Over the past few days, I’ve been listening carefully to the first set of Hsu Tsang-Hoei’s (許常惠) recordings of traditional Amis music. Recorded about 40 years ago, they are finally available in a publication from the Taiwan Music Center. My friends at the TMC (傳藝中心) tell me that the center plans to publish a complete set of volumes of the recordings and transcriptions. There is also a project to make his recordings available in digital form–a real archive for those of us interested in Taiwanese musics to work through. Overall, I’ve found the recordings compelling, even considering what seems to be tape speed problems and related pitch distortion in some of the examples. What’s most interested me, however, is the amazing differences between dance musics for the malikoda, “holding hands” or circle dance, which is nearly emblematic of Amis traditional musics, in part because of the role that the annual kilomaan / ilisin plays in representations of Amis culture. At the same time, some of the songs were very familiar to me from my work in A’tolan. Several of the Amis towns where Hsu recorded performed versions of a song extolling the virtues of that particular town–I’ve heard the same song performed in A’tolan as the A’tolan Amis anthem. The widespread quality of some tunes, many composed during the Japanese colonial period or later, if we can judge from the melodic properties of the tunes, versus the very restricted quality of others, most emblematic not of a single town but of “Amisness,” begs the question: how do we understand diffusion?

I know, diffusion is about the least interesting topic to most anthropologists or ethnomusicologists these days, but questions about the distribution of musical forms might tell us something about how groups form and maintain themselves through time. Musical forms are, after all, material which act to reproduce and make durable a model of social relations. Understanding the distribution of these forms thus gives us some insight into how people maintain social space and social structure, defined as a set of normative relations embedded in everyday practices

However, here is where we encounter an irony. In my listening to Hsu’s recordings of kilomaan / ilisin songs, I discovered that none of them resembled those that I have recorded in A’tolan. Although the practice of malikoda, dancing while holding hands in an order determined by position in the age grade system, is common to nearly all Amis groups, malikoda songs have great variability. We might argue that the practice of the dance is most important for the maintenance of a good social relations. After all, the dance with its performance of solidarity and competition among age grades, does the work of representing these relations and connecting them to bodily pleasure. On the other hand, the sung call and responses are necessary to the practice. And because the malikoda represents an Amis ethics and expressive style, both internally and to outsiders, we might wonder: why so much local variation within the practice that defines the regional / ethnic category? meanwhile, why so much uniformity in the anthems that represent the local?

Good questions to think about

As for my recordings of malikoda tunes, i have made clips available on my soundcloud site. People around A’tolan tell me that there are 14 malikoda songs, so with 11 recorded, I still need to locate the other three. If you either get the chance to hear Hsu’s recordings or know a bit about malikoda tunes from Hualien, you will recognize that they are different across several measures. One of the only points of resemblance is that they have a call – response structure. Is there a theory of musical variability that will let me understand these as similar? I’m thinking that I should spend more time thinking about how the most local becomes ironically the most general

*kilomaan / ilisin: these are terms used among different Amis groups to refer to the annual harvest festival, the largest ritual event of the year

*age grade system: when Amis men come of age, they are inducted into a system of age grades. Like malikoda songs, the system of age grades varies among Amis groups. In A’tolan, the age sets are named for important events in town or in the country as a whole. These named sets then move upward through different grades with different responsibilities in the community