EOL 7 CD Review

Solomons CD cover thumbnailThe Solomon Islands:
Sounds of Bamboo

Instrumental Music of the 'Are'are People of Malaita. 1997. Recordings and commentary by the Solomon Islands Traditional Culture Documentation Project (MABO). One compact disc, 69 minutes. Liner notes: 19 pages. Multicultural Media MCM 3007.


Originally released in Japan in 1992 as part of the 80-volume CD collection, Music of the Earth: Fieldworkers' Sound Collections, of the Victor Company of Japan (JVC), “Sounds of Bamboo” contains 37 pieces of instrumental ensemble and of vocal music recorded in the field by Ronald Buaoka (Solomon Broadcasting Corporation) and Hisao Sekine (Nagoya University). Under the joint, multicultural auspices of the MABO project, with producers Yuji Ichihashi and Aki Sato and director Masaya Murakami, this CD is a product of an Asia-Pacific collaboration that contributes to the existing collection of audio-visual materials on the music of the Solomon Islands, once documented only by Europeans.


The music is accompanied by notes (originally in Japanese) by the same recordists Sekine and Ryuichi Tai, but now translated into English by Mark Greenberg and Tokiko Nobusawa for the Multicultural Media, headed by Stephen MacArthur.

The CD chiefly contains

  1. 'Are'are bamboo music (au), either blown (uubi) as in panpipe ensembles or struck ('ui) as in stamping tubes

  2. 'Are'are singing (nun isuisuba)

Excluded in the selections are the music of panpipes played at an angle ('au ware), of the two-holed transverse flute ('au porare), panpipes played solo ('au ni aau), bundled panpipes played vertically ('au waa), and the musical bow ('au pasiawa). Although the title of the CD does not explicitly exclude the above mentioned solo musical instruments, the selections have been chosen obviously to assert the canonical view of 'Are'are music as homogeneously characterized by complex instrumental polyphony.

In fact, the first sixteen cuts in the album are devoted to the music of panpipe ensembles alone, neatly grouped according to the four “forms,” from the most socially valued to least. These are followed by the music of solo and duet of stamping tubes that are unique to the 'Are-'are and the vigorous music of wooden slit-drum ensembles in “call-response” style. Tucked in the end of the work are solo and duet sung numbers. The placement of these vocal genres at the end reinforces the view that 'Are'are people place less emphasis on vocal expressive pieces than to the “absolute” instrumental polyphonic ones, some of which, ironically, are based on speech patterns and rhythms.

audio icon panpipe ensemble
audio icon solo stamping tubes
audio icon wooden slit-drum ensemble

RealAudio icon

No text transliterations in the notes accompanied the “residual” recordings nor that of panpipe ensemble music based on songs (e.g., tracks 3 and 8). This clearly manifests the ideology of selecting music that are thought best to represent the 'Are'are. A short demonstration of the novel “sound play on water” (kiroha) separates the vocal numbers from the instrumental ensembles.

To indicate that the recordings are to be interpreted as “field documents,” no attempt was made in the studio to remove the attendant environmental and human noises of the recordings that were said to be culled “out there” in the field. Yet the presence of these noises (such as conversations and laughter of onlookers) does not seem to convince the listener that they were played in situ.

On the contrary, one gets the impression that most of the recordings in the CD were done set-up (the background laughter of onlookers in the performance of the lullaby is obvious enough),

audio icon lullaby

rather than played during actual ceremonial occasions, except the divination song in track 32. The noises therefore merely function as a prop to simulate the “in here ness” of the recordings. They do not give a sense of performances in their normative contexts of enactments, especially that of the ensemble music which, as the liner notes clearly stated, is performed in the many “public” ceremonial occasions (manata).

Except for a few technical flaws in the recording (as in the very low recording level of the divination song, 32), the CD is an excellent, orderly, descriptive document of the instrumental ensemble and vocal music of the 'Are'are people. However, beyond the concern for mere documentation, the overall presentation of their music seems incapable of leading the listener into the more essential, integrative, ethnomusicological understanding how the musical structures and processes of ensemble musics might have been linked to their social life.

Instead, the CD enumerates types of ensemble music, as the recorded subjects themselves are said to have desired (see page 7 of liner notes), and for each type, lists some of the more popular repertory in that category. Outside the superb and lucid background notes about the traditional social and political organization centered on the bigman, labor history and other culture changes, the presentation does not attempt to interpret ethnographically how musical organization communicates or encodes Malaitan social values and performative meanings.

In fact, because the presentation is just a set of “matter-of-fact” statements about the performance contexts of the pieces, minus the critical, interpretive discussion of the music structures, processes, and aesthetics, one is not illuminated how 'Are'are musical genres channel or embody ideas of music making and other cultural processes. Surely, it would have helped the listener had s/he been forewarned about the convention of repeating the short individual pieces (from two to four times usually). These structures might be symbolically and socially significant. Also, the cross-referencing of numbers (e.g., the mice piece in 16 and 18) is not meaningful because the musical ethnotheoretical basis of both pieces is not established in the “fieldnotes.”

Postulating that musical performances do articulate the sense of living in a particular history and society, an examination of the relationships between the specific complexity of a Melanesian polyphony and the “lived" social experience of its performers would have cast light on the diverse meanings of the music. In contrast to other ethnomusicologists who had discussed the practices of polyphonic or multipart hocketing as articulative of the workings of culture and society (e.g., egalitarianism, solidarity, and so on), the presentation does not give the listener a clue as to why 'Are'are instrumental ensemble and vocal duet genres evolved as they did and for what communicative functions and performativities.

In fact, there is very little information about the roles of the performers during the public ceremonies where such polyphonies are performed, how the performers are related to the big men, how their compositions have been valued in the context of the recent cash-based political economy and the national heritage industry, what the statuses of the composers are at present, and so on.

Despite these presentational shortcomings, the CD is already an excellent descriptive documentation of 'Are'are music. Indeed, anyone teaching music cultures of the earth would be delighted to have it.

finalized 29 August, 2001


Josť S. Buenconsejo

review | review index | EOL 7 | email author | editor