while on the boats or at home, those connected with the far ocean trade weaved songs about their experiences. on the one hand, many of these songs made it into the archives as products of a newly commodified ‘amis musical culture: small labels producing indigenous music sought out such songs because they would sell. nonetheless, these songs emerged out of ‘amis practices of improvising lyrics

on the one hand, that these songs often have fixed lyrical content marks them as novel. traditional vocal musics had no semantically meaningful lyrics, as they were–and still are–sung entirely in vocables (ho hai haiyan nalowan), which have no linguistic value. the invention of songs with lyrics shows an ongoing dialogue between ‘amis vocal music and the japanese colonial presence, as does the marked preference in ‘amis popular song for the enka form

moreover, many of the tunes employed in this new form of ‘amis popular music, which circulated most broadly in the 1970s and 1980s, came from minnan language taiwanese pop, enka, latin american, and southeast asian sources. in other words, most of the tunes are parodies of songs that ‘amis people would have heard in circulation. these parodies are either complete reversionings of existing songs or, as was also very common, the lifting of motifs

thus, the musical form and the relationship between linguistic content and musical form were quite distinct from traditional musics. nonetheless, weaving lyrics drew from traditional practices of oratory and improvising lyrics to fit particular events

as we’ve known since parry and lord, such improvised poetry often requires a set of formulae, which the poet can employ to fit words to meter. for far oceaning these formulae include phrases that surround experiences of taking leave and longing. let’s take a set of these formulae, those surrounding the ‘amis noun rarom, a state of sadness or disappointment:

mararom (sad, longing)
mararom ko harateng (feeling sad)
mararom ko faloco’ (heart is sad)
mararom ko faloco’ ako (my heart is sad)
acia ko mararom no faloco’ ako (oh, the sadness of my heart)
mararom ko faloco’ sa i no mako (this heart of mine is sad)
mararom kinia tireng (this body is sad [i am sad])
o kararoman (it is a sad thing)
sakararoman (what makes one sad, what causes sadness)

as you will note, each of these present different possibilities for fitting different meters and expressing specific qualities of longing or sadness. the rhythmic possibilities are here equally important, if not more important, than the semantic qualities. after all, nearly all of these phrases could be reduced to the phrase “i am sad.” these and other phrases provide formula for weaving a new song

because of this potential, i’ve rarely found consistent lyrics among people who have learned the songs through means other than listening to recordings alone. although recorded versions of far oceaning songs give the impression of a fixed set of lyrics, popular circulation of far oceaning songs relies more on employing the appropriate formulae. thus a song appearing on a recording with the lyrics, “malingad kiso, kaka / mararom ko harateng” (you set out, elder sibling / heart is sad) might appear as “miliyas to niyaro’ / malingad a mifoting” (left the village / set off for fishing) or “miliyas kako, safa / mararom ko faloco’,” depending on the gender of the singer or other factors. many times when wishing to record a specific version of the song, i’ve discovered, as well, that a singer might not be able to reproduce the same lyrics across instances. when i’ve mentioned that to people with whom i work with closely, they’ve said: “oh that person can weave lyrics” or “that person just weaves the lyrics”

what does this mean for me, practically, as someone who is learning the corpus of far oceaning songs?

for one, it returns me to a problem of ‘amis vocal musics more generally: musical form always constitutes a greater portion of musical meaning for ‘amis listeners and performers, particularly in the case of traditional vocal musics, which have no fixed lyrics. in the case of popular songs in which one or several recorded versions circulate as commodities, what appears to be fixity may be an illusion. and so, it is to questions of timbre and voice leading that one must turn most closely, even if the lyrics–or some overall feeling of the lyrics is important for a particular version

second, the task of understanding the lyrics actually has to take account of an entire corpus of variants and generative formulae, rather than fixed works. in other words, when the practice is “weaving,” one needs to learn more about the materials and the techniques of the craft of weaving and not just appreciate finished works