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Faculty Focus

The Pacific Way

Once-banned performances are now being embraced as a part of a cultural awakening.

Janet Dixon Keller

Under the cover of darkness on an isolated southwestern Pacific island in the mid-1970s, the songs and stories of a people's past were revealed to a fascinated foreigner. During anthropologist Janet Dixon Keller's 14 months of fieldwork on West Futuna in 1973, the island people eagerly shared their community's history and culture through the folk music and dance rituals that had been passed down from generation to generation.

Banned years ago by church missionaries but still revered and remembered by inhabitants, the indigenous musical performance canon of West Futuna survived nonetheless. Keller, an LAS anthropology professor, was invited to preserve the performances on tape and in photos.

In the 30 years since her first encounter there, Keller's enthusiasm for the island people and their culture never has waned. She immersed herself on West Futuna as part of her doctoral training at the University of California at Berkeley, then wrote and published the first dictionary and grammar of the indigenous language in 1983. She also attempted to translate the songs and stories, but set aside that project, realizing she did not possess the knowledge or insight to uncover their deeper meanings.

A subsequent visit to the island in 1998, however, convinced her to re-examine the songs, and she came to understand their role as biting historical and political commentaries—just as their significance is becoming lost to young West Futunese. Their homeland is now a part of the independent democratic island-nation of Vanuatu, formerly New Hebrides, a chain of islands stretching for 400 miles. The descendants of the West Futunese comprise about 2,000 of Vanuatu's 200,000 citizens, with fewer than 400 people remaining on West Futuna, according to Keller. Many live in the country's capital, Port Vila, which is its economic, educational, and technological center.

Keller's recent project may help preserve the songs, or at least deepen the younger generation's understanding of them. Keller, who suspects she is one of the few outsiders who can read and speak the endangered local language, has translated five stories and two songs from West Futuna into English. In collaboration with Takaronga Kuautonga, a Futunese man who works for the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, the pair provide context and analysis of each piece, while attempting to crack the metaphorical code that they contain.

The translations and commentary have been compiled into a book published in 2005, Nokonofo Kitea: We keep on living this way. The title is taken from the opening line of a traditional song.

One of the songs Keller translated, "Nahjeji (Lobster Trap)," was written in the 1850s, a decade after the missionaries targeted the area. In the book, Keller provides a literal translation into English:

You await the low tide there.
When the tide receded you placed (traps) down in the current.
Made them fast at Ta Vaka (The Canoe) and you came back ashore
Concentrating on the lobsters that would fall into the trap.

She then offers an alternative that elucidates the underlying moral or message—something Keller learned in the 1990s from an elderly woman. The lobster trap is a metaphor for conversion or evangelism, the lobsters are the Futunese people, and the trappers represent the missionaries.

"I don't think the missionaries knew what the subject matter of the songs was," says Keller, who believes the church outlawed the community performances, which were often all-night events, because they viewed the events as providing opportunities for behavior they deemed inappropriate. "There was one attempt at translation by a missionary that I have seen. They may have suspected. But these songs are so metaphorical that I think even if they made the literal translations, they would not have made the connections."

The music is based on a basic five-note scale and four-line verse. Lyrics follow a verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern. Passages in the chorus, said to be the words of the ancestors, are unintelligible but sung with power. The verses contain the meaning.

There was little attempt originally at singing in unison. Rather the voices have microtonal variations that create a sense of sounds being intertwined. The beat is strong and stable. The instruments used—including ankle bracelets, shell trumpets, and drums—come from natural materials found across the Pacific. To end the song, the last chorus is repeated with increasing tempo until it ends with a collective shout.


The once-banned public performances are now encouraged by the church and have been re-introduced into festivities. During the intervening decades, the church had come to understand that the songs were an important way to establish and preserve community. However, Keller doubts the church still fully grasps the songs' meanings. She witnessed this phenomenon when she was in Vanuatu in 1998, and saw the preparations for the church's jubilee celebration.

"There's a critique by the people of Vanuatu that the churches have denied sort of free expression and diminished the importance of their traditional customs and tried to replace them with Western customs," Keller says. "I think that critique has been heard and [the churches] have responded by encouraging these traditional forms of musical expression, within a variety of religious and secular contexts."

While the lyrics have changed little since Keller first heard the songs 30 years ago, the presentation of the songs continues to evolve. The performances went public once again at community celebrations in the 1980s, after Vanuatu achieved independence. Today, the Vanuatu tourist repertoire incorporates the traditional musical compositions. Young men (women don't entertain in public) perform the songs and dances with elaborate costuming, choreography, and instruments. "Many times [the performers] don't understand the metaphorical allusions, but they understand the literal words," Keller says.

The challenge of adapting traditional customs into a modernized society in ways that are respectful of a people's roots and that cherish their ancestors is common across the Pacific. With a grant from the Undergraduate Asian Studies Funding Initiative for the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies at U. of I., Keller attended this summer's Pacific Arts Festival in Palau, a major cultural event that brings together the nation-states of the Pacific every four years. She observed how Vanuatu compared with other Pacific nation-states in the ways that they were using the cultural arts as an expression of identity.

"Communities worldwide are struggling with this tension of how to transform [modern life] into a system that they can live with and feel a part of and feel that they are happily contributing to," she says.

"This return to a celebration of music and the narrative arts is a way to try to hang on to the values that the people of West Futuna genuinely want to bring into the globalizing concept of the world," she says. "They don't want to relinquish this."

By Laura Weisskopf Bleill
Fall/Winter 2005-06