Allan Thomas

Allan Thomas9th April 1942 - 9th September 2010

Allan Thomas (DipEd Exe, PhD Otago, MA, LTCL) passed away in 2010 after a long battle with leukaemia. Allan was responsible for bringing gamelan to New Zealand in 1974 with the purchase of a small antique pelog set from Cirebon. In 2008 Allan retired from the NZ School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington after over thirty years of teaching. He will be sorely missed by his many friends and colleagues, throughout New Zealand and the world.

Allan was Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at Victoria University Wellington’s School of Music (and then the New Zealand School of Music). He taught world music (Japanese taiko, Korean and Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern musics), Pacific Island music and dance, Afro-American music, and New Zealand Music. His courses in Ethnomusicology encouraged colleagues as well as many hundredes of students to consider music from an indigenous perspective.

While studying for a Diploma in Education at Dartington College, Devon, UK, in the early 1970’s, Allan was inspired by the many interactions between various arts, including Asian traditions. He studied gamelan at the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam (where he first studied Gendhing Tukung, a piece that was to remain a favourite).

In 1973, Allan undertook fieldwork in Cirebon, West Java, where the former royal court culture had left a distinctive heritage of music, dance and batik textiles. A remarkable opportunity arose to purchase an antique gamelan and Allan, aided and abetted by Jack Body, had this shipped to New Zealand.

Opportunities were created for the music to be studied in cultural context, initially at Wellington Teachers’ College, then at Victoria University’s School of Music. In 1999, he and Jack Body organised the BEAT! Festival, celebrating 25 years of gamelan in New Zealand.

Allan was also deeply interested in teaching and researching the music of Pacific Islands where song is generally more significant than instrumental music, and dance is often part of the performed work. His fieldwork on music of the Pacific Islands resulted, notably, in two books - “Songs and Stories of Tokelau - an introduction to the cultural heritage” (co-authored with Ineleo Tuia and Judith Huntsman, Wellington, 1990), “New Song and Dance from the Central Pacific: Creating and performing the Fatele of Tokelau in the islands and in New Zealand” (New York, 1995), and a CD, “Vanuatu: Traditional Music of West Futuna” (Auvidis/UNESCO, 1998).

Allan Thomas’ research interest in New Zealand music history developed during the 1990s, and he published “Music in New Zealand: A Reader from the 1940s” (Christchurch, 2000). Using the techniques of an ethnomusicologist, he completed a study of the music of a NZ town in the first post-War year (1946), which provided a view of music’s contribution to the local community and the identity of local people. This was published as “Music is Where You Find It - Music in the town of Hawera, 1946 - an historical ethnography” (Wellington, 2004).

He also documented New Zealand versions of calls and chants - auctioneers, sports commentators, housie calls and other such musical phenomena. In each of these research fields Allan sought to combine the standards of musicological scholarship with ethnomusicological objectivity and participation. More recently he co-editted “Jazz Aotearoa: Notes towards a New Zealand history” with Richard Hardie, a book described as ‘ a the first step in documenting the history and great moments of improvised music in this land.’ You can hear Allan and Richard discussing this book on Radio New Zealand’s ‘The Arts on Sunday’ programme here.

Despite declining health, Allan also recently completed work with Richard Nunns on a book on taonga puoro.

World Music is Where we Found It: Essays by and for Allan Thomas (a festschrift edited by Wendy Pond and Paul Wolffram) was launched on 5 November 2011. It contains Allan’s unpublished essays, as well as new articles by colleagues. You can hear a review of it by Ian Chapman on Radio NZ National here.

Allan was awarded the prestigious KBB Music CANZ (Composers Association of New Zealand) Citation for Services to New Zealand music on 5 March 2011 (see below).

On 22 August 2017, Allan was awarded a certificate of appreciation for his services in introducing, promoting and developing gamelan in the New Zealand School of Music’s curriculum at Victoria University of Wellington by the Indonesian government. The Ambassador for the Republic of Indonesia, His Excellency Bp Tantowi Yahya presented the certificate to Jennifer Shennan on behalf of Associate Minister Puan Maharani, Minister for Human Development & Culture of Indonesia.

Hear Richard Nunns discussing Allan’s life with Eva Radich on ‘Upbeat’ on Concert FM on Friday 10 September 2010.

Hear Allan ‘Playing Favourites‘ on Radio New Zealand Saturday Morning with Kim Hill, 5 April 2008.

Read the Dominion Post Obituary.

Allan teaching gamelan 1975

Allan Thomas teaching gamelan at the Indonesian Embassy in Fitzherbert Terrace (Evening Post, 23 June 1975)

Tribute to a Friend - Dr Allan Thomas
Haere atu ra e te hoa - farewell dear friend
from Te Whanau o Te Herenga Waka
(An excerpt from a composition taken from your friend and colleague, the late Dr Hirini Melbourne)

“Hika atu ra, nga hau riri e - Cease the raging winds
Hiki atu ra, te marangai e hau mai nei - Cease the raging storms
Haere ki who - Be gone to far away space
Haere ki tua - Be gone to outer edge
Haere ki pamamao - Be gone forever
Ki te whai ao - To the world beyond
Ki te ao marama - Be at peace in the world of light…”

Kua tau ra te marino - Calm now prevails,
E rere ra ki to hoa ki a Hi - Soar up high to your friend Hirini
Okioki e te hoa - Rest in peace dear friend,
Haere, haere, haere - Farewell

Prestigious New Zealand Music Award for Ethnomusicologist

Victoria News, 7 March 2011

Former New Zealand School of Music senior lecturer, the late Allan Thomas, has been awarded the prestigious KBB Music CANZ (Composers Association of New Zealand) Citation for Services to New Zealand music.

Allan Thomas established Ethnomusicology as a specialist course right through to doctoral level at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Music (later the New Zealand School of Music, a joint Victoria and Massey University initiative). He died last year, aged 68. It is the third time in the award’s 35-year history that it has been awarded posthumously.

Allan had worked tirelessly in his field of world music, Asian music, Pacific Islands music, and New Zealand music and was responsible for bringing gamelan into the country in the 1970s which led to its first study in New Zealand.

“Allan was always concurrently involved in a number of disparate projects at any one time,” says Glenda Keam, President of CANZ. “Be it convening a conference, teaching, researching New Zealand jazz, or hymns, or the history of Hawera, or the music and dance of the Pacific.”

“His enthusiasm for, and support of, New Zealand music and musicians has strengthened our understanding of where we are and what we can achieve here. He is greatly missed.”

The citation was presented on Saturday 5 March at the Lilburn Residence in Wellington. Allan’s widow, Jennifer, and their daughters received the award on his behalf.

Allan’s deep interest in teaching and researching the music of Pacific Islands has resulted notably in two books Songs and Stories of Tokelau: an introduction to the cultural heritage (co-authored with Ineleo Tuia and Judith Huntsman, 1990), New Song and Dance from the Central Pacific: Creating and performing the Fatele of Tokelau in the islands and in New Zealand (1995), and a CD, Vanuatu: Traditional Music of West Futuna (1998).

Despite declining health, Allan completed work with Richard Nunns on a book on Taonga Puoro, before passing away in September 2010.

A festschrift titled World Music is Where We Found It is being assembled by Allan’s colleagues honouring his three decades of teaching, which will include his unpublished essays, along with contributions by former students and colleagues.