The modern history of the Oceanic islands that comprise the present-day French collectivity of New Caledonia has in many ways been the stuff of brutality and exploitation. Plundered for its sandalwood, used as a penal colony, exploited for its nickel reserves, seized upon for land tracts by settlers, enmeshed in the sugarcane slave trade, revolts, murder – this is the wretched stuff of colonization the world over. On top of it all, like many other areas with tribal cultures, the islands had a history of documented cannibalism, no doubt creating ghoulish imagery of crazed “natives” in the minds of the rest of the world.
Then came the missionaries. In much the same way that virtually every other land-hungry nation on earth attempted to tame indigenous populations, religion was an important component for control. When it comes to traditional music, however, things are complicated.
Before World War II, recordings from islands of the Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, were few and far between, and recorded almost entirely by ethnographers. One major exception was of course the music of Hawaii, which was an international craze and brought many outstanding performers to wide, cross-over acclaim, and helped to popularize a kind of Polynesian sound, however real or manufactured. Another exception would be the few dozen discs of Maori music recorded by Columbia Records in New Zealand. Some music by Tahitians also appeared on a few commercial discs, as well. By and large, however, early recordings of traditional music from islands in Oceania were either non-commercial discs recorded and issued privately for posterity or scholarly consumption, or were discs recorded at their home-bases by major labels and private institutions on the occasion of a major ethnographic event, like the Colonial Exposition in Paris in 1931, where many Pacific Islanders traveled to participate and record.
Christian missionaries began appearing in New Caledonia from the 1840s. Missionaries typically placed restrictions on what could be sung and banned ceremonial activities, such as dancing. Group singing, so long as it was in the familiar harmonies of Christian hymns, was usually encouraged. As such, early recordings of this kind are heavily mediated by outside musical influence, by their recording circumstance, and the weight of cultural interference.
Yet, in many cases, they are all we have as examples of traditional songs from this time period. It’s difficult to resist their easy charm, sweetness, and how they reside between the familiar and unfamiliar. In New Caledonia, the Kanak people adopted some of their communal songs to this Protestant hymn form. By the end of World War II, after decades of strain, relations were warming between New Caledonians and the French, perhaps in part because of their important assistance to the Allies during the war. In 1946, New Caledonia officially became a French overseas territory. Today’s selections were made at that pivotal time.
Thanks to a 1946 article by a music student in the Journal de la Société des océanistes, we know something about these recordings. They were not, in fact, recorded for the more well-known Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and in fact were recorded under the auspices of a group called Lettres et Arts d’outre-mer (Humanities and Arts of the French Territories), at the Pathé studios in Paris on November 8, 1945, and issued privately as a two-record “tirage limité” (limited edition) as is written on the label. The recording sessions were organized by a Ms Humbert-Sauvageot and featured a group of indigenous, New Caledonian soldiers who were members of the heralded Battaillon du Pacifique. The choir consisted of: Mahe Warawi (farmer, descendant of the chief Henri Naisseline), Robert Wayawidri (farmer), John Willi (fisherman), Dick Bouama (navigator), Jules Kakou (trader), Emmanuel Dogo (farmer), Auguste Kaalo (pearl fisherman), Boae Kielle (farmer), Leack Schleitz (fisherman), and Pierre Tiaou (farmer), all from either Maré Island, or the main island (Grand Terre).
I’ve included both sides of the record. They sing two traditional songs. “Yeretiti,” the 2nd song here, is also known as “La poulpe et le rat” (The Octopus and the Rat), and is apparently an old folkloric tune sung by warriors. “Retokengo” is a song for competition by teams, and is sung as players take the field. It looks to be more frequently titled “Ilo” and a rough transliteration of part of the song was made in ’46:
Reto kengo ana awane
Ejebetchi mené guéritene
Tchogouro natane tcho kani butch
Dadené kazorino dékadé
Ilo, ilo, keedje dékotcho hueté (repeat)
Tcho ko koé mé gada
A French translation was included as well – and although I suspect it too is inaccurate, I’ve translated it to English:
Let’s unite, dear brothers
To play against our opponent
For it is the union that is the strength
The country is counting on us to save his honor
Play, do not lose heart
Play, do not despair,
Play, and be confident
Because the force is in unity
Label: private (Lettres et Arts d’Outre-mer)
Issue number: n/a
Matrix number: 2400-1/2402-1