The term “Melanesian music,” used in the broadest sense, covers a wide range of traditional styles ranging from the multiple genres of tribal songs found in Papua New Guinean singsings to Australia’s Aboriginal didgeridoo drones, from Solomon Islanders’ polyphonic pan pipes to Fijian lali drumming. Melanesians have long used a variety of slit-log gongs, flutes and bamboo pipes in their music but only recently, with the arrival of the Europeans, have they added stringed instruments like guitars and ukeleles into the mix. Most Melanesian music features vocals and emphasizes chanting and call and response songs; unlike Polynesian music, which we’ll explore later in the session, there’s only a minimal tradition of Church-inspired polyphonic harmonies. (Fijian music blends
Melanesian and Polynesian forms and embraces multi-part harmony. We’ll learn more about Fijian music below.)

More information: Jane’s overview of Melanesian music | National Geographic’s summary of Pacific music | Hear a sampling of Melanesian music thanks to David Fanshawe’s Spirit of Melanesia | Melanesian dances are often “sitting dances,” which also separate them from the dances of Polynesia, most of which emphasize the swaying motion of the hips

As one would imagine from learning above about the Fijian/Indo-Fijian dichotomy in Fijian society, there are both Fijian and Indo-Fijian musical traditions on the islands. Let’s
learn a little about both.

Fijian folk music actually sounds more like Polynesian folk, so rich in vocal harmonies, than traditional music in other parts of Melanesia. Most Fijian folk uses guitars, ukeleles and mandolins, blending rich vocal harmonies with complex percussion performed on slit drums or “lali drums” which have long been used in Fijian culture to announce important
events like births and deaths. [Listen to clips of Fijian folk from villages from compilations on | Fijian lali drummers hit that drum hard]

Fijian string bands–groups of three or more performers playing guitar/ukelele/mandolin and singing in sweet multi-part harmony–are popular in the islands. [Let National Geographic introduce you to Savu-Savu’s Somai Serenaders, whose “music is played in a very ritualized fashion while sitting on the floor or the ground around a large bowl filled with kava juice.” Apenisa Waqa, the lead guitarist, told National Geographic, “Just imagine a couple of coconuts floating on the water, and from that we compose a song.”]

— In the 1980s Fijian pop stars such as Laisa Vulakoro popularized a style known as Vude,
which, says National Geographic’s biography of Laisa Vulakoro, “combines disco, country and island music (especially the meke rhythm) and rock and roll.” [We’ll learn about Laisa Vluakoro and meke below.]


Indo-Fijian music is an exciting hybrid of, well, Indian and Fijian music. Most popular are Fijian “Bhajans,” which are Hindu devotional songs that use Indian instruments such as the harmonium and the dholak. In Fiji, Qawaali music, Sufi devotional music that is especially popular in eastern Pakistan and northwestern India, has fused somewhat with the Bhajan because of a lack of trained tabla players who would otherwise accompany Qawaali. [Meet Fiji-born tabla player and, uniquely, simultaneous ghazal singer, Cassius Khan | Become a
Facebook fan of Fiji-born dholak player Sashi Roy, who plays multiple dholaks at the same time tuned to different notes, a style known as “dholak tarang.” | Enjoy a Fijian Bhajan
competition between your favorite Fijian Bhajan performers, Umesh Chand Sharma and Master Shiu Dayal Sharma

A Fijian song we sing in class, “Chuluchululu,” is well-known song in Fiji, though only the part of it is in Fijian. (The first few lines are Tongan? Tahitian? There are different opinions.) A duo from New Zealand, Bill and Boyd, released this popular rock version, though this informal party version is much more fun. You can also hear “Chuluchululu” performed Indo-Fijian style and, if that doesn’t quench your “Chuluchululu” thirst, Wiggles-style.


If you’re looking for traditional Melanesian music in the Solomon Islands you’ll find it in droves. There are some solo performers but most of the public music in the Solomon Islands is communal and performed by organized ensembles. There are:

Slit drum ensembles, composed of drummers who use wooden sticks to hit hollowed-out logs with slits cut into them,
Panpipe ensembles, consisting of up to ten differently-tuned panpipes playing at once…awesome,
Bamboo ensembles, in which Solomon Islanders pound the ends of bamboo tubes with their flip flops (Siza! Siza! Siza…! SIZA!) and even
— Water drumming ensembles. (Water drumming? Yes-siree. Most water drummers in the Solomon Islands are women slapping waist-high water with their hands, transforming the nature itself into a percussion instrument. There’s no direct link here–most of the Solomons’ water drummers are scantily clad–but if you want to see it you’ll find fine examples on YouTube.)

Today pop music from Solomon Islands is well-known around the Pacific, especially Solomon Islands reggae, though by far the most widely known recording from the Solomon Islands is not by a reggae or pop artist–not even Sharzy!–but by a woman from Northern Malaita who passed away in 1998 and may not even known she was an international star.

In the 1970s, ethnomusicologist and filmmaker Hugo Zemp recorded music from the Solomon Islands and released it as part of UNESCO (United Nations) series called “Musical Sources.” One of the songs was a traditional song from the Solomon Islands called “Rorogwela” sung by a woman named Afunakwa. In 1992 the French “ethnic electronica” group Deep Forest released “Sweet Lullaby,” which added electronic music to “Rorogwela.” The recording became an international hit…and led to much controversy over the sourcing and licensing of the song. Deep Forest claimed to have acquired the legal rights to use the music in their recording from Zemp, but Zemp disputed their account. To complicate matters, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, inspired by the Deep Forest release, rearranged the melody of “Rorogwela” and released it as “Pygmy Lullaby,” incorrectly assuming the original song was from Central Africa like many other compositions Deep Forest used in its projects. Controversy followed Garbarek’s recording too, as Zemp and a Norwegian journalist questioned Garbarek’s use of the material without directly compensating Afunakwa or other artists from the Solomon Islands. Garbarek argued that he had complied with Norway’s licensing laws that direct royalties for songs attributed to oral tradition to a fund to support “folk music.” Anthropologist, ethnomusicologist and linguist Steven Feld, in his article, “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music,” presents a blow by blow account of these developments and places the issues they raise within the context of questions about the true benefit of the popularity of “world music” to people in the cultures from which the music comes.

More information: Listen to the original Hugo Zemp recording of “Beagu–Rorogwela” | Watch the video for Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby” (you can hear Afunakwa without the backing electronica toward the end of the video, at about 4:30) | Watch a video for “Sweet Lullaby” with subtitled lyrics. The images in video are clearly not from the Solomon Islands | Listen to Jar Garbarak’s “Pygmy Lullaby” | International dance-adventurer Matt Harding goes to the Solomon Islands searching for Afunakwa | A similar controversy surrounds the Enigma hit, “Return to Innocence.” (Here is “Return to Innocence.” Here are the original vocalists.)

In class we’re going to listen to:
— Luisa Vulakoro, “Marama ni Yacata” Luisa Vulakoro, known as the Vude (pronounced “vu-n-day”) Queen, and “Fjiji’s Living National Treasure,” is one of the most popular Fijian singers of all time, and, according to National Geographic’s biography of Vulakoro, must be incredibly busy: in addition to touring globally as a singer Vulakoro has been director of the Fiji Performing Rights Association, a resident singer a the Regent of Fiji and the Sheraton Fiji Resorts and “a charity worker” who helps underprivileged women, orphans and the blind. Enjoy Vulakoro’s “Koira Na Vuda.” | Wikipedia’s entry on Vulakoro says the government raided her house in Suva after she criticized the 2006 military coup

— Melody Rascals Group, “Walkabout Long Chinatown,” In the 50’s, Solomon Islander musician named Edwin Nanau Sitori wrote the song “Walkabout Long Chinatown” in Solomons pijin. The song refers to Chinatown in the Solomon Islands’ capital city, Honiara. After World War II, men who worked for the hospital would cross through Honiara’s Chinatown on their way to their distant living quarters, hoping to meet nurses there. The song became instantly popular in the Solomon Islands and went on, according to The Solomon Islands’ Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s report on the song, “Wakabauti long Chinatown: The Song, the Composers, the Storyline,” to become “the national song of not only Solomon Islands, but also of Melanesia.” Says the Office of the Prime Minister: “In faraway countries grown men have linked arms and become very emotional while singing it.” Will you link arms and become emotional while singing “Walkabout Long Chinagown?” Listen to Five Star’s reggae-ish version and you’ll see.

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