NEW CALEDONIA (FRANCE): Pilou Danser - Tim Sameke
Updated: Apr 10
Incredibly fun Kaneka music, fusing the sound of traditional tribal dance with music from the West, gives us an insight into New Caledonia's post-colonial identity crisis
Divisive politics in the land from which Tim Sameke hails did certainly cause a stir at 200worldalbums HQ in both October 2020 and then again in December 2021, as New Caledonians went to the ballot box to cast their vote on their future as either an independent nation or to continue as a French overseas territory. Debate was hotting up around our metaphorical office in the lead up to both referendums, with the questions on everyone’s lips “are we going to have to rebrand as 201worldalbums?” and rather pressingly, “do we need to do a deep dive into the New Caledonian music scene?” Though it turned out the answer to the first question was ‘no’, in light of the majority of New Caledonians choosing to keep their independence status as it was previously, it certainly propelled us in wanting to give the vast swathes of New Caledonians who see themselves as a sovereign nation their fair due.
“...the very fact that the title track Pilou danser is performed with both French and Drehu (the language of the Kanak) lyrics demonstrates how Sameke is at the confluence of this debate about identity...”
The futility of writing about music from across the world amidst the backdrop of the current global events has been highlighted by my partner in this quest, Joel. Yet, as he rightly pointed out, the show must go on, and ultimately there is a vital function in celebrating our freedoms whilst we have them, being appreciative for the many gifts that, under normal circumstances, life has to offer. One such joy of this planet is of course that of music and dance, which Sameke’s third album Pilou danser certainly goes some way to reminding me about the wonder of. Thanks to its irresistibly enjoyable core, it once again proves the immense power of music as it serves its purpose not only as a fun album to get your body moving to, but it also helped provide me with an immense sense of connection to humanity, as it demonstrates that on a fundamental level there are certain instinctive common impulses that not even the most divisive forms of politics can separate mankind on.
Not only is Sameke’s gift his ability to get crowds on their feet, but his music also seems to be the perfect representation of the political hot potato in New Caledonia regarding the people’s identity and sovereignty. Growing up in Lifou Island, which is separate and much smaller than the main island of Grande Terre, Sameke is clearly proud of his heritage, and that of the Kanak majority that inhabit the island, having spent many years with the traditional dance troupe We Ce Ca. The title track, and the absolute highlight of the record, celebrates the tradition of pilou, which are songs that tell Kanak stories about a range of topics including battles and even the arrival of Christian missionaries. The Kanak people practice pilou, in which they dance and sing to breathless rhythms punctuated by hollow bamboos struck on the ground, during ceremonies that take place for births, weddings and funerals.
However, because of the endless dancing, the French colonial authorities banned pilou in the mid-20th century because they feared the trances Kanaks entered. Yet, the very fact that the title track Pilou danser is performed with both French and Drehu (the language of the Kanak) lyrics demonstrates how Sameke is at the confluence of this debate about identity, as on the one hand he is proudly presenting an ancient custom, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the French influence that is embedded into the country’s story, for good or for bad. Though the song is the absolute centrepiece of the album, there are other indications of Sameke’s outward looking nature in spite of the pride he feels for Kanak culture. Singing in English and collaborating with a Solomon Islander artist on Fayo and performing some pure high-octane pop tunes such as the delightful Koki Koki demonstrates that even traditional New Caledonian music artists such as Sameke have their finger on the pulse with a world further afield, and an inherent connection to their European custodians, despite a love for their own beautiful Kanak culture.