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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN : Ancient Tracks : Ojai resident Pascal Nabet-meyer has recorded the haunting, exotic music of Rapa, a remote South Pacific island.

August 27, 1992|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the ever-shrinking cultural network of the global village, genuinely exotic ethnic music is getting rarer by the year. It takes a crusader zeal to explore new ethnomusicological traditions.

And it was the pursuit of such cultural treasures that took Ojai resident Pascal Nabet-meyer, recording equipment in tow, to the remote island of Rapa last year.

The results of his field-recording is an album by the Tahitian Choir called "Rapa Iti," recently released on the Triloka label. It turns out to be one of the prizes of the world music season, and quite possibly an important missing link in the understanding of South Pacific culture.

On many levels, the project is a true find.

Nabet-meyer is a man of many hats: songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and now ethnomusicologist. Until recently, he was also the husband of Rickie Lee Jones, with whom he has a 4-year-old daughter, Charlotte Rose.

Located 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti--the last island before the South Pole-- Rapa is a tiny outpost, almost literally at the end of the earth. Its detachment from surrounding South Pacific islands has left its musical legacy relatively unadulterated. Meanwhile, the indigenous music of Tahiti, like that of Hawaii and other Pacific islands, has been generally diluted, Westernized and gentrified.

"I'm a very intuitive person; I go with my gut," Nabet-meyer said in his French-inflected English, in a recent interview at a restaurant in Oak View. "When you go with your senses, you find things. I think there are still a few places on Earth where you can still go and discover things. Nobody sings like this. This is a new mode."

The project had a missionary-like intensity for the producer: "At the time when I was recording, I was in full levitation; I was three feet above the ground. I was facing something I never heard before. It was a dream for me."

At once foreign and familiar sounding, the choir is 126 voices strong, the entire adult population of the Rapa's 328 residents. They sing with a raw joyousness and a rare primal richness. At the same time, the imprint left by Protestant missionaries has given their choral music a curious link to American gospel and Germanic hymns.

The music belies a legacy of hardships in the island's history. The explorer Vancouver "discovered" the island in 1791 and promptly introduced diseases that decimated the population. Religious indoctrination arrived courtesy of various missionaries visiting over the centuries. In the 1800s, Peruvians exploited the population for purposes of slavery.

The most striking pieces on the album involve an ancient musical language using ear-bending microtonal scales--notes between the standard Western 12-tone scale. "The concept is from space, from a consciousness which has disappeared," says Nabet-meyer.

On songs such as "Morotiri Nei," the choir modulates downward in alien-sounding increments, falling between the cracks of the scales to which Westerners are accustomed. To some ears, this is primitive beauty of the most exotic and haunting kind. To others, it might be a sonic burr in the ear.

These "quarter-tone" songs belong to the tradition of "Himene Ruau," which is considered taboo by the Christian evangelical standards of the island.

Nabet-meyer commented: "Most of these songs are about the afterworld--about people who have been through there, through the cycle of death and are coming back. I'm talking about something from before the arrival of the missionaries. The original lyrics are pagan. My translation of 'pagan' would be involving several gods--one god for one purpose.

"When they went to sing the old songs, it was like a sort of incantation, something straight from the skies. It was amazing."

The songs in the "Himene Nota" tradition--notated music--come closer to what you'd find in Western hymnals, but still with an distinctive touch. The "Tuki" songs are war songs from the 1800s, during the era of slavery, when cannibalism--eating one's enemies--was common practice.

It was during the production of Jones' last album, "Pop Pop," that Nabet-meyer felt the urge to explore the Rapa music, which he had first encountered while living in Tahiti in the early 1980s.

"Everything was under control, and I just said to my wife: 'There is something I've wanted to do for 10 years. It's the right time. I feel that somebody is watching me. I don't know where I'm going, but I have to do it.' "

He quickly made arrangements for the trip, learning how to operate special recording equipment for conditions in which the humidity which can reach 98%. Last March, he caught a plane to Tubai, and then took the five-day trip on a cargo ship--one of only four a year--to Rapa.

There, he met the local pastor who would become his principal liaison and translator during the two-and-a-half months Nabet-meyer spent on the island.

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