Volume 90 1981 > Volume 90, No. 2 > After the ethnomusicological salvage operation - what, by Peter Crowe, p 171-182
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Early in 1977 a tape recording 1 was made of part of the final night's performance of rites called Qat Baruqu by a participant, who was also the Maewo island field worker for the then New Hebrides Cultural Centre. 2 His name is Jeffry Ulimeruana. Uli (his usual short name) then passed on to me a request from the leading figure in the performance of the rites, who was also his father (Fig. 1), that sections of the tape be offered to Radio Vila for possible broadcast. Uli's father, George Boemgwaghumbani (Boe for short), was interviewed by me in Bislama, the lingua franca of Vanuatu, and his comments were interspersed with sections of the singing and chanting. The resulting tape programme was broadcast just as it had been prepared in the bush; it had been made with two dry-battery recorders and a quantity of splicing material. There were reactions of surprise in Vila after the transmission; almost nobody outside central Maewo had heard anything like it. The richness of the rites astonished listeners, many of whom apparently thought such things had long since disappeared.

The rites honour Qat(u), a culture hero-trickster known throughout Aoba and Maewo and in the Banks and Torres groups of islands. The name Qat(u)—the final vowel is often dropped—means ‘head’, ‘pinnacle’ or ‘crown’. Although of unknown antiquity, the rites in the past were performed with many local variations; eventually a particular form developed at the location called Baruqu which was so much admired it became the dominant style in which to celebrate Qat. Adult males may today choose to be inducted into the Qat Baruqu society; they require sponsors, make payments and undergo initiations. There were five grades of initiate within the society, but today the third step is omitted, leaving four, the “significant” number for medicine. 3 Only Boe and Uli stood on all these four grades. Members of any particular grade are fearful of knowledge held by other grades. 4 Secret knowledge is repeated and transmitted during the Qat Baruqu rites. The material performed and recorded from the final and 10th night was, however, largely public and suitable for broadcast. Indeed, it is customary for women and children - 172 and non-initiated men to listen at this time outside the ghamali ‘men's house’ and to be spectators for the dances and audience for the music.

The principal performance of the night-long proceedings is the rhythmically chanted story of the journeys and doing of Qat, encircling the whole of Maewo (some 120 kilometres). This was done by George Boe, as leader of the society, to the accompaniment of regular beating on a “secret” instrument—i.e., a “drum” heard but not seen by outsiders. 5 The recitation is also rhythmically regular and at frequent and predictable pauses the chorus of other men present interpolate a strong cry of “Ha!” partly as a challenge and partly as encouragement to the reciter. There is a feeling of nervous intensity as the journeys of Qat are unfolded, and what he did where. At every named place or “station” in the journeys the recitation is interrupted by the singing of a song appropriate to that place, in the manner of recitative giving way to aria. The feat of memory required from the reciter is prodigious. He operates under the threat that the rites will not succeed if his memory falters. The tape reveals a number of near misses or hesitations and some prompting, all of which added to the tension. In the course of the night's rites the lower-ranked men were expected to sing about 100 songs. Not all the men knew all the songs. Beginnings of some songs were quite ragged until memories got into gear. It was nevertheless surprising how competent and confident, not to say complete, the performance seemed to be, considering the recent history of Qat Baruqu.

The rites had been discontinued about 1930, when Christianity finally penetrated to the central areas of Maewo. The missionaries of the time considered many customary practices incompatible with “The Light”. In Church of Christ 6 areas very little “custom”—a generic term used in both English and Bislama, broadly meaning ‘traditional practice or belief’—survived. The somewhat different attitudes of Bishop Patteson's tradition in the Melanesian Mission (Anglican) areas towards local culture eventually prevailed, and in the middle of the 1950s permission was granted to this church's adherents to resume certain rites, although no doubt often in attenuated forms. The quarter-century break in continuity would lead one to expect losses or changes, unwitting syncretisms perhaps. Since the resumption of Qat Baruqu the rites have only been performed every five or six years, whenever there were sufficient men wishing to take further grades or to make a beginning. The men who had 100 songs to sing would not, probably, have had a great deal of experience in performing them or much opportunity to rehearse them. It says something for the power of memory, in what has been until now a largely non-literate community, that the performances were as good as they were. Now, however, that this tape of Qat Baruqu has been made, a very - 173 useful rehearsal aid has been created, which one might presume will be of the most use to those men wishing to participate in the future, whose memories or memorising ability may be affected by the spread of schooling, literacy and a consequently increased dependence on mechanically retrievable information.

The science of ethnomusicology is also very dependent on mechanically retrievable information. There is a certain fetish of the document, be it paper or film, phonogram or videogram. Yet, all of these documents have inadequacies no matter how painstakingly they are prepared. They may be adequate for the exchange and practice of certain aspects of ethnomusicology. They are doomed to be inadequate for the total recreation of arts and lifeways at some future date, when the chain of oral transmission has been broken, when probably the best possible will be museum-like reconstructions. To make a comparison with another sphere, this appears to be the case as well with European medieval music (the so-called “early music”) but it is not quite the same with, say, Beethoven or Liszt, since parts of the oral communications of these masters and their times still survive in ways we are confident are authentic. The milieus of Beethoven and Liszt can also be recreated in ways that seem fairly believable, as costume dramas on film and television persuade us. It is a hard task for ethnomusicology, perhaps with impossible aspects, to record fully not only the aural as well as gestural stuff of music, but also the circumstances that created and sustained it while it was the art of its time. Béla Bartók was aware of this when he wrote (Suchoff 1976: 19-20):

Up to this point we have discussed the collection of melodies as if they were isolated items. This, however, is not an adequate approach; indeed, it would be like the entomologist or lepidopterist who would be satisfied with the assembly and preparation of the different species of insects or butterflies. If his satifaction rests there, then his collection is an inanimate material. The genuine, scientific naturalist, therefore, not only collects and prepares but also studies and describes, as far as possible, the most hidden moments of animal life. Although we admit that the most minute description cannot restore to life that which is dead, it nevertheless recaptures some of the taste and fragrance of life and imparts it to the dead collection. Similar reasons direct the folk music collector to investigate in detail the conditions surrounding the real life of the melodies.

Bartók was under no illusions that cultures die or are transformed beyond recognition. For our area of Oceania, in historical times, many parts have undergone changes as drastic and dramatic as anywhere else in the world.

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For instance, in the years since the Second World War we have seen the opening up of the interior of Papua New Guinea and the spread of Western educational methods, Christianity, cash cropping, calico, transistor radios, motor vehicles and all manner of trade and consumer goods. There are doubtless no further undiscovered ethnic groups. In Vanuatu, even if the “heathens” of Espiritu Santo or Malekula do not wish to have much to do with the Government or with missionaries, they nevertheless welcome medicines, rice and kerosene, tobacco and whisky. The speed of acculturation has been astonishing in this period; it inspired the title of Sir Albert Maori Kiki's autobiography, Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime.

Although staring it in the face for a long time, the realisation that the rate of change could mean the disappearance of some cultural forms in Oceania caused Unesco to belatedly set up an Oceanic Cultures Project in the late 1960s. After some five years of expensive meetings of experts—notable also for the proliferation of bureaucratic documents—a portion of the budget was finally allocated to practical work. Various categories of Oceanic culture had been defined and then ranked by the experts in the earlier meetings. Music and dance were given “urgent” labels, on the grounds that these arts were thought to be more vulnerable than others, such as handicrafts. Consequently, a small amount of funding for ethnomusicology in Oceania has been available from Unesco in the past few years. A preference has been shown (I think wisely) for projects with significant participation by local persons as field workers (as of Jeffry Uli, above). A typical allocation for a nominal two-year period was US$6170 to the (then) New Hebrides Cultural Centre in 1976 for an oral tradition programme, 7 which could—and did!—include music and dance to the degree locally desired. Although the sum may seem trifling—might one say piffling?—for an entire national effort, it was a sign of Unesco's concern. To be fair, Unesco in Oceania is rather handicapped by the United Nations' world policy of dividing moneys on a population basis. There is also the fact that very few countries in Oceania are actually members of the UN (which has not stopped Unesco supporting work in non-member countries). One could compare this kind of sum for a national effort, when the population of New Hebrides was around 100,000, with the level of financial support available to some professionals, including ethnomusicologists and dance ethnographers. It would be invidious to go into detail, but the priorities for support that have led to this disparity have their basis partly in history and partly in notions of the proper conduct of these disciplines. Many Western professionals would expect to receive monetary and logistic support for field work, as individuals, at rates several times that granted the whole New Hebrides. - 175 One is tempted to ask if the values underlying “proper conduct” should be examined.

Ethnomusicologists often assume that the fixing in permanent form of music and musical behaviour found in oral traditions is a major moral and ethical justification for their work. When a certain ethnomusicologist was asked about his work with some nomadic groups he replied he made the recordings, did transcriptions, worked out various analyses, wrote it all up for possible publication—and that was that! He could have added he would try to provide notes on the cultural contexts of the music. He was well paid; his colleagues (informants?) generally assisted him without direct reward. The ethnomusicologist will at some time leave behind him artefacts at some institution from which, some time in the future, should there be tribal descendants able to read and understand his work, it would be possible to recover portions of the musical history. This may seem unexceptional at first, but it assumes the people will in time come to have needs for historical and analytical material of a quasi-scientific kind.

This is an extraordinary assumption. It contains a major paradox concerning the moral and ethical justification of ethnomusicology. The assumption seems to suggest the nomadic people will eventually and inevitably become fully acculturated members of the global village. At a certain future point, should there be a wish to revive tribal rites and customs, the “detailed” (sic) scripts for re-enactment may be borrowed from the institution, rehearsed and put into practice. But will the old meanings and relevancies then spring forth fully armed?

It may, I believe, be doubted that the provision of historical records for the future use of native peoples is in reality the primary aim of ethnomusicology in Oceania or elsewhere. Of course, this can be a genuine aim—its limitations needing to be acknowledged by the professionals—but it is unlikely to be the principal one. Ethnomusicologists often give the impression they are following a sort of academic imperative to study a subject simply because it is not known. Knowledge is desired for its own sake and lofty statements may be made about adding to the sum of understanding of humanity. At the same time, it can be exciting to be the first to reveal a hitherto undescribed music and, in this, fame may be a spur. Again, a type of biological analogy is often used for justification, going along the lines of a comparison of the culture pool with the gene pool. It is said that reduction of the varieties available within the pools will lessen the possibilities for new adaptations in the future, especially in the aftermath of catastrophe, and this would apply to either biological or human cultural ecologies. In my view, each of these justifications has some merit, but I am left with a sensation of - 176 shortcomings, of inadequacies for the future of ethnomusicology and the arts of music and dance in Oceania. Something seems to be missing. Moreover, with regard to the justifications cited, such abstract ideals or aims can be difficult to convey to relatively “unsophisticated” people in the bush, desert or on an island.

The problem at the local level is not so much the need to learn tradition by courtesy of the scholars, as the strongly held desire to manage and manipulate what is, after all, local tradition and local intellectual property.

Ultimately, this means having the tools locally to make the records, owning archives or controlling access to deposits in them, and deciding what shall be made public. Is this likely to come about? If so, when? What would be the consequences? Would professional ethno-musicologists from “outside” cultures no longer have a role to play that could be seen to be beneficial to the local people? Is it not true that already there is much unrest about “theft” of culture by all kinds of investigators, who are thought to amass riches or win high position with their books, films and records? Is this the intellectual equivalent of rape of natural resources? Such unrest, such fears may be difficult to allay, but there is a subtler criticism beyond this, and that is that the forms of ethnomusicological records and analyses do not necessarily match local conceptions of what their music is essentially about. Because there are disparities in the ways the music is appreciated or valued, the “scientising” of music is sometimes regarded as distorting the indigenous tradition. This is a matter to which we must return.

These problems seem to me more potential than actual at the moment, however. When they are raised in professional agony sessions, protective stratagems are keenly sought and artificial weight may be placed on the provision of historical records without an appropriate recognition of the shortcomings. For there is no one view of any art or lifeway that can be considered complete. The views of both “insiders” and “outsiders” will each have particular validity. Neither needs to dominate to the exclusion of the other. Rather, they should be complementary. A shared ethnomusicology between investigators and performers/creators would, I am sure, be desirable—but is it practicable?

Like shamans concealing formulae or moguls scrambling industrial secrets, professionals often make mystiques of their skills, seemingly protecting elite positions. Transcription and analysis by ethno-musicologists would seem to be esoteric accomplishments. The instruments used to fix mechanically retrievable information (sight and sound) have in the past been out of reach of Oceanic peoples, for both economic reasons and the training needed to operate them. This is now no longer - 177 so in the case of recording, and to many in Oceania that particular black box has been opened. Since Oceanic people can now easily make their own recordings, will they see any particular usefulness in transcriptions and analyses? I think they will eventually, and it may therefore be helpful at this point to digress briefly on the history of mechanical recording in Oceania, and then return to the possibilities for a shared ethno-musicology, and whether the “scientising” of music may after all be found to be compatible with local aspirations and future development.

Mechanical recording, which of course includes electronic processes, has a surprisingly long and honourable history in Oceania. The world's first ethnographic film was made by Haddon's 1898 Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait Islands; four minutes, including dance sequences, survive. Edison phonographs were employed at the same time. Layard made cylinder recordings on Malekula in 1914. Johnson filmed the Big Nambas of Malekula in 1919 and screened the results a few months afterwards on the beach with portable apparatus (much of the film has been recently recovered on behalf of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre by Kirk Huffman). Flaherty made Moana in Samoa in the mid-1920s. Until the 1950s the apparatus used for field recordings was bulky, expensive, difficult to repair and, as often as not, poor in resolution or signal to noise ratio. The gear was not usually mass-produced nor was it designed for amateur operation. Percy Cochrane told me he had to have a complement of 16 “calabooses” (prisoners on loan), when he made field recordings in Papua New Guinea in the 1950s, to carry the heavy battery accumulators and the exceedingly weighty studio tape recorders that were the only ones of the time with claims to high fidelity to which he had access. A. P. Elkin, about 1950, had tried wire-recorders because of their portability, but the quality was so poor for music he said he doubted it had been worth doing.

It took no time at all after the invention of the transistor for designers to overcome the problems of size and weight for high-quality field recording equipment; low current dry-cell batteries dramatically helped to reduce the bulk. Uher made a machine about 1960 that was comparable to the excellent Nagra at much smaller cost. The first ones were about £100 each in UK, with quality as good as mains-powered machines of the same price. Since then, in terms of 1960 currency, prices have continued to fall and quality to improve. In cinema, the development of the Éclair camera in the 1960s at the behest of Jean Rouch meant there was a filming medium surpassing any other format in flexibility and optical sophistication. Coupled with the invention of the sync-pulse for exact matching of tape and cine, it became possible for one or two people to be a complete film unit. In 1968 William P. Malm took half-inch “trans- - 178 portable' videotaping machines into the jungles of Malaysia to record a disappearing form of wayang, which he said was a great physical effort. But by 1972, really portable video—“portapak”—became a common-place in high schools. Video recording in colour on islands without conventional power generation is now possible with a small bank of solar cells. The machines made and marketed during the most recent technological “generation” (which used to be thought of as a period of five years) have not only become effectively cheaper, more reliable and of improved quality, but operating procedures have been simplified. Training obviously assists the intelligent use of the new tools, but it need be no more a mysterious and long-winded affair. These points of technological change or advance have been both very recent and very dramatic, and are all too easy to take for granted.

A telling irony of this technological revolution is that, as fast as the ways to record are discovered and improved, just as fast do the things professionals seek out to record disappear or change through incursions of the very same technology. Whatever was the rate of change 80 or 50 years ago, since the Second World War—and particularly since the advent of the transistor—it was very noticeably accelerated. It is now liable to grow exponentially with silicon chips and microprocessors. The instruments used for recording are now also major agents of change. The tape an ethnomusicologist uses to fix a permanent record of an old man's esoteric chant is now the same tape for young people to disseminate their gospel choruses, string-band and popular numbers. There is now not all that much difference between the tools used by the ethnomusicologist and those owned by many of his subjects of inquiry. The days of the ethnomusicologist offering an exclusive technical service are numbered in many communities and over in the others. Although the picture is not uniform, there is widespread awareness of the situation throughout Oceania.

Clearly the stage is set for the recording of custom by any Oceanic community with the desire and initiative to do so. The cash required to make a useful beginning would be about the same, or less, as it costs to buy an aluminium dingy and outboard motor. Problems of storage, while severe in tropical areas, can be overcome by ingenuity and negotiation. To date, however, such initiatives have rarely been forthcoming. Attempts have been made in several countries to set up local cultural centres, but reports on their progress have a depressing similarity; after an initial period of enthusiasm, interest wanes, the machinery is not properly cared for, arguments develop over proprietory rights and so on. I think a frequent cause for “rot setting in” has been ambivalence over the future value of “custom”, and I believe Walter Lii is right when he says

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Outside the Maewo branch of the New Hebrides Cultural Centre. Boe (R), Crowe (centre) and Uli (L) with children.

(1980: 285): “People will always talk about tradition but only a few leaders will actually try to encourage its continuation, so tradition's future will depend very much on what value it is given by the Government of Vanuatu and other bodies like the church and education.” In this statement Lii points the way for ethnomusicologists. There is an important place for them, in co-operation with others, to be validly involved with “custom” and its preservation. The documentation, the transcriptions and analyses will indeed become useful in the future if island educational authorities decide that culture history is to be part of the curriculum. This is already done in a number of spheres considered developmentally purposeful. One must also sound a note of warning about the kind of thinking that seems to relegate music and art in Western education to the status of “cinderella” subjects, in case it emerges in the islands. For if this should happen the differences between “custom” and modern ways will be exacerbated. As Ron Crocombe remarks (1976: 70)

. . . anthropology tends to be associated with tradition, with the old order, with a backward-looking orientation. Many anthropologists would deny this, but many Pacific islanders believe it to be the case, - 180 and perhaps with some validity. And this is in a situation where a considerable number of islanders are anti-traditionalist or unenthusiastic about looking into “indigenous” things—the exciting exotica for many is the foreign and the modern.

These remarks are as apposite for ethnomusicologists as anthropologists, and practically all serious studies of Oceanic music have to date concentrated on whatever music was identified as traditional—which has in turn been the scholars' “exciting exotica”. But to twist the card, would scholarly papers on new string band forms and songs have had any more appeal or been thought more relevant than those actually published?

It is unfair, but I should hope not mischievous, to suggest that scholarly papers on traditional Oceanic music might be irrelevant to some without taking into account those who can and do understand and make use of them, on the one hand and, on the other, to ignore the potential uses that may emerge in the future. Despite the strictures above on the inadequacy of the records of the aural, gestural and social context of music, it is a fact that these records have only been in existence for a brief period and their usefulness has hardly been tested. I am inclined to think that the recording of disappearing “custom” is sufficiently

Ensemble of five slit-gongs at Saranabuga, West Aoba. This memorial photograph includes the three remaining players; the two other members of the performing ensemble are deceased; no one has taken their place at the silent gongs.
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validated merely by the hope that it will sometime or other be found useful. Naturally, I also hope we might go further. Ethnomusicology may have aligned itself mostly in the past with tradition, with conservatism, with old ways and values and old people too, but in so doing it provides a very real basis for the continuation of local and individual differences, for the maintenance of cultural variety, and most essentially for cultural identity. The very inadequate records nevertheless provide some sort of objective underpinning of history. It seems vitally important to concentrate on musical forms that are the most vulnerable due to social change. It might easily happen that the Qat Baruqu society will cease to exist if men of the future give up the beliefs and ideologies that have been at its core. And what would remain, an empty shell? It is precisely the ritual forms of music which are at the greatest risk in an era of rapid modernisation. It is doubtful that one need be so fearful for acculturated forms, since these tend to be preserved through their commercial viability by radio stations and popular releases. All the same, as Allan Thomas argues (this volume), acculturated forms deserve the serious attention of ethnomusicologists for the rich veins of traditional practices so often retained if often transmogrified.

If the writing down and analysis of traditional music could somehow be made more accessible to Oceanic people, so that they could take part in the “scientising” process, it seems to me the creation of new forms of important music could be greatly facilitated. The techniques and complexities of traditional musical composition would stand a good chance of being maintained and developed further. For instance, the slit-gong drumming of northern Vanuatu (Fig. 2), if written out, might tax a Western percussion virtuoso, that is, if it were written out in conventional Western notation. It ought to be possible now to make pictures of the sounds on television screens (VDUs) that could be interpreted much more easily and quickly. The so-called “graphic” notation methods employed by composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies have been used with great success among people with little formal Western musical training. Some scores for electronic music compositions (e.g., Stockhausen) may suggest further devices for easier reading and interpretation.

If I may paraphrase Kenneth Hale (1972: 394), ethnomusicologists might seek field situations where there is an exchange of competences with persons interested in the study, composition and performance of their own musical tradition. This could extend to the analyses as well, which is implicit. This is where the differing values and appreciations, mentioned above, between the investigators and the local people can be settled or at least understood. Instead of addressing their analytic writings to a professional audience alone, ethnomusicologists might - 182 write them in ways of some use to local musicians. It is not enough to rest with tonic solfa, nor is it useful for the future of Oceania's music to present it only in rather obscure ways.

Yet, in the end, the ear will defeat the eye. Marvellously complicated and intricate musics have been invented in oral cultures for millennia, and there is no reason to suppose it cannot continue given the stimulus. Even without the help of ethnomusicology.


Originally entitled “After the salvage operation, what?”, this paper was prepared for oral presentation and has required extensive revision. Tape recordings have had to be replaced with verbal description. Thanks are due to Judith Huntsman for encouragement and valuable advice.

  • CROCOMBE, R., 1976. “Anthropology, Anthropologists, and Pacific Islanders.” Oceania, XLVII: 66-73.
  • HALE, K., 1972. “Some Questions About Anthropological Linguistics: The Role of Native Knowledge,” in D. Humes (ed.), Reinventing Anthropology. New York, Random House.
  • LII, W. H., 1980. “The Future,” in Vanuatu (various authors, no editor). Suva, Institute of Pacific Studies (University of the South Pacific).
  • SUCHOFF, B. (ed.), 1976. Béla Bartók Essays. London, Faber and Faber.
1   Indexed as tape Maewo II (1977) at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.
2   After Independence on July 30, 1980, known as. Vanuatu Cultural Centre.
3   “Nature” often seems to proceed by fours and “culture” by fives.
4   Ideas of progression from “lower” to “higher” are not as clearly defined as in, for example, the pig-killing grades.
5   It has not been possible to learn details of the “drum”, which was perhaps inadvertently referred to by Boe as na olo (gloss unknown). It sounds on tape as though it could have been a deep and sonorously-voiced membranophone, possibly of the hourglass or kundu type, in which case it would be a rare addition to the Vanuatu instrumental inventory.
6   Only two Christian denominations established themselves on Maewo.
7   See “Notes and News” in Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 86, No. 4 (December 1977).