Cellist David Darling was on tour in Taiwan in 2000 with the Sea Group when an astonishing thing happened. He and his bandmates were taken to a remote Wulu Bunun school’s playground, where the locals would sing for the visiting musicians.
At one point during the acappella performance, 15 men stood up and formed a circle with their arms interlocked on each other’s shoulders and performed “Pasibutbut.” Said to be inspired by the sound of humming bees, the song started out with a lone singer hitting a low sustained note. As the guests looked on, the wordless song built to eight-part harmony, with each singer coming in a microtonal step higher than the previous singer. The song’s pitch changed over the course of several minutes, simply stopping when they reached the top of the scale.
“It’s one of the most stunning musical events I’ve ever heard,” Darling recalls. “Myself, Terje Rypdal and all these other sophisticated musicians couldn’t believe our ears.”
As it turns out, Darling wasn’t the first Westerner to be blown away. The ancient song is a famous one first brought to a wider audience in 1952 by Japanese scholar Kurosawa Takatomo, who presented it to a group of ethnomusicologist in Paris. Takatomo changed the whole preconception of the origins of music when he presented “Pasibutbut,” which, refuting scholars’ belief that music originated in single note melodies, evolved to two-note harmonies and so on.
Plans were made to record an album with Darling providing music accompaniment to the Wulu Bunun’s richly polyphonic singing, which goes back countless generations. Uniquely, the Wulu Bunun never really adopted instruments, using a mallet used to mash grain or bamboo stick to occasionally keep time, or a mouth harp, so there was room for Darling to work. The results can now be heard on this unique collaboration called Mudanin Kata (Riverboat).
On paper and on record it’s a strange pairing: The aboriginal people of Taiwan, the Bunun moved from the northern and central plains on the west coast to the central mountain range where they can grow millet, traditionally their main food source. Even though there are a limited number of recordings of their music, the people have occasionally toured Asia, Europe and North America. There are an estimated 40,000 Bunun in Taiwan but only about 300 in the Wulu Bunun tribe which, living high in the mountains, is one of the most isolated and traditional, holding on to the ancient songs longer than many of their neighbors.
Darling grew up in Indiana and has recorded with many of the artists on the ECM label (such as the aforementioned North Sea Group), Bobby McFerrin and even Johnny Cash. Over the last 30 years, Darling’s own work has cut a broad swath through chamber jazz, avant-garde, classical, new age and film scores.
The Wulu Bunun’s music could have been recorded as field recordings or in a nearby studio, but Darling a