performed but not spoken (4): empty syllables?

toward another model
presentational performance, however, is not the only field of musical performance. As described by Turino, there are at least four different fields of musical practice, the performance fields of presentational and participatory performance and the recording fields of high fidelity recording and studio recording art. each of these fields has its own typical social organization, goals, and aesthetic values

participatory performance is a musical field in which there is no clear audience / performer divide. Participatory performances require everyone present to join the performance in some role. Often, pleasure in participatory performance derives from growth in musical ability that happens as people make music together

might language revitalization also occur in such contexts? To answer this question, we can turn to a few ethnographic examples from the ‘Atolan ‘Amis community in coastal Taitung

‘atolan ‘amis originally had no presentational musics but rather developed participatory ones. Thus, use of the term “music” today refers not to traditional musics but to set musical pieces nearly always requiring instrumental accompaniment. Most ‘Atolan ‘Amis agree that they did not have “music” (meaning presentational performance) before the Japanese colonial period. Rather, they practiced radiw (vocal music / song), kero’ (dance songs), and ‘olic (improvised chanted lyrics). All of these genres were participatory performances, often in a call and response pattern

radiw do not have lyrics with semantic meaning–in fact, their lyrics are all vocables–yet they may be significant for language preservations and growth, because unlike songs with fixed lyrics, they require improvisation of chanted words (‘olic) appropriate to a specific occasion

once while romadiw with a group of elders in ‘Atolan, a man around 60 years old suggested that we play a game: All of us, including the few young people present, should mi’olic (add improvised lyrics) at the appropriate moment. Those whose ‘olic were solid would be toasted as a reward; those who could not mi’olic well would be penalized–by having to drink

on this occasion in July 2015, the ‘olic all treated my immanent departure for the United States but employed different viewpoints and strategies:

mi-hemek ko ina-ama iso, rihad-ay a mi-nokay kiso
AV-happy NOM-NCM mother-father 2S.GEN, peace-PRS LNK AV-return 2S.NOM
“Your parents will be happy to see you return safely”

aka ka-ngiriw, lolay kiso a mala-singsi to romi~’ami’ad
NEG.IMP NEG.UV-skinny, tired 2S.NOM LNK become-teacher ASP day~REDUP
“Don’t get skinny from being tired, teaching day after day”

aka ka-tawal t-ami-yanan, ma-liteng-ay no niyaro’
NEG.IMP NEG.AV-forget DAT.NCM-1P-LOC, UV-old-ASP GEN.NCM village
“Don’t forget us, the village elders”

ma-iwil kiso haw, o mi-harateng kiso t-ami-yanan
UV-sad.missing 2S.NOM Q, FAC AV-think 2S.NOM DAT.NCM-1P-LOC
“Will you be sad, thinking about us?”

these sorts of challenges are competitive in a playful way–after all, the reward and the penalty are identical. They also create some pressure to create a beautiful phrase set between the vocables, a sign that one had felt the words enough to move beyond language. In terms of affect, the challenge creates a kind of “flow state” in which the difficulty of improvising lyrics is matched to growing ability to mi’olic. thus, the challenge encourages one to develop greater ability to mi’olic without creating too much stress for enjoyment and learning

another take on radiw comes from Rahic Talif, a performance and visual artist from the Makota’ay ‘Amis community, who has argued that the vocables of traditional ‘Amis vocal music (radiw) are not “empty syllables” (虛詞 xuci), as they are often called in Mandarin (Rahic Talif, personal conversation 30 July 2015)

rahic explains that vocables and improvised lyrics “discover an interior meaning, a truth that comes from one’s embodied experience; they discover the heart of our ancestors.” Contrasting a set of fixed lyrics known cognitively (o piharatengan / nanifongoh) to felt and non-cognized vocables (awaay ko pinangan / nanifaloco’), Rahic connects radiw performance to a type of ethical practice: as he argues, when one romadiw, one cultivates a heart that can sing truly, performing true note values and expressing the truths of interpersonal relations at the time of singing. The latter, he argues, requires sensitivity to language, both in terms of an ability to choose apt words, but also a feeling for register

empty words?
how might such a practice connect to efforts at language revitalization? At first, it would seem limited, because radiw vocables necessarily transgress the limits of language (here meaning both the boundary and stricture of normal speech). However, singers do articulate the radiw’s truth in language, such as in the improvised lyrics (‘olic). Improvisation also figures in ritual texts, such as songs delivered in the meeting house (also known as men’s house, sfi’) during the second day of ‘Atolan’s annual kiloma’an ceremonies

although one might suspect that these songs will within fifteen years have fixed lyrics to accommodate a generation of Mandarin speaking ‘Amis, an insistence that the lyrics participate in the truth of an interpersonal context–whether the context is of play and drinking among age mates or a ceremony to communicate with the ancestors–requires a type of conscience, a pressure to develop skill in Sowal no ‘Amis as a critical practice of truth telling. For this reason, the “empty” vocables of traditional music suggest a space in which one cultivates competence in Sowal no ‘Amis not as a cultural supplement but as a way fully to participate in, and tell the truth of, social life as an ‘Amis subject

these participatory settings likely encourage development of Sowal no ‘Amis. Yet it is often difficult for young people to enter them. In the age set organized society of ‘Atolan and other ‘Amis communities, young people are often reluctant to join a group of elders meeting to sing, unless forcefully invited to sit down. Those elders who have a large repertoire of radiw learned these songs in their youth through sitting outside of the circle of elders, assisting in pouring drinks or distributing betel. Having listened to the songs, they would attempt to sing them on their own while performing agricultural work and other chores. Gradually, they developed a repertoire and would sing among their own age mates or members of adjacent age sets. Today, youth most often learn radiw in formal practices for performances or contests, contexts that generally lack the participatory and improvisatory component of radiw as performed among village elders. This model of musical pedagogy borrowed from schools predominates in both urban and rural settings

nonetheless, participatory performances do provide contexts for language development and thus revitalization, if participation includes the improvisatory possibilities of ‘olic. Recently, a language activist in the ‘Atolan has begun to create an intergenerational context for the community to romadiw. Although motivation for this space came from the pressures of an upcoming inter-village song competition, continued practice in this group has been open to a wide variety of ages. Norms for this practice include the expectation that everyone present will participate as singers and that participants should speak in Sowal no ‘Amis as much as possible. Given the novelty of this group, we lack data on its effectiveness as a context for language revitalization; however, the group explicitly links language education and musical practice as its two major objectives

what good are indigenous languages?
further observation of this and similar groups will be useful to determine how musical field (presentational or participatory) influences the potential for musical practice to augment language revitalization. However, the contrast of these two models, one a presentational model that challenges some aspects of dominant ideology while remaining complicit with others, the other a participatory model in which ability skillfully to improvise lyrics fitting the occasion defines one as a competent singer, has more than empirical importance

these two models of musical performance prompt a theoretical question: what good are indigenous languages, and what does it mean to maintain them? Is it enough for language revitalization for languages to be performed, but not spoken?

depending on how we answer this question, we may need more critically to assess whether language revitalization efforts reproduce rather than displace language ideologies that consign indigenous languages to the margins. In the work of such an assessment, we may discover that insistence on the “cultural value” of endangered languages is not as useful as maintaining the social contexts in which these languages remain everyday, “impure but authentic” registers. One of these social contexts in ‘Atolan ‘Amis society is musical performance, but not the sort of performance one would see on stage or hear on a CD

that problem should keep us from applauding the efforts of culturalists too loudly

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