Music Worlding in Palau: Chanting, Atmospheres, and Meaningfulness

Ricardo D. Trimillos

This review constitutes a response to experiencing the book Music Worlding in Palau; Chanting, Atmospheres, and Meaningfulness by Birgit Abels from various perspectives, including ethnomusicology, area studies, cultural studies, and performance studies.1  The original review was an oral presentation on 26 October 2022 for the online Book Talk series sponsored by the International Institute for Asian Studies of Leiden University. The author was present online.  I hope this multiple approach will be insightful and (intentionally) provocative. As shorthand I refer to the book as Worlding. I choose to retain the informal and first-person voice of the oral presentation.

Worlding has significance for research writ large. The research locale, Micronesian Palau, underscores a global shift in interest to the greater Pacific, evidenced by increased attention to Oceania from various sectors including economic, political, military, as well as the scholarly. The US-based Association for Asian Studies (like the International Institute for Asian Studies) has taken Global Asia as a brand that includes the greater Pacific (Yano 2021). Taiwan— heretofore East Asian—in an act of political pragmatism is re-defining itself as part of Austronesia by virtue of its historically marginalized Indigenous minorities (Mirabal et al 2013, Wyeth 2019). Given the global “pivot to the Pacific,” the Abels study signals the potential of the Micronesian Pacific as a site for generating new approaches and theoretical tools. With music as focal point, Worlding adds to the research tools developed by Pacific scholars including Hauʻofa (2008), Silva (2017), Stillman (2001), Teaiwa (2005), and Wendt (1995). As an ethnomusicologist within what the author identifies as the North Atlantic tradition, I comment on the study’s significance and value to our field throughout this discussion.

In the Introduction, Abels invokes the term worlding by referencing the behavioural and affective realms developed in the twenty-first century, essentially (in the author’s words) as a process of enactment (p. 19). However as the narrative of the book unfolds, it seems to me that Gayatri Spivak’s original use of the term is equally appropriate (1985). Spivak used the term worlding in relation to colonial archives that were influencing (and even) changing Indigenous peoples’ views of themselves. The Abels study makes effective, and in some cases dramatic, use of archival materials, both sound and print. Using Spivak’s assertion of the materiality of archives, worlding as a concept is not just a path to holistic understanding or an alternative to North Atlantic empirical scholarship. It becomes itself a variable in the re-construction of worldviews. In the rhetoric of decolonisation, it is a means by which a foreign entity impinges upon a native ontology. Sometimes Indigenous notions of traditional practice or historical authenticity may not square with the putative “authority” of the empirical, historical archival document. This can create a tension if not disjuncture between traditional knowing and etic factum. In this sense Abelʻs study is not only about worlding music in Palau; it becomes part of the worlding process. This assertion becomes more critical as Indigenous Micronesians enter ethnomusicology, dance ethnology, museology, and anthropology. Thus worlding in the title is as appropriate in the twentieth century Spivakian sense as it is in the evolved twenty-first century sense foregrounded in this study.

I find the presentation to be effective and novel. The six content chapters are preceded by the Introduction chapter and followed by a Conclusion, which constitute bookends for the work. A careful reading of the Introduction is critical. The author presents etic tools and constructs of theory that are brought to bear on the analysis of Palauan performance in the chapters following. In terms of processing content, I found the introduction to be densely packed, clearly not designed for speed reading. For example the discussion of intensity (p. 6) necessitated going back over key sentences, which interrupted my usual practice of linear reading.  However this slow and careful reading—and sometimes re-reading—of the introduction is rewarded by the insights contained in the ensuing six chapters.

The Conclusion as closing bookend produces a satisfactory reintegration of what the author has “taken apart” in the previous six chapters, re-establishing a gestalt of Palau worlding, one of the underlying themes of the study.

There are some notable features in the design of each of the six content chapters that reflect the authorʻs positionality and ethics.  Part of that ethic is the valorisation of the Indigenous voice as authoritative, voice used here both literally and metaphorically. Each chapter opens with a recorded performance accessible through a QR code and closes with a graphic, visual Palauan design or decoration. The opening recorded sounds come from two eras of documentation, a half century apart.  In contrast the visual element that closes each chapter reflects Palau of a century ago. These graphic designs and decorations come from Krämer’s archival documentation of the Hamburg South Seas expedition of 1910. In a metaphoric sense, the Palauan voice has the last word for each chapter. I suspect the author deliberately privileges the non-discursive cultural statement, that is, a performance or an image, by placing them in significant structural positions.

The established pattern of presentation for each chapter gives the entire presentation coherence and provides a consistent progression for the reader to follow. There is an abstract for each chapter and a bibliography of sources for each chapter. For content chapters a set of keywords is provided. Each content chapter plunges immediately into a challenging and dense presentation of a theoretical concept, such as resonance or meaningfulness. The reader, who has navigated the Introduction, has already been conditioned to read each explicatory section on theory at a slower tempo and (at least for me) in a non-linear way. The discussion then proceeds to the ethnographic description followed by analysis. Equipped with strands of theory, I found that Abels does indeed adhere to the mantra that “my analysis…follows my ethnography” (p. 106). Although in Worlding ethnographic expositions are brief with data limited to the immediate topic at hand, they constitute snapshots of a much deeper ethnography presented in the author’s earlier work, Sounds of articulating identity; tradition and transition in the music of Palau, Micronesia (Abels 2008). I had read this title previously, which provided a helpful supplement to the brief expositions contained in the present study.

A particularly salient instance in which analysis follows ethnography is the fascinating discussion of musical motion developed in Chapter 3, “Listening with the dancing body.” The chapter argues for the centrality of the body for musical meaningfulness (which I shall return to). The account of a contemporary performance of Ruk, a male dance genre, at a public fair juxtaposes past and present, to which the discussion of atmospheres draws interrelationships and convergences. Furthering the appropriateness of “worlding” of the title, the public fair described conflated celebration of the national—(Palau Independence Day), the super-national (United Nations Day), and the post-national (World Food Day). In this regard the concepts of absorption and adaption articulated by Brenner (2005) might offer additional insight.

Pursuing the theme of theory based in ethnography, I found the presentation of the concept of meaningfulness both challenging and promising. Although Abels presents it as one side of a binary contrasting to the term meaning, I suggest that meaningfulness has validity as a single and independent category. The discussion of the chesol genre as reflective of meaningfulness is convincing, as is its relevance to the discussion of atmosphere. In Chapter 2 I found the notion of resonant history useful because it takes into account the sum of collective cultural knowing. In the example, a young girl begins a performance of chesol chant that does not quite fit the usual melodic features of the genre, which appears in fuller detail in the 2008 publication. However as the performance unfolds the “knowledgeable listeners,” the older women, recognize the young singerʻs intention to perform chesol and immediately provide the expected vocal response. For me the older women confirm the youngster’s performance as chesol by providing the appropriate cultural response. This touches upon the category of resonant history. In one of my earlier writings I talk about features of a genre exhibiting one of three degrees of inclusion: critical, desirable, or incidental (Trimillos 2016). The chesol account and the following analysis of it is an elegant restatement of this claim.

I am attracted to the “wide view” and the invocation of different kinds of physiological, sensory, and metaphorical aspects of movement as basic to musicking, which the author draws from Schmitz and supports with extensive bibliographical sources. However, I wonder in what ways the English language allows for, if not encourages or restricts, the particular aspects in the gloss of the English term movement. Might there be a different paradigm emerging from the gloss of the French mouvement or the German bewegung? Would different discursive categories concerning the mobility of the human body would have been generated?

Pursuing this analysis leads to the conclusion that any phenomenon or event cannot be “known” through verbal description alone; our Cartesian bias implicitly problematizes how we know or can “know” something. The Conclusion chapter enables two related conditions. It emplaces speculation or projection into possibilities of knowing, which is a position more resonant with the humanities, from my viewpoint a welcome “return” to an earlier orientation of music study.  If Worlding is a harbinger of things to come, then a present movement in ethnomusicology toward philology and philosophy re-establishes a closer relationship with the humanities. The second result, from my reading, is that the nature of music communicated through the spoken and written word does not provide a complete or balanced understanding, no matter how exhaustive that effort might be. I am attracted to the notion that some knowledge is not verbalisable!

As a final comment on theory, I look forward to future publications by the author which brings some of these theoretical tools to bear on contemporary Palauan music including the pop, rock, and brass band genres treated in the 2008 study.

Regarding cultural content the study relates readily to features we know from other parts of the Pacific. As someone interested in cultural similarities as well as cultural differences or distinctivenesses, I found the ethnographic similarities as interesting as the theoretical ones. One shared feature is the solo voice, the esbe of Palau, that decorates the main melody for the omengeradakl group chanting. The improvisatory single voice against the collective is encountered in the hīmeni of Tahiti (Stillman 1991) and the ʻūtē of the Cook Islands (Sullivan 2021). The single descant voice also relates to the feature of the floating voice, which is found in vocal traditions throughout the Austronesian area including insular Southeast Asia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.  Additional similarities with other Pacific cultures include body percussion and shouts as components of sound density. A final feature relevant to Abels's invocation of the present is gender segmentation. Traditional performance personnel and performance genres continue to be identified as menʻs domain or womenʻs domain. Segmentation by biological sex has major significance for the Pacific, given the fluidity of its gender categories (Besnier and Alexeyeff 2014).

Even with a commitment to objectivity, ethnographies can produce different conclusions depending on the gaze of the researcher. In the discussion of the Ruk menʻs dance, Abels provides contrasting descriptions of its performance by Krämer, a nineteenth century Swabian German (born in Chile) and by Hijikata, a pre-Pacific War Japanese ethnologist.

I return once more to the title, Music Worlding in Palau, as a manifestation of ethnomusicologyʻs uneasy and unresolved relationship to the study of dance. As in so many ethnomusicological studies, Worlding includes a discussion of genres that involve dance, although dance does not receive as much attention as music. This is an issue and sticking point for dance ethnology/ethnochoreology colleagues. In our defense, we Northern Atlantic scholars are disadvantaged by language, in this case English, because there is no useful, established term for the unity of music and dance. Nineteenth Century composer Richard Wagner attempted a synthesis with the German term gesamtkunstwerk, but the intellectual establishment of the time immediately relegated this creation to the domain of music, its multimodal intent notwitstanding. The ways in which a study handles (or does not satisfactorily address) dance is symptomatic of thinking that regards sound and movement as two separate and separable domains. In the Pacific, the Hawaiian term mele understands the simultaneity of music and dance in the service of logogenic expression. For research in Southeast Asian colleagues are actively interrogating this dilemma (Stepputat and Nor 2016).

Although Abels cites Schmitz and his thematic of movement, the movement aspect of Ruk receives less attention.  At a metatheoretical level the explication of resonance in Chapter 5 shows a possible way forward out of this dilemma. However, as a field we have not developed the language tools to address dance and movement as thoroughly as for music study. The development of tools for dance study and, more importantly, the creation of a satisfactory paradigm that unifies music and dance/sound and movement—remains an unresolved and sometimes unproblematized issue. At present the study of dance and movement continues to be the unnamed stepchild within ethnomusicology.2  As of this writing, the International Council for Traditional Music-UNESCO is engaged in discussion and debate about changing its name; the major change proposed is the addition of dance to the title.

To conclude this review, I table in brevis four significant implications of Worlding for ethnomusicology and for music studies in general.

  1. Throughout the study Abels valorizes and critiques past scholarship in ways that are both constructive and provocative. I was particularly taken with the critiques of sound studies, the etic invocation of the term “magic,”  and–as previously noted—the anglophone bias of North American ethnomusicology.
  2. The author has devised new ways to present what post-modernity has called native voice in research reportage. However, by including recorded sound and visual image as means for communication Abels has extended the metaphor of native voice, which would necessitate a reformulation, perhaps to native representation or native expression.
  3. A number of theoretical ideas (or tools) in this study have potential application to other musical traditions. For example, the concepts of atmosphere and meaningfulness have promise in explicating more fully the Indian principle of bhava, which involves transformation and reception for the performer, the disciple, and the audience member during realtime performance. Similarly discussion of Benjamin’s jetztzeit as relevant to the state of atmospheres provides an analytical path to understanding such indigenous declarations that a series of performances are “all the same,” although etically we discern them to be different.
  4. Finally Abels brings intellectual tools from the germanophone world to the attention of a largely anglophone-biased community. Theory by German scholars, particularly the notions of movement/motion by Schmitz, enriches (and perhaps decenters) the decades of anglophone post-modernity influenced by francophone thought. The studyʻs citation of German language publications points to our loss of intellectual resource through ignorance (or the ignoring) of germanophone scholarship. For me, this ignorance/ignoring constitutes a critique of the anglophone bias in North American scholarship, which with the establishment of the European Union and the Erasmus Programme, seems to be making headway within European academe as well.

In closing, I extend aloha (felicitations) and mahalo (thanks) to Birgit Abels for this timely and valuable contribution to our field. I look forward to future works by this author, hopefully with the continued inclusion of incisive but gentle critiques of our discipline and how we perform it.



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