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New Caledonia, roots and canoes

An archi­pe­la­go of 18,000 km² in the middle of the Paci­fic Ocean, New Cale­do­nia is home to a pro­di­gious diver­si­ty of lan­guages and cultu­ral com­mu­ni­ties among a popu­la­tion of just under 300,000. Its musi­cal expres­sions long pola­ri­sed and frag­men­ted are now gra­dual­ly fusing tra­di­tio­nal Kanak refe­rences with bor­ro­wings from all around the world…

In Sep­tem­ber 2019, cen­sus takers will knock on the door of eve­ry New Cale­do­nian home, just as they do eve­ry five years. Once again, there will be a ques­tion about the eth­ni­ci­ty of the respondent : Kanak, Euro­pean, Wal­li­sian or Futu­nian, Indo­ne­sian…? This is the only French ter­ri­to­ry where such pre­ci­sion is requi­red. The seg­men­ta­tion into large eth­nic and cultu­ral groups revea­led in this way also lies behind the rich­ness of a socie­ty that will be cal­led upon over the coming months to agree on its ins­ti­tu­tio­nal future.

This constant ten­sion bet­ween affir­ming one’s iden­ti­ty and the appeal of exter­nal influences is cer­tain­ly typi­cal of a French-spea­king archi­pe­la­go iso­la­ted in a main­ly English-spea­king region of the world, but espe­cial­ly so of its broad­ly diverse musi­cal expression.


Kane­ka music, a “tem­po born of the Kanak people”, emer­ged in the 1980s thanks to the visio­na­ry impulse of the poli­ti­cal lea­der Jean-Marie Tji­baou. It is a music that has ser­ved as a mega­phone for the 28 Kanak lan­guages still spo­ken and a spo­kes­per­son for a people dis­cre­di­ted – segre­ga­ted even – on their own land. From the out­set, the move­ment fed off the fer­tile soil of tra­di­tion, sprink­led with ins­tru­men­tal and sty­lis­tic contri­bu­tions from world music. Long before the arri­val of Euro­pean explo­rers, the Paci­fic Islands were connec­ted ; there were no boun­da­ries bet­ween what has since come to be cal­led “Mela­ne­sia” and “Poly­ne­sia”. This mel­ting pot of influences is felt even in cultu­ral practices.

Aé-aé chants – regu­lar­ly echoed in contem­po­ra­ry tunes – ori­gi­nal­ly repre­sen­ted the eter­nal cho­rus heard along water­ways, as well as the source of Kanak genea­lo­gies. Per­cus­sion ins­tru­ments made the land tremble and speak, whe­ther it was being wor­ked for yam or scar­red for the exploi­ta­tion of nickel. Made from bark, leaves and bam­boo, tra­di­tio­nal ins­tru­ments became part of a signa­ture sound when they were cal­led upon to pro­vide the life­blood of kane­ka. The mis­sio­na­ries who arri­ved in the 18th cen­tu­ry came across Mela­ne­sian voices and today’s poly­pho­nic heri­tage can be heard in odes that are power­ful­ly inter­pre­ted, espe­cial­ly in choruses.

Ins­tru­ments left by decades of visi­tors were added to this heri­tage – from san­dal­wood mer­chants to US sol­diers : the whistles used on ships became “wes­sel” in the Dre­hu lan­guage, recal­ling the lan­guage of the first visi­tors, and are now used in tra­di­tio­nal songs and dances ; the har­mo­ni­ca spread throu­ghout the archi­pe­la­go ; and the gui­tar is often played in a picking style.

Gulaan – the Kanak herald of the talent show The Voice 2018 – is among the cham­pions of this gui­tar tech­nique, in which arpeg­gios stand out clear­ly, ser­ving as a show­case for a sublime Nen­gone lan­guage, from his native island of Maré.

Name­neng me deko se sheu­sew  Gulaan. The com­po­ser of this bal­lad recor­ded in a cave on Maré island is none other than the Grand Chief of the Guah­ma dis­trict, under whose lea­der­ship the pro­ject Nen­gone Town Expe­rience was foun­ded with dif­ferent artists.


Can we feel the emo­tions of an evol­ving socie­ty through the fil­ter of music ? Wha­te­ver the case, taking into account a num­ber of claims made by the repre­sen­ta­tives of indi­ge­nous peoples in the suc­ces­sive Mati­gnon (1988) and Nou­mea (1998) agree­ments has contri­bu­ted to giving kane­ka music a more fes­tive sound. The grea­test hits of pio­neers like Gure­jele (C’est la France qui paie – [France pays] …) and Edou and his group Mexem see­med to over­come  com­mu­ni­ty affi­lia­tions, attrac­ting a mul­ti­cul­tu­ral audience both on “Le Caillou” [lite­ral­ly, “the pebble”, mea­ning Grande Terre, New Caledonia’s main island] and “beyond the reef”. Nowa­days, this fes­tive voca­tion can be felt par­ti­cu­lar­ly in the notable influence exer­ted by the rhythms from the Carib­bean (zouk, kom­pa…), not only much appre­cia­ted by its audience, but also diges­ted and inte­gra­ted with regu­la­ri­ty by local groups in their compositions.

Howe­ver, many lyrics still sere­ne­ly car­ry a mes­sage of eman­ci­pa­tion with an empha­sis on parables or revea­ling aspects of Kanak phi­lo­so­phy to an audience that does not neces­sa­ri­ly speak the lan­guage or is uni­ni­tia­ted – for ins­tance, by the group Cada, native to Hieng­hène, Jean-Marie Tjibaou’s home­town. The “figh­ting” music of the ear­ly days – built on a two-beat rhythm espe­cial­ly in the North – is still going strong. It is usual­ly said to be more invi­go­ra­ting and dis­sen­ting in the north of Grande Terre, while the sound of the Loyal­ty Islands is more lan­guo­rous and melo­dic. The rea­son given is that of dif­ferent colo­nial his­to­ries, mili­ta­ry incur­sions and land dis­pos­ses­sions on Grande Terre that did not reach the islands, decla­red as pro­tec­ted sites from the out­set. In rea­li­ty, this split has ten­ded to fade with time.

(“Orian” – Jys­sé : decla­ra­tion of love to the Xodre tribe in Lifou, sung in this case by a 12-year-old boy…)


So-cal­led “Mela­ne­sian” folk, born in the 1970s, was the first sign of a music both infu­sed and dif­fu­sed on Le Caillou. Its tem­plate was ins­pi­red by Tahi­tian waltzes – the only music from Ocea­nia broad­cast on the radio at the time – the typi­cal nos­tal­gic tone of tapé­ra cho­ruses (or “tem­pe­rance”, taught by pas­tors), an almost exclu­si­ve­ly cho­ral song that praises the col­lec­tive, using the uku­lele to pro­vide the rhyth­mic pat­tern. Side-lined by its more rebel­lious youn­ger bro­ther kane­ka, Mela­ne­sian folk began to find favour once again in the 2010s. The “old-timers” of Bethe­la are still around and have relea­sed new and more power­ful cho­ruses, while the Ouvea atoll (Blue Hau, Iaai Tra­di) has contri­bu­ted much to the revi­val of this ulti­mate eth­nic music.


Folk also comes to the fore­ground whe­ne­ver we men­tion these light-weight groups whose sound reflects a mix­ture of influences inhe­ri­ted in turn from kanak sounds, tain­ted with French chan­son, jazz and bos­sa nova – Inu or Kaori.


The musi­cal career path of slide gui­tar vir­tuo­so Jason Mist has been stron­gly influen­ced by life expe­riences in India and New Caledonia’s neigh­bour, Aus­tra­lia. Along­side a rock scene that favours expres­sion in English, a pre­di­lec­tion for coun­try music – with both Aus­sie and US refe­rences – also brings the New Cale­do­nian musi­cal mosaic to life.


In recent years, styles have inter­t­wi­ned with varying degrees of artis­tic suc­cess. The most recent example comes from the fruit­ful col­la­bo­ra­tion bet­ween the rising star of New Cale­do­nian reg­gae Mar­cus Gad, from Nou­mea, and Jean-Yves Pawoap, sin­ger, lea­der of the A7JK group and chief of the Pom­bei tribe in the north of Grande Terre. This for­ty-year-old found him­self and Mar­cus pro­pel­led onto Euro­pean stages for a sum­mer tour in 2018. His power­ful, hus­ky voice, which comes out of his guts, car­ried cho­ruses in the Cemuh lan­guage to Euro­pean audiences.


New Cale­do­nia, like its island neigh­bours (Vanua­tu, Solo­mon…), was a cho­sen land for reg­gae from a very ear­ly stage. And while sounds crea­ted in Jamai­ca found a power­ful echo in the moun­tains of Le Caillou, South Afri­ca has also ins­pi­red gene­ra­tions of musi­cians enchan­ted by the aura of Lucky Dube, the vibrant and flut­te­ring sounds of his key­boards and the warmth of his cho­ruses during the three memo­rable Cale­do­nian concerts per­for­med by the maes­tro. Groups such as Soul Sin­di­kate or I & I have recei­ved recog­ni­tion abroad, while enjoying pil­gri­mages to King­ston to record music with some of the apostles of the genre…


The exo­dus – rural and tri­bal – has also trans­for­med Nou­mea into a cos­mo­po­li­tan capi­tal of contrasts, at the same time mul­ti­plying inequa­li­ties and pro­li­fic cross-fer­ti­li­sa­tion. From this music, by defi­ni­tion urban, emer­ged eman­ci­pa­ted sin­gers from the “land of the uns­po­ken”, such as the adven­tu­rer Paul Wamo, who has now been prea­ching in main­land France for more than five years. Born out of slam, an exu­be­rant per­so­na­li­ty and proud ambas­sa­dor for his island Lifou, Wamo has sur­roun­ded him­self in turn with pop, reg­gae musi­cians (Haut-Par­leur Paci­fique pro­ject) and elec­tro­nic music to escort his flow.

Aemoon”: “Nou­mea” in the French slang known as ver­lan.

They are almost like “col­lec­tors of but­ter­flies flap­ping their wings” … The Wada pro­ject’s dub and psy­trance fans have scou­red the bowels of the island and sam­pled snip­pets of cere­mo­nial speeches and other archives over these har­ves­ted sounds. And at the cross­roads of poli­tics and culture, we hear the voice (in English please!) of the late Jacques Kiki Karé – one of the “brains behind the scene” of kane­ka – on the tri­bute song.

Lis­ten to Si ya pas toi by WADA


Hip-hop did not find its feet in Cale­do­nia until the ear­ly 2000s. But it ended up ral­lying a whole gene­ra­tion of young people in search of new refe­rences, who had grown up in Noumea’s low-income neigh­bou­rhoods and were attrac­ted by the dis­ci­pline and codes of break­dance in par­ti­cu­lar. It is, howe­ver, rare to find lyrics as inci­sive and stri­dent – paying tri­bute to the anti-esta­blish­ment role of the ear­ly days of hip-hop – as we hear in “Désac­cords Com­muns”, sung by the duo Nas­ty & Reza.


Grea­ter Nou­mea (the capi­tal and its neigh­bou­ring muni­ci­pa­li­ties Mont-Dore, Dum­béa and Paï­ta) is a huge mel­ting pot in which com­mu­ni­ties from across the Paci­fic and the Asian conti­nent are blen­ded together.

Wal­li­sians and Futu­nians began to arrive at the time of the nickel boom in the 1970s. There are now more of them on their adop­ted archi­pe­la­go than in their “Fenua” home­land. They brought with them their musi­cal bag­gage, tra­di­tio­nal dances and high­ly chan­ted songs such as the soa­ma­ko, ori­gi­nal­ly war­like but now jubi­lant. An ambas­sa­dor like Tys­sia, who is very accus­to­med to sin­ging in French, per­forms “Tagi Tagi” [My tears] – backed by Gayu­laz, a band from Lifou – with great sen­si­ti­vi­ty here in the faka’u­vea (Wal­lis) language.


A musi­cal expres­sion of New Caledonia’s Indo­ne­sian asso­cia­tion, the group Angk­lung Vibra­tions has recent­ly redis­co­ve­red the tra­di­tio­nal sounds of bam­boo. Musi­cians have tra­vel­led seve­ral times to train with mas­ter per­cus­sio­nists of Angk­lung on the island of Java and at the same time rene­wed a link with a long-for­got­ten past.

The song “Sang­gup­kah Kita” [Are we able?] meets the quiet phra­sing of the young slam­mer Simane Wene­them. This song – which in turn contains verses in Dre­hu, Baha­sa Indo­ne­sia and French – sounds like the suc­cess­ful sym­bol of a dia­logue bet­ween cultures that have yet to finish reu­ni­ting the rebirth of their roots with the call of the canoe.

Sylvain Derne

Sylvain Derne


I grew up in the village of Païta, on the outskirts of Noumea, where I was - a little - bored and listened to - a lot of - very diverse music that connected me to the rest of the world... After studying journalism in Montpellier and Paris, I alternated writing (I was involved in the writing of the book Kaneka, musique en mouvement [Kaneka, music in motion], under the guidance of François Bensignor, and the documentary Imulal, directed by Nunë Luepak) and working in radio. In 2014, I produced and hosted the weekly programme Décalage Horaire, recorded across France to discover the Caledonian “diaspora” in its diversity and broadcast in the archipelago 20,000 kilometres away. After two years spent working and travelling with my partner in Canada – between British Columbia and Quebec – we have been back in New Caledonia since early 2018. I work here as a journalist and am about to publish my first novel in September 2019.

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