabout Music Collection Plan, which collected a library of talented indigenous singers in every tribe. She went into the mountains to find these singers and recorded folk songs from each tribe, hoping to save precious cultural heritage for the next generation. 

In her latest album “Mother Tongue,” Abao reinterprets indigenous folk songs using contemporary musical arrangements. This is seen in her collaboration with DJ Didilong for a song on Indigenous-Han romance called “tjakudain,” which is based on a folk song about frustrated love. The Paiwan-language title, tjakudain, means “What can be done?,” and the lyrics adopt a new resonance when attached to a story of a contemporary cross-cultural romance.

A liberating creative process

Most of Taiwan’s highland indigenous tribes have no written languages. “I think our senses are magnified precisely because we don’t have written words,” Abao said, adding that indigenous people recorded their moments and feelings in engravings, pottery, and symbolic works. These all became outlets for creativity. Neither visual arts nor music has a fixed structure, granting free reign to the imagination.

“Mother Tongue”’s album art is the work of Paiwan artist Reretan Pavavaljung, whose visual themes refer to the Paiwan Sun God beliefs. On the cover is a symbol of a viper’s spirit, the sun, and dew, arranged in a pattern to ward off evil spirits. At the center of the grass blade and lily pattern is a dual-god with wide arms to embrace all living things. 

Photo Credit:阿笛丹 Atitan Art

Pavavaljung also created an image to go along with every song. The song “Thank You” is represented by a betel palm tree, a Paiwan symbol of blessing. The tree sprouts two hands joined together in a prayer gesture, representing mutual aid and friendly cooperation between people. The album’s title song “Mother Tongue” is illustrated in a winding mountain road lined with warning signs, representing how a mother’s nagging might be offering us guidance. 

Photo Credit:阿笛丹 Atitan Art

In the music video, Abao uses a great number of dance elements. “Actually, for us, dancing and singing always go together," she said. 

Her dances aren’t like those from photogenic dance groups, but natural moves she remembered from family parties or tribal events, Abao added. When people heard a beat, they danced. 

“I think this can be considered bringing a traditional practice into the present,” she said.

Lemon pie

As the car drove on, our conversation departed from serious matters. I asked Abao about her hobbies outside of work. She said without skipping a beat, “I’ve been eating a lot of lemon pies.” 

Is eating lemon pie a legitimate hobby? Before I could slip in a follow-up question, she went on to chat about a bakery she discovered, and how she will drive there to buy lemon pies on her days off. She struck an earnest tone in saying, “I really do love lemon pies.” 

In her spare time, Abao also mindlessly scrolls on Netflix to find shows, like the rest of us. Recently, she’s been watching documentaries on musicians and learning more about electronic music. 

Photo Credit:Screenshot from〈tjakudain 無奈〉Music Video

She admitted to not really understanding electronic music before making her album. “I realized that pop music is usually about real events in our world, and hip hop emerges as a protest,” Abao said. “But electronic music… it skips the unpleasant process and gives you a direct escape route, the feelings of a new world.” 

That Paiwan-language music has resonated with Mandarin-speaking audiences shows true the transcendent power of music. Even if we cannot grasp the meaning of the lyrics, we can easily immerse ourselves in the melodies and rhythms. 

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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