On singing Salvesen and social transformation: The creation of a gospel hymn-and-dance tradition in island Melanesia

[Updated version of paper presented at the conference, Christian congregational music: Local and global perspectives, 1-3 September 2011, Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford, UK]

Michael Webb

In the early decades of the 20th century, Islanders in the south Malakula region of Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) (see Maps under Libraries on this site) began to develop the Christian hymn-based performance genre known as Salvesen ami, or simply Salvesen, which incorporates elements of both indigenous customary dance and military drill. The core repertoire of Salvesen songs derives from various late 19th century hymnals, including the Ira D. Sankey sacred song collections first published in the early 1870s and globally popular for many decades, as well as an edition of Jubilee Songs, a collection first published in 1872 of songs that were sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

In this paper I explore Salvesen as a genre, beginning with an account of a recent Salvesen performance at Pelongk village in the Maskelyne Islands. I then consider its origins, proposing that salvesen was playfully assembled, bricolage-like, out of disparate elements of Presbyterian mission-sanctioned entertainment repertoires. The meanings of Salvesen are complex and have shifted over time. The hymns were initially learned for the sheer pleasure and as a means of gaining access to the knowledge and authority of the powerful European outsiders. Then for a time, Salvesen performance was associated with courtship and love magic; today it appears to have become a sacred tradition. Through Salvesen I propose, these Islanders have sung and danced their collective Christian and modern transformation, thus effecting such change in an expressly Melanesian way.

Vanuatu, the Maskelynes and Christianity
Cook landing at Malakula
In 1774 the celebrated English navigator Captain James Cook sailed through the Y-shaped chain of islands west of Fiji in the Pacific region later designated Melanesia (islands of dark peoples), naming them the New Hebrides, after the islands off the west coast of Scotland. The Republic of Vanuatu, as the islands were renamed in 1980 after 73 years of joint British and French administration, is comprised of more than eighty large and small islands over sixty of which are currently populated with approximately 220,000 people speaking 110 distinct languages. The Maskelynes, a cluster of islets off the southeast coast of Malakula Island, were named during Cook’s 1774 voyage in honour of the English Astronomer Royal, Neville Maskelyne. Speakers of the Maskelynes language today number approximately eleven hundred.[1]

Leggatt's Mission work in MalekulaChristianity was established in Vanuatu with the arrival from the eastern Pacific of a small group of Samoan and Rarotongan evangelists in 1839 and 1842 respectively. In 1848, Nova Scotian Presbyterian missionaries John and Charlotte Geddie came to live and work on Aneityum, a southern island of Vanuatu. Today, almost one third of Vanuatu’s population claims membership in the Presbyterian Church. Rev. T. Watt Leggatt and his wife Agnes C. P. Leggatt established Presbyterianism on the east and south coast of Malakula from 1897; over the next quarter of a century, Leggatt’s duties included a peripatetic preaching schedule that included the Maskelyne Islands. Locally trained indigenous evangelist-teachers were based in the Maskelynes from the early 1900s.

Contemporary salvesen performance
In late December 2009 I travelled to Pelongk village on Uluveu or Maskelyne Island to learn about Salvesen ami. Salvesen is typically sung and danced at night as part of the Presbyterian church New Year celebrations, however I was able to commission and video an afternoon performance. The following field notes-based description outlines my first sustained encounter with Salvesen:

Preparations for a post-performance feast
I had been advised in advance to contribute the cost of a bulok (cow) for the feast that would follow the performance. Upon arrival I met with a chief and church elder, and following a village public meeting the next day where plans for the performance were clarified, a team of men made their way in a small motorboat to the plantation across the channel on Malakula to capture and slaughter the animal. Returning at dusk, on the beach they carefully divided the meat into one-kilogram portions, one for each family in the village. Early the following day, the day of the performance, women began preparing the laplap or customary food; before noon it was cooking on hot stone ovens across the village.

Pre-performance rehearsal
Late on the night before the performance, with the rest of the village in darkness, a core group of men held a rehearsal that extended into the early morning hours; their resonant vocal harmonizing ricocheted around the cement walls of the village meeting hall where they gathered, and out across the village. A church elder and guardian of the Salvesen repertoire and tradition had selected some thirty songs for the event. Although the titles were listed in performance order on a piece of paper, the rehearsal and performance proceeded from memory. The majority of the hymns were sung in English, however some were also in Bislama and the Maskelynes language.

Performance (and performance practices)
Singing Image Vanuatu
Towards the end of the afternoon, with the food cooked, a conch shell signal called women, men and children to gather beside the Leggatt Memorial Church, dressed and ready for the performance. Women wore white “Island” dresses and men, long-sleeved white shirts, black pants, and black shoes. Immediately prior to the procession that signals the beginning of a dance session and which moves the whole group onto the dance ground, women shook clouds of talcum powder over the participants, a custom that marks the performance as “special”.

Singing “We are marching on [?to the gates of Zion?], marching to the music’s sound” (listen to this track in Libraries: Sound Recordings), one of a select number of starting hymns, women followed men with older men in the front row, as all processed to the dance ground – a large grassy clearing in front of the church and in the centre of the village – led by a prominent church elder who carried a long sharpened stake decorated with flowers and leaves. The singers prioritized exuberance over choral finesse and strongly emphasized rhythm, evident in the hand clapping and offbeat whooping, and in the responsorial singing.

Salvesen womenOnce it is planted in the centre of the dance ground, the group began moving around the decorated stake, counterclockwise, singing Salvesen hymns one after the other, for over an hour, accompanied by clapping, whistling, and time-beating on an improvised “drum.” Men formed an inner circle and women and children moved around the outside of the men. Most songs concluded in the responsorial cheer, “Hip, hip, hooray!” As singing and dancing “heated up,” women twirled white towel cloths above their head. “Actions” or interpretations of performative phrases from the hymn texts have been developed to accompany particular songs. For example, during one song men grasp and raise the arm of the man next to them, and they point directions to reinforce the meaning of the text in another.

 A performance of the Salvesen hymn (from the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ Jubilee Songs collection first published by Bigelow & Main in 1872), “O brother, don’t stay away” (“Room enough”) I recorded in 2010 on a second visit to the Maskelynes, provides a clue to the movement and dance structure of a Salvesen performance segment (go to Libraries: Sound Recordings). There are three sections: first, in common with many of the hymns it begins with a rubato section where the singers are walking around the dance circle in “free” time; second, at the point where the clapping starts, the whole group engages in a kind of vigorous marching; in the third section, when the pulse is further subdivided, a sort of short stepped, foot-alternating, rapid stamping begins. At this point individuals may improvise dance steps, which look something like tripping forwards then staggering backwards a number of steps, “across” the regular time of the clapping and drumming. Notice how in this recorded performance some villagers are singing at the uppermost limits of their vocal range, creating bursts of choral intensity, and how individual voices, together with the group, weave the multipart choral texture.

Recessional, prayer and feast
The performance concluded with the participants singing the recessional hymn, “I shall wear a golden crown when I get home” as they filed from the dancing ground towards the beach, the point of public access to Pelongk village. At the end of the song an elder prayed and the performers slowly dispersed. Within the next twenty minutes, as the sun set family groups spread out woven pandanus leaf mats on the grass around the edges of the performance area. They then opened and feasted on the banana leaf packets containing laplap – taro and yam pounded into a paste, combined with various vegetable leaves, the shredded beef, grated coconut, and coconut cream.

Origins and meanings of Salvesen ami
I now turn to consider why and how Salvesen came into being. From the mid nineteenth century Melanesians began to experience a period of tumultuous change – wave after wave of incursions from traders, missionaries, labour recruiters, and colonial representatives of European powers. Responding to such changes proactively, Island communities creatively employed their cultural resources in the reorganization of their societies and institutions.

In Melanesia, exuberant singing provides evidence of bodily, as well as social and cultural vitality and it cultivates and sustains links with the spiritual realm. Choral intensity is an index of belief in the spiritual power or authority of song in general, as well as of specific songs. The missionary Rev. John Inglis, who arrived in Aneityum in southern Vanuatu in 1851, wrote of Islanders: “They are very fond of singing their native songs: they will sing away at these syllabic choruses for any length of time, apparently more for the love of the noise than the love of the music”, and “a prominent characteristic of their singing, as regards their native songs, is the ‘loud noise joyfully’” (1887: 152). Melanesians place great importance on the act of singing together, since, as one scholar phrases it, to “‘keep singing’ is to participate in a particular mode of being that is fundamental to ontology” (Van Heekeren 2011: 54). The sounds and practices associated with hymnody afforded these Islanders a culturally meaningful medium through which to “[conceptualize] the order of the world, making ties between the past and present, and offering visions of alternative futures” (Guy 2008:67-68).

To Melanesians, songs represent knowledge, and songs from beyond the local community such as those of the powerful missionary outsiders, were understood to carry authority (Lindstrom 1990: 316). From the earliest years, Psalm chanting and hymn singing was a feature of the culture of Vanuatu Presbyterianism (Inglis 1887: 137-138). Hymnody was established in villages across the islands with the aid of the reed organ, the hymnal, and Tonic sol-fa notation. Missionary women in particular held regular singing classes, often on the mission house verandah, where they taught congregational hymns from a portable harmonium. Translating hymns in to local vernaculars was an early priority for missionaries: Rev. Watt Leggatt for example, published a hymnbook in the Aulua language of east Malakula in 1897. However, it was with the rise of the type of American congregational song known as the gospel hymn or gospel song, such as the aforementioned “I shall wear a golden crown” (by C. Austin Myles, first published in 1903), that choral hymnody enjoyed an explosion of popularity across Vanuatu. From 1874, references to Sankey songs begin to appear in mission reports and correspondence from these remote islands, even as they were becoming globally popular.[2]

Between 1863 and 1904, thousands of ni-Vanuatu were taken to the sugar cane plantations in Queensland, Australia, as indentured laborers. While there, many learned Tonic sol-fa notation and Sankey hymns through the evangelizing activities of the Queensland Kanaka Mission. The 1891-1892 annual report of the QKM for example, records having distributed “432 Testaments and 348 Sankey’s hymn books” (p. 10). Upon returning to the Islands, a significant number of these men and women voluntarily engaged in teaching the gospel and hymnody and aided the speedy dissemination of such hymns.

In the 1890s a training institute for indigenous pastors was established at Tangoa, close to the island of Espiritu Santo. According to Miller, “[s]tudents were known to have applied for entrance…simply to get the training in tonic sol-fa” (Miller 1985: 252). Maskelyne Islanders name John Gulfor (d. 1961), a graduate of the institute, as the one who in the early 1910s brought a nascent form of Salvesen to the Maskelynes in the form of Tonic sol-fa, drill, and gospel hymns, which he taught systematically to villagers.

In these early years, drill was thought by some Islanders to be the “white man’s customary dance,” and the church employed it in early evangelistic activities. A leading Maskelynes musician explained to me how drill and Salvesen were perceived formerly:

Drill was an evangelistic tool – if you were a drinker, a troublemaker or given to fighting, drill would bring you into the daylight. Because the full uniform – tie, shoes, white shirt, black long trousers – no matter where you were, it would attract you to join. Joining the drill meant that you had truly been reborn and joined the Church. You accepted Christ through the drill; you received Christ through Salvesen ami. You would testify, “Yes, I was still practicing tabu faia (Bislama, sorcery), but drill saved me. The uniforms, the commands, all helped to draw me to the life the Lord wanted for me”.[3]

In addition to this salvific role, drill and Salvesen also served as a context for courtship. The same musician continued,

No matter where you are, it attracts your attention, because it looks fascinating. When a “hot” song is being sung, it is like a maseng, like customary “love” medicine. When it goes like that, women won’t stay inside their houses. Salvesen ami draws people – people get married as a result of Salvesen ami performances![4]

Probably because it was codified away from the close supervision of the mission, there remains no clear documentary record of how Salvesen coalesced as a performance genre. It is possible to speculate regarding this however, on the basis of antecedents hinted at in the missionary record. For example, in relation to Islanders’ creative assemblage of performance elements around hymnody, consider the following account by Irish Presbyterian missionary Dr. Campbell Nicholson, of an “entertainment” provided on the occasion of his farewell from the island of Aniwa in 1913:

 Vani appeared leading nineteen young men all in white shirts and trousers with black cummerbands and gay handkerchiefs suspended from one wrist. They stood in two lines facing each other. To my great surprise they imitated the gramophone [sic] giving the hymn, “When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there,” singing it well and at the end of each verse imitating the pianoforte accompaniment with variations and all. Then with a round swing of the arm the coloured handkerchiefs fluttered overhead, a deep bow, and out they marched, two and two. There were thirteen items on the programme and nearly all were action songs such as one sees at children’s services… (Mayne 2006: 291).

Some twenty years later in the Shepherd Islands to the north of Aniwa and closer to the Maskelynes, in a diary entry for December 25, 1934, New Zealander missionary Basil Nottage refers to a “men only” dance performance in Pele village after Christmas church service, following which:

The women and children left, and men drilled, with sticks for rifles, and bayonets home-made of wood, but very good imitations. Toara himself a really snappy French officer! Commands in French. Soki Semi gathered a few British police, to go and salute them! Tea. All white neighbours too … with us.

Evening – concert in school. Forty-six items. We saw 36. Far too many consisted of lines or circles stamping hard, and singing hymns, and clapping. … Expresses something – perhaps like negroes … taught us something to go on….

The reference to “negroes” is now obscure, although Nottage may be recalling minstrelsy or even the various tours of Australia and New Zealand of African American Jubilee Singers groups between the 1880s and 1910. However, preparing his diary for publication in 1988, he made the following annotation on the 1934 entry:

This was a most important occasion, culturally. For many years the Mission had adamantly condemned all forms of dancing – and still did at this time. […] I had talked purposefully with chiefs, elders and others, questioning whether there might also be types of “dancing” that were attractive, desirable and to be enjoyed by all (Nottage 1988: 130).

It is difficult to gain a clear image of these 1934 performances. That they were eclectic and playful is in no doubt; whether they included something like a prototypical salvesen is less clear. One thing is certain, and that is that this missionary at least realized that Islanders would creatively fill the gap the mission opened up by “condemning” their dances.

In the Maskelynes today, Salvesen remains a treasured social and spiritual performance tradition. On the one hand its repertoire has gradually contracted as songs from the early 20th century fade from memory, yet on the other it is being reinvigorated with newly composed items in Bislama and the Maskelynes language. In the related context of Presbyterian congregational hymnody, a vocal part symbolizes each person’s place in the village-as-Christian congregation. Choral harmony is highly valued for the aesthetic pleasure it brings listeners, and without fail draws spontaneous applause in church and other public performance contexts. Likely, with Salvesen it also encodes the historical memory of Islanders’ modern social transformation.

Guy, Nancy. 2008. Feeling a shared history through song: ‘A flower in the rainy night’ as a key cultural symbol in Taiwan. TDR: The Drama Review 52(4): 64-81.

Inglis, John. 1887. In the New Hebrides: Reminiscences of missionary life and work especially on the island of Aneityum, from 1850 till 1877. London: T. Nelson and Sons.

Lindstrom, Lamont. 1990. “Big Men as Ancestors: Inspiration and Copyrights on Tanna (Vanuatu). Ethnology, 29 (4): 313-26.

Mayne, Barbara. 2006. A remarkable man. Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing.

Pierce, Edwin. 1940. “Gospel hymns and their tunes.” Musical Quarterly 26 (3): 355-364.

Miller, J. Graham. 1985. Live: A history of church planting in Vanuatu. Book Three. Port Vila, Vanuatu: Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu.

Nottage, Basil. 1988, Break of day islands: The New Hebrides diary of Basil Nottage 1932-1939. Wellington: Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.

Troughton, Geoffrey M. 2005. Moody and Sankey Down Under: A Case Study in “Trans-Atlantic” Revivalism in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand. Journal of Religious History 29 (2): 145-162.

Van Heekeren, Deborah. (2011). Singing it ‘local’: The appropriation of Christianity in the Vula’a villages of Papua New Guinea, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 12 (1): 44-59.

[1] See
[2] See Pierce (1940); Rees (1940); Downey (1965); Mosher (1992); Stowe (2002).
[3] Interview with Elder Makpi Johnnymark, March 2010.
[4] Interview with Elder Makpi Johnnymark, March 2010.