From storytelling in the home to singing at a church, music is a natural part of everyday life in Vanuatu. Rising local reggae singer, Tujah, discovered his love of music by going to church. Raised on Anietyum by his grandmother and grandfather, a pastor, Tujah says he liked going to church just to sing. ‘I loved hearing everyone sing together in harmony,’ he says. ‘Even if I didn’t know the words, I would love to sing along.’
Growing up in rural Vanuatu, Tujah’s exposure to music was restricted to whoever in the village had a cassette player. ‘Back in those days, that was our only chance to listen to music from outside Vanuatu,’ Tujah says. ‘That person would usually have only one tape that we would listen to over and over again.’
For those who grew up in urban Port Vila, exposure to international music may have been more accessible but music as part of everyday life remained the same. Stan Antas, Vanuatu’s most well known artist, who is originally from Malo, says, ‘There was never really a start of music. I just grew up singing and I think every family in Vanuatu is always singing. You go to church and everyone sings, or you hear kastom stories and they sing, so making music has always been around. It’s a part of our culture.’
Stan’s interest in music deepened after his father bought him a guitar when he was 11. He realized he had a natural talent and decided he wanted to be performer. ‘I wanted to play the guitar, not sing,’ Stan says. ‘But when I went to school in Fiji and we put a band together, no one could sing. Coming from Vanuatu where everyone sings, I would end up filling that role. I wasn’t a great singer, but I had the confidence to sing, and then I kept singing and singing until I became good at it.’
Stan returned to Vanuatu in 2011 after dropping out from his studies. ‘I understood music more than I understood school,’ he shrugs. ‘I came back here with nothing and I thought, there is nothing for me to lose and there is nothing for me to do, so I might as well start making music.’
After recruiting his band members, they practiced for three months in the basement of his house. At his first performance at Fest Napuan, there were only 30 people in the crowd. At his second performance at Fest Napuan the following year, he was surprised at the response. ‘Everybody got up and knew my songs. I didn’t even know that people were listening to my music. In Vanuatu, no one comes up to you and says, ‘I love your music’. After that performance, we just took over.’
Since then Stan has released three albums, with his latest ‘Halfway Up’ hitting the shelves last year. But he admits that the road has not always been easy. ‘If you get into this business, you’ve got to know you’re going to struggle. Don’t have great expectations,’ says Stan. ‘Over the past six years a lot has grown. I’m definitely not cello tapping a microphone on a piece of wood and sticking it on the roof anymore like I did in the beginning.’
Where is the Vanuatu Music industry?
Stan regularly has gigs overseas and is one of the few Ni-Vanuatu artists who have succeeded in taking it to the next level. But it seems that although music plays a big role in Ni-Vanuatu culture, music as an industry is almost non-existent. Despite all the talent, the music scene is not recognized and doesn’t reap any economic returns. So why isn’t the music scene thriving? Or at least – why is it so underground? Is there a reason why artists and musicians are not able to make a living from music like those living in Solomon Islands, Fiji and PNG?
Tuff Tumas, a DJ, manager and producer who has toured across the Pacific and has a strong international fan base, believes that it ultimately comes down to a lack of support. Papa Tuff, as he is affectionately known among the music community, grew up in Port Vila before moving back to Australia. He started returning back to Vanuatu regularly in 2008 before settling down again late last year.
‘I came back to Vanuatu to help out a friend. I wasn’t supposed to move here but once I got here, everyone started hitting me up for help,’ says Tuff Tumas. ‘I consider all the musicians to be my family but I can only commit to managing two people, maybe three. You don’t try to manage 20 people, that’s how you manage badly.’
He says the fact that so many people were asking for his help is a testament to how passionate and hungry they are to succeed in music. ‘I put in a lot time in Vanuatu before but it didn’t work. I used to think it was a work ethic issue but I realized it was due to a lack of support,’ says Tuff. ‘The government doesn’t recognize music as a legitimate industry and don’t contribute any funding to develop it. Even some of the radio stations here don’t support local music. Music can attract tourism and can be used as a platform to spread important messages. Music is so healthy. Look at Stan – he writes conscious music and if anything, music brings people together.’
Music is a platform for social and economic development
Tuff says that there is misconception that entertainment is ‘bad’ and causes social problems. ‘Entertainment is not the devil,’ he says firmly. ‘It’s the lack of quality entertainment that is the issue. The more entertaining Port Vila is for young people, the less likely they are going to do something stupid.’
Without any venues to play live music, Tuff and the music community will often set up their own gigs at their homes. ‘I feel like I have come back at the right time. There is a vibe in the air and the mood is changing. Even people who have lost their passion for music are getting it back again. We have a few people who are ready to make things happen and Tujah is a big deal to the industry. He recently organized VanRebel Sound System and really encouraged the boys to make it a success and it was.’
Tujah, whose name derives from Anietyum and means ‘evri samting hemi blong yumi’, can attest that entertainment through music can positively impact youth. In 2014, with the support of UNFPA, he launched an album ‘Invest in Me’ with a band ‘Smol Vilej’ from the music club that he had started a few years earlier in Anietyum. The theme of the album was about youth and health issues.
Tujah said the band members were considered to be troublemakers of the community and they received a lot of criticism. ‘People thought the project was rubbish and that it would make them smoke more marijuana or make noise or go steal,’ says Tujah. ‘But we kept on going and those who looked down on us are now supportive of us.’
Tujah believes that music can empower youth. ‘I saw how the project impacted these young people. They had no interests before and now I see that they are trying to make projects and give back to the community. They even started an annual music festival and I’m glad to see them continuing the work without anyone’s help.
I’ll never forget a testimony from one of them who said, ‘Before I came, I always got called to the nabanga and they would get angry with me for stealing or being with a woman. Since I’ve started this project, they haven’t called me to the nabanga for one year.’ This shows me that music can change the life of youth.’
Tujah is currently working on his first solo album and is trying to find innovative ways to make an income. The rise of new technologies has seen the erasure of CD sales, which used to be the most popular medium to distribute music for Ni-Vanuatu artists.
How can artists make money from music?
Local Remedy, a producer, radio host and artist, says that successful CD sales often come from string bands or gospel singers who have a large community supporting them. ‘When it’s an individual artist, our network is a lot smaller. When it’s 10 members of a string band, they have ten families and ten communities behind them,’ he says. ‘But CD sales all around the world are dropping. Nowadays artists make their money off streaming services such as Spotify. In Vanuatu, the next best thing is Digicel Tunes. The consumer can just buy credit and download a song.’
Many streaming services require the use of a credit card and Internet. In Vanuatu, it is not easy for the average person to access a credit card and the Internet is notoriously expensive and unreliable.
‘I use Bandcamp (streaming service/music store). I make money from Australia, NZ and PNG. No one from Vanuatu buys my music so there’s no pressure for me to put on gigs,’ Local Remedy says. ‘I haven’t even met half the people on my album – it’s all a digital collaboration. For example I met a PNG producer on Facebook and we did an EP together. The PNG crowd is really patriotic and if your song features a PNG artist, they will buy it even if they haven’t heard it.’
The Ni-Vanuatu market is harder to tap into. Free entry to music festivals such as Fest Napuan has led to consumers expecting not to pay for music. Artists who perform in exchange for free drinks have also led to venues expecting not to pay. Furthermore only two years ago Fest Napuan recognized the work of artists and started paying them. There are no fixed rates for musicians, either live or on-air, and the nonexistence of a record label or appropriate distribution channel have also been major hurdles to legitimize the music industry.
The Revolution of the Music Federation
But things are changing. The Music Federation, which has been fairly stagnant for years, has been drafting a copyright bill and are hoping to get it legislated in order to generate a revenue stream. In the next few months you can expect to see a video circulating on social media calling on all musicians to join an upcoming Music Federation forum. The networking event will be an opportunity to collect data from artists and to hear from inspiring leaders in the industry.
‘When I first started, I didn’t know how much work goes into building music as a product,’ says Stan, reflecting on his success. ‘It was only when we started making money that my team would tell me after, ‘You did a great job but look, this is what we had to do get there.’ Then I saw the bigger picture. There are many others who are like me and didn’t know how to build a brand and sustain it.’
Tujah acknowledges his lack of experience as he ventures into the unchartered territory of professional music. ‘Artists need support in the beginning and that’s why we need a record label. How many years have I been in this industry and only now I am making an album. I have been learning as much as possible but I still don’t know what will happen,’ he says.
‘It’s like jumping on a ship and you need a captain who knows where you are going. He can take you there. But if it’s just you trying to sail the ship, and you’ve never been on a ship before and you are unfamiliar with the waters, you have the possibility of sinking the ship. Or you won’t even know how to start the engine in the first place.’
But it seems the winds are turning in Tujah’s favor. There are plenty of people who are willing to board ship with him to discover the potential of music.
‘When you start rocking the boat, people start saying ‘Are things going to really change?’’ says Tuff Tumas. ‘Or they say, ‘That stuff that Tuff is talking about, is it really going to happen?’ Vanuatu has the talent and the passion but the music community needs to be proactive to get the industry recognized. We can’t sit around and wait for it.’
Keep your eyes out for a new video from Sheila Wills that Tuff Tumas is filming featuring Stan Antas as Executive Producer, Alexis producing the music and MasterSounds recording.
Yu yu musik blong Vanuatu?
2017 Vanuatu Musik Forum Saturday 22nd July 2pm at VKS, Port Vila – featuring live acoustic performances, video screening, discussions on music industry issues, and guest speakers including Stan Antas, Gero Iaviniau, Vanessa Quai and Tuff Tumas
This article was originally published in the July edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Life and Style magazine. Story by Yasmine Bjornum.