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  • Moonlight Leta Volume 1: Musical Transitions (Marshallese String Band Music Today and Yesterday)
  • David Kammerer
Moonlight Leta Volume 1: Musical Transitions (Marshallese String Band Music Today and Yesterday). Performances by various artists. Produced by Scott H Stege for the Majuro Music and Arts Society, Republic of the Marshall Islands, 2007. 1 CD, 23 tracks, 74 minutes total duration, 12-page booklet with photographs and descriptive notes. Available through US$15.00.

There is an acute need for recording projects such as this one, conceived for the purpose of preserving Pacific Islands music and disseminating it to a wider audience. Scott Stege, coordinator of the Majuro Music and Arts Society (a nongovernmental organization dedicated, among other things, to the digital archiving of Marshallese string band recordings), produced this compilation in his Moonlight Recording Studio in Majuro. Stege and his recording engineer, Ali Jeremiah, digitally remastered sixteen open-reel magnetic tapes and analog recordings from the WSZO (now V7AB) radio station archive, dating from 1976 to 1984. They have also included seven performances by contemporary "ukulele boys bands," popular components of the current Marshallese music scene. Thus, two eras of island contemporary music are represented on Moonlight Leta Volume 1. It is noteworthy that, in the booklet that accompanies the CD, Stege designates the earlier body of work, little more than a quarter century old, as "traditional" string band music, differentiating it from more recent keyboard-driven popular music.

Like Stege, many academics researching Oceanic music traditions have come across similar treasure troves, invariably in a state of slow deterioration due to tropical or subtropical environmental conditions. My own research in Tongan brass band traditions led me to just such an analog audio archive housed at the headquarters of the Tongan Broadcasting Corporation in Nuku'alofa. It pained me to see such valuable sound documentation suffering the inevitable ravages of time-all the more reason to applaud Stege's efforts in creating a digital archive that will not be susceptible to such detrimental environmental effects.

As revealed in the CD notes, the producer's choices from the radio archive tend to focus on the most popular string bands from the "Battle of the Bands" era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which Stege refers to as the "pre-electronic music" era in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Clanny "CC" Clements, a member of the Kanana Ran group featured in 3 of the 17 vintage tracks, served as oral historian for the compilation, bringing to the project personal knowledge acquired through a decade of service at WSZO. Other traditional bands showcased through multiple inclusions are the Laura Settlers (3 tracks), Skate-Em-Lā [End Page 216] (2 tracks), and Exers Ran (2 tracks). The contemporary ukulele youth bands featured on the CD-the Small Islands Boys, the Rita Boys, and the MIECO Boys-are also represented by multiple tracks recorded in 2005- 2006. A hallmark of both eras seems to be tight vocal harmonies in two or three parts. Guitar is the instrument of choice for the earlier groups, but ukuleles progressively gained favor with youth bands throughout the past two decades, due in large part to increased circular migratory flows between Hawai'i and the Marshall Islands. According to a 2006 article by Stege in the Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences (5 [1/2]: 338), an increasing supply of inexpensive (about US$15) ukuleles "literally swept the islands youth movement," and subsequently Stege and his musical peers decided to incorporate this neo-traditional acoustic music into his weekly Moonlight Awa radio program (inaugurated in 2002) as well as this digital recording project.

Listeners whose primary frame of reference for Pacific Islands music is the popular song repertory of Hawai'i or New Zealand will most likely find the traditional Marshallese vocal aesthetic to be an acquired taste. The preceding comment is not veiled criticism, but rather an acknowledgment that singers of acoustic Marshallese music have not radically modified traditional singing styles to emulate western jazz-pop-R&B aesthetic values, as has happened throughout much of the Pacific, for example, in the Beamer Brothers' "Honolulu City Lights" (1978) or the...