MAGICAL WATER MUSIC
By Julie Miller
Vanuatu has some unexpected international superstars – a group of women from a remote island group who play a bizarre musical instrument – the water. They’ve performed at arts festivals, were featured in a film, and in May 2017, travelled to Orlando, Florida, where they were featured guests at the opening of Universal Studios Volcano Bay.
Most of the time, however, you’ll find these talented ladies – ranging from teenagers to grandmas – in their adopted home of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu’s largest island and the location of the Leweton Custom and Cultural Centre. Open to the public three times a week, this traditional village near Luganville is home to a community of families from the islands of Merelava and Gaua in the Banks group of islands, who moved to Santo 10 or so years ago to further their children’s education.
In a bid to retain their traditional lifestyle, however – and recognising that visiting tourists are fascinated with their kastom ways – the community now welcomes visitors, demonstrating cooking methods, how to prepare kava, and performing traditional dances where everyone from toddlers to elders join in the fun.
The highlight of a village visit, however, is a performance of the Magical Water Music, which takes place in a swimming pool behind the thatched huts. I have no idea what to expect as I take a seat on the edge of the concrete pool; but as eight women -wearing grass skirts and floral crowns – stand in waist-deep water, I soon understand why this traditional musical artform is called ‘magic’.
By slapping and cupping the water with rhythmic precision, the women somehow manage to replicate percussive sounds from nature, from raindrops, to coconuts, waterfalls to splashing dolphins. It’s said that this tradition began when women were doing their laundry in a river, mimicking the sounds of the water passing over the stones. One day, some tourists passing by on a yacht heard the beats and rhythms, and the rest is history as word spread about this unusual type of music.
The sounds the women create with their hands really are astounding; and there’s just so much joy in the performance, with broad smiles, laughter, splashing and a bit whooping and hollering to boot. Meanwhile, the children of the village watch and observe, the next generation to take to the water to continue this fascinating tradition.
The performance ends with the whole village gathering around to sing a farewell song, their glorious, soaring harmonies bringing a tear to many visitors’ eyes. It truly is a magical experience, in more ways than one!
Leweton Cultural Centre
Open Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9.30am and 1.30pm.