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Preserving language through music

“It’s obvious that what strongly connects the Philippines and Taiwan is still F4,” I told the executives from Taiwan Trade (TAITRA) and the business and lifestyle reporters from the country’s leading print news outlets.

It was our first night in Taipei when Taiwan Association Inc. top guns Allan Lin and Seimo Huang invited us for dinner at TAITRA’s exclusive lounge at its headquarters. After talking about business and trade, someone among my peers brought up the question if someone from the group was still familiar with F4, the Taiwanese boy band that starred in the phenomenal drama Meteor Garden in 2001. Laughter erupted and then from discussing the Philippines and Taiwan’s business landscapes, the night ended with everybody talking about the famous boy group and the possibility of bringing in at least one of them to Manila for the Taiwan Expo happening at the SMX Convention Center from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1.

I then wondered, apart from pop culture, what other things do the two countries have in common. I believe it was answered on our third day.

We visited the Siraya Scenic Area in Tainan (some 260 kilometers from Taipei) to meet a community of the Siraya Tribe. Upon our arrival, we were welcomed by Edgar who greeted us Magandang hapon. Then he laughed saying that’s the only phrase he knows in Tagalog. I later learned that he was just kidding.

After we settled down, Edgar, his wife whom he refers as the princess of Siraya, and his two children welcomed us with a song entitled “There is Peace in the Land of Siraya.” Playing the guitar, Edgar took us to a strange yet very familiar experience. 

The song, which was composed by Edgar’s father-in-law, sounded very familiar. The lyric sounded just like any other folk songs back in the Philippines.

Musician and conductor Edgar Macapili (on guitar) and his family advocate for the recognition of the Siraya Tribe in Taiwan

Edgar Macapili is a full-blooded Filipino originally from Zamboanga. The musician and conductor is a polyglot but struggles to speak straight Tagalog. He is fluent in Chavacano, Bisaya, English, Mandarin, and Siraya.

I’m very familiar with all the languages and dialects he could speak except for the latter. According to Edgar, the language almost died. No one was speaking it for 200 years because of the dominant Chinese culture in Taiwan until 1997 when he arrived in the village.

“People here tell me that I am their angel because I helped them revive the language. What I do now, I compose songs in Siraya. We join music festivals to promote and reintroduce our music and culture. I believe that is the best way to preserve a language is through music,” Edgar affirmed.

Joining Edgar on our table was his 75-year-old father-in-law who said that Edgar was the instrument in revitalizing the language.

“This place is home to cultural activists and they promote their culture and let the society know that Siraya people still exist,” he said in his mother tongue translated by Edgar.

When Edgar was doing extensive work to revitalize the Siraya culture in music, arts and language he encountered major hurdles.

“We didn’t have any basis for the language. We didn’t have any dictionary, no documentation or whatsoever. And no one spoke Siraya, same thing that happened to other dialects and languages,” Edgar narrated.

But things changed in 2002 when a professor, who was aware of Edgar’s advocacy, brought the Book of Mathew written in Siraya. It was a 17th century translation of the Gospel produced when the Dutch came to Taiwan to Christianize the Siraya people.

Referring to the book, Edgar said that people in their community could read the romantization of the words but they couldn’t understand, they didn’t know the meaning of words printed on the pages of the book.

“When I saw the book, it was like Eureka. The words were very similar to Bisaya language. So, that’s the beginning of the good thing that’s happening. What I did I, researched for eight years and translated the book, word per word, in Chinese. In 2008 we published the first Siraya dictionary. Now we have 14 elementary schools that teach, Siraya language in Tainan county.

His wife, Uma Talavan, who holds an important position in the local government, was very optimistic of our visit to their community. She said, their family has been advocating to be recognized by the national government. It means, they can put up centers to promote their language and culture.  

“My wife sits as the executive secretary in the promotion office of Siraya in Tainan City. She has recently spoken with the president of Taiwan, she was given 5 minutes and the president promised that we will be formally recognized. There are 16 recognized indigenous tribes in Taiwan, hopefully it will be 17 by the end of the year,” Edgar said.

Edgar and the rest of the Siraya Tribe are fighting for their identity by ultimately seeking to be recognized. Just like their songs, with words deeply rooted to its Austronesian origin, the family of languages, which Tagalog belongs, speaks volume of our strong connection with indigenous Taiwanese. And no, it’s not just F4. It’s a long history that is more significant than pop culture. 

Topics: Edgar Macapili , Uma Talavan , Philippines , Taiwan , TAITRA’s exclusive lounge

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