About this research

Full-voiced singing, circling around and stomping often go together in performance in Vanuatu. What do these actions express and achieve?

My research is revealing that over a lifetime they generate a powerful mutual affection, bind together villagers of all ages, enhance physical, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing and ultimately, contribute to social and cultural thriving

The research around which this website is based was undertaken in close cooperation with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and Islands leaders (among others, Jif Edly Wakon and Leading Elder Zakias Simeon in the Maskelynes, and Elder Kapiapo Melio [d. 2013] and his brother, Peter Melio, as well as Pastor Kora in Epi). Outputs such as the film and website have been developed with the intention of deriving benefit for both participants and researcher.

Webb has a fifty year association with Melanesia and has been involved in research in the region since the early 1980s. In 2009 he began research in Vanuatu towards what became the focus of Circling Around in Song, a film made in collaboration with Hideki Isoda. This work built on insights Webb gained from his earlier research into Melanesian organology and pre-contact ceremonial culture, as well as lingua franca song, and historical and contemporary aspects of Christian hymnody in Papua New Guinea.

The Vanuatu research encompasses such common ethnomusicological concerns as: modes of music transmission (orality/literacy); musical aesthetics; performance practice; musical change; beliefs about music (including sources of musical inspiration); music, gender and age/ageing, and genres and repertoires.

DSC_1961More specifically however, concentrating on several repertoires that were globalising form the 1870s, it investigates the participatory singing practices in small-scale Melanesian societies, from which the villagers of all ages and life stages derive intense delight. We concentrate on the creativity involved in manipulating the resources of apparently modest song-movement-dance continua, and the ways those involved “lose” themselves through merging spiritually with the whole group. Such performances generate a powerful mutual affection among participants, as they bind individuals to the collective.

In the film we examine continuities between pre-contact kastom danis, that is, customary song and dance repertoires, Christian hymn-related introduced song repertoires including salvesen (salvation) and bonani (happy New Year), and genres such as stringben (Bislama, string band) created in the post-contact era, specifically, following World War II. These are bound together by a common mode of vocal or choral delivery—con tutta forza (as loud as possible), as ethnomusicologist Peter Crowe put it.

BonaniData on which the film is based were collected during a series of intensive field visits to Vanuatu in 2008, 2009 (three visits), 2010, 2011, and 2012 (film shooting took place in 2011 and 2012). In 2011 Webb held an eight day workshop in the Maskelyne Islands designed to encourage participants to retrieve forgotten repertoire items from the local genre, salvesen (salvation), based on hymns and gospel songs from the late Victorian and Edwardian era. In 2012 he and Isoda were invited to visit the island of Epi, where they went with the intention of comparing the related folk choral genre, bonani (Happy New Year), with salvesen. On Epi they collected and filmed song and dance performances in Nikaura and Nuvi villages on the weather coast, and in Burumba village on the west coast.

It is our aim to make these island areas more widely known by drawing attention not only to their physical beauty, but also the generosity, cultural creativity and expressive practices of the villagers who reside there. We are currently investigating ways to permit others to benefit from the knowledge, performance expressions and experience of Islanders; we introduce these to a wider audience with the intention of contributing to sustainable and respectful development of expressive culture in the areas where we have been privileged to undertake research and documentation.

Hearing, seeing and thinking about Melanesian singing and circling around, we believe, can lead us back to considering the role of song and movement in our own experience of each other and the world. The research represented in Circling Around in Song and reported on in this website reveals that in Vanuatu rural societies,

  • singing throughout life, from early childhood to old age, is natural; songs are ‘companions’ of memory
  • singing outdoors, rending the air with sound and song, is physically invigorating and immensely enjoyable; it announces, “This is us, we belong in this place, to each other, to the world”; it draws people together in bonds of profound feeling and relationship
  • singing with great energy transports singers towards and into the realm of sacred time; singing is multisensory
  • singing while moving in a circle directs the sound back in on the group—each singer-dancers’ body becomes a kind of sounding board; thus the energy level spirals and emotions are heightened
  • ringing vocal cheers and whoops and rhythmic stomping thicken the sound texture and express a sense of freedom and abandon
  • singing well makes one physically attractive and desirable
  • singing in harmony densifies the sound, makes it seem stronger as it rolls like breaking waves, which can in turn increase its appeal—like a thunderclap it can thrill if all parts are perfectly weighted; the creative act of improvising simple harmonies also amplifies the pleasure of singing
  • singing and songs affirm belief in collectively held ‘truths’

There is much to learn from Melanesians about musicality and its expressions, we believe. For example, Webb’s research in rural Vanuatu (in the Maskelyne Islands and on Epi) establishes the following elements of musical flourishing:

  • people of every age are involved in active music-making
  • children are especially encouraged from a young age to engage in creative, participatory music-making, in schools and churches as well as in community events; the old and infirm are also included
  • there exists a range of public spaces, in and out of doors, where music can be made—public fields, schools and their grounds, church buildings
  • all music making is commodity free and unmediated
  • music-making is also substance-free: no drugs or alcohol are associated with music making—music making produces its own exhilaration and pleasure (tobacco is smoked on the fringes of some performances by a few)
  • music making takes place in environments where there are no threats to public safety—festivals and ceremonies are local to the community so traveling great distances to perform is not necessary
  • music makers dress up in some way
  • music-making is associated with feasting
  • music is still largely orally transmitted, and people often have vast repertoires stored in their memory (that said, many individuals treasure their handwritten song collections compiled over many years)
  • repertoires are eclectic and people ‘absorb’ songs from anywhere and everywhere—distinctions such as sacred or secular are largely unimportant

Perhaps Circling Around in Song will encourage you to transform your appearance, go outdoors, join or form a circle, and raise your voice in song and celebration!

Michael Webb (2014)