Fri, Aug 11, 2006 - Page 15 News List

The evolution of Betel Nuts

By Ron Brownlow  /  STAFF REPORTER

Among the Amis brothers and cousins who at various times perform as the Betel Nuts Brothers are, from left, ?pi, Budu, Huegu, Chalaw and Docdoc.


One of the tragedies of globalization is the virtually inevitable disappearance of cultures that were better at making music than dominating their neighbors. But sometimes an anthropologist or music producer gets there first, an album is recorded, and a particular manifestation of a culture is immortalized.

This is what happened with the Betel Nuts Brothers, an Aboriginal band whose members will perform separately tomorrow at concerts in Neihu and Pingtung. The Brothers are members of the Amis tribe — they prefer the term Pangcah people — and they perform Amis songs and new material with acoustic guitars, congo drums, traditional wooden and bamboo drums, and vocals that often feature call-and-response segments.

The Brothers, who sing to preserve their heritage, have become fixtures on Taiwan's folk and World Music scenes. “You can't be still when they're playing. You just have to get up and dance,” said Irene Huang (黃婷儀), project manager at the Brother's label, Trees Music & Art (大大樹音樂圖像, “It's like music is in their cells.”

Their story begins in 1987, when US academic Christopher Roberts came to Taiwan to study the Chinese stringed instrument known as the qin. Roberts was staying at a hotel in Hualien when by chance he heard a performance by ‘Api (阿比), a singing and dancing instructor from the village Amis call Ciwidian (Suilien, 水璉) who worked for culture villages in Hualien County.

Roberts instantly noticed a similarity with traditional songs from Papua New Guinea, which he had spent years documenting. He showed an interest and was introduced to ‘Api's identical twin Huegu (迴谷), a self-taught guitar player who will give a solo concert tomorrow in Pingtung.

“I knew right away that I had encountered a genuine, creative and beautiful aspect of Taiwan in the way Huegu interpreted Amis vocal lines into the actual playing of his guitar,” Roberts, who now lives in the US, wrote Wednesday in an e-mail. “It was both contemporary and traditional, and could only be done in Taiwan.”

Huegu's relatives told Roberts that they wanted their songs to be preserved and had been making efforts to write down the words as taught to them by their parents. Roberts promised to help write down the notes.

It took some time to secure funding and arrange for a visa, but in 1994 Roberts returned and in conjunction with Trees Music & Art produced the original Betel Nuts album, which features Huegu and ‘Api, their father Mui Valah (姆伊瓦拉) and cousin Valah Udai (瓦拉屋代). The album also contains songs in a related language from Papua New Guinea.

Huegu, a truck driver and construction worker, and ‘Api didn't quit their day jobs, but they have gone on to enjoy a mildly popular following and recorded two more albums, Bura Bura Yan and Hunters Who Lost Their Lands (失守獵人). A notable addition was Docdoc (達克達), a surgeon who sings and plays guitar, and with Huegu now forms the core of the group.

Hunters sees the group evolving towards a more generic folk sound. The most powerful piece is Bright as the Eyes of Frogs (青蛙的眼睛), an adaptation of an Amis song that was recorded on Betel Nuts as Ka Urahan A Radiw (那會是什麼呢). Frogs features more powerful vocals, blues-inflected acoustics and backup vocals. The addition of a shaman's chant turns the original love song into a tribute to the Pangcah nation.

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