The night before Tropical Cyclone Pam struck Port Vila and influenced almost every aspect of life in Vanuatu (including music), only one topic of note could be overheard among the many hushed conversations at the nakamal. The “monster” cyclone was coming. Distant lightening briefly lit the sky, illuminating the darkest corners of Jay’s kava bar in Saralana. Gusts of wind threatened to bring rain but never did. It felt refreshing after two solid months of stagnant heat and oppressive humidity in Port Vila. There was palpable energy in the air, the cyclone would be hitting soon. A 1.5 litre plastic bottle full of kava was centered on the picnic table, where I sat with two of Vanuatu’s most talented and popular musicians, Stan Antas and Bobby Shing. Stan lit a cigarette after drinking a shell of kava. He told us that he had stored away his band’s instruments in his family’s basement earlier that day, which was the safest location he could find. “These instruments are my livelihood; it took years for me to acquire them, piece by piece,” he said. His band Stan and the Earth Force had been busy preparing for the recording of their third album and he was noticeably concerned that the storm could cause delays.
Although not a kava-drinker or a smoker, Bobby (whose stage name is Tujah) was with us, enthusiastically joining the conversation and nibbling on snacks. We drifted back and forth between discussing the impending disaster and music. He had recently started a band, Smol Vilej, on his home island of Aneityum as part of an initiative to help at-risk youth. His band had just released a new album featuring Stan on several songs and Bobby was in town producing music videos to accompany the album. Music video production had been put on hold though, as Bobby had spent most of the day boarding up the windows and doors of his family’s home in anticipation of Category 5 hurricane force winds.
After a few hours of chatting and joking around at the kava bar, we parted ways, each of us wishing the other the best of luck in riding out the storm. As I left the kava bar I remember taking one last quizzical look at the Saralana stage, home to the Fest’Napuan music festival, wondering if it would still be standing after the hurricane. Uncertain about its fate against the powerful winds, I hailed a bus and went home.
Thirty-six hours later, I found myself stumbling over debris heading in what I believed was the general direction of Bobby’s house. Port Vila was no longer recognizable. Trees were laid askew at innovative angles, power lines dangled across the road menacingly and corrugated iron roofing echoed loudly in the wind as it banged against broken homes. Arriving at Bobby’s house, I observed that it no longer had a roof. Bobby greeted me with a smile however. No one was injured. He had spent a harrowing night with his mother, grandfather and five other relatives hiding underneath a mattress, huddled together in the only bedroom that managed to retain most of its roofing. Water was everywhere. Ruined books lay soaking on the shelf with wet clothes strewn about messily by the wind. Bobby laughed at the futility of his previous day efforts to board the windows and doors. Despite his best efforts, the iron roofing had been tossed aside easily by the winds much like the lid to an opened can of tinned tuna. “Look at Stan’s house.” Bobby pointed up the hill in the direction of where Stan Antas lived. Previously, this view would have been obstructed by treetops but Cyclone Pam had snapped many of the trees in half and stripped them of their leaves. Stan’s house lay in clear view atop the hill, also roofless.
We spent that morning walking around a devastated Port Vila. Young boys could be seen picking through the wreckage of yachts that had splintered to pieces along the sea wall, hoping to find something of value. A giant construction crane had toppled over at Parliament Park, nearly crushing the walls of the Australian High Commission. Everywhere we went, we were pointing and gasping at scenes of destruction.
Bobby and I proceeded onwards to the Saralana stage, home of the Fest’Napuan music festival. The roofing for the entire stage had been badly damaged and water had leaked into the soundproof room that local youth use for music practice. Stan would be frustrated for sure. His band rehearses here and the amount of damage would surely delay practice sessions needed to record a new album. We happened to pass a friend on a bicycle that had just come from the other side of town. He informed us that the video production studio where Bobby had been working on his music videos was completely destroyed. A worried expression crossed Bobby’s face as he hoped aloud that the external hard drives used during production were safely stored away before the cyclone struck. If they were damaged, weeks of effort spent filming and editing would be wasted.
In the days and weeks that followed Cyclone Pam, the people of Vanuatu worked tirelessly to provide water, food and shelter to those in need. Farmers who had lost everything started replanting right away. Women and children cleaned their yards and streets of debris. Iron roofing sheets were picked off the ground and nailed back onto houses to block the rain. Small business owners busily made repairs, chainsaws and hammers rang out from ever corner of town. Communities made repairs to churches and community halls. There was a feeling of camaraderie and determination that I sensed, not of dread and despair.
Many of the international relief workers and media correspondents who poured into the country after the storm remarked on how resilient and strong Ni-Vanuatu communities were in the face of such a large disaster. As music is a reflection of life, offering a glimpse into the collective feelings, attitudes and aspirations of the people who compose, perform and produce it, it is no surprise that the music of Vanuatu is resilient and remarkably strong as well in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam. “This experience of living through such a disaster will only inspire us,” Bobby Shing tells me, speaking on behalf of musicians in Vanuatu. I trust that he is right.
A few months after the cyclone has passed, musicians across Vanuatu are busy expressing their experiences through song. While moments of pain, sadness and grief will doubtlessly be voiced by some artists, others will surely convey feelings of hope and promise in a renewed start, showing the optimism that accompanies a chance to rebuild. Alcina Charlie and Benson Nakou led an initiative that brought together many prominent artists to create a tribute song to the victims of the storm, to be sold with proceeds donated towards recovery efforts. Artists from different genres took part in the “Giv Hand Festival” in Port Vila on May 9th to showcase their talents and fundraise for communities in need of support after the storm.
Stan and the Earth Force are busy preparing for their new album once again after weeks of delay. Stan hopes that it will be recorded and ready for sale on iTunes by August – September. Almost all of the band’s instruments were preserved from the storm, with the exception of a bongo that was left behind and fell victim to flooding inside his house. Stan’s new album is not to be missed and is highly anticipated all over the South Pacific. His band’s heart-felt reggae songs are highlighted by his distinct gruff, powerful vocals and insightful lyrics. His music is never frivolous; it always serves a purpose. It captures the struggles and ambitions of the people as seen by this spiritual young man from the island of Malo.
Bobby Shing (Tujah) has begun programming new music as well in the aftermath of the storm. Despite the complete destruction of the video production studio where he was working, most of the footage from his previously recorded music videos were kept safe and Smol Vilej should be releasing these on DVD and online soon. Bobby is a rare mixture of talent and humility. He is a rising star in the Vanuatu music scene and through his friendship with Stan Antas, has gained a musical mentor in the experienced performer. Tujah’s voice and musical style resemble a Vanuatu version of Damian Marley; and his songs contain positive messages that seek to inspire youth to become leaders within their communities.
The Fest’Napuan music festival’s committee is determined that their event will go on as scheduled, from October 28th to November 1st, to celebrate the resilience and strength of the people of Vanuatu through music. This year marks the 20th anniversary of what is the longest running music festival in the South Pacific. There will certainly be challenges to organizing the 5-day event in wake of TC Pam, considering that traditional sponsorship for the event came from local business houses that were heavily damaged by the storm. However, several well-known international artists have indicated their willingness to play at the festival as a sign of support this year and the festival committee is attempting to secure funding to repair its stage and music practice centre for local youth.
The theme of this year’s Fest’ Napuan festival, in the national pidgin language of Bislama, is “Musik i faerap yet!” which translates roughly to, “The music is still booming!” Despite the tragedy and destruction caused by Cyclone Pam in 2015, this year will still be a year to celebrate and remember in Vanuatu due to the resilience and strength of its musicians.
Story by Matthew “Nawarake” Hardwick. Photography by Graham Crumb. Matthew “Nawarake” Hardwick is the Director of Fest’ Napuan 2015. For more information on Fest Napuan, visit www.festnapuan.org.