Pacific music and colonial history

Professor Emma Sutton’s recent research explores the role of music in the colonial history of the Pacific islands. It focuses on the networks of indigenous Polynesian and Micronesian musicians with whom the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson made music during the last six years of his life when he lived and travelled extensively in the Pacific region. During the late 1880s and 1890s, Stevenson – who was a prolific self-taught amateur composer – regularly made music with the Polynesian and Micronesian individuals he met; exchanged poems, songs and instruments with islanders; and formed warm relationships with influential champions and exponents of Polynesian music and culture, including the last monarch of the Hawai‘ian Kingdom, Queen Liliʻuokalani. Professor Sutton’s archival work in Sāmoa and Hawai‘i since 2016 has identified unknown accounts of Stevenson’s music-making with islanders and located music written or performed by Polynesian musicians. This work has been supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Carnegie Trust, among others.

As an Associate of St Andrews Centre for Pacific Studies, Emma has worked closely with indigenous Pacific scholars for over a decade. With the support of SFC-GRCF funding since 2018, she was able to facilitate funding for a project developed by musicians and scholars at the National University of Sāmoa whose generous sharing of cultural expertise had enriched her understanding of the types of music Stevenson heard in Polynesia. The ‘Recovering Sāmoan Instruments’ project is a collaboration between NUS and St Andrews; the project’s activities are led by Susau Fanifau Konousi-Solomona and her colleagues in Music at NUS. The project focuses on gathering and reviving knowledge of customary Sāmoan musical instruments, the collective memory of which is fading. The recording of this knowledge is a vital step in securing a cultural legacy for future generations but the project also supports new creative work, having commissioned new writing and music from eminent Sāmoan writer Sia Figiel and distinguished Sāmoan composer Igelese Ete.

Since 2020, NUS researchers have gathered oral histories about customary instruments and instrument-making, with the aim of improving understanding of the contexts in which they were made and played. Instruments often had specific roles in ceremony, for example, or their customary use was limited to particular occasions or to one gender. In visits to more than thirty village communities, project researchers have recorded cultural knowledge about instruments and their significance, with trips to villages in the largest Sāmoan island, Savai‘i, being particularly successful.

Image of logo and fue by Rosaiviti Konousi Solomona
Image of logo (slit drum) and fue (ceremonial fly whisk) by Rosaiviti Konousi Solomona

The project has also supported more tangible elements of Sāmoan musical culture through the creation of customary musical instruments, including a logo (large slit drum hollowed from a single log) for use in university ceremonies and for teaching in the Music Department and at the Centre for Sāmoan Studies. The logo will be housed within a newly built fale, a customary open-sided meeting house situated on the NUS campus. Teaching resources on Sāmoan music are being produced for use in primary and secondary schools, and for NUS’ community music education for children and adults across the Sāmoan islands. A bilingual website makes recordings and other resources accessible to public audiences within the Sāmoan islands, among Sāmoan diasporas in the US, Aotearoa/New Zealand and the UK, and more widely.

To date, the project research has featured in concerts and in four TV broadcasts in Samoa, giving the project a national audience. Project members acknowledge with gratitude the village communities whose members have generously shared their cultural knowledge and expertise.