Melanesian panpipes used to empower youth

Published June 1, 2001

‘Fierce warriors’ offer a traditional welcome to Archbishop Michael Peers as he arrives at the Airahu Rural Training Centre on Malaita.

KILL THOSE PEOPLE! Eat those people!”, the bishop said.

The Bishop of Ysabel, in the Solomon Islands, was translating for me the shouts of the painted, axe-and-spear-wielding warriors who rushed out of the bush at us as we neared the diocesan training centre.

This was the fifth of six such welcomes in visits to dioceses in The Church of Melanesia at Eastertide. I was glad that I had not actually understood those shouts the first time I heard them!

But that fearsome exchange is only the first of several ritual greetings to strangers. After a formal exchange of speeches of welcome and response, there is music. The music is played on pipes – mostly bamboo, though occasionally made of heavy plastic electrical conduit piping. Some are small hand-held panpipes. Some are the size and sound of eight-foot organ pipes, and some are in-between pipes of two to four feet where the sound is created by extraordinarily vigorous beating of the top end of the pipes with instruments that look like slippers.

The sound is unique, though it has resonances of Caribbean steel drum music. It manages to be simultaneously both emotionally exciting and spiritually haunting.

And the pipers, like the menacing warriors, are all men. Women have a parallel role in welcoming – first they present floral necklaces and then sing and dance.

At a feast after our Easter Day service – at which the Bishop of Malaita, Terry Brown, presided, I confirmed 42 young people, and I learned from an elder that the practices surrounding this tradition are changing rapidly in the aftermath of a time of ethnic tension.

The elder told me that pan-piping is more widespread now than before, and that boys and younger men are increasingly involved. One result of the ethnic tension has been that many young Malaitans have been expelled from their jobs on the dominant island of Guadalcanal and have returned to villages where land and work are not easy to find.

On our last night on Malaita the bishop invited a magnificent group of pipers, singers and dancers to provide a farewell concert. These people could perform on any stage in Canada.

But the impressive reality behind that event is that among the leaders and members of the group are former “militants,” people deeply involved in the ethnic tension. Those men, on coming home, decided that this magnificent indigenous music had the power to involve and integrate young men who otherwise would be idle, frustrated and potentially even destructive.

Where in our society (I thought) is there a parallel? Where do we use music in such a way in order to rescue young people? I am sure there are many ways across the country, but all I could think of is that in my city, Toronto, as a means of discouraging young men from “swarming” in malls and subway stations, we play classical music.

“Classical” music of the European tradition of the last 500 years, can be relied on either to drive young people away or, at the least, to dampen their ardour for violence or whatever.

Why? Because it represents something ancient and alien? Certainly because it has been proven to discourage and repel groups of youth. The psalmist’s call to song, at the beginning of this article, raises questions without easy answers.

What constitutes a new song?

Which society has hold of the deep truth of the challenge to sing a new song? Ours, rich and peaceful, which seems to fear new music and uses traditional music to disperse and defuse the young? Or Solomon society, poor and tension-ridden, which uses traditional music to involve, encourage and empower the young?

Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


Keep on reading

Skip to content