Introduction to the Bunun pasibutbut

The aboriginal tribes of Taiwan are well-known for their rich vocal traditions. Events such as a harvest, a hunt, celebrations, and sacred rituals are accompanied by improvised vocal ensemble pieces and dances. The vocal traditions and history of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan are passed down generations orally. The Bunun tribe, the fourth largest aboriginal tribe in Taiwan, is known for their unique “eight-part” polyphonic singing. The pasibutbut is a prayer for the millet harvest, one of the Bunun people’s principle crops, sung during the annual Millet Harvest Festival by six to twelve male members of the Bunun tribe. The pasibutbut is performed with all the singers facing inwards in a circle, arms intercrossing with each other. As the song progresses,  the singers slowly shift their feet and turn the circle in one direction. The song is a prayer for a rich millet harvest, as well as the good health, safety, and peace of the tribe. The Bunun people believe that the pasibutbut must performed in a solemn setting, and the singing must be continuous throughout the performance in order to please their god, “dihanin”. The unique polyphonic harmonies and tribal origins earned the pasibutbut recognition in the UNESCO in 1952.

The pasibutbut is considered a example of complex polyphony singing in folk music. Typically, the music of the Bunun people are based upon the notes Do, Mi, Sol, and Do (C major chord). However, the complex harmonies of the pasibutbut use an additional Re. The pasibutbut contains very little rhythmic or harmonic drive. The song is started by a lead singer, with the second, third, and fourth voices adding to the opening pitch to create a rich harmony. The lead singer moves to the top pitch while the other 7 parts continuously shift to different pitches and harmonies, using subtly changing dynamics. When the piece reaches a dynamic and tonal climax, the lead singer changes the direction of the piece towards the ending cadence. Although the pasibutbut is known for its “eight-part” polyphony, the piece actually only features four unique parts, and a fifth part towards the end.

The Renaissance Kyrie and Bunun Pasibutbut, though from two mutually isolated cultures on opposite sides of the world, share musical elements that transcend the time and space between their origins. I will be comparing a Kyrie from Missa D’ung aultre amer by Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521) , to a pasibutbut of the Bunun tribe. Beside the surface similarities – both are performed by male acapella ensembles, and both are performed for sacred rituals – the two genres also share a four-part polyphonic texture, modal harmonic patterns, as well as melismatic melodies. In addition, both pieces are sung with a dark, pure tone, which gives both pieces the gravity appropriate for the corresponding religious rituals.

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