David Darling & The Wulu Bunun

Probably the most common cross-cultural collaboration has been where the East meets the West. From Ravi Shankar and George Harrison to Sam Mills and Paban das Baul, via Shakti most have involved musicians from the Indian sub-continent. Far Eastern fusions may have been fewer, but a disproportionately high volume of western releases of East Asian music is of the collaborative kind. But are they are any good?

Well, there have been some pretty horrendous albums of the New Age variety usually featuring a spacey westerner searching for spiritual enlightenment and a connection to Zen Buddhism. Even the revered Ry Cooder has come in for some criticism. One Okinawan musician has told me how they started off with the best intentions of playing together ‘live’ in the studio, but Cooder was unable to follow the music’s distinct rhythm. The Okinawan group even swapped to a simple western beat, but with Cooder still unable to keep up, they ended up sending him to a booth with headphones on to get on with whatever he liked for the rest of the session. They were not impressed.

American cello player David Darling is refreshingly candid when talking about his collaborative experience with the indigenous Bunun people of Taiwan. At his London hotel on the day of the London performance with the Wulu Bunun, he is immediately warm, approachable, frank and gentle. He lets on he is excited yet slightly apprehensive about the evening’s performance. It’s probably his caring attitude and sympathetic approach which has helped make the album Mudanin Kata one of the most successful such collaborations in recent years.

“When we started the project, I said that I don’t like interfering with indigenous music” he explains. “The only thing I said I can guarantee is that I will not do it in a pop way. I will do it in my typical cello way, where I layer my cello on top and if they approve of it in the beginning I’ll complete it, but if they don’t like it wholeheartedly that’s fine with me.” Fortunately the Bunun singers did like it and weren’t afraid to say if they didn’t. “As it turned out they were very strong about not wanting their music to be messed with. On a number of occasions they told me they didn’t like a particular arrangement, and asked me to try something different.”

David Darling is probably best known for his three albums for the esteemed German contemporary music label ECM, although his latest album Cello Blue recorded for the American label Valley Entertainment earned him a Grammy nomination. He certainly came to the project with an interesting musical pedigree and perspective.

“I’m an American from the mid-west and grew up in very musical times in the late 50s. I was very excited about music but I wasn’t thinking I would ever be a professional musician, I was mostly involved with education and I taught for many years in different situations.”

The turning point in his career was listening to and then later joining the Paul Winter Consort in 1970. “I heard them early in my college life. They had a cellist and they played everything from Bach and Brazilian music to arrangements of standard tunes and I was fascinated. I was an improviser all through school. I was always messing about with piano, bass, cello, or saxophone so I gave Paul Winter my name never expecting him to call me, but three years later he calls me! The truth is he couldn’t find anyone to play sub at this gig but then he offered me this job with his band so I quit my nice job at the college and we went on the road. The Paul Winter Consort was quite a revolutionary band in the States. Paul Winter, who is a sax player, was a visionary of sorts. He was actually the first American to go to Brazil and bring bossa nova back, in 1962 or 1963 although nobody knows that.”

Darling spent the next seven years on the road with the Paul Winter Consort, discovering a whole new world of music. ” He loved to bring ethnic musicians from other countries into the band. In the late 60s I was living in Connecticut, and at Wesleyan University they had one of the best ethnomusicology departments in the US. L Shankar and others came to play some shows and my ears started going ‘wow’ and the African influence was happening so my whole mind started opening up. At the same time, the Paul Winter Consort opened up a whole vocabulary that I loved very much, improvising on the cello and starting to mess around with electronics. I had the first ever four string electric cello and the first eight string cello.”

In 1977 he decided to leave the group and turn solo. “Early on in the Paul Winter band, there was a guitarist called Ralph Towner. He had left the band way before me and was recording for ECM. He asked me to play on his new record so I went to Oslo. I only played 24 bars but Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM, heard me and asked if I’d like to make a solo record and that was my lucky break. I can’t thank him enough and I’m still working with him. At that first recording session he said just go ahead and I started playing this funky pop. Manfred comes out of the control room and says no just take the bow and improvise. Ever since we’ve had a marvelous time creating unique sounds which some people have loved. ”

People to have loved his ECM work include film directors Wim Wenders, Michael Mann and Jean Luc Goddard, all of whom have used Darling’s music in their films. “Jean Luc Goddard and Manfred know each other well. They get together and Manfred plays him things that maybe he would like and Goddard picked some of my music and it’s been in almost all of his films in recent times. ”

The recording with the Bunun singers came about indirectly from his association with ECM. “I had been in a group called The Sea Group for about six or seven years, with three extraordinary Norwegian musicians, Terje Rypdal on guitar, Jon Christensen on drums and the great author and musician Ketil Bjornstad. It was Manfred that put me in that group. The Taiwanese like all of the Asians know music form all over the world. It’s always surprising when you go there to tour and people know the music whereas the people from where you live don’t know it.”

“When we were touring there the second time, a producer called Sean Fu from November Music which distributed ECM, told us about a tribe that sings the most beautiful a cappella music. He asked if on our a day off we would like to go to this remote place and hear these indigenous people sing. We all said okay and we got on this bus, and after a while we were wondering if we had done the right thing because the trip had started to get very dangerous. They live at the top of one of the mountain ranges at about 7000 feet, and when it rains a lot, the roads just give way. There were no guard rails, nothing, and finally we get to what in America we would call an Indian reservation.”

“There’s one dirt street in the middle and two on the side, with a modern cement building the government has built where the children go to school. There are all these shacks and they’re sitting there with their dogs in these open houses, really poor. The village is called Wulu, and the people are called Bunun, one of the tribes who once existed on the island called Formosa now called Taiwan, before the Chinese ever came there. They say that Wulu village is one of the last villages to have really held on to the traditional a cappella singing. Everybody else is sliding into the western way. The chief of this tribe has insisted they sing and keep the tradition. The real saviour of the music though is Jin-niang Hu a women who I think left, got married, came back and established a hotel. She’s a Bunun and goes up there everyday and teaches the children songs and insists they learn.”

The Bunun had prepared quite a reception for their visitors. “We got off the bus and heard these children singing. They let us into the school building and there they were with their tribal costumes on, which they had put on because us westerners were coming. We listened to the children and we all loved it. They sang so beautifully and they don’t sing like children in my society with a high soft voice, they sing straight out. That’s the style the adults sing too and the children imitate them. Then the adults sang, also dressed in their tribal outfits, just for us, and it was okay. It wasn’t like it was killing me, as the children did. Then suddenly all the men, about fifteen of them, got up and put their arms around each other and started stepping to the right in a circle. They started doing the song Pasibutbut. It was outside so it was very soft but after about ten seconds we all knew the pitch had started slipping up micro-tonally and we were looking at eachother thinking, ‘can you hear what they’re doing?’ and it just blew all of our minds. ”

Pasibutbut also blew the minds of ethnomusicologists after it was ‘discovered’ by a Japanese musicologist Takatomo Kurosawa who presented it to a UNESCO conference in Paris in 1952. “There was a feeling that there was no such thing in early indigenous music that tribes could do that. Then when the musicologists found this out, nobody could believe it because they’d already written the history that music started a certain way and developed pentatonically, but this was revolutionary that a tribe had this way of singing. You see if I make a sound and slide it up it’s called glissando, and that’s what the Bunun were doing. They’re doing it so slowly that you almost don’t realise they’re sliding the pitch and at the same time as one Bunun puts the pitch there by himself, two or three others join him and thicken it. Then another adds the third or a fifth of a triad then three or four people join. Then the first pitch has already slid up so it’s now kind of out of tune so they keep going from in tune to out of tune, all the time raising the pitch up from soft to louder and louder. Pretty soon they’re at this amazingly high range and one of them signals to everybody that they’re almost at the end of their range. He makes a call and they know they’re going to end. Its a piece of music that lasts about seven or eight minutes. The men have their heads looking up towards the sky and it’s their most sacred piece. It’s meant to imitate the sound of bees and waterfalls.”

After this inauguration with the Bunun, Darling had no inkling of doing a collaboration of some kind. “We didn’t know that day they had something up their sleeves, that they were going to ask one of us if we wanted to do a project with them. Shu-Fang, who produced the record and was also at November Music at the time, I think wanted Ketil Bjornstad to do it, but he didn’t want to. So I finally signed up and we started the project.”

Two years later David Darling returned to Wulu. “We at first thought I would play solo cello along with them on location. So we started and got a few takes, but every time we listened to it we never thought it could ever be anything that we could use. It just wasn’t making it. So we decided pretty soon that we would forget my solo cello with them and that we would make a studio recording. So I went back to my own studio and put down whatever I came up with. It was not an easy process. They start in one pitch and slide up, they’re not perfect singers so they might start in A and pretty soon they’re in B flat. Well how are you going to arrange that? It was a big challenge and it was a long time before we could settle on how it would be and what it would be. We went around and around with certain ideas and everybody was on board contributing. I would send them a CD, then Shu-Fang would take it to them and they would listen. We had lots of arguments even about how to use a studio. Shu-Fang didn’t want to use studio tricks but I said well, let’s use a few. At least let’s tune them so we can use the arrangement so it sounds okay. We didn’t do much, and hopefully it stayed organic, and I’m sure it did.”

The recording of the singers continued as planned in a valley situated outside the village. “These songs are the basis of their culture, working songs, celebration songs, hunting songs, and I guess thousands of years old. Whether you live in the lower valley or the mountain everybody knows these songs. Everything they do is organic to their culture. We had to record them early in the morning because it was too hot in the afternoon and they had to work in the fields. We started around 6am and we had chosen a special spot, part of their countryside so it was natural to what they do. They were asked to start with a celebration song but came back and said they can’t do it because they’re not drunk. So they sent one guy back on a motor scooter to get their rice wine and they all drank a little and were happy and then they could sing it.”

Adapting the music for a live performance presented a new set of problems. “We had three days to rehearse. I was very worried right to the last moment. A wonderful women from Taiwan called Elaine was the liaison. She would take my new arrangements of the tracks to the Bunun and she would email me, saying well you need to cue it differently because they don’t know when to come in, so I was writing like mad for a month and a half. I would try another arrangement to cue them. They don’t know what a cue is, what’s that to a group of indigenous people? They just sing and on the record the introductions are quite planned esthetically. You hear the birds and the rainforest and my harmonics on the cello and then you hear singing. On some of the pieces where they sing melodies they don’t know where to come in because I didn’t cue the melodies on the record. I just made the most beautiful, most organic piece of music I could. So I had to rethink that and take the melody and try a new introduction and get one of the violins to play the melody and say to them ‘when you hear that you come in next’, so we could play the arrangements.”

“Then there are interludes on the record when they stop singing and then they have to come back in. Well if you don’t cue them, how will they know? I was worried about the whole tour whether it’s as cool and organic and shining as the record. I’m very satisfied with the record and everybody that helped me had good ideas. But on this tour I’ve been asking my colleagues saying ‘I don’t feel good about this, how you do you feel?’ I’ve been concerned that when you start cueing it becomes like a vaudeville show. ”

In contrast to the record, on stage Darling does get to improvise his cello together with the singers. They have a number of songs which are very rhythmic, and for the album I made arrangements of two of them. One is like shouting, it’s part of a celebration and they really make a lot of noise and the women are dancing and I thought this sounds like blues to me. So I was playing a quasi-blues which I liked a lot. They were not sure but finally said okay and it did make it on the record. When it came to figuring out how we were going to do it live for this tour, they said we can’t do it live, you have to make a different beat. So I made a new arrangement with a different beat but it didn’t work at all. So finally we decided I would just play along with them and I do insinuate the three chord blues but it’s not full blown.”

For the concert tour, they were joined by the British string quintet Quietus. “They’re wonderful musicians and it turned out great. They contributed a lot, as they’re not just classical players but they improvise, so they’ve been pliable in helping with some of the curves we’ve had to do just to get through some pieces.”

David Darling however was keen to ensure the stars of the show were the twenty three Bunun singers. “We were smart enough to realize that this needs to be them, people need to hear them sing so we have a lot of a cappella pieces. We really worked out a sweet programme. They are all dressed in traditional costume and it starts with this spiritual twenty five minutes when we ask the audience not to applaud because it’s very sacred to them. They start with Macilumah with one of the Bunun men calling to the mountain, and that’s what they did when we did the recording, you heard it ringing into the rainforest and then there’s a chorus of people answering. We do Pis Lai and Pasibutbut and it really gets to you its so beautiful.”

The day we met was the last date of the UK tour which had taken Darling and the Bunun singers to five cities. Ever the concerned collaborator, Darling hoped they had enjoyed their experience. “They have been very nervous and have wanted to do well. In the rehearsals they would look at me as if to say ‘is it okay?’ It made me feel sad because they should just be singing and we westerners should be figuring how to make it easy. But if you’re going to play music with them and you’re using western notation of course it has to have some of our sensibilities otherwise it’s not a collaboration. These people are all elderly. There’s one young man who I remember three years ago was in the children’s choir but most are fifty or over. There are some grandmothers and grandfathers for sure. I hope they’ve been okay because it’s been strenuous. I don’t think they’ve ever been to Europe before, but they know about the world, they have televisions and have the sensibilities of the Asian pop culture. A few times when they were really feeling good they would spontaneously start singing songs they had heard over the radio.”

The London show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was well received by an enthusiastic if not packed audience working as a live experience in a different yet equally compelling way to the CD. It seems that many positives have emerged from the collaboration. “Recently they had the Golden Melody Awards in Taiwan, which are like their Grammies and their album was nominated for best crossover singing album in Taiwan. They didn’t win but that nomination means they are probably going to get some funds for their tribe and for their children.”

Darling points out the difference between his project and that other more famous ‘collaboration’ when Enigma unlawfully sampled two Amis singers, another aboriginal tribe, on their hit Return to Innocence. That track might have done a lot to raise awareness of Taiwanese aboriginal singing, but the voices were used as little more than decoration over western beats.

“These people would never have allowed that to happen. None of us did this for money. We did it because we wanted to make their music in the world have some significance so people can hear how beautiful it is. This is a very small tribe of people there’s only a couple of hundred of them. They are very proud and serious about their culture. They don’t want anybody to mess with it. It’s not slick it’s quite innocent. They wanted to sing purely and have some connection with the west. We’re all friends and we all like what we did for each other. The CD is very strong and I think successful in leaving them as an organic system supported by a westerner.”

David Darling & The Wulu Bunun

David Darling & The Wulu Bunun

Originally published in fRoots magazine in 2004

Buy the album by David Darling and the Wulu Bunun here


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