Two brothers' historic 1940s field recordings saved Pacific Island music forever.
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Thanks to a family of adventurers who sailed the world more than 50 years ago, a priceless collection of pure South Pacific Island indigenous music--recorded before modern cultural influences had made their mark--is now available to the public.
In 1986, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., received a letter from Mrs. Magaret Fahnestock of Park Hall, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. Was the library interested, she asked, in some old recordings that had been gathering dust in her attic for some forty years. The recordings, she explained, had been made prior to World War II by her late husband, Sheridan Fahnestock, who had led three expeditions to the South Seas and the Dutch East Indies.
When the letter reached the hands of Alan Jabbour, Director of the American Folklore Center at The Library Of Congress, he didn't have to think twice about the offer. He answered immediately. He would be glad to accept the music on the behalf of the Endangered Music Project, a critically acclaimed branch of the library which had been making its mark in preserving music from the rain forests of South America and the Caribbean.
The library began using the term "endangered music" to describe music from cultures whose very existence is threatened by war, political upheaval, natural disasters or the encroachment of industrial and agricultural interests, music which might be altered forever by a kind of cultural dilution brought on by the introduction outside influences. These Fahnestock recordings, the director realized, could well be the last field recordings made in the Pacific and Indonesia before World War II.
Several days later the collection arrived÷The Fahnestock South Sea Expedition to the Pacific and the Dutch East Indies. Recorded on a stack of16-inch discs that stood waist-high was music, over 100 sides, from eastern Java, Bali, Madura, Arjasa, Kangean Islands and other islands of the South Pacific. Restoration of the discs which had been neglected for more than 40 years began immediately. Their acetate coatings were severely deteriorated and it took all the considerable skill of the endangered Music Project's engineers, using the latest technology, to restore the recordings.
From these recordings, Mickey Hart, musical activist and the Grateful Dead music group percussionist, edited his selections down to 13 tracks, comprising music played by pre-World War II Balinese gamelan orchestras. Also included were vocalists singing a dance chant of the kecak, commonly referred to as the "monkey chant" and sung poetry accompanied by gamelan and other instruments.
Soon after the Library announced it had uncovered a collection of "Music of the Gods," music of ancient traditions that had not been influenced by Western culture and global tourism, music that evokes a world lost. Jim McKee of the Library of Congress told the press: "These are the finest recordings of the Fahnestocks' career; the entire collection was in danger of deteriorating completely, its unique voices stilled forever. Now, for the first time, this treasure from the Pacific Islands is being released for worldwide audiences to enjoy."
Only once before had the music been played to a western audience. In January 1942, Sheridan and Bruce Fahnestock presented a talk on the collection to a capacity crowd at Town Hall in New York City. This was the first and only time these recordings were heard by the general public. America's focus on the war effort put an end to plans for commercially releasing the music. The discs were then locked away in an attic, almost forgotten, until 1986 when they were donated to the Library of Congress by his wife.
Who were these Fahnestock brothers? World War II, as we see, disrupted their mission in the Pacific, but what became of them? Why were they suddenly forgotten, until now?
After the war, when I was still in my youth, I became interested in the South Pacific and read whatever books I could find on the subject. Yachting books proliferated: Alain Gerbault's In Quest of the Sun, Ray Kauffman's Hurricane's Wake, Harry Pidgeon's Around the World Single-Handed, William A. Robinson's 10,000 Leagues Over the Sea and Jack London 's Cruise of the Snark. These books I knew, having read them over and over, but there was one book whose name eluded me. Try as I could, I could not remember the name of the book nor the authors, but I did remember the content of the book very well. I recalled there were two brothers, and they were sailing the South Pacific. I clearly remember their photograph, standing at the quay in Papeete, Tahiti. My memory of them did not fade over the passing years. I tried over and over to find the book about their voyage, or any reference to their names, but all without avail.
Then in 1986 came the news about the release of the rare collection of Balinese music, recorded by the Fahnestock brothers aboard their schooner Director. It all came back. In a secondhand book shop I finally found their book, Stars to Windward, plus another surprise, a book by their mother, I Ran Away to Sea at Fifty. Her husband had died of pneumonia a few years before, and rather than pine away, she joined her sons aboard Director in the Pacific. At last, with these two books, I was able to piece together, in part at least, the story of the Fahnestocks.
The story of the Fahnestock expeditions reads like a work of fiction, filled with action, danger and intrigue. It's also a story of tragedy.
Bruce Fahnestock and his brother Sheridan were born in Washington, D.C., the sons of a successful inventor. Their father held patents on early motion picture machines, the Lanston Monotype, a telegraphic autographic machine for the transmission of pictures over telegraph wires, an automatic locomotive stoker, and the dynomometer car, a traveling laboratory for testing railroad and track equipment. He undoubtedly had a strong influence on his young son.
The family moved to Manhasset, Long Island, where Bruce and Sheridan grew up near the sea. They inherited another of their father's traits, a love of blue water and all kinds of sailing. The inventor died in December, 1934, but even before then, Sheridan had begun planning and preparing for his first scientific expedition to the South Seas.
He easily enlisted the enthusiastic support of his older brother, and together they searched the Maine and Massachusetts coasts for the ship they wanted. They found Director lying off City Island, retired from long use as the pilot schooner in the harbor of Portland, Maine. The brothers took it to Manhasset Bay, where they lovingly and painstakingly renovated and equipped it.
They then decided to voyage to the South Seas. Sheridan, shortly after he turned 21, organized one of the youngest, longest and most fruitful scientific expeditions ever to sail to the South Seas.
Sheridan became the captain and leader or the expedition. Bruce, who was a graduate of Brown University, doubled as entomologist and chronicler. The eldest of the crew, 25, was Hugh Davis, director of the Mohawk Zoo in Tulsa. He was a herpetologist and photographer, and wanted a share of the scientific loot for his museum. The others, all 22 or 23, were Dennis Puleston, Wilson Glass, George Harris and John Green.
Director and its crew spend three-year on the first expedition sailing the Pacific. Mrs. Fahnestock, known aboard as "Schooner Mary," joined in Panama and was to continue as the sole woman on the entire trip, enduring the hardships of malaria, storms, and even cannibal islands.
The Fahnestock and their crew collected a wide variety of flora, fauna and artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History. From Panama, Director sailed to the Galapagos Islands, the Marquesas, Tahiti and others in French Polynesia, Samoa, Tonga, Tongareva, Fiji, the New Hebrides and the Philippines. In the lagoon at Tongareva they drove among sharks for pearls.
Sheridan and Bruce wrote extensively of their adventures for the New York Herald Tribune and for magazines such as Harper's and The New Yorker. In letters home, which were also published, their mother wrote about drinking kava with island chiefs, meeting the U.S. governor on American Samoa, wild festivals and drum beats in the night, feasts on a tapa cloth a hundred feet long heaped high with roasted pig, taro, bananas, and yams÷all served on shining green leaves, strange customs, native girls in costumes of leaves, men doing sword dances, mats made by young girls that take years to complete and are so fine that they pass through a finger ring, killing sharks twenty feet long and bleaching the teeth to form necklaces and so much more.
Their plan was to complete their scientific study in the South Pacific and continue their circumnavigation back to New York. Illness in the cannibal islands of New Guinea ended their plans and they sailed to the Philippines where they were forced to put Director up for sale.
The expedition did not end here, however. Fresh from Pacific atolls they traveled to Peking, and arrived, unfortunately, at the time of the Japanese invasion. They landed in a war that wasn't on their itinerary and immediately started reporting it. After finding the situation hopeless, all hands returned home on a Dollar liner, having sent three chests of ethnological collections to the American Museum of Natural History.
Back home, the brothers collaborated on Stars to Windward and found themselves in demand to give talks and lectures.
Their mother, not to be outdone, wrote her own book, I Ran Away to Sea at Fifty, which brought her all sorts of invitations to lecture before women's clubs.
So successful was the expedition, from the viewpoints of publicity and for the museum, that the Fahnestocks organized another South Sea expedition in 1940. They set their sights even higher. More than anything else on their first expedition, the brothers were most captivated by the music of the islands of the Pacific, and especially Indonesia. They resolved when they mounted the second expedition they would document the music and sounds of the South Pacific which they felt were rapidly disappearing. This time their fairy godmother came to their aid. Her name was Mrs. John Hubbard.
Mrs. Hubbard was one of the leading dowagers of the American colony in Paris and prominent member of Manhattan society in New York. She had two loves, music and travel. She had crossed the Atlantic 87 times, and before Sheridan and Bruce were born, she sailed the South Pacific. She had founded the Manhattan School of Music and dedicated its auditorium to the memory of her husband, John Hubbard.
Sheridan and Bruce were her young cousins by birth, and when they indicated their desire to capture the music of the South Seas, she gave them a beautiful 137-foot, three-masted schooner which they promptly renamed Director II. She also furnished them with elaborate radio equipment and instruments with which they would record native music and bird songs for the Helen Fahnestock Memorial Collection. Mrs. Hubbard was the former Helen Fahnestock. Another addition was a small Piper Cub airplane which was swung on board two days before their departure.
Bruce and Sheridan sailed with the blessings of President Franklin Roosevelt and Mayor La Guardia of New York. The Second Fahnestock Expedition was further sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. Bruce and Sheridan, their mother, and 15 other scientists made up the group that for the next two years planned to sail the southern seas to chart and name a dozen coral islands, collect anthropological, entomological.and ichthyological material for the museum, search for rare fowl for the museum's new Whitney Memorial Bird Hall, and--for Sheridan and Bruce the most important--record the music of the South Seas.
When Director II sailed from New York in February 1940, included among its cargo were two Presto disc-cutters, the state-of-the-art recording devices of the day. Given the cumbersome nature of the machines, with their 16-inch discs of aluminum coated with cellulose acetate, the Fahnestocks brought along two miles of insulated microphone cable, enabling them to record on shore while the equipment remained safety aboard the boat, with two skilled radio technicians at the controls. This method would enabled the Fahnestock to record in the least obtrusive manner possible, while obtaining the highest quality results. It proved to be highly successful.
For the next year Director II sailed the South Pacific and gathered musical treasures from the Marquesas, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia and the islands of the Dutch East Indies.
With the threat of war approaching, the Fahnestock adventure took on the added element of espionage in early 1941. At the request of President Roosevelt, the brothers traveled to Java, gathering intelligence on local defence facilities and studying the potential use of small boats for Pacific combat. All this was done undercover, while the brothers continued to record the music of the islands. It was during this time that they made their finest recordings, cutting over 100 sides in eastern Java, Bali, Madura and Arjasa.
Overshadowing the whole expedition was the imminent threat from the Japanese who were invading the islands. With uncanny timing, they completed recording in September 1941. Director II then sailed for Fiji and prepared to find safe haven in Australia.
Bruce left the expedition in Fiji to take home their precious "record hours" of music. For two days Sheridan argued with his brother about those records. He didn't want Bruce to take them for fear his older brother would play them too much and wear them out.
It was a good thing Bruce did take the recordings with him. Bruce arrived back in the United States the week of the Pearl Harbor attack. Later that same month the Dutch East Indies fell to the Japanese. In the mean time, Director II neared the Great Barrier Reef on the coast of Australia.
To reached Australia, as captain of Director II, Sheridan had to rely on obsolete navigational charts, as the British Navy, seeking to protect ten thousand miles of coastline from the feared Japanese invasion, would not make current charts available. On 18 October, Director II struck a shoal near Gladstone, Australia and began to sink. Rescue boats rushed the fifteen miles from shore when they learned the news of the sinking. They stood by for ten hours as the crew worked unsuccessfully to repair the damaged hull. Finally the command "abandon ship," was given, and the radio operator wired a cable that reached the office of one of the New York newspapers: "Schooner Director sinking on Great Barrier Reef."
The Fahnestocks reunited in Washington; it was the last time they would be together. Both brothers returned to the South Pacific, this time in the US Army. Tragically, Bruce Fahnestock became an early casualty when he was killed in New Guinea in a never-explained accident that also took the life of Byron Darnton, correspondent of the New York Times.
After service as a captain in the Army in World War II, Sheridan had a fling at public relations for Trans World Airlines for five years. Then, adventure behind him, he achieved the dream of many PR and newspapermen, and became the publisher of the weekly St. Mary's County Enterprise in Maryland in 1946.
He controlled and operated it until 1963, when his health failed him. He died in 1965 at the age of 52. He never resumed his attempts to distribute his recordings commercially.
The Fahnestock recordings provide a window on a world radically different from our own--which has changed almost beyond recognition in the intervening years.
Most sophisticated and euphonious of the Fahnestock records are those from Bali, reproducing the gamelan (gong) orchestras of the Balinese temples. The brothers found that Tahitian music had been largely Frenchified;. they could not find what they most wanted: a nose-flute. The Tahitians,they noted, had a trick of chanting double-talk to get their music across. They also liked to take a Western tune and Tahitify it. Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay was one the Fahnestocks gave them; it came out Ta-ra-ra-bon-siay.
In the Marquesas Islands, the oldest people sang "prediction songs." They saw the Fahnestocks' first ship, the 65-ft. Director I, then the second, which they declared was the first one grown up. They sang a prediction that it would go away and never return.
In New Caledonia, the brothers spent a day getting ready to record songs by a particularly promising pair of natives. Finally the natives sang their piece: Oo-ill ah, Oo-l Wah" over and over. That was all they knew.
The brothers chief hope was that their records would show that at one time there were migrations from Northwestern India down to New Zealand, thence to Hawaii. Their preliminary study of the music showed overlapping themes in island groups several thousand miles apart. Had not the war disrupted their voyages, they might well have solved one of the great mysteries of the South Pacific--where the Polynesian and Melanesian people of the Pacific originated. They were the first to advance the theory that the Pacific islanders arrived not from South America, as Thor Heyerdahl tried to prove in the Kon Tiki expedition years later, but from South East Asia and perhaps India.
Harold Stephens is one of Southeast Asia's best known writers. Having lived in the area most of his adult life, he's authored 17 books--most recently, The Last Voyage, about his 18-year journey aboard a schooner he built himself--and more than 3,500 newspaper and magazine articles, covering everything from travel to jungle exploring and searching for lost cities. He lives in Bangkok and the San Francisco area. This article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post.
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