Tag Archives: ethnomusicology

2550. Ethnomusicology

A true story to celebrate round figure Story Number 2550.

In my younger years I was teaching fulltime and trying to complete a music degree in between classes. I would turn up to class with a banana, teach about Wuthering Heights or Richard the Third or something, and the minute the class was over I’d leap into the car, and eat the banana for lunch while driving off to my university lecture. Choice of music papers studied was largely dictated by what was available when I wasn’t teaching. In this particular year I was taking An Introduction to Ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology is the study of non-Western music and this particular year it focused on the music of Polynesia.

The lecturer was Allan Thomas. He once stopped me in the corridor and said, “Bruce, have you ever thought of coming to university full-time and learning something?” Just so you can envisage the time scale, the New Zealand academic year runs roughly from February to November. Around March Allan Thomas announced that there would be no examination at the end of the year but everyone must submit a detailed study on an approved topic about Polynesian music.

I continued to attend lectures, but the detailed study on an approved topic somehow went on the back-burner. I used to try and avoid Allan Thomas outside of lecture times. It was September. I still hadn’t had a topic approved; in fact, I still didn’t have a topic. And there, coming along the corridor with no side corridors to escape into, was Allan Thomas!

“Bruce,” he said stopping me, “what’s the topic you’ve been studying this year on Polynesian music?”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, saying the first thing that came into my head, “Jock McEwen is helping me with it.”

“Jock McEwen!” said Allan Thomas. “That’s wonderful! We’ve been trying to get information out of him for years!”

My heart fell. Jock McEwen was an old Maori local man who knew absolutely everything about New Zealand Maori music. He was the guru of gurus. I went home having leaped from the frying pan into the fire. What to do?

I went to see the local priest whom I knew to be a great friend of Jock McEwen. He said he’d see Mr. McEwen and explain the situation. I waited. Back came the answer.

A local Maori woman known as Aunty Dovey (“Aunty” being a title of respect for older Maori women in New Zealand) had composed songs all her life and they had been recorded but never written down. They had never been copyrighted. The Greek singer, Nana Mouskouri had released a new LP and some of Aunty Dovey’s songs were on it. So too had the Australian singer, Rolf Harris. Would I write down the music of all of Aunty Dovey’s songs so they could be copyrighted? I was given recordings of her songs. Incidentally, Aunty Dovey’s full name was Hera Katene-Horvath but she was known as “Aunty Dovey”.

The day the assignment was due had passed. I had been up all night transcribing. In the morning I drove to Wellington where I knew Allan Thomas lived. I would leave the manuscripts in his mailbox.

There at the mailbox was a woman. I explained that I had an assignment for Allan Thomas. She said he was her husband. She would give him the assignment. What was the topic?

“Oh!” said I. “I have transcribed the music of Aunty Dovey’s songs.”

There was a stunned silence. The woman’s name was Jennifer Shennan. She was a well-known choreographer and dancer. She was doing her doctoral thesis on the dance movements of Aunty Dovey’s songs, but had never been able to get hold of the written music – only the recordings. This was a God-send!

Meantime she had missed her bus. A tom-cat had pee-ed on her woven flax bag at the mailbox. Could I drive her to her studio in downtown Wellington? Off we went with the stinking tom-cat-pee-ridden woven bag held out the window.

Oh! And I got an A+ for the paper!