One of Taiwan's biggest pop stars sings in an Indigenous language
TAIPEI — Everything about pop star Abao is musical. Her earrings jangle as she talks, and her deep belly laughter punctuates her conversations. She spontaneously breaks into song while explaining the Paiwan language she grew up speaking.
"My mother tongue of Paiwan is a lot like Spanish. It rises and falls, and so it meshes very easily with groovy things," Abao says.
At 41, Abao — her full name is Aljenljeng Tjaluvie — is one of Taiwan's most beloved music stars. Her chart-topping tunes have swept the island's top music accolades. And she's done it all by singing in the Indigenous Paiwan language — not Chinese, which dominates Taiwan's competitive music industry.
"When people think of Indigenous music, they think of some elder pounding a drum. That's important too, but young Indigenous people have their own way of living and their own community and they want to be able to mix their culture with what they like," she says.
The Paiwan people are one of 16 officially recognized Indigenous tribes in Taiwan, and the second-largest. Taiwan's President Tsai Yingwen is one-quarter Paiwan.
Taiwan has long had an outsized musical influence on the Mandarin Chinese-speaking world. Despite the island's small population (just over 23 million as of this year), it has generated abundant talent who, for decades, have graced music charts from mainland China to Hong Kong. Especially popular are Taiwan's Mandopop hits — Mandarin Chinese power ballads and disco-inspired dance songs from singers like Teresa Teng, whose saccharine love songs are now classics in China.
Artists like Abao are at the forefront of a whole new generation of Taiwanese musicians who do not sing in Mandarin Chinese, but rather their own Austronesian languages, native to Taiwan.
Their popularity reflects changing tastes in Taiwan, away from an exclusively Chinese-centered pop culture toward one that is uniquely Taiwanese. The shift has been further fueled by an overdue recognition of Indigenous culture and language in Taiwan, and a growing mainstream awareness of the island's Austronesian roots.
Those roots predate Chinese imperial conquest and cultural influence over Taiwan.
"We are the descendants of the first people who lived here," says Abao. "We kind of have the feeling of sitting at a table and watching one customer after another leave, but we Indigenous people are always left."
Like many Taiwanese singers, Abao began her career by singing Mandopop. She recorded her first hit in 2003. But by 2015, she'd made a shift. That year, she finished recording an album of traditional Indigenous songs with her grandmother, a process that she says gave her the confidence to fully pivot to singing and writing songs in the language of the Paiwan people.
Just under 2.5% of Taiwanese are Indigenous — part of the original Austronesian people who lived on the island for thousands of year before Chinese settlers, Dutch traders and Japanese armies came and went.
In the early 20th century, the island's Japanese colonial government began taking land from the Indigenous tribes. Later, millions of Chinese troops fleeing a civil war on the mainland arrived on Taiwan, setting up an autocratic government which banned the use of Indigenous languages.
Shortly after being elected in 2016, President Tsai offered an "apologetic attitude" for the state's mistreatment of aboriginal people.
"We have all met not-very-nice people who asked why my skin is so dark, or joked that my parents were alcoholics," a discriminatory stereotype of Indigenous people, Abao remembers.
When she was seven, her parents moved her out of Taiwan's more rural east to the southern city of Kaohsiung. "My parents' generation had a tough life," she says. "They had few opportunities, so they wanted me and my sister to get the same education as the Han Chinese and not only spend time with other Indigenous people."
For years, her father drove a taxi for a living, and Abao would sit in the front seat with him and listen in on him and his passengers as they made small talk in the various Chinese languages spoken in Taiwan.
"His taxi also had a radio and I would listen to all sorts of music — music sung in Taiwanese, in the Hakka language, and Western music." ABBA was one of the groups she recalls hearing.
Shadowing her father also allowed her to attain fluency in Taiwanese, a variation of the Chinese language spoken widely on the island, in addition to Mandarin Chinese.
"My father was the first person who pushed me to learn Taiwanese," she says. "He feared we would be bullied and we wouldn't even understand."
On the weekends, she made frequent trips back to the Paiwan community to see the rest of her family.
Abao now credits her love of mixing music styles to her ability to code switch among Taiwan's many ethnicities and languages. Her music draws on gospel, R&B and techno.
"I was always going between my tribal life and my city life, so I got very used to switching," she says. "And I got used to mixing a lot of things together, and that influences my music."
Writing songs in the Paiwan language has let her rediscover and relearn her mother tongue. Much of her songwriting process for her last two albums began with recording long conversations with her mother, who died last year.
"People say my lyrics are like poems, but my mother and I would just chat and chat and suddenly get to a phrase and think, wow that sentence is so funny! And that would become a lyric," she says, laughing.
That writing process was one of the inspirations behind one of Abao's biggest hits, called "Mother Tongue" or "Kinakaian" in Paiwan:
"Even though you have never heard of me, my faith and belief are with you.
Can you hear me? I have been talking to you.
Listen, listen, listen, with your heart."
The song is part of an album of the same name that won her Album of the Year and Best Indigenous Language Album in 2020 at Taiwan's equivalent of the Grammys, the Golden Melody Awards.
Music, Abao believes, is the most accessible way to connect people in Taiwan — "to slowly reduce the concept of what the 'other' must be like," as she puts it.
And she has become so popular that when she gives a concert, her fans — no matter their age or ethnicity or mother tongue — now sing the Paiwan lyrics right back at her.
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