Golden Oldies

by Renata Huang
November 2 1995


Lifvon Guo

A Respected Amis tribe elder seeks recognition for his chart-topping chants

Members of southern Taiwan's Amis tribe are used to the sound of Lifvon Guo's deep, melodic voice. Through his 76 years, the indigenous betel-nut grower has sung traditional chants while he tended to farm chores. It is common to hear his tunes echoing across the plains. But no one-least of all Lifvon-expected to hear it broadcast on the airwaves.

"My friend in Taipei called me one day and said, 'Hey! Your voice is on the radio!'" Lifvon said at his home. "And sure enough, it was me."

The engaging song they heard, Return to Innocence, mixed Lifvon's folk chants with modern dance beats in a new class of music known as "world beat." German music producer Michael Cretu, known more popularly as "Enigma," had just released the tune on his second album, Cross of Changes. Return to Innocence promptly soared to Billboard magazine's International Top 100 Charts and remained there for 32 straight weeks.

More than 5 million copies of the album were sold; but neither the record company, EMI, nor Enigma have acknowledged Lifvon for the use of his voice. "I'm a country bumpkin," he says. "I know nothing about the legal process, but I know that I've been wronged."

Now, Lifvon wants recognition, not for himself, but for his tribe. The richness of his voice derives not from talent, he says, but from years of toiling the fields. At the age of 10, he quit school to tend to the cows full-time. The elder boys taught him songs to relieve the routine of pulling weeds and carrying buckets of water. For the next half century, Lifvon and his friends would often gather to perfect the harmony of their voices. Today, both he and the folk songs are considered the most prominent symbols of Amis culture.

Lifvon and his wife lead quiet, pastoral lives that rarely take them away from their southern coastal home of Taitung. But in 1987, the ministries of culture from Taiwan and France invited them to perform in Europe. They, and about 30 indigenous singers from Taiwan, toured Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy for a month, performing concerts for $15 a day. None of them was aware, however, that the ministries were recording them. And a year later, they were surprised to learn they had been published on a compact disc.

Enigma came across the disc in 1992, while searching for just the right aboriginal chant. He purchased the rights to Lifvon and his wife's voices for $6,000 from an arm of the French cultural ministry. The French, however, did not notify their Taiwanese counterparts-or Lifvon-of the sale.

According to musicologist Hsu Tsang-houei, a professor at Taiwan Normal University, Lifvon's predicament reflects a growing problem in today's music industry. The pop scene is rife with world beat music, in which aboriginal chants loom large. Yet the native singers behind the music have no legal authority over their voices. Says Hsu: "These cases are multiplying throughout the world as anthropologists travel to Tibet and China, recording all kinds of music without paying performers."

The practice of using these chants freely is legal, according to Robin Lee, the director of Taiwan's Association of Recording Copyright Owners. "The original authors of traditional folk chants have long been dead. And since performers are not authors, they have no copyrights."

"That's crazy," Lifvon replies. "If I didn't work to keep the chants alive, how would anybody know their worth?"

Lifvon belongs to the largest of nine indigenous tribes who reside in the corners and mountains of Taiwan. Some 30 tribes once inhabited the island, but most have been assimilated into the Chinese culture. Taiwan's aborigines' roots are Malaya-Polynesian. Their ancestors arrived some 3,000 years ago from southeast Asia-long before the Han Chinese.

Now, the Amis culture is fast eroding, a fact not lost on Lifvon. He has only to turn to his grandchildren, who prefer listening to the Irish pop band The Cranberries than his Amis folk songs. There generations of the Guo family live under the same roof, but there is little communication among them. Lifvon and his wife speak the Amis tongue; their grandchildren speak Mandarin.

Winning recognition for his voice would boost the Amis tribe and its traditions. That's why Lifvon is preparing to spar with the record company, EMI, and Enigma for failing to acknowledge him.

Meanwhile, Lifvon still performs the age-old chants. And his efforts to preserve his tribal tradition could soon pay of: He's heard that another giant record company is interested in paying to use his voice. If that comes to pass, maybe even Lifvon's grandchildren will want to tune in.

Document provided by Timothy D. Taylor.
Original from Far Eastern Economic Review. Reproduced without permission for private and research purposes only.