Published: December 1st 2009September 7th 2009
This was how then end of most days looked in Banam Bay. The tinny taking us home to Alvei at then end of a long day.
The Mystical Power of Music in Malekula
I recently had a most unique set of experiences I would like to share with you. It is the experience of cultural exchange and the universal power of melody and rhythm. I was lured to the small island nation of Vanuatu via email some months before by my old pal Seamus O’Bryan with the tantalizing idea that a musician, particularly a singing guitarist, was worth his weight in gold in terms of diplomatic relations. I however retained some doubts as to the entire truth of my friends’ claim that I might actually be as useful as a nurse, carpenter, or bricklayer. Nevertheless, having witnessed the extreme mystery of song in action throughout my life, I wasn’t entirely shocked at the onset of the journey, when seemingly he was proven correct.
The stage was set some days into my trip as Alvei, the tall ship commandeered by Project MARC as a floating hostel, dropped anchor in Banem Bay, Malekula. Her lower decks were packed with cement, tin roofing, timber, gutter piping, and coincidentally, my sleeping bunk and undersized travel guitar. Seamus instructed me to bring my instrument and an open mind to
This was at the Sengalai clinic in Uliveo
the sandy beach on the day we were to unload the supplies with the help of Ni-vans from different villages in the surrounding areas, not all of whom were slated for aid. I didn’t quite understand the full extent of my friend’s request at the time but later it began to make sense on a greater level as a uniting force.
Even as I unpacked my guitar from its soft shell case, the locals began to crowd around with the utmost curiosity. My apprehension grew, but not being prone to stage fright, I decided in my mind that this was the job I was here to do and without further hesitation threw myself into my first number. The circle around me grew quickly from 15, to 25 and up to around 50 Ni-vans of all ages by the end of my first song. I was elated. Loud applause would startle me in the middle of each tune but soon I realized that this was just one way the people expressed their appreciation, especially if they liked a particular bit of the song. At the end of each song the cry of “wan-mo” was heard. It was so redundant that
Our first Salu-salu was in Fartafo Village and the guitar made it's first appearance.
it sort of became a running joke with the crew. “Won-mo!” Wan-mo!” It would have continued all day if time permitted!
As I sung my heart out one thing that stood out to me was how focused on me they seemed. I tried especially hard to accept this and make eye contact with individuals in the crowd as I played--- instantly feeling an intimate connection. The attentive, smiling audience reminded me of my first gig in my adopted hometown in a bar in Portland Oregon in 2006. Something about both audiences, despite the obvious geographical and cultural gap was very much the same. An almost mystical attentiveness served the spirit of the musical exchange and faded the distinction between performer and audience whom were all at one in the moment.
In the three weeks we spent building water systems and concrete floors, not a day passed that a Ni-Van didn’t ask me about my guitar. Some even took the opportunity to ask me to provide them with free guitar strings for their string band guitars. I wasn’t about to indulge them so quickly and instead arranged to “sit-in” at a string band rehearsal.
Larger villages would assemble
During the tour day all the volunteers saw the project sites. James had to lug a guitar around the whole day.
a rag tag group of players. Usually there is a ukulele, three to five guitars, a bass (made of a large square box, rope and pitch shifting wooden handle) and one or two extra singers. The local fair of songs were upbeat, always featured a ukulele introduction, tight harmonies and without fail the Key of G major! Musically the songs were very basic and as a result catchy as hell!
I soon realized why the Ni-Vanuatu broke so many strings. They were tuning the guitars a major 5th higher than is normal to achieve the key of G with an open “D” chord form. In other words, stretching the strings to the breaking point.
Half way through our “rehearsal” the band brought out their “uniforms”. Button down shirts with island themed prints and skirts with similar designs. Having proven myself seemingly worthy of jamming with them, they invited me to try on the outfit and so I did quite proudly I must say! We moved the group outside and shot a grainy video with my Blackberry (another curious object) and took pictures as we played through more songs, me comping along on the fly. I look ridiculously happy
Cement mixing Remev
Remev was our first project site and there was no guitar this day, but there were a few dirty clothes.
bouncing back and forth to the music!
Finally due to time restraints Seamus and I prepared to go, but not before a quick Kava session. Before forcing down the first shell, I presented the group with a pack of new American made Martin guitar strings for which they seemed very appreciative. The exchange of goodwill was complete with the exchange of gifts.
As we hiked back to shore I was glowing and felt confident that I not only did my job but also secured a part of pure Ni-Vanuatu culture to share with others back home and in turn shared a piece of Americana with the people of Vanuatu.
Some say that music is the universal language. I never understood that as completely as I do now.
James Lesure, USA, Sept 2009
There are more photos below