Listening to Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw sing can be a transcendent experience. Whether it’s at the intimate Witch House (女巫店) or a corner of the Eslite Music Store (誠品音樂館), his forceful, penetrating voice has the ability to teleport audiences from urban settings to a place where Aborigines believe the wind is their friend, and can be summoned by whistling. When the musician talks, he frequently uses natural metaphors like insects, rivers and trees to get his point across.
It is no wonder, then, that Sangpuy is often introduced as a young man with an old soul, a description the 35-year-old Pinuyumayan musician takes great pride in.
“I love hanging out with tribal elders, singing ancient tunes with them and listening to the tales they tell that happened over a century ago,” Sangpuy said.
He added: “Music is an ability given to me by our ancestors. I am here to share it with others.”
Born and raised in the Pinuyumayan community of Katatipul in Taitung, Sangpuy has always been drawn to the company of his elders. A moment of enlightenment came early in life when, as a junior high school student, he found a cassette tape of his grandfather’s singing and was immediately captivated. He started to learn the Pinuyumayan language and ancient tribal songs from village elders and became one of the few young members in Katatipul, or Jhihben (知本) as it is known in Chinese, who could communicate using the tribal tongue.
As a teen, Sangpuy joined Palakuwan, a youth meeting house that is unique to the Pinuyumayan tribe. Banned by the Japanese during the colonial era and later under the martial law imposed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Palakuwan was restored in Katatipul about 20 years ago by villagers who, after participating in an Aboriginal performance staged at the National Theater (國家戲劇院), decided to revive the Pinuyumayan culture.
Functioning as the political, military, administrative and educational center, Palakuwan is where young Pinuyumayan men acquire skills and survival knowledge, study history and learn about rituals, traditional stories and morality before they are recognized as adults, Sangpuy explains.
“It is utterly important to know your history, culture and traditions because everything you do today is linked to the past,” he said.
Sangpuy’s experiences with the youth association turned out to become a significant part of his life. Not only did the Pinuyumayan musician receive comprehensive training in the minutiae of Palakuwan, but he was appointed leader — twice. It’s a position that requires complete dedication to the tribe.
“We are a matriarchal society. Women own land, houses, crops and livestock, whereas a man only has his knife and the clothes he wears. We belong to the tribe; our work is to serve the whole village,” he said.
Though Sangpuy’s responsibility to his people kept him in Katatipul until he was 27, over the years his music has taken him to more than 30 countries as far away as Uzbekistan and Mexico.
The journey began in 1999 when the 21-year-old Sangpuy made his first visit to Taipei to perform in a fundraising event for victims of the Sept. 21 earthquake that year, which devastated many of the country’s aboriginal villages. After the show, composer and producer Chen Chu-hui (陳主惠) invited him to join Feijuyuenbao Synectics (飛魚雲豹), an activist music group formed by artists including Chen, Atayal musician and activist Inka Mbing and Paiwan vocalist Ngner-Ngner.