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Pasibutbut (Song to Make the Millet Grow)

Bunun Mountain Traditional Music Chorus

A ritual song by the indigenous Bunun people of Taiwan, who live in the southern part of the island's central mountain range, "Pasibutbut" is an invocation to the god Dehanin to provide a bountiful millet harvest. According to tradition, the song originated in the imitation of natural sounds such as the rushing of waterfalls, the humming of bees, and birdsong. This recording was performed by the Bunun Mountain Traditional Music Chorus in 2019.


I stumbled upon a reference to this song in Curt Sachs' book The Wellsprings of Music (1962), where the author cites it as an example of "mystic polyphony" and offers the following description:

Long drawn-out notes in a slowly rising chain from an awe-inspiring low D-flat to d, at first in microtones and later in widening steps, with the accompaniment of a second voice part, climbing too, but lagging behind and almost independent, so that the listener perceives ever different intervals, of a second and a third, a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth, now in painful friction, now in blissful consonance. One can hardly imagine a truer musical rendition of the seeds which germinate in the dark of the soil, laboriously grope to the light, and then, in the open, are free to thrive. For this is exactly what the eerie chorus means: a charm to help the growth of the millet.

The song was first recorded in 1943 by Japanese musicologist Takatomo Kurosawa, and it caused a minor sensation when it was shared with European music scholars, who had generally assumed that polyphony (music with multiple distinct melodic parts) was unique to "Western" music. Listeners today are more likely to be struck by the music's resemblance to certain works by the twentieth-century composers such as Ligeti or Oliveros.


According to the researcher Yang-Ming Teoh, who lived among the Bunun in 1998, the musicians were at first hesitant to perform "Pasibutbut" outside of the ritual context in which it originated; even now, when they perform it in concert (as in the recording above), "the singers, according to a tacit understanding, will keep a part which is considered sacred unsung."





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