Meet Jarrod Sim: Sounding out Taiwan’s indigenous cultures

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Jarrod Sim is a PhD student at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences. As Taiwan's indigenous communities struggle with cultural continuity, Jarrod's research on how landscape has shaped the stories, songs and language of Paiwan tribe will revitalise Taiwan’s indigenous cultures in the anglophone world and raise the awareness of environmental impact on indigenous communities.

1) Tell us a little bit about your background.

I began my career as an artist after studying fine art at Chelsea College of Art and Design in the United Kingdom. My artistic practice was heavily led by anthropological theories, which often required reading all sorts of books I could find on the discipline. My growing interest in anthropology led me to pursue an MA in Material and Visual Culture at University College London, at their anthropology department, where my interest in research had burgeoned. Upon graduation, I worked mostly as a curator and in the heritage sector for several years in Singapore, where I am from, before deciding to embark on a PhD.

2) What sparked your interest to undertake a PhD on how landscape has shaped the aural culture of Paiwan people, one of Taiwan's recognised indigenous tribes?

How I ended up conducting research on the Paiwan culture was completely serendipitous.

Several years ago, I first visited Taiwan looking for the village that my late grandmother had lived in for a long time. I spent a month travelling around Taiwan and a significant amount of time exploring the Sandimen 三地門 Township, of which ‘Timur’, the place that I remember she used to mention, is located. There, I made a lot of friends, many of whom were artists and musicians.

Having been involved with the arts my whole life, I felt a natural connection to the people, culture, art and music — it was foreign yet familiar at the same time. Eventually, I found myself going back to Taiwan at any given opportunity, immersing myself in the rich culture, learning the language, jamming with musicians and listening to stories.

As my interest grew in the Paiwan culture, I came to realise that there is a dearth of English resources that sufficiently addressed my enquiries — especially in music and Ravar Paiwan, which is one of the two sub-groups of the Paiwan tribe located in the mountainous Sandimen township in the south. This eventually led me to pursue a PhD, where I hope I will be able to fill that gap. Who would have imagined that a trip to find a village would change my entire career trajectory!

My ethnographic focus is on a village known as Paridrayan 大社部落, often revered as the ancestral land of the Ravar Paiwan. The Paiwan have no written history, and instead rely on oral traditions. Naturally, stories, songs and language are integral to cultural continuity, each with their own unique relationship with landscape. Stories for example, map out actual locations and preserve historical events; songs have multiple societal functions; while language corresponds with the sounds of the environment.

In 2009, the original village of Paridrayan was devastated by typhoon Morakot, forcing everyone to relocate to a complex known as Rinari, located in the neighbouring Makazayazaya township. The songs and stories keep the Ravar Paiwan connected to their land, while efforts are being made to physically return home. Thus, my thesis seeks to present an ethnography of the Paridrayan landscape through its sound and its soundscape through its land.

3) How do you see your work making an impact?

My research impact are threefold. First, I want to aid in the ongoing cultural revitalisation of Taiwanese indigenous cultures, which are less written about in the anglophone world. I hope to produce scholarship that can give a voice to the myriad indigenous cultures that seek to be heard on an international stage.

Second, I hope to raise awareness of the environmental impact of climate change and global warming. By providing an example of its devastating impact on a relegated community, I hope to shed light on how we should revise the way we go about landscape development projects and to take indigenous knowledge into consideration.

Finally, I seek to showcase the potential of the arts and its pragmatic capacity to create a real impact for the social health and well-being of indigenous communities in times of trauma and the struggle for cultural continuity.

4) As you have recently returned from fieldwork in Taiwan, what were the key highlights?

One of the biggest highlights came towards the end of my fieldwork where I was invited to participate in an artist residency. It was a difficult but exciting time balancing between working in both the capacities of an artist and an anthropologist — I guess you could call it the ideal Geertzian ‘Deep Hanging Out’ moment! During the residency, we spent a night in the old village, which was absolutely unforgettable. Seeing, hearing and breathing the same air as the ancestors really added a somatic dimension to my research. It was also the motivation that I needed, as I was growing weary after so many months of fieldwork.

Volunteering at the Culture and Health station (文化健康站), an organisation aimed to keep elderly members active and healthy, was also another highlight. Here, I got to meet and speak with many interesting people who have shared songs and stories with me. It was also the best place to practice speaking Paiwan!

Last but not least, taking Paiwan flute lessons from Pairang Pavavalung, an official national treasure, recognised for being a highly skilled flute player and maker. It was a huge honour learning from such a legend.

5) What is unique about Paiwan songs?

Non-lexical vocables (such as do-re-mi), are a common attribute in indigenous Taiwanese music. They are used to express the immediate landscape of the place in which it is sung (for example, the sound of wind, rivers, etc). Melody, then becomes the primary feature of the song in which one could experience the lives of past ancestors.

Additionally, a majority of ‘ancient’ Paiwanese songs have no ending, suggesting that they could, essentially, be sung forever. This infinite loop relates to the Paiwan concept of vecik, which are the lines/patterns found in humans, animals, natural objects, and also intangible ones like the wind, it represents the spiritual connection we have with the world. It’s simple yet profound, and it changed the way I experience the world.

There is a song that the elders love called Inaljaina, which is sung entirely in non-lexical vocables, and is meant to be performed in a group. Its structure is a simple two-part harmony, consisting of a melody and a drone with an exaggerated rallentando and modulation leading towards the chorus, an uncommon feature in Paiwanese music.

What else you might have been

If I were not doing a PhD, I would probably still be working as a curator.

Proudest moment

When I was given an indigenous name and everyone started referring to me by it. My indigenous name is Pali, which is a name for a hunter and means ghosts will not bother me when I am out hunting.

Favourite piece of classical music

I actually listen to a lot of Bach when I work, especially his Brandenburg Concerto, it keeps your heart pumping!

Learn more about Jarrod Sim's research and publications

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