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Initial ideas:

One of the central practices of ethnomusicology is the analysis and documentation of

rare musical forms of music in culture (Merriam, 1960:109) emerging from a
combination of different kinds of ethnographic information (Blacking, 1974:79). One
such rare musical form is womens water music of Gaua, Banks Islands, Northern
Vanuatu. Water music involves a group of women, standing in a semi-circle waist
deep in the river or the ocean, playing the surface of the water percussively, either as
an accompaniment to songs, or as an autonomous musical expression. As there is no
significant academic literature on water music, one of my aims is to document and
transcribe its repertoire, and establish where it is placed within the broader cultural
milieu of Ni-Vanuatu kastom (Bislama: custom, culture) in the Banks Islands. By
repertoire, I mean the rhythmic patterns that the women play on the water, the words
of songs, and the oral history relating to them. Following Lissant Boltons definition,
I use the word kastom to mean the word that people in Vanuatu use to characterize
their own knowledge and practice in distinction to everything they identify as having
come from outside their place (2003, xiii).
My first (and so far only visit) to Gaua was made possible by making contact
with Further Arts, a charitable organisation, based in Port Vila, Vanuatus capital.
This association transpired through my preliminary research in water music and was
the result of making contact through social media with a water music group that
performs for tourists at the Leweton cultural centre in Luganville. Through that first
contact, I developed a relationship with the Further Arts organization, which work
with the Leweton group to promote kastom activities. Further Arts work alongside the
Vanuatu Cultural Council and the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (Vanuatu Cultural Centre),
a key objective being to empower Ni-Vanuatu to develop long-term social and
commercial enterprises in the industries of creative arts, agriculture and
communications that are culturally, socially, environmentally and financially
sustainable. Serendipitously, it transpired that the dates that I had planned to make
my preliminary visit to Vanuatu coincided with a Further Arts crew going up to Gaua
to document the Salav Festival, a celebration of St Andrews day in Namassari
Village. This festival celebrates Kastom (custom) activities alongside an Anglican
church service, primarily to generate income for the village, but more importantly, at

least form a research perspective to provide an opportunity for the people of Gaua to
develop more interest in, and awareness of, local cultural practices.
One of the central aims of this thesis is to understand Banks Islands
conceptions of water musics history and cultural value. Before I spent time in Gaua,
one of my initial questions was whether or not Water Music was a relatively recent
invention or a continuation of an older, pre-European practice. A conversation that I
had with the Chief Robert of Namassari over a few bowls of kava struck me as
significant: he argued that it is both. According to Chief Robert, Water Music was
originally a kind of musical game that people played when they were cooling off in
the water. However in conversations with the Chief it became apparent that Water
Music in its current incarnation (i.e as an accompaniment to songs) was a conscious
invention of tradition. According to Chief Robert :a few years ago we decided have
a competition to see which group was the best at Water Music and how best we could
use it as a means of reintroducing kastom practices on Gaua. The current model of
Water Music as a combination of percussive rhythmic accompaniment to songs
costume, and movement was the result of this competition and was deemed by a
council of chiefs and other high ranking people from various villages on Gaua to be
the correct i.e kastom way that this music should be performed.
Alongside Boltons conception of kastom as characterization of local
knowledge and practice is the conscious political decision, taken immediately after
independence by newly incumbent VKP party, to reassert traditional values and
practices in order to foster a post-colonial Ni-Vanuatu identity. Hobsbawm and
Ranger (1983) argue that an invented tradition is taken to mean a set of practices,
normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic
nature, which seek to inculate certain norms of behavior by repetition, which
automatically implies continuity of the past. The re-assertion of kastom seemed to sit
uneasily with some members of the Church in the service that immediately preceded
the Salav festival, as there was an extensive warning to visitors from other villages
who may have been planning to use destructive magic. They were warned in no
uncertain terms that Namassari had been spiritually swept clean and that any
attempts at nefarious sorcery would be met with a swift response from the clergy and
church members. It was also apparent how much Christian notions of retribution had
penetrated the psyche of kastom practitioners: In one visit to a tabu ples [Taboo place]
we were shown the places were both destructive and benign magic were practiced by

pre-European chiefs but told that if anyone practices magic now, they will
immediately die. When I asked who says you will die? I was immediately told that
the church had decreed this and because magic was no longer actually practiced, there
was an anxiety about the knowledge of these practices becoming lost. Although Water
Music apparently has little to do with magic per se, I am interested how it is placed
within the theoretical framework of invented tradition. More widely, I am interested
in how it is placed within the wider milieu of Banks Islanders conceptions of kastom
given that the interactions between Church, state and local constructions of what is
true kastom are complex.
Similarly, as water music is practiced in different communities in the Banks
Islands, the islands of Pentecost and Ambae, as well as parts of the Solomon islands,
(R. Amman: pers. comm. 26th May, 2013) the ways its repertoire and discourse vary
geographically is a research area of interest. Is it only on Gaua island that water music
is performed in this way? According to David Nalo from the Further Arts
organization, as a child in the 1970s he witnessed his father performing water music.
This may suggest that there are regional differences as in Gaua, water music is
performed by exclusively by women. I am also interested in how gender constructs
shape Water Music performances. Why is it that on Gaua at least, it is usually women
that perform water music and not men? Are Bank Islands gender constructions
reinforced in water music performances? If so, how?
Finally, I am interested in the ways that exogenous exchange systems have
affected the performance of kastom. Since European contact, Western notions of cash
economy. have increasingly influenced the socio-economic life of communities
throughout Vanuatu. As LiPuma argues: all encompassed peoples will become
capitalist, but to what degree and in what way is first open to and defined by the
intersection of imported capitalism with local practices (2003:6). In recent years, a
burgeoning tourist industry has contributed significantly to Vanuatus GDP (WTTC,
2012), with cultural performances becoming a source of income for locals. With this
in mind, I aim to explore how Banks Islanders epistemologies of water music as
kastom performance interact with alternative epistemologies based on financial
exchange. This study will contribute to the discipline of ethnomusicology by
documenting and exploring an area of Pacific culture that is as yet, unresearched. As
such, my aim is to broaden understanding of Ni-Vanuatu kastom, music, and cultural