By Trista di Genova
The Wild East Magazine
Hsinchu County, Taiwan – In May, three friends and I went to Wufeng, a group of Aboriginal villages in Hsinchu County where the Little People Festival is held biannually (this year in November).
Lynn Miles had invited along his long-time friend, the legendary Taiwan Aboriginal singer Kimbo (胡德夫, Hu De-fu), as well as my Canadian sidekick Meaghan Weatherdon and my good self. That afternoon, we all had the honor of meeting with tribal leaders of the Atayal tribe in Wufeng to work on the issue of holding this year’s Peacefest there.
Afterwards we sat and drank xiaomijiu (millet wine) outside together on a fine May Day afternoon with our new Agong (uncle) in his village, and his incredible cook and lovely wife Mimi.
Meanwhile, influential local strangers bounded out of nowhere, coming out of the woodworks to pay their respects to Kimbo. For instance, there was a Hsinchu County Councilman who in fair English said that when he was a schoolteacher, he’d once invited Kimbo to speak with his students.
Then later, about 30 locals gathered, enthusiastically welcoming Kimbo’s impromptu performance of a dozen songs, armed only with a child-sized, battery-operated keyboard, in a small lecture room next to the village’s prayer lodge.
As we were leaving, Kimbo knocked his head rather hard when getting into the van. While the rest of us then went for a swim for hours in a mountain river, Kimbo passed out in the passenger seat. Concerned he might have a concussion, we woke him up to make sure he was okay once; fortunately, he was just a bit groggy from the millet wine and lack of sleep.
On the way back down the mountain, we all stopped for dinner at “Bin Laden’s pig pen cafe” in Sanping, Kimbo was a wonderful gentleman and generously ching ke’d me and my blonde sidekick. His English was excellent, and he was a lively conversationalist.
Kimbo and I were able to have an extended chat that afternoon; he agreed to allow me to interview him for The Wild East Magazine, about his experiences not only as an award-winning Aboriginal singer, but what led him to become an activist and leader in Taiwan’s democratic and human rights movement.
The Wild East: What are you smoking in that peace pipe? What do you smoke?
Kimbo: ‘I smoke any brand [of cigarettes]; any without brand.
Kimbo was born in 1950 in Xinku, Taitung, “near a small harbor of the Amis tribe,” he said. His mother was Amis and father Baiwan. He lived there until he was 2 ½ years old, then moved again to the village Jialau, near Taimali, his “final home,” as he called it.
“Typhoon loves us,” he said, of the village that floods and is nearly wiped away every few years; the latest devastation took place during Typhoon Morakot last August.
The Wild East: How has the Taiwan government’s role changed with regard to assistance in disasters?
Kimbo: After 9-21 [a devastating magnitude 7.6 earthquake that occurred Sept. 21, 1999], the government started doing things like this [assistance in rebuilding], but before that, no matter how many times it happened, we rebuild ourselves.
Kimbo: We take sand from the river, and stone from the harbor. We didn’t have any idea that anyone should help us; it’s our own business.
After 9-21, the government “threw payments” at affected areas in Taiwan, he says. Now, “No matter [whether] winds, or water damage to farms and houses, people are waiting for the government to help.”
His father worked for the county government in Kuji, in household registration. His mother was also a local official. “When I was a little boy, she used to be a minor village official for six villages of the Baiwan tribe.”
At an early age, he noticed the KMT government’s changing regard – and growing interest in — the land of his ancestors.
“At first, I thought they were just watching us. But they really wanted the forest, to make it the property of the nation. They took our forest. That’s why I wrote the song – “Standing on My Land.”
The 2004 Golden Melody (金曲獎) award winner only started learning piano at the age of 26; his CD “In a Flash” was his first.
“Because I don’t read music, I don’t have the formal fingering for piano. I just face the wall, and do what I want to do on that. I just keep singing and recording, then it becomes a song by playing piano.”
He left home when he was 11 to study in Tamshui, at the same music college as the pop singer Jay Chou (pron. Tsou Jie-lun, 周杰倫).
Then “I came back to learn songs from Difang, my godfather [Kuo Ying-nan, 郭英男, of Enigma’s “Return to Innocence” fame]; my aunts who taught me Puyuma songs; Paiwan songs from my mother, and also Danar, a younger friend of mine who knows a lot of Paiwan songs.”
WE: What are Aboriginal songs mostly about?
Kimbo: We don’t use many lyrics, but we use the voice in the old way, to sing to our ancestors. But still we express a lot of words… and tears, joyness. Our ‘lyrics’ are mostly praising this wonderful world. If I feel lonely, I may sing this: Ayahhhhh. The words may be meaningless, but they are more than the lyrics. We like to use a lot of murmuring and voices. Our ancestors for thousands of years settled on this way to sing. The ‘words’ are an answer in a quiet place.
Kimbo mentioned that the booklet that comes with his CD “In a Flash” contains stories about his songs and activities during Taiwan’s New Folk movement, and Democratic movement.
Kimbo: The way that we sing music is different from Western music, or of Han people. We sing not for the purpose of letting people hear, but to let the Creator hear, our praising. They’re called Xutse, or ancient songs without lyrics. But they express more than songs without lyrics.
He told how Enigma’s “Return to Innocence” took a Taiwanese Aboriginal song and turned it into an universally recognized melody. Fifteen years before the song became an international hit, his friend and fellow singer, Difang, was invited by the French government to take part in cultural activities organized by Taiwan Professor Shu-Tang, who collected Aboriginal songs as part of his research; they were invited to a studio to record the song. These songs were kept for 10 years, then opened up for commercial use, Kimbo explained [the French government sold them to EMI]. “But in Amis, this song is what they call ‘songs of old men’!” he mused. “It’s something they sing while they’re drinking” [a traditional Amis Palang song, alternately called “Weeding and Paddyfield Song No. 1”, “Elders’ Drinking Song”, and “Jubilant Drinking Song” – Wikipedia]
When it was used in 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, “People listened and liked it, even if there was nothing to translate. It is a great thing for my ancestors to do,” he continued, explaining the history behind this comment. “The Taiwan government says its population is mostly from Fukien; but they came and ignored our music. They said it was just a sound, it had no value, and are always repeating those things. In music school, they don’t use world music, one of the most beautiful sounds of this world. Now, when young people write songs they don’t have a connection with the people of the land. The educational process doesn’t take our songs as important, but world scholars do. The area of the Bunun tribe was found to actually be one of the world’s richest areas for world music, and is considered a cultural treasure of the world.”
WE: Have many Aboriginal songs been recorded?
Kimbo: They’ve been recorded a lot, but just for private research use, for PhD doctors to report on, say at Academia Sinica [Taiwan’s premier research institution].
WE: Can they be accessed by anybody now?
Kimbo: I don’t know. I think so. Check with TaiDa’s (NTU, National Taiwan University) Anthropology Department.
WE: Why do you think the Japanese [who colonized the island 1895-1945] were the best at documenting these things?
Kimbo: They did a lot because they planned for this place to be theirs, to make this place their land, their territory. So they studied Taiwan’s plants, animals, insects, songs and tribes — deep research. This is why Academia Sinica still uses the Japanese research as a first step.
WE: I’ve heard that Taiwan’s aborigines learned from the Dutch how to write down their language and history, but that under the Japanese occupation these tribal records were mostly destroyed.
Kimbo: The Dutch and British gave us written language, but their time here was too short. In the Ming dynasty, Koxinga (Chiang ching tang) destroyed Dutch information at the Dutch harbor about tribes don’t exist anymore. Then, too, Koxinga’s 80,000 soldiers married into the Aboriginal population to become part of the culture and to raise their population.
But it costs a lot of energy to talk about it.
WE: Who treated Aboriginals better, the Chinese or Japanese?
Kimbo: Nobody treated us better. They all treated us like shit…!
In his youth, Kimbo began to study more in depth “why the land was so important to us, and the way the government treated us and our land,” and articulating in favor of an Aboriginal rights movement. In 1982, Kimbo was instrumental in starting an Aboriginal rights movement within Taiwan’s democratic movement at the time, reasoning, “If Taiwan Aboriginals don’t take part, the movement hasn’t started.”
Kimbo’s three marriages became an important aspect of his formation as an activist. The last marriage ended, he says, when he wanted to register his three-year-old son under his tribal name, but his (ethnic Chinese) wife “gave no answer.” He realized then she did not want the registration to be made under the Puyuma tribe, and “That’s why I turned my face and left her after 8 years. You cannot ignore your ancestors… If I didn’t [choose his son’s tribe] it’d be harder for him later on in life.”
One of Kimbo’s great concerns at this time became indigenous people’s right to keep their tribal name. “For the Hakka in Taiwan, there were no rules, but for us there was the official, government law. And once Aboriginals gave up their identity, they could never get it back again.”
He went to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and told Chu Chang-huan, “You are Hakka, I am Puyuma. Let’s go to the place to give up our names and become Han.’ He said, ‘why us two only?’”
WE: Who are the Aboriginals in Taiwan?
Kimbo: There are half a million of us, plus a million who are married to Han. There are fourteen tribes… for now. Sometimes they disappear for a while, then come back, like the Shiraya, in Jiayi, they [the government] let them come back, the reborn tribes. They’d [claim their heritage] as a descendant in Ilan.”
Although this year he’s taking part in the Taiwan Pavilion at this year’s Shanghai Expo, he says in recent years, “I haven’t traveled as much as I used to” [a back injury plagued him for some time].
WE: How many villages have you seen, and what do you do when you visit them?
Kimbo: Over the years, I’ve seen 300-plus plus villages altogether. I go into the village, and try to be with them. I talk less and don’t go there for singing purpose. They often don’t even know that’s me!”
WE: Why do you go?
Kimbo: I go to learn their songs and languages. Before, they would ask me, ‘Are you the leader?[of the Aboriginal rights movement]’ I was so ashamed when they say that, because there are so many villages I’ve never been to. So I go quietly.
WE: Why aren’t there more aboriginal foundations and non-profit, fund-raising, charitable institutions in Taiwan?
Kimbo: Nobody can do that, fundraising like that. If a foundation wants to work around Taiwan, you have to get NT$30 million to register an organization – no exception! Those foundations are mostly assisted by big enterprise, for their tax deduction. Which Aboriginal has this kind of enterprise? Taiwan has a foundation – they are my friends, and I will have raised 9 million for my alma mater in Tamshui. I recorded my CD at their school church; they used to have choir there.
WE: What was it like when you met Jay Chou at the Golden Melody Awards?
Kimbo: We knew each other when he gave me the prize for the Golden Melody award. When my CD was nominated in the Top Ten by the Association of Taiwan Music, at the award ceremony he came to congratulate me. I was his elder mate up at Xue-tsang. The first time I touched his hand, we said how much we miss our middle school” (pron. Dan Zhang Tsongxue).
WE: Do you like his music?
Kimbo: Yeah, sure. I don’t know much about his composition. He’s a very mass songwriter… I’ve had only 1 CD of songs, in 30 years!
WE: What do you wish for your people?
Kimbo: That they’ll be treated exactly as full men.
WE: Do you think the Council of Indigenous Peoples is effective?
Kimbo: Right now it’s not, and we should think about working with them when they’re not yet a councilor, so they learn to work for the highest benefit. Elect me, they say, ‘I will do for you when I get in there’… but then they spend a lot of energy on their own benefit as congressmen.
WE: What do you think about the laws in Taiwan that have been in place for 40 years, reserving seats for Aboriginal legislators?
Kimbo: They’re another side of democracy. The Council treats legislation as a chance for making suggestions on a treaty; but if [the treaty’s] not good for us, they still raise their hand.
[Congressmembers] should let us know what is good for us. We should have veto power over what’s affecting us, because we’ll never be in the majority.