“maratar, fayi!” i shouted as i stood on the street outside of the betel and drink stand beside backpacker dog in a’tolan.
“hai!” said the auntie who runs the stand, where a group of elders meet nearly every morning to talk, eat, and sing. my friend and fellow anthropologist futuru had told me this would be a good place to practice amis language, and i’ve often bought betel here. the auntie tells me to sit down. “don’t hurry,” she says, putting my 50 NT bag of betel on the table, happy that i asked for it in amis. she gets a beer from the fridge. “make it heineiken–halikaen,” says one of the elders there, laughing with a sort of wink at me. last night i was at an engagement party where he was one of the guests, sitting in the house of the engaged man, singing songs that parodied patriotic songs of the 1950s. halikaen means “gluttony,” but it’s a good pun on heneiken. so is halikaying, or a bit too fond of young women
it’s only 8 am, and i have to do some work today! i protest. what work are you going to do? it’s raining. sit here for awhile, replies another auntie. they correct my halting attempts to speak in amis, and explain some of what they are saying. as i sit there, a truck pulls up and three chickens, two frozen and one prepared, come from the truck. there’s a trade involving some money and some goods. “do you think our language is like birds calling?” asks one of the women. but she tells me that it’s easier to learn than mandarin
when one of the men at the table gets up to leave, someone begins to sing “don’t leave, my dear,” after which all of the women begin singing. they repeat the song a few times and debate changes in the melody or lyrics, even as they teach me to sing it. as it turns out, the song is very new. on mother’s day, the women sat around a table at one of their houses and spent a few hours weaving it. today, they teach it to those not present on mother’s day and change a few words here and there: should it be “forever cherish you” or “forever think of you”? or maybe “remember”? “beloved brother,” or “ah, brother”?
one of the women asks me if people get together like this in the united states to compose songs together. when i say, not so frequently, she looks at me as if americans are a pretty sad lot, like pailang, or ethnic chinese people. indeed the kind of musical participation that these elders encourage and that’s continued in a’tolan among young people is rare in a society in which music is a performance or an object to be purchased. here in a’tolan, musical composition is something that people engage in surrounding both everyday and special events: mother’s day, but even a rainy day when no one can go to the mountains or ocean to gather
i try to make up some new lyrics to the piece. the aunt of one of my best friends here, who is a musician, says, “you should ask him to help you out! you can put those words on this musical phrase!” she tells me that all i need to do is sit at the table with him and his friends long enough, and i will soon weave songs, too