Aboriginal music has long been recognized as one of Taiwan’s cultural treasures, especially after The Elders’ Drinking Song , a traditional Amis song, was sampled by Enigma for its international hit Return to Innocence in the mid-1990s. Since then, many Aboriginal artists have been searching for ways to update their music for the 21st century without losing the flavor that makes it unique. Different approaches have been tried — some more successful than others — but few have been more successful than singer-songwriter Suming Rupi (舒米恩·魯碧), who released his second solo album, Amis (阿米斯), this past summer.
Suming, who first came to prominence in the indie music scene as the leader of the rock band Totem (圖騰樂團), released his first solo album, the self-titled Suming, in 2010. Whereas the majority of the songs Suming wrote for Totem were in Mandarin, all of the songs on his first solo venture were in Amis. Musically, he incorporated elements of folk, pop, bossa nova and even electronica, as well as traditional Aboriginal sounds. The album was critically well-received, appearing on several best-of-the-year lists and winning a Golden Melody Award for Best Aboriginal Album.
On Amis, Suming explores much of the same territory that he covered on Suming, while improving on his previous work. He makes significant use of keyboards, a departure from the guitar-based songs he did with Totem. While he used other musicians on several tracks from his first album, on this album he does everything except some of the backing vocals — the only exception being the lush-sounding A Song for Fetching Water (Miladom), which features cello and violin along with Suming’s guitar. Suming evokes a similarly atmospheric feeling on the opener Amis, an updating of a traditional Amis song, and the tracks Shingo and A Walk in the City (Lumakat i maci), on which the singing consists entirely of vocables such as “O hay o ho I yan.”
On the track John Suming, Suming introduces himself to visitors to his hometown over a catchy dance beat. The album’s sole Mandarin song, Don’t Be So Quick to Say You Love Me When You Are in Dulan (別在都蘭的土地上輕易的說著你愛我), is a bossa nova-style ballad in which he sings of his trepidation about what the future may hold despite the beauty of the present moment. On the High Seas (Tayla maraayay mifoting), first released as a single in 2010, is much better and tells the story of a young aboriginal man who has taken a job on a fishing boat to support his family. On the melodic ballad Solo, Suming sings in Japanese, with lyrics provided by Taiwan-based Japanese writer Aoki Yuka. Wind (Fali) combines traditional Amis group singing with an insistent dance beat. The album closes strongly with the melodic I Love You (Maolahay kako tisowanang).
Overall, Amis is a worthy successor to Suming’s first album. While fans of Totem may regret the absence of any rock-based tunes, there is no question that Suming is just as skilled at the genres he tackles here, and he is able to incorporate a much more distinctive Aboriginal element into his songs than he did with Totem. The packaging is elaborate and well done. One notable feature of the booklet that accompanies the album is that the lyrics are provided in five languages: Amis, Mandarin, English, Japanese and French. Whether Suming can overcome the prejudice many mainstream Taiwanese listeners have against songs in minority languages and achieve a breakthrough hit remains to be seen, but on artistic merit alone, this album deserves to be heard by a wide audience.