Sounds of Secrets: Field Notes on Ritual Music and Musical Instruments on the Islands of Vanuatu. By Raymond Ammann.Music and Letters


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might take place over the course of significant periods of time, perhaps even across generations. Why should dialogue imagined in this rather more open-ended, distributed, and collective way not contribute to music analysis?

And it need not have an ‘agreed model’ as its goal. One must allow for the possibility that performers are not necessarily the best judges of their own music, or may, indeed, have routine ways of representing it that are problematic or limited or simply normative, in the sense that they describe how things ought to be rather than how they are. Outsiders do not necessarily see the truth of the matter, of course, but this does not mean that they might not grasp principles of musical organization for which the performer may simply not have the words or the concepts, or may have reasons for not wanting to recognize, if not actively disavow. So, there will probably be disagreement, and, indeed, struggle. Music analysis is never value free. In a very unequal world, where the voices of some count for much more than others, there are problems, of course, and one needs to be intensely aware of them. But the open-ended, de-familiarizing, and unsettled nature of this kind of collective analytical dialogue might itself be a very positive thing.

Wright’s analysis is, arguably, much more dialogic than he recognizes it to be, and it certainly goes far beyond the descriptive. It presents some highly original and persuasive ideas about modal improvisation, about the metrical organization of ‘free-rhythm’ performance, about the implications for analysis of timbre and resonance, among many other things. It cuts an intelligent swathe through current debates about the analysis of nonWestern music. And it will persuade many of those wedded to anthropological and contextoriented approaches in ethnomusicology, in what isçonce againça rather polemicized environment, that there are decent arguments to be made for an analytical engagement with non-Western music, and not just reaction or retrenchment. This admittedly quirky but deeply thoughtful book must, in these terms, be judged a considerable success.


King’s College, London doi:10.1093/ml/gct028

Sounds of Secrets: Field Notes on Ritual Music and Musical Instruments on the Islands of

Vanuatu. By Raymond Ammann. 314 pp.

KlangKulturStudien, 7. (Lit Verlag, Zurich and Berlin, 2012, E31.90. ISBN 978-3-64380130-2.)

Near the end of the introduction to Sounds of Secrets, the ethnomusicologist Raymond

Ammann attempts to account for the unique structure of this book, which is neither an in-depth study of one particular group’s musical life in Vanuatu, nor a conceptual examination of theoretical themes:

It was neither the idea nor the intention to write a thesis, concentrating on one particular region of

Vanuatu. Neither will I refer in detail to ethnological or ethnomusicological theories and concepts. Only in the case where it helps to understand the significance of the respective topic will I refer to such theories of anthropological opinions. The book contains my field notes with my personal opinions, ideas, andç especiallyça lot of new insights. (p. 18)

This passage still leaves much in question.

The book is much more than a field journal, so why does Ammann choose to refer to it as field notes? What does he mean by that, and what, if any, are the field-note-like qualities of the book? Some answers may lie in the changing politics of knowledge production and epistemologies in the Pacific and other indigenous and post-colonial societies worldwide over the past few decades. Yet Ammann makes none of this explicit. He does, however, state that the research was commissioned by the

National Cultural Centre of Vanuatu specifically to ‘complete an ethnographic reference on the music of Vanuatu’ (p. 17), and was thus produced with both a general and an academic audience in mind (p. 18). It clearly aims to be as comprehensive an account as possible. I will return to the fieldwork context of post-colonial

Vanuatu, but first, it is worth taking a look at what the book accomplishes.

The balance of interpretation and description in this book is heavily weighted on the side of description. As such, this book should serve as a welcome ethnological reference on Vanuatu’s ritual music. More than merely a record of what Ammann has observed in his multiple fieldwork trips between 1998 and 2007, the descriptions presented here also draw on writings of earlier ethnographers and colonial observers, as well as instruments found in the Vanuatu

Cultural Centre and in European museum collections. The book is thus more than field notes of the kind ‘meant to be read by the ethnographer and produce meaning through inter198 at Florida International U niversity on June 23, 2015 http://m

D ow nloaded from action with the ethnographer’s headnotes’ (Roger Sanjek, Field Notes:The Makings of Anthropology (Ithaca, NY, 1990), 92). Though the reader unfamiliar with Vanuatu is often left wanting more contextual information and organizational coherence in the thick descriptions of ritual events, Ammann does provide some interpretation.

The loose theme of secrecy and power unites the material in this book. Invoking the extensive anthropological and less extensive, though not insignificant, ethnomusicological literature on the Pacific, Ammann asserts that as in many other Pacific islands, secrecy is a source of power in Vanuatu, though the way in which this power is obtained and demonstrated varies regionally. In general, individuals work to increase their power and status through access to esoteric knowledge, and demonstration that they have obtained such knowledge. The rituals and music that are associated with northern

Vanuatu’s hierarchical grade-taking societies, the secret societies in the Banks Islands, and the rituals of exchange in the south, allow individuals to assert their status as secret-holders through music and dance performance, and the visual symbolism of musical instruments and dance costumes (p. 229). Songs come from ancestral spirits, musical instruments produce the voices of spirits, and dances are repositories of valuable secret knowledge. Ammann’s descriptions discuss how this is so for a great variety of songs, musical instruments, and ceremonies, while also providing details about all of these, their history, and their status today.