Allan Thomas

Story by Marcus Jackson

New Zealand School of Music, 2017

Allan Thomas (d. 2010)

It would be hard to say whether Allan Thomas was known more for his research or his impact as a senior lecturer at Victoria University. One thing is for sure: Allan’s interest in community music-making sparked an entire generation of cross-cultural musical practice, particularly in Indonesian and Pasifika musical forms.

Allan taught ethnomusicology at Victoria until his retirement in 2007. Ethnomusicology, with its roots in anthropology and the social sciences, is the study of music in culture: looking at music in the community. He worked alongside his equally formidable wife Jennifer Shennan, who also taught in the department.

He studied anthropology (amongst other things) at Auckland University, however his heart belonged in music. This academic upbringing gave him a rigorous intellectual foundation for looking beyond music itself, focusing instead on music in the world.

Music Is Where You Find It

Allan’s interest in music was far-reaching and without pretense: he chose not to focus on the European canon or Western musical traditions. Rather, in 1946, he researched music-making in Hawera, a small town in Taranaki, New Zealand.

Little escaped his ear (or his eye), with his research covering local music teachers, performers, and the award-winning brass band.

His interest in New Zealand music was not confined to small communities either, penning a history of New Zealand jazz music with Richard Hardie, and an analysis of the iconic farewell song “Now Is The Hour”, documenting its progression from a tune in a piano work to the cultural pertinence it now has to New Zealand.

Alongside music in New Zealand, his interests included Asian and Pacific music. Allan produced two books on Pacific music during his time at Victoria: Songs and Stories of Tokelau – an introduction to the cultural heritage and New Song and Dance from the Central Pacific: Creating and performing the Fatele of Tokelau in the islands and in New Zealand.

Allan also conducted research in Futuna and Fiji, producing writing in both journals and books on villages in both of these island groups.

In the 1970s, Allan imported New Zealand’s first set of gamelan instruments, eventually bringing them down from Auckland to their current home at Victoria. His research into the gamelan, in collaboration with Jack Body, spurred a continuing interest into the “orchestra of bells”.

To this day, gamelan performance is still taught at Victoria, introducing students to a world of new and exciting sounds, and fostering an appreciation for new modes of creativity.

Gamelan at Victoria

  • <p>Student gamelan performance.</p>
  • <p>Student gamelan performance. </p>
  • <p>Student gamelan performance.</p>
  • <p>Student gamelan performance.</p>


Allan was a key figure in establishing an Ethnomusicology department at the New Zealand School of Music, all the way through to doctoral level.

The department now has numerous papers in all year-levels, allowing a fresh generation of music students to learn about multicultural approaches to music-making and musical thought.

As is clear from the articles in the book, dedicated to Allan, World Music Is Where We Found It music is nothing if not a social activity, and this philosophy can be seen as his ongoing legacy at Victoria.

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