Essays by and for Allan Thomas


It sometimes seems there is an unbridgeable gap between the world of academia and the one in which people make the stuff that is studied. When po-faced professors deliver papers on Environmental Alienation in Australian Punk or Intertextuality in the Art of Lady Gaga, the form of the discourse can seem absurdly at odds with its subject.

Allan Thomas was not that kind of academic. From the time he began teaching musicology at Victoria University in 1977 till his death in 2010, Thomas fostered an approach to studying music that was practical, sensible and useful.

World Music Is Where We Found It bears witness to this. As noted in the introduction to this lively, varied and frequently inspiring festschrift, “the role that Allan saw for ethnomusicology was not directed to establishing the student or scholar as an independent expert on a musical field, but to working in dialogue with a musical community”.

The book combines some of Thomas’s own writings on music and the purpose and processes of its study, with accounts by former students of projects undertaken with Thomas’s guidance, and the places it led them.

Chris Bourke, who won the New Zealand Post Book of the Year Award for Blue Smoke, his brilliant history of early New Zealand popular music, acknowledges how Thomas’s “pragmatic and democratic” process shaped his own approach to music writing.

“’Getting out there and doing it’ was Allan’s legacy to me”, writes Mark Dashper, a student of Thomas’s in the 70s, who followed Thomas’s footsteps to Western Java to study gamelan instruments and puppetry. Today he applies what he learned to his work in school support services, inventing musical instruments with hundreds of students.

For Pat Foley, now working with Somali pastoralists on drought mitigation in Ethiopia, musicology has remained “an entry point to relationships”, music being a key to “a sense of shared humanity”.

Succinct appreciations are interspersed with longer pieces that demonstrate the valuable type of research Thomas engendered. Michael Brown treats us to a few bars of his fascinating study of the Maori strum. Daniel Beban finds music in the speech of auctioneers and racing commentators.

Consistent with his philosophy of cooperation, most of Thomas’s own pieces here are collaborations, such as his discussion with Richard Nunns of the first encounter between Maori and European, suggesting that their first misunderstanding may have been a musical one.

And there is a poignant final chapter: Thomas’s definitive piece on ‘Now Is The Hour/Haere Ra’, New Zealand’s most cherished song of farewell.

Tags: new zealandworld musicbookschris bourkeallan thomas

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