My fieldwork archives





Making my audio archives accessible online means they can reach a wide audience. However, one particular group of people would still have difficulties accessing them: the speakers themselves, who generously offered to share with me their linguistic and cultural knowledge. Indeed, the islands where I work (especially the Torres and Banks islands of northern Vanuatu) still live without electricity – let alone computers or an internet connection. Mobile phones have begun to be used only recently, in 2009, in the Banks Islands; but internet reception is usually absent, or very costly.

Repatriating my audio archives

I always had the desire to bring back my recordings to the communities, so they could easily access them any time, as easily as possible. As years passed since my first 1997 fieldwork, every time I heard the sad news of elders passing away, launch I always thought of how their families would cherish listening to their vanished voices. Although I did sometimes send personalised tapes to individual families, I knew this would not be a sustainable way to go: with as many as 260 individuals recorded, it would be technically impossible for me to create copies of all of them on individual tapes or CDs, and get them shipped to each family. I needed another solution.

Inspired by the experience of my friend Nick Thieberger with respect to recordings in South Efate (another language of Vanuatu), in 2008 I had the idea of creating some form of audio collection which would be freely accessible to the communities. Of course, I had archived my recordings at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, in the capital Port Vila; but for the villagers living in the northern islands of Vanuatu, my recordings there were still inaccessible.

launchThe only possibility was to have the audio collections present in the villages themselves. Burning CD's would not have been convenient, for a number of reasons: first, the whole collection would have taken up 86 audio CDs; and CD players are rare in the islands anyway. So I chose to make the most of the mp3 format, especially seeing how mp3 players – or mp3-enabled mobile phones – were already beginning to spread in some of these islands. In order to search easily among the 1000 audio files, the help of computer tools was necessary; this is how I decided the recordings should sit in a computer, which should be installed somewhere in the archipelago.

Considering that I had done recordings in 40 different villages in total, I had to choose one appropriate location for installing this computer. It quickly became obvious that the best place should be the island of Motalava:

  • because that is where I did the majority (50.3 percent!) of my fieldwork recordings;
  • because this is the most densely inhabited area in the whole Torres–Banks archipelago, thereby increasing the social impact of my recordings;
  • because the presence of several schools on that island attracts young students from various islands around Motalava (Hiw, Ureparapara, Vanua Lava, Gaua…); these young people would thus be able to get access to the collections, and potentially take them back to their home villages.


Setting up the Torres–Banks cultural centre

launchMy dreams could not have been fulfilled if I hadn't received the kind support of Mr Georges Cumbo, the head of the Alliance Française de Port Vila. In parallel with my own project, Georges was developing a network of regional branches of his institution, setting up public libraries in various points of the archipelago [link] – including one on Motalava. This “Annexe de l'Alliance Française” (or “faré francophone”), set up in the main village Lahlap (a.k.a. Ngerenigmen) and inaugurated in 2010, became a natural host for my project. My effort to preserve local languages was indeed consistent with the new motto of the Francophonie, “préserver la diversité culturelle et linguistique”.

The Alliance Française (which had earlier helped me print copies of some literacy materials) thus funded the acquisition of a new computer, as well as solar panels and other useful equipment, especially for my project of audio archives. In April 2011, I travelled to Motalava to launch officially the first media library of the island. I was bringing 90 hours of audio recordings in 18 different languages. Because these languages represent the linguistic diversity of the whole province of Torres & Banks Islands, the media library became quickly known as the “Cultural Centre of Torres–Banks islands”.

The files were all installed and played locally, on the hard drive of the library's computer; they are displayed in a specially designed, user-friendly interface. launchI also purchased two mp3 players (à la iPod), and donated them to two families who had helped me considerably during all these years; my 1000 fieldwork recordings (3.3 Gb) could fit into a single mp3 player. On the same occasion, I also donated photos, as well as a copy of our documentary film on music, which was also shot in the island of Motalava. Finally, all these multimedia items came along with printouts of my Mwotlap dictionary, as well as literacy books in 10 different languages of the Banks and Torres archipelago. All these materials were warmly welcomed by the community leaders, as a valuable effort to preserve not only the languages, but also the oral literature, songs and musical arts of a whole region.

The Torres–Banks cultural centre is now well off the ground, safely set up in the village of Lahlap, and wisely managed by my friend Edgar Howard (photo). I wish a long life to this regional cultural centre, hoping it grows in the future years.