Paper presented @ ASAO 2022 Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon, USA

in the working session »Ends of Oblivion: Continuities and Discontinuities in Oceania’s Pasts«, organized by Matteo Aria and Alex Mawyer (virtual participation)

Sounds from the Past:
Reassembling Songs and Memory in Kiribati

Wolfgang Kempf (University of Göttingen) &
Lisa Lawson Burke (Framingham State University)

The mobilization and unexpected return of audio documents containing songs and dance chants from the past can shed light on local processes of remembering and forgetting. This paper presents insights into ruptures and continuities in the transmission of knowledge from an ongoing project aimed at digitizing, researching and repatriating an archival tape collection. The starting point is the largely unpublished collection of over 220 sound documents compiled by the ethnologist Gerd Koch and his wife Sigrid Koch between 1963 and 1964 on the atolls of Tabiteuea, Nonouti and Onotoa in the then Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati). Forgotten for decades, but recently brought back to the attention of selected I-Kiribati interlocutors in parts through digitization and transnational transmission, such audio recordings make sounds, voices, and stories from the past audible and evoke a wide range of emotions, memories, and local historical knowledge in listeners. The analytical interest is in the contemporary assemblages of diverse sound documents, songs, stories, places and memories, currently identified via remote research, as an effect of the reactivation of a formerly intended transmission, to which earlier generations of I-Kiribati have actively contributed in collaboration with the research couple Koch. Using the example of a sequence of songs and dance chants with references to Christianity, in particular to the (re)construction
of the largest Protestant church on Onotoa at that time, assemblages of historical sound recordings, memories and local knowledge are exemplified and their links to transmission, collective memory and historicity are explored. The distributed agency of these assemblages, it is argued, illustrates the socio-cultural processes of transmission and the constitutings of local history in Kiribati.