11/29 Lecture, Gabriel Solis: "Moving Beyond Preservation"
Guest Writer: Patrick W. Berry

Friday, December 3, 2010

[On Monday, November 29, 2010, the Unit for Criticism hosted “Moving Beyond Preservation: 'Traditional' Music, Arts Institutions, and Modernity in Papua New Guinea,” a lecture by Gabriel Solis, a professor of musicology and African American studies at the University of Illinois. Below we publish the second of two posts related to the lecture.]

"Sulwa" as performed by the University of Goroka Band (recorded by Gabriel Solis)

Moving Beyond Preservation at the University of Goroka

Written by Patrick W. Berry (English/Center for Writing Studies)

Amidst torrential rains last Monday night, Gabriel Solis, Associate Professor of Musicology and African American Studies, discussed competing views of local music. He argued for a shift from looking at local music as heritage and part of a reified past, to thinking of it as a living, changing thing.

While listening to his talk, "Moving Beyond Preservation: ‘Traditional’ Music, Arts Institutions, and Modernity in Papua New Guinea,” I was intrigued by his claim that universities—exemplified by the University of Goroka in Papua New Guinea—might play a role in creating such a shift in thinking. It reminded me of ongoing discussions about relevance and the university, something that Frank Donoghue addressed at a Unit talk last year, and offered a hopeful example that was unique to Solis’s study.

Solis at one point described a museum in Papua New Guinea in which musical artifacts gather dust, their histories reduced to representing past glories. Like similar museums around the world, with their local trinkets for sale, the collection appears not to be geared toward local people, and, Solis remarked, “culture presented as heritage loses its relevance.” Efforts at preservation of histories, he continued, can reduce usefulness. How might we make our archives useful? How might we put historical collections in the hands of young and old musicians? Answering these questions, Solis contends, involves moving beyond preservation, toward thinking about music as an activity.

During his research in Papua New Guinea, Solis observed a relevant shift in thinking taking place at the University of Goroka. Since the 1970s, the University of Goroka has been offering programs that seek to bring together elders and students to blur the dichotomy between past and present, traditional and modern. Its Expressive Arts program, as described on the university’s website, works to “enable students to develop literacies in the selected areas of study in the Creative Industries as a way to assist them to participate in and develop lifelong interest in the arts and to further broaden their understanding of and involvement in the arts in Papua New Guinea.”

One of the things that students in the program do is document music, recording song repertoires as they now exist. Through this work, the program provides students with a model for how to engage with local music using an approach that values local music and the contribution of elders. It is a program that recognizes the value of process, of collaboration, and of thinking about music-making as an activity that occurs over a period of time. As suggested by the familiar refrains in writing studies pedagogy, we need to attend to process, not simply to product.

At the University of Goroka, Solis saw possibilities that did not align with structuralist readings of culture like those suggested in the work of Marshall Sahlins. Moving beyond claims of continuity versus loss, Solis suggests that a third option exists. By looking at new forms of music-making, he found something that neither replicated older social structures nor simply reproduced Western modernity. It was in this third space that he found an alternative way of working with traditional music.

Solis also mentioned the Mulka Project, in which, through the use of digital media, Yolngu Aboriginal people produce and reproduce cultural representations. “We want to bring knowledge of the past to the present to preserve it for future generations and to understand what meaning it has in the present day and age”—these words by Dr. Raymattja Marika AM, the inaugural director of the Mulka Project (1958-2008), appear in an introductory video on the Mulka Project’s website. It is a statement that captures the need to preserve, but also to experience. Watching the music video that Solis presented, I saw the genre of mixing and remaking that carries commercial influences, while weaving in archival footage.

One record label in Papua New Guinea, CHM, plays a significant role in producing a commodified version of traditional music, a type of music from which the university has managed to keep itself separate. Solis remarked that he saw the Expressive Arts program’s work at the University of Goroka as being in resistance to the market and to companies like CHM. Because of the structure of higher education in Papua New Guinea, with students gravitating toward just a few schools, a single university can play a significant role in advancing the study of music in a way that moves beyond preservation. Solis suggested that the University of Goroka’s music initiative may well have long-term impact in the sense that it produces graduates, ultimately dispersed across the country, who bring with them an approach to music that resists the reductive binaries and engages with the processes of making music.

Following Jodi Byrd’s incisive response, questions from the audience asked about the meaning of the exchange between students and elders. One person asked if the remaking of the songs with new instruments was in fact a form of relegating tradition to the past. Solis suggested that working with traditional music was in the process, in the relationships between elders and students, and in the act of cultivating an approach to learning about music.

The discussion left me reflecting how the categories themselves—“traditional” and “modern”—can shape our understandings and readings of preservation work in general.


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