Splas splas krangke olbaot: what the regulation of water music in Vanuatu tells us about custom, law, power and gender

Image of Vanuatuans creating water music

Event details


Date & time

Tuesday 31 May 2016


Seminar Room 1.04, Coombs Extension Building (8), Fellows Road, ANU
ANU Canberra


Miranda Forsyth


+61 (0)2 6125 3948

This seminar discusses the various claims made in Vanuatu today over water music, a unique musical form that involves slapping, scooping, and pounding water to produce distinctive rhythms and a beautiful visual performance as well.

There are multiple contestations over many aspects of the rights to learn, perform and derive income from water music. As we will see, these inter-linking sets of disputes and claims offer useful insights into the development of customary law, or kastom as it is known in Vanuatu.

The complexities that we are able to identify in this particular emergent form of intellectual property regulation is an important reminder to be sceptical of assumptions that are commonly made about the rigidity and boundedness of customary law, particularly in the context of the development of state and global regulatory frameworks around traditional knowledge and expressions of culture, such as registries and sui generis statutes; and the new (and old) trend towards codification of custom.

Modern reference to customary law often involves a positivistic approach, seeing kastom as something that has always been there and requiring uncovering through removing layers of inauthentic influences, rather than as involving an ongoing process of legal change.

This case study also provides an insight into the wide array of mechanisms that bring about compliance in kastom, showing that formal dispute reconciliation mechanisms are only one part of a wide range that includes fear of black magic, community pride, public shaming, threats of state procedures and entrenched societal (and legal) principles and values.

This case study also illuminates the way in which women’s rights over certain types of intangible cultural heritage are able to be lost through its monetization and the range of claims able to be made by mobile men with claims to customary power and access to the state.

About the Speaker

Miranda Forsyth is a Associate Professor at RegNet and also a Fellow at SSGM in the College of Asia and Pacific at ANU. In July 2015 she completed a three year ARC Discovery funded project to investigate the impact of intellectual property laws on development in Pacific Island countries.

Prior to coming to the ANU, Miranda was a senior lecturer in criminal law at the law school of the University of the South Pacific, based in Port Vila, Vanuatu for eight years.

The broad focus of Miranda’s research is investigating the possibilities and challenges of the inter-operation of state and non-state justice and regulatory systems. She also works on the issue of how best to localize or vernacularize the foreign legal norms and procedures.

At present her focus is on examining these issues in the context of both the protection of traditional knowledge and introduction of western intellectual property regimes, and also the regulation of sorcery and witchcraft related violence in Melanesia.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet