`Bethlehem' in Torres Strait: Music, Dance and Christianity in Erub (Darnley Island)

By Lawrence, Helen Reeves | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

`Bethlehem' in Torres Strait: Music, Dance and Christianity in Erub (Darnley Island)


Lawrence, Helen Reeves, Australian Aboriginal Studies


The songs of the eastern Torres Strait Islanders have an important place in the history of Melanesian musicology, for they were among the earliest songs to be recorded onto wax cylinders using the phonograph, and to be analysed scientifically. In 1898, the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Strait, led by Alfred Cort Haddon, included among its members the psychologist and musician, Charles Myers, who took a particular interest in songs he categorised as 'religious and ancient, [and] others secular and relatively modern' (Myers, in Haddon 1912, vol IV, 239). The 'religious and ancient' songs referred to the pre-Christian sacred songs of the Malo-Bomai cult of eastern Torres Strait;(1) the 'secular and relatively modern' songs referred mainly to those sung at games or performed for secular dances.

Although Christian missionaries had arrived in eastern Torres Strait 27 years prior to the Cambridge expedition, and the Islanders had already developed a repertoire of hymns, it seems that Myers' interest was not directed towards recording and analysing these hymns. Furthermore, the songs he recorded for study were sung by men only. He did provide a brief written description of Christian hymn-singing. 'In church', Myers wrote, 'the women emit the most piercing treble notes; the tempo is excellent, but the volume and quality of the sound are very unpleasant and there is a general tendency to lower the pitch in the course of the hymn' (Myers, in Haddon 1912, vol IV, 239). From his Anglocentric perspective, Myers had little understanding of the origin of these hymns or of the musical aesthetics of eastern Torres Strait Islanders.

In discussing these early hymns, and the various categories of sacred songs and secular dances that emerged after the introduction of Christianity, I present an interpretation of the historical and cross-cultural influences that acted upon their development. I contextualise this discussion by first providing some background information.

Background

The cultural/geographical groupings of the Torres Strait islands fall into four broad categories: western, 'top' western (northern), central and eastern. People of the first three groupings speak Western language, Kalaw Lagaw Ya or dialects of this language, belonging to the Australian language family; people of the eastern islands speak Meriam Mir, an indigenous Papuan language. The lingua franca of Torres Strait is a creole language, referred to by Islanders as Kriol, Broken or, occasionally, as Pizin or Ailan Tok.(2) Most Torres Strait Islanders also have English as a second language; teaching in the schools is given in English. The music cultures of Torres Strait Islanders, as Australia's only Indigenous Melanesian minority group, contribute significantly to the rich heritage of music in Australian culture. Music, both sacred and secular, is primarily vocal, accompanied by musical instruments. Because people are generally bilingual, or even multilingual, song texts can be in a variety of languages. Wherever Islanders live--whether in the home islands or in mainland cities and towns--they express their culture and identity through music and dance performances.

The introduction and development of Christianity has had a profound influence upon the music cultures of Torres Strait. Prior to the establishment of the first mission, Torres Strait Islander music cultures reflected the diversity of the cultural/geographical groupings across the strait. In 1871, representatives of the London Missionary Society (LMS) made landfall at a place named Kemus on the island of Erub (Plate 1). This event is referred to by Torres Strait Islanders as the Coming of the Light and is celebrated annually as the Coming of the Light Festival. For the people of Erub, the arrival of the missionaries on their island justifies their claim to Erub as the 'Bethlehem of Torres Strait', because it was here that Christ was 'born' in Torres Strait. …

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