“The peoples of Ambae and Vanuatu suffered a great loss when James Gwero (probably more correctly written as ‘Ngwero’) passed away recently in the Northern Provincial Hospital in Luganville, Santo.
He was around 90 years old. His funeral service was held on Tuesday 19th February and he was buried in the Luganville cemetery. James’ sad death brings to an end one stage of his incredibly productive 43-year saga of recording and collecting stories related to Ambae and Vanuatu cultures, ritual and history, and Vanuatu’s World War II events. A large amount of his material was regularly broadcast over Radio Vila/Radio New Hebrides/Radio Vanuatu in the 1970s, 80s and 90s and in certain publications particularly from the late 1980s and through the 1990s. However, vast amounts of his work remain – the Vanuatu Cultural Centre’s audio-visual archives hold 340 audio cassettes made by him, plus a large number of reel-to-reel tapes, 8mm film, and photographs. Now will begin a second stage of his life’s work, as the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and his family work together to begin the massive task of finding ways that more of this vast treasure-house of cultural and historical material can be used appropriately in radio and television broadcasts, in education, and in publications and displays around the country.
“James Gwero was from the inland village of Nabangahake in DuiDui district in West Ambae. A slightly different dialect of the West Ambae language is spoken in that area from the ‘larger’ variety spoken from the area of Walaha and around that southwest corner of the island. He was from a good family that had high aspirations for him and he was very bright and full of enthusiasm and energy. As a child in the 1942-1945 period, he saw aspects of the massive American World War II presence from their giant base in Santo, and picked up songs sung by their forces. In the 1950s he was, I think, one of the lucky select few New Hebrideans who was considered ‘worthy’ to be sent off for schooling in Tulagi in the Solomons. His family had plans for a strategic marriage and at one point in his youth, it is said, they performed the handkerchief-placing part of a ‘promised marriage’ arrangement with the then just-born Grace Mwera – a youthful arrangement which never eventuated.
“Although he was from a family that was already interested in culture, history and Christianity, his early interest in ‘working in culture’ was possibly sparked off by the presence in west Ambae between 1958 – 1961of the anthropologist Michael Allen. The wise professor Allan, now 90 years old (and he thinks James was around the same age as himself) was very sad when he heard of James’ death. He wrote (19th February); ‘James was one of my earliest informants and later became a good friend and helper. I well remember him singing some of the songs he knew of Ambae encounters with USA soldiers in Santo during the war’. James’ interest in tape-recording as a cultural collecting technique possibly sharpened later, with the 1971/72 presence on Ambae of the musicologists Francis Cameron and Peter Crowe from Sydney University. They were recording slit drum rhythms over in east Ambae, but news of their presence spread rapidly. Peter Crowe returned briefly to Ambae in 1973 to do further recordings. I stayed with Peter Crowe for a week in Sydney in 1973, just after he had returned, on my way to my first field trip to Malakula. We began an intense week of alcohol-fuelled discussions on the use of tape recordings in cultural work. Peter was a highly-skilled recorder with a classical and ethnomusicological background. I had been recording family history stories since 1962. We both worked with reel-to-reel recorders, but I then had one of the new portable cassette recorders with me, and I had been using tape recorders in traditional areas of the Maghreb (northwest Africa) and parts of the Sahara in the 1960s and early 1970s. We were both impressed with the interest this then-blazingly new technology created amongst traditionally-oriented peoples and felt that it could be positively useful as a tool to promote cultural expression as well as promoting interest in younger generations who could be taught to use these machines to record their own cultures. We were both concerned about the long-term survival of cultural knowledge which we saw was under threat from the ‘modern’ world.
“Peter and I remained in regular contact – usually through message cassettes. He linked up with Keith Woodward of the British Residency, who was the long-standing secretary of the Board of Management of the then Vila Cultural Centre. By 1975 they had set up the Cultural Centre’s Oral Traditions Collecting Project, with small funds from UNESCO. By 1976, Peter was conducting a training course in Ambae for ni-Vanuatu from the northern islands who might want to learn recording techniques. Part of the course was devoted to the making of radio programmes. The French linguist, Jean-Michel Charpentier, was part of the project, working in Vila with students from Malapoa and the Lycée who were taught to record and transcribe kastom stories. Peter, in Ambae, ended up with five ni-Vanuatu who showed great interest and talent throughout the course: James Gwero, Jeffrey Uli Boë (and his ‘source’ father, the then Chief George Boë) from central Maewo, and Chief James Tambe from eastern Ambae. I can’t at the moment remember the names of the other two, sori tumas. When I arrived at the Cultural Centre in 1977 to take up the post of first full-time Curator of the Museum, there were only two out of the groups that Peter and Jean-Michel had worked with that were seriously interested in continuing this recording approach: James Gwero and Jeffrey Uli. Both could see the importance of using this new technology to preserve and promote culture.
“Out of those two dedicated foundation stones, James and Jeffrey, grew the Vanuatu Cultural Centre Fieldworkers, a group which still exists today and which has done so much work over the decades to support the cultural identity of the nation. Thank you, James. Thank you, Jeffrey. I began working with both of them in 1977.Within the following few years before Independence we had recruited another dozen or so Fieldworkers, but James and Jeffrey were the stamba of the whole (nowadays very numerous, and including women) Fieldworkers movement.
They were both very different in personality, befitting both their own personal histories and their slightly different cultures. James was outgoing, cheerful, interested in everything and not afraid to talk to anyone. Jeffrey was – is – more reserved and quiet, befitting his culture and his close lineage links with aspects of the life of the god Tagaro.
“James was an absolute joy to work with. Everyone loved him. He became very well-known through his numerous programmes on the radio, even before Independence. ‘Wan popula man’, one might say today. From 1979, with Godwin Ligo as the new President of the Board of Management of the Cultural Centre, we were fullswing into everything; recording everywhere, filming everywhere, taking photographs everywhere – to help build up a bank of aspects of kastom and history for the nation. Having easy, friendly, access to Radio New Hebrides really helped – thanks to Bob Makin, the late Paul Gardissat, and Ambong Thompson. As soon as people in the outer islands realized that a Cultural Centre Fieldworker could actually get your words, or your ritual, out over the airwaves (everyone who could, listened to the radio in those days – it was then the only easily-available regular source of information), the normal competitive traditional jealousy syndrome kicked in. Some fieldworkers were under intense pressure out in the field from certain individuals, villages, areas or islands, who wanted their material out on the radio, rather than stuff ‘from the next village’ – yu save nomo. Younger ni-Vanuatu nowadays may under-estimate the power of tape recordings and radio all those years ago. But their influence was almost magical: they were the ‘new modern thing’; very trendy, very powerful. If you were an unmarried Fieldworker, when you carried your impressive tape recorder slung over your shoulder, with an impressive microphone………girls looked at you. Maybe even if you were married, too, some might say!
“James’ voice became widely known from the many programmes which he made for the radio. A charming December 1979 discussion springs to mind, from the opening ceremonies of the First National Arts Festival which were held on the old open taxi space next to the old Cultural Centre building not far from the centre of Vila. We had brought a number Fieldworkers down from the islands to help Jack Keitadi and myself document all aspects of the Festival. After the first opening dances, James, carrying a massive tape recorder and large microphone, went up to interview a leading chief from, I think, Tongariki. The conversation went something like this:
James: ‘Gud moning, Jif, tangyu tumas fram gudfala kastom danis blong grup blong yu. Yu lukluk olsem wanem long opening blong festival tudei, mo wanem tingting blong yu long mining blong fesitvol ia we bae i tek ples?
Tongariki Chief: ‘Ah, gud moning, yu nao James Gwero, mi harem save vois blong yu fram mi harem finis vois blong yu long redio. Mi glad tumas nao blong lukem fes blong yu. Tankio tumas from we yu bin invaetem mifala blong kam danis long Festivol ia…’
“When I say James had a massive tape recorder, I am not kidding. A lot of our early work was recorded on very large and heavy Sony TC800B reel-to-reel recorders, which also needed large batteries. And there was another type, larger and heavier, although I have at the moment forgotten its name. These had been provided by funds from UNESCO for the earlier Oral Traditions Collection Project. Some of these recorders weighed 5 – 7 kilos. Young ni-Vanuatu today can record easily with some types of small, light, mobile phones, but in the old days with the newest technology available at the time, the Fieldworkers actually had to be physically fit to be able to trek around their islands with their heavy equipment. Things got easier as technology streamlined itself and smaller, good quality cassette tape recorders became more easily available. Young readers should bear in mind that all this was at the cutting edge of modern analog technology in those days, and we were trying to ‘put cultural and historical events into a format where they could be easily stored for future generations to access’. This is the same toktok that people say today about the new digital technologies. The difference is that people nowadays say that ‘digital technology is permanent’, but that statement is not true. One digital archivist specialist has said; ‘Digital data is as fragile as the most fragile archaeological flora and fauna’. Digital recordings, films, photos, etc, are easier to work with than the old analogue systems, but there are long-term problems that the digital industry does not necessarily publicize too much. One is the fact that to try and ensure that the data does survive for a long time, one must periodically ‘upgrade’ or transfer the data to a newer system as the previous system ‘goes out of date’ or is no longer used. Every time one upgrades, there is a little-known problem known as ‘digital bleed’ (or ‘digital rot’) where bits of data from the ‘edge’ of the file disappear. If one wants the digital data to survive for, say, 500 years, one has to periodically do that process at regular intervals over that time (and people don’t yet know how much of the original data will survive at the end). Of course, if one carved the information on a stone, it would be easily readable thousands of years from now, with no need of periodic expensive upgrades……
“Apologies, that above was a bit of a digression, but I put that in to show that the kinds of technologies that James and we all were using then were not ‘old fashioned’ – they were the ‘smart’ technologies of the time. And those early recordings are very very important. Many of them can never be repeated – many of the speakers have died and there may possibly be no-one who knows that version of that story, or the rituals may no longer be performed, or whatever. They can be copied to new digital systems, but the original recordings should never be thrown away. We are still in the early days of digital technologies, and holding the originals is not only a safety measure, but also a useful measure in that in the future there will probably be better digital technology that can extract more information from the original recordings.
“James worked diligently on many forms of cultural work. For years he worked closely with the late old Chief Emmanuel Viralalao (died circa 2013 at around the age of 101) of Nangweangwea village, in his area, who gave weekly kastom lessons in the village school. He also collaborated with the chief’s booklet of west Ambae kastom stories which was published in 1981. From the end of 1981 James collaborated with the annual illustrated Fieldworkers’ Workshop booklet of kastom stories that came out after the end of each workshop until the late 1980s. This was done with the help of the late lamented Dr Darrell Tryon (died 2013) who had joined the Fieldworkers’ group, at the request of the Cultural Centre, as eventual Coordinator of the annual workshops. The first Fieldworkers’ Workshop was held around April 1981, with a dozen Fieldworkers attending. During that workshop some of them requested help in learning how to write (although some – for example, Chief Daniel Nangi of the Batarnar/Tiragh peoples of northern-central Malakula – were not interested). We knew that Darrell had a good technique for teaching people to read and write in their own language, so we asked Darrell if he would come out and do a special workshop on that for the Fieldworkers. This special Language Workshop was held in September 1981, and this became the beginning of Darrell’s long and profound connection with the Fieldworkers over nearly thirty years as Coordinator of the annual Cultural Centre Fieldworkers Workshops. The Cultural Centre organized the workshops, and Darrell appeared regularly each year for two weeks to coordinate them.
“James and Darrell worked well together, particularly on the written language side, but James’ work was much wider than just that. He was interested in everything, as was willing to go anywhere. In 1985, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre closed its doors for two weeks and the whole team decamped to Norsup, Malakula, for the extended duration of the Malakula Arts Festival. A number of Fieldworkers from the northern and northern-central islands came also to assist. James tape-recorded events, the tireless Vianney Atpatoun (of Vao) video-filmed everything, and Willy Roy Tarisaliu (of Tongoa) sorted out the packing of the large collection of artefacts that the museum obtained during the festival. Others looked after the special Cultural Centre display hut at the edge of the festival grounds (the old airstrip).
“When the festival finished, James was sent on a special ‘mission’, something he liked very much. In the days of full kastom, there were regular annual special large canoe voyages from several of the Small Islands of northeast Malakula (especially Wala, Atchin and Vao) to the Lologaro area around the southern tip of Ambae. These voyages were semi-sacred in nature, involving aspects of initiation for young men, but they were also trading voyages where pigs purchased red Ambae mats which were taken back to Malakula for gift, display or ritual purposes. Each Small Island had a special landing place and ritual spot reserved for them on south Ambae. None of these voyages had taken place since the late 1920s. James’ mission, as a ‘kastom detective’ was to follow up these lost connections and rituals, which he did very well, starting in the Small Islands and then travelling to south Ambae. James loved doing these ‘special requests’, but sometimes his late dear wife Sarah would politely complain about the fact that James did not receive a salary.”