Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dum Dum Music Drum

September 18, 2007

I just realized that I have failed to post an entry that I wrote last week! I am currently on Waya Island; and will be returning to Nadi this Friday. There is minimal connection to the outside world on Waya, so my apologies for being out of touch…

After spending the past month in Suva, Kadavu, Savusavu, Labasa and Lautoka, I now have returned to where I started: Nadi, the international hub of Fiji, is the third-largest city of the Fiji Islands. The city is quite small, with only one main street (called, yup you guessed it, Main Street).

The music scene in Nadi is similar to that of Suva: both cities have the same music/record shops, Sharma, South Pacific Recording and Procera. Truth be told, Nadi does not offer much of interest in regards to the indigenous Fijian music. Yet, like so many other of my experiences here in Fiji, it has been very interesting learning about the Indo-Fijian music community in Nadi.

The largest Hindu temple in the South Pacific is in Nadi. The color scheme of the temple truly is extraordinary: vibrant reds, pinks, oranges, yellows, greens, purples, and blues fill the exterior and interior of the temple. Even in my time in India, I had never seen a temple with such a flamboyant ensemble of colors. There are countless statues integrated into the temple’s façade. Surely, this simple description does not do it justice; therefore, I will post photos as soon as possible.

For about two hours, I spoke with Reddi, the grounds manager of the temple. He told me that the temple was built in 1994; and is modeled after of a temple in South India – Reddi asserted that the one in India is “twenty times larger.” It is a Shaivite temple; thus there are many statues of Lord Shiva. Reddi did say that the temple actually is for “Lord Shiva’s son, Sri Subra Manyan.” When I confessed that I was not familiar with that deity, he then said, “It is just one of the 108 names of Lord Shiva.”

Knowing that South Indian temples tend to be much more colorful than those of the North, I asked if the colors signified anything specific, and Reddi told me that, “The colors are [represent] the seven stages of Enlightenment.”

There were paintings all along the ceiling of the temple. While all of the art work was very similar to temple art in India, there was one painting that demonstrated the Fijian influence: it depicted Lord Shiva blowing on a conch, while standing next to Sarasvati, the Goddess of Music. I might be wrong, but I would think that the idea of a conch shell trumpet is result of the Fijian influence on Hinduism.

I inquired about whether the temple commissioned any musicians, and Reddi said no. At this point in my research, this answer does not surprise me. Before I began my research, however, I would have assumed that the largest Hindu temple in Fiji would employ musicians. When I asked what does the temple do for music for major holidays and festivals, Reddi informed that sometimes musicians are flown in from India. He said that only happens during very special occasion; but I was still amazed to hear that. Reddi said that last year, twenty-one musicians from India to perform at the twelfth anniversary of the temple’s opening.

After we began our conversation on the music of Hinduism, Reddi then showed me one of the stranger things I have encountered here in Fiji. On the right-hand side of the main entrance of the temple, there is an old-fashioned drum machine. (I will post a picture as soon as possible). An inscription above the machine reads, “Dum Dum Music Drum.” There is one medium-sized, bowl-shaped drum, made of copper shell, with an animal hide drumhead. It is probably about 14” in diameter. There are two large wooden sticks – although it’s almost fair to call them “mallets” and not “sticks.” Above the sticks, there are two brass bells. The bells and sticks are powered by a blue-colored belt motor; the machine itself is painted a faded orange.

Reddi plugged in the Dum Dum Music Drum, and it was very loud and played a very fast rhythm. It was a strange contraption indeed; and oddly enough, reconfirmed much of research on the music of Hindu Indo-Fijians. To clarify, it seems that if there were plethora of Hindu drummers in Fiji, such a machine would not be necessary. The lack of formal training of percussion instruments of Hindustani music has required Hindu Indo-Fijians to develop innovative ways to fill that void. All that being said, it was really neat to see such a peculiar invention.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Yesterday, I flew from Savusavu back to Suva. My old friend Jiten picked me up at the airport and drove me to the bus station, so that I could catch a bus to Lautoka. Packed like sardines in a tin, the bus ride took just over four hours. Driving along the southern Coral Coast was beautiful indeed, especially since I had not yet seen the south or the west of Viti Levu. I am currently staying in a dormitory; but am not sure how much longer I will remain in Lautoka.

This morning, I went to the Hare Krishna Temple (ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness), because I had read that the Sunday service was laden with music. The West is familiar with ISKCON because, in the late 1960s, George Harrison became one of the primary financial backers of organization – although, later in his life, he distanced himself from the Hare Krishna movement.

I arrived at the temple at around 10:15am and found myself to be the only one there, besides the priest! Regardless that no one was in the temple before I arrived, the priest was still diligently reading through a scripture, while playing the finger cymbals. The sermon was from the Bhagavad-Gita, and mostly was sung. The priest was facing the three statues of Sri Gaura Nitai, Sri Krishna Kaliya, and Sri Radha Govindji; I am not sure whether he was doing this so that he was singing his prayers directly to the gods, or simply because no one was there to listen to the service – I would assume the former explanation to be the reason, though.

After about hour, the service concluded. I was told to return in the afternoon for another, larger service. When I returned at 12:30pm, the temple was packed – it seems that the Fijian “coconut time” has an influence on when Indo-Fijians attend their Sunday services!

This service, which was about 75 minutes, was much, much more interesting: the temple was divided with men on the left-hand side, and women on the right. There was singing and dancing throughout the bulk of service. Interestingly enough, only the men dance. And yes, the Hare Krishna mantra, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Rama Rama” was sung (over and over again, I might add).

Throughout the singing, several of the men played finger or hand cymbals, in addition to two drummers, on two different types of drum. I was unfamiliar with both drums: both were a similar shape, but one was electric blue, and the other was sort of like a dholak, but with a much more intricate tuning system.

After the service, I spoke with one of the drummers, a man in his early 30s named Rohinisuta Das. When I inquired about the drums, he informed that the blue one is called a balaram, and other one is called mirdanga. The shell of the balaram is made from fiberglass, and the skins are just a basic plastic. He told me that to tune the balaram, it requires an Allen wrench. I had never seen such a modernized Indian drum before; in all truth, it was a little strange, and I don’t like the idea of using an Allen wrench to tune a hand drum.

The mirdanga (which he spelt “mrdanga”) is a more natural drum: the shell is made from clay, and the heads are made from ox skin. As I mentioned before, that drum had a fairly complex tuning system: there were countless cords connecting the two sides of the drums together. Rohinisuta told me that in order to tune the mirdanga, you just pull the cords; but this is only done, “once a season.”

When I asked Rohinisuta of his personal training, he said that he did not formally study, but rather, “learned through association.” He said, “the best way to learn is to listen to a good player.” Once again, it seems that within the Hindu Indo-Fijian community, there is not much of a formalized system of musical training.

After the service, I was invited to “the feast,” which was very nice. It was a basic Indian lunch of rice, daal, and curried potatoes. It was interesting because I noticed some indigenous Fijians at the meal, although they had not attended the service. I began to realize how the value of a religious institution on the greater community: especially with the ethnic tensions throughout the country, it was nice to see indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians come together.

This warm, fuzzy feeling quickly disappeared, as I left the dining hall to find that my sandals had been stolen. With the help of Rohinisuta, I searched for a while, but to no avail. He said that it was probably one of the indigenous Fijians that had come for the free lunch that took my sandals. It’s not a big deal, it was only a pair of sandals, but I must admit that the walk back to my hostel was terrible! The ground was very hot and pointy!

Lastly, I did not take any photographs during the service, because I always feel reluctant to photograph, film or record without direct permission. I will post photographs of the drums and Rohinisuta when I can find a faster internet cafe...

Friday, September 14, 2007


I just wanted to let everyone know that I have been unable to upload my videos, but will do so in the near future. Also, check the previous page for actual entries. Thanks.

I leave Savusavu tomorrow for Suva, but will then take a bus from Suva to Lautoka...


Lalta at work...Myself with Maya holding the drum (which is in a bag), with the Three Sisters Mountains in the background


Thursday, September 13, 2007


Sharam Music Centre; the brown dholaks are made in India, the black ones in Fiji... Maya on the porch of Lalta's house.


These two photographs are from the Ramayana reading I went to this past Tuesday night in Savusavu. The first photo is of the mixing of kava powder (waka) with water to make grog...



The professor; and the band practicing with the dances. Video below.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I am about to leave Labasa, to return to Savusavu for another two days. I was only in Labasa for 24 hours, but accomplished everything that I had intended to do.

I will post pictures and videos either later today, or tomorrow morning.

I was able to ship my dholak back to the States. Putting that package together was a bit of an ordeal (but in a funny way), as I wanted to ensure the drum would not be damaged. Being that bubblewrap does not exist in Fiji (the people thought I wanted bubble gum...), I had to find a makeshift packing material. I was able to buy a garbage bag full of shredded mattress padding (everyone at the store was very confused why I was buying it); and used that to pad the package. I'm shipping it via boat, so it will take two or three months to get home, but that is not a big deal. I was just happy to send it off!


September 12, 2007

This morning, I took the 9:30am bus from Savusavu to Labasa. Taking just under three hours, the ride was quite pleasant, as I was able to see the countryside of Vanua Levu. Perhaps the strangest part of the journey was when the bus drove through a massive pin tree forest: I would assume that pine trees are not indigenous, and have been introduced to Fiji for logging purposes. It was very awkward seeing pine trees next to palm trees.

After checking into my hotel, I began to explore Labasa. (Regarding the hotel, I am staying in the “dormitory,” but am the only one here. In fact, I think I am the only guest in the entire place). Labasa is predominately Indo-Fijian; and the town reflects this, as there are many temples and mosques. During the service I attended on Tuesday night in Savusavu, I was told that there are, in fact, Indo-Fijian dholak crafters in Labasa; so, I set out to find one.

To my knowledge, there are three main music shops in Labasa: South Pacific Recording Music & HiFi, Sharma Music Centre and Rohit’s South Pacific Music Center. I had seen both the SPR and Sharma stores in Suva; so those two represent the “major” chain music shops here in Fiji.

SPR did not have any locally made dholaks; but there did have a whole slew of Indian-imported ones, some as expensive as F$590. To my surprise, the Sharma Music Centre actually did a handful of locally crafted dholaks, all selling for F$125. I spoke to the shopkeeper Dinesh, a Hindu, and he said that Sharma has crafters in Nadi. He emphasized that the locally crafted dholaks are much lower quality (and much less expensive) than the Indian crafted dholaks. When comparing the two instruments, it was clear that the Fijian made dholaks were not very nice. I passed on buying on just for the sake of buying one.

Rohit’s South Pacific Music Center is owned and operated by a man named Rohit Sagadewan – the slogan of the shop is, “Advancing Labasa Musically.” Rohit does not sell Fijian made dholaks but did give me the name of local crafter, a man by the name of Lalta Ram. Rohit did not have Lalta’s phone number, so he suggested that I look it up in the Yellow Pages.

The funny thing about looking up the last name “Ram” in Fiji: pages 504 to 510 all include individuals with that last name. There were about a dozen or so Lalta Ram’s, so that was not much help. I went back to Rohit for some advice of how to contact the Lalta Ram I was looking for, and he then gave me the number of Lalta’s neighbor, a woman named Maya Munappa.

I called Maya, explained my situation, and then took a taxi over to her house. She lives in Siberia, a district of Labasa on the outskirts of the town. It was long and winding dirt road to her house; but it was in a very beautiful location, just at the foothills of the Three Sisters Mountains. Maya, her father, and I talked for about twenty minutes and then Maya brought me over to Lalta’s home.

Lalta, a slender man in his late fifties, did not speak English: fortunately, Maya was more than willing to serve as my translator. Lalta’s wife also was there, and she helped bridge the communication gap between Lalta and myself.

After explaining my research, I asked if it would be possible to purchase one of Lalta’s dholaks. He said of course, but that he did not have any finished ones. This worked to my advantage: I was able to watch Lalta complete the construction of a dholak that I picked out from a group of four or five that he was still working on. It was really neat to see the craftsman in action: I took a ton of photographs and also a couple short videos.

The wooden shell of the dholak already was completed (sanded and lacquered, that is): the heads of the drum still needed to be set to the drum, though. Both sides of the dholak are played, but are different sizes to create different sounds. To prepare one of the drum heads, Lalta reinforced the inner-side of the head with a black, tar-like goo. When I asked what that substance was, I was told that one (in the red tin, in the picture) was called “rito,” which is the ash of a burned tire; and, the other (in the yellow tin) was “loban,” automotive grease. I will try to post a video of Lalta mixing these two substances, and then rubbing the combination onto the drumhead.

The wood used for the drum is from a “sirsa” tree (they were unsure of the English equivalent), which is a local tree. Lalta said that he has experimented with thirteen different types of timber before he found the perfect one. He noted that the harder the timber, the better the sound of the drum. He did say that he has built drums from both palm and mango trees before; a very Indo-Fijian prospect. The heads of the drum are made from goatskin that first is soaked in water with “chuna” powder (limesalt; not sure what that is though) to remove the goat hair. All in all, Lalta says building a dholak only takes one day of work; I would have thought it would have been a much more extensive process.

Lalta has been building drums for thirty-six years. He is craftsman by trade; constructing drums, cabinets, tables and other such general items. Lalta learned how to build a drum from his father, who had been a carpenter. His father had taught himself how to craft drums during the 1960s. When I asked where in Indian his ancestors were from, he responded that he did not know, as it was too long ago.

Lalta says he makes dholaks for “thousands of temples” throughout Fiji. He did say he has never crafted tablas, but has repaired them before. In regards to the religious element to the drum crafting, Lalta asserted that before the construction begins, he says a special prayer. Further, upon the completion of the drum, decorations, like marigolds, are placed on and around the drum, almost as if it were a statue of a god.

The drum itself only cost F$80; much cheaper than the lower quality ones in town. Discount aside, the invaluable experience of watching a craftsman at work, and having the opportunity to interview the crafter of my drum, was truly a fantastic experience. I came to Labasa for this very prospect, and it is so great that it came into fruition.

I must admit that none of this would have been possible without the assistance of Maya. From introducing me to Lalta to translating for me, she really was the reason this excellent day happened.

If that weren’t enough, Maya invited me to say for dinner! I actually was with her and her family (husband and 14-year-old son) from about 2pm to 10:30pm. The level of hospitality was unbelievable: I really can’t even describe how much Maya and her family helped me out. She says I now have an Indo-Fijian mother! Another ridiculously great day for the books...


September 11, 2007

Yesterday, I arrived safely in Savusavu, on the island of Vanua Levu. The plane ride took about 45 minutes, and was the smallest plane I have ever taken: it was a three-seater, about five feet wide. It was so small that the pilot and co-pilot were touching shoulders. The flight itself was quite beautiful; having an aerial view of blue lagoons and massive reefs truly is a remarkable experience.

The population of Savusavu is just under five-thousand, split evenly between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. The main street (well, there really is only one big street) borders a boat-filled bay. The surrounding area is very lush; and small mountains envelope the town itself.

Tonight, I went to a Hindu puja. The service was actually not in a temple; but instead on the front porch of someone’s house. There were about thirty people or so, of all ages. The group is not directly associated with a temple; so it was interesting to observe a much less conservative Hindu religious service. The group is called Sathsang Ramayan Mandal.

I arrived after the service had started, but that did not seem to be a problem. The music ensemble consisted of a harmonium player, two guys on the finger cymbals, one on the tambourine, one man playing the dandal (a long metal rod hit with a metal horseshoe type thing – it was new to me), and another playing two dholak drums. The dholak sounds similar to the tabla, but is very different: the dholak is much longer, constructed of wood and goatskin, and can be played on either side.

While the music was playing, one man was reading a religious scripture: from my elementary knowledge of Hindi, I was able to recognize that he was reading from the great Hindu epic the Ramayana. (I kept on hearing the names Ravan and Sita, so I knew this had to be the case).

At the conclusion of the service, I spoke with several people, including the dholak player, a man named Shree Niwasan. He has lived in Savusavu his entire life, but his ancestors came from Madras (Chennai), where I will be basing my research while in India.

When I asked whether it was the Ramayana that was read from, he said yes, and that the Ramayana is the primary text used in their services. Shree Niwasan then informed me that the musicians learn specific parts to specific paragraphs of the Ramayana – called a doha. He has been playing the dholak for about 25 years; and has had formal training. He said he first learned to play by banging on “plastic drum gallons,” which are like shallow buckets, I think.

I was curious as to why a dholak was used in the service, and not the tabla. Shree Niwasan explained that there are five types of Hindu music: bajaan, kerten, ghazel, sangeet, and qawwali (which I had always thought was exclusively Muslim). Bajaan and kerten are the musical accompaniment to weekly readings of texts like the Ramayana; and they never employ the tabla. The tabla is only utilized in the other three genres.

In regards to the dholak, Shree Niwasan said that there are crafters here in Fiji, and I should be able to encounter one in Labasa. But, he also maintained that some dholaks are imported from India.

Without a doubt, there was an element of spirituality to the musical performance. When we were discussing different types of music, Shree Niwasan stated: “Music is diverse because God is diverse.” As a musician, Shree Niwasan felt a certain connection to the Divine through his music, as he avowed, “God only needs love from us; the love comes through music.”

There was a definite Fijian influence to both the music and service itself. First, in addition to the other instruments listed above, every so often, one man would play a conch shell. Clearly, this is Hindu Indo-Fijian practice: I would assume that Hindus in Northern India do not employ this instrument in their religious services. At least, I have never seen that or heard of it. Second, after the service was over (and the women left), all the men drank grog. Grog (made from the kava root) is an essential aspect of the social life in Fiji, and other countries in the South Pacific. While grog is not alcohol, it is a mild narcotic: this is important to recognize, as many Indian Hindus abstain from all drugs and alcohol, especially during a religious service. So between the conch shell trumpet and grog drinking, this was a distinctly Hindu Indo-Fijian service.
The service lasted about an hour-and-a-half; and then we drank grog, with music still playing on, for another hour-and-a-half. It was great way to end the day.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


As with every Sunday in Suva, the entire city is closed. Although I did not do any research today, it was a great day: I went to the Colo-i-Suva Forest Park, which is about half-an-hour outside of Suva City. The park was really beautiful; it is known for it’s swimming pools and waterfalls. I actually didn’t go swimming (due to a lack of a bathing suit/ear infection), but walking on the trails was really nice, especially because almost no one was there. Below are some pictures from my treks throughout the park.

I am leaving Suva tomorrow for Savusavu, on Vanua Levu. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to update again, but hopefully by mid-week. It’s amazing how quickly the time goes here…


Here is the video from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Gorrie Street.


September 8, 2007

As I have mentioned before, where I am staying is right next door to a church; so this morning, I was woken by the beating of lalis and the singing of a choir. Not bad way to start a day, I must admit.

I finally met Somal today. He was much younger than I had expected; he’s only 26. We walked and talked for a while, before sitting down at a café for about two hours. Our conversation ranged from his musical background, his guru, and Indian music in general.

Somal has been studying tabla for three years, and is the first musician in his family. This seems to be a reoccurring theme in my research among Indian musicians (Hindu or Muslim) here in Fiji: I have yet to meet a second-generation musician. Again, as I have written before, if this were India, the exact opposite would be the case.

Somal explained to me the five gharanas of Hindustani music (which basically are different schools/methods of teaching the music): there is Delhi, Punjab, Purab, Lucknow/Farukabaad, and Arjada. His gharana is very small, it is called Arjada; and, it originates from the village of Meerut, outside of Delhi. He was very proud of the fact that his gharana is the most exclusive gharana; he said that even in India, it is not widely practiced or even really known about. I had actually heard of the other four gharanas before, but never of Arjada.

I commented that it is pretty unusual that of all gharanas to be practiced in Fiji, the least common one back in India is practiced here. Somal just thought it is good luck. To be honest, I am not sure what to make of this: it just might be the luck of the draw, that Somal’s guru studied Arjada and that’s simply how the cards fell. It is not that important to dwell on, but I would have assumed that the most popular gharana in India would be the most popular gharana here. Then again, most of assumptions prior to arriving in Fiji have been wrong…But I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with that: field research is supposed to be unpredictable!

Somal’s guru is an Indo-Fijian named Pandit Sanjesh Prasad. When Pandit Prasad was younger, he received a four-year scholarship to study tabla in Delhi. It is interesting to note that Somal’s guru studied in India; probably because there were not adequate tabla teachers in Fiji in those days. Again, this all supports my hypothesis that historically there has been (and still is, to a lesser degree) an absence of Hindu tabla players in Fiji. It seems that premier tabla teachers in Fiji have studied in India, and not solely obtained their knowledge of the instrument here on Fiji.

When we began discussing the religious element to the tabla, as always, I learned something that was a completely new prospect to me: the guru of Pandit Sanjesh Prasad (Somal’s guru) was a man named Ustad Manju Khan Saheb, who, as you can tell by his name, was a Muslim. (Pandit is Hindi for master, and Ustad is Urdu for master). It was fascinating to hear that Somal’s Hindu guru studied under a Muslim. I must admit that I have heard of Hindu and Muslim musicians interacting before (Ravi Shankar, a Hindu, had a tabla player who was a Muslim); but I have never encountered a difference in religion between the guru and the shishya (student).

When I inquired about the religious element to his studies, Somal responded that there is, “no direct spiritual training; but I do use my [musical] training in performing [religious] hymns.” There is not a clear-cut “religious” training, but rather, a much broader “spiritual” appreciation for music. Somal did affirm that, “Ten-percent of knowledge is from teaching; ninty-percent of knowledge is from ‘private’ knowledge. […] Tabla creates its own mode [of being]; God will come.” For Somal, there is a sense of spirituality to his music: “You need divine grace from your guru to play tabla; you can’t just ‘learn’ it.”

To sum up the spiritual aspect of his studies, Somal stated: “Music is music; music is spiritual on its own. But you can incorporate it [to religion] to please God.”

To top off a great interview, as I was walking back on Gorrie Street (where I am staying), I watched the beating of a lali outside of a Seventh-Day Adventist church.

So now, I feel very ready to leave Suva, as I have done a tremendous amount of research here. I would leave tomorrow but Fiji is completely closed on Sundays.

As exciting has the past 48 hours have been, it was been a very mentally and physically taxing experience! I am now heading to the other big island, Vanua Levu, where I will spend five or six days in Indian town of Labasa (pronounced LaMbasa) and Savusavu. Yes, I recognize that I am going from Suva to Savusavu; I’ve been wondering if in Fiji, dyslexia is much higher or lower than the norm.


After my discussion with Professor Hau’ofa came to a conclusion, I started hanging out with the students. (Actually while I was with the Professor, I could hear the band practicing in the background, which was pretty cool to have both things going on at once). Because the music and dance students are going to China next week, they have much preparation in coordinating the music to the dance routine. For about an hour, I sat in the studio with Calvin (a student who is also the music director), Dex, Iliese and Peter to observe their songwriting process. It was really great, especially because they would play something for me, and ask my input!

After that, a bunch of us just jammed; Dex on the acoustic guitar, Iliese on the bampipe, Peter on a large hand drum, and myself on a smaller hand drum. It definitely was a memorable experience. We played for a while; and actually the guys then asked if I would be interested to join them for a performance later that night.

From six to eight that night, about six of us played (two acoustic guitars, two drums, one shaker, extra vocals) at a USP social function. We played a mix of Fijian songs and Western hits, including Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight, Roy Orbison’s “You Got It,” the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and Tony Orlando’s “Knock Three Times,” among others. There were about a hundred people or so at the party, so it was pretty wild! Throughout the set, we all drank kava – truly an authentic Fijian experience.

After the party ended, we all went to an apartment on the USP campus and played for another hour or two! All in all, it was a fantastic day; but, by the end of it, I was pretty drained. I wish I could have recorded some of the music, but I felt that would have taken away from the experience. Oh well, I’m sure that I won’t ever forget it!


Hands down, Friday was the best day I’ve had in Fiji. I woke up early (well early for someone that doesn’t have a deskjob), and went over to the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture at the University of the South Pacific. I met with Professor Epeli Hau’ofa, the director and founder of the Oceania Centre. The Professor, sporting a big bushy beard and large lens glasses, and I chatted for over two-and-a-half hours, with our conversation wavering from my research to the history of the Oceania Centre to the music industry to fusion music to traditional Fijian music to New York City, and to several other random topics.

When the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture was founded in 1997, the Professor sought to create, “a physical environment that is conducive to the arts.” For the very reason, the Centre is an open-aired building. By connecting the arts to the natural environment, artistic creativity is able to blossom. When developing the Centre, the Professor wanted it to be, “open and noisy like [typical] Pacific communities.” The Professor admitted the challenge of the duality of creating a space that is conducive to the arts, yet draws upon traditional Pacific community values (because Pacific communities do not generally foster the creative arts for the individual). Nonetheless, by having different fields (music, art and dance) under the same roof, there is an “organic development of the arts.” There are massive sculptures and even larger paintings scattered throughout the space; nonetheless, there is a definite fluid organization to the Centre.

The Professor emphasized that program at the Oceania Centre must not only have a space with a relaxed feel to it, but also that the “academic” program itself be as informal as possible. Therefore, there are no classes at the Oceania Centre. Rather than teaching out of a textbook in a classroom, on their own prerogative, the students learn by observing others. Although some students only focus on a single discipline (as in music, art or dance), most students, the majority of the students work in more than one area of study.
Professor Hau’ofa did underscore that the Centre only admits, “gifted students,” and that the talents of the students are not taught, but rather, they are nurtured. The Centre draws on certain, “Western ideas,” specifically, “the freedom to create; [and] always having the opportunity to experiment.”

Interestingly enough, according to the Professor, many of the students would be unemployed if not enrolled in the school; and in fact, several of the students have criminal records, including one individual that was in and out of the Fijian prison system for over ten years. The Professor firmly believes that the Oceania Centre provides many opportunities for a creative outlet for sometimes-troubled individuals.

The combination of an informal environment and nontraditional educational philosophy create the ideal setting for an arts program: thus, the student is given complete freedom to expand his or her talents. Professor Hau’ofa asserted that while the students, “learn informally, they call me ‘Bosso.’ I am the elder of the ‘village.’”

When we first spoke specifically on the music program at the Oceania Centre, the Professor instilled on me the following (unofficial) mission statement: “The idea is to develop a music that is distinctly [South] Pacific.” Biting on a handrolled cigarette, the Professor told me, “You have to come up with something that is yours; [but also] it has to be accessible.” The Professor noted that the presence of, “the U.S. pop sound is [felt] everywhere,” and this, undoubtedly, limits the possibility of the rebirth of Fijian music, as the youth are more interested in US pop music than traditional Fijian music. He lamented the difficulties in doing so; but, remained optimistic. The Professor continued, “We want to develop music that people will take seriously.”

Choosing his words carefully, Professor Hau’ofa affirmed that, “People have to invent new music,” and that people of the South Pacific must, “find in inspiration from tradition; [but be careful] not to replicate” that tradition. One example of this idea in practice is one student, Calvin Rore, has revived the nose flute, a traditional South Pacific instrument that has almost no modern appreciation. Calvin has recorded a record of original compositions for the nose flute; so that in itself demonstrates how a (dying) traditional instrument is employed in a modern setting. Essentially, the music created at the Oceania Centre is a reinterpretation of a traditional art in a contemporary context.

This provided a smooth transition to the research of this fellowship. In regards to my research, the Professor and I talked extensively on the Centre’s creation of the bampipe sproduct of a collaborative effort between the Professor and a student named Calvin Rore (although, in reality, there has been much input and influence from other students at the Centre).

The bampipe first was conceptualized last January. Constructed from everyday materials (PVC piping, cardboard tubes, and rubber) and played with a common object (a flip-flop), the bampipe represents a great feat for contemporary Fijian music. The instrument not only is “easy” to construct (in comparison to a piano, for instance), but also still maintains a traditional South Pacific music sound. It should be noted that there is a patent pending on the bampipe.

The bampipe already has drawn notable recognition in the international music scene: the students at the Oceania Centre have been invited to China to perform at the inaugural Asia Youth Festival, which will be broadcasted throughout Asia. The two-week festival of music and dance has representatives from twenty-five different culture; furthermore, Fiji is the only country from the South Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand!

Professor Hau’ofa told me that many years ago, he spent some time in Trinidad, and was fascinated by the steel drums there. He said that the steel drums were a definite influence of the bampipes: both are percussion instruments that can provide the rhythm and the melody of a song. Furthermore, both are constructed from everyday objects. In the grandest vision, the bampipes someday will be to Fiji what the steel drum is to Trinidad.

For me, all of this fit so perfectly into the research I am conducting: it is pretty incredible that I have already found a concrete connection between my first destination on my itinerary and my final stop.

And all of this happened before 12:30pm. I’ll write the rest in separate post.


Here is a short jam with some of the students at USP...Enjoy.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


Below is a short video I shot Friday afternoon at USP. Dex is on the lalis and Iliese on the conga, while two other students are practicing a dance routine. I apologize if the video is choppy/if the camera work is terrible...More updates to come later today/tomorrow.


Bula everyone. I've been very busy the past 48 hours, conducting a bunch of interviews and fully immersing myself in field research. I spent yesterday at USP, and today, I finally interviewed Somal. I am currently writing about those, and hopefully will have some new posts by the end of the weekend.

This a lali at the Fiji Museum. It was used by the Wesleyan Church in Suva to announce that church services were starting.

This picture is from the USP campus.


(This post was written on September 6th)

Not surprisingly, cab drivers have been some of my best resources here in Suva. I have met countless cabbies that have given me some great advice on how and where to conduct my research. Jiten, my first taxi driver in Fiji, has been a tremendous resource; because of him, I was able to attend that Hindu wedding.

After I left USP, I hailed a teal-colored Victoria Cutless; a truly vintage cab. The driver, named Rohit Ali, was a Muslim Indo-Fijian; for the record, he is a Sunni. After explaining the essence of my research, Ali told me that he plays tabla for qawwali, the religious music of Islam. (It should be noted that the Indian tabla is used for both the music of Hinduism and Islam). At this point, we had just arrived at my apartment, and I told him that I would like to interview him. He said he was working, so I made the suggestion that we just drive around, with the meter running, so I could continue to ask him questions. We drove for about half-an-hour, and I got see totally new part of Suva – around the neighborhood where the White House, the Parliament (now defunct, as the military retains total control of the government), and some religious seminaries all are located. It was a beautiful drive, but the interview itself was really informative.

Ali has no formal tabla training; but, he is able to play qawwali, the musical accompaniment to readings from the Qu’ran or other Islamic texts. I asked him if anyone in his family were tabla players, or musicians at the least, and he said was the first musician in his family. This is very intriguing and supports my hypothesis that Indian religious music (qawwali or Hindustani music) in Fiji is dissimilar to the equivalent in India. Unlike India, musicians in Fiji often do not have a familial connection to the music they are playing; that is, music is not taught generation to generation.

When I asked Ali what incited his interest in learning how to play the tabla, he said one day when he was eighteen, he, “was watching the [qawwali] singers, and became interested. Then one day, there was no tabla player, so I filled in.” Apparently, there is not a strict set of guidelines (of having to have formalized training) to perform qawwali in Fiji. To compare that to India, typically the tabla player must study the instrument for years before he is able to perform! It seems that there is not a rigid musical system here in Fiji.

When I asked how he learned to play qawwali – as it is a difficult genre of music that requires specific rhythms for specific holy passages –, he said he simply watched the hand and finger motions of other players, and learned that way. He did assert that, “You either have the qawwali in you or you do not.” That quotation can be interpreted as playing qawwali is a spiritual matter: it is something that you are born with, and it is not necessarily “learned,” but tapped into. (This idea is the inverse of Mims’ “You ain’t cause you not” theory).

Ali told me that he performs for various religious services, ranging from Islamic holidays to birth ceremonies. When I asked if there were any upcoming events he would be performing at, he informed that because Ramadan is approaching (the month of fast for Muslims), music is not being performed.

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him several questions about the tabla itself. Ali does not own his own tablas; and uses the mosque’s set when he performs. When I told him that I have had difficulty in locating a tabla crafter, he confirmed what I already knew, that all tablas in Fiji are imported from India. When I asked him why he thought that was, he said that Fiji does not have all the proper materials to construct tablas. I explained me theory – that there probably was an absence of crafters to come to Fiji under as indentured servants, because they would already have had respectable jobs back in India –, he said that was a definite possibility. He then asserted that, “Under the old girmit (indentured servant) system, they would just bring over the instruments,” if they needed them. So it seems that there never have been tabla crafters in Fiji, or that there ever will be!

The truth is that I have actively been ignoring the Muslim Indo-Fijian population here; as I have felt that between the Hindu and indigenous populations would provide a sufficient amount of research. While that may be so, I now realize it is silly to disregard an important religious group, and I should use every potential resource.

This picture is from the Hindu wedding I attended.


(The follow entry was written September 6th)

Today, I was supposed to interview Somal (the tabla player from Laxmi Narayan Temple); but, due to conflicts in his schedule, that interview has been postponed until tomorrow at 5pm. Because I have been unable to conduct a formal interview with a Hindu Indo-Fijian tabla player, I am very eager to interview Somal. Hopefully, through that interview, I will be to meet his guru (tabla instructor).

After I found out that the interview with Somal had been canceled, I ventured up to the University. I spoke with two people there – the head of the arts department (who I had met last week) and a woman, Katalina, (who was actually the lead in the play I saw last Friday). I had been under the impression that the Bampipe Band would be performing tomorrow; but that turns out not to be the case. It’s not a huge loss, as they have invited me to observe their practice tomorrow at 10am.

The photograph is from a music shop here in Suva.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


After going to yet another music shop that does not sell lalis, I was redirected to the Government Handicrafts Center, where lalis are, in fact, sold. Although there were no full-sized lalis in stock for me to look at, the woman who worked there, Eta, was very helpful. When I asked who supplied the Center with their lalis, she told me something that came as a complete shock: she said that it was an Indian man who made the lalis.

Considering I have yet to encounter an Indo-Fijian that crafts the Indian tabla, I was very surprised to hear that there are Indo-Fijians that craft the indigenous percussion instrument! Eta also gave me the contact information of some Fijian crafters; but the only catch is that they live in the highlands (the middle of the Viti Levu), and it would take multiple bus rides to get there. Of course, I would love to go try to find them, but I think I need to make sure I have a fully established contact, because it’s not like there would be a hotel/hostel to stay at where I’d be going!

Overall, today was a slow day; although, I did make some headway in establishing some good connections and scheduling some interviews. Tomorrow, I have an interview with Somal (the tabla player for the Laxmi Narayan Temple), and possibly one with his guru, Master Sanjesh. I was supposed to meet Somal today, but that fell through at the last minute.

Field research is very rewarding, but can definitely be rather frustrating at times. It is difficult to rely on other people (as in, to show up for an interview); furthermore, the speed of life on Fiji is tremendously slower than that of New York City. As they said, Fijians run on “coconut time.”

To be completely honest, I am very ready to leave Suva; but, I do feel like I need to conduct a couple more interviews before doing so. Also, on Friday night, there is the students that made the bampipe are giving a performance at the USP, and I do not want to miss that.

It’s not that I dislike Suva, but I feel like I have seen everything to see here; and I am just waiting around until X interview or X performance. I am also excited to see other parts of Fiji; particularly other islands where it doesn’t rain every day! All in all, I do not feel that I have overstayed my time here in Suva, but just that I am ready to explore a new part of Fiji. Hopefully, I’ll be able to leave on Saturday or Sunday for Vanua Levu, the second-largest island.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


It is 9:14pm and I just returned from a Hindu puja (religious service) at the Shirdi Sai Mandir. I had visited the temple earlier in the day, and spoke to a man named Jiten (I guess that is a popular name amongst Hindu Indo-Fijians these days), and he invited me to attend tonight’s service. Jiten #2 had told me that music is performed during the service; but, it turned out not to be the case.

That being said, for several reasons, I am not disappointed about going to the puja. There definitely was a musical element to the service: the prayers were, in fact, sung, so it was very pleasant to listen to. The absence of a musical performance also made me wonder the following: If this service were held in India, would there have been a musical accompaniment? With the notable absence of music, the puja felt entirely “Indian” – although that’s not to say every puja in India has music.

It was pretty remarkable to be fully immersed in “India” in Fiji: everything from the smell of the burning incense to the flashing lights of the temple brought back profound memories from my time spent in India in the Fall of 2005. Although Suva has a concrete Indian influence, this was the first time I truly felt that I was not in Fiji.

Another interesting note of the temple: like so many other Hindu temples, this temple was laden with iconography of other religions, as in Christian crosses, stars of David, and the crescent moon with star to represent Islam (although that is misleading, as symbolism is prohibited in Islam; the crescent moon with star that is associated with Islam is just the symbol of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, but is not directly affiliated with the religion). My favorite was the two statues of Jesus and Mary, both garnished in offers just as much so as the statues of Krishna, Ganesh, and other popular Hindu gods.

There was a giant engraving that read, “Love All Serve All.” As daunting as Hinduism can be – due to its extremely complex and sometimes contradictory nature –, I am always impressed with how accepting the religion seeks to be. Hinduism tends to absorb everything around it: the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed, Gautama, you name it, are all accepted within the realms of Hinduism. Indeed, Hinduism is an all-encompassing religion; nevertheless, that ideology is not necessarily practiced throughout of the sects of the religion.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Another productive day: I went to the Laxmi Narayan Temple. (Laxmi is the wife of Vishnu). Like all Hindu temples in Suva, there was a heavy-duty metal gate that surrounds the temple. When I arrived, the gate was closed; and the gatekeeper seemed rather ambivalent on letting me. After I explained the purpose of my visit, the man, Chut, began to warm up. He told me that the head priest was out, but would be returning shortly. The temple was pretty nice; it had a great view of the greener side of Suva. The most interesting aspect of the temple was a massive Shiva Lingam. There were three large wooden cobras coming out of the lingam to form a trident.

The priest, a middle-aged man named Jayndra Shatri, did not speak very much English. Fortunately, another man, who was probably only in his late twenties, name Niraj happily served as my translator. I asked Jayndra about the role of music within the temple, and he said yes, especially for, “big functions and festivals.” When I asked him if there were any musicians commissioned by the temple on a regular basis, he said yes; and that, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, during puja (Hindu temple service), the musicians frequently perform. He gave me the contact information of Somal, the regular temple tabla player; so I will definitely try to set up an interview with him this week.

When I left the temple, Jayndra gave me a prasad of two Gala apples. Typically in India, prasad consists of little sugar cubes, so it was very “Indo-Fijian” to give an endemic (er, exclusive to the South Pacific and New Zealand, so not exactly “endemic” but you get the idea) fruit as prasad.

Some other locals (who are non-Hindus) have told me that the temple is for Gujaratis. This is important to note, as Indo-Fijians of Gujarat descent typically did not come to Fiji as indentured servants. Around the First World War, many Gujaratis emigrated from India to Fiji as business entrepreneurs. Therefore, it is entirely possible that Indo-Fijians of Gujarat descent retained a more orthodox form of Hinduism. With all of that in mind, I would hypothesize that religious music of Indo-Fijians of Gujarat descent is closer to classical Hindustani music than any other Hindu Indo-Fijian group. (Man, sometimes all of these academic labels are a mouthful!)

I will post pictures from the temple later today or tomorrow.


I just discovered something pretty cool: the currency here is based on the British Pound, so with all of the notes, there is a picture of the Queen. But, on the tails side of all of the coins there is a cultural picture; like on the 50-cent piece there is a picture of the war catamarans used by Fijian warriors in the 17th and 18th centuries. On the one-cent coin, there is a picture of the kava bowl. (Think of the equivalent of being for the US one-cent coin having a beer can on it!). On the five-cent piece, there is a lali with the i-uaua (the two sticks used to beat the lali)!

It is pretty incredible to think that the lali, a simple percussion instrument, is so much apart of the cultural identity that it is depicted on a coin.

Without a doubt, the lali is symbol of cultural pride; yet, perhaps there is a greater subconscious meaning to it. I might be overanalyzing this, but perhaps by putting the lali on the five-cent piece, it demonstrates how traditional Fijian culture has prevailed in a modern Christian context.

Sure, Fiji has embraced Christianity with open arms; but, like in so many other cultures, Christianity has been fused with the indigenous traditions of the converted country. Lalis, once used in the pagan religious services in Fiji, are still present in the Christian church services today.

Again, this is a classic example of a Westerner trying to academically explain a random cultural tidbit; but, I do think it is neat that Fijians have been able to retain a little piece of their heritage.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


Below is a video of Iliese soloing on the bampipe. I still need to figure out how to condense the "I Shot the Sheriff" video; so watch out for that.

If the video doesn't come up, here is the direct link:


Below is a short clip of Iliese playing the bampipe. Due to the large file size, I have been unable to post al of my videos of it, but will work on getting all of them online soon.

If the video doesn't play belows, here is the direct link:


Today, I finally made it to the Fiji Museum. The museum is cluttered with ancient Fijian paraphernalia; the highlights include a full-sized catamaran, nose flutes (that’s right), war clubs, and, of course, cannibal forks. Fiji, in fact, was the last country in the world to practice cannibalism as a socially acceptable custom; this practice ended only in the 1870s.

There was also a lali that had been used by the Wesleyan Church in Suva. Lalis were beaten (and still are today) before church, as a way to notify people that the mass was (is) about to begin. This practice had been employed prior to Christianity in Fiji, to announce the beginning of the service at the temple (burekalou, in Fijian). The museum had a really nice gift shop: I bought an academic journal on the history of the lali and drumming in Fiji! It is pretty old, but I look forward to reading it – it’s definitely a resource that I cannot find on the internet.

After almost a week of anticipation, I went to the Hindu wedding with Jiten and his family tonight. The actually ceremony is tomorrow, but tonight was the big celebration. There were about two-hundred (maybe even more) people; and yes, I was the only non-Hindu there. As always, people were very friendly, and I was given a warm welcome. The food and kava were great, but the real reason I went was for the music.

There were actually two music groups that performed: one traditional and one contemporary. The traditional group was not a traditional Hindustani ensemble (tabla, sitar/sarod, harmonium), but instead was much more basic group, with one male drummer playing a dolak (hand drum) and three women playing chaags (like little finger cymbals & bells). The contemporary band, called the Sonnets Orchestra, included three singers (two female), a
bassist, a keyboardist, and three kinds of drummers, playing Western-style drums, conga hand drums, and an electronic drum pad. For me, the electronic drum pad was the most intriguing aspect of the band, as it often was in place of a tabla. The idea that a traditional instrument has been replaced by a feat of technology is fascinating to me. Does that represent the “new soul” of Hindu Indo-Fijian music? The Sonnets Orchestra mostly played Indian pop music, with a UB-40 cover thrown in the mix (actually that song was dedicated to me. Kind of awkward).

The music at the wedding was an interesting juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity. That being said, there definitely was more of an emphasis on the contemporary band, as they played much longer.

This evening shed some new insights and realization about my research here in Fiji. Throughout this research, I think I might have been wrong to attempt to associate Hindu Indo-Fijian music with Hindu Indian music (Hindustani music). While both genres share a religious and cultural connection, the truth is that a Hindu Indo-Fijian has surprisingly little in common with a Hindu Indian. Sure, on a broad enough spectrum, the two can be lumped together; but, when analyzing through the lens of music, the reality is that these two groups are very unique.
The simple difference of having, or not having, the caste system explains why two schools of music with similar backgrounds can different so greatly.

Maybe this analysis will waver after the culmination of research in Fiji and India; nonetheless, as of now, I must admit I am a little shocked with how different religious/traditional music of Hindu Indo-Fijians and Hindu Indians are.
Indeed, Indian pop music has embraced musical technologies (like the drum machine); regardless, religious Hindustani music still follows a very orthodox agenda. Some Hindustani musicians still do not even permit their music to be recorded!

Despite that I have been surprised with the “traditional” Hindu Indo-Fijian music scene, I am not completely baffled by it: I do understand why it differs from traditional Hindustani music. I think it boils down to the following concept (and I have written about this before): when the Hindu Indian indentured servants came to Fiji in the mid-19th Century, they were predominately from the lowest castes. Musicians of the temple, with almost no exceptions, are from upper, or at least middle, castes. Furthermore, Indian music is an inter-familial art passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, in Fiji, the prospect of a Hindu Indo-Fijian musician that has a musical lineage spanning countless generations back in India seems relatively unlikely. (This general concept is applicable to the craftsmen of Indian musical instruments).

And all of this explains why at a Hindu Indo-Fijian wedding, the role of the tabla has been relegated by a synthetic, electric drum pad.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Bampipe

Like so many other aspects of life, with field research, the most interesting interviews and research situations come at the least expected times. Today was meant to be a slow day, as the rain and the grey clouds failed to forfeit to blue skies. After running some errands in downtown Suva (including a much-needed trip to the laundry mat!), I caught a cab to the University of the South Pacific. At USP, there is the, “Oceania Center for Arts and Culture,” which basically is the general arts and music department for the university. I introduced myself to the head of the department, and he explained to me that they don’t focus much on traditional Fijian music, but instead on contemporary music. My immediate reaction to this was disappointment, as I had anticipated researching traditional music exclusively; nevertheless, field research requires a degree of flexibility.

I was then introduced to three students: Asal, Peter and Iliese. Over the past year, Iliese has created and crafted a new percussion instrument: the bampipe. The bampipe is comprised of seven PVC tubes of different lengths, some of which are almost five feet long. (There is also a bass bampipe that is almost twice as long as the regular one). Each tube is lined with
retractable cardboard tubes of different thicknesses. All of the tubes are tied together in a neat manner. The seven tubes account for the seven keys of the music staff (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G). To give the bampipe an “earthy” look to it, it has been spray painted a dark copper color, with green stencils of ferns. The bampipe is played with the most random thing possible: a busted old sandal.
After performing several jams, the three guys played a tune I immediately recognized, Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff.” The sound of this innovative instrument is truly awesome; but, because of its uniqueness, I couldn’t help but think of the follow questions:

What is a drum? What is percussion? Surely, hand drums like an Indian tabla or a Cuban conga meet the prerequisites to be categorized as “drums and percussion.” Furthermore, drums that are played with sticks and mallets also fit those standards, right? I would think that is

So what about seven perfectly pitched PVC tubes played with an old sandal? Is that percussion? Since it can provide a fluid rhythm, I would say yes; although, maybe it simply cannot be categorized. (Western academics must always label, even if such a label is either unnecessary, or impossible).

This research, initially, sought to focus on traditional drum and percussion instruments; yet, I cannot ignore new, innovative means of percussion. Who cares what exactly is played as long as the beat is there and the rhythm is maintained, I say.
After I was given the mini/personal performance, Iliese (the one who was actually playing the bampipe) told me that next month they – The Bampipe Band – are going to Shanghai to perform at a music festival, and then will be touring China for three or four weeks. I told him they should try to play some shows in New York City; I’m sure it would be a hit!

Due to the large file size of the videos I shot, I need to edit them down. I'll post the edited clips on YouTube shortly.

Lastly, this evening I went back to USP to watch a dance performance that had live music. The performance was about the struggles of a young love. In all honesty, I have never been too keen on abstract theatre, but this was pretty good. The paintings on the set were really great, and the music was very cool. The band was just comprised of a cello, three conga drums, and a lali-like drum. The two drummers just wore bulas (the male skirts) and had face and body paint. It was pretty wild.

(Sorry if the pictures are crooked; when it comes to the technological aspect of blogging, I have no idea what's going on!)