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Various Artists: Music of the South Pacific: Recordings by David Fanshawe

Jamie O'Brien

Various Artists

Music of the South Pacific: Recordings by David Fanshawe

Label: ARC Music Productions
US Release Date: 2003-01-07
UK Release Date: Available as import

Between 1978 and 1992, David Fanshawe traveled the Pacific, recording, photographing and writing about the cultures and people he met. ARC Music has released a 79-minute long album featuring 27 tracks that detail his search for traditional music from nine islands in the region.

The album opens with three tracks from the Cook Islands. The first is an unaccompanied gospel chant, almost two songs at once as female and male voices lead and answer with different intersecting melodies, powered by a strong sense of rhythm; the second is a harmonious action song, steered by a chanter who seems to announce each verse; the third is a drum dance, featuring a variety of percussion instruments.

Fanshawe presents two examples of music from Chuuk in Micronesia -- the first is an catchy melodic hymn led by women singers as male voices provide a counterpoint, the whole accompanied by driving chords on guitar. Toward the end of the album, a second song appears in similar style, but this time introducing fascinating cuts in the rhythm along with the contrasting vocal lines.

In Papua New Guinea, a fascinating musical phenomenon has developed -- the bamboo band. A giant pair of bamboo xylophones are erected and beaten. The Wagi Brothers also add a highly distorted electric guitar with strong overtones of punk, along with a near-shouted vocal -- overall, they create a wild effect that would not necessarily be out of place in a western club! PNG also has string bands which feature picked acoustic guitars, creating a rolling effect, highlighted by the laid-back singing style as shown here by the Rymoka String Band. For more contrast, Fanshawe also presents the eerie and atmospheric sound of the sacred flute music performed on sepik flutes (apparently the longest flutes in the world -- the lengths of bamboo are longer than the musician).

More bamboo flutes are featured with the panpipes of Buma in the Solomon Islands. Initially harder to appreciate, these pipes with their repetitive chant and train-like rattle accompaniment eventually get under the skin, hypnotically holding your attention. Perhaps one needs a visual accompaniment to understand the pipes of Langa Langa Lagoon and the gilo stones on the following two tracks -- they certainly are different, in some ways reminding me of western electronic music.

Vanuatu also has a tradition of string bands; unfortunately, there is only one example on the album. The Fenes String Band consists of a lead vocalist and backup singer along with guitar, ukulele, and tea-chest bass.

Seven tracks from Fiji follow. The Orchid Island Group offer driving voices with driving percussion and a tune which sounds remarkably familiar. Fanshawe has recorded a slit-log drum, which is the Fijian answer to church bells. An example of this is followed by a couple of hymns sung by a choir in a style not too different from what one might hear in a Bavarian village chapel! The Taralala Dance moves into the secular realm and is a joyful dance with a multitude of voices, handclaps, and a strummed guitar. The harmonies are delightful, but not as inspiring as those of the Warwick Vocal Group which performs a contemporary Fijian song -- guitars and ukulele provide the instrumentation for the vocals of lead, bass, and falsetto harmony. "Vakamalolo Yaroi" is a 'sitting down dance' and in some ways is reminiscent of Hebridean waulking songs. Verses are started by one singer, who is then joined by others who add harmonies, while a repetitive rhythm underlies the song.

The first Tongan track is an epic (7:40 minutes), the music for a descriptive dance. It is hypnotic as voices weave the melody with countermelody and harmony lines creating a throbbing, absorbing effect. According to Fanshawe, the fangufangu nose flute is one of the oldest surviving Polynesian instruments. The melody played is simple and evocative. The "Faikava Love Song" is a tender, gentle song of unrequited love by four or so male voices.

Aggie Grey is a noted singer in Western Samoa. Here, along with harmony singers and guitar and ukulele accompaniment, she sings a Samoan adaptation of "Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On", a perfect example of Pacific music -- the melody, the sentiment, everything seems perfectly in place and perfectly Polynesian.

Returning to Micronesia, Fanshawe presents two te kamei (standing dances). The voices have a strained sound and the accompanying percussion a military feel, yet the overall effect is pleasing with its atmosphere of celebration and festivity.

To end the album, Fanshawe returns us to his starting point, the Cook Islands. The sound of the ocean is "eternal" for Fanshawe. He explains, "Pacific islanders often refer to the reef that surrounds them as 'singing'". And the three-minute recording of the water begins to explain some of the sounds heard throughout the recording -- the ebbing and flowing, the harmonious splashing and crashing, the unstoppable rhythm. He punctuates this with a final track presenting drummers from Reureu, manmade sounds which echo those of nature.

Fanshawe spent 14 years traveling the South Pacific, collecting the material that appears on this recording. Not only has he selected fine examples from his travels, he also adds explanations, descriptions and many lyrics (in their original languages as well as in translation). He sets scenes by recounting not only where and when he recorded pieces, but also by giving the historical settings from which they emerged. The notes are accompanied by photos and are in English and German.

Though obviously well read in his subject, he is able to reach, inform and entertain even the most casual of listener. This is not a dry ethnomusical study of the region, but a fascinating documentary of other cultures and other traditions. Perhaps a track here or there is a little too alien for my ears to say I truly enjoy it -- this is particularly so with the Solomon Island selections -- but it is easy to appreciate much of the music. Music of the South Pacific inspires me to want to travel to the region and hear the music in context.

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