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Visiting Taiwu Elementary School And Its People That Nurtured The Renowned Choir

The article is written by the special guest editor, Toshiyuki Seki.



Renowned children’s choir Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe released their new album Who's singing at vuvu's house? on August 19th from Wind Music. The album is dedicated to Camake Valaule, founder/director of the choir who died from cancer at the age of 42. It consists of traditional songs learned from field surveys, and new children’s songs created by Gincu Kuvangasan. It impressively captures the ever-evolving aspect of Taiwanese indigenous music, with lively and colorful music arrangements.


This article is written to commemorate Camake, a cultural icon widely known for his significant contributions to uplifting self-esteem among Taiwanese indigenous people and revitalizing its culture. In May this year, I visited Taiwu Elementary School with music producer, Wu Judy Chin-tai to find out his personality and legacies through interacting with people related to him.


I hope the article will deepen your understanding towards Camake Valaule and Taiwu Elementary School, responsible for cultivating the choir to its present status.

 


 

Taiwu Elementary School Folks Singers, photo taken by Wind Music.


“He was so energetic and passionate.” Taiwanese music producer, Wu Judy Chin-tai says while driving her car, reminiscing about, Camake Valaule. Judy was involved in Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe’s record production from their very early stage, thus her emotional engagement was immense. In 2014, Camake led the choir to win “Best Indigenous Album” at the Golden Melody Awards with their album "To & From the Heart". He was a cultural icon respected for his multiple contributions to redeem self-esteem among Taiwanese indigenous people and revitalize their culture. “It almost makes me cry when I talk about Camake.” Judy said.


That day, we were heading to Taiwu Elementary School, located in Taiwu village, Pingtung County. People living in the area were mostly Paiwan, which is one of the 16 officially confirmed indigenous tribes, and so were the choir members. I have been listening to their music since 2018, coincidentally coming across their album Where the Songs Begin at a souvenir shop in Taipei. I was attracted by the artwork, and as I listened to the sample, I was instantly fascinated by their voice, and bought it. That was long before I began working with their label Wind Music. As I sat next to Judy, I looked out of the window to see mountains and fields passing by, which made me contemplate the mystery of life, that I am now in Taiwan to actually see them.


The school outlook was beautiful, with the walls decorated with colorful Indigenous patterns and pictures. As soon as we entered the main entrance, we ran into few kids seemingly from the lower grades. Judy recognized one of them was Camake’s daughter and gave her a hug. As I walked through the corridor, I saw Indigenous pictures and words painted on the wall, and a poster of school history with their motto “Deepen the Roots & Dream Big”.


A corner of the Taiwu Elementary School, photo taken by Toshiyuki Seki.


First, Judy took me to the music classroom, where the choir does their daily practice. The children seemed slightly nervous due to the unexpected visitors, but I was still impressed by the density of their voice and how it vibrated the whole atmosphere when sung together. Their tutor Xue Er, a senior troupe member, led by example, demonstrating the tips and attitude required through her own singing. Her passion towards passing down and maintaining the school tradition initiated by Camake, could be felt it wasn’t simply about being rigorous.


After seeing their practice we met the school principal, Ching-An Lai. According to Mr. Lai, Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe started as Camake’s personal project, including traditional classes in the village. Camake was organizing everything by himself. Mr. Lai realized the importance of this project and decided to provide assistants from the school and the administration. Since then the choir has gradually started to play an important role for school events, such as welcoming important guests from other countries. Therefore, the other teachers and staff understood the value of the Troupe, and that unified the school to support them. Then Mr. Lai made a joke saying “Teachers were also the students of Camake. We may have been bad singers, but so what?”.


Camake Valaule teaching the Taiwu Elementary School Folk Singers, photo taken by Wind Music.


Mr. Lai says Taiwu elementary school is for “drifting woods”. Some students here have had a hard time fitting in at other schools. What makes Taiwu elementary school special is that they provide classes other than traditional subjects, such as seasonal camps to experience traditional cultures at the villages, where the kids get to interact with elders. “The school aims to help the children find the best of themselves.” he says. I liked Mr. Lai’s approach, letting people experience first, and trying to bring out self-motivation instead of dictating school policies. Judy also told me that the former principal, Li-Hua Wu had also made significant contributions to the choir. We also shouldn’t forget about the people who have left the school.


After talking with Mr. Lai, Judy took me to a cafe next to the school to talk with Xue Er and another senior choir member, Sheng Mei. The cafe was mostly built from wood, and indigenous carvings were garnished on the pillars and table. The doors were all open letting in a fresh breeze, which is a great environment to sip coffee made from the beans harvested at Beidawu mountain.


Cafe shop next to the Taiwu Elementary School, photo taken by Toshiyuki Seki.


“Teaching the lower grades can sometimes be difficult” Sheng Mei says “We try to motivate them and find confidence. For instance, if it’s a performance for mother’s day, we will tell the children to think about their mother, and how much you are grateful to them.” It’s not about lecturing technique, but it’s more about finding the purpose, and the two said that’s how Camake has taught them. Xue Er says Camake first explained the meaning of the lyrics, and told them to imagine themselves being in that situation. He put weight on emotional involvement.


That reminded me of an impressive mention from Camake. He once took the choir to Beidawu mountain, a sacred mountain for Paiwan, and told them “We are singing to the soil. We are singing to the ancient spirits. You are singing to yourselves. This is the real chant.” He put their holy mountain as their supreme stage. That has struck me. Taiwu Elementary School seems to be a comfortable place for many of the Paiwan children. However, it’s also on them, the next generation to preserve and develop their own tradition. Camake may have aimed to remind the children of their responsibilities towards their tradition and community.

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