DJ Dungi Sapor straddles two worlds in her music video for “I Ho Yan”. Traditional and spiritually rich Indigenous vocals are interspersed with a pulsating electronic beat. The same video juxtaposes images of Dungi in her Amis regalia in the forests and along the coastline of Taiwan alongside her as a thoroughly modern DJ in a flashy nightclub.
“I Ho Yan” is a modern remix of a traditional Indigenous song from past New Year’s festivals. And it reflects Dungi’s genre-busting efforts to ensure that the next generation embraces her Taiwanese Indigenous culture.
“The Taiwanese people’s understanding of Indigenous music is stereotypically traditional,” Dungi tells Pancouver in Mandarin over Zoom. “It would be how the elders would sing it.”
However, she realized that younger Indigenous Taiwanese people were losing interest.
“This would prevent the passing on of these songs and these cultures,” Dungi points out.
So she set out to make these tunes hip and danceable. (Pancouver associate editor becky tu translated the interview.)
Watch the video for “I Ho Yan”.
With her “I Ho Yan” music video, Dungi conveys a sense of the future as well as the past. It represents her view that culture is fluid, not static.
This sentiment can also be detected in the multilingual “Kaku”. She sings part of the song in English, almost in a whisper, mentioning “the blood flowing through my body/wherever I go”. She supplements these words with modern electronic rhythms and, at different times, traditional Indigenous lyrics from Taiwan.
Listen to “Kaku”.
Dungi will perform at TAIWANfest
Another of Dungi’s original mixes, “Gather Around”, features a hard techno beat complemented with soaring Indigenous male vocals.
Dungi will bring her fusion of old and new to TAIWANfest Toronto on August 26 and Vancouver TAIWANfest on September 2 and September 3. In Toronto, the bill also includes Taiwan-born Toronto indie musician Aiko Tomi, who’s of Japanese and Chinese heritage.
At the first Vancouver gig, Dungi will perform with GDubzMusic (Gary Bannon), an Indigenous artist from the Mukwa DodemClan (Bear Clan). The following night, Dungi will share the bill with Taiwanese Canadian DJ and cultural producer Which Nancy. All events at TAIWANfest are free.
In Canada, First Nations bands such as the Snotty Nose Rez Kids, the Halluci Nation, Digging Roots, and many others have thrived in recent years, reconnecting Indigenous youths to their culture. Moreover, Indigenous music superstars, such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and the late Robbie Robertson, were topping the charts as far back as the 1960s. There’s even a national CBC Radio show about Indigenous music.
In Taiwan, on the other hand, Dungi stands practically alone in melding traditional Indigenous lyrics with upbeat electronica. This is despite the presence of 16 officially recognized Indigenous tribes in Taiwan, accounting for more than two percent of the population.
“There is this one song called the ‘Amis Farewell Song’,” Dungi says. “It’s a very, very old melody but it was starting to fade out because people didn’t pass it on. I reclaimed it.”
In bygone eras, members of her tribe sang this when young soldiers were sent off to war, possibly never to return. Today, however, it’s not such a tragic thing when young people are conscripted into the Taiwanese armed forces because they might just be going away for a month or two. So Dungi remixed it into an upbeat song to reflect this change.
“It’s still part of my culture,” she insists.
Listen to “Gather Around” (Original Mix).
Discrimination left a mark on Dungi
The Amis people are the most populous Indigenous tribe in Taiwan. Dungi grew up in the rural Amis village of Cikasuan in Hualien County on the northeastern side of the island. But she attended school in the city, where she encountered a great deal of discrimination.
She still remembers the teacher turning off the lights after lunch so the kids could take a nap. The other children would joke that without illumination, they couldn’t see Dungi anymore because her skin was too dark. That wasn’t the only insult.
“There would be comments in class where the kids would ask: ‘Oh, did you ride a wild boar to class?’ ” Dungi recalls.
These painful incidents made her not want to attend Amis cultural gatherings and celebrations in her community. After middle school, Dungi stopped telling people about her Indigenous identity.
Yet she still achieved very high marks, always making the top three in class. That qualified her for scholarships until a teacher declared that she had won too many of them.
Dungi also experienced racism in university. One male professor told her that there was a different level of achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
“I was so angry that I just left,” she says.
Dungi decided to study law, seeing this as a way of levelling the playing field between Indigenous people and the majority in Taiwan. She also immersed herself in electronic music.
But when an Indigenous government official hired her as an assistant, Dungi put her passion for music on hold. Instead, she focused on learning about public policies affecting various tribes.
Maori transformed Dungi’s world view
After a while, Dungi was prepared to quit because she wanted to go to England. But her boss didn’t want her to resign, so she arranged for Dungi to work with the Maori people in New Zealand.
It was an eye-opening experience. Dungi was so impressed by the Maori’s pride and confidence in their cultural identity.
“It inspired me to research my own culture and traditions,” she says.
On her way back to Taiwan, Dungi had a stopover in Sydney, Australia. She was trying to sleep in her hotel but kept hearing the sound of an electronic bass coming through the wall.
“I was feeling nostalgic,” Dungi states. “So I abandoned sleep and went next door.”
Watching the DJ reignited her passion for music. Dungi revealed to the DJ that she was also a DJ and, much to her surprise, the other DJ invited her on-stage.
“I said ‘Hold on, I need to get my USB,’ ” Dungi recalls telling the DJ.
Even though Dungi had largely given up music, she carried this stick with her, even while travelling.
Upon her return to Taiwan, Dungi made two resolutions. One was to learn about her culture. The second was to revive her love for DJ music.
That led her to bring together Indigenous and electronic music, sowing the seeds for a major career change.
She recognizes that many Canadians are not necessarily aware of the existence of Taiwan’s Indigenous population. So at TAIWANfest in Toronto and Vancouver, she plans to represent all 16 of her country’s recognized tribes in a new song.
“I’m also combining the sounds of the traditional hand drum of the Indigenous people of Canada,” Dungi reveals. “So it’s a physical merging of cultures that people can hear.”
Vancouver TAIWANfest presents Dungi in a free concert with GDubzMusic (Gary Bannon) at 8 p.m. on September 2 at the Pancouver stage at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square (formerly known as the Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza). Dungi will perform along with Which Nancy at 8 p.m. on September 3 at the same location. In addition, Dungi will give a free artist’s talk in Courtroom 302 of the Vancouver Art Gallery at 3 p.m. on September 2.