Travel in Taiwan Special

An Ami Couple Seeks Recognition for Their Music

By Ashley Esarey Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung


Kuo Hsiu-chu and her husband Kuo Ying-nan.
Each day of the Olympic Games began with millions of people around the world watching a television advertisement portraying all the excitement and international goodwill that the Olympics are supposed to embody. It showed clips of wrestlers throwing their opponents to the mat, javelins rocketing skyward, and exhausted runners embracing in triumph--all with distinctive

voices singing in the background. But what viewers didn't know about the music--a well-known excerpt from the group Enigma's hit song Return to Innocence--is that it was originally performed by an elderly couple from Taiwan's Ami tribe. As of today, they have received neither credit nor payment for being the star singers.

Heard it on the Radio

It was only after a friend recognized their voices on the radio that 76-year-old Kuo Ying-nan and his wife Kuo Hsiu-chu, 74, learned of a new version of their song, Palang, which in Ami tradition is performed by a host to welcome guests. "I was really surprised," says Kuo Ying-nan. "But I recognized our voices immediately even though editing had garbled the lyrics somewhat." Surprisingly, Kuo was pleased with the new version, greatly changed with the addition of synthesized music and English lyrics.

This was after German producer Michael Cretu, also known as Enigma, bought the rights to a promotional album made during a 1988 tour of Europe by the Kuos and other Taiwanese aboriginal singers. Cretu's remix of the song, using two minutes of the voices of the Ami duo, was a smashing success. It burst into Billboard Magazine's International Top 100 and stayed there for 32 straight weeks.

Return to Innocence? The title chosen by Enigma is an ironic twist in a series of events which have marked the end of innocence for the Kuos, simple growers of leaves used to wrap betel nut on Taiwan's east coast. The Kuos were never informed by Cretu or by EMI Record Company of the use of their voices; no one sought their permission. The Kuos were also unaware that

officials of Taiwan's Chinese Folk Art Foundation had obtained a settlement of around US$1,500 from the record company. Advice from friends, and even media reports, made the Kuos believe they had no legal rights. Everything changed, however, when their part of the Enigma song was used for the Olympic Committee's promotional advertisement.


The Kuos are farmers by trade.

Reaction in Taiwan

When people in Taiwan began to see the Olympic promo on CNN and other U.S. networks, the story exploded in the local press. Magic Stone Record Company moved swiftly to sign a recording contract with the Kuos and lent them the company's hot shot copyright lawyer, Huang Hsiu-lan. Thereafter, their demands began a metamorphosis.

In the beginning, the Kuos were only asking for recognition as the original artists: "All I want is for the people of the world to know that part of the music they hear is performed by the Ami aboriginal tribe in Taiwan and the singers are Kuo Ying-nan and Kuo Hsiu-chu," Kuo was quoted as saying in the United Daily newspaper. Later, before the Olympics began, Kuo told the press

of his dream of performing the song at the opening ceremony in Atlanta. When this didn't materialize, Huang, in cooperation with lawyers at the Dewey Ballantine Law Firm, began to flex their muscles. Enigma had previously settled out of court with a group of German monks after using their voices without obtaining permission. A precedent existed. Within weeks EMI Record Company began negotiating a settlement with the Kuo's lawyers.

The Kuos' pursuit of compensation will not end with EMI Record Company. Their lawyer, Huang, says getting reasonable financial compensation from EMI is only the first step before she goes after the Olympic Committee and an arm of the French Education Ministry. The latter sold Cretu the rights of the promotional album made after the 1988 tour. Huang may take legal action against international and domestic media organizations that also used the song.


Preparing leaves to be used for wrapping betel nuts.

Protecting the Ami Cultural Heritage

While the Kuos' legal battle for financial compensation and recognition seems likely to bear golden fruit, some of their fellow Amis in Taitung (the major city in southeastern Taiwan) and elsewhere are hoping for a victory that money can't buy. "This is about protecting the cultural heritage of the whole tribe," says Ami provincial assemblyman Lin Cheng-er. "Palang is a song

almost every Ami can sing." Even Kuo is not sure how much longer his tribe's songs can survive. Young people have sought out Kuo and his wife to learn old Ami songs, but the youth themselves admit that their voices don't match those of the over-60 generation--a generation of people like the Kuos, who grew up harmonizing with friends while working in the fields.

The Ami language, like other Taiwan aboriginal languages, is a spoken language only. As there is no written equivalent, aboriginal tribes used to teach the youth tribal history and customs by singing folk songs. But today almost all aboriginal children, Amis included, spend their formative

years in schools where the language of instruction is Mandarin Chinese. Job opportunities in the cities have also prompted a steady migration of aborigines toward urban areas. As a result, many younger people no longer speak the language, or sing the songs, of their ancestors.

For Amis with views similar to Lin's, protecting the Kuo's rights as performers has become synonymous with saving their tribe's vanishing culture. Even if the Ami couple's case succeeds only in focusing attention on the affairs of Taiwan's aborigines, then it will have scored a victory for the whole Ami tribe and the rest of the island's aboriginal population.

Travel in Taiwan Special
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.