Entranced by the sound of music

22:38, Oct 25 2010
Allan Thomas
Allan Thomas: Being a mobile storehouse of aural treasures did not make him stuffy.

Allan Thomas revelled in sounds New Zealanders make.

His beat as a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington until his retirement in 2007 was ethnomusicology.

There is nothing ho-hum about his specialist field.

It tells us more about music in New Zealand, and elsewhere, than the study of notation, scales, counterpoint and so on. Ethnomusicology is about music-making and about the music-makers themselves and why they are doing what they do.

Much of what we know about music in a small New Zealand town, about music and music makers in tiny Pacific Island communities, and about sounds New Zealanders once made but which may have dropped from the public radar, can be attributed to Thomas and students to whom he steered ground-breaking projects.

He was an impressive instrument himself because, in an important sense, he has given a voice to music-makers long since departed or forgotten, and a means of discovery and recovery for people whose musical heritage is threatened. Being a mobile storehouse of aural treasures did not make him stuffy.


For three decades at Victoria he went to great lengths to share his knowledge. He had an understated and kindly way about him; he could be puckish and his views of life were often whimsically expressed. He never lost his sense of delight at new discoveries.

Thomas was a kind of musical everyman. He was schooled in the classics from childhood, played the piano and organ and sang in choirs, most recently with St Mary of the Angels in Boulcott St, and was a former music teacher at King's College, Auckland, where he had been a boarder.

While music and the classical route was open to him, his academic grounding at Auckland University was in anthropology, botany, zoology and German.

It was a pointer to what would be his consuming interest - the world of music, not solely the music itself. He was not the least snobbish. It is one thing to posit that only music of the European canon is at the apogee of musical endeavour, but Thomas held that the body of All Other Music deserved a rigorous intellectual treatment.

He was not, for example, lofty or dismissive of hip-hop, brass bands, piano accordions, whistles, pipe bands, bugles, jew's harps, harmonicas or even the sound of Evening Post paper boys whose piping sales calls were a Wellington street chorus for close to a century each evening till they were silenced by company decree in the mid 80s.

He included the paper boys, auctioneers and dozens of other calls in a four-disk set of Kiwi sounds.

His modus operandi was to trawl recorded and printed archives, and to do painstaking and long-ranging field work.

Without his scholarship, chances are that documentation of the music of small Pacific communities would have been consigned to history or fragile memories.

The vibrancy of song, dance and stories that go with their music are expertly documented in his masterwork Song and Dance in the Central Pacific - the fatele of Tokelau in New Zealand and the Home Islands (1992).

He started his project in 1980, though publication was not the end of it - his relationship with Tokelauan communities in New Zealand continued till his death.

He did similar work with East and West Futuna communities of Vanuatu, and with the Banaban community in Fiji. All the while, he initiated, devised and taught courses at Victoria - traditional Maori music, popular music, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Middle Eastern music, Afro- American music, Pacific music and dance.

He studied abroad in the 70s, principally at Dartington College in Devon, and in Amsterdam, where he became intrigued with the Indonesia gamelan, an orchestra of bells.

He studied the instrument further in Cirebon, West Java, and with the assistance of composer colleague Jack Body imported an antique gamelan in 1974.

Thomas was a joint author or editor of numerous papers and publications, among them A New Most Excellent Dancing Master (1990), the journal of dance teacher Joseph Lowe who schooled Queen Victoria and her children in the latest dance steps.

His contributions to New Zealand music were exemplified by mentoring Richard Nunns through the manuscript of Nunns' forthcoming book on Maori instruments, and his own work Music Is Where You Find It (2004).

Subtitled "Music in the Town of Hawera, 1946", it's an illuminating account of the South Taranaki town and is based on a chance series of recordings of local performers by the New Zealand Broadcasting Service that year.

Hawera, known to New Zealanders as the home of Ronald Hugh Morrieson and the scene of his novels The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday, is given a highly readable ethnomusicological treatment. Hawera was known nationally for its music in 1946. Orchestras and bands, soloists and choirs were the stuff of life.

One could hear Hawera "over the air". Morrieson's territory was home to more than 40 dance halls in 1946, and there was dancing four nights a week. Little wonder the musician-author was seldom seen outside his district.

It was also the town where the latest hits first landed - thanks to shortwave radio and Hawera transcribers who wrote down scores from United States ballroom live broadcasts and played the works next night in their local hall. And it was the town where Ruru Karaitiana's standard ballad of the era, Blue Smoke, was first recorded (by Miss Jean Ngeru).

Music Is Where You Find It was the basis of Thomas' doctoral thesis.

Allan Thomas would have been astonished at the lengthy farewell accorded him.

He was given a lying-in at Victoria University's marae, and a funeral next day at Old St Paul's where Tokelauans sang and danced, the choir of St Mary of the Angels performed; Jack Body played the organ accompanied by the call of the riro riro; the gamelan orchestra played, and so did the New Zealand String Quartet with Richard Nunns while Jennifer Shennan reprised a long- shelved widow's right to honour her husband with a dance of sublime grace. A rattling jazz street band followed his casket into Mulgrave St.

Allan Granville Beauchamp Thomas: b Palmerston, April 9, 1942; m Jennifer Shennan, 2d; d Wellington, September 9, 2010, aged 68.

The Dominion Post