Kaneka – the Sound of the South Pacific

Photography & Words by Emily Carson

I’d never actually heard of New Caledonia when I saw its crystalline lagoons emblazoned on the side of a Melbourne tram.


This south pacific French colony is often overlooked by tourists in favour of Fiji’s black sand beaches or Bali’s volcanic hikes. An afternoon of cursory Google research informed me that New Caledonia is not only home to the world’s smartest bird (this Daily Mail article claims they possess the reasoning skills of five year olds) but is itself embedded in a UNESCO world heritage lagoon, full of exotic marine life and filter-free photo opportunities. Typically the island has been viewed simply as an anchoring point for gargantuan P&O ferries, or an opportunity to sample a taste of the French Riviera in the Southern Hemisphere.

New Caledonian tribes were often confined to ‘reserves’ while local towns and villages were white-dominated.

However, the history and local music culture that has developed in response to a recent independence struggle is far more potent and compelling than the fact you can get a decent French wine and a croissant on a paradise island.

To give a little bit more background: New Caledonia is a semi-tropical island surrounded by a smaller archipelago governed by indigenous tribes and was first colonised by the French in 1853. The island’s colonial history is broken into French colonisation on the main island, Grand Terre, and the influence of Anglo-Saxon missionaries that spread the word of God across the Loyalty Islands in the South. The suppression of indigenous culture that followed this colonisation has similarities with the annexing of aboriginal communities in Australia. New Caledonian tribes were often confined to ‘reserves’ while local towns and villages were white-dominated.

 

Kanak independence posters from the Centre Culturel Jean Marie Tjibaou in Nouméa

Today, New Caledonia is termed a ‘special collectivity’ of France and is represented in French parliament. The street signs on the island are indistinguishable in font and design from those you might see in the Métropole, and the national currency is the Pacific Franc, shared with French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna. While the capital Nouméa shows strong French influence, the further you embark into rural areas in the North or cross over to the idyllic islands in the South, the more pronounced the indigenous culture becomes. It is in these territories that the story of how kaneka came into existence begins.

With 28 different languages and tribal cultures to unite, the creation of a unified vision and sound was no easy feat.

During the 1980s, the political independence movement began to gather steam amongst indigenous communities in New Caledonia, and a leader of this movement came in the form of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, an activist from Hienghène in the North. Tjibaou believed that the indigenous ‘Kanak’ community needed to look to their traditional culture and music to help develop a strong, common identity that the nation could get behind.

This led to a kind of focus-group to discuss and devise what this new genre would sound like. With 28 different languages and tribal cultures to unite, the creation of a unified vision and sound was no easy feat. Local communities were encouraged to take the ‘pilou’ rhythm – a binary sound made with traditional bamboo instruments that formed the basis of dance rituals – as their starting point to create a ‘modern music’ that would reflect the island’s rich traditional history.

These instruments intended to show that colonisation and the influx of French culture couldn’t extinguish the identity of the Kanak people and the result was ‘kaneka’, a school of music that fused traditional rhythms with a message of independence. Reggae and Zouk, two other indigenous musical movements infused with plenty of political discourse gave kaneka a framework for an upbeat island sound that wasn’t afraid to tackle the big stuff.

During my time on the island I met with several people for whom kaneka makes up a significant part of their daily work. Someone who I wasn’t expecting to be quite so fascinating and outspoken was Evariste Wayaridri in the SACENC, New Caledonia’s artistic copyright office in Nouméa.

‘But with kaneka we know exactly when it started, it has a birth certificate.’

He explained to me a little more about the idiosyncrasies of kaneka’s inception saying: ‘We realised that the Kanak culture was underrepresented. It was kept out of towns by colonisation so the town was a white place. We didn’t want war, but we needed to revive our culture, bandage it, because it had been trampled by colonisation. Today, when we think of jazz and when it started, we can only make an approximate guess, the same goes for rock. But with kaneka we know exactly when it started, it has a birth certificate. There was a day when we decided to create it, which is a funny concept.’

In the early days the lyrical content of kaneka songs was very heavily politicised. As Evariste put it: ‘this music was born encased in a political straight jacket. When it started off, if you weren’t Kanak, you weren’t allowed to play kaneka music.’ A good example of just how explicit the denouncement of colonialism was can be seen in Waan’s ‘Justice Coloniale’ where the catchy brass section makes it easy to forget you’re crooning along to a call to arms.

Today, kaneka is a seriously prolific genre considering New Caledonia is a nation of just 250,000 people. Each week sees a new album released and the number of local artists is huge. The musical elements have shifted as well, with plenty of folk hooks, synth and autotune popping up in more contemporary kaneka offerings.

The musical elements have shifted as well, with plenty of folk hooks, synth and autotune popping up in more contemporary kaneka offerings.

Despite this, the genre is in a strange state, straddling the line between keeping with tradition and attempting to proliferate through modern means. The island still doesn’t have full internet access; in fact the first newspaper article I read when I arrived detailed a struggle between a remote mountain community, its traditional owners and the internet service company over where to erect an internet mast.

The music scene is still largely supported by CD sales that are dictated by the traditional calendar of the wedding season from May to September. I spoke with Alain Lecante of Mangrove Records about his experiences releasing kaneka records and he explained that things are a little different to our Western ideas of chart success: ‘there are certain songs that really succeed during the summer and groups are fighting to be the big hit of the wedding season.’ However, just like in the wider musical market, CD sales are dwindling.

‘Groups are fighting to be the big hit of the wedding season.’

In his book, Kaneka – A Changing Music, François Bensignor (who has previously written about Nigeria’s musical deity Fela Kuti) describes how kaneka is still in need of a compelling star saying: ‘While Cape Verde radiates through the unctuous voice and melancholic smile of Cesaria Evor and Reunion Island is represented by the poetic Maloya of Danyél Waro, New Caledonia is still waiting on its Bob Marley’.

The genre needs a relatable figure that strikes a chord with international audiences and opens kaneka up to a wider listenership. The political lyrics that characterised a lot of the early music has now softened, with many young groups choosing to sing about more universal concerns. I chatted with Wacapo Taine from Gayulaz, a young group that were recording at Mangrove Studios.

‘Islanders are regarded as very amorous people.’

He explained that their songs often deal with social issues that affect his community in Lifou, one of the Loyalty Islands that sit adjacent to the New Caledonian mainland: ‘Principal themes for us as islanders include leaving Lifou to find work in Nouméa, and leaving our towns to follow our studies. We also sing about our customs, respect and identity.’

This fidelity to local issues is coupled with lyrics that deal with the universal preoccupation with love – ‘there are always little songs for your loved ones. Islanders are regarded as very amorous people.’ – and the sunny steel drum accompaniments that helped make reggae accessible to all. Other artists like Édou, OK! Ryos and Nayrouz make up some of kaneka’s most accessible and modern offerings, featuring lots of big harmonic vocals and ear-worm friendly guitar.

 

Members of the band Gayulaz

The difficulty now facing kaneka is whether it seeks a new international audience to help support the local industry…or whether it stays true to its indigenous roots and serves its own community first and foremost. Amongst Alain, Evariste and Wacapo there was a clear desire to help the music to reach new ears, but New Caledonia’s relative distance from other mainland countries and the cost associated with touring is a big issue.

It seems that the Melanesian sound is somewhat lost in the South Pacific.

Meanwhile Evariste cited a lack of professional opportunities as being one of the problems facing the scene: ‘Here 99% of artists work and then they also devote themselves to music. They’ll release CDs and play concerts, but they’ll also work as civil servants or in the private sector. We do have artists that want to play full time, but then they need to leave to go to Sydney or France.’ When it comes to playing in Australia or New Zealand, kaneka artists often find that their own sound is dwarfed by the influence of Aboriginal and Maori musical movements. It seems that the Melanesian sound is somewhat lost in the South Pacific.

 

Alain Lecante and Wacapo Taine outside the Mangrove Studios

During my final days on the island I travelled northwards to Voh, a small town that is best known from aerial shots of its famous mangrove forest that has grown, adorably, into the shape of a heart. Voh was hosting a music festival that included activity days dedicated to preserving traditional crafts and music and was packed with people of all ages.

‘The purpose of kaneka is to send a snapshot of New Caledonia.’

Some of the songs featured groups of men vigorously beating bark clappers and by the end even the most sedentary grannies were dancing away with the best of them. The sense of identity and community that this music engenders was undeniable, and while its value is very clearly rooted in New Caledonia, I couldn’t help feeling that with the right exposure it could become a well-known emblem of this little known part of the world. Awesome Tapes from Africa opening up the sound of West Africa to a wider audience bring an obvious comparison.

As Evariste put it: ‘The purpose of kaneka is to send a snapshot of New Caledonia. It’s a reflection of a culture, a landscape and a lifestyle. No matter where you are in the world you can listen to it and it will transport you to New Caledonia.’

Graffiti denouncing colonialism in Voh

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