“Return to Innocence”: In Search of Ethnic Identity in the Music of the Amis of Taiwan

October 1, 2009

The Amis is the largest indigenous minority group among the twelve officially recognized aboriginal tribes in Taiwan. Most of the Amis people reside in the eastern valleys that lie between the two coastal cities, Hualien and Taitung. The Amis are well known for their sophisticated multipart singing styles.

During the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the official song, “Return to Innocence,” included a sample of an Amis song with beautiful sonorous voices singing in the background. “Return to Innocence” was published by Enigma, a label of the Romanian-German producer Michael Cretu.1 The song reached millions of viewers and listeners worldwide. However, while people around the world were watching the Olympic Games, they had no idea that the song, “Return to Innocence,” was originally performed by an indigenous elderly couple from Taiwan.2 The two singers were Kuo Ying-nan (7u, whose Amis name is called “Difang”) and Kuo Hsiuo-chu (ys, whose Amis name is called “Agay”).3 The version on Enigma featured a sample from a recording by the Kuos’ “Jubilant Drinking Song,” sung a cappella. The sampled recording was likely made during 1978 or 1979.4 Richard Roper reports that the song was “later included, without the Kuos’ knowledge, in an album titled ‘Chinese Folk Music Collection’ published by the Chinese Folk Art Foundation.”5 According to Roper, some years later the Kuos’ original recording of “Jubilant Drinking Song” was then adapted in an album titled “Polyponies Vocales Des Aborigines De Taiwan”6 produced in France.7 In 1994, the song was incorporated in “Return to Innocence,” one of the sound tracks in the Enigma’ album named “Cross of Changes” and subsequently appeared in “numerous compilation albums and movie and TV soundtracks.”8 Large portions of “Jubilant Drinking Song” were copied by Enigma into their worldwide popular “Return to Innocence” track.9 For instance, according to the Kuos’ attorney, Huang Shiu-Lan, Esq., “the first nine seconds of the ‘Jubilant Drinking Song’ and the first nine seconds of ‘Return to Innocence’ are exactly the same.”10 In addition, over half of “Return to Innocence” includes some parts of the “Jubilant Drinking Song.”11

“Return to Innocence” stayed for thirty-two weeks in the Billboard magazine’s Top 100 chart and eventually more than six million copies of the album were sold.12 Although Cretu claimed that he had purchased the right to use the song from a French organization named Maison des Cultures du Monde (MCM),13 neither MCM nor Enigma “had ever received permission from the Kuos.”14 The Western “audience was led to believe, the music clip was sung by some”15 aboriginal people in the tropical jungle.16 In fact, until a friend of the Kuos first recognized their voices on the radio and congratulated them, the Kuos had no idea that their singing was mixed with popular music and heard around the world.17 “But far worse,”18 Huang describes, “Enigma failed to recognize the Kuos as the creators and performers of this work.”19 Journalist Ashley Esarey made a sarcastic remark on this clear case of copyright infringement. She states: “Return to Innocence? The title chosen by Enigma has become an ironic twist in a series of events, which have marked the end of innocence for the Kuos,”20 simple gardeners who “used to wrap betel nuts on Taiwan’s east coast.”21

When the Kuos were informed that their recording had become part of an international hit, they were pleased with the new remix version and happy that others had valued their work so high and had incorporated it in their own music.22 However, as Huang reports, the Kuos were dismayed by the fact that the Amis received no recognition for their part.23 A lawsuit was filed in December 1997 in the United States Federal District Court, Central District of California, on behalf of the Kuos.24 According to the Kuos’ attorney Patrick Ellisen, “Mr. and Mrs. Kuo made this recording for cultural preservation purpose only. At no time did they grant anyone permission to commercialize their song.”25 In 1999, this copyright lawsuit ended with an out-of-court settlement crediting Kuo Ying-nan and Kuo Hsiuo-chu of the Taiwanese Amis as the legal authorized copyright owners of the song.26 Details of the settlement were described by Victor Wong in Billboard:

According to the couple’s Taiwan-based attorney, Huang Hsiu-lan, the Kuos will be credited on all future releases of the song. Each will receive a platinum record with his or her name on it, and a foundation will be established in their honor to help preserve aboriginal music.27

However, the Kuos believed that the recognition should go to the Amis and not just to the individuals themselves. According to Ellisen, “the Kuos will establish a foundation to preserve their Amis’ culture in general and their music in particular.”28

In the beginning of the legal process, the Kuos asked only for recognition as the original artists.29 Later, the Kuos’ experience reawakened the entire Amis people’s ethnic consciousness, and they ultimately sought a victory that money cannot buy.30 According to Esarey, Amis provincial assemblyman Lin Chen-er explained the outcome of this lawsuit, “This is about protecting the cultural heritage of the whole [Amis] tribe, Palang (“Jubilant Drinking Song”) is a song almost every Ami[s] can sing.”31

Victor Wong states that the Kuos hoped that their music lawsuit would “generate more interest in the culture of their tribe, which they felt, was slowly disappearing.”32 Although the couple passed away in 2002, Mr. Kuo’s childhood friends and the elder members of his Ma-Lan Choir have vowed to continue singing the Amis songs and to make their beautiful voices heard in the world.33

The settlement of the copyright lawsuit, as American ethnomusicologist Nancy Guy notes, is unprecedented. The most controversial “issues raised by this case were those of recognition and ownership of cultural property.”34 Guy explains that the Capitol-EMI lawyers arguing on behalf of Enigma originally tried to manipulate the prejudices of the current copyright law; they assumed that “the Kuos could not claim ownership to what was a traditional folk song.”35 Therefore, “Jubilant Drinking Song” was free for anybody to use in the public domain.36 Nonetheless, Anthony Seeger writes about the status of the arranged traditional music in current copyright law in his article, “Ethnomusicology and Music Law”:

The copyright law in force today is based on a number of cultural presuppositions...the law is based on the concept of individual creativity . . . based on the idea that an individual should receive compensation . . . after which the idea may be used by anyone without paying a royalty . . . the law leaves somewhat unclear the status of arrangements of ‘traditional’ songs.37

In other words, current copyright law rewards uniqueness and individual acts of creativity over communal ownership and traditional acts of creativity. As a result, according to Nancy Guy, because of the nature of the improvisational skills and processes in Amis folk songs, which consist of a great deal of individual creativity, “the Kuos’ lawyer could justifiably argue their case within the boundaries of existing copyright laws”38 and therefore won the case.39

The cultural heritage of any group cannot be compromised in order to make commercial profits.40 The “Return to Innocence” incident, through my analysis, has manifested two significant issues involved in the musical expression of the Amis identity. On the one hand, the distinctive musical feature of the individual “creative process” (or the “improvisational singing skill”), which exists in the Amis folk songs, such as the “Jubilant Drinking Song,” has contributed to the Kuos’ success of this lawsuit. On the other hand, this case has turned the “Jubilant Drinking Song” from a traditional folk song that is performed by a host to welcome guests and is sung in the Amis ordinary life, into a song that now represents Amis’ ethnic identity in national and international arenas.


Amis Music in Social and Historical Contexts

The musical expressions of the Amis ethnic identity are articulated in social and historical contexts. Taking the “Jubilant Drinking Song” as an example, I will now discuss the ways musical and social functions are linked among the Amis.

  1. Matrilineal subjects: The Amis is a matrilineal society. Amis women hold a higher position in the Amis society than Amis men.41 Accordingly, in the Amis’ lead-and-responsorial songs, such as “Jubilant Drinking Song,” a female usually takes part in singing the soprano voice, because women have the naturally higher vocal range than the men and can easily render the beautiful, soft soprano vocal texture. Besides, many other Amis folk songs emphasize females as the subject of the song. The song text also displays the female dominant social condition.42
  2. Men’s same-age grade performance: multipart singing is a unique singing style that belongs to the Amis.43 It is practiced by the same age-grade group of men. It usually starts from the leading part, gradually overlapped by other parts, and then reaches to four parts.44 For instance, the “Jubilant Drinking Song” is a song almost every Amis man can sing; however, it is normally performed by the elder men in the Amis society. Usually the leading voice is sung by a tenor in falsetto voice.45 The melody of the leading voice transforms each time and has lyrical melismatic sounds, while the responding parts usually repeat a fixed melody with only short detached phrasing.46

Beyond “Jubilant Drinking Song,” certain Japanese musical elements have been included in Amis music due to historical interactions. The Japanese occupied Taiwan for more than fifty years and this has brought about the use of the Japanese language and customs in the lyrics of many Amis folk songs.47 With respect to the music, the common use of F and B passing tones that in the Japanese “Miyakobushi scale,”48 F-E-C-B-A, manifests Japan’s influence on the Amis traditional music. Through the process of acculturation, Japanese musical elements have been absorbed in the roots of the Amis folk songs; however, the original Japanese musical elements have already been transformed into new ones and become part of the Amis’ own unique musical identity.

In conclusion, the individual “creative process” that embedded in the “Jubilant Drinking Song” and most of the Amis folk songs is the most significant musical feature in Amis traditional music. Such individual creativity has contributed to the Kuos’ success in the lawsuit. Ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes says, “Music provides an important means by which ethnic identities are constituted and mobilized.”49 The Kuos’ lawsuit has reawakened the entire Amis people’s ethnic consciousness and mobilized them to protect and preserve their musical heritage. What the Kuos have won are not only the individual and communal recognition of the musical copyright they deserved, but also the public respect for the social and cultural identities that the entire Amis embodied.



CAMIL Labs. “Ami Tribe.” The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Music. http://www-camil.music.uiuc.edu/musedex/taiwan/tai-aborigines/ami.html (accessed February 22, 2008).

Esarey, Ashley. “Loss of Innocence: An Amis Couple Seeks Recognition for their Music.” Travel in Taiwan. Taipei, Taiwan: Vision International Publishing Company, 1995. http://www.sinica.edu.tw/tit/special/0996_Innocence.html (accessed December 5, 2005).

Gu, Chiangxia. “’Kojo no Tsuki’: An Essential work of Oriental Images.” New Taiwan 474, 2005. http://www.newtaiwan.com.tw/bulletinview.jsp?period=474&;bulletinid=21824 (accessed February 16, 2006).

Guy, Nancy. “Regaining their Voices: Music, Cultural Ownership, and the Amis’ Copyright Struggle.” Copyright and Conceptions of Intellectual Property in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Austin, TX: Popular Music Section of the Society for Ethnomusicology, 1999. http://orpheus.tamu.edu/pmssem/copyright.html#guy (accessed February 21, 2008).

_______. “Trafficking in Taiwan aboriginal voices.” In Handle with Care: Owner ship and Control of Ethnographic Materials, edited by Sjoerd R. Jaarsma, 195-210. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.

Huang, Shiu-Lan. “Aborigines Sue for Justice and Recognition: Justice for the Kuos.” Law News Network. http://www.taiwanfirstnations.org/Difang.htm (accessed December 5, 2005).

Kluge, Goetz. “Olympic Music from Taiwan.” SMIPP. Munich, Germany: 1997. http://www.smipp.com/enigma.htm (accessed December 5, 2005).

Loh I-to. “Tribal Music of Taiwan: with Special Reference to the Ami and Puyuma Styles.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1982.

“Lost in Music.” Far Eastern Economic Review 158, no. 4 (1999). http://www.newint.org/ issue276/update.htm (accessed December 5, 2005).

“Ma-Lan Choir.” In Ye huo yue ji kpj (Wild Fire Music Collection). http://www.ignitefire.com/a_malan.html (accessed February 22, 2008).

Roper, Richard F. “Taiwanese Settle Lawsuit Claiming Their Original Composition Was Stolen; They Will Now Set Up Foundation” Business Wire. June 23, 1999. http:// www.geocities.com/enigmalair/rtiarticle4.html (accessed February 1, 2006).

Seeger, Anthony. “Ethnomusicology and Music Law.” Ethnomusicology 36, no. 3 (Autumn, 1992): 352-53.

_______. “Ownership and Rights.” Garland Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, 1998: 64-65. Siun, Tsun-yan. “A study of the Polyphonic Songs of the Amis in the Malan Region.” M.A. thesis, Tuon-Wu University, 2001. http://hemiolapei.free.fr/music/thesis/chap5/5-1-1.html (accessed December 5, 2005).

Stokes, Martin. Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers Limited, 1994.

Taipei County Shijr City Chang Shu Elementary School. “Transformation of Amis Folk Songs.” Heavenly Melody, Innocence, and Root. http://gsh.taiwanschoolnet.org/ gsh2005/3939/music_chang.htm (accessed December 5, 2005).

Turino, Thomas and James Lea. Identity and the Arts in Diaspora Communities. Warren, MI: Harmonie Park Press, 2004.

Wong, Victor. “Taiwan Aboriginal Singers Settle Copyright Lawsuit,” Billboard, July 31, 1999.

Yuan Changjui. Ta-kang-kou ti A-mei-tsu. Taipei, Taiwan: Central Research Institute Folklore Research Center, 1969.



1Esarey, “Loss of Innocence.”


3Taiwanese aborigines have been given the right to use their indigenous names as official names reflected on identity cards assigned by the government.

4Richard F. Roper, “Taiwanese Settle Lawsuit.”


6Victor Wong, “Taiwan Aboriginal Singers Settle Copyright Lawsuit.”

7Roper, “Taiwanese Settle Lawsuit.”


9Shiu-Lan Huang, “Aborigines Sue for Justice and Recognition.”



12“Lost in Music.”

13Wong, “Taiwan Aboriginal Singers Settle Copyright Lawsuit,” 14.

14Huang, “Aborigines Sue for Justice.”

15Kluge, “Olympic Music from Taiwan.”


17Roper, “Taiwanese Settle Lawsuit.”

18Huang, “Aborigines Sue for Justice.”


20Esarey, “Loss of Innocence.”


22Huang, “Aborigines Sue for Justice.”



25Roper, “Taiwanese Settle Lawsuit.”

26Wong, “Taiwan Aboriginal Singers Settle Copyright Lawsuit,” 14.


28Roper, “Taiwanese Settle Lawsuit.”

29Esarey, “Loss of Innocence.”


31Esarey, “Loss of Innocence.”

32Wong, “Taiwan Aboriginal Singers Settle Copyright Lawsuit,” 15.

33“Ma-Lan Choir.”

34Nancy Guy, “Regaining their Voices.”



37Anthony Seeger, “Ethnomusicology and Music Law.”

38Guy, “Regaining their Voices.”


40Huang, “Aborigines Sue for Justice.”

41For more information, please see the “Matrilineal Tradition,” http://gsh.taiwanschoolnet.org/gsh2005/ 3939/root_mother.htm.

42For more information, see the “Remark” on the translation of Malan girl, in Taipei County Shijr City Chang Shu Elementary School, “Transformation of Amis Folk Songs: Japanese Occupation Period (1895- 1945)—(2) Middle Period (1920-1940).

43Taiwanese folklorist, Lou Wei-Dao, directly uses the translation of the Amis term, pakurakuray, indicating the “multipart singing” instead of using the term “free contrapuntal singing.”

44CAMIL Labs, “Ami Tribe.”



47Tsun-yan Siun, “A study of the Polyphonic Songs of the Amis in the Malan Region.”

48Chiangxia Gu, “Kojo no Tsuki’: An Essential Work of Oriental Images.”

49Martin Stokes, Ethnicity, Identity and Music.

33417 Last modified on October 1, 2018